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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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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 Terribly Strange to be Seventy

V. Putin by Sculptor Sherry Cavan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A newspaper blowin’ through the grass

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

 

Old friends, winter companions, the old men

Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun

The sounds of the city sifting through trees

Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends

 

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

How terribly strange to be seventy…

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

Are You Downsizing?

At our age, some of us are beginning to feel material possessions are a burden. Maybe we’re returning to our sixties roots, or maybe we’re tired of the family-sized house, the multiple sets of dishes, the appliances. We’ve had it with closets full of clothes, linens, and seasonal decorations that now feel like a job to take out, set up, pack up and put away. With our kids grown and careers not so much of a consideration, it’s easier to lighten your footprint.

When the local storage unit raised our rates, Bill and I shipped the footlocker full of baseball cards back to our 30-something son, donated the extra set of golf clubs, recycled what we could and merged the rest into our garage.

My personal challenge was the fake Christmas tree. It looked good for many years and we enjoyed it. Now it’s getting raggedy and I’d been playing around with the idea of replacing it with a table-top model. I’d still have the wreath to hang on the fireplace, and the seasonal tablecloths and candle holders. I told Bill about it, and we realized that day was recycling day. So we broke it down and stuck it in the bin with giving ourselves any more time to think about it. If in a couple years we start feeling deprived, we’ll buy a new one.

But that’s just me. My friend down the street has twenty boxes of Christmas decorations in her garage. It would kill her to get rid of one bulb.

I have a cousin who dreams of renting a quiet two-bedroom apartment in a community with a pool, clubhouse, ready-made friends and no yard. Some of us are tired of  home maintenance. Much easier to call the landlord with your problems. Some Boomers sold their homes and went to live fulltime in RVs or even on boats. I Googled “tiny houses” and you wouldn’t believe how many websites came up.

I’ve often thought it would be cool to live in a city apartment where I could take the elevator downstairs and walk everywhere; to get coffee, groceries, whatever.

And if it were just me, I wouldn’t mind living in this. I’d want patios and porches all around, a few trees, and a community to keep me from turning into a hermit.

Z-glass house

Tumbleweed Z-Glass House

What about you? Are you downsizing and if so, how and why?

Confused and then Freed by Forgiveness

Forgiveness is confusing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, it just doesn’t matter.

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

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

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


Grandma Will Save Civilization

This is the third of four posts celebrating the good news about the way the brain ages.

There’s something called the Grandmother Hypothesis, so named because researchers discovered that chimpanzees lived longer if they were part of a band that included elder females, who helped the mothers find and share food.

Of course, researchers speculate about the application of this hypothesis to humans. One benefit of having elders in the tribe is because at about age forty, people start getting really good at regulating their emotions. According to studies in 2003 and 2004 by MIT researcher Mara Mather:

Although the brain wants to focus on the negative (it’s a survival skill), the aging brain makes a deliberate effort to focus on the positive, which is actually harder. Studies show that emotions grow stronger, not weaker, as people age.

Mather theorizes this positive focus may be an evolutionary trait. When we’re young, we need cautionary knowledge so we focus on threats more, but at older age, we’ve accumulated so much of that cautionary knowledge that we view danger in a more complex fashion.

This ability may have evolved because it works well for the species in general. As we get older, we have more mixed emotions, allowing for a more nuanced response to the world. This slows us down, restricting impulsive acts, and that’s good for individual and group survival. Especially since our world is becoming so much more complicated.

Alice Walker (Flickr)Alice Walker hints of this in her essay, All Praises to the Pause.

I am convinced that in earlier times women during menopause drifted naturally to the edge of the village, constructed for themselves a very small hut, and with perhaps one animal for company – and one that didn’t talk! – gave themselves over to a time without form, without boundaries. They were fishing in deep waters, reflecting on a lifetime of activity and calling up, without consciously attempting to do so, knowledge that would mean survival and progression of the tribe.

More and more good news:

1. According to the Seattle Longitudinal study, our brains are awesome after forty. Seattle tracked the same 6000 people for forty years, finding that people reached their highest cognitive ability from age forty through seventy.  This was in four of six areas: vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation and inductive reasoning.

2. We’re also, in the new century, aging more slowly. Researcher Elizabeth Zelinsky found that her group at age seventy tested similar in cognitive ability to the historic levels of women in their mid-fifties.

3. Here’s another goody for you: There’s a substance called myelin, the fatty outer coating of the trillions of nerve fibers in the brain. The white matter acts like insulation on a wire and makes the connections work. Get this: the development of myelin in the brain area relating to language peaks from the 50s to the 60s (2001, Bartzokis). The insulation allows the neuron to recover faster after signals have been sent and get ready to send the next signal more quickly, giving brain cells what Bartzokis calls greater bandwidth. “As myelin increases, it builds connections that help us make sense of our surroundings.”

I was going to end with a wisecrack like I usually do, but I guess I’d rather get serious. We often feel unhappy about getting older, because we’re moving closer to the Great Beyond. Also, we’re inundated with messages from the media 24/7 saying we’re pointless if we’re not young. It’s easy to fall in line and drink the Kool-Aid.

But once you know about all the brain-benefits of age, you might talk about them more. You might celebrate the good news (“I’m more intuitive at this age. Really!”) and spread it around. It might become common wisdom, and attitudes might begin to change in this youth-obsessed country.  Wouldn’t that be the gift that keeps on giving? Like to our kids?

Merry Christmas, my friends.

  • Lynne Spreen

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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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