Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Most Memorable Gift

My seventeenth summer was, in many ways, a miserable one.

I spent ten weeks of that summer taking a full year of accelerated high school chemistry at the local public school. Several of my classmates from my Catholic girls' school had started with me, but dropped out in favor of days at the beach and pleasure reading after an intense first week of class.

I had no choice but to persevere: at my school, chemistry class conflicted with journalism, my planned college major. I had to stay in this summer scientific marathon, enduring exams every day, midterms at every two weeks, cramming material that didn't come easy to me, struggling through experiments (including splashing sulfuric acid on my face when I dropped a vial on the desk and having the teacher hold my face under a running faucet, exacerbating my already embarrassing bad hair day).

But there was a bright light in the midst of this adolescent misery: time with my mother. Every day after picking me up from class and before I delved into mounds of homework, we would stop at the local supermarket ice cream counter to get fountain Cokes to go and then would sit in her car in the store's parking lot, the windows down, sprawling on the front bench seat, sipping our Cokes and talking for an hour. It was a blessed respite, a time I remember warmly and with love more than half a century later.

When you think back on your life, do you find yourself having the sweetest memories not of lavish gifts or fancy vacations but of moments, savored, ordinary moments with a loved one who gave you the greatest gift of all -- the gift of his or her time and attention?

My husband Bob treasures memories of times with his grandparents, sitting at the dining room table playing cards hour after hour. What endures is that how much they enjoyed each other's company and how happily he fit in, feeling warm comfort that makes him smile all these years later. He doesn't remember what was said, but that they were there together.

Often, it really doesn't matter what is said, but what one feels.

My maternal grandfather, a Kansas farmer, was a man of few words, famously taciturn. But when he would hand me a bucket with a quick smile, I knew it was our time together. We would trudge out to his mile-long strawberry patch to pick berries, often in silence but in a joint effort that somehow felt wonderfully intimate. From time to time, he would find a particularly choice berry and silently, but with a twinkle in his eyes offer it to me as an instant treat. And I felt dearly loved.

There were times when my father would invite me along on his errands with a food enticement: "Hey, Baby, want to go get tacos and root beer?" Tacos and root beer! My sudden joy was tempered with caution. My eyes would narrow.

"We're not going to the Dow Radio store, are we?"

My father would smile. "Well, who can say? But it would be nice to get out and about together, don't you think?"

My antipathy for Dow Radio -- a huge warehouse of small, musty, totally boring electronics parts -- would fade as I thought of spending time with my father when he was, for the moment, sober and in a good mood.

And those times of sitting together at the taco place, next door to Dow Radio, talking and laughing, are the moments with him that stand out all these years later.

And those Saturdays with Aunt Molly! The memory of these makes me smile. My father's sister was a single career woman, a professional writer, a woman I idolized all my life. Those Saturdays with her live on as treasured memories. We had a routine and, yes, it involved food -- always turkey sandwiches at a very cool sit down restaurant near Vroman's, our favorite bookstore where we spent hours exploring each week. But what I remember most was the joy of feeling special, blessed with her company. It was a day out for just the two of us, having ordinary conversations, going to the same stores and the same restaurant every week, sharing such pleasure in our Saturday routine.

It makes me wonder what gifts of time might mean the most to the next generation in our family. What will matter, years from now, to my own niece Maggie, now only six years old?

Will she think back and remember our hours of playing princess games -- and my trying to teach her lessons in friendship in the voice of a loyal but truculent princess friend who insists that real friends don't just ask for favors but show concern and caring for each other? (And I smiled as I watched her immediately turn to her mother, who had complained of a headache, and ask how she was feeling.) Will Maggie remember the lessons? Or simply that we sat together, hour after hour, at the kitchen table or the family room floor of her L.A. home playing together? Or will she remember the times cooking holiday meals together, paying close attention as I made my special stuffing "so I can keep making that dressing after you're dead."

After I have left this world, maybe what will matter most to her was just that we shared time together -- cooking, tasting, laughing and pretending to be princesses.

It's enough to give one pause about the modern tendency to substitute money or gifts for time. Time spent with those you love is much more important than money spent.

There simply is no substitute in showing one's love to another than simply being there, being present, giving a gift that that costs nothing but has enduring value in how it makes another feel -- at the moment and always.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Saga of Sweet Pea

What happens when that winsome pound puppy you saw in a newspaper column morphs into Cujo once you get him home?

What happens when a cute little kitten you found online in Petfinder turns out to be incredibly fierce, non-cuddly and bristles with teeth and claws?

