Narrowing The Divide

Jack Sherman and I meet for lunch every Wednesday, a ritual of sorts, in recognition of a friendship dating back to our law school days in the 1960s. Last month, on a chilly Wednesday afternoon, we were joined by Greg Adams, another friend and colleague of many years. Yet, despite our friendship, I walked away from Greg without speaking when we met at a social event soon after the election, a lapse I wrote about in these pages almost two months ago.

The three of us sat together in a cozy booth, my political adversary and my best friend, and we recalled our many connections. We laughed in surprise when Greg pointed out that Jack had been his constitutional law professor back in the early 1970s. Tensions eased. At least mine did. The two men exhibited none at all right from the start. Denial is their friend?

I now knew, which was unexplored territory for us before the presidential election, that Greg and I lived in separate moral* worlds, a divide artfully described by Jonathan Haidt, a noted social psychologist whose work Greg and I both admire. Haidt suggests that our political positions are mostly unconscious moral intuitions that are formed by early family and life experience. Because of this we perceive very different threats to our democracy. But, unlike those who choose to avoid talking about it, we were at a turning point. We were either facing a permanent breech, a greatly diminished quality of friendship and a widening of the divide so evident across the land, or we could make the effort to reach out and develop empathy and understanding for our different views, and stop seeing each other as the enemy. (Although, I later learned that the enmity I felt, born of my fear of what the future holds, was not shared by Greg at all.)

“What do you see as the role of government?” That was my first question, and I offered my answer before he spoke. “For me, it’s an expanded sense of community, a way for all of us to take care of each other.” Greg’s response perfectly encapsulated our different perspective: “It’s human nature to want to control one’s own destiny. Government regulating our lives denies this, and at the same time is inherently inefficient.” He shared anecdotes, some quite humorous, to support his conclusion.

We touched on many issues: children living in poverty, the minimum wage, the threatened Muslim registry, broaching subjects about which I assumed we differed in important ways. My words were carefully chosen. Without any formal prior agreement we each took care not to be challenging. We listened well and responded calmly. Along the way, we all told funny stories, some with a partisan edge, and the mood remained light hearted. Time ran out with many important issues untouched.

Expressing empathy for victims of tragic events is easy. It’s far less easy when we feel personally threatened, when our moral matrix*, our belief system, is called into question by the left-right divide. Can a genuine friendship survive? But perhaps of broader importance, can our democracy survive if we can only shout at each other or remain silent?

We made a start that Wednesday afternoon. And on reflection, I realize how important that was. Since then we’ve had further conversations and plans are afoot to have others join us. Will this be a true coming together? The emergence of shared values? Perhaps some, for we have already discovered we share unequivocal support for free speech on college campuses and oppose the concept of a Muslim registry. And might we problem solve where we differ? There will be genuine appreciation for the effort, and respect. Of that I am sure. Just a beginning, but an important beginning.

And should we happen to meet informally, I will not look away.

*Terms used by Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of “The Righteous Mind”. See also TED talk interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-_Az5nZBBM.


 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Parents always warned not to talk about politics or religion when the family gathered.

Before this past Thanksgiving, had that advice ever been so oft repeated around the land? Anxiety was high at many tables, some agreeing in advance to avoid any talk of the recent election.

And in the workplace family, large and small, is “don’t ask, don’t tell” the unspoken mantra of the hour?  Plenty of other things to talk about.

Is it brave or foolhardy to break that rule?

A colleague with whom I’ve interacted both personally and professionally over the past thirty years or so, someone who I hold in high regard, both as a lawyer and as a friend, and who I know honors me as well, was approached some weeks before the election with a challenging request. He was asked to sit side by side with another lawyer, also a personal friend and colleague, before a small audience of civic leaders and share their reasons for supporting the presidential candidate of their choice. In advance, they prepared the questions they would pose to each other. This was not to be a debate. Neither assailed the other’s candidate. It was simply an effort to better understand both viewpoints, why their choice would best serve their personal and political values.

An air of friendly camaraderie filled the room both before and as the event drew to a close. Milling about, I heard many expressions of thanks to both presenters for enhancing our understanding of the policies each had endorsed.

But that was then and this is now.

I think it is fair to say that for most of us, the outcome of the presidential election came as a surprise. It seemed the entire country reeled, some in delight, others in dismay, before we caught our collective breath.

Now I hear from many about family members, neighbors and work colleagues, who they suspect or know were for the “other team”, for whom the unspoken rule is avoidance. Life goes on with business as usual. Is the intensity of feelings too great to risk bringing them out into the open?

Haven’t we learned that  “don’t ask, don’t tell” is deadly to the spirit?

My friend, who came out the winner, approached me at a social gathering some weeks after the election and held out his hand in greeting. I took his hand but found I could not speak. I nodded and walked away.

This haunted me. For days I regretted my lapse and felt an apology was in order. After much thought, and a few restless nights, I wrote him a letter to explain my behavior. It was lengthy and heartfelt and ended with the suggestion that we meet for lunch and address both his concerns and mine. He answered promptly and warmly welcomed the opportunity to meet.

Across the land, many who believe that a country so divided will falter, are calling for conversations that bridge the great divide. Has the healing talk begun? So far, I only hear of families torn asunder or relying on superficial banter. In the neighborhoods and the workplace, is avoidance actually saving the day?

My friend and I will share a meal and test that premise. Will the depth of our long history and good will toward each other ease the tension? I’m not without anxiety about this meeting. Will we be able to avoid polarized rhetoric and have a more nuanced conversation? Find places we can come together? I will seek to discover what values we each continue to hold dear. A friend with whom I have shared this plan warns me there will be none. The chasm, she says, is too wide.

For now, I choose to believe that is not the case.


 

At A Loss For Words

My friend was in a quandary, and when he told me what had happened, I joined him in his loss for words. For both of us, our livelihood calls upon our facility with language, but we were at sea.

The story: A few weeks ago my friend lunched with a colleague following a business meeting at which an important matter was being negotiated. No deal had yet been made.. The only woman at the table, who was participating for first time that morning, had raised serous questions about a position taken by my friend’s luncheon companion (we’ll call him Dick), and Dick’s anger, though controlled, had flared.

As they slid into the restaurant booth, Dick remarked, “these lesbians can be relentless.” His comment was made with a jocular, “if you know what I mean” grin. My friend’s response was silence. They ordered lunch and the discussion subject shifted, the derisive comment allowed to simply evaporate without rejoinder.

But my friend’s discomfort did not evaporate, for now, weeks later, we sat pondering how that remark might have been (should have been) countered. We both have friends, colleagues and family members who are gay or lesbian, and we felt offended and angered revisiting that scene. Yet, we were at a loss for the words that might have been spoken in response.

Oh, we had no trouble designing cutting insults to induce embarrassment, or to label Dick a bigot, but he was someone with whom my friend would continue to work. And even if he were not, an aggressive remark which would add to the discomfort of the moment, was not in my friend”s repertoire. Yet, by remaining silent he felt lacking in courage, defeated.

If the goal is to raise consciousness and not to simply confront or demean, which might just harden beliefs and enhance a defensive posture, another approach is needed.

I’ve taken a survey of sorts and asked some friends how they would respond to an ugly remark, a pejorative identity statement, and none had a sound rejoinder that worked, at least from my perspective. Most had experienced similar conversations and also remained silent, often walking away if the setting allowed.

After much thought and some reading (see the fine book identified below), I think I’ve come up with a sound approach.

Bigoted remarks can be addressed with a non-defensive question, simply seeking further exploration of the meaning. The question must express genuine curiosity and be non-accusatory, and asked with an open, non-critical tone, an inflection which sincerely invites a thoughtful response.

For example, “Dick, tell me why you think that’s so?”

If his response continues in the same disparaging vein, at least a conversation has begun, and the way open to a sharing of experience and knowledge. Genuine curiosity would appear to be the key.

On the other hand, Dick might simply answer, “I guess that was a pretty crude remark on my part.” Then a simple, “yes” in response might suffice for the moment, with perhaps a smile as well. That may well signal an open door for further conversation.

……………………………….

(Taking the War Out of Our Words, by Sharon Strand Ellison)


 

 

A March Blizzard Remembered In April

Will this year’s mild winter and capricious April weather pass without a surprise blizzard? It happened in March of 2008. Now, warm and cozy indoors, as cold winds buffet my windows, I am filled with memories of another March blizzard over fifty years ago.

My 28th birthday was near as Len and I and our two young sons, six and three, moved into our first home that was not a rental apartment. Although barely settled in, what better occasion to show off our prize, so a party was planned.

When the day dawned, heavy wet snowflakes belied the promise of spring. An unexpected storm, but my Eagle Scout husband was up to the task of greeting our guests with a welcoming blaze in our first ever fireplace.

Minutes after a match was put to the kindling, we knew all was not well. The scent of wood burning, evocative of past romantic campfires, began to fill the house. A delight at first, but soon ominous. Smoke billowed into the living room, little to none drawn up the chimney. As the tiles and mantle began to blacken with soot, doors and windows were thrown open.

I was immobilized. Not so Len. Somehow he wrestled the burning logs into a galvanized tub and carried them to the front yard, now buried in eight inches of snow. Tipping the glowing logs out, great bursts of steam arose, just as our friends arrived on foot from their nearby homes, agog at the drama that greeted their entry into our chilled smoky house.

I’ve often laughed over this memory, but now I’ve been thinking about why this look back brings both pleasure and insight.

Len was always ready to act in a crisis, and it was his nature to be both a protector and a caretaker, which was welcomed by this avowed feminist. The time soon came when he made law school possible for me. For three evenings each week, for four years, he took over nighttime child care. Then once I entered the professional world, he listened to my daily stories of victory and defeat. If I felt unfairly treated, he was ever ready to confront my adversaries, actions this avowed feminist declined.

Len, far less verbal than I was about his own feelings and struggles, was sometimes despondent about his career. A scientist who loved university teaching, he felt thwarted by the ever present pressure to seek research funding. I, the more optimistic, urged him to seek alternate satisfactions.

For me, the purchase of our home symbolized stability and commitment to place. He, possessed of a wanderlust and a lover of the wilderness, remained tentative about urban home ownership in the mid-west. Then came the time when my income, from the career he’d fostered, made possible the purchase of a small two-seater plane in which he frequently flew away to yearned for fishing lakes and mountains. Our home became more of a haven, and remained so until his death in the fifty-third year of our marriage

What is the opposite of losing? It is finding. Lost is the delicate balance achieved with a loved partner which the blizzard memory brings into sharp focus, how we grew to rely on each others’ strengths, compensated for each others’ shortcomings, some passions shared, others not.

Found was the ability to perform a new balancing act on my own, while still protected by the love and promise of safekeeping offered by children and close friends, and warmed by gratitude, renewed by reflections on a remembered March blizzard.


 

My Mother-in-Law

Is it a factor of getting old, or do younger people also look back on those who have played a major role as their life unfolded? I don’t conjecture about what might have been had I made different choices along the way, but find it ever fascinating to ponder the impact of lives lived by others that entwined with my own.

I’ve told this story before but retell it today as winter recedes, as homage to a woman born on the first day of spring in the year 1900, and fifty years later became my mother-in-law.

I was 18 years old when I was introduced to Leora Larsen by Len, my husband-to-be, little realizing then how the life this woman had already lived, and her years to come, would significantly influence my future.

Leora was only five years old when her mother died of tuberculosis. Speaking of the memory of this loss was one of the few times her eyes would tear, for she disdained self-pity. Her father, unable to cope with his young family on his own, placed her in the care of two kindly women who owned a bakery and took in foster children.

Attending school only until the eighth grade, she helped out in the shop and at a very early age began to care for the younger foundlings who followed her into foster care, many of them babies. At the age of 18, she met and married the man who was her husband for over fifty years, and together they raised four children, living for all but a few of those years in small mid-west prairie towns, which during their lifetime became suburban Chicago.

Leora’s role as the full time caretaker of the family was never in question, although stretched to the breaking point when numbers around the dinner table grew during the depression years, as relatives unable to afford their own housing moved in under their small roof. Her husband, Merrill, who throughout his work-life was an electrician for the railroad, was a stolid and quiet man who established the boundaries and direction of their life together, her influence quiet and subtle. As a visitor, I rarely witnessed either of them touch the other, or become engaged in but brief conversations, yet I never had cause to question their mutual devotion or respect, their feelings always closely held.

When I came to know her, Leora wore print cotton dresses of no particular style, hair pulled back in a bun, face free of makeup. She was devoid of vanity. Without flourish or pose, she managed the family’s world. A cup of hot coffee was always on offer in her warm simple kitchen. Only minimal creature comforts in their home were deemed important, except for visiting babies. Although displays of affection were absent, except for the babies, any family member in need had her swift attention.

Leora expressed a quiet scorn for the messages feminists began to voice in the sixties, a time when I was moving into law school and away from my singular role as wife and mother. Of that she neither expressed approval or disapproval. Her son’s open admiration and support for the changing role of women, and of his wife, evoked no comment. Yet, despite this, I thought of her as having the strength of a pioneer and could readily imagine her driving a covered wagon across the plains.

Len and I and our growing brood visited his parents several times a year. Conversations around the table as the extended family gathered were about the route chosen for the drive from Cincinnati (and the planned route for return), activities planned for the day and the weather. Theirs was a like-minded, insular ultra-conservative community, which before the sands of cultural change began to shift after World War II, was exclusively white and Christian, outsiders suspect.

Throughout my own long marriage, as I came to know his mother better through Len’s stories of his childhood, and our visits over the years, she continued to hold firmly to the political and cultural values of her earlier time and place. With my New York City liberal roots, she and I, a generation apart, were as different in background and world view as two people could be, but from the day we met and ever after, she welcomed me without reservation or criticism as a loved member of the family. An extension of her love for her son?

I’ve often wondered, marveled, how this woman raised the free thinker I married, a man who reveled in and welcomed human differences and disdained exclusivity in any form. No doubt his intellectual curiosity, which perhaps drew him to become a scientist and enabled his throwing off of prejudices taught to him as a child, was a gift from his minimally schooled but intellectual father, yet I’ve always known it was at her knee that he learned kindness, which she offered to all without reservation. And from her he learned to expect great things from women, to respect and admire their strength, traits he found desirable in the woman he chose to marry.

How grateful I am.


 

Implicit Bias

I have awakened to a new reality. If a year ago I was asked if I harbored a bias, perhaps related to gender or race, I would readily have answered “of course not”. Now I know better, and am wiser.

People in the know, academic researchers in the main, are bringing light to the subject of implicit or unconscious bias, suggesting that we carry, act on, but fail to recognize many biases.

Tests, based on studies with results that have been scrutinized and deemed reliable, (these which I cite developed at Harvard) are available for all at Implicit Association Tests .

An interesting twist: many women, even those who consider themselves feminists, are discovering an unconscious bias against women, and blacks, even civil rights activists, are discovering a bias against blacks. What this makes so clear is how our biases are formed by exposure to values and prejudices in our environment and culture, beginning in childhood. If we grow up in a climate pervaded by negative or stereotypical representations of black people, women, and homosexuals, and which of us has not, our implicit or unconscious attitudes are formed and, though often unrecognized, do influence our day to day actions.

Here is what I found to be a startling example, and a brave admission, that came to light when in 2014, the esteemed journalist Krista Tippett, interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa:

Desmond Tutu: “I think… that we have very gravely underestimated the damage that apartheid inflicted on all of us. You know, the damage to our psyches, the damage that has made — I mean, it shocked me. I went to Nigeria when I was working for the World Council of Churches, and I was due to fly to Jos. And so I go to Lagos airport and I get onto the plane and the two pilots in the cockpit are both black. And whee, I just grew inches. You know, it was fantastic because we had been told that blacks can’t do this.

…And we have a smooth takeoff and then we hit the mother and father of turbulence. I mean, it was quite awful, scary. Do you know, I can’t believe it but the first thought that came to my mind was, “Hey, there’s no white men in that cockpit. Are those blacks going to be able to make it?”

And of course, they obviously made it — here I am. But the thing is, I had not known that I was damaged to the extent of thinking that somehow actually what those white people who had kept drumming into us in South Africa about our being inferior, about our being incapable, it had lodged some way in me.”

How can we not only unearth the discomforts we would all likely experience as our unconscious biases become known to us, but get beyond them? That becomes the real challenge.


 

 

 

 

An Unquiet Mind

Can simply reading another’s personal history significantly impact our own?

Kay Redfield Jamison’s book “An Unquiet Mind” was given to me by a friend when I confided that a member of my extended family was exhibiting extreme behaviors. I’d begun to wonder whether I was witnessing the normal range of craziness that accompanies the breakup of a marriage, or a serious mood disorder, perhaps of long standing.

Jamison, a psychologist on the faculty of Johns Hopkins Medical School, is an expert on manic-depressive illness. The remarkable twist in her story is that she has suffered with this disorder since her late teens, though not diagnosed or treated for many years thereafter.

Publication of this revealing memoir in 1995, was made by a woman who had previously gone to great lengths to conceal her condition, knowing exposure would likely sidetrack her career. Then, at some considerable cost, she surrendered her privacy. Although “outing” herself was less risky than it might have been, as she was by then a tenured professor, writing about being psychotic and delusional did cause some of her colleagues, although generally supportive, to treat her differently, question her motivation and objectivity. But not for long.

Her book, expected to draw a limited audience, remained on bestseller lists for five months and soon sold over 400,000 copies, proving what great hunger there is for understanding when a loved one goes off the rails, and the ripple effect of mental illness on related lives. Others sought insight to their own troubling behaviors.

Jamison describes a time when although medicated, she was within the throes of the dreadful agitation of a manic state. Her work required she back away from these feelings in order to focus on analyzing research data she was preparing for a publication deadline. She needed to gain control over her irrational distorted thoughts.

Her words describing this effort had special meaning for me:

    “Much as I had done when frightened or upset as a child, I found that asking questions, tracking down answers as best I could, and then asking yet more questions was the best way to provide a distance from anxiety and a framework for understanding.”

Jamison’s method can be a prescription for us all. Even those spared the devastation of mental illness fall into periods of mild or moderate depression and anxiety. For me too, asking myself the right questions, and in this way becoming more self-aware, allays anxiety.

At this advanced stage of life, I’ve figured out which questions to ask, to manage those emotions which otherwise sweep away rational thought, a subject for another day.

=======#=======

 Note: the commentary above was posted once before, several years ago. It recently came back to mind when a young man of my distant extended family began to display extreme and very troubling behaviors, refusing appropriate medication and treatment. The rippling effect of his mental illness on family members close to him are intense. I decided it is timely to describe my own questioning process when faced with anxiety or mild depression and wide awake at 3:00am.

I take paper and pen in hand and write down the answers to the following questions:

——-   What are the recent troubling events now on my mind? (i.e. report of an adult child’s illness, rejection of a friendly overture, a professional misstep).

——-   What emotions have been triggered (i.e. anxiety, sadness, anger, shame).

——-   What thoughts about my life are generated by those events and emotions? (i.e. I’m helpless, unloved, irresponsible, unworthy)

——    In what way are these thoughts irrational or distorted (i.e. all or nothing reasoning, predicting the future without sufficient evidence, plagued by old scripts of “shoulds” and “oughts”), categories so well explained and defined by my reading and study of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

——-   What rational thoughts could replace those that are distorted and generate my anxiety or mild depression? (If having difficulty at this stage, I ask myself this question: if a dear friend brought this narrative to my door, what advice would I offer…..the ideas then flow.)

Then, my writings are set aside for review in the morning, and with thanks to Kay Redfield Jamison and CBT, I go back to sleep.

 A further note: The Hamilton County Public Library (and no doubt other libraries around the country) offers free access to many Great Courses audiotapes, including one on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.


 

When Life Just Happens

Too often it is only after years of sidestepping talk of discontent, that the thwarted desires of partners are openly and seriously explored. Much that might be timely addressed goes unsaid, until it is too late.

Here is the story a divorcing couple recently told. Seventeen years earlier, she’d become pregnant, they married, and she gave up her college plan. He achieved career success, making it unnecessary for her to take a job for pay. As the family grew, they moved to an upscale suburb where the children attended private schools.

Although she yearned to return to serious study, little was said of this as obligations at home and in the community filled her days. After a time he felt trapped in a career he would happily leave, but for the need to support their expensive lifestyle. The immensity and seeming impossibility of their dreams, and their discontent, was only occasionally the subject of aimless late night talks.

Now, with all passion spent, and the decision made to part, they didn’t blame each other for the disappointments they openly discussed, both suggesting: it just happened.

Some years ago, a friend introduced me to a small volume, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Life” by Alan Lakein. It’s one of many books I never finished, but the early pages contained a suggestion I took to heart.

Following the author’s instructions, each year, usually in January, I sit before a blank piece of paper and without allowing any time for rumination, spend just two minutes writing the answer to each of the following questions:

1) What do I want to accomplish over the next five years?

2) What do I want to accomplish over the next year?

3) How would I spend the next six months if I knew I had only six months to live?

I’ve kept my annual lists and from time to time, I look back. Sometimes, with pleasure, I note goals that have been met. Other times, I recognize that year after year the same objective is repeated without much forward movement. My answers to the third question are quite specific but least likely to have been implemented. Denial?

I never share my lists with anyone. But many conversations with friends and colleagues are spawned with my aspirations in mind, and projects designed. Trying to enlist my husband to join me in this specific question and answer process failed. Wasn’t his style. But over the years, my formalizing of goals, long and short term, often led to talk about our dreams and miseries. We gave each other permission and support to initiate change, and many important changes were made.

But what happened to the two people seated on my office couch who spoke of their regrets, as they made plans for lives apart? At an earlier time they felt great attraction for each other, and probably shared many values, yet they failed to seriously talk about or support each others’ longings. Their imaginings about a different way of life were defeated before they were realistically explored. What if they had asked each other how steps in new directions might have been taken over the next six months, or the next year?

Perhaps every couple, or at least one partner, should go through an annual assessment of what they wish they could do or be, to see if articulating what one hopes to achieve, might lead to important disclosures by both of them, and support for those ends. Together.


 

 

 

When Talking Is Difficult

As colder weather approaches, I a reminded of the recent winter when my car broke down, which proved to be not only a failure of the mechanism, but of my spirit, at least temporarily. For I felt ill equipped to cope with the decisions that then had to be made. This had always been Len’s domain, not mine.

I managed well enough with the help of friends, and those who towed and repaired with kind tolerance for my ineptitude, but what a stark reminder of the division of responsibility in our marriage. Although we often consulted with each other, decisions about the purchase or repair of anything with moving parts were left to him, interior design left to me. Insurance, his. Kid’s clothing and wellness care, mine. With career decisions, he made his and I made mine. But major concerns, a possible move to another city, a home purchase, a child’s blue mood, were always talked through to resolution. If memory serves me well, our shared values usually made these conversations easy. But not always.

When Len, who piloted his own small plane, began to take our young grandchildren aloft, I developed a twitching eyelid and my sleep was seriously disturbed. We tried to talk about it. He was angry and hurt that I would question his judgment and thought my fears irrational. I thought not, but even if they were, I needed to find a healthy way to cope. We knew this was an issue we had to confront and resolve, but my anxiety and his defensiveness made it a difficult conversation that went nowhere.

Eventually, we sought professional help, and along the way learned a lot about each other and ourselves. The outcome we reached was a compromise which I gratefully, and he somewhat grudgingly, accepted: he would take another pilot along when the grandchildren were passengers.

What the breakdown of my car and these meandering recollections bring to mind is how often both partners approaching divorce maintain that whenever conflict loomed, too discouraged or unable to talk it through, they were the one who abdicated the decider role and simply gave in to the other. The moments most clearly remembered were those when dreams were compromised, eroding a sense of self, thwarting authenticity.

I’m aware of this because on the first day I meet with a mediating pair, I speak with each of them privately and ask how they resolved disputes during their marriage. How did they negotiate? Here is the interesting twist. Often each spouse reports that they were the one who most often capitulated and accommodated to the wishes or demands of the other. Both asserted: “I just went along to get along”. As impossible as this would seem, I think the belief was sincerely voiced.

My friends whose relationships are working well readily acknowledge those areas in which they most likely have the prominent decision making role and those they are willing to leave to their partner. For them, talk is usually easy.  But in a relationship where hope for a future together is ending, self-disclosure feels risky and talking is difficult, and the yearning to better understand the other is trumped by anxiety or disappointment.

Without some intervention, preferably with an experienced counselor, dissatisfaction just grows and grows.  So, of course, the earlier the better.


 

Anger: Serve You Well Or Do You In?

I’m uneasy in the face of anger. In my professional world, I’ve learned how to manage that of others. But, in my personal world, the anger I feel towards others, or if I am the target, can leave me a bit unhinged. But, not for long.

Therapists have helped so many to recognize and legitimize their anger. For some, depression begins to lift, a new sense of self and autonomy is achieved, all to the good. But for some, who I suspect give up the exploration of angry feelings too soon, a new found acceptance of their angry feelings is worn as a badge of courage, and it can do them in.

Consider this: Husband has been betrayed. Wife has met a new preferred partner. Husband, able to work at home, had fostered wife’s successful career, provided daytime care for the children and kept the home fires burning brightly. (For the purpose of this discussion, who did what to whom over the term of the marriage is irrelevant, for, as is almost always the case, both parties contributed to the relationship deficits.) Husband’s anger is now given free rein, and fuels his days.

In the negotiation setting, anger is frequently expressed, understandably so. This husband angrily rejects wife’s generous financial proposals, born, in part, of her remorse. My cautionary words are met with: my therapist said I have every right to express my anger.

Meeting privately with the husband, I suggest that anger expressed in a therapeutic setting, or to a friend, may well serve a valid purpose, but does not serve him well when negotiating. Whether or not one has the right to be angry is not the point. Reaching a favorable result is. So, I advise: taste the anger, but then become strategic.

My words, not surprisingly, fall on unreceptive ears. A quick turn around appears impossible. I urge a return to therapy with a focus on his immediate situation. It may take months of litigation before he is able to recognize that his angry stance is self-defeating.

On a recent morning, I was wide awake at 3:00am mentally composing a response to a letter received the day before by someone I did not even know. It was originally emailed to a friend (then forwarded to me) criticizing a public affairs event I had a part in presenting earlier in the week. It was belligerent in tone and replete with misunderstanding. I wanted my response to be perfectly stated to artfully put him in his place. But hours later, in the light of day, I decided not to devote any more precious hours to venting my anger, when nothing of any importance was to be gained. I was pleased and even a bit proud of myself to be able let the whole matter fade away.

