Birthday Reinvention!

For my sixtieth birthday I’m celebrating by giving my blog a facelift! It may be off-air for a week or two, but after that it’ll be better than ever, with a sharper look and more features. In addition to blogging about the amazing second half of life, with all the wonder and weirdness of middle-age and beyond, I’ll be posting book reviews, and talking about the writing and marketing process. My goal is to make the website easier to see and more enjoyable to navigate. So don’t be concerned if AnyShinyThing.com goes dark for a few days or weeks. This is the season of resurrection, after all.

I wish you the most joyous Easter and Springtime. Here’s an uplifting video from Laura Carstensen, a social scientist who spoke at TedX Women, for your viewing pleasure.  See you soon! XOXOXO

 

I Don’t Want to Live Forever

So now there’s a chance we can extend longevity to 120. Yay, right? Not necessarily. Many midlife people, myself included, don’t want to see that happen. I think it would make an elder person go nuts. It would me, anyway.

Let’s consider the challenge of keeping up with your profession. How much information can you learn, discard, learn, discard, learn, discard in middle-age and beyond? And even if you can learn it, after fifteen or twenty new campaigns, do you even care to? You’ve seen change after change in your corporate setting, much of it brought about by new people refusing to learn from history. If your brain absorbs sixty, seventy years of information, might there be a point where, like an old draft horse, you simply refuse to haul that load one more step?

What about technology? Born in a time of party lines and carbon paper, you’ve mastered the tech revolution, with all your new passwords and tech support and wireless and ether and RAM. Do you really want to be around when they start doing microchip implants under the skin? I don’t want to be sitting out on the patio of an evening, wondering if that bug I just swatted was a mosquito or a miniaturized drone.

Now consider the emotional challenges we face during a long lifetime.

Migrant mother

What if you started out here? photo by Dorothea Lange

When I was researching Dakota Blues, I drove around rural North Dakota and saw many crumbling homesteads from a time when there were no roads, stores, or neighbors within miles. The parents would produce a dozen kids, because half of them would die before adulthood. Drought killed crops. Locusts ate the paint off farm tools. Cattle starved. I imagined the woman of the house looking up from her labors and thinking of her family still in Germany, whom she would probably never see again. Then I pictured her, years later, as a very old woman standing by a grave in ND, and I wondered how she handled being the only one who remembered sailing from a dock in Hamburg. Assuming this woman was born in 1900, do you really see her thriving through 2020?

When you look at it organically, death might be as much a relief at the end of a life as sleep is at the end of a day.

My Mom sometimes laments being “so old” (she’s 88), and I try to cheer her up with some positives: after many years of seeing your kids slaving away at careers, they’re enjoying retirement – and you’re getting more visits than ever. Your grandkids are having adorable babies which you can cuddle and hug. A great-grandson just graduated from Marine Corps boot camp. Life is long. That’s a privilege.

But there’s a price. You may be the oldest person around. Nobody remembers what it was like back then. You’ve been widowed for how many years? You miss your parents, who’ve been gone half your life.

For all the good, longevity comes with an accumulation of sorrow. You might manage it for thirty, forty years. Then what? You can rejuvenate your face and maybe even, eventually, your blood cells, but what of your heart and soul?

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.

Mothers Day 2013 009

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.

Aging: One Long Downhill Slide?

A few days ago, a blogger friend wrote that she was discouraged about getting older. She posted this:

I’m kicking, running and screaming from the downhill slide. How did/are you all handling the realities of aging? What’s your secret weapon (person, place or thing)?

The blogger got a lot of input from her discussion group. Here were some of the suggestions:

          • Exercise
          • Spanx
          • Meditation
          • Good food
          • A wardrobe update
          • Change to more age-appropriate makeup style
          • Have a positive outlook

All good ideas, but here was mine:

      • Why do you consider aging a downhill slide?