Too often, such animals are handed back quickly to pounds and rescue organizations or, even worse, dumped and left to die -- unwanted and unloved.

While some animals have emotional and aggression issues that are tough to solve and may pose a hazard, especially if there are small children around, and that may prevent them from being realistic candidates for adoption, too many people give up too soon with what seems to be an unlovable animal. With time, patience and love, an unpromising pet can become a loving companion.

That's what happened with our own Sweet Pea.

Our saga together began in the summer of 2010. We had just lost our beloved Marina, a beautiful and sweet flame point Siamese mix, to leukemia at the age of three. Marina had been a therapy cat, helping a number of my psychotherapy patients to calm down, to smile again and, in the case of warring couples, to speak softly to each other. She was incredibly loving, sleeping on my pillow, spending hours in Bob's lap and trilling with joy whenever I looked her way. Losing her so suddenly, so young, to a disease we hadn't known she had (her rescue organization insisted that she had tested negative and we had never let her outside) broke our hearts.

Our beloved Marina

I knew that one cat never replaces another but, some months after her death, I yearned for another smart and sweet Siamese mix, preferably a flame-point -- a mixture of red or orange tabby with Siamese. There were no flame points available in local rescue groups or shelters then -- and would not be until a kitten named Hamish became available to us in 2012.

But in the summer of 2010, there was a lynx-point Siamese mix kitten at a shelter about 40 miles away. Her name was Sweet Pea. She looked so small and vulnerable in her online shelter picture. I broke precedent and contacted the shelter, saying that I would adopt her without as much as an introductory cuddle.

                                                  Sweet Pea Shelter Portrait

                              Sweet Pea, unusually docile, her first day with us

She wasn't in the shelter at that time because she hadn't "done well" in the facility. She was being fostered in the home of a devoted volunteer. Sweet Pea was something of a mystery. She had walked up to the door of the shelter, all alone and tiny at four weeks old one spring morning. This shelter was in the middle of the desert, miles from the city of Casa Grande. The consensus was that she had been dumped -- alone, unloved and not quite weaned.

Her foster mother Colleen described her to me as "lively, funny, feisty and larger than life." She said that she and her husband John had dubbed her "The Pea Who Will Take Over the World." I heard what I wanted to hear: lively and funny. I didn't stop to consider what feisty and "larger than life" might mean.

Tip: Listen for euphemisms. Lively might mean a holy terror. Feisty might mean you need protective gloves, garments and a face shield to handle.

Another tip: when you encounter a shelter animal with "Sweet" or "Sugar" in its name, be afraid.

When we went to the shelter to adopt Sweet Pea, Colleen and her John arrived with the kitten in their own cat carrier. Their feelings appeared mixed. John had fallen in love with Sweet Pea and had wanted to keep her. But they had five cats already. And Sweet Pea was high maintenance. They quickly transferred Sweet Pea to our cat carrier. She was ours.

Sweet Pea was unlike any cat we had ever known. Despite her tiny size, she was incredibly fierce. When our gentle old cat Gus came up to nuzzle her in a feline welcome, she bit him in the face. When our calm, sweet female cat Maggie tried to groom her, Sweet Pea hissed and lashed out. Once past her vulnerable first few days with us, she made it clear to us that she didn't want to be touched or picked up. She was a cute looking kitten who grew into a beautiful cat with wonderfully soft fur. But the greatest impression she made on us was the sharpness of her teeth and claws and her hair-trigger temper.

                                          Sweet Pea attacking gentle Gus

There were times when we were tempted to return her to the shelter, but we have always believed, through our years of living with and loving rescued cats, that adoption means a lifetime commitment. We hoped that long-term, consistent love would calm her fear and anxiety and tame her fierceness.

In the meantime, we amused ourselves with a series of descriptive nicknames like "Rabid Badger" and "Wild Weasel", which pretty much summed up her behavior and temperament. She was the anti-Marina, the feline equivalent of the Antichrist.

Bob and I dedicated ourselves to immersing this unpromising young cat in love. We talked softly to her, telling her that she was loved. We learned to respect her desire for space and autonomy, touching her only when she sought our attention. We gave her special treats.

And, in time, she became less hostile and anxious. She began to crave proximity to her people -- following us from room to room, wanting to be wherever we were, sitting beside me as I typed on the computer, her head resting on my left hand.  As more time passed, she became friendlier with the other cats and sought petting from us at times of her choosing. She started cuddling beside me as I sat on the couch reading newspapers and spent hours in Bob's lap, not wanting to be touched too much, but yearning to be close. We found that she loved to have her picture taken, often jumping up to get into a photo, striking a dramatic pose.