My personal epiphany actually occurred many years ago when a book by a self-help guru got me on the right track by pointing out that holding on to anger hands tremendous power over to another. The target of anger, in a sense, takes control of your life. That was the last thing I wanted.

For me, acknowledging, but then letting go of anger, and seeking an effective solution to the issue at hand, takes back control and power.

And breathing deeply helps.


 

Empathy Redefined

Empathy Redefined

To gain insight from experience I’ve acquired over the years and then to pass it along, that is satisfying. But, when applying such wisdom to events in my own life doesn’t work, that is sobering.

The wisdom: when another person’s point of view or behavior is problematic or upsetting, quiet the tendency to be reactive and stand in their shoes. Empathize. View the situation from their perspective. As a professional helping others, I can do this in a reasonably dispassionate way. And many times I’ve said: once you empathize, you can sympathize with their point of view.

Not always easy if I’m emotionally involved, but I thought I had even these situations figured out.

An example: My son and daughter-in-law divorced some years ago. I loved her dearly and still do. She lives far away so we only occasionally visit, but we continue to correspond and speak on the phone. Often she shares her concerns with me and our words flow easily, unless she makes a negative comment about my son. I understand, even empathize, but can simply ignore these words if they are written, or remain quiet if they are spoken, and attend to the rest of her message. She is a quick study, so takes my silence into account and we move on, each of us accepting a well-established boundary that only occasionally is crossed, but then renewed.

So empathy works, until it doesn’t.

Here’s what happened: I received an email message from a dear friend who lives some distance away, with whom I’ve maintained a close connection over the years. I consider both she and her husband intimate friends, he a former professional colleague of my husband. But now the wife wrote complaining bitterly about her husband’s behavior and attitude. The tone of her message clearly assumed my alignment with her, seeking both my sympathy and asking for my professional advice. I was upset and resented being drawn into their personal lives in this way and expected to take sides.

My initial reaction was not to respond at all, but soon I knew that totally ignoring her message would be too unkind a rejection.

After mulling it over, I shared my quandary with a trusted colleague: I could not simply accept the wife’s perception of events and offer sympathy and advice without feeling disloyal to the husband, nor was I willing to be drawn into the details of their intimate angst and make judgments about what went on.

As we talked, some new wisdom emerged: I was confusing empathy with the need to sympathize and become an actor in their play. Empathy, a willingness to understand, does not require agreement or even sympathy, only a readiness to hear and attempt to comprehend what someone has to say, not to embrace it. With that distinction clearly in mind, I was able to frame a heartfelt response that was empathic and not rejecting.

A bit wiser now, I stepped back into my own shoes. Taking care of myself, I also asked that I be seen only as a friend, which made giving professional advice to either of them untenable. An important boundary was established.

 


 

Does Love Trump Privacy?

When our youngest child grew up and moved some distance away, I claimed her room and fashioned a space all my own. It was quite small, on the second floor of our home with leafy tree branches almost touching the windows, a nest of sorts. There were times my husband came and stood at the threshold to ask me a question, but he didn’t walk in. He never entered uninvited. It was our unspoken understanding, as natural as breathing, that this was my space alone. Our separateness was respected. This personal background sets the stage for a description of a mediation session in which privacy was the issue.

The couple working with me made it clear they were not seeking therapy, not my skill, but to preserve their marriage by negotiating a specific well-defined concern: In the prior week, without consulting his wife, the husband had installed a lock on his home-office door. She was hurt and angry.

His story: When he was away from home, his wife opened mail addressed only to him. It was nothing of a highly personal nature, but in doing so she learned that his business debt was considerably greater than she had been led to believe. On discovering this, still in his absence, she looked through his desk and files, and eventually explored the content of his computer. When she confronted him upon his return about all that she had uncovered, he was outraged. That’s when the lock went on.

Her story: She firmly believed there should be no secrets between marriage partners, and that she was, therefore, perfectly justified in her actions. He was the one who had much to explain.

The response I addressed to her was spoken without hesitation, or sufficient forethought. With some fervor I said: But everyone is entitled to a zone of privacy.

This statement and my tone surprised them, and myself as well. With hindsight I regret the unprofessional manner in which I spoke. I should have posed some neutral questions to each of them, not been judgmental. Predictably, the issue did not get resolved in my office, and later, when the wife called to cancel their next scheduled appointment, I learned that after further discussion between them, her husband had removed the lock from his office door.

I recalled another client who discovered that her husband had read the journal in which she wrote each morning on waking. She was incensed, even though she’d kept it tucked in her nightstand drawer, readily accessible, and known to him. Her question: How could he not understand that it was for my eyes only?

Will such unwelcome intrusions as these continue to rankle over time? My guess is that insistence on full disclosure, and by some even a demand to know their partner’s innermost thoughts, is more likely to erode than to foster openness and harmony. Are these wounded loved ones likely to become more or less secretive?

Why is privacy so important? We speak of someone “invading” our privacy and the very use of that word suggests a violation of significance. It’s an assault on our autonomy, a piercing of that protective skin we seek to keep in tact (so many words of aggression!). Privacy keeps us safe, free of judgment until we are ready for exposure, and then, only to those we trust.


 

 

 

The Pleasure of Touch

My cat likes to have her ears pulled. Her eyes narrow, and she arches her neck with pleasure as she awaits the next gentle tug. This feline resists being picked up, but curls up in the crook of my arm when I am reading, propped up in bed. She nudges, seeking my touch, and the pressure of her warm purring body is a sweet reminder of the relaxed heft of a sleeping baby.

Some months after Leonard died, one of my younger friends took on the role of caring daughter and gave me an unusual gift, a massage by a therapist she admired. When I told her this was something I’d never done before, she said: everyone needs to be touched, and you are now alone.

I went, and continue to go every now and then, welcoming this time of complete ease and pleasure. The therapist always begins by massaging my feet, and though I only spoke this thought aloud after many months, when her skilled fingers knead these muscles: I wish I had done this for Leonard, especially in his last six months when he was in bed more hours than usual. For this man whose feet were almost always on the go, it would have been a special way to express the sweetness of old love.

It is easier to write of my cat and a masseuse than to write of the sensual pleasures of my marriage, but perhaps there is a point in doing so. For us, the promise of touch was ever present. The gentle pressure of my fingers on the back of his neck as he drove, his hands easing my tensed shoulders as I sat at my desk, holding hands in the movies or nestled together when watching TV. Intimate touching renewed our appetite for life.

Now, alone, though engaged with others during the day, my patterns and pleasures have changed. I enjoy my solitude, but it differs from a past shared with another. Evenings, I no longer watch programs or movies that I suspect will cause me to feel anxious. When we watched together, leaned into each other, no matter how fraught the media coverage, I was safe, moored. Now I check the Internet for newsworthy events the next morning, in the light of day.

Often on Sundays I spend some time rereading a few old letters. His words and his handwriting almost feel like a touch, a lingering memory of the pleasures we shared, which can quite take my breath away. Then I close that door and reenter the present with a sigh, but no anguish, and knowing I can return.

Comfort with touch is tied to family history, and there are those for whom casual touch is foreign, even uncomfortable. Mine was a family in which physical affection was open and easy. Leonard’s family was just the opposite, touching rarely seen. When we were first together, seeking physical closeness I consistently walked him off the sidewalk onto the grassy verge. A lasting joke between us that spoke volumes. I eventually converted him.

Lest this become a maudlin description of an idealized marriage, I also well remember the hours, sometimes days, when we didn’t touch, lay back to back and distant in bed, or silently left the house for a solitary walk. But being deprived of touch inevitably brought us to talking, so much was it the glue of our marriage.

So why write of this? There is wisdom to be passed along. The importance of touch if infants are to thrive is well established. Now studies are proving the same is true for adults. Breaching the chasm of being alone in one’s skin and experiencing pleasure, or giving pleasure, can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones and improve immune function.

So, a reminder for those lucky to have a loving partner at your fingertips: massage their feet.

 


 

To Go Or To Stay?

Anne rummages in her purse but then pauses, smiles, and remembers that she no longer smokes. It’s a tense moment and she wishes she still did. After a deep sigh she says: Tim tells me that he just needs some space and is suggesting we try living apart for awhile. What do you think?

For some months now, I’ve been aware that the marriage of my friends was troubled, although Anne was sure they both still valued their bond. Counseling was rejected, her husband determined to protect their privacy and insisting, not without some bitterness, that he didn’t need to “get fixed”. My cautionary words were: if respectful conversations are still possible, give it more time. Separations usually become permanent.

I realized as I spoke, that although invited to give advice, I had no sound knowledge base for my statement, no actual data to support my conclusion, so I added that caveat.

All of the evidence from my professional life was anecdotal. Those who separated and then reconciled did not end up on my office couch, so my evidence was not only imperfect but also skewed. Yet many of my divorce mediation clients reported having separated for a trial period, sometimes for as long as a year, only to later decide to end the marriage. For many, I surmise, a proposed temporary parting was often a way of letting their partner down easy, suggesting only the need for space, but knowing that their decision to end the marriage was made, and for them was the right one. For others, I believed that the motive was more sincere, a testing time. But what was being tested? Whether solitude was preferable?

I quizzed a friend who had been a Magistrate in the Domestic Relations Court and got another perspective on separations. She commented on the number of dramas that had played out informally in her courtroom where it was revealed that one spouse had asked, even demanded, that the other leave, only to later acknowledge that their real intent in suggesting a separation was to test the commitment of their partner, The departed spouse had then become happier living on their own, and declined to return. A risky request probably made impulsively at a moment of hurt or anger. I too had heard this scenario a number of times.

I shared my personal experience with my friend, for I well remember those times during my marriage when we were both unhappy, though not always at the same time. It was toughing out those difficult days, struggling to understand, and to be understood, that repeatedly brought us to a new and better place. Long walks were taken, sometimes together, sometimes alone. There were tearful but also loving times, because we had opportunities to reconnect with spontaneity. While still together we could reach out and touch, smile, or fix a favorite meal, do something to bridge the gap and then begin again to talk. But I know others within my own family who took a different path, lived apart for a time and came back together.

On balance, I’ve come to believe, even without reliable evidence, that when unhappy partners remain committed and respectful, most problems are best worked out in close proximity, ideally with professional help.

Although I know there are exceptions that prove, or probe, this rule, is it not also true that nature abhors a vacuum? How often does the intimacy vacuum created by a separation get filled with new directions, new confidants, and new connections?


 

 

 

 

 

On Being Conflict Avoidant

Why is it that being conflict avoidant works quite well for some, and spells disaster for others?

Len and I typically dealt with conflict by retreating into silence. Both of us grew up in homes in which voices were rarely raised. Perhaps intuitively we knew how threatening short-tempered or critical comments would feel. When we withdrew, I think we were able to mull over and better define what was at stake, and avoid impetuous hurtful remarks which would be difficult to forget.

Then, soon the yearning to once again be close drew us into intimate talk. Important questions were asked with each of us becoming better known to the other. Compromise, or even yielding completely, became a gift of sorts. And by the time one of us reached out with a tentative touch, the steam of resentment or anger had escaped.

But here’s the twist: With many divorcing couples, their story begins in the very same way.

On the day first day I meet with a mediating pair, I talk with each of them alone and ask how they resolved disputes during their marriage. Frequently both partners say that they hardly ever dealt with differences as they arose. Disputes were pushed aside and either ignored or only brought up in passing, perhaps as one or the other was walking out of a room. But for them, resentments were stored away for far too long. Important questions were not asked. The steam did not escape.

Another twist: When I press further with clients about how issues finally did get resolved, very often both parties describe themselves as always being the one to give in. In private, the thought each voices is: I just went along to get along.



How can this possibly be the reality? Yet, I think the perception is sincerely expressed. By the time they are planning a future apart and their conflicts have taken over center stage, each believes they accommodated to the others’ wishes or demands. Now they look back and regret having been submissive, not seeing this as proof of love, but as a restraint on their authenticity, their true identity. And for some, in the days, weeks or months of conflict avoidance, with only polite or mundane exchanges at home, a more sympathetic ear is found, away from home.

What of those whose childhood experiences are completely different, one raised in a home in which disputes were freely aired, the other home devoid of confrontation? Do they have a particularly difficult time reaching a level of comfort when dealing with discord? Is this something discovered before a commitment is made? Talked over? No doubt it should be.

Oddly, even in relationships that work, both partners often perceive themselves as having been the most accommodating to the others’ wishes. Are these the moments we most remember, when we submerged our own desires, forgetting when the gift of compromise or victory was received? And, when we gave in and just went along, did our loved one always know?

Many divorcing or troubled partners speak of having slowly and silently drifted apart, avoiding difficult conversations. So, it would seem conflict avoidance can be a prelude to a sweet reconnection, for those who timely attend to each others’ need to be better known, but erode such possibilities when conflicts are too long ignored.


 

The Shame of Illness

I have few memories of illness in my family as I was growing up. Minor ailments were barely acknowledged. Sickness was spoken of as something which, with proper living, could be avoided. The illness of others was often deemed psychosomatic, not without sympathy, but with the underlying message of some hidden weakness that should be overcome.

In my husband Len’s final year, I became intimately involved with persistent pain. He was stoical, but when he left the house for an adventure with a friend, I would assist in placing the Parkinson’s meds he needed, to take at set times, in a small pocket container. I noticed when the number of tablets he added for pain relief increased. It made me uneasy.

On our regular visits to physicians, the initial question was often: on a scale of one to ten, how’s the pain? I would be dismayed when Len answered: nine. Compression fractures in his spine were the apparent cause, yet I was embarrassed by his admission.

A few years ago, I came across a study which reported that many people are ashamed to talk about pain, whether it be a passing headache or something more chronic. The finding was that those persons who made the effort to describe their pain, in some detail, were better able to thereafter cope with the pain. I suspect this relates to emotional pain as well.

Not too long thereafter, I had a scare, arising from a routine physical. An ultrasound was ordered, followed by an MRI. Then, of course, a week of waiting for results.

I made the decision to share this information with no one, rationalizing that any disclosure was premature. But my facial expression belied this determination, and when a close colleague asked why I seemed so distracted, my story poured forth. The next day I told other intimate friends. That evening I emailed my kids, giving them the details.

The reduction in stress was palpable.

Soon the reassuring news came that all was well.

Why the initial reluctance to tell anyone?

Was I shamed by an old parental message that illness was in some way a punishment for wrong doing? What better defense mechanism than hiding this moral flaw, not being the person “mother wanted us to be”?

The study results, and my own experience, hopefully have silenced my childhood script that illness is somehow shameful, and to be denied. Unexpressed fears, and pain, can loom larger than life. Giving voice to them not only opens the way to receive loving support, but lightens the step and makes it easier to breathe.


 

 

 

 

Intimacy

We’ve all heard it, from friends, colleagues, our own inner voice. Unhappiness is so often expressed by one partner due to the lack of intimacy yearned for with the other. To be seen and deeply known and to so know the other, this is the human connection that makes livable all the inevitable ups and downs of any close relationship. Some suffer in silence, others become vocal, even demanding. Counseling with a skilled professional often seems the logical approach and some partners do agree to take that path, although if feeling blamed, one may only do so reluctantly, or even refuse.

I was anything but immune.

Years ago, my husband was quick to give me the responsibility for drawing him out when I asked for greater sharing of his feelings about whatever was going on in his life. I was urged to ask the right questions, at the right time. I tried. It didn’t work. And he was missing the point, or at least so I thought. These disclosures had to be freely given.

We were once offered some communication exercises, basically told to repeat what the other had said so as to assure that each of us had indeed been heard. That lasted less than a week.

Here is what did actually work. Not revolutionary, and just one possible approach, but for us a definite change for the better. When I asked a question to elicit feelings about one thing or another, I chose a time when there were no obvious distractions and there was enough time to talk for a while. TV commercial breaks won’t work, half-time maybe. The best time for us was sitting opposite each other at breakfast out at a restaurant or traveling in a car in light traffic. He couldn’t get up and drift away, start identifying the birds on the feeder or cross the room to answer the phone (before the ubiquitous cell phones of today).

But most important, I learned that once my question was in the air, I needed to stop talking. Not ask another question. That was the key. So many women, hungry for intimacy (and in my experience it seems to be mostly women), don’t wait long enough for a response. Some men, I suspect many, need to formulate their thoughts before they speak, unlike many women for whom the thought and the spoken word are almost simultaneous.

Psychological and even evolutionary theories abound about why some derive satisfaction and pleasure from being self-disclosing while others find such exposure uncomfortable or even threatening to their sense of well being.

But whatever the gender of the intimacy seeker, experience taught me to carefully pick the time, ask the question, and then remain calm in the quiet. The reward for patience was a thoughtful response.

 


 

When Speaking of Love

A phone conversation ends in my presence. The final words spoken: I love you.

These three words have become a ubiquitous sign-off, often to a child, or a spouse or a partner. There must be a generational divide, for such farewells (except possibly when whispered) were rarely heard in my youth, or even in my middle years. And they leave me feeling somewhat disquieted, uneasy.

And then I silently chastise myself for my cynicism. I even wonder at my own awkwardness when I sense I’m expected to echo these parting words from a dear friend, and I remain mute.

But here is my quandary: Doesn’t saying the words: I love you make you feel a little crazy if just hours earlier you were greatly annoyed because once again your spouse failed to meet you on time, or if moments after you speak the words to a child, you display what seems like irrational anger at a disrespectful remark?

The actor and playwright, Wallace Shawn, spoke for me when he said: The difficulty of saying “I love you” is that it presupposes that you know who “I” is and that you know who “you” is.

Exactly my point. The scenarios are infinite. Who “I” am keeps shifting and who “he” or “she” is does as well. Which is the real “you”? Which are the true feelings? Isn’t it safer to avoid the routine sign-off so as not to later meet ambivalence head on?

But now at long last, I’ve gained a new slant on these three oft spoken words of parting. I chanced upon an interview of Matthew Crawford, author of a new book: “The World Beyond Your Head”. I must paraphrase his comments as best I remember them: Consider someone who is suffering from sadness, discontent, boredom or annoyance, say she is a wife who is feeling this way about her husband. Yet she says “I love you ”on retiring every night. She does not say this as a report on her feelings. It is not sincere, but nether is it a lie. What it is, is a kind of prayer.

This really helps me. If it is a ritual which allows one to act as if some state of affairs were true, even though the words spoken at that moment are without authenticity, and the words are an expression of a hoped for reality, I can buy that.

These three words are rarely spoken by me in an offhanded way, although sometimes they are written, and then meant most sincerely. I, after all, was married to a man named Larsen, whose ancestors came from a northern land of short days and long winter nights. I fondly recall the day he turned to me with a wry smile and asked if I’d heard the one about the Norwegian farmer who loved his wife so much, he almost told her.


 

Just Don’t Ask

There are times when personal experience informs the professional practice. This is the story of one of those times.

My husband was of Norwegian descent. He wrote with eloquence, but except when teaching or working with his students, he was a man of few words who could comfortably go for long periods without speaking at all. In the early years of our marriage, I was often unsure whether his silence conveyed unhappiness. So I would probe, ask a question, and then another, but at these times his sparse responses served to close not open the door to understanding.

I talked of this with a psychologist friend. Her response: you need to learn some new dance steps. Stop asking questions. Just tell him something about yourself, only a few sentences, and make no accusations. See what happens.

It worked. A brief back and forth began and he shared a few important words. The next day, my new steps were repeated and a bit more disclosure followed, and we both were more at ease.

Recently the occasion arose to offer this wisdom to another.

The newly separated father and mother seated on my office couch came in to address his accusation that their seven-year-old daughter was being turned against him. Despite his efforts to engage her in conversation, she was unwilling to talk with him in any meaningful way. He believed this was all his wife’s doing.

First we deconstructed the usual conversation father and daughter had as she climbed into his car when he picked her up at school at the start of his assigned weekend.

He: Hi sweetie, how was your day?
She: Fine
He: Learn anything new?
She: Not much.
He: Any good friends in your class?
She: Um hum.
He: So, play with them today?
She: Yes.
He: What sort of games?
She: Oh, just stuff.

Now frustrated, he would shut down, angry and hurt, and they rode along in silence until reaching his home where his daughter would shower affection on the dog, turn on the TV and cuddle with her pet. He felt the outsider. This conversation dance would repeat many times during the visit.

Bringing to mind my past experience with a sometimes silent partner, I suggested: Try this: Stop asking questions. Just talk about yourself, nothing too profound and not accusing or in any way critical. Maybe talk about what happened to you earlier in the day. But no questions.

He was smiling upon return for their next visit to my office and reported: Amazing! Picked her up at school. No questions. Told her about the pizza I had for lunch, made with anchovies, which I hate, and what a time I had dislodging them from the layers of cheese. She told me about the yucky salmon patties served in the school cafeteria and how one of the boys started tossing them around and got into trouble and that she knew his older sister who was stuck up. So, I told her about a woman in my office who was stuck up, and she asked why I thought people got that way. We had a great talk.

Hard to know what this youngster’s feelings were when she left school with her father instead of returning to the parent with whom she was perhaps more comfortable. What subliminal message did she carry from her mother? Did his being the one who left their home feel like abandonment? Did she wonder if she was at fault for what had happened between her parents? No easy way for a seven-year-old to address these issues, even for herself. Was closing the door on his questions a perfect defense against revealing a confusion of emotion?

No monumental disclosures were made, but tensions eased and the possibility for real talk was there again.

So, refraining from asking questions of those who are withdrawn, young and old alike, and telling your own story, may be the best step to take.

 


 

The Throwaway Line

I did not realize anger was in the room until they were walking out the door. A step ahead of her, looking away and with an edge to his voice, he said: It’s time for you to just get out.

Was I meant to overhear these words? I wasn’t sure, but they surprised me. Only moments before, as their first mediation session ended, they had reached an agreement to postpone the decision about which parent would remain living with the children in the marital residence. In my presence, they concurred that for the time being they would both remain under the same roof.

For fifteen years these marriage partners had struggled to draw closer. Now, the husband’s unrelenting bout with depression tipped the balance and appeared to be the catalyst for their mutual decision to end the relationship.

During the first hour we all met together, and they were amiable and calm, nodding and smiling in affirmation as each spoke. This negotiation would go smoothly, or so I thought.

Then I met alone with each of them during our second hour. With chagrin, the husband revealed that over the past year his wife had literally turned her back on him, even cringing at his touch. He knew it was time to move on. I asked about counseling, but although he’d sought treatment for depression, now they both rejected that path. He was sure that with autonomy would come the return of his emotional equilibrium.

The wife’s immediate concern, spoken in confidence, was her husband’s outbursts aimed at their troubled adolescent son. She feared that when she was no longer present to step between them, their belligerent exchanges would escalate.

The comment he made as they left my office, almost as an aside, confused me. On its face it made no sense, a perplexing contradiction of how they had presented earlier. The situation was not as it seemed, both of them on their good behavior, but in turmoil just below the surface.

I’m no stranger to an apparently casual but cryptic message that actually carries import. My husband’s oft spoken throwaway line was usually addressed to my back as I worked in the kitchen or sat at my desk: I’m going for a walk.

Was that an announcement or an invitation? Unable to read his mind, I would nod, silent but hurt, feeling excluded. Over time and after some difficult conversations, I learned to ask: On your own or do you want company?

He usually did. But not always. When he returned from a solitary time away, he was often ready, even eager, to talk things over. His earlier statement, as he turned to leave, was more than a casual aside. Obliquely it let me know that either companionship was being sought or that he needed to mull over an as yet unspoken concern. An important though unclear message when, for whatever reason, more direct communication was difficult. For the two of us, ever seeking a balance between connection and autonomy, this somehow worked.

My clients are not seeking a way to come together but a way to part. When they returned a week later, I asked the husband to clear up the meaning of his hostile parting words. It opened the door to important stories and even provided an opportunity for each of them to empathize with the depth of the others’ disappointment.

Throwaway lines. Spoken into the air as someone is walking away, offhanded and ambiguous. Attention should be paid.

 


 

Standing Alone

My college professor brother often spoke to me about his graduate students struggle to make important decisions about their futures, and how the stress of indecision took its toll. One common plight: take the not quite right job, or continue with their education and incur more debt? Rather than make a choice they might later regret, too many drift, not realizing, from my brother’s perspective, that rarely is there only one right answer, and that even wrong decisions can be dealt with and corrections made. Still in their twenties, most of his students stand alone in the face of uncertainty.

So different from my experience. When I consider the significant choices I made on my own, once outside the immediate orbit of parental influence, I can think of only two. First, at seventeen: where to go to college. Then, at twenty: whether to marry.

Once married, and for the next fifty-three years, I made virtually every major choice in concert with someone equally invested in my future. Not that the issues Len and I faced were thus made simple, but each decision had a shared impact, and we knew we could fall back into each others’ comforting ways if things went awry. And that made a difference.

Now I’m once again making decisions on my own, but comfortable doing so, drawing upon a lifetime of experience. Not so for most young people today who postpone serious personal commitments and remain independent far into their twenties or even thirties, called upon along the way to make important choices without much major decision making experience.

So, my brother would tell his students these two simple stories from his past:

His first paying job, when he was only fourteen, in the 1940s, was sorting potato chips. Hard to imagine in this automated age. He was told to grade the chips as to quality and size, pushing each into one of four separate bins. During early days on the job, he repeatedly approached his boss, unable to decide on the proper category for a particular chip. He was told: Bruce, you are simply going to have to make these decisions. So, he did, without any negative ramifications.

Many years later, with a recent PhD in hand, he worked in a physics laboratory in Princeton, N.J. and took part in the interviewing process for a new hire to join his research team. He approached his superior and urged the selection of a particular candidate, only to have his choice rejected. He persisted, arguing the merits of his favorite applicant, and his boss was finally worn down and said: OK, but I’m telling you here and now, Bruce, you will have to take full responsibility for this decision.

My brother agreed. He reasoned: if this guy works out well, I’ll get all the credit. If he doesn’t, what’s my boss going to do, go to his superiors and tell them he turned the hiring decision over to someone else? Not likely. At worst he would be told he’d made a bad call. That was a risk he was willing to take.

These stories, and the conversations they generated with his students, was his way of encouraging them to get their feet wet in the responsibility waters, wanting to assure them it’s not nearly as frightening as it seems from dry land.

Since my brother’s early decision-making days, and my own, risk analysis has been elevated to a science of sorts. Will it help these young folks who stand alone leave the edge of the future abyss and choose next steps? Perhaps, but how nice it would be if there were loving arms to break a fall.