Life is what you make it. If you see yourself as cranky, crotchety, wrinkled and sexless, you probably are, in which case, it’s time for an attitude make-over. I mean, I get the thing about death and all, but if you’re sixty, you might have 25-30 (or even more) good years left. That’s a gift! That’s as long as it took to work your career, or create a fully-formed batch of offspring.

Hey, I’m not in denial about the crappy side of getting old, but a bad attitude about aging can hurt you. According to Barbara Strauch in her wonderful book, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, seniors who were tested for memory did better when they were first given positive information about aging. The group that was told negative things? They didn’t do as well.

You can dispute the study, but you’ve lived long enough to know that attitudes and words matter. What happens if parents repeatedly tell a child she’s stupid, incompetent, clumsy, or bad? What will happen to that kid? Why is it different for us?

Margaret Gullette, a researcher at Brandeis University, says we’re victims of the “ideology of decline.” We’ve allowed ourselves to be “aged by culture,” and taught to think of ourselves in an “age graded” way, based on the sense that “the body fails at midlife and this bodily failure matters more than anything else,” while the positive aspects of aging, such as maturity, competence, and compassion, are not seen as age-related. According to Gullette,

(This) ideology works to enclose us in self doubt, embarrassment, shame, humiliation, despair…By learning to concentrate on an ‘aging’ body, the twentieth century midlife subject learns how isolated and helpless he or she is.

If we’re allowing ourselves to be “aged by culture,” maybe we should look to a different culture. My good friend, Julie Mahoney, told me that the Japanese have no word for menopause. The closest they come is konenki. Literally translated, ko means “renewal and regeneration,” nen means “year” or “years,” and ki means “season” or “energy.” Isn’t that beautiful?

So, I challenge you to counter our hair-tearing assumptions about aging. If you need scientific backup,  I wrote here about your incredible aging brain.

And here is Isabella Rossellini with her “Surely you jest” attitude about aging.

Finally, here’s how my Mom got over on those who would devalue her due to her age and diminutive stature.

Okay, I’ll stop with the links or you’ll never get anything done. Have a great weekend.

Let’s Kick Back Today

We’ve been working hard lately. All these heavy posts about coping with life in the second half, brain function, and mortality. I don’t know about you, but I could use a break.

Yep, you know what’s coming. Grandbaby pix!

Once upon a time, I “retired.” Now I provide a significant amount of childcare for my grandbabies. We (yes, Bill is there alongside me) work four days a week, ten hours a day. It’s challenging, but we get back more than we put in. I love seeing Grandpa read to the little gal, his voice all high, babytalking.

Grandpa reading to Ella

And hearing the ten-month-old sing along (“ah yah yah yah yah”) when I “play” the piano. I’m just making up stuff, but he doesn’t know. He loves it, grinning and showing all eight teeth.

I don’t have time or energy for the gym, but with the babysitting gig, who needs it? According to my pedometer, last week I walked twenty miles and climbed fifty-two floors. I climb up in the playhouse and get down on the floor. I crawl (carpet only – the skin on my knees provides no cushion anymore between tile and bone). I run. I lift. I carry, as when the little gal got obstinate at the end of our walk a few days ago. We were a long block away from home, but I gave her a horsey-back ride the whole way. And here I am, lifting thirty pounds of two-year-old with just my forearms:

stronger than I thought

I still have a business to maintain, though, and having to fit in blogging, writing, and marketing Dakota Blues during naptimes and on weekends is a challenge. But they’re growing up so fast! Any day now the baby will be walking.

Here they are making Sand Soup.

making sand soup

Thanks for taking a break with me. Enjoy your weekend. See you next Friday.

Do You Lack Purpose?

After you retire, you sometimes lose your way. People who are working fulltime, and especially those who are also caring for dependent family members, don’t have this luxurious problem. But if you’re lucky enough to have a lot of free time, you sometimes feel guilty, as if you’re wasting your days. Lethargy swamps you. You can’t seem to move forward. You need a jolt, something to wake you back up.

