Saturday, November 22, 2014

Seasonal Stress Tips

This year, the first signs of the holiday season edged ever closer to Halloween, often appearing in early November. This phenomenon of ever-earlier holiday decor seems to be world-wide. Friko, one of my favorite bloggers, noted it in her area of the UK. And my brother Mike, who lives in Bangkok, Thailand (a country that is predominantly Buddhist, but that celebrates Christmas enthusiastically anyway), snapped a cell phone picture of the holiday decor already evident at his local mall a week ago.


Christmas decor comes early to Bangkok, too!

For many of us, these first signs of the holidays bring not comfort and joy, but feelings of stress as we imagine the whole holiday scenario: the endless to-do lists, the shopping, the cooking, the planning, the fraught family get-togethers, the dreams of a Hallmark Christmas rudely interrupted by stark reality, coping with life changes while observing long-held traditions, the anxiety, the depression, the feeling of being overwhelmed.

As another holiday season is relentlessly upon us, what can we do to decrease this stress and increase our joy this time around?

If you're feeling overwhelmed.  Pare that daunting to-do list down a bit. Cut corners for your own mental health. Even small changes can made a difference. Cut a few items from your holiday menu and concentrate on the ones you and your family enjoy most. Don't make ten varieties of cookies when you know which two the grandkids love. Turn a party into a potluck. People love to share their specialties so make a party of sharing favorite cookies or holiday treats or seasonal entrees. It cuts your work and brings more variety and fun to the gathering. If you're the designated provider of the traditional family feast this year, don't be ashamed to ask for help. Your mother or mother-in-law may be happy to lend her expertise or siblings may be willing to help. If you are preparing some family favorites -- like pies and some side dishes -- that can be made in advance, this collaborative effort can become a separate, fun and memorable holiday celebration -- and maybe a new tradition!

Making adjustments to your meal timelines can also help when family feasts start to get complicated. When, in my late twenties, I first began hosting family holiday meals, I cooked and served the meal the same day. As years went by and Aunt Molly stopped driving at night (and yet didn't want to stay over because of her sickly cat at home), I re-scheduled our holiday feast for mid-day. And I would roast the turkey the weekend before, carving the meat and freezing it, as well as preparing and freezing some side dishes. Then on the holiday, I would re-heat the frozen items and make whatever was best fresh and have the meal easily on the table by noon. The scenario shifted again as Aunt Molly became housebound. Her kitchen was tiny and she didn't like us using it much. So we would transport Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in coolers -- to be briefly reheated if necessary -- and enjoy it at her home. Again, because I was working long hours up to the holiday, I would prepare as much of the meal as possible the weekend before and freeze it. Though I initially feared that this would interfere with the taste and quality of the food, no one ever complained. We simply enjoyed the food -- and each other. 

If you're feeling that your life is totally interrupted. Even in the midst of busy holiday preparations and celebrations, you'll feel better if you can keep up some of your normal daily routine. Make exercise a priority. It will not only keep life feeling normal, but will also help protect you from runaway holiday weight gain! Make time to see friends briefly, to meditate, to journal or to pray. Make a trip to the library instead of the mall. Remember an older friend or relative whose life has slowed down and who may be feeling lonely in the busyness of the holiday season. Schedule time just for you -- and for you and your significant other -- to be alone, to decompress, to relax in between the celebrations.

If you're feeling shopping and/or budget challenged. Besides skipping the mall and shopping online, you might also consider making simple gifts this year or agreeing with family to draw names instead of buying gifts for everyone in the family or making the decision as a family to give gifts only to the young children. You might decide to give your adult children family heirlooms as gifts this year. Or get creative in a new way and make a scrapbook or a video of family members' lives in pictures. That can feel more personal and loving than a store-bought gift. 

