Sharper Than We Look

beachwalk

I’m a little behind this week, partly because Mom had a medical issue that caused her to spend the night in the hospital for tests. She’s fine, just exhausted and a little down. Of course, the experience prompted a lot of discussion of age and mortality.

One thing that was sort of funny was the ER doc asking about Mom’s medications. He’d look at the computer screen and say the name of one to me, and I’d look at Mom, and she’d answer. But she wouldn’t just answer. She’d give the ten-syllable generic name and the number of milligrams involved. After a couple times of that, the doctor realized he was dealing with a sharp cookie, and stopped looking to me to interpret.

Mom and I had a good laugh over that. My brother says she’s a lab rat. By that he means there aren’t very many people in her demographic who act like her. The doctors are learning, though. There are more of those sharp old people around, and it’s going to change how we see aging.

That was the fun stuff. Less fun was that her age, 89, is no joke. You can’t wish her younger with some breezy line about 90 being the new 70. Age takes a toll. When she broke her leg 3 years ago, it was incredible how slowly her bones regrew. I swear, they almost seemed to have stopped. You lose out on a lot when you’re older. She expressed dismay about how her brain processes language sometimes. “Have you noticed?” she asked.

I said, “By this point you should have figured out how to fake it.”

Get old, lose some things, gain others. Lose bone growth, gain facility with coping. This is what it is. You’re alive. It beats the alternative.

You Still Get to Choose

3three

Yes, this post is all a little dark, but there’s a silver lining at the end, so stay with me.

All through life, regardless of age, you wonder how to live your life. Should you be more understanding, patient, and loving, or less? What is your duty to others, as opposed to yourself? Should you take that job overseas and break your mother’s heart, or stay in your hometown close to the relatives? [Read more...]

The Puzzle of Purpose

question marksI was talking with my friend Martin Rice, formerly of the Fifty2Ninety blog, about having a sense of purpose in the last third of our lives. He had been wondering what older people do if/when they lose that sense, and considered starting up a new blog dedicated to this issue. As we talked, it occurred to me that older peeps are more wedded to purpose than necessary. Maybe we’re addicted to the idea of productivity, unable to unhitch from the parental and career wagons we’ve pulled all these years.

If so, the alternative could be hedonistic and decadent! Just for fun, let’s consider.

When you’re a kid, your purpose is to grow up and become skillfully independent. Then, as a young adult, it’s to create a sustainable life for yourself and your dependents, supporting your part of the world (family, community, workplace, state and nation). Finally, as an older adult, your purpose is – what? If normal cycles play out, people aren’t depending on you as much anymore, and you have the luxury of free time and choice. So now, what is your purpose?

Must you have one?

Yes, because purpose is critical to quality and length of life, according to this article by Paula Span. But the research came from interviews with old people, who were raised in a time when we believed one must be of service to others. That Puritan work ethic still influences us, for good and bad. We feel more worthwhile, confident, and secure when we can say we’re struggling with some kind of load.

Not to go all Byron Katie on you, but is it true, or is it training?

When my father died, Mom felt she no longer had a purpose. She had spent her adult life serving others, first raising us kids, and then looking out for Dad more and more as he declined. After many years, his death freed her, but freedom didn’t look that great. Losing her sense of purpose added to her grief. As she and I discussed this, I asked if she might find purpose in showing us four kids, then in our fifties, how to age well. She shrugged, and I felt embarrassed at sounding self-centered.

Fast forward six years. Mom, now 89, lives a few blocks from me, in our 55+ community. She has friends, drives herself around town, exercises, and has hobbies and interests. She no longer serves the needs of others, unless you count the normal generosities inherent in living an ethical life. In fact, it seems she spends her time staying healthy and enjoying herself. I recently asked how she feels about the question of purpose.

“I wonder why I’m still alive, but God must have his reasons,” she said. “Maybe He figures I’ve earned a vacation.”

What does a person have to do to earn that vacation? I worked hard from a young age, volunteered a lot, and supported everybody and his brother (and his kids). Sometimes I fantasize about cutting loose from everything and just savoring my existence. When I said this to Martin, he replied, “Maybe that is your purpose.”

God, wouldn’t that be a relief?

I think older people might stay busy out of a sense of guilt, because they have all this freedom while their kids are struggling under the pressures of child-rearing and careers. But might we try to feel justified doing nothing beyond that which is required to preserve and savor our existence? Assuming the normal generosities, of course. Like stepping up to the plate when your community needs you, and not just being a selfish you-know-what.

