No More Sleepwalking

One of my greatest fears is that I will sleepwalk through my life, only to figure out at the end of my days that I did it wrong. I wasted an opportunity. Maybe I’ll realize I played by the wrong rules, worked hard to get to pointless places, or simply failed to fully appreciate the gifts that were showered on me: the people who love me, the quiet of my patio, the chance to have a picnic in the nearby mountains, time out for music. A slow read of a good book. A movie, designed to inspire. A gallery, just an hour away, that I’ve been telling people about for ten years, and have probably not visited in the same amount of time. A walk through the oasis that is The Indian Canyons.

I’ve been remiss. The new year brings a desire for change, a resolve to do better. I’m not sure how, but I’m taking the first step: my eyes are open now.

I’m reminded of a passage from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson:

This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it,” says the character John Ames. “I know this is all apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it…I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely…”

Happy New Year, my friends.

Quick Question for You

Sometimes I have a hard time reading all the blog posts arriving in my inbox every day. Some bloggers post several times a week or even several times a day. It’s a challenge to keep up, and I worry that I’m missing something.

Some bloggers are even doing newsletters now! Thus instead of one post in my inbox, they’re sending me a collection of six or seven articles at a time. Holy cow.

On the other hand, a few of the longer-winded bloggers are cutting back, worried they’re overloading their readers. That’s why I’m thinking of switching to every other Friday to make your life a little less cluttered. I’d like to do what works for you. So spill it, good buddy, and we’ll go with the majority. Let me know what you’d prefer, and thanks.

How Ashton and Jay Z Made Me Happy

I used to look at Ashton Kutcher and think pretty boy tech geek who got lucky when he caught the eye of Demi Moore. And that’s true, but it’s not the whole story.

When I saw this video of Kutcher, I fell in like with the guy. (Skip the first minute.) He tells his teenaged audience three important things, all of which I agree with:

  1. Opportunity looks a lot like hard work. He’s been a roofer, a custodian, a sandwich maker, and a sweeper. “I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than. I’ve always just been lucky to have a job. Every job was a stepping stone to the next job, and I never quit my job until I had the next job.”
  2. Being sexy: “The sexiest thing in the entire world is being really smart. And being thoughtful. And being generous. Everything else is crap, I promise you. It’s just crap that people try to sell to you, to make you feel like less. So don’t buy it.”
  3. Living life: “Build a life. Don’t live one. Build one.”

I think it’s reassuring to feel a sense of commonality with younger people. it’s nice to think we’re in it together, because otherwise, we divide up into tribes, which is a bummer, and a waste of potential synergy. Life is hard for everybody. We’ve got our old problems, and they’ve got their young problems.

Jay Z made me happy, too, with the way he related so generously to people who are talents in their own right. In this video, he gets out of the stadium and does an interactive gig with about 50 people.

Jay Z and Marina Abromovic eye to eye

Jay Z and Marina Abromovic eye to eye

In the video, “Picasso, Baby,” Jay Z performs for artists, dancers, and other creative types, who in turn perform for him, and I dare you not to dance. I especially liked when a stylish woman in her late 70s, early 80s? sits down in front of him and he forgets his lines, like he’s blown away by her fabulousness. She throws back her head and laughs.

One of the ways we create tribes is through our music. I wonder if there’s not something about the way our brains form when we’re young that causes us to imprint a certain kind of rhythm and sound. For example, I love the music of my era, the 60s and 70s (Led Zepp, Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Turtles, Beach Boys; you get the idea). I don’t cotton to hip hop or rap. But then along come Jay Z and his friends, and suddenly I’m dancing to hip hop. That made me happy.

In earlier times, tribalism kept us safe. But now the challenge is to break out and see if you can share a feeling with someone not of your tribe – in this case, the tribe of age. I loved what Ashton Kutcher had to say, and I danced my @$$ off to Jay Z’s video. I felt happy and safe, thinking I’m not alone, that I’m part of their tribe and they of mine. Life is sweet.

