The Most Surprising Discovery of My Life

I’m a little sad today. Yesterday marked the end of another year of babysitting, and even though I have a weird sort of empty-nest heartache going on, it’s time. I’m ready. So is Bill. He’s been with me every step of the way.

Let me point out that nothing could be more gratifying than the privilege of sharing this time with our grandkids and their parents. For me, that’s as essential as air. I couldn’t live without them.

But there’s a reason Mother Nature favors the young when it comes to procreating. Bill and I are in our sixties, and childcare is harder for us, physically and mentally. The last few months, we’ve relied on TV and fast food more than we’re proud of, and I’ve felt my patience wearing thin.

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A Great Tool for the New Year

I always feel energized by the arrival of a new year. It’s like a clean slate, twelve sprawling months ahead for reaching my dreams. Do you feel that way, too?

If so, maybe I can help by sharing my own plans and a great book recommendation. My goals are to lose weight and become a best-selling author in 2014, which is the year I turn sixty.

Hey, a girl can dream.

IMG_20130907_190338_024

Re: the weight loss, I’m a recidivist Lifetime member of Weight Watchers. I like the program because they taught me how to eat during the craziness of menopause. But I’m not plugging them – any program you stick to will work. So, how do you do that?

To prepare myself, I picked up a great book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In it, I learned:

  • Habit is more powerful than addiction
  • Your brain resorts to habit because it conserves energy, which is then freed up for survival
  • Scientists now agree on proven strategies for developing new habits or changing old ones.

To change an old habit, Duhigg reports, you learn to recognize the cue that triggers the routine that leads to the reward. Then you leave the cue and reward alone, and change the routine. In other words, you don’t try to rewire your brain not to want what it wants – you just go about getting to the reward a different way.

This intrigues me. To test the theory (so you don’t have to), I’m going to work on one of my worst habits: I crave a glass of wine around 3 p.m., which usually leads to a cascade of consequences like eating too much for dinner, etc. That’s an old habit I need to change.

On the other hand, creating a new habit, Duhigg says, requires a slightly different approach. You create a cue and reward (which must be cultivated into a craving). Then the routine connecting the cue and reward is the desired practice, like exercise or meditation. In other words, in order to create a new habit of meditating, I’ll have to invent a cue and reward that make me want to repeat the routine.

I know this is vague but why load you up with details before I test drive the theories? But if they work, how cool if you could develop a foolproof strategy for making yourself into the person you’ve always wanted to be? The future would be unlimited! 

So here’s my plan: I’m going to get started, and right around the first of January, I’ll report back to you about my degree of initial success, so you can decide whether Duhigg’s methods hold promise for you.

As for the best-selling author plan, I’ll be working on some strategies (like better time management, and daily meditation to enhance my creativity). One thing I’m not very good at is asking for help, so here goes:

If you read Dakota Blues, and liked it, would you mind telling a friend? And if you haven’t yet tried it, I’m getting really good reviews on Amazon, so you might want to check it out. People say it’s empowering, inspiring, and joyful. Also, it contains tips, strategies and wisdom, delivered in story form, for living your best life after fifty. Here’s the link, and I hope you love it.

What are you planning for 2014? Why don’t you share your aspirations in the comments below?

How Does It Feel to Be 82?

Dory by Sallie Bailey

Dory by Sallie Bailey

I asked my friend Sallie Bailey that question because I think the more we know about aging, the less chance we’ll waste a lot of time being freaked out when we get there. Sallie is an award-winning artist and writer (here’s a link to her website). She’s practical and smart, and she said I could quote her, so here goes.

Frankly, it’s a pain. Literally. Arthritis has taken its toll. Joint replacements help but there’s a lot that brings me up short, limiting my mobility. I’m very fortunate that I’ve dodged all the major bullets – no serious health problems. The brain still functions. I firmly believe that creativity is the answer – I think we writers/artists have an enormous advantage. It’s my opinion that our ceaseless brain activity keeps that organ healthy – keeps it young. I have more ideas than I can carry to fruition. Time can be a problem there – but it’s always been a problem.

That brings up another facet of aging well – curiosity. Many of the normal occurrences of aging surprise me. Physical changes – some small, some more pronounced. I observe and reflect on them.

I consider myself very fortunate to have been gifted with a fine sense of the ridiculous. Laughter certainly helps. My father, mother and brother lacked that. Our youngest son and my brother’s oldest daughter have it. (The niece, knowing I’m partial to art glass, sent me on my 80th birthday an art glass marble on a little base along with the note that it was to replace any marbles I might have lost!) My husband has it – actually both arthritis and a sense of humor.

