Is Reinvention Elitist?

imgresI just finished Your Life Calling by Jane Pauley.  The objective of this book, according to the author, is “to inspire people…to imagine their own future in powerful and positive ways.” Pauley weaves her story into the telling of those anecdotes. She’s cheerful and self-effacing, and uses her broadcaster cadence in the narration. Unfortunately, the result is a kind of tonal flatness, no controversy or gravitas, no real highs or lows. This is probably because the book is an advertisement for her show and she wants to attract the largest audience possible.

So that’s the downside, yet there was enough in it for me to feel it was worth reading. I enjoyed the anecdotes of the many fine people who are following their passions and doing good in the world by bringing fresh water to Africa or school books to the inner cities. And Pauley offers snippets of wisdom, her own or gleaned from interviews with reinventors. For example:

*The concept of “packing for your future.” What might you take with you into very old age, that you can look back upon and think, “I’m glad I did that. I’m at peace because I did that.”

*Instead of empty nest syndrome, one woman viewed the newly available time as “a gift box that I could fill somehow.”

*Being willing to give up on some things, like running a marathon or learning a foreign language. (This is the basis of the popular “F*** It List,” a topic previously explored here.)

*”Self-discovery is not a prerequisite for reinvention. It’s the payoff.”

I like the idea of reinvention, but there’s something about it that bugs me, and that’s the only real knock on this book. It’s the largely-unacknowledged truth that only a certain economic group will ever be able to indulge in unpaid dream-chasing. This is especially true in the aftermath of the Great Recession, in which many older people decided they would never retire, and it’s not because they love their jobs. If you’ve got a nice pension or enough Social Security to support your wanderings, or your kids are cool with you living in a trailer in their back yard, you might be able to quit working and follow your interests. However, many people will never have that luxury, and I think we should recognize that. Otherwise, it’s tone-deaf of us to pretend reinvention is universally accessible.

Now, if somebody would come along and write a book about “How I Reinvented Myself While Working Three Minimum Wage Jobs and Enduring Chronic Illness,” that would be noteworthy. What do you think? Am I being too cynical? 

You Are More Powerful than You Think

Sometimes we perpetuate our own victimization. Cultures promulgate Big Lies. We tell each other a certain thing, repeat it endlessly and it becomes true. We don’t even hear our words anymore.

Let me provide an illustration. It’s extreme, but it makes the point about culture – in this case, thankfully, not ours.

The people who live in Afghanistan today believe that the current status quo represents reality, the natural way of things, but do they know any different? Some women are probably alive who remember the days when they could put on a skirt and heels and head out for university to continue studying to be a doctor. I fear that the majority believe the converse: that women are ignorant beasts suitable only for breeding and domestic labor.

Like I said, it’s an extreme example. Here in America, we have in the past chosen to put youth on a pedestal. We chose to imitate them, and we chose to say things like “senior moment,” “60 is the new 30,” and use the word “old ” as a description of something bad, negative, unworthy. We did this voluntarily. Nobody held a gun to our heads. We were so far into the Kool-Aid we were in danger of drowning.

But that’s changing. Judging from your comments, you’re as sick of it as I am, and you’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. You’re standing up for yourselves, refusing to spend the next thirty years of your life bowing, scraping, and apologizing for being old. You’re not as willing to emulate the young. You’re incensed by the ageism that’s so acceptable today, refusing to ignore the profound cruelty in what ignoramuses consider humor.

We have begun to celebrate the glory of the second half, and we’re excited about our potential. For an uplifting view of turning eighty, check out this essay by famed neurologist Oliver Sacks. And notice the title: “The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding)” – as if you have to be KIDDING to think there’s anything good about old age. Good article, stupid subtitle.

I beg you: don’t accept a low ceiling. With our numbers, we can make headway on this. I hope you will continue to spread the word about empowerment after age 50. We are free thinkers, we’re experienced, and we are deeper than we’ve ever been. We have to talk about it, with joy or anger. Too many of us are on the verge of myopic despair when we could be on the verge of enlightenment.

So keep talking. Keep asking why we use the word “old” as a pejorative. Because old is one of the most lovely things I’ve been.