On another subject, when I was in Rushville, Indiana last month, I went for a walk every morning in the neighborhood around my hotel. It was pretty enough, in an old-home American flag way, that it choked me up. I was listening to a particular song one day on my iPod, and I thought, dang, I have to make a video of what I’m seeing, and set it to just that music, so you can experience my heart land. So here it is, my love letter to Rushville, accompanied by Gregory Alan Isakov’s The Stable Song.

phone July 22 2013 453

Click on picture to see video

I Don’t Want to Live Forever

So now there’s a chance we can extend longevity to 120. Yay, right? Not necessarily. Many midlife people, myself included, don’t want to see that happen. I think it would make an elder person go nuts. It would me, anyway.

Let’s consider the challenge of keeping up with your profession. How much information can you learn, discard, learn, discard, learn, discard in middle-age and beyond? And even if you can learn it, after fifteen or twenty new campaigns, do you even care to? You’ve seen change after change in your corporate setting, much of it brought about by new people refusing to learn from history. If your brain absorbs sixty, seventy years of information, might there be a point where, like an old draft horse, you simply refuse to haul that load one more step?

What about technology? Born in a time of party lines and carbon paper, you’ve mastered the tech revolution, with all your new passwords and tech support and wireless and ether and RAM. Do you really want to be around when they start doing microchip implants under the skin? I don’t want to be sitting out on the patio of an evening, wondering if that bug I just swatted was a mosquito or a miniaturized drone.

Now consider the emotional challenges we face during a long lifetime.

Migrant mother

What if you started out here? photo by Dorothea Lange

When I was researching Dakota Blues, I drove around rural North Dakota and saw many crumbling homesteads from a time when there were no roads, stores, or neighbors within miles. The parents would produce a dozen kids, because half of them would die before adulthood. Drought killed crops. Locusts ate the paint off farm tools. Cattle starved. I imagined the woman of the house looking up from her labors and thinking of her family still in Germany, whom she would probably never see again. Then I pictured her, years later, as a very old woman standing by a grave in ND, and I wondered how she handled being the only one who remembered sailing from a dock in Hamburg. Assuming this woman was born in 1900, do you really see her thriving through 2020?

When you look at it organically, death might be as much a relief at the end of a life as sleep is at the end of a day.

My Mom sometimes laments being “so old” (she’s 88), and I try to cheer her up with some positives: after many years of seeing your kids slaving away at careers, they’re enjoying retirement – and you’re getting more visits than ever. Your grandkids are having adorable babies which you can cuddle and hug. A great-grandson just graduated from Marine Corps boot camp. Life is long. That’s a privilege.

But there’s a price. You may be the oldest person around. Nobody remembers what it was like back then. You’ve been widowed for how many years? You miss your parents, who’ve been gone half your life.

For all the good, longevity comes with an accumulation of sorrow. You might manage it for thirty, forty years. Then what? You can rejuvenate your face and maybe even, eventually, your blood cells, but what of your heart and soul?

The Clock is Merciful

Barn with flowers

That’s a saying I invented recently. It means no matter what you’re going through, the minutes keep passing, and eventually you’ll be done and things will get better. I know I said I couldn’t post, and really, I’m racing. I have to run. Won’t be able to answer your comments, if any – sorry! – but just this: our first week in Indiana was wonderful. Lots of beautiful countryside (see above) and loving family. Our second week, in Missouri (misery?) is the opposite. See you next Friday.

Quick Question from Lynne – Answered, Thanks!

UPDATE: Hi all, I think I have my answer, so please ignore this post. Thanks!

Here was the original question if you’re interested:

My traffic monitoring service tells me my blog is waaayyyyy sloooooowwwwwww. (They mean the loading speed, smarty pants.) If true, I’ll convert it to, which is not how I want to spend my summer. But I’ll do it if it keeps you, my reader, from getting frustrated. So that’s my question: when you click on the link in your email inbox, does my blog load slowly? Either leave a comment, or send me an email or, if it’s loading just fine for you, click the LIKE button. Thanks so much. Happy Sunday.