Death? I don’t like the idea of dying at all. I don’t don’t believe in an afterlife and I don’t like the idea of missing anything. On the plus side – people like us leave footprints. They may be lost but they’ll always be there to be found – art, writing, whatever. Another plus – at least someone else will have to clean out our dresser drawers………

I love what Sallie said about being curious and having so many ideas that time is a problem. As long as we’re hungry, life is good. I have another friend who’s in her early eighties and when we get together to talk about the novels we’re writing, we get so excited we talk over each other. We drink wine and rant about our ambitions and dreams.

Want to feel inspired? Here’s a short video interview with a 94-year-old artist who’s making money on his paintings. Thanks to David Kanigan for the lead.

Readers, I’m curious. What is it like being your age?

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 Look Old? Big Deal.

Lauren 3

Lauren Hutton looks great, doesn’t she? She’s featured on the cover of April’s Elle, where the words translate to “Women Who Make You Want to Grow Old.” Hutton is around seventy. She looks fantastic. Sharp jawline, great hair, etc. Doesn’t it make you feel like you should be doing something more with your sad old self?

Before you make an appointment with Dr. Plastic, you should consider that Ms. Hutton really looks like this:

Lauren 2

For the first photo, Elle airbrushed her to within an inch of her life because they’re selling stuff inside the magazine, which you’re not going to buy unless you feel uncomfortable. Advertisers cut you down for a reason. They use smoke and mirrors to undermine your confidence so you will give them cash. Of course, you know this.

It’s hard to resist, though. Recently I was getting my hair cut and colored. For all the niceness of the salon, the lighting is a bit harsh. There I sat with my silvery roots, jowls, and turkey neck staring back at me in the mirror. To complete the look, I had a broken blood vessel in my left eye.

I looked old. Is that a problem?

I’m serious. Is it wrong to look old? Is that some kind of crime for which we must castigate ourselves, writhe in shame, and vow to try harder?

Appearances are very important to humans. Animals have other means for judging who’s strong, who’s sick, or who’s to be feared, but we can only go on looks. Somebody told me recently that I look tired. I asked why she said that. She stammered, “You have bags.”

I am tired. That’s what happens when you run after a couple of toddlers for eight months. But maybe the bags are there naturally, and won’t go away after I get rested up. Will the world now assume I’m tired? If I go for a job interview, will I be seen as slow, unmotivated, or unproductive?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. You may be awesome in every way, but still have a face that’s got a hundred thousand miles on the odometer. Society will then assume you are pointless, ineffectual, and stupid.

Until society grows up and gets a life, you’ll have to be ready for this. If you can’t fix the externals, or don’t choose to, work on the internals. We People of the Second Half must practice finding reasons to hold ourselves in high regard. We can celebrate triumphs other than looks, like the fact that we wowed everybody at a recent public speaking engagement, or we’re finally accomplishing our dreams, or we’re an amazing resource for our family or community.

The more unhappy we are with our aging looks, the more we deny ourselves the joy we deserve. Let’s aspire to be at peace with our looks. Let’s aspire to be free.

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

Adulthood: One Size Fits All?

I was filling out a form the other day, and had to select an age category. Here were the choices: infant, toddler, adolescent, teenager, and adult. And I wondered, is that all there is? They break down the first twenty-one years into four stages, but after that, we get one?

Guess we’re all the same after age twenty-one. No need to make distinctions based on the amazing, challenging, heartbreaking, inspiring, devastating, and empowering stages during the sixty-some years many of us are blessed to live, once we reach “adulthood.”

I disagree, and propose we assign four categories of adulthood, based on emotional development/wisdom/maturity rather than a number.

  • YOUNG ADULT, when you’re just getting started in your independence.
  • MIDDLE ADULT, when you’re more settled and your life seems on a path (you think so, youngster, but ha ha! Just wait.)
  • GROWN ADULT, when you’re past child rearing or nearing retirement/menopause/independence/scary new changes. Now you’re all up in the air again, trying to figure out the second half.
  • SENIOR, when you’re pretty sure of yourself again. Hopefully you’re now feeling settled and wise.

Dr. Bill ThomasDr. Bill Thomas suggests there are two phases of the adult stage: adulthood and elderhood. He’s a geriatrician, one of only six thousand in the USA at present. (Yes, I’m worried about that number, too.) But anyway, he started out as an OB/GYN guy, and says he’s so lucky to have had a career that began with welcoming little humans into the world, and now helping them when it’s time to leave.

Here’s a wonderful TED talk he did about the categories thing, called Elderhood Rising. Isn’t that a great title? He makes so many great points. Here’s one:  society – and that includes us – judges older people against the standard set by youth. The more we’re like THEM, the more value we have. So if we’re not STILL driving or waterskiing or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, we “are disappeared,” Dr. Bill says. The video is about twenty minutes, so if you’re in a hurry, skip to the halfway point and you’ll get the gist.

So, what do you think of my proposed categories, and where do you think you fit? And BTW, have a happy Valentine’s Day next Thursday. See you on Friday.