What do you think?

Robin Williams and Getting Old

Robin WilliamsSo sad to think of this poor man suffering with the almost-insurmountable problems of addiction and depression (LATE ADD: and possibly also Parkinsons’.) He also had medical problems (and we’ve seen that heart surgery can bring on depression). On top of that, he had money problems, and Robin Williams wasn’t in his peak earning years anymore.

His death has prompted important conversations. According to this story in the Washington Post, white males die by suicide more than any other group by gender or racial demographic. The number is four times as high as for the next highest group, and it dwarfs every other demographic on the chart. 

…Aging may take a larger toll on the male psyche. Older men who value their self-reliance may find themselves less able to cope as they age, when they are no longer in their prime physically, sexually and at work.

“I often refer to them as being developmentally unsuccessful, because they’re not equipped to handle the challenges of getting older if they are so tied into their masculinity . . . and making a lot of money,” said Christopher Kilmartin, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington.

“Things aren’t the way they used to be,” said Dost Ongur, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. . “The power you knew, the control you knew, aren’t the same.”

I want to tread carefully here; what I say next is not meant to minimize Robin’s physiological and psychological burdens. I’m not qualified to offer an opinion, but want to use the statistics as a starting point for discussion. 

Many of us, particularly men, are unable to accept have a hard time accepting the aging process and our own mortality. We’re swamped in a noxious wave of cultural messages that, at a certain age, we’re worthless, stupid, pointless…and we buy it. We look in the mirror and see the work of time, and it’s not flattering. We retire or get forced out of jobs. We wonder what the point is. What good are we?

After a lifetime of being brainwashed to believe bad stuff about old people, there’s new research that says people who believe negative things about the aging process die, on average, 7.5 years sooner. What a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Yes, physically, we’re on the losing end, but mentally and emotionally there is much to be grateful for. Here are a few tidbits worth celebrating:

  • Myelination doesn’t peak until your sixties. Myelin is a substance that coats the brain circuits and improves neurotransmission. I wrote about that here.
  • Positivity increases later in life, and you have greater control over your emotions – even though older people feel them more strongly. Something about changes to the amygdala. That’s in the same blog post, linked above.
  • Bilateralization occurs later in life. It means you use both halves of your brain all the time, instead of just the right brain for art/left brain for analysis. This adds up to deeper, more creative, more out-of-the-box thinking.  Have you ever heard this before? More here.

So we’re on the short end of the mortality stick, but from what I hear, the older you get, the more at ease you are with the prospect of death.

Robin Williams was a generous benefactor to many causes, and even now, he’s helping humanity by raising difficult subjects. I ask that you consider the positive aspects of aging, and talk about them. Give your kids, and the rest of society, a reason to feel good about the last third of life, because there is good. Why not celebrate it?

Rest in peace, Robin.

A Boomer’s Painful Retrospective

Kathleen Pooler, Author

Kathleen Pooler, Author

At this age, many of us are evaluating our lives, wondering why we made so many bad choices.

In her brand-new memoir, my friend Kathy Pooler, nurse, cancer survivor, and all-around-good girl, comes to understand why she married two abusive and borderline-dangerous men. It’s a great narrative which reads like a novel. As I read, I felt like screaming “NO!” Of course, it’s easy to say that now, having earned better judgment after living through my own bad decisions.

In the following interview, edited for brevity, Kathy refers to “magical thinking,” a phrase popularized by the great Joan Didion. In general, this is when you cling to the hope that something will happen to magically change your spouse from, say, a philanderer to faithful, or an addict to drug-or-alcohol-free, if only we love them enough. If only we put up with enough. If only…

Why did you write Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse?

I started out writing a different story about a cancer diagnosis and watching a beloved son spiral downward into substance abuse but realized I could not write about that until I wrote about getting into and out of two abusive marriages…It is possible to climb out of the abyss of poor decisions and go on to live life on your own terms.

KP Pooler memoirWas there any one person who was your inspiration for your main character?

Me. I was driven by the question: “How does a young woman from a loving Catholic family make so many wise choices about career, yet so many poor choices about love, that she and her two children end up escaping from her second husband for fear of physical abuse?” It was time to answer the question that had been asked of me my entire life by those who loved me.

In the book, you say “a loving family, a solid career and a strong faith cannot rescue her until she decides to rescue herself.” Why do you feel that way?