Late add: It’s 7 a.m. and I’m happily reading your comments when this appears in my inbox from Huffington Post: 7 Easy Ways to Avoid Looking Old. *sigh*

A Bittersweet Ending and Blue Skies Ahead

Most of you know that Bill and I spent the last school year babysitting two of our grandchildren. Our “assignment” ended a week ago, and I’ve enjoyed time to reflect. This past year has been as fabulous as it has been draining, and now that it’s over, I feel a bit lost, as if the babies are leaving us behind.

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Each one of the benefits is worth the whole year to us:

  • We know the little ones almost as well as do their parents.
  • They act excited when they see us.
  • We were privileged to spend each morning with our son and DIL, getting the day off to a good start. I’ll never forget arriving before dawn, letting ourselves in, hearing the baby fussing as he awoke. Then a few minutes later, us four adults chattering in the kitchen as everybody rushed about. I’d get the toddler to the table for her breakfast while Bill gave the baby his bottle. Dan and Amy got organized, prepared lunches and did minor chores. We felt like the extended family of yore, when multiple generations worked together for a family’s success.
  • Dan and Amy appreciated our contribution to their family’s welfare.
  • We have a new understanding of and compassion for parents of small children.

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The challenges have been significant:

  • The toll on our bodies, most of which is temporary. Not temporary are the surfer’s knots I acquired on my knees from crawling (happily in and out of large boxes turned into forts, for example. Or changing the baby on the floor, because he’s so wriggly and strong we don’t dare change him on an elevated surface.)
  • The time away from marketing Dakota Blues, and from the world of writing in general.
  • Finding time for doctor, dentist, and other appointments – just like working people!
  • Concern that, as parents, we shouldn’t be so intimately involved in the lives of our kids. Our son and DIL benefitted, for sure, but they gave up a ton of privacy for the duration.

Bill and Andrew June 2012 3

In spite of it all, the babies came through okay. They are now 14 months and two-and-a-half years, bright, happy and healthy. Dan and Amy completed another year as elementary school teachers. Bill and I are already feeling like our old selves again, although we feel guilty for being so free, and we wonder almost every minute how the little ones are doing. We miss them! But fulltime parenting is for younger bodies than ours.

Professionally, I’ve managed to keep up with our Friday visits here at Any Shiny Thing; sales of Dakota Blues have been fantastic, thanks largely to good reviews and an award for women’s fiction from Next Generation Indie Book Awards.  I also found time for five public speaking gigs and three book signings during that period. I’ve drafted some short stories and put together a compendium of my best blog posts for an ebook, Sometimes You Feel Like a Sandwich: Reflections on Caregiving, that I hope to release by Thanksgiving.

I wrote this post today to celebrate a milestone – that Bill and I are returning to our normal life after taking a one-year detour for the good of our family. We feel so blessed, but we’re also sobered by having lived the life of young adults trying to balance career and child-rearing. As a result, our lives are fuller and we have much more appreciation for the younger generations. We are back to being retired and the skies are a brilliant blue.

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.

Demi Could Learn from Us

I feel bad for Demi, melting down and all. According to the tabs, she’s distraught over turning fifty. It must be horrifying when Ashton Kutcher takes a good look at you and realizes you’re no longer young, and then your life is over. Because what’s next, granny underwear and black whiskers that spring from your chin overnight? You might as well be dead.

Here is where being a movie star doesn’t help you. Demi might have a villa in France but even she can’t stop the clock.

What a surprise it would be for her to learn that average people like me are facing the very same aging process. Of course, we’re not making a career of having a preternaturally youthful body, but still, it’s hard. For Demi it’s hard because she’s in an unforgiving market. For the rest of us, it’s hard because we have so few cultural role models. Okay, there’s Hillary, she of the big brain and ample backside, who after bringing countless world leaders to heel will soon amble pantsuited and serene into retirement, excited about entering the new phase of her life. That’s a nice thought.

For any of us, moving into menopause and beyond is big. We should maybe take a sec to acknowledge just how big. Think of the other transitions we celebrate: first word, first steps, turning sixteen and driving, getting married, first jobs, kids – we celebrate all these moments. They are achievements! Accomplishments! Positive developments!

Then comes perimenopause, menopause,  turning fifty…what rituals do we engage in to mark these transitions?  We give each other black balloons and wrapping paper. With a big laugh and a nudge, we spring a wheelchair on the birthday girl at the office party. Ha. Ha.