When I wasn't sure what to give my niece Maggie for her 5th birthday recently and also worried about the cost of shipping a gift all the way to Bangkok, I decided to make a music video of her life so far. made it easy. And my brother told me that the family was so moved, they passed a Kleenex box around the circle of their immediate family, Thai in-laws and family friend Nora who was visiting from the U.S. Later, Nora told me that of all the gifts Maggie received that day, the movie of her life was her favorite. Putting it together didn't cost a dime. And the time and effort it took to gather all the digital photos together was a true labor of love that warmed my heart as well.

If you're dreading a family dinner/donnybrook. Accept the fact that it's not in your power to transform a family holiday into a Hallmark event. Then look for ways to mitigate disasters. If alcohol fuels family fights, try serving non-alcoholic, but festive drinks, letting people know in advance that the holiday at your place will be alcohol-free with no BYOB as an experiment this year. Let some key family members know that you're hoping people can simply enjoy the holiday and being together without dredging up past feuds and that you won't be jumping in to referee this time around. Plan some distracting activities -- watching a favorite holiday movie together, playing games or taking an after-dinner walk together as distractions that might help to derail some of family conflicts.

 It may also help to give family members an escape route --- the freedom to make excuses (without any guilting or questioning from you or the rest of the family) to stay just a little while, visiting briefly and leaving before any of the conversation becomes heated. 

But if the day degenerates into hopeless squabbles, it may be the way at least some of your family likes to mark the holidays. Stand back. Take a deep breath. Take the dog out for a walk and enjoy the quiet. And next year perhaps you can plan to be a guest at some other family member's house -- and make a brief appearance, escaping in advance of the donnybrook.  Another tip: this year or next, spend one of the holidays with someone else's family.  It can be much more relaxing and enjoyable to be a guest and to be part of a whole different family dynamic -- just for a change.

If you're finding the celebration all work and no fun.  When you're the hostess, the holiday go-to person, the designated party planner, the holidays can, indeed, seem more work than fun. Whether you're organizing the festivities at home, at work or both, schedule a treat for yourself somewhere in the timeline. Plan an hour, an afternoon or even a spa day with a good friend during or right after the holidays. My friend Mary lives for Black Friday. I find the prospect of shopping on that day horrifying. But, somehow, when we do it together, it is an incredible pleasure -- and has become a tradition for us. Whether you take a brief holiday hiatus to relax or plan a day doing exactly what you want to do the day after a major event, you'll have something to anticipate that may go a long way toward alleviating some of the stress of the season

Monday, November 10, 2014

Oliver's Tale

He was tiny. He was different. He was intriguing.

I first caught a glimpse of him while taking a short break from signing copies of my book "Purr Therapy" at the Santa Clarita, CA Catoberfest celebration of cats and the cat rescue organization Forgotten Angels.

He was a little black kitten, significantly separated from the other Forgotten Angels adoptable kittens and cats. The organization, after all, considered him a long-shot for adoption.

   First glimpse: Playing in his litter box at Catoberfest in Santa Clarita, CA

He was black, not a popular color for rescue cats. But his differences from the others were much more significant than color. This little kitten had only three legs, a large hernia and a near tragic back story: he was thrown into a trash can, simply discarded, soon after birth. If not for a passerby who heard his cries coming from a curb-side trash can, he certainly would not have survived. 

Unable to imagine a greater evil than discarding a defenseless newborn kitten into the trash, rescue volunteers assumed that he was born without his right rear leg. But somewhat later, a veterinarian pointed out the bone protruding from the short stump and said that it looked like someone had cut off his leg in a senseless act of cruelty.

For someone with such a traumatic beginning, this little kitten -- named Herbie (the love bug) by rescuers -- was amazingly cheerful, outgoing and loving. He responded warmly to people, purring as soon as anyone looked at him, cuddling closely with anyone willing to hold him. I couldn't believe how this little animal loved people -- despite everything someone had done to him so early in life.


                  Playing with a Forgotten Angels volunteer at Catoberfest

I watched as he rolled and played joyously in his litter box, while the Forgotten Angels volunteer sitting by his cage kept trying to re-direct him to a toy filled little bed on the other side of the cage. "Playing in the litterbox!" she scolded. "You have enough strikes against you already, sweetheart! Can't you just sit nicely in your little bed and look pretty?"