 

 

A Gift From A Stranger

Friends no longer ask: what did you get for Christmas? Their children, for many even their grandchildren, are grown, their shopping ventures minimized and simplified: a check, a book, or a sweet consumable treat.  And I’ve become something of a humbug, holiday presents important only in memory, when my family was young and their excitement contagious. I much prefer receiving the unexpected gift, unrelated to a ceremonial day, delivered as a simple token of affection.

But around this time a few years ago, I had an experience that brought to mind a moving story of gifting by the famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. He wrote about an early childhood encounter when he lived in a house separated by a high solid wooden fence from that of a neighbor. One day the small hand of a child he did not know, but who lived next door, pushed a toy through a hole in the fence, a tiny white sheep made of faded wool. Wanting to return the favor, the young Neruda pushed his most favored pine cone through to his unknown benefactor. He and the other child never met, but many years later Neruda wrote that this mysterious gift exchange stayed with him, gave his poetry its light.

This is an accurate though incomplete quote,  “To feel the affection that comes from those that we do not know [is] greater and more beautiful because it widens the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things. [ . . . ] Just as I once left the pine cone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.”

My remembered experience happened a few years ago when leaving my local branch post office.  I witnessed a near collision in the busy parking lot just as I reached my car. I left, a bit shaken, and then upon arriving at my next destination I discovered that my wallet was missing. Thinking back, I realized that when distracted by the close call, I’d placed my wallet on top of my car when opening the door, and then driven off. In haste I returned to search the lot, but to no avail. Dismayed by the foolishness of my lapse, and the loss, I began to mentally catalog all those facets of life contained in that zipped leather packet and to anticipate the hours I would now have to spend alerting credit card companies, applying for a new license and membership identifications. The lost cash was almost inconsequential.

Home to my laptop, I began the notification process, wresting some control from chaos. The phone rang. Caller ID revealed an unfamiliar name and number which I was tempted to ignore, but then did not.

It was Lateefa Kituku. She had found my wallet, which had fallen to the roadway several blocks from the post office. Knowing I would be upset, she quickly assured me that everything was intact and safe. Instantly my gloom gave way to relief and gratitude. It was agreed I would pick it up the next morning at the office of the school where she taught kindergarten. When I did so, I left a note of thanks and a gift for her classroom.

My elation went far beyond retrieving important bits of paper and plastic, my identity restored. Like Neruda’s gift of the small toy sheep, this kindness from a stranger was more meaningful in many ways than a present received from a good friend, even one beautifully wrapped and thoughtfully chosen.

Neruda’s words echoed. This gift, the kindness of a stranger, widened the boundary of my being. I was united with a vast caring community.


 

Invisible

Friends question why I am once again talking about opportunities for publishing a book. Striving to be truthful, I answer: to avoid becoming invisible.

They object, especially those who are younger, not wanting me to feel diminished by growing old. They would like to talk me out of this concern. But they cannot. For I’m a realist, and know that aging eventually brings a retreat from center stage.

One particularly close friend pursued the point and asked: do you mean invisible as a woman or in a more general sense?

And I responded: both.

As women grow older, we accept a measure of invisibility. Advancing beyond the ever-expanding stretch designated mid-life, it threatens in earnest. We walk down a sidewalk and male heads no longer turn, no eye contact sought. But with family and friends, and professionally, we can continue as vibrant, seasoned, and more accomplished players, years after feminine allure has faded somewhat. Not a bad trade-off.

Only a Pollyanna would insist that nothing has changed, the step slows and maintaining sound bone and muscle is an ever-greater challenge. Many hours are spent in developing future plans, with the knowledge that even the wisest plan may go awry.

For me, both work and writing keep the stage lights on. And recalling memorable experiences, both personal and work related, exploring and crystallizing their meaning and crafting a story, offers a new role, a revival, a second act. Is this a universal dream for those growing older, to pass along what life has taught? And even a dream for the not yet so old?

What apparently I’ve failed to communicate to those dear friends who seek to reassure me of my continuing relevance, is that becoming less visible is not all bad. So here’s the good news for me, which will eventually be true for them:

I’m no longer burdened by ambition. Though eager to continue to enhance my ability as a mediator and as a writer, I have no more mountains to climb.

Skills developed over so many years of professional practice allow me to serve the needs of clients caught up in distressing times with calm assurance. Advice sought by younger colleagues bring expressions of gratitude that warm the heart.

Volunteer projects of past importance have been taken over by a new generation, and I’m permitted to enjoy the role of spectator, without committee or leadership responsibility, leaving me free to move in new directions and preserve precious hours for my own design.

Never again will I wear uncomfortable shoes.

The clothes in my closet are classics, by my own definition. Being in tune with fashion matters not at all.

Without guilt, I no longer attend social events I think will be tiresome.

Now responsible only for my own timetable, I can talk with a friend for hours, even in the middle of the day, should we choose.

I’m no longer a consumer of anything other than consumables. (Not entirely true as I am part of the Apple world.) Simplicity of want allows for greater focus, and the time to become technologically savvy.

I don’t have to pretend so as to be perceived in a favorable light, don’t have to hide who I really am. Invisibility has morphed into transparency.

Less visible, perhaps, but not marginalized, only centered.


 

The Unobserved Life

The Unobserved Life

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How many of today’s young are first stirred to shared sexual arousal in cars? For my generation this was often the case, for these were the years before coed dorms, even before the pill. We were able to slide across the bench-like front seat, whether moving or parked, and snuggle close. No bucket seats or cup holding consoles to form a barrier.

But, this brief essay is not about sex. It’s about private space, the unobserved life that cars offered then, and in some important ways may still.

Some years ago, I was reading Richard Ford’s novel, “The Lay of the Land”, when shock-jock Don Imus made front page news with his mean spirited verbal assault on a young women’s sports team. For those like myself, who had never been part of the Imus audience, a window opened on this brand of controversial and often offensive talk-radio program. Many expressed surprise on learning that hundreds of thousands of listeners made these commentators a lucrative source of advertising income for the broadcasting networks and earned these uninhibited boy-men millions.

But first, back to the book. Ford’s everyman protagonist, Frank Bascombe, is a realtor. In his car, either alone, or with colleagues or clients, he conducts both business and many meaningful personal conversations (often with himself) when driving the New Jersey countryside.

Ford’s query was: Why do so many things happen in cars? Are they the only interior life left?

And my query: why the popularity of the cadre of shock-jock radio personalities?

Many attempts have been made to analyze the audience of those angry white (mostly) men who celebrate insult. They don’t simply provide the eroticism of a Lenny Bruce or a Hustler type display of blatant sexuality, although sexual innuendo is pervasive. Specific groups are targeted. Women, blacks, and gays are those most often denigrated. Now Muslims?

One explanation for their popularity made sense to me. This is the rationale: time was when gathering to share sports talk or gossip at the office water cooler, or to ogle nude pinups in the back room, also afforded an opportunity to exchange the latest sexist or racist joke or slur. Even the surreptitious pat on the rump. Perhaps for some this was innocent fun. For others it was a way to assert their power and status as superior to those being ridiculed, workplace behavior which at least until the 1980s went unchallenged.

Then when women employed outside of their homes achieved a critical mass, behaviors previously acceptable were called into question. With the backing of supportive men, receptive legislators and the concurrence of jurists, the definition of sex discrimination, as experienced in the work setting, was expanded and the word “harassment” entered our common vocabulary. The term “politically correct” was also born and bespoke a new standard, received with delight by some and with a cynical sneer by others.

So, to return to the analysis I found persuasive: it is suggested that many of those tuned into drive-time radio, listening to mocking racist and sexist put-downs, while resenting society’s new rules, were happily unrestrained, and free to guffaw or gloat in the privacy of their cars. For except in their cars, radio was usually a shared family (observed) experience.

But today most of these radio shows have moved online. No FCC restraints. All that is needed for those drawn to vulgar jokes and aggressive talk is a headset and a downloadable podcast. No doubt some do actually wince at times, but all so engaged are once again secure in their unobserved life.

To me it seems a sad and lonely adventure. Nowhere near the pleasure of being unobserved snuggling in the front seat of a car.


 

Permission Granted

Have you ever called upon a friend or loved one to talk over a decision you were considering, only to later recognize that at some level you were actually seeking permission to take a step that was out of step with the expectation others may have had of you? Or when you were reluctant to disappoint or even shock those you hold dear? If so, I think this is a good thing, a benefit of true friendship, and sometimes also the reward of consultation with a trusted adviser.

Here is what brought these thoughts to mind:

The woman with whom I was having lunch was a nurse, specially trained as a geriatric care manager. I sought her out to talk about her work and she shared this view: We are so conditioned by the “shoulds” and “oughts” of the culture, religion and the times in which we were raised, that sometimes we need to be given permission by another to make the wise rational decisions to best care for ourselves and our loved ones.

     She told me about her experience with her eighty-eight year old father who was hospitalized for over two weeks and not expected to survive, but he did. His clear instructions: if this happens to me again, no more heroics, too much pain and too much expense. Just let me go.       

She was quick to respond and reassure: But, I’m not ready to let you go.

      Her father’s answer: This is not your decision to make.

      She realized he was not only stating his wishes, but also giving her permission to carry them out.

My naïve question about her father: But didn’t he have a living will?

He did. But her professional experience taught her that despite properly executed living wills, when confronted with end of life decisions, the designated decision maker is frequently unable to act in accord with the legal document, is immobilized. Permission must still be granted.

Another example: A sixty-eight year old woman, the sole caretaker for her eight-eight year old mother, entered the care manager’s office saying: I hate my mother.     

Despite a childhood endured with this alcoholic abusive parent, and a troubled distant relationship with her as an adult, when her mother could no longer live independently, the daughter felt she had no option but to provide care in her home. Both were miserable. The advice given: The obligation to honor a parent presumes having been honored, as a child and as an adult. The mother was moved to a nursing home. Permission granted.

And another example offered by the care manager: she had attended a conference for fellow professionals who were addressed by a renowned Rabbi educator. He suggested it was time to reconsider the concept of adultery. His shocked audience was then told of a seventy-two year old man whose wife, two years earlier, had suffered a major stroke that left her both physically and mentally impaired and resident in a nursing home. He sought and found the companionship of another woman, but denied himself the fullness of the relationship he desired. Permission was granted.

The “shoulds” and “oughts” of life are programmed into our DNA, or so it seems. There are times when the greatest gift a friend or counselor can bestow is to sanction our setting aside restrictions and obligations we have internalized, but which no longer make sense.

Even with the wisdom of years, permission must still be granted.

So to my dear children: If and when the time arrives when I am no longer able to care for myself, utilize my long-term care insurance to keep me n my home or to house me in a decent facility, not in your home. If you don’t live nearby, only occasional visits will be just fine. If you are close by, once a week will do. And should I no longer recognize you or treat you lovingly, just check on me once in a while. Permission granted.


 

 

The Anniversary

    [I posted this commentary some years ago as the end of August approached, a time both dreaded and savored.]     …………………………………

Should I write of this? Of uninvited, unwelcome images that intrude as I lose my hold on purposeful thought.

The anniversary of Len’s death is here.

Twelve years ago, as summer was ending, the man who was my love, my companion for more than fifty years, left me. Sometimes that is exactly how it feels. And each year as August approaches I tell myself: not this time, gloom will not have a place at my table. Surely I am wise enough and strong enough not to succumb to these unbidden thoughts.

During that last year, even as his health steadily declined, we shared an incomparable intimacy. Caring for the body so well known and loved. Touching him, being touched by him, pretending we had many years to go. Sadness and joy so entwined.

Our marriage was perfect.

Our marriage was imperfect.

Exquisite times of closeness

Brooding times of silence.

Always respect.

Always caring.

We were bound, but free.

At the end of that August, as soon as my family departed, I returned to my world of work, and at home welcomed solitude and long postponed relaxed times with close friends began again. I busied myself with the tasks that attend such a loss. Notifications sent. Accounts closed. Books, papers, clothing sorted and disposed of or gifted. To one son the music collection, to another the tools, to a grandson the fishing rods and lures. Kept for myself the treasured letters and a few favorite warm shirts.

Then, as the first anniversary of his death approached, my steps slowed, my throat tightened, and my quiet times became more somber.

Disbelieving, I silently wailed: why should this foreboding of the calendar cast me down? But it did, and it has each August since. Can it be that I’m not the wise and strong person I insist I am? Unable to rise above this annual malaise?

I consult with a counselor and she says: the very angle of the sun as the same date approaches, casts shadows reminiscent of the days you choose to forget. The leafiness of the trees, the heat, the hour of first morning light, all of these images appear unbidden, and take you back to the heartbeat of that time.

This I can understand and accept. And can share with others whose intimate losses are known to me. For them too, anniversaries presage low times.

And I tell them that I now mark the anniversary each year in a significant way. I do not let it pass unnoticed, as once I hoped it would.

A picnic with friends in the park we used to go to as a young family

Revisiting art galleries we wandered together

A special dinner with an intimate

Breakfast at the home of dear friends with some old pictures in hand

Len and I seldom gave each other gifts, although we often urged the other to buy something yearned for, but that would not be purchased without a push. A painting. An airplane!

So each year, as the day approaches, I buy myself an anniversary gift, a thing of beauty:

A small sculpture of a horse’s head

A Marino glass sphere

Beautiful Italian soup bowls

A tiny Netsuke cat

An iPad

It was a new home three years ago, which I molded to please my aesthetic eye.

He would have insisted.


 

Solitude

August approaches, the month in which Leonard died. Each year it is a time of looking back and summing up, a time that used to bring me low. Less so with each passing year, as gratitude overtakes the sadness of loss.

How many of us ever seriously contemplate the likelihood that when older we will spend  years living alone?

Long ago I read May Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude”, a chronicle of her year of self-imposed isolation after an important relationship had ended. She described in great detail how she spent the days, her grieving and then her renewal. I loved that book and still remember the pleasure of vicariously sharing her daily experience. At the time, I was so completely engaged with my growing family and work life, such solitude could only be imagined. Now, it is here, though not by choice.

Or is it?

When friends, or even family, invite me to join them for more than a few hours of socializing, I decline. Even if little else is on my calendar that could not easily be put off, for I know that I will not willingly give up the solitude promised by time to myself.

I moved from my childhood home to the college dorm and on to marriage without missing a beat. Children, law school, the practice, life with Len. There were rarely moments, even if temporarily alone, that were not spent preparing for the next work or family activity.

So, I did not give serious thought to this time. The empty nest was never entirely empty. Even during my husband’s last months, I didn’t allow myself to imagine being without him. Life was the studied placement of one foot in front of the other. Goals were pursued, moments of reflection dealt with the present.

Now, for twelve years, I’ve been living alone. I find it quite a remarkable, even wonderful time of life. Are there anxious moments? Of course. Are there times of intense yearning for my past love? Yes. Occasional waves of grief wash over me, but I now know they will recede in time, usually with the coming of daylight.

I surprise even myself with how much I treasure my solitude.

Would that be so if I did not continue to engage with clients and colleagues, often share meals with close friends and wake many mornings to find a new email or text from a distant child? Likely not, for the human contact I have is a cherished part of my life, and always will be.

And I’m well aware of how my experience differs from those who are widowed or divorced in their middle years. Carrying on in the absence of a loved one, especially if feeling rejected, must be daunting, at least for a time. Then, I imagine, the need to start anew and build a different future fills the days.

Years spent living alone are ahead for many. For most, is the thought not even allowed to enter consciousness? So it was for me, to only later discover that this time of life affords an independence of spirit never before known, a time to live without pretense, completely authentic, a time to be savored.

I know not everyone finds my destination, this peaceful place. A more troublesome past might harbor demons. I feel such gratitude for those who loved me so well that solitude is a reward, rather than a sentence, and offers time to occasionally look back and distill and put into words that which seems worth passing along.


 

Insulted

Every media source and social network is reporting on the extended work life anticipated by the boomer generation as they approach what used to be an assumed retirement age of 65. Some seem eager to continue working, to recoup retirement portfolio losses, or simply because they’ve hit their stride in a fulfilling career. I’m with them, and frankly happy to have their company, not to feel like such an outlier. The thought brings back to mind what happened to me on a windy March day a few years ago.

I was then living downtown. Walking home from my office, I met two young lawyers with whom I had a passing acquaintance. We paused on a busy downtown corner waiting for the traffic light to change. They were empty handed and carefree, dressed in sweats. I carried a briefcase, my heavy winter coat open to the warming spring air.

We smiled in greeting and one of them said, in a jocular tone: Bea, you still working?

I answered: yes.

Then the other said: Come on, it’s about time you packed it in and got out on the golf course.

The light changed. Side by side we crossed the street. They walked on, and I turned toward home, saved from having to respond. In the days that followed, I chewed on their words as a dog might worry a bone. Every friend I chanced to talk with heard about this insult.

But why did I think it was?

After much thought and conversation, I came to see their remark as friendly needling. Would it have been an irritant if I were not already sensitive about my age, expected to retire, to move over. Is that the message I chose to hear? Not play golf, but get out of the way? I think so.

My husband joyfully retired at the age of 63, after thirty years of college teaching. Disillusioned with a university administration that valued successful research grant applications over skilled teaching, he contentedly entered a new phase of life and spent the next fifteen years engaged with family, our household, and trips to wilderness fishing spots he could reach in his small plane. I happily continued practicing law.

Both Len and I were raised by parents who became parents as stock markets crashed and the Great Depression followed. Len’s father yearned for retirement to escape from the crushing physical hardship of his blue-collar life, longed to fill his life with music, travel and raising beautiful flowers. My father, also having risen from poor beginnings, joyfully gave up the competitive business world to enjoy leisure, to listen to music and read.

Our mothers never really retired, Len’s offering daily care for each new grandchild she could hold close, and mine, an artist, was still seriously painting just weeks before her death at 89.

Dare I generalize from this small sample?

Perhaps those of us who are in control of the work we’ve chosen to do, answerable to neither productivity demands or the discordant values of a system we no longer share or feel able to influence, can cheerfully soldier on, fulfilled by bringing to bear competence learned over a lifetime.

And after all, aren’t the eighties the new seventies?


 

Threatened By Fantasy

I wish I could think and write more intelligently about adult pornography. The very word pornography looms large on the page or when spoken, and is rarely mentioned in mixed company, even among good friends. I’ve read position papers by some well known academics, women for whom it is an unmitigated evil, but the very existence of an industry that draws in many billions of dollars a year reflects a demand these authors do not address, except to seek censorship. Does prohibition ever work?

Admittedly, my vantage point is narrow. The few films I’ve actually seen, I found seriously wanting, without a context that would provide women, at least, with any sustainable interest.

In the 1970s, my public defender years, the Courthouse was my bailiwick. From the sidelines I followed the criminal trials of the producers of pornographic films (after all, we do know it when we see it), some notorious. Eventually, as juries began to return not-guilty verdicts, prosecutions dwindled, and in 1975, the VCR arrived in the market place and theatergoers retreated into the seclusion of their homes.

The shift to the internet offers viewers even greater privacy, until discovered.

Pornography enters my present world when it is seen as a factor contributing to the disintegration of a marriage. But as a cause or an effect? Listening to the stories some wives in mediation tell about their husband’s internet exploration, I still don’t know.

What is clear is that for some women it becomes a defining issue, convinced that their partner’s vivid fantasy life weakens the marriage bond, and believing that their own desirability is called into question. Unable to talk of this together, the intimate dance that brought them together is now in reverse, and she withdraws to a self-imposed isolation. Had he reassured her, would the outcome have been different?

Not for some, for whom the issue is a moral one. Their upbringing or religious belief affords them absolute clarity of judgment, allowing for no accommodation, a position that must be respected, even when not shared. But for many, their partner’s clandestine and solitary involvement, evokes concern that what is viewed creates a yearning that erodes commitment. Is that true? Is that inevitable?

Because open discussion of this taboo subject is rare, I have little knowledge of those couples who successfully address the issue with a counselor, or those where the viewer’s interest is not condemned, may even be joined, or simply treated lightly, tolerated, or just ignored.

The conversations I have with the husbands in mediation, the accused watchers, are typically brief and superficial. They’ve been “outed”, are somewhat embarrassed, but neither deny their interest nor make excuses, unwilling to submit to an inheritance of guilt. In all respects known to me, they are honorable and healthy men, supporting their families, devoted to their children. Their exterior life in the community is openly on display. But their interior fantasy life allows them to secretly travel wherever they wish, until now, when they are met with rage or sullen silence, accusations of perversity, and find their family falling apart.

About more familiar fantasies, I can think and write intelligently. There is probably not a married person alive who has not, in their interior life at least, envisioned the “what ifs?” What if I’d married someone else? What if we separated or divorced? What if in ten years I live with regret for having missed important opportunities? What if I seek some major changes in my life right now, and give them primacy over the accepted patterns that have developed in my marriage?

I remember some of those times when the “what ifs?” were on my mind, and times I imagined my husband asking himself similar questions. Some of those moments were scary.

But those daydreams turned out to be healthy, even if unsettling. For eventually we talked. They provoked change, small steps that gently shifted established ways, or even major moves that altered life’s course.

These are speculations we can honor, whether enticing or frightening, whether about intimacy, a job change or even global disaster, and when one day comfortable doing so, a conversation can begin. Is that also possible in the realm of explicit, deceptively idealized sexuality?

Is porn inevitably a destructive force? May it also bring important questions into the open? If, rather than unwavering judgment, a more nuanced discussion could be had, without blame assigned, might changes then be made to improve upon the reality, the fantasy world accepted as just that?

Or is that a fantasy?


 

Fathers Past And Present

I’m sure it’s true for all of us: Our personal past informs our professional present.

The father seated in my office weeps without shame. He and his wife have not yet told their 11-year-old daughter that their marriage is ending. For both of them this looms as a painful task, but he is the parent who feels most at risk of losing or diminishing the precious connection to this child. Although much more involved than fathers in years past, because of his work commitments his wife assumed the primary parenting role. Would he continue to have a secure place in his daughter’s life when living on his own and no longer with her for part of every day? He fears he will not. I empathize and want to reassure him, but how?

Later, I search for childhood memories of my own father and realize that, except for his place at Sunday dinners, I have few, for he was usually absent as I was growing up. To keep bread on the table during the Depression years, my father left home before I woke and returned after dark. Then, as our financial fortunes began to ease, came the horrors of the Holocaust, World War II, my older brother’s entry into the army, and the detonation of atomic bombs.  These are the events that I remember commanded our attention when the family was together during my teen years. I left home for college just after the war ended, to return only for brief visits.

Yet, some personal memories remain vivid. One comes to mind. When 11 years old, I cut my own hair, snipping off long locks to create bangs. My mother did not hide her utter dismay. But when my father came home and was brought to view the damage, even in the face of my mother’s frowning disapproval, he said: I like it very much. She’s very pretty.

My spirits soared.

An important moment for me, if remembered so many decades later.

The perhaps idealized memory I hold of my father is of a quiet kind man, always with a newspaper in hand, who seemed pleased whenever he saw me. I grew up believing he loved and approved of me unconditionally, a gift fully appreciated only much later in life as I witnessed the struggle of a close friend whose abiding memory is of her father’s relentless disapproval.

I told my client this story in a private moment when next we met, and suggested that his daughter will never forget the important kindnesses he has shown her in the past and will in the future. Though no longer a constant presence in her life, there will now be moments just the two of them will share. Some will be memorable. He smiles but retreats into silence.

The other father I have known well is the man I married. Len strove to be a father like my own, and mostly he was, until he wasn’t. In the early 1970s, as the Viet Nam war raged, the conversation at our dinner table, and on the campus at which he taught, roiled with dissent. The sexual revolution was in full sway just as our teenagers came of age. As parents we sought to a adjust to the swiftly changing times, but were in turmoil, trying to understand but still hold to the standards we then thought sound.

When Len came home one day and found one of our sons upstairs with a girlfriend, in anger he told him it must never happen again, or he must leave. It was our house, so our rules. I silently acquiesced to his edict, agreeing with his reasons, if less sure about the threat, but alert to the anger with which his quick decision was made, knowing some but not all of the sources.

Unwilling to agree, our son moved to a tiny apartment (guess who paid the rent?) until he left for college some months later. But the child grown to maturity learns to place parents in the context of their times and unique personal history. In the years that followed, apologizes were spoken, and the relationship became relaxed and loving once again. I share this story with my client as well. Our missteps can repair.

And what is the message from fathers today: anything goes, just stay safe?


 

The Art Of The Deal

My older brother and I maintained a close connection through long meandering phone conversations every other week or so. We’ve lived a significant distance apart since leaving our childhood home, and meet infrequently.

As we talked, we sometimes unearthed childhood memories, and told stories which the other never heard, or had forgotten. So I marveled when I discovered our similar ways, especially when they were unlike those of our parents.

The remembered incidents I’m about to describe came to mind when we compared notes about the incredible amounts charged for medical tests, compared to the lesser payments ultimately made by insurance carriers in apparent satisfaction of the provider’s bills. Then my brother spoke of his internist telling him of breaking his leg while skiing in Vermont, and later receiving a large invoice from the “out of network” hospital where he’d been treated. The doctor called and bargained with a financial administrator there, until they concurred on an acceptable sum.

My bother and I agreed that while we might have sought an explanation of such charges, we would never have thought to negotiate a lesser cost. Out of embarrassment or ignorance?

This brought to his mind two stories about our parents in times past.

My mother’s story: with my brother in tow, he about thirteen, she was shopping for a dining room table at Macy’s (already a NYC institution in the 1940s). She selected one that came with six chairs, and then noticed two identical chairs set aside in a corner. Said my mother to the salesperson: I’ll take this dining room set if you throw in the two additional chairs. (My brother recalls wishing he could disappear.)

Said the saleswoman: Madam, Macy’s does not bargain.

My mother suggested that the saleswoman consult with the buyer, and not long after, she returned and said: Madam, Macy’s bargains.

The purchase was made.

My father’s story: again back in the 1940s, he and my mother had invited a few friends to be their guests at an upscale restaurant. At the end of the meal, when the waiter presented the bill, my father discovered he’d forgotten his wallet. He spurned the offer of others at the table to pay in his stead, and took out his checkbook (before credit cards).

The waiter told him that checks were not acceptable. So my father asked to speak with the manager, who soon approached, and with curt assurance said: Sir, this restaurant does not extend credit.

My father glanced down at the table, now covered with the remnants of the meal just consumed, and responded: Sir, you already have.