Stay-At-Home Grandma

Me with my granddaughter.

I’ve started babysitting again. My book and my grandson are infants, and I’m nurturing them both in the same crazy year. So while I plan for a book signing at my home on Saturday, I have to lean on my sweet, hard-working hubby to handle the logistics. And while I have my hands full babysitting my grandson and, once a week, his sister too, at least I get to go home. My son and daughter-in-law are in the heat of it. I tell them they’re young. These are the years they’re like a nuclear reactor; they’re vibrant and powerful and everything feeds off them!

Bill with our grandson

I know I’m a big help, but I couldn’t do it without Bill. He’s my support team. Not only does he fix our dinners every night, run errands for Mom, and do all the home stuff, but he was prepared to come over every day for a couple of hours, as he did in spring of 2011 with our granddaughter. This time around, I suggested he take Tuesday and Thursday off. I don’t want to burn him out, but also, I feel less guilty because on those days he ends up with a pretty big honey-do list!

I told him to hang in there – next year will be the year I start to age gracefully! My kids know this is the toughest year, at least until the babies turn into teenagers. My kids both work fulltime as teachers, and with two children under two years old, they’re grateful for the help.

I’m typing this right now as my grandson watches my fingers. We’re sitting on the carpet together. He has a bunch of mobiles dangling overhead, his feet can kick me, and I reach over every few seconds to pat his belly and coo at him.

Our daughter-in-law with the newborn

I also feel a bit guilty falling in love with him, because my first love was his sister. However, she’s moved on. She loves being at her daycare with other kids to play with. When she first started going there she wasn’t yet walking and was frustrated that the other kids could run away from her, but now she plays on the swings and the sandbox and runs everywhere rather than walking.

Wow. He’s waking up from his nap – thirty minutes, just like the first one. What happened to the two-hour one he was supposed to take this morning? Or even the hour? Stay-at-home-moms, I feel ya!

My mother with her great-grandson

But it’s a dream for me. I never got to be a SAHM. I went back to work when my son was one month old! Horrific, but thank God my Mom was able to babysit those first six months. I had no choice. I was the primary breadwinner. So staying home now is like revisiting those days, one generation removed. I don’t have to dress up or be ready for a boss – my little boss doesn’t care what I look like. My favorite time is in the middle of the day, sitting in the rocker in his room while he naps, listening to him breathe. The neighborhood is quiet, and I’m all alone in this daytime world of mothers and babies, snoozing within the walls of our houses.

Our son with our granddaughter

Sometimes it floors me, that my son is a grown man and I’m a grandma. Beautiful and weird at the same time.

Today I’ve got a Skype conference in the afternoon. I’ll probably have the baby on my shoulder. That’s where he’s quietest. Such a snugglebug. It’s not with a client, it’s with people who I’m helping develop a curriculum for a writers’ organization I belong to. I told them next year I’d be there physically to teach or whatever they need, but this year, it’ll have to be Skype or Saturdays.

My dad used to say family is everything. While I don’t believe family is defined by blood, I surely do agree with him. We need each other. Life is hard. We’re in it together.

Happy Birthday, Mom

My mother turns 87 next week, and in her honor I want to share a story I wrote fifteen years ago.

Mom still can’t eat raisins.

Raisins, and whatever else the local Catholic church could spare, kept Mom and her seven siblings from starvation on a windswept North Dakota farm. When Mom’s father died at forty, her mother moved the family to a two-bedroom rental in town. The kids slept two or three to a bed. They got their clothes from the donation bin at the church, but this was during the Depression. Mom will tell you poverty isn’t as bad when everybody around you is just as poor.

Meanwhile, Dad was struggling. His mother had divorced his father, and she was prone to nervous breakdowns and hospitalization, so as an elementary-school kid, Dad was passed around among distant relatives. These people resented him, since this was a time when nobody had enough food for their own families. He lived in an orphanage for a while, and in the Civilian Conservation Corps as a teen. He grew up with no family.

