Hack Your Bad Habits

Happy New Year! I’ve been off in the dungeon, working away at my new book. It’s a sequel to Dakota Blues, because you’ve been hounding me for same, and hey, I aim to please.

Remember I promised to get back to you on forming new habits in 2014? Good news: I think I found something. According to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, you can’t expect to completely erase old habits. Give up on that, because they are hard-wired into your brain. Habits are developed as an evolutionary tool to conserve brain energy. Once you learn to do something on cue, you don’t have to think. In survival terms, that’s good, because it allows you to then focus on other things, like not getting devoured by a sabertooth.

That’s why habits, once established, are darn hard to break. Duhigg says it’s smarter to let the habit continue, but just replace certain harmful elements with good ones. Here’s the habit chain: you perceive a cue, which sets up a craving, which results in you following a routine that leads to a reward. The only part of this chain you can change is the routine. If you replace an old routine with a new one, you’re golden. Your brain is fooled, it’s happy, and the habit will stick.

To use myself as an example, remember I said I crave a glass of wine in midafternoon? At about two o’clock, my energy flags. After working all day (I start early) in the dungeon, I also feel a little guilty about ignoring Bill. I want to party, but it sets up a cascade of bad effects. After a short burst of wine-induced energy, I feel lazy and my inhibitions are lowered, so I snack and drink more, and for rest of the evening, accomplish less.

I know. Loser. That’s how it makes me feel.

But using Duhigg’s work-around, I think I’m on track to overcome my problem. Here’s the old routine.

  • Cue: 2:00 pm (party time)
  • Routine: wine and snacks on the patio with my honey
  • Reward: sociability, relaxation, a buzz

Here’s the new routine:

  • Cue: 2:00 pm (party time)
  • Routine: caffeinated tea and snacks on the patio with my honey
  • Reward: sociability, relaxation, a buzz

For almost two weeks I’ve substituted tea for wine, and it seems to be working. By the time the tea is gone, so is the craving. Bonus: the buzz I’m feeling is about caffeine-induced real energy, so I get more done in the evenings. I think this “replace the routine” idea has legs. How cool to think we might be able to overcome our old bad habits by simply out-thinking them.

So consider trying it. You can also find out more at Duhigg’s website, The Power of Habit.

Enjoy your weekend!

Amazing Eighties

Eighty! You’re eighty? Eighty’s really old, right?

That’s how I used to see it when I was younger. Maybe you, too.

But now that I’m around 60, and involved with writers and writing groups, I have friends that age. Girl friends who will sit with me, drink wine, and whine about whatever. We discuss our writing, our dreams, other people, sex, wanting to lose a few pounds…

Here’s the news: Age is irrelevant. It truly is “just a number.” People age differently these days. We’re all over the map. You cannot stereotype based on a number, because people differ so substantially at this point in life.

One of my friends, MJ, is 82 and her hair’s on fire. She’s working on her second novel. Another friend, Ray, will be 90 next May. He’s published thirty books so far and there’s no end in sight. My mom is 88. She attends exercise class three times a week, has tons of friends, and loves the novels I recommend. (We had the best discussions after Water for Elephants, Cutting for Stone, and Two Old Women).

What’s going on? Weren’t these people supposed to be in rocking chairs, gazing vacantly into space? Whether due to better nutrition, changing societal expectations, or something else, elders have kicked it up a notch. They’ve been places, they’re doing things and they aren’t done yet.

And I think they have tons of information we’d all benefit from hearing.

The people who really have something to teach us are in their seventies, eighties, and beyond.

Mary McPhee

Mary McPhee

Mary McPhee, 87, wrote a book based on her blog. The book, called “Code Name Nora” is about moving to a retirement home. She is sharp, productive and independent, with her own apartment and car. Very unusual, I think, to move to a home under your own steam while you still have choices, but she did so because it was a nicer place to live at the same price as her mortgage, for one reason. I suppose the Midwestern winters had something to do with it.  Mary is thriving while enjoying the security and comfort of the home. In Nora, Mary reproduces her blog posts, most of them funny or lighthearted. However, she occasionally makes an observation that reveals the thoughtful elder behind the comedic persona.  For example, this is a reflection on a couple of her neighbors who are aging faster, mentally, than others:

It didn’t take much to amuse them. They were on leisure time; holding-pen time; lame duck time; they had no cares or worries in the world. Which of course was not true because they still had plenty – their families and their own health – but nature had relented a little, softening their brains so these things weren’t so sharp for them anymore. Or they had the ability to forget their cares and worries for long periods, if forgetting can be called an ability.