One of the lessons I learned when I wrote this book is that…I only needed to claim and honor my own inner strength. I was the only one who could do it for myself. It sounds so simple, but it took me years to realize this.

What’s the most important thing readers will learn from Ever Faithful to His Lead?

Three things come to mind:

  • One does not have to sustain broken bones or bruises to  be abused. Emotional abuse is harmful and the impact on the children of mothers who are in abusive relationships is far-reaching and damaging.
  • Abuse impacts all socioeconomic groups. I was a masters-prepared nurse from a loving family and yet I got into two emotionally abusive marriages.
  • Denial and magical thinking can keep one from recognizing abusive behavior and taking action.

Lynne here. Whew. I’m no stranger to domestic abuse – grew up with it and married into it, twice (but I must clarify that, as with Kathy, we are now in loving, gratifying marriages). But this memoir took me back. On a lighter note, I enjoyed the references to Growing Up Boomer, since Kathy and I are the same age. Ever Faithful is an enlightening book, one that younger women would benefit from reading – before they choose life partners.

Let’s switch gears and talk about the writing life. I asked Kathy:

When do you write? Is it easier to write in the morning or at night?  

I don’t have a specific routine. The muse can strike early in the morning, in the afternoon or late at night. I’ve had times when I’ve awakened up in the middle of the night to write because the thoughts swirling in my head would not let me rest until they found a place on the page. I do know that if I do not get my quota of writing done during the day, I often end up staying up late.

Who’s your favorite author?

That’s a tough question because I read a variety of authors. But two of my favorites are James Michener for the rich detail of his historical novels and Ernest Hemingway for his sparse prose that says so much. And of course, Lynne Spreen! I mean, if Jim and Ernie were alive today, they’d want to know her secret for slapping a novel together.

Okay, I wrote that. – LMS

Where can we buy the book?  Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, my website, Pen & Publish Press.

10% of the proceeds of the sale of Ever Faithful to His Lead will go toward the National Coalition for the Awareness of Domestic Violence.

Resilience: The New Self-Esteem

We Boomers may have tried too hard to give our kids a sense of self-esteem. We stand accused of rewarding the munchkins for all manner of nothingburger “accomplishments” and fostering a sense of entitlement in Gens X and Y. Now, the tide has turned. Self-esteem is out and resilience is in.

Resilience, which allows a person to roll with the punches, is built internally, and does not rely on external validation. I’ve been trying to develop it myself, because older age can be daunting.

When I am in a situation where somebody is driving me nuts, I enjoy being able to turn it around. I consider how this crazy situation might enhance or inform my life. How might I see it differently and laugh about it, or use it for enlightenment? When bad things happen, I try to find a different, more empowered, perspective. For example:

  • One day, Bill was noticeably bummed out. He said he was missing his parents (both deceased). I said I was sorry, and he said, “I’m not. The pain reminds me that I loved them.” Way to turn it around.
  • A guy flies past me on the freeway, cutting in and out. Instead of being pissed, I imagine he’s racing to the hospital, having gotten bad news about a loved one, and sympathy replaces my anger.
  • Falling asleep last night, I was wracked by anxiety. Instead of buying into it, I told myself, “Your amygdala is on overdrive. Sleep will fix that.” It wasn’t me, it was a gland; a tired, overactive, mixed-up gland, which I could repair by nurturing my body.
  • Standing in line at the pharmacy, I’m fixated on how annoying, and annoyingly slow, everybody in front of me is. But wait: it’s actually an opportunity. I whip out my phone and resume reading a novel I started last night on Kindle. Or check my email.
  • In the same line, guy is talking loudly on his on cellphone, and I’m forced to listen. Instead of getting annoyed, I listen avidly for characters and situations I might use in my next novel. Thanks for the material, buddy!

I admit my examples are pretty lightweight, but the brain has a certain plasticity about it; what if you started small and worked your way up? Might this skill not help you when dealing with the heavier difficulties in life?

I get a real rush out of not feeling stuck, trapped, or victimized. Resilience is a powerful tool to use, and a good skill to model for our kids and grandkids.

What are some examples of resilience in your life?

Empty Nest: Heartache and Opportunity

“For 20 years, we packed lunches, helped with homework, and paid too many bills…”

Carl Love, columnist for The Press Enterprise

Carl Love, columnist for The Press Enterprise

So begins the lament of the empty-nester, in this case, Carl Love, a columnist at my local paper. I can identify. I’ve been providing child care for my two grandbabies for three years now, and each year is a tidal wave of diapers, teething, bottles, binkies, making breakfast and lunch, Play-Doh, stickers, crayons, building blocks, walks w/ and w/o strollers, buckling into carseats and swings, pool, park, naps, monitors, and potty chairs….