In spite of their harsh beginnings, Mom and Dad carved out a life that included almost sixty years of marriage. They relied on themselves, and had a hard time accepting anything from others. They taught me to be tenacious, so on that long-ago spring day on their patio, I held out tickets for a Caribbean cruise, refusing to back down. Dad’s mouth set in a straight line. Mom looked pained, her face wrenched in my direction. My jaw clenched, knowing the likely outcome. Bill and I were determined, but so were they. Seconds passed.

Suddenly, Dad jumped up and pumped Bill’s hand. “By damn, son-in-law, I accept!

I was excited, but a little worried. Could I spend a week with this bull-headed old man who had ruled the roost as I was growing up? He was a good dad in so many ways, but all through my childhood, he was sometimes violent, and subscribed to a scorched earth policy in winning any argument. As an adult, I felt I had moved on, told myself he’d been under a lot of strain as a young father with a big family, blah blah blah. So it was no longer an issue.

(Now that I read this, I sound codependent. Yeah. Okay.)

The first showdown came early. Dad gave Bill half the fare for a cabbie that had brought us to the ship from the airport in Puerto Rico. When Bill tried to wave him off, Dad got mad and paid the entire fare for all four of us. Later in our stateroom, Bill asked me for advice. I decided to appeal secretly to Mom.

The next day, on Barbados, Bill picked up four tickets for the Flower Forest, an exotic botanical garden. For one tense moment, Dad stared at us, his bushy silver eyebrows knit together. Then he grinned. “I got the message.” Grabbing Mom’s hand, they headed down the path into the forest.

The rest of the cruise was relaxed. We visited St. Lucia, Martinique, St. Vincent and St. Martin. We shopped, toured and feasted on exquisite meals, both on the islands and on the ship. I wanted to give Mom and Dad a nice vacation, something they couldn’t afford on their own. I guess I also wanted to show them something else: their urbane, sophisticated daughter. Well, that was pointless.

Mom and Dad enjoying lunch in a beach-side cafe on St. Lucia at Pigeon Point.

I began to see things differently during the cruise. Such as, without the baggage of my childhood, my Dad was just, in Bill’s words, “a sweet old guy.” From observing my parents, I realized where I got my gift for Olympic-grade worrying. And I realized that mutual disarmament is maybe the best gift family members can give each other as we age.

I had wondered if I could manage a week of togetherness with these people who raised me, against whom I had rebelled in my young adult years, and from whom I had been striving ever since to become independent.

I’d do it all again in a split second, just to see them strolling on powdery white sands under the swaying palms on a beach in Martinique, still holding hands after a half- century of hardship and happiness.

Epilogue: as you know, we lost Dad in July of 2008. I’m grateful he never had to see the Great Recession, after the kind of childhood he had. He apologized to me, in his own gruff way, a few years before he passed. “I’m sorry you had to carry that around all those years,” he said to my then-fifty-year-old self. I knew it was all he was capable of, and I was immensely grateful.

Mom now lives four blocks from me and in spite of health challenges is going strong. She’s a living lesson for how to live a good life in old age. We’re blessed, and I’m grateful.

Mom and Dad in Martinique

Boomer Men Share Housework

For women of a certain age, this is a seismic shift. As girls, it was our job to clean the toilets while our brothers mowed the lawns. We ironed shirts while they – well, we ironed shirts. Then those Boomer men grew up. Now they’re at or near retirement age, and there’s a change afoot. Have you noticed?

Boomer men are turning domestic.

They cook! Many have their own specialties, and you don’t want to get in the way when they’re in the kitchen. Bill makes spaghetti just like his mom used to. Or salmon with honey-mustard marinade. Or pulled pork, simmered in beer all day in the crock pot. This new breed of husband goes to the grocery store. My friend who is still working says she hasn’t been for a year, ever since her husband retired.