But he dashed around, exuberant, full of life, showing off, spilling litter with every move. 

As I headed back to my book-signing area, I hoped and prayed that someone would adopt him before my next break.

But no one did. Plenty of people stopped to look at him and to read his heart-rending story posted atop his cage. But no one wanted a kitten who was crippled and who needed three surgeries in the near future.

I sent Bob an email about this captivating little cat. He wrote back that he felt haunted by the story of this poor little guy and wondered if we might think of offering him a forever home.

I set my phone down and started talking with people about "Purr Therapy" and listening to their stories of the cats they loved -- and the ones they had loved and lost. Dr. Tracy McFarland, my all time favorite vet who rescued our beloved, late Timmy and Gus when they were tiny kittens sixteen years ago and entrusted them to us, joined me at the signing, autographing copies of the book (which is dedicated to her) for many at Catoberfest who were patients and who considered Dr. Tracy by far the greater celebrity present.

"My husband and I are emailing each other about Herbie," I whispered. She smiled and put her arm around me. 

"He's a wonderful kitten, very, very special," she said. "And he couldn't go to a better home. Are you really going to take him home to Arizona with you?"

Bob and I discussed the logistics via email. I had to come back to Santa Clarita the next weekend for another Barnes and Noble signing. I had planned to fly by myself....but we took a deep collective breath and I changed my plans. Bob and I drove back four days later and, after the signing was finished, we traveled to the high desert town of Palmdale to pick up this new addition to our family.

He was with a bunch of other cats at a local PetSmart, snuggled with his little friend Kirby, a beautiful gray and white kitten who had become his special buddy in his foster home. Bob and I paused, torn, at the enclosure. Should we take them both? That would make five cats. It seemed to be tipping the balance into crazy cat collecting.

"Oh, my God, Kirby is so cute!" Bob said, looking through the glass. "But he's so beautiful and so perfect, someone will adopt him soon for sure. Poor little Herbie doesn't have the same chance...."

Vicki, a Forgotten Angels volunteer, looked a little tearful as she held our new kitten. "It's so hard to say goodbye to this one," she said. "He is such a love but we're so thrilled he has a home."

                         Saying "Goodbye" to Vicki -- and then off to Arizona!                        

We put Herbie in a carrier and took him to our car where a fully-equipped kennel with bed, food and water and a litter box, awaited him for the nine-hour journey.

The long car trip has never been such a pleasure. Though he cried briefly, the kitten soon relaxed and rejoiced, purring loudly and cuddling in my arms and then Bob's as we took turns driving. The miles flew by.

Somewhere before the Arizona border, Bob decided that Herbie was too close to Hammie, the name of our youngest adult cat. He likes to have a distinct name for each cat so that they will come (usually) when called. We decided to name this one Oliver or Ollie. 

Everything was set -- or so we thought. Previous kitten introductions have been easy, thanks to the sweetness of our alpha cat Gus, who has embraced every kitten coming into the house and mandated quick acceptance by the others. But Gus had died at age 16 this summer and our three surviving cats have spent the months since both grieving his loss and jockeying for position in the household. Bringing a handicapped kitten into the mix didn't improve anyone's mood. 

         Ollie is undaunted by his limitations - a missing leg and a large hernia

To our surprise, our testy young female cat SweetPea was the first to befriend Oliver after his obligatory several sequestered days, the mutual sniffing under the door and the growlings of various intensities. Ollie was delighted to have a friend, albeit one with definite mood swings. When she tired of his playing, she would bop him on the head. He would roll over, purring and simply wait for her irritation to pass.

                                                              SweetPea and Oliver

But Maggie and Hammie were less easily convinced that Oliver was a welcome addition to the family.

Maggie, weary of kittens and wanting to live in peace and quiet, took up residence in the linen closet, glaring out through a crack in the door. 

