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  • Review of Home by Marilynne Robinson

    HomeHome by Marilynne Robinson
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    I loved Gilead by Marilynne Robinson so much. The review is here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....

    But with Home, I had a different experience. I wasn't compelled through most of the book. At about the three-quarter mark, things started to happen and I felt my interest quicken. But here's a summary of my impressions, and my apologies to those who loved it so much they recommended it to me:

    1. I was disappointed to see this other, peevish, nasty side of Rev. Ames.
    2. I didn't like the Rev. Boughton very much at all.
    3. Jack is tedious and pathetic.
    4. Glory almost breaks free but then doesn't.

    Robinson really makes me wait for it, building my conflict between compassion and resentment for Jack. And just when I lose faith in him, there's a scene where the old misogynist/bigot Rev. Boughton asks to see Jack and his brother together in his room, and Jack insists Glory be included. As if he sees her as an equal to the men, rather than just the servant her father expects.

    In this, I felt Jack himself was a Rorschach test for the reader, in that while he seems almost feral, a man born without skin with which to hide himself from the world, easily wounded and always untrusting, you want to abandon him, but can you? If so, who are you? What are your values - what are your limits?

    So now Glory has decided to stop being codependent with her "fiancé", and switch her ministrations and self-sacrifice to her dying father and her feral brother. This is an arc? This is growth? What is Robinson's meaning, at the end of the story, when Glory decides to stay in a town she has said she hates, in a house she agrees to preserve as a monument/mausoleum to the family? It can only be read as failure to respect oneself in favor of service to others! This troubles me deeply.

    I apologize for the length of this next excerpt, but I have to reproduce it, because it's so telling:

    "(Glory) had tried to take care of (Jack), to help him, and from time to time he had let her believe she did. That old habit of hers, of making a kind of happiness for herself out of the thought that she could be his rescuer, when there was seldom much reason to believe that rescue would have any particular attraction for him. That old illusion that she could help her father with the grief Jack caused, the grief Jack was, when it was as far beyond her power to soothe or mitigate as the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. She had been alone with her parents when Jack left, and she had been alone with her father when he returned. There was a symmetry in that that might have seemed like design to her and beguiled her with the implication that their fates were indeed intertwined. Or returning herself to that silent house might simply have returned her to a s state of mind more appropriate to her adolescence. A lonely schoolgirl at thirty-eight. Now, there was a painful thought.

    "She recalled certain moments in which she could see that Jack had withdrawn from her and was looking through or beyond her, making some new appraisal of her trustworthiness, perhaps, or her usefulness, or simply and abruptly losing interest in her together with whatever else happened just then...She found no consistency in these moments, nothing she could interpret. He was himself. That is what their father had always said, and by it he had meant that Jack was jostled along in the stream of (the family's) vigor and purpose and their good intentions, their habits and certitudes, and was never really a part of any of it. He had eaten their food and slept beneath their roof, wearing the clothes and speaking the dialect of their slightly self-enamored and distinctly clerical family..."

    God! Who hasn't known people like this - men like this, children like this - who take and take and take from an ever-hopeful spouse or family and yet never seem quite able to be satisfied, or fulfilled, or happy! When all the sacrificial loving family member ever wants is for that feral person to be happy. Or at least safe.

    Like I said, Rorschach.

    And in this, I have to admit, Robinson delivers again, most profoundly, in pulling back the curtains and showing us, right down to the faint beat of a pulse along a pale wrist, the impact on a family of such a lone wolf. Not that the wolf doesn't suffer. Not that we don't all feel empathy as we struggle to surface from this mire, gulping and gasping air, sorry for Glory who remains below, yet intent on saving ourselves.

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  • Review of The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

    The Beginner's GoodbyeThe Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    After reading some of the reviews, I felt a bit off-kilter, as if I'm seeing something that wasn't intended by the author.

    Nevertheless, here's my impression: this story is about a man who, because of his physical limitations, resists closeness with other people, to the point that he marries a woman who seems certain to want the same, arm's length relationship. It's only after she dies that he begins to sense that he was wrong about that. During the grieving process, he comes to realize he's been living an arm's-length life.

    I love stories about people who come out of a fog and change their lives, empowered by the realization that they've been missing something important - that their reasoning was flawed, but it doesn't have to remain that way. And Anne Tyler is such a great wordsmith, anything she writes is wonderful. This book is perhaps a bit too subtle to win the raving applause it deserves.