And: (take a breath) being greeted with “GRANDMA!!!” when I arrive in the morning, slobbery kisses, sharing a cup and seeing the little one learn to drink from it, reading the same book for the 3rd time in a row and sensing that someone is reluctant to leave the comfort of my lap, pushing on swings, playing in the sandbox, looking for me in a crowd, two babies crowding to get on either side of Grandpa in a recliner so HE can read the same book 3 or 4 times, stealing my Honey Nut Cheerios because they’re sweeter than the ones Mom buys, holding my hand, hugging my legs, stealing my sunglasses, watching Baby Einstein and turning around to grin with delight at the sight of their old buddy, the smiley caterpillar…all of a sudden, it ends. On the last day of Mommy or Daddy’s work year (both are teachers), I kiss the babies goodbye at their door and turn to get into my car, grateful but blinking back tears.

Such a transitional moment conjures reminders of mortality that cast a pall on the otherwise searing brightness of a late-spring afternoon. For all of the challenges, what can I do that is more precious or valuable? Now that I’ll have all that free time, what will be as meaningful? I think this is what Carl was feeling. He’s happy to have done his job well, but after so many days, months, years of a full house and schedule, living within a Short Attention Span movie, dealing with tired muscles/bones/joints and sleep deprivation, it just ends, and then what?

Somehow, it feels like the parade not only passed you by, but the cacophony faded and now you’re standing on the curb, alone in the silence. Questioning your place on the timeline, the existential questions you’ve been too busy to ask. Who are you now, with nobody to raise? And that seems to me the most exciting, frightening, confusing precipice over which to lean. The view could be sublime, if only we dare look.

The Human Experience

July is a poignant month for my family. My dad died in July, 2008. He and mom had just celebrated their 59th anniversary, on July 17. Three years after he died, Mom broke her leg and, in July, had to move from their beloved home in the high desert of Hesperia, California. That was in 2011. She just celebrated her 89th birthday last month. In spite of leg pain and other challenges, she’s doing great (I know many of you will remember my posts about her resisting the move.)

Just before she moved, three years ago, I wrote a post that reflects our aging experience: us, and caring for our elders, and the drive to be independent. I’m reposting it here in honor of my family. I hope you enjoy it.

I spent several hours at Mom’s house today. I alternate weekends with my SoCal sister. We get Mom’s mail, water her plants, check her phone messages, and just generally make sure all is well while she’s in the rehab hospital.

The sky really was that blue today

Yes, it’s inconvenient (it’s a 90-minute drive), but it’s short-term because she has agreed to sell her house, and this time I believe she will follow through. I’m glad, but also heartbroken. To think of them – them! but it isn’t “them” anymore, is it? It’s just her – not living up there ever again. Well, I’ve held off the tears all day but I guess I can’t forever. Time moves on, and we all get old and die.

I feel conflicted. I want her to move down by me (“up” and “down” relate to land elevation) for all the logical reasons, and then all of a sudden, like right now, I don’t want her to move at all. I want her to risk it, to inconvenience and vex and terrify us with her dogged determination to stay as long as she can in the house that she and Dad built. For me to yank her away from that – and then add in the heartbreaking, elegiac, mind-numbing beauty of the high desert – I can hardly bear the thought.

Poppies grow wild in her yard

It’s an end. I’d like to think it’s a beginning, too, but who can say? Mom is healthy and vibrant for almost-86, there’s no reason she can’t have a great ten more years. But will she have the courage to start over, to walk away from that place?

It hurts to think of losing it, because for ten years, Hesperia was my home, too. It was a difficult time, when I worked harder than any human should have to, and delayed my dreams, and saved everybody.

The memories are good and bad.

As a young single mother, I took my son Danny (now 33) on his paper route some weekend mornings when the snow made it impossible for him to ride his bike. One morning I ran over his foot, but the deep sand saved him and after we got over the shock, we laughed. And then newspapers stopped hiring kids and kids stopped getting up early and riding bikes and getting their first paychecks.

On the negative end, my previous marriage ended there. And Dad died up there! I wouldn’t live there now. Couldn’t. But I miss it.