Hammie, our pampered and adored baby, had a more extreme reaction: hiding in dark corners, running from the kitten, wailing loudly when visitors paid more attention to Oliver than to him, refusing to let me touch him if I had just held the kitten, throwing up prodigiously all over my laptop computer, jumping up and ripping the Sunday New York Times from my hands, shredding the paper and nipping me. He started to limp (suspiciously similar to Oliver's gait), stopped eating and crawled under the bed for hours at a time. We rushed him to his vet who could find absolutely nothing wrong with him and no reason he should be limping, though she ran a battery of tests. We started calling the episode "Hammie's $455 Hissy Fit."

Then gradually, the tensions eased. Maggie napped on the bed with Ollie nearby. 

                                                            Maggie and Ollie

Hammie stopped growling and started to play. When I woke up in the middle of the night recently, I was stunned to see all four cats cuddled at the end of the bed -- and Hammie and Ollie were sleeping entwined with each other.

                                                Oliver and Hamish (Hammie)

Through it all, Ollie has adjusted joyfully to his new home, his wonderfully optimistic, easy-going temperament serving both him and us well. When he was rejected by another cat, he would simply back down and play by himself or seek cuddling from us. If you look at him, if you touch him, he purrs. He happily welcomes visitors to our home. And we wonder if we have another potential therapy cat in this sweet kitten who lives with such joy, exuberance and love.
                                             Helping Bob with his stretches

                                                  Such a loving kitten!
                                                 Secure in his forever home

However he grows up, he is ours and we are his. We'll manage his expensive surgeries to repair his large umbilical hernia and to remove the stump of his right rear leg with the exposed bone. We're weathering the high drama of cat introductions that seems to be winding down. And we have fallen hopelessly in love with a little kitten whose spirit could not be crushed by human cruelty.

Someone's trash has become our latest treasure.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

When Blessings Come Late

The thought came to me in the middle of a Barnes and Noble signing session for my book "Purr Therapy" recently: this time around is so different from the first time. Purr Therapy is my 15th book. My first "The Teenage Body Book" was published with a fair amount of hoopla in 1979.

How different it was back then. I took the good reviews, the awards, the television appearances as my due, as a stepping stone to greater success and, I hoped, to greater happiness as well. I saw this as a natural progression from my hard work with a bit of luck thrown in.

When such blessings come later in life, it's different. You're more in the moment. You savor these good times, perhaps greeting good fortune with surprise and, most important, in context with the other priorities and blessings in your life.

My current activities on behalf of Purr Therapy -- which have kept me away from blog writing and reading most of the past two months -- have underscored the differences of this latest blessing.

At my first Barnes and Noble signing, at the Valencia, CA store a few weeks ago, what made the day most memorable was not simply the fact that people showed up and bought my book. What mattered most, as I thought about it afterwards, was that two of the people whom I had known in the past and who represented some unresolved feelings in my life showed up so unexpectedly.

The first person I saw when I walked into the store was my former next door neighbor Lydie. We had had a cordial enough relationship as neighbors, yet sometimes I felt a barrier of quiet disapproval on her part as she watched me working long hours and spending very little time at home. But she was smiling now and gave me a warm hug. We talked about missing each other and about our shared love of cats. And I began to think that the disapproval I had sensed from her may actually have come from me  -- and my sadness and guilt that I had very little free time to enjoy my family and leisure in our former home. It was a revelation in the glow of Lydie's warm welcome.

                          My former boss Nora and me at Barnes and Noble signing

As we talked, I felt another arm around me and was stunned to see Nora, my former boss from UCLA Medical Center, who lives in Malibu and had driven a long way through what I knew was horrendous traffic, to attend this event. I hadn't been in touch with her lately. I didn't even know how she found out I would be there. But what mattered was that she was there. In recent years, I had found myself pulling away a bit from reminders of my five years working at UCLA  - grateful for the benefits, pained by the hardships -- and I hadn't kept in touch. But somehow she knew...and showed up. And I was genuinely happy to see her,  to remember and appreciate the good times we shared.