Mary has written twelve books so far in her life, and she’s still writing. Here’s her story.

Mary McPhee's first newspaper“As a child, I fell in love with words.  I read constantly and collected words which I inflicted on helpless people, often mispronouncing and using them incorrectly. When I was nine, I started ‘publishing’ newspapers for my father, who traveled Monday to Friday, to tell him what had happened during the week.

MMP newspaper page 2

“I got a degree in Journalism from Oklahoma State College, but lacked confidence in my writing so mostly did secretarial work before marrying. Five children later, in my mid-thirties, I began to write. I wrote casual, humorous pieces about raising children. Over a hundred of these were published in newspapers and magazines, each earning between $50 and $150. An article on the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s was featured in the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday magazine. $250 for this. But all the time I wanted to write fiction.

“I churned out twelve novels, but I couldn’t get an agent. Then I discovered blogs, and by this time, widowed and my children grown and gone, I moved to a retirement community, and began blogging Code Name Nora. I was eighty. Some readers thought I was a fraud, a much younger person. Writing the Nora blog helped me adapt to community living. I am somewhat shy, preferring mostly to observe, but living in the Twilight Zone, as I called it, helped me to be more outgoing. I moved to my new retirement home because it’s much nicer and the rent is the same as before.

“Then I discovered self-published ebooks on Amazon. It was difficult to learn the technical aspects but I finally managed to put eight novels on Kindle. I wrote several new novels and dusted off some old ones.

“I write early in the morning for an hour or so. I used to write by hand but now on the computer. I belonged to Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, a large group in Denver that offers critiques, but I don’t any more. I don’t have any beta readers but wish I did because writing is lonely.

I think existential angst is part of the creative make-up.  Art of any kind is a way to deal with it.

“Despite what we might have to offer, people my age are frequently left out of discussions with younger people, which is hurtful. This is ironic for me because

I have never felt as creative as I do now at the age of 87.

“But then I remember when I was young and felt older people wouldn’t understand or would be accusatory. And of course, many older people have trouble hearing. (I do, and wear hearing aids.) I mostly listen but when it seems a good time to speak up, I do. Sometimes younger people laugh at what I say, and I’m not always sure what that means. Older people appreciate being listened to but they shouldn’t talk too much or about their ailments.

A Fresh Start cover

“I have ideas for new books but none coming out just yet. I’m busy promoting the eight books I have on Kindle. A Fresh Start in a New Place, my memoir about dropping out of big-city life at age 53, to live in a tiny Vermont hamlet, is my next promotion at which time the price will be discounted.

“My blog is MaryMac’s Booktique and my Facebook page is here. The cover for A Fresh Start uses a picture one of my daughters painted when she was eighteen and spent the summer with me in Vermont. The other image is one of the front pages of two of my childish newspapers, yellowed with age. You may need a magnifier to read them. I just include these for fun. Oh, and my blog is kind of a mess. I need to work on it.”

Lynne again: I’m 59. I admit, sometimes my sisters and I feel anxious about getting older, but then I remember people like MJ, Ray, and Mary, and I relax. We have these awesome trail-breakers forging the way for us. They are powerful role models from whom we can draw strength. I am grateful for them.

You Are More Powerful than You Think

Sometimes we perpetuate our own victimization. Cultures promulgate Big Lies. We tell each other a certain thing, repeat it endlessly and it becomes true. We don’t even hear our words anymore.

Let me provide an illustration. It’s extreme, but it makes the point about culture – in this case, thankfully, not ours.