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  • Review of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

    Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to LeadLean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    As I read Lean In, I was intrigued at being able to get inside the head of a dynamic, smart woman who is one generation younger than me, and see the corporate world through her eyes. One of the cultural questions she answered for me was this: why are younger women so averse to the terms "feminist" and "feminism"? Apparently, Sheryl Sandberg and her contemporaries believe(d) the following:

    1. Equality having arrived, there's no need for feminism anymore
    2. Feminists are man-haters who resist makeup and the shaving of one's legs

    Okay, #2 was a bit tongue-in-cheek. However, having observed conditions in the real world for a few years now, Sandberg has come to see that the playing field is not and will not be level until more women occupy positions of power in the corporate hierarchy. She doesn't suggest that this is due to any malicious intent on the part of men, but rather it's simply a matter of ignorance.

    To illustrate, she describes having to park far away from her office door when hugely and uncomfortably pregnant. When she designated preferred parking spots to accommodate pregnant workers, no one complained. It was seen as logical. But prior to her taking her place in the C-suite, the issue hadn't been raised.

    Sandberg talks about not slowing down out of consideration for what might happen in the nebulous future. The example she gives, now famous, is of a young woman confiding her fears of not wanting to accept a job with a lot of responsibility due to the impact it might have on her family. The woman was planning ahead - she didn't even have a boyfriend yet.

    With this example, Sandberg makes the point that women, having been highly trained and educated, are waving off promotional opportunities. The jury is still out as to why, but she suggests, and I agree, that part of the reason is this: in corporate America, a woman's decision to go through pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and child-rearing is viewed as a private matter that should not impact her ability to work long hours and irregular schedules, including lengthy and frequent travel as needed. Rightly fearing this may drive her insane, a woman who wants a family may leap off the corporate ladder at a very early stage.

    Sandberg argues that if a young woman stayed on it long enough to secure a more powerful position, she would be able to exert more control over her work life (a perspective the young woman must trust will happen, since at her current low place on the corporate ladder she can only see her lack of power and control.) After a few promotions, she will be able to delegate some of her work to subordinates, afford more help at home, and influence workplace policies that unfairly impact women and families. Who can find fault with this argument?

    Sandberg is honest about her own mistakes, and I found that charming. For example, I was amazed that, for all her intelligence and education, she didn't originally intend to negotiate her starting salary with Facebook. Luckily a nice man (her husband) set her straight, and she made a counter offer to Zuckerberg. Reams of guidance have been written about how this error could have impeded her in later years, both at Facebook and with future employers, yet she didn't know. For other women who have not yet made this horrifying discovery, please read Ask for It by Babcock and Laschever (http://www.amazon.com/Ask-Women-Power...) which in addition to being enlightening and entertaining, offers tons of strategies for preparing yourself to negotiate. And not just for salaries. After reading that book I saved $150 on furniture I was going to buy anyway, by asking one question.

    But back to Lean In.

    I was also surprised that she wasn't well informed about how women can sabotage other women in the workplace, particularly women in power. This is an unfortunate truth with roots in biology, and is brilliantly explained in the amazing book, In the Company of Women by Heim and Murphy (http://www.amazon.com/Company-Women-I...) which I reviewed here:
    http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... This also suggests the reasons Sandberg was hit with such a backlash for the well-intentioned Lean In.

    There is so much more to say about Lean In, but let me close with this: I enjoyed learning how this stellar corporate executive struggled, made mistakes, and ultimately learned some strategies that will enable her, her family, and the women (and men) in her corporation to thrive. It's not perfect, and sometimes it's not even pretty, but part of the lesson is to let go of the need for perfection.

    The other message, younger women, is to get as far and as fast as you can before starting your families. Don't opt out just because it looks too hard from where you're sitting now. The view improves with each rung on the ladder.

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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?

Finding Order in Chaos: How to Handle Your Role as Caregiver

Today’s post is written by Cameron Von St. James. He’s a husband and daddy, and he’s got some helpful information for you about dealing with the burden of caring for a very ill loved one. Here’s his story:

Cameron Von St. James

Cameron Von St. James

Less than four months after my daughter Lily was born, my wife Heather and I were handed the worst news imaginable: Heather had been diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. A rare cancer directly linked with exposure to asbestos, her illness offered slim chance for survival. During what should have been a happy time celebrating the joys of new parenthood, our lives were thrown into chaos. I became an instant caregiver. Our lives would never be the same.