                                                  Sweet Pea with Bob

                                           Sweet Pea helping with this blog post

Pea striking a Christmas pose

We found that when we respected her preferences, as different as these might be from our other cats, she was a lovely and constant companion.

Now Sweet Pea is five years old and a much loved member of our family. Some aspects of the Rabid Badger remain. Unasked for petting can lead to a light bite. (She did a star turn in my trailer for my "Purr Therapy" book by biting on cue in the role of the least likely candidate for becoming a therapy cat.) The other cats find her volatility fascinating. Hamish, our three-year-old flame point Siamese, will simply sit in front of her and stare, without any signs of overt hostility, and watch her go into a paroxysm of hissing, spitting, thrashing rage. Minutes later, they're cuddling up together.

                             Sweet Pea played the heavy in Purr Therapy trailer

Sweet Pea is loving and affectionate on her own terms, in her own time. We leave her alone when she seeks solitude and welcome her when she craves company. She has become our official greeter for guests and she tends to be friendlier to strangers than our other cats. Not long ago, my friend Mary visited us from California and quickly decided that Sweet Pea was her favorite among our four cats. "This poor kitty has received altogether too much bad press," she declared, throwing Pea a fond glance as they sat together on the couch.

                              Mary contending that Pea has had "bad press"

Part of Sweet Pea's progress has been our love despite her hair-trigger temper and our acceptance of her as she is. We touch her only when she asks us to. She has taught us valuable lessons in the importance of respecting an animal's wishes instead of our insisting on cuddling this soft, furry creature. She runs a tight ship with firm boundaries and we've learned to respect these. When she feels safe and respected, Sweet Pea can be quite wonderful.

                                            Our beloved Sweet Pea 

Every day we spend with this funny, feisty, larger than life cat who has taught us humility, the importance of respect for another creature, and the joy of hard-won love is special.

She's a living reminder of the value of not giving up.

Monday, August 3, 2015

How Old Are You Inside?

Want to know your real age?

You could simply stick to your chronological age.

You could take one of those online tests reviewing lifestyle habits and genetic influences that may add or subtract years from your chronological age.

Or you could simply ask yourself "What age do I feel inside?"

You may surprise yourself.

It was certainly a surprise when my husband Bob asked this of my 90-year-old grandmother nearly 40 years ago.

She had been sitting quietly as my mother and Aunt Ruth discussed her and her medical challenges as if she weren't present. Feeling bad for her, Bob struck up a conversation by asking her what age she felt inside.

Her eyes twinkled. "Oh, eighteen, of course," she said with a smile. "I've always felt eighteen inside!" And she began to flirt with him, showing a glimpse of the lovely young woman living within.

I told this story to my friend Mary and her husband John recently as we sat on their patio overlooking the golf course in an active adult community near Los Angeles. John, who is 80, had been talking about how frustrated he was by the limitations imposed on him by age -- and others' assumptions about older people. "I have so many ideas..." he said, trailing off.

He said that when he considered his inside age, it would have to be about 50 -- a time when he was at the top of his game as an executive with an international corporation. The executive within continues to come up with ideas and insights, frustrated by the physical limitations and advancing age that lead others to assume that he's content to sit in the sunshine, watching others play golf.

Mary smiled and said that she feels like the fun-loving girl she was at 17, sneaking out at night to  join her friends, spending sunny days on the beach in Malibu. Chronologically, those days are more than half a century behind her, but something of the lively teenager she once was lingers in her warm engagement with life, with her laughter and her enduring love for her friends. She has been super responsible and conscientious for years now, but there is a part of her still celebrating in the sun.

She asked me how old I felt inside. I thought for a long time.  "Maybe 32 or 33, " I said at last. "I feel young, but mature. I first felt that way in my early thirties. That was a time of new professional and personal beginnings, a time of reinventing myself which I seem to keep doing again and again. I still feel the energy and ambition I felt then."

That's the short and easy answer. But there are times when I feel like my shy eight-year-old self or my self-conscious adolescent self, amazed that I can handle a stressful situation without anyone discovering how uncertain I really am. And there are times when I'm tired or discouraged and feel suddenly, temporarily, quite old.

I saw the Tony-award winning Broadway musical "Fun Home" in June when I was in New York and was intrigued by the fact that, in this musical adaptation of cartoonist Alison Bechdel's memoir, three actresses portraying her as a child, as a college student and as a mature adult were onstage together much of the time, sometimes playing separate scenes, sometimes harmonizing. And it occurred to me that we are all comprised of the various versions of ourselves at different ages -- sometimes in discord, sometimes in harmony. And there are times when the self at a certain age prevails.