The people who live in Afghanistan today believe that the current status quo represents reality, the natural way of things, but do they know any different? Some women are probably alive who remember the days when they could put on a skirt and heels and head out for university to continue studying to be a doctor. I fear that the majority believe the converse: that women are ignorant beasts suitable only for breeding and domestic labor.

Like I said, it’s an extreme example. Here in America, we have in the past chosen to put youth on a pedestal. We chose to imitate them, and we chose to say things like “senior moment,” “60 is the new 30,” and use the word “old ” as a description of something bad, negative, unworthy. We did this voluntarily. Nobody held a gun to our heads. We were so far into the Kool-Aid we were in danger of drowning.

But that’s changing. Judging from your comments, you’re as sick of it as I am, and you’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. You’re standing up for yourselves, refusing to spend the next thirty years of your life bowing, scraping, and apologizing for being old. You’re not as willing to emulate the young. You’re incensed by the ageism that’s so acceptable today, refusing to ignore the profound cruelty in what ignoramuses consider humor.

We have begun to celebrate the glory of the second half, and we’re excited about our potential. For an uplifting view of turning eighty, check out this essay by famed neurologist Oliver Sacks. And notice the title: “The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding)” – as if you have to be KIDDING to think there’s anything good about old age. Good article, stupid subtitle.

I beg you: don’t accept a low ceiling. With our numbers, we can make headway on this. I hope you will continue to spread the word about empowerment after age 50. We are free thinkers, we’re experienced, and we are deeper than we’ve ever been. We have to talk about it, with joy or anger. Too many of us are on the verge of myopic despair when we could be on the verge of enlightenment.

So keep talking. Keep asking why we use the word “old” as a pejorative. Because old is one of the most lovely things I’ve been.

Late add: It’s 7 a.m. and I’m happily reading your comments when this appears in my inbox from Huffington Post: 7 Easy Ways to Avoid Looking Old. *sigh*

How Terribly Strange to be Seventy

V. Putin by Sculptor Sherry Cavan

After a career as a social science professor, Sherri Cavan became a sculptor post-retirement. Her Vladimir Putin trio above was meant to illustrate three kinds of power – the Fool, who gains power through his antics; the Predator, obvious; and the Beauty Queen, who seduces.

Sherri and I met last March on a cruise ship. She was doing Tai Chi, alone on the darkened dance floor on Deck 14. Unbeknownst to her, I was lurking in a corner of the bar, tapping away on my laptop. When she finished, I introduced myself and asked about Tai Chi. She said she’d started for the health benefits. Same with sculpting, to exercise her right brain. We talked for almost an hour. I was entranced by her energy.

Smiling an impish grin, she leaned toward me. “Do you want to know how old I am?”

I said, “Yes, but I’m too shy to ask.”

She was seventy-five, and I could tell she was proud of it, a model of confidence and joie de vivre in older age. I wanted what she was having.

As we began our goodbyes, she said she’d recently learned to play the ukulele. For a woman cruising alone this was a cool way to socialize, as uke players tend to bring their instruments on trips. She’d jammed with a group on the beach in Waikiki a few days earlier. After I got home I saw an article about how ukulele is hot right now.

I loved Sherri’s wit, humor and curiosity. If she wanted to know something, she went out and learned it. I felt drawn to her aliveness. Sherri is exceptional, but she represents a wave of change in regard to aging. My husband has made lots of friends on the tennis courts, men in their mid-seventies who are gourmet cooks, singers, world travelers, speakers, writers, and government activists. Remember how we used to see old people when we were young? Here’s a reminder: the lyrics to Old Friends by Simon and Garfunkel. They wrote it as young men in 1968.

Old friends, old friends sat on their park bench like bookends

A newspaper blowin’ through the grass

Falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends

 

Old friends, winter companions, the old men

Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun

The sounds of the city sifting through trees

Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends

 

Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly

How terribly strange to be seventy…

I wonder if we’re aging more slowly these days. Not just older people; on the other end of the age scale, young people seem to take longer to mature. Maybe it’s all the preservatives in our food. Better living through chemistry.