Caring for someone suffering from a devastating illness requires every ounce of strength you can muster. Whether your loved one suffers from Alzheimer’s, cancer or any other serious illness, your life changes forever in the blink of an eye. I had to learn using a “trial by fire” method, and while there are countless resources to help support cancer patients and their caregivers, none of the material can really prepare you for the fight ahead. Fortunately, Heather overcame the odds and beat her cancer. Seven years later, I’m here to share her story and offer guidance for those facing the challenging role of caregiver.

Over the years, my work with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance has afforded me the chance to meet many families facing similar situations. I’m often asked how I handled our struggle and what advice I could give. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about taking care of my family from fellow caregivers and my own trial-and-error experiences. I now offer you the same advice so that you don’t have to face this challenge alone. Here are five of my most useful tips for providing care to someone suffering from a serious illness. I hope they prove useful to you and your family.

Tip #1: Accept help when it’s offered.

Help comes in a variety of forms. It could be a week of casserole dishes or a help getting all the laundry done. Small acts of kindness build into large sources of relief. You’re going to face a lot of challenges while providing care for your loved ones, so it’s important to reach out to people and accept the help they offer. You’ll feel better knowing that things have been taken care of, and you’ll have a little less on your plate to deal with. (Lynne: If I ever have to do intensive caregiving again, I will ask my family or friends to take over long enough for me to go to a movie, get a massage, or just take a nap. I didn’t do that when Bill had hip replacement surgery and I paid the price, because I’m a worrier. I ended up with my own cardiologist, for a time. The heart doc said a husband’s health is a very common cause of heart problems in women. Common! Word of warning, ladies.)

Tip #2: Maintain your own health.

Because you’ll be so focused on caring for your loved one, you might neglect your own well-being. Don’t fall into this trap. You need to maintain your own health in order to stay sharp and focused. I found that replacing sleep with food sometimes worked to maintain my energy levels, but I couldn’t do it for more than a few days. At some point, your body will succumb to exhaustion if you don’t give it the right nutrients and rest. Take a walk or go for a quick jog around the neighborhood. Keeping your body well-nourished and fit will increase your energy and reduce your stress. Both will help you become a more effective caregiver. (Lynne: Nawp, didn’t do this either. But next time, I swear! If there is a next time, and I hope there isn’t.)

Tip #3: Learn everything and stay informed.

Knowledge is definitely power in a situation like this. Learn everything you can about your loved one’s illness, its side effects and possible treatments. Seek second, third and sometimes fourth opinions. If you have questions, ask your doctor for full explanations. I found it useful to take a notepad with me to Heather’s appointments so that I could jot down notes and additional questions to research later. Joining local support groups will help you establish connections with fellow caregivers, and you can exchange stories and ideas. You may also want to spend some time online using sites like this one and others dedicated to caregiving resources. (Lynne: but Cameron, I fear a person can get overloaded and anxious after gathering so much information. Any tips for that?)

Tip #4: Get organized.

Over the course of your loved one’s treatment, you may receive dozens of prescriptions, appointment cards and other documents. You’ll also have to keep up with appointment times and everyday life. Staying organized will help you manage the burden of keeping up with everything. Use a good calendar or your smartphone, tablet or computer to keep track of everything. You’ll handle everyday tasks and unexpected occurrences much better if you stay organized.

Tip #5: Make a list of priorities.

Everyday life continues despite the devastating blow of a serious illness. You still need to pay your bills and take the dog for a walk. While you might be tempted to shove everyday tasks to the back of your mind, you’ll need to maintain a sense of normalcy during this time. Make a list of priorities, and enlist the help of friends and family when necessary. You can eliminate extra challenges by focusing on the most important tasks first and taking everything one step at a time.

Heather, Lily, and Cameron

Heather, Lily, and Cameron

Cameron Von St. James is the husband of mesothelioma survivor advocate Heather Von St. James, who was diagnosed in 2005 at the age of 36.  A seven year survivor of this rare cancer, Heather and Cameron now work with the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance to bring awareness to this often neglected disease.  They hope that by sharing their story, they can bring hope and inspiration to people facing any sort of illness or disability, and the caregivers who support them. Heather and Cameron live in Roseville, MN with their daughter Lily, who is now 7.