His check was accepted.

Despite these fabled tales known to my brother, like me, he paid most bills without question, and never sought to negotiate the price of an item he was purchasing except, of course, for cars and real estate, when to bargain is the expected dance.

Our parents lost their home to foreclosure in the aftermath of the market crash of 1929. My brother was six and I was three and somehow they protected us from ever feeling deprived during the hard-bitten years of economic struggle that followed. Is this why they did, and we don’t, bargain?

With these new stories in mind, I’m wondering if my long gone parents have taught me something new. Perhaps they’ve given me the courage to now engage in the art of the deal.


 

 

 

The Rule of Two

After decades of yielding to the social plans of those friends more gregarious than I am, my practice of furtive early departures from group events evolved into my Rule of Two. I rarely visit out of town friends or family for more than two days. And if I’m part of a convivial gathering for more than two hours, it’s only because I haven’t found an acceptable way to escape.

I did enjoy the spirited get-togethers of my high school years, but even then, after the first couple of hours, I was content to become an observer, never the lasting life of the party. In college, pairing off began in earnest, for me a lovely respite from collective fun seeking. Marriage followed and soon thereafter came graduate school for Len, when there was little time for the festive company of friends, no money and babies to care for. Home became a safe haven from the social whirl.

Was I anti-social as some suggested? I thought not, but then why the discomfort?

Then, one day a friend wise in the teachings of Carl Jung tagged me an introvert. Surely not, was my immediate thought, for I love working with people and treasure many friendships. But with this idea in mind I began to read about the distinctions between extroverts and introverts, and gratefully accepted the label.

Author and journalist Jonathan Rauch, an introvert himself, wrote about this personality dichotomy for the Atlantic Monthly (an article which for years drew more traffic to the magazine’s website than any other). He affirmed that we introverts need hours alone every day. We love quiet conversations with intimates about how we are feeling, what they are thinking. But when our attendance at social gatherings of more than three or four others cannot be avoided, we need days to recuperate. We are not shy as may sometimes be assumed, and can even be comfortable making formal presentations to large groups. Not anti-social, not depressed. But when the jovial schmoozing starts, we yearn to sneak away as unobtrusively as possible.

Rauch writes: for introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.

Extroverts are energized by being in the presence of others, whereas for introverts the opposite is true. Brain scan research even suggests that the two groups process information differently. So, this is the root of my Rule of Two. I need no longer feel deficient or make excuses. I can walk into a room feeling no obligation to be who I am not, allow myself to be a listener, comfortable (usually) to be alone within the crowd, then leave.

A question raised by friends and the disappointed marriage partners who are my clients: are introverts better off partnering with extroverts, or selecting someone of their own orientation? No simple answer, but I’m sure that for opposite types to be happy together, there needs to be a recognition and acceptance of each other’s bent.

At some point Len and I voiced our shared reality that dinner parties were a dreaded chore rather than an anticipated good time. For the first two hours, fine, but then our furtive sidelong glances conveyed a mutual yearning to go home and have the rest of the evening to ourselves.

We were both introverts. I do wish I’d had a better understanding of this early on. I would have worried less during his retreats into silence. But over the years, as we became so well known to each other, there were many times we were comfortable alone, even when together.

 

Suffer The Silence

How readily we blame others when our conversational styles don’t match. I used to be a master at this.

For me, thoughts translate into speech with virtually no time delay. But when I talked with my husband, especially if saying something I thought important, frequently I was met with silence.

Then it took me but a nano-second to question the reason for his lack of an immediate response. Was it anger, or boredom, or even worse, disdain? And in the instant it took me to speculate about his possible motives, there seemed a purposeful lack of eye contact as well. So, need I even say, I faulted him for this communication impasse?

I learned early in life, by observing my mother, to respond to rejection (for this was how it felt) by receding into silence. My loved one had also learned well how to protect himself at such times. In response to my pointed withdrawal, he might studiously refocus on something he was reading, or quickly react to a welcomed interruption, the phone, a child, birds on the feeder.

And all of this avoidance, our disconnect, could be complete in less than a minute.

It took me about twenty-five of my married years, and a bit of professional help, to figure a way out of this communication quandary. Happily, in other respects we were doing well.

The problem that actually drew us into counseling was my insomnia (and a twitching eyelid), when Len began taking our young grandchildren flying with him in the small plane he piloted. My speculations ran wild, vividly picturing emergencies that could befall them high in the sky. Attempts to talk about this failed miserably.

Here is what I later learned: Some people, and clearly Len was one, seek more time than others to process their thoughts before committing them to speech. Perhaps some day scientists will identify the very neural connections that govern such differences, but for whatever reason, whether innate, cultural or simply due to parental modeling, it’s important to recognize and honor the reality that there are many different communication styles. The blameworthy motivations I had long been assigning made no sense.

With this new understanding, I would still carefully choose my times for significant conversations, when there were no obvious distractions and we could talk for a while. The best time for us was breakfast at a restaurant or traveling in a car in easy traffic. When I started an exchange of importance to me, after speaking, I simply remained quiet. I no longer asked rapid follow up questions in pursuit of an immediate reply. Nor did I pout. Several moments might pass, sometimes even an intervening comment made (by him) about something appearing on the landscape. But, I still waited.

A meaningful answer always came.

The lesson was eventually well learned: suffer the silence.
. . . . . . . . . .
Note: Len agreed to take a pilot friend along when flying with the grandchildren.


 

Swimming With The Tide

I am often the oldest person in the room.

But if I happen to be with a contemporary, an initial judgment is quickly made: are they “with” the technology or avoiding it?

Being senior to everyone else at a dinner party I attended a few years ago, I was seated next to the guest of honor, a Federal Court Judge visiting from another state. I’d been told she was 70 and expected to meet someone sedate and reserved. Not so. Her very first question as she turned to face me was: Do you have an iPhone?

I do!

Hers was already in hand, and with obvious delight she said: I’ve got to show you my newest app.

Equally unrestrained about telling her personal story, she spoke of her immigrant family’s struggle and her own path to such high status. We saw clearly her determination to remain a relevant force on the Bench, willing to question traditional views.

I too am resolved to not get left behind, but how do those of us who are the parents of baby boomers, adjust and grow and still maintain our equilibrium, as social mores seem to change almost as much, If not quite so rapidly, as the technology. Here are some facets of my journey:

Small black and white television sets were just starting to appear in living rooms when my generation came of age. Sentimental family sit-coms and romantic movies set the standards for our marriages. No women “at work” except for Katherine Hepburn. And Spencer, so long suffering.

Enter Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and MS magazine and law school.

So much TV and movie fare is marketed to the young, the population most closely monitored by advertisers, is often dizzying. Those growing up in the computer age have mastered the speed of online games, and thirst for fast paced entertainment. Perhaps the population bubble of aging baby boomers, at least those still in consumer mode, will cause something of a slowdown? In the meantime I’ve given up gathering news from a TV screen. I read the print press or online, at my own pace and with selectivity. I avoid and believe myself immune to the quickened beat of entertainment, but am I?

A movie classic I may watch, even an Academy Award winning film, now seems to move along so ponderously. I often give up before the end, wishing I could fast forward, not the film, but the script. Has the impatience of youth invaded my brain uninvited?

And, in what other significant ways have I joined society’s new order, jettisoned long held values? My sexual awakening (accompanied by delicately coded parental warnings) preceded the development of the pill. Values born of fear as much as morality were sorely tested when as parents ourselves we were thrown headlong into the confusion of raising adolescents during the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. I well remember how we and our friends struggled with the decision of whether our young adult children would be allowed to share a bedroom with a partner when returning home for a brief stay. Today, if a grandchild brings a loved one to visit, the separate bedroom issue is a non-issue. The discomfort will not even be there. So, I’m coming along.

Except in one respect, the use of crude language. No adjustment there. That is still chalk breaking on a blackboard. Thankfully my younger colleagues, and my family, defer to my tender sensibilities, at least in my presence. For this, I thank them.

But the Judge, she swore like a sailor.


 

Don’t Assume, Ask

Too often I’ve assumed others shared my point of view, only to later learn how wrong I was.

Why does it matter?

If communication is the heart of a good relationship, and our perception about how another is thinking or feeling is “off”, and we don’t know it (or choose to avoid knowing it), we’re starting the slide into misunderstanding, away from intimacy.

An almost comical (if not so poignant) example often comes to my mind. In 2000, my husband and I sold the home in which we’d lived for over 40 years, and where we raised our family. Len had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s three years earlier, and although his symptoms were still mild, he was finding climbing stairs ever more arduous. Hence the decision to move.

Our great good fortune was to find a sunny apartment rental with a river view, a parking garage and no stairs. Our house sold quickly, we simplified life by downsizing our possessions, and both of us felt lighthearted to be leaving so much responsibility behind.

For me, raised in and around New York City, the return to apartment life was like putting on a pair of comfortable old shoes. For Len, although he had grown up roaming the open prairies of Illinois, for five years soon after we married, we had lived in one flat or another when he attended Columbia University. And he’d relished city life.

So, we happily settled into our new seventh floor home, only ourselves to please in this latest phase of our lives, quite unencumbered but for our cat, Eleanor. Hers was the major adjustment, for she went from being an outdoor wanderer and hunter, to a life completely circumscribed by the apartment walls and our small balcony.

When our first visitors inquired about how we enjoyed our new living quarters, I readily answered for both of us that it was all quite wonderful. Len just smiled. Then Eleanor padded into the room, and they asked how she was adjusting to being an indoor cat.

“She loves it,” I said.

“She hates it,” Len offered on the heels of my comment. “She feels trapped and confined.”

I was shocked. We had both projected onto our inscrutable cat, how each of us was actually feeling. Quite unconsciously, I’d attributed to my emotional state an objective reality we shared, when that was anything but the case. My comfort and delight with our new surroundings was in no way matched by Len’s unspoken despair, in a world that continued to narrow as his physical limitations advanced.

I should have asked, instead of assuming he experienced my positive response to our move.

Ironically, openly assigning our feelings to our furry pet launched important conversations. I needed to face what he, until that moment, had hidden, and what I’d preferred not to know.

Intimacy was renewed.


 

Soul Mates: Myth or Reality?

I shared dinner at my home with a friend I’ve become close to in the years since the death of my husband. She never knew him, but I often spoke to her about him, about us.

On this evening, I showed her a collage of photos taken at different stages of our marriage: in our college years, with small ones on our laps, family vacations, and after our children were grown and we were once again on our own. As with most family photos on display, they show us smiling, attractive children, arms entwined, all of us happy together.

She commented: You two were soul mates, weren’t you?

I was surprised by this, and don’t remember my response, probably just a somewhat hesitant nod. We had also been talking about her marriage, which seemed fine overall, but on this night her words were tinged with disappointment.

Weeks went by before we met again. In the interim, I thought often about her use of the term “soul mates,” and was troubled. Not a phrase I would ever have used.

For over fifty years, Len and I were loved well by each other, most of the time. But we were not soul mates, as I understand the meaning of this new age term: being the totally compatible perfect other half, fated to be together, intimates speaking the same language.That was not our reality.

In his absence, and missing him so, it is the better times that are most often brought back to mind and talked about. But I didn’t want my friend to look to us as an ideal for comparison, against which she might find cause to be discouraged about her own marriage when they were cycling through a trying time.

I needed to tell her that the ideal is a fiction.

Michelle Obama has done this well. Untold articles are written about the Obama marriage. Pictures of them holding hands and smiling are beamed to every corner of the globe. How my admiration for her grew on reading a 2010 NYTimes Magazine article in which both she and the President were candid about unhappy interludes: “The image of a flawless relationship is ‘the last thing that we want to project,’ she said. ‘It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.’ ”

As the years went by, Len and I came to accept that many of our interests were not shared. We set aside the romantic dream that somehow we could be all things to each other. Over time we became more autonomous as we alternately fostered each other’s careers and longings. Our mutual attraction, respect, and our growing family, this was the glue that carried us through the difficult days.

Most often when we were out of sync, we muddled through on our own, all the while struggling with very different communication styles (a special debt of gratitude is owed to Professor Deborah Tannen for writing “You Just Don’t Understand”). But occasionally, a therapist was enlisted to offer a different lens, a new perspective. Invariably, confronting unhappiness brought us closer.

Now, looking back, it’s tempting to generalize from our personal experience when friends comment on or ask about our long successful marriage. But respecting the unique personalities and circumstances of others, I desist. It suffices to say we were lucky to have met, to have shared a determination to problem solve, and to have had a love that carried us through the scary times.

But we were never soul mates.


 

A Melancholy Day

When my kids were young, Halloween was my favorite holiday. With little spent in time or money, the night ended with costumes askew and each child’s candy hoard spread out and sorted on the living room floor. Apples disdained, chocolate eaten with abandon.

It seems right that Thanksgiving should be next in line for favored holiday status, a time to remember all that is most treasured, friendships and family, and savor favorite recipes. Seems right, but is not quite true.

Later today I will join with loved ones and we will all be smiling as a sumptuous meal is presented, but I know I will have to purposefully hold myself back from a focus on who is no longer at the table. Perhaps I will talk about him, casually, even telling funny stories about his carving exploits, and I will be able to breathe again. But after a time I know I will want to go home, be alone with my thoughts, and allow my practiced smile to dim.

Last year my older son phoned and sensed my mood as the day waned, a mood which he said he shared. We reminisced about years long past, the annual early Thanksgiving morning drive to the Chicago suburbs, the kids snug under blankets dozing in the back seat, then waking as dawn lightened the sky. On reaching the halfway mark, we pulled into a familiar roadside restaurant for pancakes and hot coffee.

The aroma of the feast filled the air when we reached our destination. Cousins fairly tumbled over each other in joyful reunion, as the Larsen clan gathered in the small prairie town where some still live. Too many of us to all sit together except around the ping pong table in Aunt Joan’s basement, hot dishes carefully carried down a dimly lit steep cellar stairway. Babies passed from arms to arms, giving new parents respite.

How many times did this scene replay? Until one day our children returned to their childhood home with their own small people carried aloft on shoulders grown broad and strong. The familiar aromas were then in my kitchen, which was soon crowded with helping hands. As the day waned, Len and I would leave for an evening walk, hand in hand in the cold winter air.

Soon another Thanksgiving Day will have passed. Everywhere I’ll hear: How was your Thanksgiving?

The response: Great!

My response: Fine.

In this answer there is both truth and undisclosed sadness, and I know not just my own. For every family there is a story to be told that the holiday evokes, remembered pleasures and joys, some sadness, some regret.

Oddly, I almost savor my melancholy mood, for it intensifies the moments remembered. Would the losses be so mourned, if less precious?

But, if I were king of the world, once the expressions of gratitude Thanksgiving brings to our thoughts and our words are again a memory, we would now fast forward to the first of next year, and bypass all the holiday merriment of December. How humbug is that?


 

How Dare You Ask!

A fable: On a lovely fall day, they drove away from the city, admiring the leaves turned crimson and gold. But the thoughts of our players were on a soon to be enjoyed romantic interlude at the Cozy Country Inn. Jan and Joe had been seeing each other for a few weeks, and the time seemed right for greater intimacy.
Their instincts were true. Their liaison was passionate and satisfying.
The next morning, they entered the dining room feeling optimistic about their future, born of their new closeness. Over blueberry waffles they talked:
Jan: So, tell me more about your job.
Joe: You mean what do I do, day to day?
Jan: Well, what do you earn?
Joe was silent and raised his hands to his chest, palms outward in the universal gesture of: back off.
 They traveled home in silence.
An exaggeration? Perhaps, but perhaps not.
Why is it so difficult, even with an intimate, to talk about money?
Except for close family, I have few friends with whom I talk freely about our finances, what we each earn and what we have accumulated. I’ve inquired of others and learned that most have even fewer confidants for such talk, some not any. Even family members are often kept essentially in the dark, and know better than to ask. And if someone does pose a question, doubts arise.
What is the questioner’s motive?
Will I be judged inadequate, unworthy?
Will I build a false expectation of largess?
If she earns more than I do, will I be diminished in her eyes?
We comfortably talk about the money of others, often scoffing at those who’ve accumulated millions and continue to relentlessly strive for more. We ask: when is enough enough? Money doesn’t buy happiness, or so we reassure each other. But we do not turn to our conversation partner and ask about their finances, unwilling to risk undermining an ego, theirs or our own. Personal talk about money is the ultimate taboo.
Does what we earn or own define our intrinsic worth in the eyes of others? Is that the essential fear? 
It is easier to share in the exquisite privacy of the sexual realm, and reassure both ourselves and our partner of the potential for mutuality, and of our value to the other, than to expose our ability to compete for dollars, judged by the external standards of society. Then our ego strength is in the hands of others, the fickle marketplace. So we hide?
The moral of the fable: The one gleefully stripped bare in the bedroom, in the counting room must be afforded ample cover.


 

Nothing But The Truth

My eyebrows lift as my friend says, “I can tolerate anything but being lied to.”

Noting my skeptical glance, her irritation shows. Honesty, as an absolute, has been a topic of contention with us over the years, she regarding my outlook as far too tolerant of those who fail to tell the truth, or even those who hide behind ambiguity.

My belief is that most people, including those of essentially good character, lie when the stakes are high enough, especially if the ends appear to justify the means. She was a Bill Clinton fan, until he was trapped by the blue dress. Since, she has never forgiven his failure to tell the truth, even though she readily forgave his sexual transgressions.

I decide to probe, put her convictions to a test. I ask, “ would you hire a professional who believed it ethical to perpetrate an important deception?”

Her quick response, “ of course not.”

My question was a set-up.

I told her I’d heard about a study done some years ago by Dr. Victor Freeman (when he served as a Research Fellow at Georgetown University Medical Center). Freeman surveyed 167 doctors, internists from around the country, and asked, “if an insurance company initially refuses to pay for a patient’s medically indicated treatment, is it ethical for a doctor to lie to get the coverage authorized?”

Forty-five percent of those asked, answered “yes” and, not surprisingly, the more potentially life-saving the coverage, the stronger the support expressed for lying. The results underscored the fundamental conflict that many doctors have with insurance companies, particularly in markets where there are severe constraints.

It’s not hard to place myself in the shoes of a physician willing to practice deception, if they saw no other way for their patient to receive medically indicated treatment.

So, I asked my friend, with a certain smugness, “which physician would you select to treat a loved one?”

Her lips stretched tight and she said, “not fair.”

But, hardly a moment passed before she rejoined, “and you, would you hire a lawyer who acknowledged regularly practicing outright deception?”

I was silenced, for I would not.

So, now it is my stance that calls for an explanation if I am to support the distinction posed: Does securing a patient’s physical well-being trump the social or financial advantage, or even the liberty, that deception might yield for the lawyer’s client? Even if the illness was not life-threatening and the threat to liberty great?

Apparently so.

Food for thought, and further discussion.


 

Secrets Are For Telling

” Secrets are never kept. Everything eventually becomes known.”

These words surprised me. They were spoken by an old friend to whom I’d been describing the plight of a family I’m close to, in which secrets are eroding the relationship of mother, father and adult daughter.

The couple I spoke of was ending their unhappy marriage. Their adult children had been told, and although disheartened, they were buoyed by the caring, respectful, even loving way their parents were making plans to keep the family well connected. While they each moved on to separate lives, they voiced no recrimination or placing of blame. Protective of their privacy, friends and family were simply told, ” we’ve just grown apart”.

Late one evening the husband wrote an e-mail to his wife detailing his distress about her infidelities over the years, kept as a secret just between them. His message contained no rancor, just disappointment and sadness, while remembering things he continued to value about their past.

She sent a reply e-mail, expressing remorse for having hurt him, and told of her sadness.

Some days later, their out-of-town daughter arrived for a visit. Before leaving the house to pick up some groceries, her mother asked her to access a neighbor’s recipe sent by e-mail that morning. Directed to her mother’s computer, the daughter found not only the recipe but opened the e-mail messages her parents had exchanged days before. These secrets were out. But later, rejoining her mother, she said nothing about this breach of her parent’s trust.

That evening, she told her father about her discovery, and made known her anger and disillusionment with her mother. But she committed him to keep her confidence, adamant that her new knowledge not be divulged, fearing her mother’s reaction.

The family, already in a delicate balance, now seemed poised for disaster, privacy boundaries crossed, their previously presumed open communication with each other shut down. A hidden bond between two family members excludes and distances others. And in order to maintain secrecy, the truth has to be distorted.

Did the husband’s initial e-mail, by its very writing, suggest some intent to reveal the previously undisclosed reason for the divorce? Was the daughter’s detection, when sent by her mother to access the recipe on her computer, accidental? My friend thought not, and confirming his point said, “secrets are for the telling”.

I questioned that judgment, as we talked about what had been concealed in our own families. I told him that I often write in a journal, especially when troubled. Writing helps me sort things out. But, I insisted that what I write is private, without any covert plan for disclosure. His response, “Oh, really, and then do you destroy or save what you have written?”

I save. Never consciously thinking about future discovery.

High profile politicians most visibly prove the point, leave a letter to a new soul mate where a wife can find it, pay for furtive sex with a check or traceable bank transfer, meet for an assignation with the press hard on their heels. Believing themselves to be invincible, or an invitation to exposure?

We keep some secrets in the sincere belief that others will be hurt more than ourselves in the telling, to the benefit of no one. But by turning a truth into a secret, is it always a truth we wish could be known? Is it only if we are known, secrets and all, and then accepted, or forgiven, that we feel loved for who we really are, or were?

Do we hide, all the while wishing we could pop-out like a jack-in-the-box and be greeted with approval, no longer keeping the lid on?

So, if the box is wound, the music plays and the catch is released, well, accidents happen. Right?


 

Magical Thinking

A friend tells me: “I had been thinking about a former college roommate not heard from in years, and moments later she phoned. Amazing, isn’t it? ” (Meaning: my thinking about her precipitated the call.)  My eyebrows rise and my smile is indulgent. But really I’m impatient with those who see a mystical plan where all I see is random coincidence. I am a realist, not superstitious.

But, there is a disconnect.

The story: For many years my husband piloted his own small plane. I was never a relaxed passenger, and after a number of years of pretending otherwise, I ultimately decided to remain on the ground when he was aloft.

As adults, our sons accepted invitations to take trips with their father, and I found that my small plane anxiety extended to them. They had young families at the time, but their wives offered no objection. I thought I had no right to intrude on their plans.

So, I purchased substantial life insurance policies insuring each of them. Of course, there was a rational aspect to this, but secretly I knew this was really magical thinking at work. I comforted myself with the belief that once the insurance was in place, the odds greatly increased that they would come to no harm.

Almost daily, new brain imaging research is reported locating a specific area where a particular thought process occurs. Recently I read about the locale of magical thinking, my sometimes secret nemesis. Experiments with college students showed how easy it was to elicit such thoughts in well educated young adults .

Quoting the article: “In one instance, the researchers had participants watch a blindfolded person play an arcade basketball game, and visualize success for the player. The game, unknown to the subjects, was rigged: the shooter could see through the blindfold, had practiced extensively and made most of the shots. On questionnaires, the spectators said later that they had probably had some role in the shooter’s success.”

One researcher, a psychology professor at Princeton, was asked why people create this illusion of magical power. Emily Pronin responded: “I think in part it’s because we are constantly exposed to our own thoughts, they are most salient to us, and thus we are likely to overestimate their connection to outside events.”  Gloria Keinan, a professor at Tel Aviv University, who has also conducted research on this subject, reported: “Magical thinking is most evident precisely when people feel most helpless.”

All makes sense. Protecting my adult children is quite beyond the control I had when they were small, but the yearning to do so remains. My magical thinking offers comfort. I wonder how many others who see themselves as rational at all times, covertly seek similar comforts, and avoid “stepping on the cracks . . . . .”

Although it is unsettling when my beliefs don’t guide my behavior, almost as if one part of my brain is master over another, my irrational self was unwilling to tempt fate.


 

A Thoughtless Greeting

It used to be at forty, then fifty, now maybe even fifty-five, before women start to notice that no one is noticing. Add an additional ten years for men. Most of us make peace with advancing invisibility as we age. We can take pride in what we’ve become, what we’ve learned, what we are still able to achieve. Then, surprisingly, even a small stab can deflate a well-earned sense of self.

Here’s my story:

I am visiting a new doctor, a well-reputed specialist. The waiting room is crowded, many of the patients are past middle age, some very elderly with another in attendance. The office staff exudes efficiency and a friendly ease.

Before long I am ushered into a small examination room, one in a row of six or seven. Eye drops are administered and some basic questions asked by an assistant, my answers noted for later review by the busy physician. A smile, a magazine and a not too long a wait is promised, and I am left alone.

Soon I become aware the doctor is in the examining room next to mine. He is talking to someone about the process of reapplication for a driver’s license which has lapsed, the tests to be anticipated, how to avoid likely obstacles. I conjecture that the patient is hard of hearing as the doctor’s voice is raised. But his tone is gentle, unhurried and indulgent. The listener’s responses are barely audible.

I find this doctor’s caring way heartwarming, and appreciate the sensitivity with which he addresses the elderly patient who I assume is vulnerable and confused. I will praise this kind doctor, soon, when we meet.

He knocks and enters, smiling, and with his hand outstretched in greeting and says: “Hello, young lady, how are you doing?”

I feel diminished, categorized, even disrespected. I am not young. “Please, doctor, do not call me ‘young lady’. This strips me of dignity. Young women are 35 and under. You can use my full name, or no name at all.”

But these words, although screamed, are unspoken. I simply say: “Hello.”

My rehearsed words of praise for him are swallowed.

I have lived many years and value the richness of my experience. Joy, and sadness, both in good measure, and good health, allow me to look to the future with optimism, accepting the deficits of aging, if somewhat grudgingly. But I want my status recognized, not made a foolishness.

Did he view his manner of greeting me as a kindness, or was it simply thoughtless ineptitude? And does it matter in the larger scheme of things?

Yes, it does.


 

Borrowed Clothes

I delight in my Sunday morning ritual. I forgo the usual exercise routine and return to bed with coffee, my cat and the New York Times. But last week, as I hefted the paper onto my lap, I felt a gentle giving way of the fabric at my elbow. It wasn’t because this iconic newspaper was so weighty, but because my sleepwear is threadbare. It used to belong to my husband, Len.

I alternate between wearing the light blue and maroon pajamas he used to wear and have a clear memory of buying them. We were together at a large department store. Although still robust in many ways, Len’s legs were no longer taking commands from his Parkinson’s compromised brain and he rode in a wheelchair, his overall health in steady decline. Our eyes were wide open, but somehow purchasing new clothing was a way of challenging fate. We sustained each other with every touch and at times like these embraced normalcy, pretending there was no end in sight.