Say Hello to the F.U. Fifties

Suzanne Braun Levine thinks turning fifty is the “beginning of the beginning.” In this empowering video, she talks about why she believes “Second Adulthood” can be almost more interesting and enjoyable than our first.

Suzanne points out that at around age fifty, we enter a life transition as profound and far-reaching as adolescence. “We are the first generation to contemplate the fact that at fifty, we have as many years of adult life ahead of us as behind us,” she says. This requires some serious thought, and some serious letting go. She quotes Gloria Steinem, who said the new Golden Rule is this:

Do unto yourselves as you have been doing for others.

I’ll keep this short so you have time to watch the video. Believe me, it’s inspiring and entertaining, and it will make you laugh, too. Enjoy!

We’re Too Old and Smart for This


Am I too old for this? 
Should women over X wear Y?

Do you ever see such questions directed at men? But it’s too early in the post for me to start digressing.

Why are we still trying to be The Good Girl? Haven’t we outgrown the need for approval from that anonymous authority, They? As in, “They say you shouldn’t wear shimmery eye shadow after forty.” Or, “They say a woman over fifty should never wear shorts.”

In this article, a woman wonders if it’s still okay for her to want to wear sparkly things, at her age. She says:

I want to sparkle…just a bit.

Isn’t that OK? Does it really matter how silly a middle-aged woman may look with sparkles on her backside?

I took it to Twitter a few weeks ago and threw it out there…

When is a woman too old for bling on her back pockets?

I’m wondering when does a woman get too old to let people tell her what to wear. Here’s what They said on Twitter:

If she has to ask, she probably already knows the answer.

I understand the desire to look appropriate. You wouldn’t wear torn jeans to a wedding, or a see-through blouse to a job interview. But when it comes to age, any article questioning whether we’re too old for a certain style annoys me, because it implies there’s an authority to whom we owe obedience. Really, at this age? Listen, if I have to live with the wrinkles-and-turkey-neck thing, I need compensation, and compensation in the form of bucking authority sounds good to me.

It does take a certain amount of self-confidence to wear what you like, public opinion be damned. For me, it’s a little hard to wear flashy costume jewelry and scarves on an everyday basis, but it’s either that or I’m going to donate them to the Goodwill.

These days, I try to resist being told what to do. If at all possible, I make up my own mind, now that I know what it is. Besides, I’ve worked too hard over lo these many years to develop a backbone, and I like the feel of it.

A couple of my friends blog about fashion for women who love being over fifty. They’re excited about creating a brand new style for themselves. One is Donna Pekar at Rock the Silver, and another is Lisa at Privilege. Here is Lisa, below, and I think you’ll agree she personifies the type of woman who would never allow anyone to dictate fashion to her.

Especially not with those shitkickers on.

Middle-Aged-Lady-Full-Face-In-A-Biker-Jacket

Confused and then Freed by Forgiveness

Forgiveness is confusing.

When my dad died a few years back, a family member and her husband flipped out and attacked the rest of the family. I figure they misunderstood something, panicked and overreacted, and then they couldn’t back down for years, probably out of embarrassment or just not knowing how to stop without feeling stupid.

Then Mom fell and broke her leg and things began to change. The family member (FM), moved in with Mom. She helped with Mom’s convalescence and also organized and packed almost the entire house, which Mom had agreed to sell. Mom was scared and angry. She grieved Dad’s loss, that of her network of friends and of her beloved high desert. FM had to deal with that, as well as her own physical pain. She wasn’t in the best of health herself, but she remained stoic and kept working.

As time went by, FM began hinting at remorse and a desire for a better relationship. Which is what happened.

After all that went down, I can’t believe I came around to a place where forgiveness is possible. I don’t mean the kind of forgiveness where you accept that the offender is a total asshole and walk away, just to keep yourself healthy. No, this is the old-fashioned kind of forgiveness, where I actually feel compassion for FM, and derive no joy from her remorse.

Which is confusing. I had clung to my anger out of self-respect. Having been physically and verbally abused all through my childhood and first marriage, I swore I would never allow anyone to do that to me again. Forgiving an abuser feels like I’m still a doormat, like I’m once again capitulating to the dark forces.