They clean! My sister-in-law is learning to relax and let my brother, who just retired, clean the house. He feels that it’s his job now. He also shops, cooks and runs errands. Both of them are loving it. (Maybe they’ve discovered what some of my friends tell me: a houseworking hubby stirs our libido. Even without an apron.)

They negotiate chores! In my retirement community, the division of labor between couples seems logical for the generation that came of age with Women’s Lib, Gloria Steinem, and the Equal Rights Amendment. My friends say they tend to divvy up chores based on who’s good at what, and who hates a job less.

We joke about it, us girls. The men have their own way of doing things. Like in my case, when Bill mops the kitchen floor, the corners remain kind of cruddy, but do you think I’m complaining? Helllll no. I tell him over and over again how much I appreciate him. That comes with being an old broad. You don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Besides, I can always sneak over with a wet rag and fix things. He’ll never know. His eyesight isn’t that good.

Kids these days, those impressive young men of Gen X and Y, share more of the housework and child-rearing than did their fathers, but I want to give the old dudes credit. I think our generation, the Baby Boomers, broke ground on this. We turned our backs on tradition.  So now when I see Bill mopping the floor, I feel love and gratitude but also a sense of history being made. We have come a long way, baby.

Easier to Give than Receive

I like money. I mean, who doesn’t? So why is it so hard for me to accept it from people to whom I’m giving a skill or benefit?

Mika Brzezinsky wrote about this in Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You’re Worth. Women are good at giving, but not so good at taking. That’s beautiful, and the world needs more of it, but sometimes we stand in our own way. Mika careened from not asking her bosses for adequate pay, to asking inappropriately (acting like a man would, since that’s who modeled the intervention for her), to asking in a way that was true to her comfort level. The last time, when she asked authentically, it happened.

Part of my problem is that I am starting a new business, so my students were my guinea pigs. I didn’t feel it was right to charge them for something that wasn’t particularly polished, but now it’s a valuable product, so I had to break the news.

I felt like a jerk, but I did it, and they were beautiful!

“Of course; your classes are worth it!” was the general sentiment. I am so relieved, but I still feel kind of clunky. To be honest, I dread when my book is published and I have to take money for that. Not the money part. The take part.

I never had any problem negotiating in a corporate setting, because for some reason that seems impersonal. My problem is asking individuals to open their very own wallet and share their personal cash with me.

Some of it is my upbringing: very Catholic. We were taught to give and give and give until it hurts. And then give some more. From my North Dakota German heritage I got the idea that we only give, never take. And then there’s this timeworn maxim: it’s better to give than receive. Right?

My parents taught me to give. My mother worshiped sacrifice and we kids were indoctrinated. No surprise I supported two jobless husbands. When I met Prospective Husband Number Three, I took him to be interviewed by my therapist. Seriously – I didn’t trust my own judgment. After thirty minutes, Dr. N looked at me and said, “He’s got a job. What the hell do you see in him?”

But I digress. Women still earn less than men, and one reason is because they don’t ask, let alone negotiate.

Here’s a surprise: the younger generations are no better.

When interviewed about their book, Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want, authors Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever say this:

A lot of the younger women we talked to…believe that they’re just as assertive about what they want as their male peers. Unfortunately, this is not true. Younger women may assume that things have changed far more than they have, but our studies show that even among men and women in their 20s and early 30s, men are much more likely to initiate negotiations than women.

I’m going to take a stab here and say it’s probably about two things: one, our indoctrination as caregivers and nurturers, and two, the lack of role models. I guess that was redundant.

The situation perpetuates itself.

In the future I’m going to read up on and study more about this topic for my own benefit, yours, and that of my daughters and granddaughters. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with making a sacrifice for those you love, but it can’t be all you, all the time. The act of taking cash from your peers may feel creepy, but giving away your work feels worse.

Have you experienced this inability to ask for what you’re worth? Did you figure out a way to overcome it? What’s your story?