Within weeks after Len’s death, I packed up almost all of his clothing and took the collection to Goodwill, keeping only some favorite shirts and the pajamas.

A number of the shirts I’ve kept have leather elbow patches I attached a long time ago, and on some the cuffs have begun to fray. But it is the pajamas, worn nightly, that may be on their way out. I will not give them up easily, for with all of this borrowed clothing I have become something of a cross dresser, cloaking myself with fond memories of the intimacies we shared.

As I write about wearing Len’s clothes, I consider why it is that today women can wear men’s clothing without comment or scorn, no raised eyebrows, while men borrowing women’s styles would immediately raise questions about their sexuality. Do men take a step down when they soften their appearance in any way? While women in men’s garb take a step up? For in my long-ago high school days, it was the fashion for girls to wear out-sized men’s sport coats paired with pleated plaid skirts, bobby sox and saddle shoes. And in the romantic movies of that time, which were rife with innuendo, risqué or adventurous females wandered yawning and barefoot from the gentleman’s bedroom attired in his shirt and apparently little else.

Was a statement being made? As World War II was drawing to a close and women had little choice but to relinquish the important roles they’d filled working on the home-front, replacing men who had marched off to war. Rosie the riveter wore slacks to work. Were the teenage daughters of mothers who had moved into the workplace, if only temporarily, borrowing the power clothes of men a full two decades before Betty Friedan picked up her pen and the second wave of the woman’s movement was launched?

And in the seventies and eighties, when professional women began to enter the marketplace in ever increasing numbers, did they take a step up by trading shapely garments for the cover of severely tailored suits, a visible claim to the authority and power previously ceded to men?  And now, having arrived and more secure in their own right, the feminine figure is again on display, occasionally even a hint of décolletage in the boardroom, and in the Court room. What is that about? For me it is a humorous puzzlement, remembering my early days in Court when even well-tailored pants suits were not allowed.

But with my borrowed clothing today, it’s quite simple. No political statement, just sweet moments of remembering his presence.


 

No Need To Explain

How can I explain this to my folks?

This was the question posed by a young friend. Following her husband’s disclosure of infidelity she had sought shelter and solace with her parents. Now after a month-long separation, she’d decided to return to her own home. She and her husband had gained important insights in counseling sessions, both together and on their own, and were ready to repair their relationship.

But in both subtle and direct comments, her parents cast doubt upon her decision. They pressed her to answer their questions. Their anger toward their son-in-law was great, and although at the outset their daughter found this comforting and supportive, she now regretted having shared such a private matter.

My immediate response was: you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

I’ve said this countless times to friends and clients. But her startled reaction gave me pause. Was I just playing out some old rebellious script of my own? My tendency when younger, shared by many women, was to attempt to legitimize my personal decisions with a well-reasoned rationale, particularly if I was rejecting another’s request or opinion. Even declining a dinner invitation seemed to call for an extended explanation. Never a simple: sorry, I can’t make it.

Looking back, I think I failed to note an important distinction between simply giving voice to my choices, stating what I believed to be the best path to take, and the need to justify my choice, to meet some norm of social acceptability. Often I’d hedge, be less than forthright, resenting my need to comply with the standards of others, and wanting to avoid the invasion of my private thoughts. I’d end up feeling somehow at fault.

No longer. Stating a personal preference or decision need not be followed by an effort to legitimize the choice. Responding to a request for an explanation may or may not make good sense, depending on who is asking and how important it is to share underlying motivations with another.

An example of the blurring of this distinction grew to mythic proportion when some prominent feminists faulted Hillary Clinton in years past when she offered what they saw as excuses for her husband infidelities. As I read her words, although attempting to understand what had happened by referring to his early years, she was not seeking to justify his behavior. Nor to seek approval from others for her decision to remain in the marriage.

As for my friend, in the weeks that followed she resolved her quandary. The essence of her considered response to the insistence of her parents that she provide reasons for her decision to rejoin her husband was: I appreciate your concern. I’ve given it a lot of thought and in my judgment it’s the right thing to do. Whatever problems we have will be ours to solve together.

Their questions persisted. She did not waver.

Seeking to explain one’s own or another’s actions in the personal realm, invites appraisal by those whose standards or values may well differ from our own. That is something we can be open to, or not. Our choice, not someone else’s due.


 

When Life Just Happens

Too often it is only after years of sidestepping talk of discontent, that the thwarted desires of partners are openly and seriously explored. So much that might be timely expressed goes unsaid, until it is too late.


          Here is the story a divorcing couple recently told: seventeen years earlier, she’d become pregnant, they married, and she gave up her college plans. He achieved career success, making it unnecessary for her to take a job for pay. As the family grew, they moved to an upscale suburb where the children attended private schools.

          Although she yearned to return to serious study, little was said of this, as obligations at home and in the community filled her days. After a time, he felt trapped in a career he would happily leave, but for the need to support their expensive lifestyle. The immensity  and seeming impossibility of their dreams overwhelmed them, so, although occasionally the subject of aimless late night talk, their dreams were put aside.

Now, with the decision made to part and all passion spent, they didn’t blame each other for the disappointments they openly discussed, both suggesting: it just happened.

Some years ago, a friend introduced me to a small volume, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life” by Alan Lakein. It’s one of the many books I never finished, but the early pages contained a suggestion I took to heart.

Following the author’s instructions, each year, usually in January, I sit before a blank piece of paper and without allowing any time for rumination, spend no more than two minutes writing the answer to each of the following questions:

1) What do I want to accomplish over the next five years?
2) What do I want to accomplish over the next year?
3) How would I spend the next six months if I knew I only had six months to live?

I keep my annual lists and from time to time I look back. Sometimes with pleasure I note goals that have been met. Other times I realize that year after year the same objective is repeated without much forward movement. My answers to the third question are least likely to have been implemented. Denial?

I never share my lists with anyone, but many conversations with friends and colleagues are spawned with my aspirations in mind, and projects are designed. Trying to enlist my husband in this specific question and answer process failed. Wasn’t his style. But over the years, my formalizing of goals, long and short term, often led to talk about our dreams and miseries. We gave each other permission and support to initiate change, and many important changes were made.

But what happened to the two people seated on my office couch who spoke of their regrets as they made plans for lives apart? At an earlier time they had great attraction for each other and probably shared many values, yet they failed to seriously talk about or suupport each other’s longings. Their imaginings about a different way of life were defeated before they were realistically explored. What if they had asked each other how steps in new directions might have been taken over the next six months or the next year?

Perhaps each couple, or at least one partner, should go through an annual assessment of what they wish they could do or be, to see if articulating what one hopes to achieve might lead to important disclosures by both of them and support for those ends. Together.

The Anniversary

Should I write of this? Of uninvited, unwelcome images that intrude as I lose my hold on purposeful thought.

            The anniversary of Len’s death is near.

             Ten years ago, as summer was ending, the man who was my love, my companion for more than fifty years, left me. Sometimes that is exactly how it feels. And each year as August approaches I tell myself: not this time, gloom will not have a place at my table. Surely I am wise enough and strong enough not to succumb to these unbidden thoughts.

            During that last year, even as his health steadily declined, we shared an incomparable intimacy. Caring for the body so well known and loved. Touching him, being touched by him, pretending we had many years to go. Sadness and joy so entwined.

            Our marriage was perfect.

            Our marriage was imperfect.

            Exquisite times of closeness

            Brooding times of silence.

            Always respect.

            Always caring.

            We were bound, but free.

            At the end of that August, as soon as my family departed, I returned to my world of work, and at home welcomed solitude and long postponed relaxed times with close friends began again. I busied myself with the tasks that attend such a loss. Notifications sent. Accounts closed. Books, papers, clothing sorted and disposed of or gifted. To one son the music collection, to another the tools, to a grandson the fishing rods and lures. Kept for myself the treasured letters and a few favorite warm shirts.

            Then, as the first anniversary of his death approached, my steps slowed, my throat tightened, and my quiet times became more somber.

Disbelieving, I silently wailed: why should this foreboding of the calendar cast me down? But it did, and it has each August since. Can it be that I’m not the wise and strong person I insist I am? Unable to rise above this annual malaise?

             I consult with a counselor and she says: the very angle of the sun as the same date approaches, casts shadows reminiscent of the days you choose to forget. The leafiness of the trees, the heat, the hour of first morning light, all of these images appear unbidden, and take you back to the heartbeat of that time.

            This I can understand and accept. And can share with others whose intimate losses are known to me. For them too, anniversaries presage low times.

            And I tell them that I now mark the anniversary each year in a significant way. I do not let it pass unnoticed, as once I hoped it would.   

                        A picnic with friends in the park we used to go to as a young family

                        Revisiting art galleries we wandered together

                        A special dinner with an intimate

                        Breakfast at the home of dear friends with some old pictures in hand

            Len and I seldom gave each other gifts, although we often urged the other to buy something yearned for, but that would not be purchased without a push. A painting. An airplane!

             So each year, as the day approaches, I buy myself an anniversary gift, a thing of beauty:

                         A small sculpture of a horse’s head

                         A Marino glass sphere

                         Beautiful Italian soup bowls

                         A tiny Netsuke cat

                         An iPad

            It is a new home this year, which I am molding to please my aesthetic eye.

            He would have insisted.

Small Talk

I avoid most large social occasions, explaining, or complaining, that my tolerance for idle chat, small talk, is low.
           The friend with whom I shared this view on a recent afternoon as we strolled to our City’s Convention Center, nodded in silent understanding. We were headed for what we knew would be a crowded event and I expected it would call for considerable insignificant chatter before the program began. So, already I was looking forward to the time I could retreat and have the remaining hours of the day be of my own design.
          There was every good reason to be in attendance at this grand gathering honoring eight career women for their major achievements and contributions to our community, for these were people I genuinely admired. Yet, as we wove our way through the arriving crowd and found our assigned table, if I had been asked, (which my more extroverted companion did not ask) I likely would have pontificated that talk should either be intimate and disclosing or purposeful. All else a waste of precious time. My mantra.
         But even before luncheon forks were lifted, I surveyed the festive crowd and took note of how many of those in attendance, including my companion, seemed to be really enjoying greeting and chatting, and seeking to discover connections when introduced to new acquaintances. Thinking about it after returning home, and in the days since, this gave me pause. Should I reconsider my negativity? Was I the one out of step, missing the point? Discounting and avoiding something of value?
          These thoughts brought to mind notes I’d made some time ago after reading about a surprising research finding. An experiment was conducted with law students. Each was paired with another student at a distant school, given only a name, phone number and a set of facts presenting a fairly complex problem to be negotiated during a long distance call. Half of the group at each school was told to conduct a brief (no more than three-minute) conversation on the day before the telephone negotiation session was to take place. In this initial call, they were not to refer to the facts of the case in any way, but simply make small talk, get minimally acquainted, talk about the weather in their respective cities, if they chose, but nothing particularly purposeful.
         Data was later collected from both groups on the settlement success rate of those who had had insignificant friendly conversations the day before, and those who had not. The rate of successful settlements was much higher in the “small talk” group.
         Revisiting the results of this study, I thought back to my idle conversations of the afternoon, and wondered about their impact if those with whom I’d exchanged banter were to meet soon again, with a particular goal in mind.
          In his most recent book, Beyond Reason, Roger Fisher (of Getting To Yes fame) and his co-author Daniel Shapiro, both of the Harvard Project on Negotiation, address the emotional components, both positive and negative, which can be used to advantage, or avoided, when seeking to negotiate agreements. They give significant importance to “affiliation”, the building of personal connections, reducing personal distance with one’s negotiating partner. This is what seemed to have happened with the brief casual exchanges of the law student group with the greater success rate.
          As we were leaving the Convention Center, gliding smoothly along on elongated escalators, I noticed one of my close attorney friends in what appeared to be animated friendly chatter with another attorney who for many months has been her negotiating counterpart in a very difficult dispute. I don’t know how much time they’ve had for idle talk when attending meetings around massive formal conference tables. For now, I’ll hold out some hope their small talk may make a difference. I’ll find out. I may have to shift gears, stop complaining and improve my affiliation skills.

The Folly of Giving Advice

I’m watching a young family self-destruct. I cast caution to the wind and offer some advice. A foolish move.

The story: Two young physicians are taking part in mediation, ending their five year marriage, and in the process are building a reservoir of misery for themselves and their child. After just one meeting, I thought I knew how they could avert disaster.

He is smart, charming, articulate, qualities that attract, attracted her. But though soft spoken, he is a very angry man. Now that their marriage is ending, his anger, sometimes covert, subtle, disguised, has taken center stage. She says it is what has driven her away, and she sees herself as the victim in their drama.

When his verbal saber slices the air, as he thrusts, she parries. They are frozen in this dance, and are on the brink of waging legal warfare. Their child is young, so they have many years ahead to play their parts.

My ego gets in the way of wisdom, so in private I give him advice: get therapeutic help. Seek the source of your rage, try to understand and overcome it.

My advice to her: with your ardent defensive reactions to his anger, you’re turning control of your life over to the very man you’re trying to escape. Get some help to figure out how you can change your responses. Don’t live with the hope or expectation that you can best him at this game, or that he is the one who will change.

Neither acknowledges nor attends to what I urge upon them. Just the opposite. She pays no heed and changes the subject. He’s resentful and withdraws. My advice may have been sound. Offering it was not.

I step back and examine my folly, and bring my failed experience to a thoughtful colleague. And she says: you’ve stepped across a boundary and taken on a role that is not yours to play. You can’t change their lives with motivation that is yours, not theirs.

Words I might have spoken to another, but did not speak to myself in my rush to rescue them. They had not come to me for salvation.

Good advice may be a great gift, but giving it in a constructive way is an art.   My knowledge of this pair was superficial, their situation far more complex than it initially appeared. An empathic listening connection had barely begun. With meager acquaintance, one cannot know what is best for someone else.

Even with close friends or family members, unsolicited advice is an unwelcome intrusion into another ‘s personal life, suggesting that they are not capable of working out their own issues, a lack of due regard. At least, I should have asked whether my advice was wanted, and posed the question in a way that allowed for either a yes or no answer.

There are some things I can do in the role of mediator (not savior), or as a friend or family member, that might be helpful, and which I may still have the opportunity to do with my young clients. I could share my experience in dealing with anger, my own and in responding to that of another, information they could choose to make use of or simply ignore, but which would not be a show of disrespect. And I could ask questions that would help them arrive at their own solutions, explore possible options and the likely consequences of each path that could be taken.

We all act on what we think is our best course of action, not on what someone else tells us to do. (Especially not on what a parental figure suggests!)

Best we share our own experience, give of ourselves, not advice, and offer our analytical skills. The rest is up to the listener.

A March Blizzard Remembered

Can this year’s mild winter possibly pass without a surprise blizzard in March? It happened in 2008. Warm and cozy indoors, I watched the outer world whiten, filled with memories of another March blizzard over fifty years ago.

My 28th birthday was near as Len and I and our two young sons, six and three, moved into our first home that was not a rental apartment. Although barely settled in, what better occasion to show off our prize, so a party was planned.

When the day dawned, heavy wet snowflakes belied the promise of spring. An unexpected storm, but my Eagle Scout husband was up to the task of greeting our guests with a welcoming blaze in our first ever fireplace.

Minutes after a match was put to the kindling, we knew all was not well. The scent of wood burning, evocative of past romantic campfires, began to fill the house. A delight at first, but soon ominous. Smoke billowed into the living room, little to none drawn up the chimney. As the tiles and mantle began to blacken with soot, doors and windows were thrown open.

I was immobilized. Not so Len. Somehow he wrestled the burning logs into a galvanized tub and carried them to the front yard, now buried in eight inches of snow. Tipping the glowing logs out, great bursts of steam arose, just as our friends arrived on foot from their nearby homes, agog at the drama that greeted their entry into our chilled smoky house.

I’ve often laughed over this memory, but now I’ve been thinking about why this look back brings both pleasure and insight.

Len was always ready to act in a crisis, and it was his nature to be both a protector and a caretaker, which was welcomed by this avowed feminist. The time soon came when he made law school possible for me. As, for three evenings each week, for four years, he took over nighttime child care. Then once I entered the professional world, he listened to my daily stories of victory and defeat. If I felt unfairly treated, he was ever ready to confront my adversaries, actions this avowed feminist declined.

Len, far less verbal than I was about his own feelings and struggles, was sometimes despondent about his career. A scientist who loved university teaching, he felt thwarted by the ever present pressure to seek research funding. I, the more optimistic, would urge him to take paths to alternate satisfactions.

For me, the purchase of our home symbolized stability and commitment to place. He, possessed of a wanderlust and a lover of the wilderness, remained tentative about urban home ownership in the mid-west. Then came the time when my income, from the career he’d fostered, made possible the purchase of a small two-seater plane in which he frequently flew away to yearned for fishing lakes and mountains. Our home became more of a haven, and remained so until his death in the fifty-third year of our marriage

What is the opposite of losing? It is finding. Lost is the delicate balance achieved with a loved partner which the blizzard memory brings into sharp focus, how we grew to rely on each other’s strengths, compensated for each other’s shortcomings, some passions shared, others not.

Found was the ability to perform a new balancing act on my own, while still protected by the love and promise of safekeeping offered by children and close friends, and warmed by gratitude renewed by  reflections on a remembered March blizzard.

A Troubled Friend

One of the great joys of getting older are friendships that span decades, being so well known, without the need to defend when feeling vulnerable or when weaknesses are exposed, and able to offer the same unqualified acceptance to another.

Paul and I talk often since the death of his wife four years ago, she a good friend as well. In his early seventies, retired and in robust health, last year he’d become intimate with another woman, and reveled in his new found love. She, eight years younger and still engaged in her work, had also expressed delight about their coming together.

But now the bloom was fading.

We met to share a meal and his description of their recent conversations was disturbing. Her angry outbursts, not experienced early on, were now frequent. His phone calls were not returned for days and should he call a second time, he was berated for being too intrusive. Yet, he persisted. He seemed completely captivated, and unwilling to give up this connection, but the puzzling unpredictability of her behavior was causing him anguish and many sleep-disturbed nights. He’d been losing weight and wasn’t looking well.

I offered only a listening ear having learned long ago not to take on the role of armchair therapist with troubled friends, though I urged him to consult a skilled professional. Initially he resisted the idea of seeing a “shrink”, but eventually he did and let me know he found the experience both reassuring and enlightening.

Yet, the abusive (my unspoken view) relationship continued.

When we met again, he talked of having gained insight into her behavior. This awareness allowed him to view her actions as less a function of who he was, and more as a serious deficit of her own. He and his counselor were also exploring why he accepted such harsh treatment so willingly. The question he asked me was: How does becoming more self-aware translate into being better able to cope?

For he was still often miserable and mired in the past, reviewing and dissecting their conversations and the pain of rebuke.

Now I did have something I wanted to offer, so all caution put aside, I told him that some years ago I was introduced to and read widely about cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and over time learned how to practice it for myself at times of anxiety or mild depression. About this I unashamedly proselytize, so I said: You claim your emotions have been pretty much out of control. Now that you are more self-aware, you can examine your reactions to disturbing events and identify the thoughts that arise and determine your mood. The trick is to question whether those thoughts are flawed in some significant way. For example, are you drawing conclusions by assuming you know what is in the minds of others? Are you predicting the likelihood of future events without sufficient evidence? Does a single event push you into all of nothing thinking? These are distorted ways of thinking, not rational thoughts that can lead to a sound plan for the future. You may now be ready to do this analysis.

It all sounded good to me, even if a bit academic. But from Paul I just received a quizzical look and a cautious: Maybe.

Weeks passed before we met for an early breakfast. I learned the relationship was finally dwindling, though not yet ended. But my friend has a new tone in his voice, his bearing is more erect and I note that the future tense has crept back into his conversation.

No mention of CBT as part of his repertoire. I will give up on that pitch for him, as I have with others who smile and nod at my ardor and soon change the subject. A lesson learned, again.

The Second Question

I talk to people in elevators. Even unfamiliar faces open to a smile with a passing comment on the weather and the question: How are you?

Almost invariably the answer is: fine.

And we part wishing each other well.

A graceful verbal pas de deux.

When shopping some weeks ago, a woman approached me, familiar, but out of our usual context. In but a second there was recognition, she a physician I see annually, I a patient of long standing.

My smile met hers and she asked: how are you?

My response: fine.

Then she asked the second question: Really fine?

No longer an elevator conversation. She moved beyond the pro forma query and the automatic response, not settling for the dance.

As it happens I was in good spirits, so reaffirmed my initial answer. But later, I recalled her second question and realized I was grateful for her persistent interest. It caused me to consider how often I ask only the first question, even of close friends and family. Too busy, or self absorbed, or maybe would rather not know?

Why rather not know?

On reflection, I’ve gained some insight: when our kids were young and became ill, I snapped into action, and took charge of their recovery with a purposeful ease. I had the power and control to select the right doctor and administer the care that would make them well. This was the role a mother should play and I did. Taking over in this way, my anxiety eased.

But years later, when our children were grown and independent, a major medical issue arose for an adult son. It was my husband, Len, who became the more attentive parent when surgery was scheduled, traveling alone some distance to be with our son. It was Len who frequently called to ask how the recovery and follow up treatment was going. I waited to be told and was to some degree avoidant. No less concerned, but now with the decisions ceded to others, my anxiety grew.

I think this is why: Len could listen and be empathic about a problem faced by one of our kids, without believing he had to influence the outcome. Not me, I slipped back to my old mother script, longed to protect even grown children and reestablish their equilibrium. But now I had no ability to do so. A new boundary was acknowledged, and no longer in charge, worry took over. My withdrawal at the time of crisis was self-protective.

It has taken me far too long to learn that simply listening, seeking to understand and expressing sympathy is enough. No need to offer the right advice and take responsibility for the outcome. And giving up that mandate, which still requires a mindful pause, in time restores calm.

Now I ask the second question more often, of friends and family, Sometimes, I will even ask the third question: anything I can do?

I expect the answer will probably be: no, but it’s good to talk it over.

Just the asking brings comfort, for both of us. And on these new terms, I really do want to know.

Remembering My Other Mother

I write in the month that my other mother died at the age of ninety-nine. Vicki was my father’s kid sister, the aunt who was happy to take me in when I ran away from home.

When I was twenty-two, she was in her early forties, ten years younger than my mother. Len and I, already married for two years, had just graduated from college and he was soon to embark on an advanced degree. For both strategic and financial reasons, he was spending the summer in the Nevada desert as field assistant for one of his soon to be Columbia professors. I was newly pregnant so this was not a good time for us to be apart, but I had a safe haven, parents who happily welcomed me home to await my husband’s return.

This college graduate, wife and soon to be mother, became a child again, worse still, an adolescent. My mother was a loving and generous woman and in recent years, with miles between us, we got along very well. Now, returned to living under the parental roof, I bristled as she suggested improvements: a haircut, perhaps a blouse of a more becoming color, a more cheerful presence.

Of greater moment, I was unable to put aside feelings engendered just weeks before when Len and I, pressed together in a street corner phone booth, had called with the exciting news of our expected baby, a first grandchild. Vivid in memory was the question she asked: was it planned?

I fled to the small white cottage of my aunt in Lakeville, Connecticut. Vicki was then employed as an editor at Doubleday, and commuted weekly to New York City, returning home laden with manuscripts of aspiring authors. Recently divorced from her doctor husband (he still beloved in our family), she was raising her young son on her own. Divorce was then a rarity, and though unspoken, the family assumed she must have been at fault.

My mother and my aunt were loving competitors, first for my father’s affection (and of course, my mother won that round) and then for mine. Vicki was delighted to harbor her runaway niece, no doubt pleased to be the winner of this tug of war. I was offered entry into the excitement of the publishing world and a glimpse into the life of an independent career woman, sophisticated and defiant. But most of all, I was given unconditional acceptance.

Over the next thirty years, our relationship thinned as we each moved to distant states and she remarried. We became close again many years later, after my mother’s death, but my mother won the middle rounds.

How grand to be welcomed and loved without reservation by an other mother, with the accumulated wisdom of the generation before. Tender care without the admonitions or questions that all mothers must labor to suppress once their children are grown.

I expect many can identify those adults, aunts, uncles,neighbors or teachers, who have taken on the mantle of wise elder without the tensions inherent in the ties that bind parent and child.

Love and protection, offered while having no investment in another’s perfection, can be a wonderful gift.

An Anniversary

Should I write of this? Of uninvited, unwelcome images that intrude, as I lose my hold on purposeful thought.

The anniversary of Len’s death is here.

Nine years ago, as summer was ending, the man who was my love, my companion for more than fifty years, left me. Sometimes that is exactly how it feels.

Our marriage was perfect.

Our marriage was imperfect.

Exquisite times of closeness.

Brooding times of silence.

Always respect.

Always caring.

We were bound, but free.

During that last year, even as his health steadily declined, we shared an incomparable intimacy. Caring for the body so well known and loved. Touching him, being touched by him, knowing, but pretending we had many years to go.

Sadness and joy so entwined.

At the end of that August, I returned to my world of work, and at home welcomed solitude. Relaxed times with close friends, long postponed, began again.

Then, as the first anniversary of his death approached, my steps slowed, my throat tightened, and my quiet times were somber.

Disbelieving, I silently wailed: why should this foreboding of the calendar cast me down? But it did, and it has each August since. Can it be that I’m not the wise and strong person I insist I am?  Unable to rise above this annual malaise?

I consult with a wise counselor and she says: The very angle of the sun, as the same date approaches, casts shadows reminiscent of the days you choose to forget. The leafiness of the trees, the heat, the hour of first morning light, all of these images appear unbidden, and take you back to the heart beat of that time.

This I can understand and accept.

I now mark the anniversary each year in a significant way. I do not let it pass unnoticed as once I hoped it would.

A picnic with friends in a park we used to go to as a young family

Revisiting art galleries we wandered together

A special dinner with an intimate

Breakfast at the home of dear friends with some old pictures in hand

Len and I seldom gave each other gifts, but often urged the other to buy something yearned for, but which would not be purchased without a push. A painting. An airplane!

So each year, as the day approaches, I buy myself an anniversary gift, a thing of beauty:

A small sculpture of a horse’s head

A Marino glass sphere

Beautiful Italian soup bowls

A tiny Netsuke cat

It’s a new home this year, which I’m molding to please my aesthetic eye.