Given the above, will I ever be able to maintain a self-protective wall of anger? Isn’t it necessary? How can I preserve my self respect if I go around forgiving all the time?

After a lot of thought, I’ve found my answer. I share it with you because it’s beautiful. It’s my gold watch, my gift of a long lifespan, the reward of having lived through family vitriol and come out the other side with my sanity:

Sometimes, it just doesn’t matter.

That’s the answer, and it’s shocking to me. Sometimes, it’s just not important to hang onto the anger. To quote one of my friend’s favorite sayings, “The tide comes in. The tide goes out.” Everything changes.

Recently, there was another dustup in my family (I know; we must be a bunch of brawlers, right?) But based on all the above experience, I’ve decided this too will pass. Or not. It doesn’t matter. I’ve gone on with my days, and I don’t think about it anymore. It’ll resolve itself or it won’t, but everything changes. You just have to go on, and have a good life. No sense spending all that precious energy hanging on to the anger.

This is yet another gift of older age. After a while, you earn resilience. Quite the silver lining, wouldn’t you say?


Inspired to Change in Midlife

Whether you lost your job in midlife or feel the need to change/reinvent yourself for more benign reasons, it helps to see what other people our age are doing. In this article, a half-dozen older workers describe how they picked themselves up off the floor and created new work lives. I felt inspired by their stories. Maybe you will, too.

Joanne Hardy

Joanne Hardy

Sometimes success takes a while. Author Charlotte Rogan got her first book contract at the age of 57,  but she’s a baby. My friend Joanne Hardy is from the generation ahead of Charlotte’s, and Joanne just published her magnum opus, The Girl in the Butternut Dress.

I asked Joanne how she learned to write so well. She described persevering, and said:

imgres

The best class I ever took was Robert McKee’s three day seminar called “Story.” It is so dense and so thorough…I have taken it three times. He is just fantastic. When you go there you will see a block of seats reserved for well-known media groups, like Disney; they send their writers to him…I thought it well worth it. I came home and restructured my novel.

Not all of us are climbing career ladders. Some are struggling to figure out who and what we are at this stage, which can be intriguing in itself. My friend Ellen Cole created a blog, 70Candles, where women share their thoughts about aging mindfully. My own reinvention took the form of letting go of my corporate identity, and refusing to be judged for shedding my power suit. I decided I was good enough as a person, without the trappings of career to prove my worth to the world. One of my proudest accomplishments at this point in my life is providing day care for my grandbabies. It’s a big shift for a gal who never got to be a stay-at-home mom, but I think I’m at a point in my maturity where I can appreciate it better than if I were younger. Except for my aching back.

Yes, we’re getting older, but there are definitely some great benefits.

More Magazine surveyed 1200 women age sixty and up, asking them to rate their lives. What were they happy about? What did they regret? What have they learned about finding their true paths? Here are the high points:

  • The Betty White Boost: A distinct spike in confidence occurred at the uppermost end of the respondents’ age group. Quite simply, the older the women were, the more likely they were to give themselves high marks for life decisions. Women age 80-plus were the most likely to feel satisfied with their life choices. (Although More only surveyed women, this phenomenon has been documented in men, too.)
  • Know Your True Path: A majority of respondents said they found their true path in life after age forty.
  • Cool with Not Being Superwoman: a majority said having it all is a crock. Do what you can and pat yourself on the back, and that it’s okay to ask for help or to say NO.

I’m curious about you. Are you starting over in any way, with work or family or personal truths? If so, what did you change, and is it working? Are you feeling stronger or are you drifting? Do you have any bits of advice for us? I’d love for you to share your thoughts if you’re so inclined. (And now the baby is waking from his nap so I have to run!)

Morgan babies Xmas pic 2012

Your Amazing, Aging Brain

This is the last of four posts about all the cool things going on in your aging brain.