At one time in my life, I felt that way. I was between careers and drifting. I thought of signing up for some kind of mindfulness retreat, a weeklong camp for indolent introspective old farts. And then my mom asked if I would help her get back to Indiana to see her dying brother-in-law. It was early December and she was too frail to go alone. We were gone a week, during which time I lived with, and like, my sick and elderly relatives. This experience snapped my head around. By the time I got back, I felt reborn, newly grateful for the world of possibility in which I lived.

But if you don’t have a week, you might attend a funeral. Preferably of someone you don’t know.

I used to be a professional funeral-attender. Like a US Vice Prez, I dutifully attended numerous services, representing my employer during my thirty-year career. Although I didn’t suffer as much as those who’d lost a loved one, it was still hard to see them grieving. After a couple hours, I could leave, and I would feel a guilty appreciation for my own more fortunate circumstances. I was alive. My child was well. I had a job, and a roof over my head. Life seemed blessed.

Or, lacking available funerals (or too classy to attend as a voyeur), you might help out at your local elder care facility. Mom spent three weeks in one while recovering from a broken leg, and I visited her  twice daily just to straighten up, make sure her water jug was refilled and her necessary supplies within reach. These places are always understaffed and an inmate can go hours without a drink of water. Walk out of there, my friends, and you’ll feel like turning cartwheels for the great gift of independence.

You don’t know how free you are until you survive cancer, a car accident, terrorist attack or heartbreak you thought would flat kill you. At your age, you’ve already gone through some of that. If you’re feeling brave, you might close your eyes and let your mind drift back to those harsh times. Visualize those days when you were suffering. Remember how it felt to be paralyzed by illness or grief? Now open your eyes, grab a hanky, and blow. Good God – you’re still here! You’re okay. For the moment, you’re safe, and you have the world at your feet. What are you going to do with it?

Who took these pictures?! Dude

Nanci celebrates her retirement as an elementary school principal by leaping out of a perfectly good plane.

Inspired to Change in Midlife

Whether you lost your job in midlife or feel the need to change/reinvent yourself for more benign reasons, it helps to see what other people our age are doing. In this article, a half-dozen older workers describe how they picked themselves up off the floor and created new work lives. I felt inspired by their stories. Maybe you will, too.

Joanne Hardy

Joanne Hardy

Sometimes success takes a while. Author Charlotte Rogan got her first book contract at the age of 57,  but she’s a baby. My friend Joanne Hardy is from the generation ahead of Charlotte’s, and Joanne just published her magnum opus, The Girl in the Butternut Dress.

I asked Joanne how she learned to write so well. She described persevering, and said:

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The best class I ever took was Robert McKee’s three day seminar called “Story.” It is so dense and so thorough…I have taken it three times. He is just fantastic. When you go there you will see a block of seats reserved for well-known media groups, like Disney; they send their writers to him…I thought it well worth it. I came home and restructured my novel.

Not all of us are climbing career ladders. Some are struggling to figure out who and what we are at this stage, which can be intriguing in itself. My friend Ellen Cole created a blog, 70Candles, where women share their thoughts about aging mindfully. My own reinvention took the form of letting go of my corporate identity, and refusing to be judged for shedding my power suit. I decided I was good enough as a person, without the trappings of career to prove my worth to the world. One of my proudest accomplishments at this point in my life is providing day care for my grandbabies. It’s a big shift for a gal who never got to be a stay-at-home mom, but I think I’m at a point in my maturity where I can appreciate it better than if I were younger. Except for my aching back.

Yes, we’re getting older, but there are definitely some great benefits.

More Magazine surveyed 1200 women age sixty and up, asking them to rate their lives. What were they happy about? What did they regret? What have they learned about finding their true paths? Here are the high points:

  • The Betty White Boost: A distinct spike in confidence occurred at the uppermost end of the respondents’ age group. Quite simply, the older the women were, the more likely they were to give themselves high marks for life decisions. Women age 80-plus were the most likely to feel satisfied with their life choices. (Although More only surveyed women, this phenomenon has been documented in men, too.)
  • Know Your True Path: A majority of respondents said they found their true path in life after age forty.
  • Cool with Not Being Superwoman: a majority said having it all is a crock. Do what you can and pat yourself on the back, and that it’s okay to ask for help or to say NO.