Midlife Crisis is Overblown, and Other Good News about Your Middle-Aged Brain

This is the second in a four-part series on your amazing, aging brain.

More good news: midlife crisis and the empty nest syndrome don’t exist. There is no scientific research to support them. Not that people don’t suffer at that time of life. I don’t mean to make light of the changes. But statistically speaking, there is no scientific evidence of either syndrome.

In the 1970s, a Yale psychology professor handpicked forty men to study. He then concluded they were suffering from midlife crisis. That’s about it.

Although people still believe in it (try Googling “midlife” and see what comes up), there is ample evidence to the contrary. In 1999, for instance, one of the biggest studies of middle age, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, concluded:

Between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-five, people across the board reported increased feelings of well-being.”

The feminine version of midlife crisis is empty nest syndrome. Here again, there is evidence not only that this “syndrome” doesn’t exist, but that the opposite is true. According to Barbara Strauch and researcher Karen L. Fingerman,

…no one has ever been able to find a true empty nest syndrome in a scientific way. Instead, even among women who devote all their time to raising their kids, studies find mostly a ‘great deal of satisfaction’ when the kids become independent. ‘They feel they have done a good job and they suddenly have the freedom to do new things,’ says Fingerman. ‘They feel great.’

I won’t deny that some people feel unhappy or lost over the reality of the years passing, or the newly-quiet house that used to ring with the sound of a happy family. Of course that could be discouraging; it may even cause depression. My point is, serious psychological impact from those changes is not a given. To learn more, you might want to pick up a copy of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch, whose words I’m using in this post.

Now that you’re all warmed up (flex fingers, crack knuckles here), let’s talk about the power of the midlife brain. Last week I mentioned the brain in midlife powers up instead of gearing down. There’s a particular trick your brain learns in midlife, and it was only accepted as scientifically irrefutable in the late 1990s. It’s called bilateralization.

See, when the younger brain needs to solve a problem, it tends to use the factory settings. If it’s a logic problem, the left brain gets a workout. Creativity? The right side lights up. Young brains are so powerful, this works fine. However, when you’re older, your brain realizes that in order to do the best job possible, it’s going to have to reach across from one hemisphere and borrow circuits from the other. Thus, both sides of the brain are engaged in a task where in the past, only one side would have been. In addition to pure processing help, there may be an almost magical benefit from this strategy.

As we age, and the two sides of our brains work together, we are able to see bigger patterns, have bigger thoughts, reaching – according to one researcher – the level of art. According to Gene Cohen, who studies the connection between art and neurons,

The brain’s left and right hemispheres become better integrated during middle age, making way for greater creativity…The neurons themselves may lose some processing speed with age, but they become ever more richly intertwined…”

Last week we discussed the fact that as the brain ages, it begins to default to its daydreaming mechanism to process new data. Unfortunately, this is why it takes us longer to learn new things. On the plus side, some scientists think that tendency to daydream, combined with the ability to use both sides of the brain in an integrated way, might result in better problem solving, deeper insights, and more creativity. And I’d say that’s something to celebrate.

Next week: how grandmothers could save civilization.

Your Middle Age Brain: Brilliant and Ridiculous All At Once

This is the first in a series of four posts celebrating the aging brain.

I’m looking for my glasses, but I can’t find them because they’re on my head. So I find my backups and try to put them on, but discover I’m already wearing a pair.

I would feel stupid except at times, I feel downright brilliant. This has probably happened to you, too. Maybe you’re listening to a younger person explain a problem at work or you’re reading an article in the news, and suddenly all the facts connect and you come up with such an awesome solution you want to call the Nobel commission.

Except you don’t quite trust what happened, because only yesterday you came home from the grocery store and put the bananas in the hamper. Maybe what you’re having is some kind of brain flair before the cells die. You never shine so brightly as just before, you know - pffffft.

Stop worrying. Both things really are happening. New research confirms that you’re both more addled and more brilliant than ever before in your life.

If you’re a typical middle-aged* person, the glasses and bananas are real, and so is the intellect.

The science of the aging brain is quite new; conclusions being drawn just in the past few years prove that we have more to be excited about than ever. For example, it wasn’t that long ago that we were told brain cells only died; none were regenerated. However, that has now been proven false. The brain DOES produce new cells, primarily in the area relative to memory.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In a great new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, author (and science editor for the NY Times) Barbara Strauch produces tons of evidence that, while our older brains definitely have some weaknesses, they also develop amazing, surprising, even beautiful workarounds. In fact, the older brain is gearing up, not slowing down. All during December I’ll be telling you what I learned, and – plagiarism alert! – excerpting heavily from her book. That’s because I can’t say it any better than Barbara did.