How old are you inside?

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Same Thing, Over and Over....Why?

Gina seems doomed to relationships with men who are so involved in their work that they can't spend as much time relaxing with her as she would like. She ruminates and make demands. They back off. The relationships end, often with considerable rancor. And then she meets another driven man...

A former client of mine whom I'll call Ron kept souring on work situations. He started each new job with real hope that this time it would be different. But it never was. All too soon, he would find himself bored and dissatisfied with the work and disappointed in the office environment, feeling isolated and not liked by co-workers.

Another client, Bonnie, kept losing the same fifteen pounds over and over in a seemingly endless loop of weight loss and regain.

Why do we keep doing things that make us unhappy? Why do we repeat the same scenarios over and over?

It's important to understand why certain patterns emerge.

If you find yourself attracted to romantic partners or friends who cause you grief, examine your own feelings, desires and motivations.

Gina, for example, is attracted to achievers after a long marriage, now ended in divorce, to a successful, wealthy businessman. "I'm attracted to successful guys, no question," she says. "I like the benefits of a guy's success, I'll have to admit." Gina has little professional ambition herself and prefers a quiet life of yoga, meditation and exercise. But she's not attracted to similarly mellow males, seeing them as slackers.

It was only when she began to examine her own negative self-talk about herself as a slacker that she began to make a plan to enhance her own career prospects, making her less dependent on a man financially and more open to a wider variety of men. She also began to see that, perhaps by choosing men who would always disappoint her with their unavailability, she was making a choice not to commit to a relationship.

When she began to see her own complicity in her recurring romantic disasters, Gina began to think about how changing her own behavior could change her romantic prospects and, most important, her own life satisfaction.

It's important, too, to see what changes you might want to make if you've found yourself with friends or lovers who are critical or abusive or otherwise detrimental to your well-being. No one deserves abuse or shabby treatment. If you find yourself endlessly trying to please, making concessions you don't want to make, ask yourself why you feel the need to do this. Talking with a therapist and/or people who truly love you about this can help you to uncover and change the feelings of unworthiness, low self-regard, or other negative self-talk that could be leading you to these unhappy (and unhealthy) relationships.

If you find yourself in the same situation at different work places: It is time to ask yourself some difficult questions: are you in a line of work congruent with your talents and personality? Do you need to re-think your career strategies? Go to night classes for re-training? Consider a complete career change? And are you doing anything to irritate or alienate co-workers in job after job? It can be quite telling when different workplaces with different people all seem to work out the same way for you. It's time to see what your own contribution might be to your workplace unhappiness.

Sylvia, a former client, always felt like an outsider at a succession of workplaces. She told me that co-workers and bosses didn't seem to like her. We examined her interactions at work and found that there was a behavior pattern, stemming from Sylvia's long-ago childhood, that was causing problems for her everywhere she went.

Sylvia, a middle child who felt that both her older sister and younger brother got preferential treatment from their parents, brought these feelings to each workplace. When her boss reprimanded her for being late to work, her response was not to apologize and take responsibility for her tardiness but to accuse him of preferential treatment of younger, more attractive co-workers who were also sometimes late and who seemed to get away with it. She was quick to bring their transgressions to his attention and to resent what she perceived as special treatment of others. This behavior made her unpopular with both bosses and co-workers until she began to realize that playing out a childhood sense of unfairness in her workplace was not productive. She found that when she changed her behavior even a little, it made a big difference.

If you find yourself having trouble with change: You're part of a very large club! Many of us struggle with change, whether it's making a commitment to a relationship, to lose weight, to change jobs or to say "No" to an adult child who is hitting you up for more and more financial help -- again. Making a step-by-step plan for change and starting with a small, do-able step can set you on the way to positive change.

Deciding that just for today, just for right now, you will eat a healthy meal, not with a sense of deprivation, but with the happy discovery that healthy food is delicious, is an important first step toward permanent weight loss. Deciding to say or do something kind for another instead of being critical can be a vital first step toward building a positive relationship -- romantic or friendship -- with another. Deciding that just this minute, just right now, you will speak up for yourself and refuse to tolerate another's cruel comments or that you will say "No" to raiding your savings to pay off your adult child's credit card debt once again can be the beginning of a growing sense of self and of your adult child's beginning to grow up and take responsibility at last.

That first step toward change is hard, but it can get easier with time, with each step you take.

It isn't easy to change long established patterns. But it starts with a decision and taking that first step and then another and another.