When Dad and Mom build the house in the ’80s, they preserved the native juniper trees

But I digress. Today I worked my butt off, getting Mom’s house all spiffed-up for Amber to look at next Saturday. Amber might buy it. That would be nice, to know it’s still in the family. Amber is a dear friend of my step-daughter. So we would know the house that Dad and Mom built in the ’80s would be well cared for.

It was so beautiful up there today! I swear, when you live in such a place as the high desert, and especially on a spring day like today, you feel a sense of hope and optimism about rearing kids, growing your own food, having quiet and privacy and clean air and astounding skyscapes. You can pretend that you’re living life on your own terms. I imagine this is what people seek when they move to Idaho or Montana or the Dakotas.

This picture hints at the mountains they can see out the back AND the front of the house

Mom’s coming home to my house tomorrow. I started out being excited, and I still am, but we’ve had a couple of conversations since the hospital said they’d cut her loose, and I realize I’m a bloomin’ amateur. I see that Mom’s looking for ways (already) to cut corners and speed things up; and now I understand it’s not about reveling in the relative luxury of my house as compared to a rehab hospital. It’s about my house as stepping stone to – you guessed it – her house. I think she’s just biding her time until she can go home, and once she’s there, who knows? And my other sister, the one who hasn’t yet adapted to her new home near Canada, would do almost anything, including promising to take care of Mom, to be able to come south and thaw out for a couple of months.

So I rearrange furniture at my house to make Mom comfortable, to encourage her to stay, but like an inadequately compelling acquaintance, I know I don’t have much pull. Because I suspect she’s going home for good, even if she doesn’t yet say it. And the tears and frustration and anger of her children and grandchildren are nothing compared to the incense of creosote and sage calling to her from the high desert.

Turn up the volume and you’ll hear the wind chimes in her back yard.

 

 

Web-Addicted Boomer Goes Offline for One Day and Lives

Like all baby boomers, I grew up in the days of carbon paper and white-out. So it’s funny to find myself, at this age, more or less addicted to the Internet. I spend way too many hours online. Maybe you do, too.

How many is too many?

It’s too many if you have a hard time breaking eye-lock from the small screen long enough to pay attention to the people you love and/or live with, if you’re late to everything, and if your to-do list chronically goes unfinished. I am guilty of all this and more.

I love the Internet. It’s so much a part of my life, for information and community. I wouldn’t truly say I’m addicted, but I am habituated. I’m on two computers and a smartphone all day long, checking email or social media, handling little tasks or answering a million questions. Like:

  • when is Jersey Boys going to be at my local theater?
  • where is my new doctor’s office?
  • how hot is it going to be today?
  • can Elon Musk invent a way to stop wasting flared gas? (I tweeted him)
  • must compliment my local paper on new Home section
  • must share this/that/the other article with my networks
  • must entertain resulting comments from said sharing
  • how many tablespoons in 1/4 cup?
  • how long have the Sunnis and Shi’ites been fighting?
  • ideas for new blog posts!
  • must order that from Amazon
  • must see what Goodreads friends say about this book
  • etc. blah blah blah

Once in pursuit of the above, I fall down the rabbit hole, chasing other pretty stuff. Although it’s fun, the time expands as I read one thing after another, commenting and/or sharing, and hurrying, always hurrying. Because I’m aware of time slipping away, I’m anxious to get off the computer and go do what I do in real life. (Sound familiar?)

But that’s the problem. This is real life. Used to be we would separate Online Life from Real Life, but no more. Online is our Barbershop, our Cheers. We all know each others’ names.

As enjoyable as it is, I really need to work on my next novel (and pay some attention to my sweet hubby), so on Sunday, I decided to stay offline and see how it felt. To prepare for this foray into unknown territory, I made a list of offline things I could do. I’m so unused to going natural that I wasn’t sure I would know how to act.

offline funSo, that was last weekend. How did it go?

Fantastic! I worked on the yard; organized a bunch of recipes; read in a leisurely way; sat on the patio and listened to birdsong; with my darling honeybun, watched Michelle Wie finally win a major; meditated; and wrote in my journal (with fountain pen, in cursive, on paper).

The main difference between a regular online day and Sunday – the Lord’s Day, the day of rest – was that I did feel more rested, grateful, present, and in control of my time. Reading was especially rich, being able to savor the meaning and depth of the writing, whether fiction or non-. I liked it very much, and felt more at peace. Strangely, time seemed to expand and last longer, but I was never bored.

It was beautiful. I’m thinking of making it a twice-a-week thing, at least.

Do you ever feel like you’re online too much?