At the second signing, at the same Barnes and Noble store five days later, I was once again happy to discuss my book and watch the brisk sales continue, but what warmed my heart most was seeing two very special people: Ryan and Chloe.  Ryan, our friend and "surrogate son" since he was nine years old and Bob's third and most beloved Little Brother in the Big Brothers program, is now a 31-year-old psychotherapist. He has grown up to be a loving, compassionate man with a lively sense of humor. He was entering graduate school about the time I was closing my private practice. I gave him a lot of my psychology books as well as the couch from my office. My ending was his beginning. And it felt so good to hug him, to rejoice in his success and to share the happiness of this book with him.

                                   Ryan, from Little Brother to psychotherapist
       Former patient "Chloe" and me at another Barnes and Noble signing

Chloe, which is the pseudonym she chose to be called in Purr Therapy, is my longest term patient. I worked with her for nearly ten years, through devastating losses in her life and hopeful new beginnings. And I learned so much about courage and resilience and the power of faith from her as we worked together. To meet her again, after nearly five years, was a special joy. Seeing her with her husband and son, knowing how far she had traveled from those early times of grief and despair after her first husband's death, truly made my day. The festivities around my book were simply a bonus.

There have been lovely reviews and blog posts -- some from special blogging friends Dee Ready and Jeanie Croope -- which I've appreciated more than they may ever realize.

And, in the past few weeks, there have been loving communications from family members. My brother Mike, frantically busy with his career and young family in Bangkok, nonetheless finds time to track and celebrate Purr Therapy's best moments in highly variable Amazon rankings. My cousin Caron recently wrote to thank me for mentioning her and her husband Bud in the Acknowledgements: "The only thing we could have given you is love. Bud and I love both you and Bob. That's it. We love you." And my sister Tai, not generally given to effusiveness, nevertheless has called with a fervent "I'm so proud of you!" Their caring means so much this time around. It isn't the praise that so warms my spirits, but these unique and life-long relationships.

And at the annual Catoberfest event,  a celebration of cats and a fundraiser for pet rescue, I signed books with my favorite vet ever, Dr. Tracy McFarland, the Cat Doctor of Santa Clarita, to whom "Purr Therapy" is dedicated. She had rescued our beloved Timmy and Gus as tiny kittens and had taken wonderful care of all our cats over several decades. It was a joy to see her again and to celebrate the book, the cats, and the volunteers from Forgotten Angels Cat Rescue....

                           Dr. Tracy McFarland and me at Catoberfest book signing
                                          Photo: by Rebecca I. Bolam

And there was a very special little Forgotten Angel kitten there at Catoberfest who caught my eye: a tiny, crippled, impossibly sweet little kitten who, despite interventions from volunteers, insisted on playing and lounging joyfully in his litterbox throughout the event -- all while purring loudly. His traumatic start in life and what happened since will be the subject of my next blog post. But meeting him was a lasting lesson in the ability of animals to forgive and to love us flawed humans anyway.

Special Catoberfest Kitten

So my travels on behalf of my new book have brought unexpected blessings -- the blessings of friendships renewed, wonderful life stories unfolding and lessons in love from a frail little kitten.

Of course, I want "Purr Therapy" to do well. This book is my first memoir and it means a lot to me. I'm working hard to get the word out about it. But promoting the book at this time in my life feels less like a competition, less like professional survival, and more pure pleasure.

This time around, this bit of professional success and the attention that comes with it has felt more integrated into my life as a whole. I've been seeing the publication of this book and the publicity around it not as my due, not as a stepping stone to even greater glory but as a blessing -- and only one of many blessings in my life today. And I know now that happiness is not necessarily found in acclaim, but rather in warm hugs, in making a difference, in helping to ease the pain of another, in the love of family and friends and in cuddling a sweet kitten.