He would have insisted.

Talking Things Over

I’m trying to make a difficult decision, which often has me awake for hours in the middle of the night. But as I share my concern with close friends, some calm begins to return. Long ago this became my way of coping when troubles arose, but It calls for a measure of self-disclosure, a sharing of vulnerabilities, which I know is hard for some

I’m remembering a time when an old friend began phoning more often than usual. Her son was divorcing and her distress about the breakup of his family brought her low. She was my frequent talking partner when angst was in my life. It was my turn to listen.

My husband and I had lived through a similar time when a child’s divorce became part of the air we breathed, often the last thing we talked about at night and the first upon waking. But when I say we talked, not quite. I talked, he listened. For longer conversations I turned to my friend.

One evening, overhearing us on the phone, Len gently berated me. He urged me to think and talk less about the plight of our loved ones, as a way of quieting my concerns. We did not argue. I simply ignored his advice, as he knew I would.

Len grew up in a home where feelings, even if recognized, were not talked about. In my childhood home, emotion was welcome grist for the mill. Not surprisingly, we each adopted ways we learned as children. He was able to put trouble out of mind and metaphorically go fishing. Not me.

We knew this about each other. Even though over time, and with deliberate effort, talk came more easily for us, we also learned to honor our differences. I probed less to unearth the feelings behind his moods, and he sought less to divert or dampen my need to talk when upset. When not in sync for conversation, a comforting touch or a loving embrace allowed us to speak without words. Now my friends, those who talk and those who mostly listen, fill the void.

One dear friend who listens well and is a particular comfort when things go amiss in my life, or when I’m faced with a challenging decision, has herself suffered major losses and faced difficult choices. But she keeps her feelings hidden beneath  an exterior of cheerful chatter. She willingly talks of her professional life and the problems she is working to solve for her clients, but when friends inquire about her well being, after a few reassuring words, she artfully changes the subject. I find this worrisome. Did her family meet distress with silence, and she now follows the avoidance pattern of her early years? I try to respect the boundaries she has drawn. But I am sad for her, and wonder when a self-imposed boundary becomes a cage, even a prison.

For years I’ve kept a wonderful Edward Koren cartoon on my desk. It shows two couples enjoying a companionable evening in the living room of one of them. Behind the host couple, who are seated on their couch, stands a huge hairy monster. “We deal with it by talking about it”, reads the caption.

I do too, and count myself lucky to know others for whom demons are diminished by talk, even if sometimes they just listen.

My Friend Dona

When spring finally arrives and the forsythia gives way to the daffodils and tulips, my thoughts return to another spring nine years ago, to vivid and poignant memories of events that occasioned insights that continue to serve me well. This is the story:

On an April afternoon, I joined a companion for a leisurely lunch. As we greeted each other, she noted that I looked troubled and asked how I was. I responded: Confused.

She gave me her full attention and I explained that shortly before our meeting I’d spoken on the phone with a friend who had been coping with breast cancer for many years. For several decades Dona and I were the closest of friends. We talked often during the week and took a long walk together almost every weekend, whatever the weather. There was little about our lives we did not share.

Over the past year she’d been on a downward slide. The narcotics used to dull her pain left her debilitated and sleepy much of the time. On this day she asked me what I knew about hospice care. So, I told her of my experience gleaned from another friend and offered to help her research the issue further. Then, without a pause or response, she changed the subject to the birthday of her beloved 7-year-old granddaughter. Funny stories followed about the gift that she’d sent and the phone call later received. As her voice grew weary, we agreed to get together later in the day, if she felt up to it.

Part of my confusion was the very ordinariness with which we approached and then avoided the discussion of her impending death. I loved this woman very much and could easily focus on what her loss would mean for me, but said nothing of this to her. I observed the unspoken taboo of acknowledging that the end of her life approached. The very calm nature of our talk seemed both right and absurd. The somber unspoken question that remained was whether my friend really needed to talk more purposefully about dying and the plans she was considering. Her having pointedly changed the subject to tell stories about her grandchild left me unsettled. We had shared so openly with each other in the past, without barriers. Should I collude with the avoidance of such a serious but perhaps painful discussion? This was the quandary I posed.

The wise woman with whom I was lunching said: Why not just ask her whether she would like to talk about her need to cope with the weeks ahead, and how you might help?

Of course. I realized that was exactly what I needed to do.

Later that day, Dona and I did get together. I sat close to her as she lay on her couch and I held on to her warm smooth ankle. We chatted amiably about mundane events and a medical test scheduled for the next morning. Our words were alternately light and serious. She grew tired, but before I left, I leaned close and said: I love you very much and want to help you through this in any way I can, so whenever you want to talk about making plans, or anything else, will you call me?

She responded: I love you too, and I will call, but you call too, if I don’t.

I assured her I would.

I left, no longer confused, knowing that the awkwardness of discussing death was gone, had been breached by my request, and her invitation. We would be able to talk openly once again and be loving till the end. And a number of important and meaningful conversations did take place before Dona died. We no longer had to avoid what was uppermost on her mind, and on my own.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Days after her death, Dona’s husband invited me to select anything I wished from her personal belongings and I left with a bottle of the scent she always wore, and which I have worn ever since.

Solitude

How many of us ever seriously contemplate the likelihood that we will spend some years living alone?

Long ago I read May Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude”, a chronicle of a year of self-imposed isolation after an important relationship had ended. She detailed how she spent the days, her grieving and then her renewal. I loved that book and still remember the pleasure of vicariously sharing her experience. At the time, I was so completely engaged with my growing family and work life, such solitude could only be imagined. Now, it is here, though not by choice.

Or is it?

Several weeks ago, two of my dearest friends extended an invitation to join them for the weekend at their family cottage on a lovely lake, a four-hour drive away. The weather and company promised to be perfect, but on thinking it over, I declined. Little was on my schedule that could not have easily been put off, but I soon knew that I would not willingly give up the solitude promised by a weekend to myself.

I moved from my childhood home to the college dorm and on to marriage without missing a beat. Children, law school, the practice, life with Len. There were rarely moments, even if temporarily alone, that were not spent preparing for the next work or family event.

So, I did not give serious thought to this time. The empty nest was never entirely empty. Even during my husband’s last months, I didn’t allow myself to imagine being without him. Life was the studied placement of one foot in front of the other. Goals were pursued, moments of reflection dealt with the present.

Now, for eight years, I’ve been living alone.  I find it quite a remarkable, thoughtful and even wonderful time of life. Are there anxious moments? Of course. Are there times of intense yearning for my past love? Yes. Occasional waves of grief wash over me, but I now know they will recede in time, usually with the coming of daylight.

I surprise even myself with how much I treasure my solitude.

Would that be so if I did not continue to engage with clients and colleagues, often share meals with close friends and wake many mornings to find a new email from a distant child? Likely not, for the human contact I have is a cherished part of my life, and always will be.

And I’m well aware of how my experience differs from those who are widowed or divorced in their middle years. Carrying on in the absence of a loved one, especially if feeling rejected, is daunting, at least for a time. Then, I imagine, the need to start anew and build a different future fills the days.

Years spent living alone are ahead for many. For most, is the thought not even allowed to enter consciousness? So it was for me, to only later discover that this time of life affords an independence of spirit never before known, a time to live without pretense, completely authentic, a time to be savored.

I know not everyone finds my destination, this peaceful place. A more troublesome past might harbor demons. I feel such gratitude for those who loved me so well that solitude is a reward, rather than a sentence, and offers time to occasionally look back and distill and put into words that which seems worth passing along.

About Fathers

Time was, and not all that long ago, father brought home the bacon, and mother (while rocking the cradle) cooked it in the pan. But neither fathers nor mothers are who they once were. As new doors opened for women, men’s lives changed as well.

Some of my close friends are coming for brunch on Father’s Day to talk about our fathers, the part they played in who we became, how they influenced our relationships with our partners, our children and authority figures. Did we strive to perpetuate what we thought positive, and mindfully try to avoid repeating the negative? Were we successful?

The three fathers in my life were my husband’s, mine, and of course, Len as a father.

Len faced adversity many times, but I only witnessed his unrestrained tears at the funeral of his father, a man of Norwegian heritage, usually stern of face. He’d grown up poor with a commanding work ethic, an intellectual with only an eighth grade education. In the years I knew him, he was an electrician for the railroad and even in his sixties labored outside in Chicago’s cruel winter temperatures. Devoted and loyal to his wife and family, but undemonstrative, he was a man of few words and those often critical. A self-taught pianist, photographer and grower of exquisite flowers, in these endeavors he expressed pleasure and a sensuality that otherwise, even with close family members, seemed absent. I always thought of him as trapped, inside himself.

His son’s tearful regret was never having told his father he loved him.

With his own children, Len was a tender and affectionate father when they were young. He fed, bathed and got them to bed three nights a week for four years, while I attended evening law school classes at Chase. Later, as the 1970s approached, he struggled to adjust to the social turmoil: his sons’ hair length, raucous protests on the University campus and sexual mores turned upside down. Tensions rose in our family, especially with our adolescent sons. Len’s anger was visible, but repressed. He was, in a sense, at war with himself, believing in two opposite truths, the standards with which he was raised and the new freedoms unfolding.

Years later, in our children’s early adulthood, Len purposely sought to reestablish closeness. He took each of them, alone, on canoeing treks into the wilderness or on cross-country flights in his small plane, resolved to speak of and assure the parental love and approval he had so longed for, and wanting to be known for who he was in the present.

My very different experience, but also regret, is not having come to know my father better. I asked too few questions. Self-absorbed as an adolescent and then preoccupied with my own growing family and developing career, there were seldom private moments for intimate conversations when we visited. My mother was ever present, her persona more vivid. As a young teenager, my father traveled to America on his own to join other family members escaping the pogroms in Russia. He arrived speaking no English, but ten years later earned a law degree at N.Y.U. Off to work early and returning late during the depression years, and even thereafter, most of my childhood memories of him are indistinct, just of a kind and quiet presence, often humming some unrecognizable tune. When at home, I remember him reading, away from the center of activity. My parent’s love for each other seemed to me ever present, in the way they spoke and often touched. Troubling words either went unsaid or more likely were voiced behind closed doors.

I never told my father I loved him, but for that I have no regret, only gratitude for our having been so secure in our love for each other. His approval of me was evident in the warmth of his smile each time we met, even if unspoken.

Some of my friends tell of fathers who were autocratic, disapproving, and even cruel. Today I watch them with their loved ones, and witness tenderness, devotion and respect. I marvel at how they have reversed the tide, and wonder if their fathers were trapped, inside themselves.

The greatest gift the women’s movement gave to men was to move over and make room for them in the lives of their children. To nurture and know them, and be known by them.
But how many of us think we know our father as well as we know our mother?

The Little Notebook

Some time after my husband’s death, I emptied a deep top drawer of his desk and found, jammed into the very back, a small spiral notebook apparently long forgotten.

Written on the first page was a date in April, five years earlier, followed by the name of the neurologist who had diagnosed Len as having Parkinson’s Disease.

We had both noticed a slight drag of one of his feet, but just weeks before, he had fallen when snow-shoeing in the Cascades with our son-in-law and turned an ankle, so it was easy to discount his awkward gait. What I did not know at the time was that Len had become aware of a significant change in his handwriting, the letters becoming small and cramped. This symptom was one key to the initial, later confirmed, diagnosis.

Under the name of the doctor, Len had written:

“Make Changes:

“Live by the water”

“Wilderness fishing”

“More joyous times”

I stopped reading after those last three words, and for a moment was uncertain about turning to the next page. But mere seconds passed before my decision was made. Without further exploration, I tossed the notebook into the large trash bag at my feet, which already held the detritus of the other drawers.

Over our years together, unless offered, we never read each other’s mail. Sporadically, I wrote personal reflections in a journal. I didn’t hide it away. Without ever speaking of it, we honored each other’s privacy.

But was his privacy any longer a consideration? Was that really the cause of my decision, or was my hesitance to continue reading born of something else entirely? Might “more joyous times” imply a hidden dissatisfaction with his life, with our marriage?

Len, usually a man of few casually spoken words, in writing expressed himself clearly and with insight. Each of us would, from time to time, put on paper what was troubling us, and later share either what we’d written, or the concerns that had in this way been crystallized.

Eventually we talked and talked. Sometimes wept. Always, we came together.

No longer possible.

Looking back, I believe this was my thinking as I briefly held the small notebook in my hand:  Whatever secret yearnings Len wrote down on first learning of his diagnosis, might later actually have become part of our conversations, perhaps led to some meaningful shifts in our lives. There were many. Five years had passed since the writing. But perhaps he’d decided not to reveal the private thoughts he then had in mind.

We owe no one complete disclosure. Control over the measured sharing, the daily dance of enriching a relationship, is ours alone.

The memory of him I wanted was of how he chose to be known to me.

. . . . . . .

(Note: Len did indeed spend four of his last five years flying off to go fishing every chance he got.)

Soul Mates: Reality or Myth?

Some weeks ago, I shared dinner at my home with a friend I’ve become close to in the years since the death of my husband. She never knew him, but I often spoke to her about him, about us.

On this evening, I showed her a collage of photos taken at different stages of our marriage: in our college years, with small ones on our laps, family vacations, and after our children were grown and we were once again on our own. As with most family photos on display, they show us smiling, attractive children, arms entwined, all of us happy together.

She commented: You two were soul mates, weren’t you?

I was surprised by this, and don’t remember my response, probably just a somewhat hesitant nod. We had also been talking about her marriage, which seemed fine overall, but on this night her words were tinged with disappointment.

Weeks went by before we met again. In the interim, I thought often about her use of the term “soul mates,” and was troubled. Not a phrase I would ever have used.

For over fifty years, Len and I were loved well by each other, most of the time. But we were not soul mates, as I understand the meaning of this new age term: being the totally compatible perfect other half, fated to be together, intimates speaking the same language.That was not our reality.

In his absence, and missing him so, it is the better times that are most often brought back to mind and talked about. But I didn’t want my friend to look to us as an ideal for comparison, against which she might find cause to be discouraged about her own marriage when they were cycling through a trying time.

I needed to tell her that the ideal is a fiction.

Michelle Obama has done this well. Untold articles are written about the Obama marriage. Pictures of them holding hands and smiling are beamed to every corner of the globe. How my admiration for her grew on reading a recent NYTimes Magazine article in which both she and the President were candid about unhappy interludes: “The image of a flawless relationship is ‘the last thing that we want to project,’ she said. ‘It’s unfair to the institution of marriage, and it’s unfair for young people who are trying to build something, to project this perfection that doesn’t exist.’ ”

Len and I came to accept, as the years went by, that many of our interests were not shared. We set aside the romantic dream that somehow we could be all things to each other. Over time we became more autonomous as we alternately fostered each other’s careers and longings. Our mutual attraction, respect, and our growing family, this was the glue that carried us through the difficult days.

Most often when we were out of sync, we muddled through on our own, all the while struggling with very different communication styles (a special debt of gratitude is owed to Professor Deborah Tannen for writing “You Just Don’t Understand”). But occasionally, a therapist was enlisted to offer a different lens, a new perspective. Invariably, confronting unhappiness brought us closer.

Now, looking back, it’s tempting to generalize from our personal experience when friends comment on or ask about our long successful marriage. But respecting the unique personalities and circumstances of others, I desist. It suffices to say we were lucky to have met, to have shared a determination to problem solve, and to have had a love that carried us through the scary times.

But we were never soul mates.

The Introvert’s Dilemma

Picture this David Sipress cartoon: two couples meet on a street corner. One of the men has placed his hands over his eyes. His female companion says: It’s too late, Roger . . . they’ve seen us.

This image has me chuckling each time I think about it. It brings to mind how I felt upon moving to Cincinnati in the late 1950’s, relocating from New York City when Len completed his graduate studies.

At times, what I loved most about life in that bustling coastal metropolis was being anonymous. When I went out of my immediate neighborhood to shop or just meander, I was almost certain to meet no one I knew. Already a wife and mother, when I had time to myself, I wanted no intrusion into ­­that private world in which I could be one of the many, but solitary and unobserved.

True, once settled in our new community I enjoyed becoming known, chatting with other parents as we strolled with our babies, or dropping a youngster off at school. But when I ventured out alone to the grocery, or was able to escape downtown or to a library, if I caught a glimpse of someone I knew (as often seemed to happen), I wanted to hide and sometimes did. I yearned to recapture my treasured anonymity.

Even in my twenties I was well aware of these feelings, so now if I wish I could disappear from view to avoid an unexpected meeting with an acquaintance, or opt out of a social meet and greet, I know it’s not simply a factor of growing older. Some suggest it is the mark of the introvert. Initially I found this hard to accept for I’m not an unfriendly sort or indifferent to the world about me. Nothing satisfies me more than a leisurely conversation with someone I’m close to, or fully engaging with people at work.

Friends and family have offered their analysis of my wish to avoid the social whirl.

Says my daughter: rarely does a brief chance meeting result in a conversation worth having. Just a how are you, fine, what’s new with you, in a hurry, so must dash. Mom, you just have no tolerance for being bored.

True.

Says my son: you are addicted to the work you love to do, so want to complete those other tasks life requires without distraction, so you can return to what you’d rather be doing.

True.

Says my friend Bob: You take responsibility for helping to solve the problems of those who share their plight with you. By avoiding them, you avoid being pulled into their world, a self-protective move.

Perhaps true.

I know there are many others who feel the way I do, always seeking to evade the requisite cordiality of the social chat, wishing to completely control our own time. And, I also know that for many, the balancing point of this push-pull of yearning for both human connection and autonomy is quite different. For them, the extroverts, I imagine even a chance encounter is seen as an opening to unknown and welcome possibilities, energizing.

Yet, all too often for those of us who are introverts, the unplanned meeting or the mandated social gathering finds us bemoaning the fact that:  It’s too late, Roger.

Caught Off Guard

Last week, I was knocked back on my heels, not literally, but the impact was real, and recovery surprisingly slow.

The mediation sessions I was conducting had proceeded, at intervals, for several months. From the outset, the husband’s intensity, his determination to control a situation in which he felt out of control, was clear. His wife was seeking a divorce he did not want.

I always question both parties privately on the day we first meet. I ask about their negotiating style, aware of the importance of uncovering a history of past intimidation, whether physical or not.

She reported there were times when during an argument he would shout at her, and sometimes prevent her from leaving a room by blocking the doorway. I did not take this information lightly, even though she assured me that after many months of counseling, she felt strong and believed she could withstand any undue pressure brought to bear by him in the decision making process. Should I have known better than to proceed?

As it turned out, she did well. I did not.

They were almost finished. Relatively minor details remained to be settled. Although pressing to quickly terminate the painful process, he made unrealistic demands she would not accept. Then, something I said in my effort to lead them to compromise triggered a rage I’d never before experienced. He shouted, not at her, but at me. Over and over he told me I was incompetent, didn’t know what I was doing, and loudly insisted they had wasted their time and money.

(When I later tried to recreate a mental picture of the event, I’m seated and he, a large framed man, is standing and looming over me, although I know that was actually not the case. He only stood when he rose to walk away.)

Well schooled in what to do on such occasions, I did just the opposite. When he raised his voice, I raised mine. I ordered him to leave. He would not. I countered his intemperate words with my own. The situation did not calm, but escalated. It went in waves, quiet for a moment and then crashing once again.

Did I fear a physical assault? I did not, even with hindsight. But the verbal blows hit their mark. My heartbeat was rapid, my breathing shallow, and I think it remained so, off and on for days, as I repeatedly brought the scene back to mind.

With hindsight, this is what I should have done: Remain quiet and breathe deeply to calm myself, and take a mental time-out to refocus on my goal. Then try hard to understand what was going on in the mind of the one in the grip of negative emotion, try to calculate what upset him to the point of verbal attack. I took none of these intelligent steps.

Foolishly, I had failed to mentally prepare myself in advance, even knowing of the potential for his volatility.

Roger Fisher, author and negotiation teacher from whom I’ve learned so much, asked a student in a workshop I attended many years ago: what are the three most important things to do in advance of starting to negotiate? The right answer: prepare, prepare, and prepare.

We all negotiate every day, with a partner or spouse, a teenager, the dry cleaner. Most often we do so without much advance thought and no immediate crisis arises, although unhelpful patterns are often repeated and tensions then build in our important relationships.

I saw a picture on the front page of my newspaper this week of a 14 year old in a hooded sweatshirt, slumped on a park bench. She had run away from home after an argument with her mother. I read on to learn that the number of runaways has sharply increased in recent years. Although most of these kids return home within a week, a third of those who do not, end up selling sex in order to survive. In the aftermath of my own experience, I imagined the argument that led to this serious breach, the risk to the child, and the grief of that mother.

Might it have gone differently had that encounter been prepared for in advance?

I plan to be prepared for the next time.

A Thoughtless Greeting

It used to be forty, then fifty, now maybe even fifty-five, before women start to notice that no one is noticing. Add an additional ten years for men. Most of us make peace with advancing invisibility as we age. We can take pride in what we’ve become, what we’ve learned, what we are still able to achieve. Then, surprisingly, even a small stab can deflate a well-earned sense of self.

Here’s my story.

I am visiting a new doctor, a well-reputed specialist. The waiting room is crowded, many of the patients past middle age, some very elderly with another in attendance. The office staff exudes efficiency and a friendly ease.

Before long I am ushered into an examination room, one in a row of six or seven.

Eye drops are administered and some basic questions asked by an assistant, my answers noted for later review by the busy physician. A smile, a magazine and a not too long wait is promised, and I am left alone.

Soon I become aware the doctor is in the examining room next to mine. He is talking to someone about the process of reapplication for a driver’s license which has lapsed, the tests to be anticipated, how to avoid likely obstacles. I conjecture that the patient is hard of hearing as the doctor’s voice is raised. His tone is gentle, unhurried and indulgent. The listener’s responses are barely audible.

I am warmed by this doctor’s caring way, the sensitivity with which he addresses the elderly patient who I assume is vulnerable and confused. I will praise this kind doctor, soon, when we meet.

He knocks and enters, smiling, and with his hand outstretched in greeting says: Hello, young lady, how are you doing?

I feel diminished, categorized, even disrespected. I am not young. Please, doctor, do not call me “young lady”. This strips me of dignity. Young women are 25 and under. You can use my full name, or no name at all.

But these words, although screamed, are unspoken. I simply say: Hello.

My rehearsed words of praise for him are swallowed.

I have lived many years and value the richness of my experience. Joy, and sadness, both in good measure, and good health, allow me to look to the future with optimism, accepting the deficits of aging. But I want my status recognized, not made a foolishness.

Did he view his greeting as a kindness, or was it simply thoughtless ineptitude? And does it matter in the larger scheme of things?

Yes, it does.

Off Balance

Since my husband, Len, died, I’ve become a reluctant traveler. I find reasons to put off planning a journey, even when I anticipate pleasure at my destination. This is not a response to 9/11. I’ve always been and continue to be comfortable in commercial flight.

And I’ve long been accustomed to traveling alone, as Len and I often chose to visit our distant children separately, knowing we were able to connect with them more intimately in this way.

So what’s going on?

In my determined effort to think this through (at least what’s available to me on a conscious level), and get beyond this self imposed limitation, the source of my aversion is becoming more clear. It is humbling to realize, and then acknowledge, that it is embarrassment that is standing in my way.

For years I’ve adhered to a personal rule never to visit anyone for more than two days, so I always travel light. But even lifting a small rolling suitcase into the overhead compartment with ease, has become a challenge, is at best awkward. Then, I anticipate arriving at an unfamiliar or ever changing airport, getting temporarily lost in a crowded maze, and not being absolutely sure which ground transport to use to get to my final destination. All of these imagined difficulties give me pause.

Of course, none of this makes any sense. There are always kind people more than ready to give assistance, and I know that well. But, somehow when on my own I need to feel and appear completely competent and in full control.

In some way, I think this new reticence may relate to the loss of my partner. I could disclose any vulnerability or failing to Len, and in the telling suffer no embarrassment at all, and receive comfort and reassurance. After confiding in him, or even just knowing I could later phone and report some misadventure, my travel troubles lost significance.

So, recently I’ve begun to disclose these weaknesses, for so they seem, to my children and close friends. Doing so has generated such interesting conversations about the unique sources of embarrassment for others, sources quite unlike my own, but equally limiting, and some of significant import.

This emotional state, embarrassment, is not shame for some hidden moral wrong, but simply a witnessed loss of dignity, seeking to avoid drawing unwanted attention to some perceived personal flaw. For others, as well as myself, these needs influence decisions that objectively make no sense, but allow us to hide these “defects” from public view.

An important truth I recently read sparked my decision to put these thoughts into words: embarrassment is the death of possibility.

And here’s another: to take a step forward, you have to momentarily lose your balance.

Lost Perspective

The rooms in which I now work are new to me, all of my furnishings reconfigured. Technologies and systems yet to be completely mastered keep me well connected with my professional colleagues, as we adjust to changing times. The space is really lovely, bright and inviting, but along the way to this destination, I lost my way, beset by tension and anxiety.

What happened to my ability to cope with stress with equanimity, to my reputation for remaining calm, even in adversity? As this transition neared, I was jittery, unusually nervous. Sleep disturbed nights became frequent instead of occasional. Preparing for the impending move caused visceral discomfort, tightness in the throat, erratic appetite. As if on shifting sand, I’d wake overwhelmed by the many decisions and tasks to be completed to return to solid ground. Minor issues loomed large.

This has never been my stance when facing change, even seriously troubled times, so in the dark of night I gave my plight a lot of thought. Slowly, I believe I figured it out, at least in part.

Although my husband, Len, is gone, I’m cared about, not isolated. Children who live far away regularly call to ask how things are going and commiserate. Friends offer and give significant help in thoughtful ways. But for so many years, my partner held me close whenever I worried about the unknown, or plans went awry. Now no one is with me at the end of the day to hear my lament, and take my hand as I put one foot in front of the other. His embrace did not just reassure me in the moment, for I sank into the experience of loving so completely that when we drew apart, my perspective on what in my outside world was really important seemed more clear. I relaxed about facing whatever difficulties lay ahead.

I’m surprised to realize the extent to which my ability to calmly think things through, instead of dwell on, even obsess about, myriad details and possible risks, depended on our intimacy, how my balance was regained by having a loving touch at my fingertips, both to give and receive.

Perspective has begun to return.