I’m curious about you. Are you starting over in any way, with work or family or personal truths? If so, what did you change, and is it working? Are you feeling stronger or are you drifting? Do you have any bits of advice for us? I’d love for you to share your thoughts if you’re so inclined. (And now the baby is waking from his nap so I have to run!)

Morgan babies Xmas pic 2012

Evolution in Three Parts

Like most of you, I’m from that awkward generation between people who grew up without computers and those whose thumbs are changing shape due to texting.

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My office was proud to show off the Xerox 860, the ultimate in word processors.

I remember how excited we were at work to get our first word processor, a Xerox 860. We even hired a carpenter to build a special cabinet for it, to protect it from dust. It took up as much room as a small freezer. People came from other offices to look at it. I’m surprised we didn’t genuflect as we passed the thing.

My first office computer was an Apple IIe. Those two drives under the screen? For 5-inch floppies.

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This was before Windows, when everything was DOS. You know when you restart your computer after it crashes and there’s a black screen with white letters and a blinking cursor, and you can only use the arrow and “Enter” keys to navigate because your mouse doesn’t work? That’s pretty much DOS. Try writing disciplinary memoranda on that sucker.

I’ve come a long way. Before they invented blogs, I built my own website using Dreamweaver. That was about ten years ago and I still have a headache.

When I first started using email, I was a little annoyed that a lot of my contemporaries weren’t. These are women who, like me, worked with IBM Selectrics and rotary-dial phones. At the time, a lot of them still shared an email address with their husbands. Something cute like Two4theRoad@BigFatRV.com. Or they got their email through the corporate server, which wasn’t accessible at home. Since they didn’t have a computer.

My kids, all Gen X, don’t check their email very often. Like it’s painful for them, due to the time and effort it takes. Much less tedious to text.

I joined Facebook three years ago. Seems like a lot longer. Now I’m addicted. It’s the first place I go in the morning, before email or news, and I check it throughout the day. There are a couple of groups I belong to – okay, ten or twelve – but one, GenFab, is like insanely active on FB. And I’m afraid if I don’t check in, I’ll miss something important. Like pictures of their dumbest outfits from the eighties, or what sex toys are hot now for boomer women. Weird how things change. Today they’re debating whether using “#FF” on Twitter is relevant anymore, or if it’s basically a scam. And if not, what is the etiquette that would accrue thereto?

You can only shake your head.

But technology has really enriched my life. My mother, who is 87 and has lived without it, is deprived. I’m not trying to be funny. She has a curious mind and if she were a few years younger, would be Googling all day long. About a year ago, I tried to show her how to use the internet, but I came pretty close to doing more harm than good. She got discouraged, and that tore me up. But that was before her cataract surgery. Maybe I should try again.

Still, sometimes my head hurts. I was born too soon. I was in my thirties by the time all this tech-stuff started coming out.

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Early laptop. Really.

I remember bringing my first personal computer, a DOS laptop, to a union negotiation at the behest of my boss, the chief negotiator for Management. He intimidated Labor by setting it on the table between the two sides, turning it on (so it beeped), and frowning intently at the screen. Labor was nervous, but looking back on it now, I think we must have looked like monkeys with forks.

 


Your Amazing, Aging Brain

This is the last of four posts about all the cool things going on in your aging brain.

Ten years ago, Sister Bernadette died of a massive heart attack at the age of eighty-five, after a lifetime of academic achievement and renowned intellect. Right up to the end, she aced any cognitive test the researchers could throw at her. She had arranged to donate her brain to science, and when they took a look under the hood (sorry, couldn’t resist!) what they saw changed brain science forever.