Ten years ago, Sister Bernadette died of a massive heart attack at the age of eighty-five, after a lifetime of academic achievement and renowned intellect. Right up to the end, she aced any cognitive test the researchers could throw at her. She had arranged to donate her brain to science, and when they took a look under the hood (sorry, couldn’t resist!) what they saw changed brain science forever.

In spite of her brilliance, Sister B was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. 

After this discovery, the concept of “cognitive reserve” gained traction. It seems you might be able to build up your brain so that, if and when you get dementia, its effects will be diminished or delayed until you have time to die of something else. If you do die of dementia, having good CR might result in a shorter period of decline. Steeper, but shorter. Once it hits, it’s over quickly. Preferable, when you think about it.

How can you build up cognitive reserve? Exercise, for one.

Two more factors for staving off dementia are the attainment of more education rather than less, and the performance of a more complex occupation throughout one’s life (i.e. one dealing with humans) rather than less (i.e. repetitive motion on an assembly line).  Did you ever think that by encouraging our kids to continue into higher education, we might be saving them from dementia later in life?

Another way to build up resistance to dementia is to encourage your brain to regenerate. Remember, years ago, we were told that brain cells were finite in number; they could only die off, not grow? Wrong.

It’s been proven beyond doubt that the brain regenerates itself, giving birth to new brain cells in the area responsible for memory and cognitive ability.

Again, the best way to get your brain to create those new cells is exercise. Yep. You needed incentive for that New Year’s resolution? There you go. Cognitive reserve and fresh brain cells. But there are several other things you can do to encourage your brain to get generating.

    • Focus on a task that’s highly complex (like writing these last four columns. Dang.)
    • Focus on a specific goal (like your NY resolutions.)

Together, building cognitive reserve and birthing new brain cells would seem to give you a significant hedge against deterioration in the brain at any age, but wait! There’s more. Keeping your brain toned might be as pleasant and simple as:

    • Hanging out with friends, and
    • Hearing positive things about aging. (No, I did not pay them to say this, but yes, it seems as if this might be a good reason to visit Any Shiny Thing.)

According to Barbara Strauch, from whose book I’m quoting, “There’s increasing evidence that being with other humans helps tone our brains’ dendrites.”

But not just any humans. You want to be around NICE humans, because mirror neurons in our brains make emotions contagious! We not only feel the joy and pain of others, we adopt their moods. And, according to researcher Barbara Levy, our moods are surprisingly important to our brains. Levy found that the memories of older people improved after simply seeing positive words about aging.

So if you needed motivation for changes in 2013, I hope I’ve provided it.

And I know Christmas is over, but here’s a little gift anyway: Marc and Angel’s 7 Things You Will Smile About When You’re Older.

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up BrainThanks a million to Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, without which I would not have been able to share all this fantastic information. Believe me, I’ve only scratched the surface. Her book is fun, easy, enjoyable, and written in a conversational tone that makes you feel you’re following a friendly scientist through the halls of research, mouth agape in delight at all the new things you’re learning. I recommend it.

Next week, we’re going to take a break. Do something silly and simple. Maybe I’ll riff on family drama and how much I hate the holidays. Or I might just indulge my grandmotherly heart and post pix of my adorable grandbabies. Whatever we do, I wish you health and happiness. Happy New Year, my dear, funny, kind, happy, smart friends.

Dakota Blues and Skyfall!

I was so excited I almost embarrassed myself in the theater, quoting enthusiastically along with M (Judi Dench).

We went to watch Skyfall on Christmas Day, and toward the end of the movie, when M is staring down a parliamentary inquiry committee, she quotes the same passages from Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson as I have in the dedication of my book, Dakota Blues. I was thrilled! I found this poetry when I was in high school, and for some reason, it stuck with me. (I was weird even back then.)

Here it is, the end of the great Ulysses:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

I didn’t expect Skyfall to have as a subtext the question of “Am I too old? Am I unable, due to my age?” Both Bond and M grapple with this debilitating question, and they answer it in spectacular fashion. How empowering for those of us who watch for evidence of the courage, wisdom, strength and determination that come with age.

My regular column will appear on Friday, and will be the last of the four in which I share reasons to celebrate your amazing, aging brain! See you in a couple days.