Some suggest my age is a telling factor here, for I’m soon to leave my seventies. But I think not. Frequently I work with those much younger than I who’ve lost a love through death or rejection, or even mutual decision, who also report crazy-making times, ambivalence, anxiety, difficulty concentrating. I better understand why some who are depressed, disappointed by troubled relationships, or bereft of a familiar intimacy, impulsively reach out for the warmth of skin to skin, hoping to wake restored.

Gazing up at a star filled sky, or into the depths of natural wonders, never brought me the connection with the universe some report, even when in awe of the beauty of the world. But holding on to and loving another did. Now I must hold on to myself.

We all reach this time eventually, unless it is we who are the first to leave another to cope with loss. Breathing deeply, very deeply, helps. And expressing gratitude to those who offer what they can, that helps as well. Even bringing cherished memories to mind fosters a balanced view of future choices.

Loving renews perspective. Being aware of this changes nothing, yet changes everything.

A Pause

I’m taking a brief hiatus from writing for the next few weeks, as all of my spare moments, and those of professional colleagues, are devoted to the creation of a network of new work environments, and the mastery of technologies not even dreamed of a few short years ago. Stay tuned.

A Promise Not Kept

Newspaper wedding announcements draw my eye, especially those that tell a romantic tale of how the loving relationship evolved to commitment. I don’t even read them with a cynical eye, despite my work with those whose bonds are unraveling. But I do wonder if clergy in charge of modern rituals, or the wedding partners themselves, exact the “until death do us part” promise from each other, as in days gone by?

Isn’t it fair to say that every promise we make to another is conditioned on underlying, often unspoken, assumptions? Even marriage vows. And if the life experiences of each party evoke different undisclosed, perhaps even unrecognized, assumptions, then what? These questions came to mind after a recent conversation with mediation clients, and it sparked this old memory:

As a young child, I often woke on Sunday mornings to a silent house, my older brothers still asleep. I’d leave my bed and wander to the door of my parent’s room where I would settle down on the floor, waiting until I sensed the time was right to knock and join them under the covers. Sitting there, I listened to their murmurings. Although unable to detect recognizable words, I could discern the voice of one and then the other, and I imagined them close to each other, warm and cozy. Talking things over.

Many years later, I married a man of Norwegian heritage, in whose childhood home talk was sparse. He grew up well accustomed to silence. Hardly any wonder that the early years of our marriage brought disappointment for me in the talking realm. Yet now, one of my fondest memories is our Sunday mornings, as they evolved over time (with some help from the “talking cure”). Both early risers, once our oldest was in his teens, we left the kids asleep in his charge, and shared a nearby cozy restaurant nook for a leisurely breakfast. We talked of the week past and that ahead, or any worry either of us needed to air. Not always happy talk, I suppose, but now the memory is golden.

Back to the divorcing pair: the husband was adamant that vows spoken when they married bound them to soldier on and maintain the marriage. Neither had been unfaithful. There were no violent arguments. They lived now as if brother and sister, with a pervasive polite coolness. After a year of counseling, sometimes together, sometimes alone, the wife reached an opposite conclusion.

For complex reasons unique to each couple contemplating this tortuous decision, the underlying assumptions of their marital promises, love, passion, understanding and acceptance, sometimes are realized, sometimes not. This wife had carefully considered her response to her husband’s determination to maintain the status quo, however barren. She said: Is it really the loving thing to do? In terms of others, even if not myself, would I be doing a good thing to stay in the marriage? Does it help or hurt us, or our children? I don’t want us to model for them that this is what a marriage should be. We may or may not find new loving relationships, but they will know that it is something that both of their parents deserve.

Often what we witness in our homes as children is what we come to expect, or consciously decide to reject, in our adult lives. Some who grow up with violence, or plagued by persistent parental disapproval, successfully struggle to avoid replicating this for their own families. Yet, many times the cycle of abuse is perpetuated.

What of a determination to perpetuate a cycle of love?

Empathy Redefined

To gain insight from experience acquired over the years and pass it along, that is satisfying. But, when applying such wisdom to events in my own life doesn’t work, that is sobering.

The wisdom: when another’s point of view or behavior is problematic, upsetting or even unacceptable, quiet the tendency to be reactive and stand in their shoes. Empathize. View the situation from their perspective. As a professional helping others, I can do this in a reasonably dispassionate way. And many times I’ve said: once you empathize, you can sympathize with their point of view.

Not always easy if I’m emotionally involved, but I thought I even had these situations figured out.

Example: My son and daughter-in-law divorced some years ago. I loved her dearly and still do. We continue to correspond and speak on the phone and our words flow easily, unless she makes a negative comment about my son. I can be sensitive to but simply ignore these words if written, or remain quiet if spoken, and attend to the rest of her message. She is a quick study and we move on, each of us accepting a well-established boundary that only occasionally is crossed, but then renewed.

So empathy works, until it doesn’t.

Here’s what happened: I received an email message from a dear friend who lives some distance away, with whom I’ve maintained a close connection over the years. I consider both she and her husband intimate friends, he a former professional colleague of my husband. But now the wife wrote complaining bitterly about her husband’s behavior and attitude. The tone of her message clearly assumed my alignment with her, seeking both my sympathy and my professional advice. I was upset, resented being drawn into their personal lives in this way and expected to take sides.

My initial reaction was not to respond at all, but soon I knew that totally ignoring her message would be too unkind a rejection.

After mulling it over, this is the quandary I shared with a trusted colleague: I could not simply accept the wife’s perception of events and offer sympathy and advice without feeling disloyal to the husband, but nor was I willing to be drawn into the details of their intimate angst to make judgments about what went on.

From our discussion some new wisdom emerged: I was confusing empathy with the need to sympathize and become an actor in their play. Empathy, a willingness to understand, does not require agreement or even sympathy, only a readiness to hear and attempt to comprehend what someone has to say, not to embrace it. With that distinction clearly in mind, I was able to frame a heartfelt response that was empathic and not rejecting.

A bit wiser now, I stepped back into my own shoes. Taking care of myself, I also asked that I be seen only as a friend, which made giving professional advice to either of them untenable. An important boundary was restored.

Confession Of An Outlier

 In 1986, I was the first woman chosen to be President of the Cincinnati Bar Association. Friends, colleagues, and even lawyers I’d never met before, showered me with praise. I smiled and was gracious, but felt like a fraud.

To those with whom I was close, I quietly said: it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Some told me I was modest to a fault, and others probably thought me disingenuous. Neither was true.  I knew what I knew. The position wasn’t earned. I hadn’t paid my dues, hadn’t chaired the committees, hadn’t worked in the trenches of the organization to the extent other Presidents before me had.

Here is how and why it came to pass.

In the mid-1960s, less than one percent of my law school class was female. By the mid-1980s, women were entering the profession in significant numbers, the second wave of the women’s movement having gained momentum. And by postponing my career until our kids were all of school age, I began to practice at the advanced age of forty, with an appearance of professional maturity not yet earned.

Another likely factor in my selection was the publicity I received due to press and TV coverage in the late 1970s, as I fought a losing political battle for the survival of the Public Defender Division of the Legal Aid Society. I then ran, unsuccessfully, for a judicial position on an all male bench, with billboards proclaiming “she’s not one of the boys”. Defeats, but perhaps they highlighted that the time had come for a woman to be recognized as a leader of the Bar.

Going back in time even further, I had the great good fortune to marry a man raised by a woman of pioneer stock and strength. So, he wasn’t threatened by my entry into what was then virtually an all male profession, but delighted and supportive. And we were both born to parents who lost everything in the Great Depression, who then survived by dint of long hard hours at work. Our models.

I write this personal history in confessional mode in the wake of reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers.” It inspired introspection and a fuller understanding of my own outlier status. Here I offer but a glimpse of the author’s thesis, so as not to spoil for future readers the well told tales of this important work.

Outlier is a scientific term used to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. Picture the outer edges of a bell curve. Those who achieve significant professional or financial success in America are often portrayed as examples of the Horatio Alger story, that talent and exceptional individual effort is the pathway to success. Gladwell suggests this is a flawed concept, at best a half-truth. In his words, “ It is not the brightest who succeed . . . success is not simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities . . . and have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” I received many gifts and seized the day.

Gladwell examines the early years of some exceptionally successful people, Bill Gates and Robert Oppenheimer among them, but also analyzes the lives of some who are equally gifted but led more ordinary unobserved lives. As a researcher of the social sciences, and a lucid and compelling storyteller, he then places each person or group, those who became outliers and those who did not, in the history of their generation, and that of their ancestors. The circumstances of each family’s social and economic standing are explored, to explain both incredible success and disappointing performance.

There’s no question that a strong work ethic is found to be a common denominator for those high achievers who became outliers, but of equal or perhaps even greater importance was their date of birth and the opportunities they were given, often by chance, to take part when young, in the social and scientific movements of their time.

Gladwell’s message is that strengthening those institutions that nurture young minds would multiply success stories many times over.

My hope? He is in the right place at the right time.

The Writer’s Gift and Reward

Dear Anne Roiphe,

Your daughter, Katie Roiphe, is a writer whose work I’ve long admired. But until recently I didn’t know that her mother was also an author of note. I’ve just read your memoir, “Epilogue”, so have come to know you well.

    As a lawyer and mediator, I learn about many aspects of the personal lives of my clients, but my insights are shallow. No way to really know what takes place in the head or heart of another, unless the other chooses to take off their protective armor, and few do. I think most of us fully reveal ourselves only to an intimate partner, if then. But you’ve done so, and written with stark honesty, using simple words and beautifully crafted phrases to tell your story, a great gift to your reader. Is it also your reward?

When I read fiction, view films, I search that make-believe world for a person I can relate to. You mine your real world and allow me to experience it as well, to be invisible at your side and live some moments of your life, within the context of my own.

On an early page, you describe the softness of your body as you look at it in a full length mirror, the looseness of the skin of your upper arms, sagging places where once you were taut and firm. Folds under your chin. Ah, yes.

You write of the sadness of loss, the pleasure of birth. Yes.

Beneath the covers, you reach across your bed seeking your no longer present husband, and your hours of sleep are over too soon. Yes.

You say you and he talked in shorthand, left out whole paragraphs, but still you understood. Yes.

After your husband died, you found it difficult to go to the store and buy the barest of necessities. I did not.

You questioned how present to be in your grown children’s lives. I did not.

You found it difficult to return to the discipline of your work. I did not.

I admire the way you describe even apparently mundane events and then explore the emotions and thoughts that flowed, sometimes calming, sometimes haunting, bravely bringing your truth into the open for others to know. I felt validated by those of your thoughts I shared, connected to others, to you. More accepting of those foibles you too confess. And those thoughts not shared reveal my own way of coping with this new time of my life. As you disclose and define yourself, I’m better known to myself. In doing so, do you deepen your understanding of yourself as well? The writer’s reward?

You say by writing you are able to hold yourself erect and know you cannot fail, or fall. Your readers grow stronger as well.

Thank you, Anne Roiphe.

Conflicted

Am I the only parent of grown children who is conflicted about their visits? Two live far off, another several hours away. They lead busy complicated lives so don’t come often, although would come more frequently if I asked. But I do not ask. It is our email and phone connection that is constant, and comforting. Yet, on special days, their arrival is happily anticipated.

Both sons came last weekend, each accompanied by a loving partner. It is wonderful to see them, to hold them close. So why, two days later as they are packing to leave, am I relieved to have them on their way? And why am I lonelier and more troubled after they are gone, than I was before they came?

The morning after our joyous coming together, we sit at breakfast and make plans for a movie and dinner out. We foresee a frolic, an escape, but from what?

On our return home a call is placed to their far away sister, and the phone is passed from one to the other as they walk to a corner of the room to have a more private conversation. I’m reassured by their intimacy, knowing they will have each other to rely on when I can no longer protect them should troubles arise. Of course, this is an absurd thought, for I can’t protect them now, but shouldn’t I, the mother? Or have the tables already turned?

It is a lighthearted day that ends with ice cream.

But the next morning, there is a downcast look on one son’s face. No one appears to take notice. I ask if he slept well and he tells me he did not. Were there disturbing interactions of which I’m unaware? Did some old family tension intrude on the make-believe of our perfect gathering? Perhaps I should ask, but I do not.

Then he rises from the breakfast table and moves to stand behind the woman with whom he is rebuilding a house, and a life. He gently kneads the tense muscles of her neck and shoulders. I am both relieved and pained, for I remember that touch, so often received from my loved one. The message is clear: we are in this together. I’m here for you, to pleasure you, to work with you, a constant presence in your life.

My throat tightens. They know well how I miss him. They miss him too, but do not speak of him. Do they think it would make me sad? It would not.

Lingering over coffee, laptops at fingertips, concerns arise of approaching bad weather, and the leave taking is hastened. Smiling departures are made, with hugs and promises of future visits.

Then my rooms are empty. I go about the satisfying task of returning seldom used items to their well-ordered places. Glad to be alone, I try to push concern aside, and name it as theirs, no longer mine. But it doesn’t work. What triggered my melancholy? An old family trouble come back to life? Was it something I did or failed to do? Should I have probed, asked more questions? Or am I misreading the signs? If I had not glimpsed that look of sadness, would I now be at ease? The thought that follows: a parent should be able to restore a child’s well being. Twisted thinking. He is not a child, and for me to probe, uninvited, would be meddling. How can I help? I cannot. Should not? Conflicted.

There are so many emotional undercurrents when families reconnect. For us, they usually remain unspoken when together, to be sorted out when we return to our separate lives. Is this a failing? Then I recall the boundaries I maintained with my parents as Len and I worked out whatever difficulty each or both of us faced. That felt right. Independent. Mature. I will get on with managing my own life. They will manage theirs. These are grown men with loving partners. I need to let go, and I will.

Tomorrow, or the next day.

Men Friends

It is the week of Thanksgiving. Friendships are my mainstay, and living alone now, after a lifetime of intimacy with a partner, heightens my gratitude for close connections with others. Missing Len’s presence as holidays past are remembered, brings to mind his good fortune, especially his men friends, although there were times I secretly denigrated his friendships as somehow less significant than mine, with women.

My close friends have always been confidantes. His were companions, with whom he joyously went fishing, flying, and exploring the wilderness. Upon his return, if I quizzed him about conversations they’d had or intimacies shared, his answers were brief, relating stories told of other adventures, but little I deemed of substance. Nothing of their marriages, troubled relationships with grown children, problems at work, the essence of my exchanges with women friends, offering support, seeking insights.

Men just talk less to each other. Everyone accepts this reality. Most don’t share feelings with other men, beyond elation or frustration at a good or bad catch. Women smile knowingly, sometimes smugly, and express regret about valued experiences men are missing.

Reasons abound. Raised and nurtured primarily by women, that is our model for intimacy. Men are more competitive, and from boyhood encouraged to be tough, strong. Genetic, hormonal, cultural, likely all three are causes. If there is something to be gained in a competitive environment, power or money, weaknesses are not revealed. No basis for trust if you won’t show me yours.

I know I over-generalize, and some older and many younger men may not fit this paradigm today. At least I hope they do not (and I plan to query my sons about this when they visit). But are most men still missing out on the richness that self disclosure affords, something for which they rely on their attachments to women? It would seem so.

Then why, despite male emotional reserve was Len so fortunate? For four years, he kept his Parkinson’s at bay, not allowing it to impact his life in very significant ways, but in his final year, he had to succumb to the use of a walker and eventually a wheel chair. This meant giving up his treasured pilot’s license, and then his driver’s license as well. Vulnerability previously hidden could no longer be denied. His passion for flying and fishing was defeated, beyond reach. But two of his friends did not let this happen.

Alan Wolfson, the man who bought his small plane, called often and suggested Len meet him at the airport and come along on a flight. It was no mean task to hoist his non-responsive legs into the passenger seat where dual controls allowed him to actually co-pilot on their journey.

Long-time devoted fishing friend, Jim Hoffmeister, remained a constant presence in Len’s life, coming often to pick him up, wheel him to his van and drive off for an adventure. Usually they returned by nightfall, but just months before Len died, Jim became his caretaker as well as companion on a trip north to a frozen lake where they fished through the ice for days on end.

Using female standards to appraise male friendships may miss the mark. Do they become known to each other by their shared experiences, so build trust and caring? Len’s friends may have known little of sharing intimacies with words, but of love they knew everything.

Neither Friend Nor Foe

I arrived early to attend the last of a series of lectures at which I had encountered a woman from my past who appeared to shun me. I thought perhaps she did so with good reason, for actions I had taken in a legal proceeding many years ago when I represented her husband’s former wife.

She also had come early, and although there were probably fewer than ten people then in the room, she walked past me without notice and joined two others. Determined to find out if I  was correctly assessing some hostility directed my way, I approached her, waiting for a chance to speak. As she made no move to face me, I stepped closer and said her name. She turned and with a faint smile spoke my name in response.

A very brief conversation followed. I told her I was sorry to hear about the recent loss of her husband and asked how she was doing. With hindsight an awkward question, for which there is no meaningful answer to anyone other than an intimate. I had rehearsed other comments and questions, but there was no warmth is her gaze, no invitation to say more, so I left her side.

Soon she seated herself in the front row. I sat several rows back. There was tension in the room as the speaker, a political scientist reputed to be a polling expert, had earlier announced that in this final talk he would offer his prediction about the outcome of the approaching election. Many in the audience were disturbed by what he then said. He declared that the electoral vote tally in the presidential race would be a tie, sending the decision into the House of Representatives. He had suggested this possibility previously, believing it would result in a McCain victory. This evening he was faced with a flurry of questions. In responding he soon veered from his script, became agitated, and in a surprising departure from his stance as an academic, said he thought Obama a dangerous ideologue, a socialist, an empty suit.

He was in mid-sentence when my erstwhile friend abruptly rose and walked off, leaving her jacket behind. I think I later correctly concluded she was too upset to remain in such close proximity to the speaker. At the end of the evening I saw her in the back of the room in an animated conversation, clearly angry. We nodded to one another as I left. Likely we will not meet again.

She is cool to me but apparently willing to be civil.  My concern about what I perceived, or misperceived, as her antagonism due to my past actions, says more about me than it says about her. It appears she responds to others with intensity, and is quick to display her resentments, even rage. Perhaps she is not now concerned with my misdeeds after all. Impossible to know unless I pursue it further, but it is no longer important to know.

Ninety-nine people can praise me and one find fault, and it is on the one that I will dwell. Were I alone in this behavior, I might take myself off to the nearest couch. But I know I am not, for colleagues and I have often laughed about how prone we are to focus on criticism and only fleetingly enjoy praise.

My lesson from this encounter: When faced with an ambiguous angry glance, check it out, offer a kind word, and then let it go and move on. Now I can.

Friend Or Foe?

 I have many friends, a few who are close and intimate. And if asked, I would say I have no enemies. At least that would have been my answer until last month.

I’ve been attending a series of three lectures given by a professor of political science, an expert on electoral polling. The group in attendance is small, perhaps about fifty. As I greeted some old friends on the night of the first session, across the room I glimpsed a woman I’d known long ago. Did she turn away before or after she saw me? I wasn’t sure. I am sure no smile was exchanged.

At the end of the lecture, I chatted briefly with those seated nearby as the room quickly emptied. When I rose to leave, the woman in question was nowhere to be seen. But I left thinking about her, and our troubled past.

I think it was in 1982, soon after I opened my law office. Friends suggested I meet this woman, she also a lawyer. There were few of us then. We met for lunch. A pleasant enough time, but neither of us sought any further contact.

Fast forward a year or so. I was retained by a client whose husband left her after thirty years. She told me he was involved with another woman. When some weeks later I learned her identity, it was my former lunch companion. Our friendship had been so fleeting, I thought little more of it, until my client insisted I find out whether her husband had spent inordinate amounts of money on his new companion. As it turned out, and as I suspected, he had not, but the discovery process I used (and later regretted), was a deposition. Seated in my conference room, I probed sensitive personal matters, which surely did not endear me to either my client’s husband or his new love interest. (They later married and were together for over 25 years, until his recent death.)

Conducting that deposition was an important learning experience for me, still a novice in this field of law. Although completely proper procedurally, I acted against my better judgment, and acquiesced to my client’s need for revenge, to embarrass. A tactic I came to deplore when used by other counsel. My unease, once analyzed and understood, brought me to the realization that I was not simply a “mouthpiece” for a client, required to act in accord with their standards rather than my own. It was an important personal development in my then fledging career.

Now, all these years later, the subject of this long ago inquiry remained angry. Or, so I assumed in the days that followed, when the turn of her head returned to mind, many times.

Some weeks later, as the second lecture in the series began, my adversary seated herself in the chair directly in front of me. She wore a light leather jacket placed over her shoulders. Several times it slipped down. Apparently chilly, she repeatedly sought to put it back in place, turning slightly toward me each time she did so. I stared, but she never met my eyes. It was as if I was not there. And again we departed without speaking.

She is on my mind. I think of her each day, discomfited believing I am the focus of her anger. Were another telling this story I would say they were obsessing. Can she still harbor resentment, hatred even, for something I did 25 years ago? Did she view it as a betrayal? Would that be reasonable? Should I now apologize?

Soon we will both attend the final lecture. I’ve decided to arrive early, approach her in a friendly manner and express sorrow for her recent loss. I cannot leave her apparent dislike of me undefined. My problem or hers?

To be continued.

The Pleasure Of Touch

 My cat likes to have her ears pulled. Her eyes narrow, and she arches her neck with pleasure as she awaits the next gentle tug. This feline resists being picked up, but curls up in the crook of my arm when I am reading, propped up in bed. She nudges, seeking my touch, and the pressure of her warm purring body is a sweet reminder of the relaxed heft of a sleeping baby.

Some months after Leonard died, one of my young friends took on the role of loving daughter and gave me an unusual gift, a massage by a therapist she admired. When I told her this was something I’d never done before, she said: everyone needs to be touched, and you are now alone.

I went, and continue to go every now and then, welcoming this time of complete ease. The therapist starts by massaging my feet, and though I only spoke this thought aloud for the first time last week, when her skilled fingers knead these muscles, I wish I had done this for Leonard, especially in his last six months when he was in bed more hours than usual. For this man whose feet were almost always on the go, it would have been a special way to express the sweetness of old love.

It is easier to write of my cat and a masseuse than to write of the sensual pleasures of my marriage, but perhaps there is a point to doing so. For us, the promise of touch was ever present. My fingers on the back of his neck as he drove, his hands kneading my tensed shoulders as I sat at my desk, holding hands in the movies. Intimate touching renewed our appetite for life.

Now, though engaged with others during the workday, when alone my patterns and pleasures have changed. I enjoy my solitude, but it differs from a past shared with another. Evenings, I no longer watch programs or movies that I suspect will cause me to feel anxious. When we watched together, leaned into each other, no matter how fraught the media coverage, I was safe, moored. Now I check the internet for newsworthy events the next morning, in the light of day.

Often on Sundays I spend some time listening to music we loved, and reread a few old letters. His words and his handwriting almost feel like a touch, a lingering memory of the pleasures we shared, which can quite take my breath away. Then I close that door and reenter the present, with some regret, but no anguish, and knowing I can return.

The comfort with touch is tied to family history, and there are those for whom casual touch is foreign, even uncomfortable. Mine was a family in which physical affection was open and easy. Leonard’s family was just the opposite, touching rarely seen. When we were first together, seeking physical closeness I consistently walked him off the sidewalk onto the grassy verge. A lasting joke between us that spoke volumes. I eventually converted him.

Lest this become a maudlin description of an idealized marriage, I well remember the hours, sometimes days, when we didn’t touch, lay back to back and distant in bed, or silently left the house for a solitary walk. But being deprived of touch inevitably brought us to talking, so much was it the glue of our marriage.

So why write of this? There is wisdom to be passed along. The importance of touch if infants are to thrive is well established. Now studies are proving the same is true for adults. Breaching the chasm of being alone in one’s skin and experiencing pleasure, or giving pleasure, can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones and improve immune function.

So, a reminder for those with a loving partner at your fingertips: massage their feet.

The Memory Lapse

Is there anyone over the age of 50 who doesn’t experience a fleeting moment of worry when they can’t remember the name of a familiar person come upon in an unfamiliar place, or the title of the book they were reading just the night before?

My former law partner and I meet weekly for lunch. As we walk about town, we are often approached by someone we both know we know. Our forward steps slow, hoping one of us will be able to come up with the first name, for then the other can almost always retrieve the last. Together we have an entire intact memory. We joke about our lapses, but a trace of unease lingers.

Over the past week, my unease grew.

On Thursday I spent time with a friend about six years my senior. We’d been neighbors many years ago. She and her husband now live in a retirement community, and since we meet only occasionally, after we get caught up with the lives of our children, our conversation usually reaches into the past.

On this day it seemed as if every other person either of us recalled, or his or her spouse, had a dementia story to be told. I drove home under a cloud of dread.

A few days later, I traveled with two companions into the Indiana countryside for a Labor Day visit with friends. Sitting around the dining table, we discussed the difficult decisions our host was facing about the care of her 88 year old mother whose memory was fading. I welcomed the intimate and meaningful talk, silently feeling reassured recalling the mental acuity of my mother at 89, until I brought to mind my father’s emerging confusion at the age of 82.

Later that day I was asked about books I’d recently read. I couldn’t remember the title of the one at my bedside, although could describe it as a memoir.  Again unease.

Perspective returned the next day at the office, with competent performance, projects attended to, task lists reviewed and shortened. But did the dread linger somewhere in the recesses of my consciousness? Yes.

As the day was ending, two colleagues walked into my office to talk about a planned new venture. We were all tired and happy to relax in each other’s company. As is my habit whenever I need to dispel worry or want reassurance, I tell my story. So, I described my lunch meeting with the old friend and also told them of my Labor Day memory lapse.

My associates, considerably younger than me, smiled and nodded. Then one commiserated by saying he frequently reads a particularly interesting op-ed article in the N.Y.Times, and an hour or so later recommends it to his wife.

She says: oh, really? What’s it about?

He responds: well, just read me the first paragraph and then I’ll tell you.

What a wonderful friend. At least a temporary reprieve. I walked home smiling.

Going Home Again

 I have a decision to make: should I revisit the past, or stay away from the scene of love now lost?

For I’ve been invited to join some former neighbors at a progressive potluck supper, moving from house to house on the street where Len and I lived for over forty years, and raised our family. After leaving eight years ago, we returned a few times for holiday picnics, but now if I go, I go alone.

And, it turns out, the first house on the schedule is our old home. A wave of sadness washes over me when I imagine walking up the porch steps and over the threshold.