Here’s some good news: in older age, you’re smarter. This is because you’ve accumulated such a wealth of data, and the human brain has a special talent: deduction. Per Ms. Strauch:

The brain builds strength (over a lifetime) by building up millions upon millions of patterns, allowing us to “recognize even vaguely similar patterns and draw appropriate conclusions.”

One researcher, E. Goldberg, calls it “mental magic.”

“Frequently,” says Goldberg, “when I am faced with what would appear from the outside to be a challenging problem, the grinding mental computation is somehow circumvented, rendered, as if by magic, unnecessary. The solution comes effortlessly, seemingly by itself…I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight…”

According to Barbara Strauch, when faced with new information, the older brain might take longer to assimilate and use it. But faced “with information that in some way – even a very small way-relates to what’s already known, the middle-aged brain works quicker and smarter, discerning patterns and jumping to the logical endpoint.”

This is an evolutionary triumph. We’re not called homo sapiens – thinking man – for nothing.

Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that we’re more easily distracted and more likely to lose focus as we age. This is because as you get older, new information comes into the part of your brain that’s good at daydreaming. So when you’re trying to read a newspaper in Starbucks and somebody’s jabbering loudly on his cellphone and you can’t concentrate, it’s because the daydreaming mechanism is doing a crappy job of managing the new info.

You can mitigate this with discipline and practice, but you have to work on it. Personally, I think daydreaming is a treat, and I’m not sure I want to curtail it.

Next week: your brain actually becomes stronger as you age.

*Definition of middle age, per Barbara Strauch, is that long period between youth and old age. I like it. I like it a whole lot better than assuming you’re at the halfway point. Because as vibrant and kick-ass as I am, I’m sure as hell not going to make it to 116.

You Have the Power, Part 2

Getting comfy at Dakota Blues book signing: left, Jo Anne Gill

After the book signing on August 25, a half-dozen of us sat around, drinking wine and BS-ing, the best kind of sisterly gathering. The topic was looks. Specifically, what we do at our age to look good, and what constitutes “good.” The gathering happened in Indio, in the looks- and wealth-obsessed Coachella Valley, home of Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage, and La Quinta; those monied resort towns.

Astrid Bender, Author

We agreed we should try to feel good about how we look. But we’re trained to try to look younger. It seems every other billboard in the Valley is for body work.

Tammy Coia and Pia Rose

We all want to update our thinking, so we can feel satisfied with our looks even if we’re older, and not automatically equate looking good with looking young. My wise friend Dorys said the reason we do this is we’re in competition. I asked for what? One woman laughingly said for men but that wasn’t really true anymore  - we’re beyond that now. If the men are smart enough to see how cool we are, far out. If not, hell with it.

Joanne Hardy, left, and Dorys Forray, our hostess, right

In some cases we are competing with younger people in the business world, whether as employees or purveyors of a service or product. In that case, you want to look younger because employers equate that with a better employee. It’s a mindless prejudice , but it’s out there, and like my shrink used to say, if you’re in the game, play to win.

Melitas Forster, at 94 our blogger emeritus

But my friends and I kicked this around: if we’re not trying to get a job or something (i.e. manhunt) that benefits from looking younger, why do we hold that up as our goal? Why don’t we just try to look good for our age?

Dorys said it’s because we have a metro mindset. In the Coachella Valley, we’re competing with Los Angeles and New York. We all agreed we need to change our thinking. That’s where the strength of age comes in – we ‘re strong enough to say, “I don’t need to look young. I’m not competing.”

Kathryn Jordan, Author

One of us, Kathryn, lives on an acre of land, in a house built in 1948. She has horses and chickens, and the property borders one of these wealthy, cosmopolitan cities. Although she’s very stylish, she doesn’t try to look like she’s twenty. She said, “I don’t live in that place. I may physically live right next to it, but mentally, I don’t live there.” Kathryn lives wherever she wants, because that place is in her head. She creates that place, that world. She defines that world to her own satisfaction.

I thought that was an enlightened point of view. We can move away from that place in our head. We can live anywhere we want: the land of hyper-competition or the land of mental peace.

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Thanks to Tammy Coia, the Memoir Coach, for sponsoring this gathering. Your community of women writers is a loyal and supportive group, and I am honored to be part of it. I’m also excited to be speaking at the Women Inspiring Women Conference on January 26, 2013.

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Here’s a bonus for you from Debra Ollivier, who blogs for HuffPost 50: Five Big Misconceptions About Growing Older.

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Also, I’m rededicating myself to a passion of mine: I’m going to find good midlife (age forty and up) fiction and publicize it. I want to create a gathering place for books and readers who want to read about the experience of the second half of our lives. If you read or write one, let me know. I’ll add it to my Midlife Fiction – Book Recommendations page. I hope you’ll help me build this into a fun, lively, and awesome resource for all of us.