This whole stupid cultural denigration of the great accomplishment of aging really pisses me off.

If I had my way, we’d call all the post-menopausal women up on stage and hand them an award for getting to this point in life without losing their minds. I mean, think of all we’ve done by this age. We’ve sublimated our natures to a guy (maybe more than one) so we could get pregnant and have a peaceful nest in which to raise our babies, while holding down fulltime jobs and managing said nest. We’ve been served up thirty, forty, fifty years of magazine covers at the grocery store telling us how we can be hotter, cuter, thinner, sexier, better cooks and lovers, more organized, and better balancers of work and life – and we read the articles and tried, oh Lord, how we tried. What did we get instead? A sense of failure, a sense that we’re not cutting it. Oh, and maybe also breast cancer, fibroids, prolapse, stress incontinence, hot flashes, wrinkles and whiskers. We learned to deal with increasingly frequent deaths and illnesses, we held our girlfriends’ hands at their husbands’ funerals, we shrugged and said the hell with it.

Maybe that’s our mistake. Maybe we should make a bigger deal of the courage inherent in aging thoughtfully, gratefully, sublimely. We could talk about how we’re not phased anymore about the changes to our bods, or the losses we suffer. We could revel in the maturity, self-knowledge and sense of “been there, done that,” that keep us on an even keel when younger women would be freaking out.

Those are the things we should be talking about. There’s something ahead to be excited about: power and grace. This is our reward for getting old. Maybe if we talked about this, young women like Demi wouldn’t be so freaked out because they would see aging as something less to be afraid of, and something more to aspire to.

This Is What Sixty Looks Like

Renee Fisher

This is a delicate subject.

When people say I look good for my age I feel like I’ve been given an illicit prize. It’s a race I’m not running. I don’t deserve acclaim. Besides, don’t they see my turkey neck? How low are their standards?

But I digress. What I meant to say is, why do we care?

It’s not a competition, or it shouldn’t be.

I feel awkward when age comes up. If a person says I don’t look fifty-seven, I don’t want to say “thanks!” because that reinforces the premium we put on youth. And if a person proudly announces to me, “I’m seventy-five!” I don’t know what to say. “Congratulations”? I admit I have sometimes coughed up what was expected: “You look great!” or “You look so much younger!” But I always feel stupid, because the comment feels wrong.

Ditto if someone says, “You’re my daughter’s age,” or “I could be your mother.” I say nothing. It’s so fraught. What would you recommend? “I’d love to have you as a mother?” If a person says, “I’m so old and tired today, I feel plum worn out,” you would say, “I’m sorry.” But if a person says, “I’m old enough to be your mother,” I just clam up.

Yes, I know this won’t be a problem much longer. Anybody old enough to be my mother will be dead. But still, I swear I am not going to make comments like this to any younger women, ever. Age is going to have to become irrelevant unless I’m going to the doctor.

I saw the same sentiment in a book I mentioned recently, Saving the Best for Last. The authors apparently felt it was important enough to put it in chapter one. When her friend died, Renee Fisher decided that she would view every year as a gift, and she would own her age, whatever it was. If anyone tells her now that she doesn’t look her age, she looks them in the eye like, what did you expect? and says, “This is what sixty looks like.”

Her co-author, Joyce Kramer says,

“As I turned fifty, I experienced myself as the most beautiful woman I had ever been in my life because at fifty I liked myself.”

Isn’t that something to aspire to? At our age, we’re tough enough to achieve that kind of equanimity. If enough of us do it, it could become the cultural norm. Wouldn’t that be a great gift to leave our kids?

Merry Christmas to all my readers. I wish you long life and happiness, and I love you all for sharing this little space in, well, space. Best wishes for a beautiful 2012. I’ll see you in two weeks.

Will You Take My Money If I Wear a Bag Over My Head?

As we age, we become invisible to retailers. That’s what Darryle Pollack of the Huffington Post is saying, and she’s not the only one. Quoting her article, “Though our numbers are growing faster than we can count, we don’t count in the eyes of image-makers and marketers. When we reach a certain age, we’re toast – burnt toast.” She cites an article in the NY Post, with this aggravating factoid:

About a year ago, executives at CNBC were alarmed to discover that they’d suddenly lost one-third of their audience. They couldn’t figure it out; news programming, as a rule, attracts the 25- to 54-year-old demographic. So the network delved into the data with the Nielsen Company and made a startling finding: That missing one-third was, in fact, still there. They were no longer being counted as viewers, because they’d turned 55.