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  • Review of Private Life by Jane Smiley

    Private LifePrivate Life by Jane Smiley
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Maybe this book is better than my capacity to appreciate. I don't tend toward writing that is obscure, or dense (or makes me feel dense). However, sometimes it's better to roll along with the storytelling and let the deeper meaning work its way up from subconscious to conscious.

    The ending of this book is extremely powerful. Margaret, due to the traumatic incident that happened when she was five, lived in a fog her entire life, married to a wacko genius, and not waking up until she was in her sixties and everything/everyone is sad and tired. Yet she seems to catch fire, fueled by bitterness, in the very last 3 sentences of the epilogue. It was a long time to wait for the enlightenment.

    I gave the book 3 stars because there's too much backstory too soon, making it hard for me to develop an interest. Once there, I felt frustrated at the repetitious nature of Margaret's obtuseness, even though she's a bright woman, and her deferring to Andrew, even though this is what people - women especially - do.

    It went on for her whole life! That she was living in a cloud due to, I believe, the trauma of the childhood incident, and that she was ill served by those around her, didn't make it any easier to like this story. I know Smiley is a master writer, and I feel like a goof not giving her a better rating, but this is my honest reaction.

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  • Review of Up At The Villa by Somerset Maugham

    Up at the VillaUp at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Very much enjoyed this short book, which I read in one night. The settings are lush, dialogue snappy, and the characters realistic and strong. The plot and writing are compelling. I enjoyed it because a theme might be, "people are not what they appear to be." A character acts one way and you think, okay, he's good and upstanding. And maybe he IS, but the "why" of it is enlightening. Maugham is a respected author for a reason. What talent! A very good story.

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  • Review of Benediction by Kent Haruf

    BenedictionBenediction by Kent Haruf
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Ever in search of stories about midlife and beyond, I set up a page on facebook (www.Facebook.com/midlife.fiction) and asked for suggestions. I got 38 great recommendations, and I hope to read and review every one of them. Herewith, then: Benediction by Kent Haruf. What a masterpiece.

    Benediction centers around an elderly man who is dying, but the story encompasses many rich characters, and their small stories touched me. In fact, I think this is what made the book so special for me: I saw a little bit of myself in each of them. Each one resonated. I felt again what it was like to be a lost little girl, a lonely divorcee, a misunderstood introspective, a grieving wife, a person who is coping with serious illness. I longed for the small-town atmosphere described here (the Fourth of July fireworks over the high school football field is a stellar short story all by itself.)

    Although the central character is dying, the book is not negative. Far from it - Benediction reflects on the everyday goodness (and tawdriness) of people. His characters are beset by the normal difficulties of life yet buoyed by simple beauties and kindnesses.

    Yet, nothing in Haruf's writing is overly dramatic or in the least saccharine. In fact, that's one of the aspects of Benediction I enjoyed the most: being surprised by tears on the completion of a plainly-written paragraph, phrase or description.

    I couldn't stop reading excerpts to my husband, since he also loves beautifully crafted writing. This book put me in mind of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. If I could describe it in one word, it would be "elegiac."

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    7. My Mother is Losing Her Memory and I am Losing My Mind
    8. How the Cookie Crumbles
    9. Grandma Got STEM
    10. MIDDLE-AGED MAN BLAH'G
    11. The Parking Lot Confessional
    12. beyondthea64's Blog
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Feed the Beauty

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How to Make, Market and Sell Ebooks

self-publishing tips for indie authors

Fifty 2 Ninety

Celebrating Some of the Best Years of Our Lives

Waiting for the Karma Truck

Thoughts on work and life and everything in between

Live & Learn

David Kanigan

Platinum Boomer

fabulous @ any age

How the Cookie Crumbles

An irreverant view of life after SIXTY-FIVE

Grandma Got STEM

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (+more!).

MIDDLE-AGED MAN BLAH'G

Let's Win it in the 2nd Half! Middle-agedman.com

The Parking Lot Confessional

Write until your fingers bleed.

beyondthea64's Blog

The daily musings of a fiftysomething adventurer who has left the rat race to explore the world.

All the small things

A mother-daughter diablog

Writing Out Loud

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Memoir Writer's Journey

Sharing hope one story at a time

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A guide to good health, women's wellness and getting it all done

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