In spite of her brilliance, Sister B was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. 

After this discovery, the concept of “cognitive reserve” gained traction. It seems you might be able to build up your brain so that, if and when you get dementia, its effects will be diminished or delayed until you have time to die of something else. If you do die of dementia, having good CR might result in a shorter period of decline. Steeper, but shorter. Once it hits, it’s over quickly. Preferable, when you think about it.

How can you build up cognitive reserve? Exercise, for one.

Two more factors for staving off dementia are the attainment of more education rather than less, and the performance of a more complex occupation throughout one’s life (i.e. one dealing with humans) rather than less (i.e. repetitive motion on an assembly line).  Did you ever think that by encouraging our kids to continue into higher education, we might be saving them from dementia later in life?

Another way to build up resistance to dementia is to encourage your brain to regenerate. Remember, years ago, we were told that brain cells were finite in number; they could only die off, not grow? Wrong.

It’s been proven beyond doubt that the brain regenerates itself, giving birth to new brain cells in the area responsible for memory and cognitive ability.

Again, the best way to get your brain to create those new cells is exercise. Yep. You needed incentive for that New Year’s resolution? There you go. Cognitive reserve and fresh brain cells. But there are several other things you can do to encourage your brain to get generating.

    • Focus on a task that’s highly complex (like writing these last four columns. Dang.)
    • Focus on a specific goal (like your NY resolutions.)

Together, building cognitive reserve and birthing new brain cells would seem to give you a significant hedge against deterioration in the brain at any age, but wait! There’s more. Keeping your brain toned might be as pleasant and simple as:

    • Hanging out with friends, and
    • Hearing positive things about aging. (No, I did not pay them to say this, but yes, it seems as if this might be a good reason to visit Any Shiny Thing.)

According to Barbara Strauch, from whose book I’m quoting, “There’s increasing evidence that being with other humans helps tone our brains’ dendrites.”

But not just any humans. You want to be around NICE humans, because mirror neurons in our brains make emotions contagious! We not only feel the joy and pain of others, we adopt their moods. And, according to researcher Barbara Levy, our moods are surprisingly important to our brains. Levy found that the memories of older people improved after simply seeing positive words about aging.

So if you needed motivation for changes in 2013, I hope I’ve provided it.

And I know Christmas is over, but here’s a little gift anyway: Marc and Angel’s 7 Things You Will Smile About When You’re Older.

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up BrainThanks a million to Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, without which I would not have been able to share all this fantastic information. Believe me, I’ve only scratched the surface. Her book is fun, easy, enjoyable, and written in a conversational tone that makes you feel you’re following a friendly scientist through the halls of research, mouth agape in delight at all the new things you’re learning. I recommend it.

Next week, we’re going to take a break. Do something silly and simple. Maybe I’ll riff on family drama and how much I hate the holidays. Or I might just indulge my grandmotherly heart and post pix of my adorable grandbabies. Whatever we do, I wish you health and happiness. Happy New Year, my dear, funny, kind, happy, smart friends.

Dakota Blues and Skyfall!

I was so excited I almost embarrassed myself in the theater, quoting enthusiastically along with M (Judi Dench).

We went to watch Skyfall on Christmas Day, and toward the end of the movie, when M is staring down a parliamentary inquiry committee, she quotes the same passages from Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson as I have in the dedication of my book, Dakota Blues. I was thrilled! I found this poetry when I was in high school, and for some reason, it stuck with me. (I was weird even back then.)

Here it is, the end of the great Ulysses:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

I didn’t expect Skyfall to have as a subtext the question of “Am I too old? Am I unable, due to my age?” Both Bond and M grapple with this debilitating question, and they answer it in spectacular fashion. How empowering for those of us who watch for evidence of the courage, wisdom, strength and determination that come with age.

My regular column will appear on Friday, and will be the last of the four in which I share reasons to celebrate your amazing, aging brain! See you in a couple days.