It’s not that I’m insulted. I mean, I am, but the larger point is, what business can afford to ignore so many dollars and such a large and growing segment of the economy? Ad exec Lisa Thompson of Firespring gets it, though. She thinks we’re actually worth pursuing, and blogs here about how incredibly short-sighted it is for businesses to ignore our demographic.

My take? As an older person, I remember going to buy a car and the dealer ignoring me unless the conversation turned to colors. That certainly changed, and this will, too. In the meantime, look for age-responsive advertisers, and talk it up when you find a business that’s smart enough to respect us. Ultimately, businesses will notice.

Are Boomers Ready to Share the Pain?

That’s the question asked by life coach John Agno here. I was inspired to pick up the thread.

Every age group, every industry, every lobby is going to be required to give up something for the future of the country. If you were going to give up something, what would it be?

Would Bill Gates or Warren Buffet notice if they couldn’t draw monthly SS checks?

Would giant multinational industrial-agricultural complexes (formerly called “farms”) forego crop subsidies?

Would the Pentagon give up the latest multi-billion-dollar surgical strike plaything?

Here’s another opportunity: greater transparency in the health industry would cut costs. Of course, lobbyists (and bought politicians) sneer and say, “Consumers aren’t going to shop around for the best surgeon when they have a heart attack!” Of course not. But there are other things we could shop around for, if we had the chance. Routine testing for example: mammograms, colonoscopies, treadmill – you get the picture.

Recently, I needed abdominal surgery. I had to get a CT scan, and my copay was 100% (I buy my own insurance and it’s the best I can qualify for in the current market; I am not on Medicare.) The cost was $2850 out of pocket. There’s another hospital forty miles away that is also highly regarded, and I have PPO insurance so I could have gone there for the test. I tried to find out what they charged for a CT scan, but they couldn’t tell me. I pursued it from department to department, and here’s what I ended up with: The cost depends on which doctor is on staff that day, and what technician, and what their personal pay rates are, and how long it takes, and…and…and I gave up.

So just try to find out what they charge. You can’t, and maybe you don’t want to. For example, if you have “regular” insurance (e.g. group coverage through an employer, or Medicare) you may not feel the urgency of this issue, but the way things are going in health care, you soon will.

“Cut earmarks! Cut waste and fraud!” Sure. That’s always a good idea, but it amounts to about 1% of the problem. Medicare, Social Security, and defense are the only cuts that will matter.

I worked for thirty years in a corporate setting. I paid into Social Security. Shouldn’t I insist I get mine? Well, I did pay in, and it helped cover Mom and Dad in their golden years. And I got real lucky and ended up at this later part of my life being blessed financially. So if they want to do means testing – ouch! ouch! ouch! – alright, darn it. Cut my “entitlement.” Let the folks who weren’t as lucky or blessed have my share.

Remember the 1960s and 1970s, fellow Boomers? We were strong, we defied the status quo, we defied the older generation who seemed so calcified, so sure of themselves, and so unwilling to bend. Now we’re that generation. I know that, with the Great Recession, there’s way too much pain out there right now, and I don’t want to add to it, but if you are lucky enough to be getting by comfortably, what might you do, fellow Boomer?

On a Lighter Note, Can Old People Learn?

I’m laughing about how a friend recently had a run-in with a younger person. This younger person expressed doubt that older people could learn new things.

Yes, old people can learn, if they think it’s important. If, say the “old gal” is a public school teacher and she’s being asked to learn yet another package of cross-your-fingers curriculum to improve test scores, handed to her by a central office administration that hasn’t even bothered to determine whether or not this newest package is effective…well, the old gal might just tell you – and she likely WILL tell you, because this ain’t her first beauty contest – what she thinks of the new effort. Can she learn? Most certainly. Will she make the effort? Maybe not.

Rather than throwing up their hands in ageist defeat, today’s employers might find it more effective to demonstrate the value of the new thing to the older workers.

Hey, that sounds familiar. Isn’t that what they’re saying about the millennials?