Hearing the catch in my voice as I pose my question, friends urge me not to go. Aware of my misgivings, they talk of their own past losses and those they know are yet to come, empathizing with my reluctance to give up the distance already gained from my sorrow. But my thoughts become more clear as they probe and express their concern, and as we talk, my need to overcome this foreboding actually strengthens.

The beauty of these conversations, even if tearful, is meeting the feelings head on, whereas for the past week, I put them away each time they surfaced, unexamined, and simply decided not to go. Now I wonder. Perhaps I can go, and be rewarded in some important way. Facing my unease, not it’s victim, nor later to live with regret.

For once my old front door opens, and I am standing in the entryway, I imagine I will be enveloped in the memory of the many reunions held in that very spot, when I welcomed Len’s return from days or weeks away on a geologic or fishing trip. Those were such sweet moments, when a sensual embrace renewed so much past loving.

I don’t think the changes made by the new owner of our home will keep me from visualizing the favored chair in which Len so often sat reading or listening to music, gazing into the near distance, lost in private thoughts that might, or might not, later be shared. Or my very early morning times in that same chair, either preparing for a challenging work day ahead, or having wakened in the pre-dawn hours to think through and push aside a cloud of unhappiness.

I‘ll approach the wall that held the old upright piano at which our three year old son stood and picked out tunes with perfect pitch, the first signal of his future as a gifted musician.

The location of the kitchen sink will surely be the same, beneath the window view of the ravine-like back yard, yielding the memory of the giant rope swing that evoked Tarzan-like yelps, and drew neighborhood children in droves.

And I’ll walk out to the sun porch where my eighty-nine year old mother spent her last few weeks, cared for so tenderly by Len, then retired.

The hard times, hours of loneliness, worry or discord, might also hang in the air, experienced most often as silence rather than spoken aloud in our home, only later to become food for thought and reconciliation. That too was part of the fabric of our family.

Sooner or later grief sweeps into all our lives. For now, my expectation is that revisiting old memories, while embraced by friendships of the present, will trump the pain of loss, perhaps even enrich past joys.

Experiencing Flow

 I now know what a small blinking question mark in the middle of my desktop screen portends. The hard drive was not responding. It happened without warning, early on a Friday morning, and I knew my fragile grasp of technology was to be tested. Filled with dread at the prospect of a weekend without online access, I was forced to recognize the magnitude of my dependence on this magic box. I knew I had to do everything within reason to regain my balance, this important connection to my wider world.

I arrived at the Apple store before it opened, and soon expert analysis confirmed the worst: repair of my ancient laptop was highly unlikely, and even if possible, would be expensive.

So, a new one was purchased, with the salesman’s assurance that all I need do was take it home and plug it in. Well, not quite. After registration and email accounts were successfully established, multiple complex programs needed to be reinstalled, something others had done for me years ago. I was not without the assistance of good friends this time, but there were many things I had to do on my own, (with the aid of those  unfamiliar voices of far away telephone techies).

Cast adrift, but now determined not to revert to my previous haphazard trial and error methods, I spent time learning some systematic and more intelligent ways to cope, traveling further than ever before towards some basic understanding, and gained some new power, elated by what I was able to achieve. Hours passed almost unnoticed. Only later, when more thoughtful about my total absorption, and the pleasure that followed, my newfound sense of well-being, did it occur to me that I was experiencing flow.

Some thirty years ago I was introduced to this concept, in the book “Flow” by the renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the major contributor to the then emerging field of peak experience, what some athletes refer to as being “in the zone.” I then remembered references to his theories in a book I’d recently read, “Happier” by Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar (reported to be teaching the most popular course on campus, on the subject of his title). I returned to this book in order to encapsulate here the essence of the flow concept.

Flow is a state in which one is immersed in an experience that is rewarding in and of itself. (I immediately think of artists and musicians I know.) Hours go by when it seems that only minutes have passed. The focus on the activity is complete. Nothing distracts us or competes for our attention. We reach this zone when the activity provides the appropriate level of challenge, when the task at hand is neither too difficult nor too easy. Having goals and a clear sense of purpose is essential. Says Csikszentmihalyi, “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” We then experience pleasure and perform at our best. Perhaps this all too abbreviated explanation will lead the interested reader to original sources.

The result for me: a feeling of competence, satisfaction and recognition of growth. My professional work has long offered opportunities to experience flow. For the first time, my nascent computer skills are beginning to as well.

Small Talk

I avoid most large social occasions, explaining, or complaining, that my tolerance for idle chat, small talk, is low.

The three friends with whom I shared this view on a recent spring evening, nodded in silent agreement, as we strolled to our city’s huge Convention Center. We were headed for what we expected would be a crowded event, that I knew would require considerable insignificant chatter, before I could retreat to the pleasure of having the remaining hours of the day be of my own design. There was every good reason to be in attendance at this grand event honoring four civic leaders for their major contributions to our community, people I felt genuine fondness for and great admiration. But what most pleased me as we entered the building was learning of the emailed promise one friend earlier received assuring that the evening’s program would end by 8:30 pm.

If asked, I likely would have pontificated that talk should either be intimate and disclosing or purposeful. All else a waste of precious time. My mantra.

But as pre-dinner wine was shared, and later in the festive ballroom, I took note of many others who seemed to be really enjoying greeting old friends, and seeking to discover connections when introduced to new acquaintances. As I thought about it after returning home and in the days since, this gave me pause. Should I reconsider my negativity? Was I the one out of step, missing the point? Discounting and avoiding something of value?

These thoughts reminded me of reading some time ago about a surprising research finding. An experiment was conducted with law students. Each was paired with another student at a distant school, given only a name and phone number, and a set of facts presenting a fairly complex problem to be negotiated during a long distance call. Half of the group at each school was told to conduct a brief, no more than three-minute, conversation on the day before the telephone negotiation session was to take place. In this initial conversation they were not to refer to the facts of the case in any way, but simply make small talk, get minimally acquainted, talk about the weather in their respective cities, if they chose.

Data was later collected from both groups on the settlement success rate of those who had insignificant friendly conversations the day before, and those who had not. The rate of successful settlements was much higher in the “small talk” group.

With the results of this study in mind, I thought back to my idle conversations of the evening just passed, and wondered about their impact if those with whom I’d exchanged banter met soon again, especially if we then shared a purposeful goal.

In his most recent book, Beyond Reason, Roger Fisher (of Getting To Yes fame) and his co-author Daniel Shapiro, both of the Harvard Project on Negotiation, address the emotional components, both positive and negative, which can be used to advantage when seeking to reach agreements. They give significant importance to “affiliation”, the building of personal connections, reducing personal distance with one’s negotiating partner. This is what seemed to have happened with the brief casual exchanges of the student group with the greater success rate.

As we were leaving the Convention Center, gliding smoothly along on elongated escalators, I noticed one of my close friends in animated friendly chatter with a woman who for many months has been her negotiating counterpart in a very difficult dispute. I don’t know how much time they’ve had for idle talk when attending meetings around massive formal conference tables. For now, I’ll hold out some hope their small talk may make a difference. I’ll find out. I may have to shift gears, stop complaining and improve my affiliation skills.

Dream Demons

I rarely pay attention to my dreams and recall them infrequently. Recently one caused me to rouse with a start, come alert, and then sigh with gratitude that the waking world offered safety from the demons that invaded my sleep.

Some background before I tell the story: I was ill last week with an infection that, had it gone untreated, could have had serious consequences. Once on medication, I was assured a fairly rapid recovery. My antibiotic carries on its label the instruction to take the full complement of pills, even if no longer symptomatic. The package insert repeats this warning in bold type suggesting a likely return of illness if all pills are not used. My druggist repeated this warning.

Some additional background: Since my condition developed because for too long I ignored symptoms, family and close friends quizzed me as to why I did so. Those believing that sickness arises from a compromised immune system, often stress related, asked pointed questions about any recent troubling thoughts. So, practiced as I am in identifying my anxiety triggers, I actually made a list of twelve items. When, after the dream, I went back to review what I’d written, one of my sleep demons barely made it as number eleven. The other did not even appear on the list.

Number eleven read “upcoming trip”. Although relaxed in the past, I am now spooked by the anticipation of air travel. Not of the actual flight, but all that goes before and after. Press coverage of delays on the tarmac, canceled flights, lengthy security checks and lost baggage, add to my usual pre-travel anxiety of not waking on time and missing the plane. Rational, it is not.

When I told a close friend (to whom I’d earlier confided becoming travel avoidant), that I’d not been under any particular stress, she raised an eyebrow and with a laugh asked when I was leaving town. It is soon.

So, here’s the dream: I’m seated on a plane that has just taken off, next to the friend alluded to above. As we leave the ground I reach under the seat for my carry-on bag and discover it is not there. I remember with alarm that I didn’t bring it, hadn’t even packed it before leaving home. And in that moment before waking, I realize I do not have the medication I was repeatedly warned to complete.

A return of the scary infection is the trigger that did not appear on my list.

Just exactly what can I gain by revisiting this dream? That I am more anxious about the trip than I’ve been willing to admit to myself? That the impact of this bout of potentially serious illness, (which fades in importance each day of my full recovery), is being pushed from conscious thought prematurely?

Why is it that the most stressful issue of all, given such a central role in my dream, did not make my waking list?

If we start with the premise that the unobserved life is not lived as well as it might be, that being self-aware is the best path to wise decisions and widening horizons, then the question is: should we hold onto our dream demons and pay them greater attention before blowing them off?

The Beautiful Hudson (Not The River)

The year Len returned to campus for his sophomore year of college, he was driving a car, a faded green 1941 Hudson that had already seen six years of far better days. His buddies, all returning World War II vets, living the promise of the original G.I.Bill, had challenged each other not to come back without wheels.

Our small campus was in a rural Ohio town. There was nowhere to go that wheels were needed. So, why? I soon found out.

For it was in the fall of 1947 that we met. The horrors of the long deadly war were in the past. It seemed everyone was eager to reclaim normalcy and ready to play by the rules. Only the rare bohemian student tossed cultural norms to the wind. The pill and the freedom it would offer were not yet dreamed of. What later would be designated the silent generation was emerging.

We studied together, ate together, walked in the woods and sat as close as we could in dark movie theaters. After winter break, whenever his weekend time was free, Len hitchhiked to Indianapolis where I held a co-op job (the Hudson not sufficiently roadworthy). Hitching was the way he had often traveled cross-country when in Navy uniform and it was still an inexpensive, even welcome adventure.

The only place we could be together out of the winter cold, was the lounge of my residence YWCA. There the overstuffed horsehair couch was strategically angled so that a large mantle mirror bore our reflection to the matron at the desk just inside the main entrance. Her occasional cough a reminder of her vigilance. Affectionate moments were stolen or circumspect. Holding hands at the chili parlor and the waffle house had to suffice.

Ah, but in the spring we were back together on campus and the common room of my college dorm was far more welcoming. A radio offered a very young Andy Williams softly crooning Moon River. Lights were turned low or completely off and we could touch, but other couples sought the same remove. We were never alone.

So evenings often ended in the Hudson, though never in the back seat. I was a 19-year-old raised to be apprehensive of where that might lead. But this sweet car was one of the first models to have the gearshift moved to a pedestal in front of the seat making it possible to easily slide across and nestle in each other’s arms. So the Hudson became our evening hideaway, windows open to warm breezes and the nighttime serenade of crickets. Until it broke down, was beyond repair at a manageable cost, and had to be sold.

Another year of study passed, career paths being decided and the Hudson became but a fond memory.

So, of course, we got married.

The 1950s found Len consumed by graduate study, and our two sons were born and became my career. Then came his first teaching job, the purchase of a home and the birth of our daughter. This was how life was supposed to be. We didn’t expect or achieve perfection, but we knew the rules and thought we could predict the future.

Were we prepared for the 1960s and 1970s when our kids reached adolescence and all rules were suspended? No. “To Forbid is Forbidden,” read the placards of students protesting in Paris in 1968. It seemed to have become the rule in mid-America as well. It took us years to really come to terms with this new world in which the sex we thought was the prize of marriage was sometimes no more than a welcoming handshake.

It was impossible for us not to separately wonder how different our lives might have been had we been part of this new sexually liberated generation. Together, we never gave voice to these thoughts, but there were times we both knew the question hung in the air.

Moving On

Recently I considered moving to a new home. Close friends had found the perfect place for them to live, within a cluster of five small condominiums nestled at the base of a wooded park, close to downtown, yet secluded. They phoned and suggested I consider living there as well, as another unit just across the courtyard was now for sale.

A long hiatus from work over the holidays had left me with a heightened sense of what post-retirement loneliness might be, and we had talked about this.

I was moved by their gesture, for it came along with a tender offer of the help I might need as I grow older, friends close at hand if my car won’t start, or if my human apparatus begins to fail. I warmed to the prospect of this new shelter, both the roof and their arms.

I went to look around. The site of their new home is the very neighborhood Len and I  lived in for over forty years. The park at the top of the hill, seen from their windows, was the place to which we walked together several evenings each week. Our children had rolled head over heels down the steep slopes on new spring grass and sledded on snowy winter evenings. So this would mean a return to loved surroundings.

Then why once there, peering through dark windows into this promise of a new haven, was the idea abandoned in a blink? I was enveloped with a cloak of sadness, and I knew this was a move I could never make.

Needing to explain my change of heart, both to my friends and to myself, on return home I listed the pros and cons. There were many, but one alone outweighed and made the others irrelevant.

At the house in the park, the memory of my former life with Len arose at every turn of my head, his absence a constant presence. In my cozy loft, Len never lived. I bring him in at will many times a day, glance at his pictures, even have imaginary conversations from time to time. But here he comes by invitation. Then his presence, not his absence, is the essence of my mood. Here I have some control.

Each of us chooses to make the past a part of the present in different ways, accommodating to our unique circumstances and needs. Today, I feel strengthened by this recent experience, able to recognize and then act on my feelings, to manage my life looking forward, determined to create my future security in new ways, even if more alone.

A Melancholy Day

When my kids were young, Halloween was my favorite holiday. With little spent in time or money, the night ended with costumes askew and each child’s candy hoard spread out and sorted on the living room floor. Apples disdained, chocolate eaten with abandon.

It seems right that Thanksgiving should be next in line for favored status, a time to remember all that is most treasured, friendships and family, and savor favorite recipes. Seems right, but is not quite true.

With children living far away, I join old friends.

We are all smiling as the sumptuous meal is presented, but I must purposefully pull myself back from a focus on who is no longer at the table. Then I talk about him, casually, even tell funny stories about his carving exploits, and I can breathe again. But I want to go home, be alone with my thoughts, allow my practiced smile to dim.

A son phones and senses my mood, which he says he shares. We reminisce about years long past, the annual early Thanksgiving  morning drive to the Chicago suburbs. Kids snug under blankets dozing in the back seat, wake as dawn lights the sky. We reach a half way mark and pull into a familiar roadside restaurant for pancakes and hot coffee.

Cousins fairly tumble over each other in joyful reunion, as the Larsen clan gathers in the small prairie town where some still live. Too many to seat together except around the ping pong table in Aunt Joan’s basement, hot dishes carefully carried down a dimly lit steep stairway. Babies passed from arms to arms, giving new parents respite.

How many times did this scene replay? Until one day children returned with their own small people carried aloft on shoulders grown broad and strong. The familiar aromas are in my kitchen, soon crowded with helping hands. As the day wanes, Len and I leave for an evening walk, hand in hand in the cold winter air.

With last week’s holiday now past, everywhere I hear: How was your Thanksgiving? The response: Great! My response: Fine.

In this answer there is both truth and undisclosed sadness, and I know not just my own. For every family there is a story to be told, some sadness, some regret.

Oddly, I almost savor my melancholy mood, for it intensifies the moments remembered. Would the losses be so mourned, if less precious?

But, if I was king of the world, we would now fast forward to the first of next year, and bypass all the holiday merriment of December. How humbug is that?

It’s Not All Bad

 Friends ask why I plan to write a book. Striving to be truthful, I answer: to avoid becoming invisible. They object, not wanting me to feel diminished by getting old. They would like to talk me out of this concern. But they cannot. For I’m a realist, and know that aging eventually brings a retreat from center stage.

Last week, on a sunny downtown street corner after Sunday brunch, a friend pursued the point I’d made and asked: do you mean invisible as a woman or in a more general sense? And I responded: both.

Now he is really determined to talk me out of it.

As we grow older, women accept a measure of invisibility. They walk down the sidewalk and male heads no longer turn. But in their families, and professionally, they continue as vibrant, seasoned, and more accomplished players, years after feminine allure has faded somewhat. Not a bad trade-off.

But when one advances beyond the ever-expanding stretch designated mid-life, then invisibility threatens in earnest.

For me, both work and writing keep the stage lights on. And recalling memorable experiences, exploring their meaning and crafting a story, offers a new role, a revival, a second act. A universal dream for the old. And even for the not yet so old?

But, apparently I’ve failed to communicate to those dear friends who seek to reassure me of my continuing presence, that becoming invisible is not all bad. So here’s the good news for me, and eventually for them:

I’m no longer burdened by ambition. Though eager to enhance my skills as a mediator and writer, I’ve got no more lawyer mountains to climb.

Volunteer projects of past importance have been taken over by a new generation, and I’m permitted to enjoy the role of valued spectator, without committee or leadership responsibility.

Never again will I wear uncomfortable shoes.

The clothes still in my closet are classics, by my own definition. Being in tune with fashion matters not at all.

Without guilt, I no longer attend social events I think will be tiresome.

Responsible only for my own timetable, I can talk with a friend for hours, even in the middle of the day, should we chose.

I’m no longer a consumer of anything other than consumables. Simplicity allows for greater focus, and time to become technologically savvy.

I don’t have to pretend, so as to be perceived in a favorable light, don’t have to hide who I really am. Invisibility has morphed into transparency.

Life’s journey is becoming a destination. And I still buy green bananas.

The Other Mother

I write this on the day that my other mother died at the age of ninety-nine. Vicki was my father’s kid sister, the aunt who was happy to take me in when I ran away from home.

In 1951, I was twenty-two, she in her early forties, ten years younger than my mother. Len and I had just finished college, and he was soon to embark on graduate study. For both strategic and financial reasons, he was spending the summer in the Nevada desert as field assistant to one of his soon to be Columbia professors. I was newly pregnant and this was not a good time for us to be apart. But I had a safe haven, parents who happily welcomed me home to await Len’s return.

This college graduate, wife, and soon to be mother became a child again, worse still, an adolescent. My mother was a loving and generous woman, and with miles between us we got along very well. Now, each day I bristled as she suggested improvements: a haircut, perhaps a blouse of a more becoming color, a more cheerful presence.

Of even greater moment, I was unable to put aside feelings engendered just weeks before when Len and I, pressed together in a street corner phone booth, had called with the exciting news of our expected baby, a first grandchild. Vivid in memory was the question she asked: was it planned?

I fled to the small white cottage of my aunt in Lakeville, Connecticut. Vicki was then employed as an editor at Doubleday, and commuted weekly to New York City, returning home laden with manuscripts of aspiring authors. Recently divorced from her doctor husband, (he still beloved in our family), she was raising her young son on her own. Divorce was a rarity then, and though unspoken, the family assumed she must have been at fault.

My mother and my aunt were loving competitors, first for my father’s affection (and, of course, my mother won that round), and then for mine. Vicki was delighted to harbor her runaway niece, no doubt pleased to be the winner of this round. I was offered the excitement of the publishing world and a glimpse into the life of an independent career woman, sophisticated and defiant. But most of all I was given unconditional acceptance.

Over the next thirty years, our relationship thinned as we each moved to distant states and she remarried. We became close again after my mother’s death in 1987, but my mother won the middle rounds.

How grand to be loved and welcomed without reservation by an other mother, with the accumulated wisdom of the generation before. Tender care without the admonitions or questions that a mother must labor to suppress.

Having no investment in another’s perfection can be a wonderful gift.

The Greatest Gift

 The best gift I ever received was not my husband’s to give, but was gratefully accepted: permission to change my life.

It was the summer of 1964. For six weeks, Len was exploring Scandinavia with sixteen other academic geologists, our longest separation in fifteen years of marriage. During the last of these weeks, the three kids and I drove about the midwest, visiting friends and family. We ended our journey at Laguardia Airport, peering through a wall of glass, eager to spot Len in the long line of weary travelers navigating customs.

Reunited, we headed for an airport hotel. All five of us tumbled onto the big bed, filling the air with our stories, the kids eventually settling down on roll-away cots. Len and I held each other close, wordless, as they drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, we started home, the windows of our Chevy station wagon open to the warm wind of late summer. Taking a road trip with a geologist presents the challenge of drawing his attention away from the rock and land formations he finds ever fascinating. Perhaps Len’s divided attention gave me the courage to casually remark, my voice tentative: I’m thinking about going to law school.
. . . . . . . . . . .

I was thirty-five years old. Julia, our youngest, would soon enter kindergarten. Concentrating fully on raising children gave me a satisfying sense of purpose, but as they got older, motherhood as a career was no longer enough. Anticipating this, we’d talked about what I would do next. My teaching certification could be renewed, but I’d been living in a child centered world for twelve years and yearned for something else, but what?

One evening, when on my travels, the husband of a friend, herself in the same quandary, surprised me by asking if I’d ever considered law school. I hadn’t, but the idea was born and took shape over the weeks that followed. I spoke of it to no one. Len’s approval was the missing piece.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Today, when law school enrollment of women equals that of men, do many remember that just forty years ago, it was assumed without question that there was some sound reason that law was an all male profession?

Would challenging that premise undermine my desirability as a woman, as Len’s wife? In 1949, the year we married, aspirations of women were in part shaped by tradition, but also by the wave of men returning from World War II, yearning for family. Even college educated women married young and welcomed home and hearth as their destiny. (To put things in perspective, we married 14 years before Betty Freidan wrote “The Feminine Mystique” and sparked the second wave of the woman’s movement.)

Is my story dated, a relic of the past? Is attention any longer paid to maintaining the delicate balance of men’s expectations and women’s fulfillment? Do women still seek the approval of a loved partner before making a major identity shift? Do men? Or is it the essence of “emancipation” to no longer do so?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Remembering who I was in 1964, I think back to that important moment on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and wonder how my life might have played out had Len not responded:

Law school? What a great idea, perfect for you!

Jill Ker Conway

By chance, I happened upon a CNN panel discussion and heard the words of an old friend I’ve never met. Not an impossibility, if we’ve experienced the world of that person through their own telling, in print.

Jill Ker Conway became well known to me over ten years ago when I read the story of her early life. She is a woman in her seventies, retired as President of Smith College, and now a visiting scholar at M.I.T.

“The Road From Corain” tells of Conway’s youth growing up in Australia. After World War II, her father homesteaded vast acreage in the Outback, where the entire family took part in raising sheep for wool. Unlike her two older brothers, who had been sent off to boarding schools, she grew to age eleven without ever attending a formal school, although, interestingly, she was raised with the expectation that she would become equally as competent. (A message I too received from both parents.)

Even as sand storms howled around their ranch home, set miles from the nearest neighbor, her mother laid her evening table with linen, silver and crystal, as caught up as most Australians raised pre-World War II, in allegiance to the standards of the British upper class. Valiant in her support of her husband and young family, as they dealt with the adversity of a prolonged devastating drought and extreme heat, she delivered mixed messages to her daughter about what it meant to be a woman. Modeling great strength and expecting high academic achievement, she also offered her not so subtle advice to hide her intelligence, in order to be popular with young men.(All messages I too received.)

Following the premature death of her father, the Ker family moved to Sidney. On graduating from the University with highest honors, she was denied the employment opportunities offered to her male colleagues, and fully wakened to the dichotomy of the treatment of men and women. (In 1969, the year of my graduation, law firms hired no women attorneys.)

Eventually Conway immigrated to the U.S. as a history scholar and continued her graduate education, becoming a renowned educator and author of many acclaimed books.

Conway and I share a historical context. When I read her next volume of autobiography, “True North”, I’ll be able to compare how we experienced the radicalization of many women in the sixties and seventies and the changes since that time. The demands of those years are now common place expectations. Young girls today are born to these expectations and have no need to be covert.

Reading about the real life of another, hearing the voice of the author, illuminates our own life. I will likely never meet Jill Ker Conway, yet I know her well, and she has helped to give my world definition.

Please Wait

 If I could be granted a wish, it would be that all my good friends, and members of my family, would only die after I do. A selfish and frivolous wish, which gives but momentary comfort, but such is the nature of wishes. We all have to leave, follow other loved ones, but I want those I love to wait.

Pat, my college roommate, a friend for over fifty years, died last week. We did not see each other often, as she lived on the east coast. But when we did connect in some way, it was as if no time had elapsed. Her husband and mine shared a love of fishing, so our visits were often planned around their boyish pleasures.

I loved those glimpses into her life, her long marriage to the man who caused many on campus to say they were sure it wouldn’t last, the sharing of photos and stories of our children, the funny and the sad. We talked by the hour about how our lives were evolving, without the gloss so often added with someone less known or trusted. And then we cooked the fish.

Now what I am remembering most is the warmth of her smile and the throaty laugh, which so often punctuated our conversations, even the serious ones. I think about her lonely husband and ache for him. I am consoled by knowing that for a time he will be in the arms of their children, and other friends and family will gather round. Then the empty house. Their dog searching for his other friend.

We came together initially by random assignment to shared sleeping and study quarters to which we returned each day after classes. No computerized selection program in those days. So much talk, often in the dark of night, telling our stories, discovering similar values, and temperaments that blended well.

College friendships are made so easily, as if breathing the same air brings kinship. Perhaps because just at the time that we are leaving our family home, often on the heels of stressful adolescent separation wars, we fall in with new siblings of sorts, without any of the complexity of the sibling relationships left behind. No old baggage, starting afresh. Able to create a new persona if we choose. Sharing the excitement of paths yet to be taken.

Losing loved ones is as much a part of life as gaining them. I comfort myself by  remembering the high of falling and being in love, welcoming a new baby, the depth of other friendships which have grown over the years, and for a time it restores my equilibrium. But then I yearn to hear Pat’s laugh and to hold her dear ones close, express my love, and share their sadness.

So, I wish that she had waited.

On-line Angst

 I’m not alone. We are a multitude, those who have no employer provided technology experts to immediately respond when our golden keyboards turn to straw. We readily admit to the level of our computer incompetence, but perhaps not to the dismay and anxiety caused when we cannot resolve a mysterious negative message, or we lose our on-line connections.

As the generations line up behind us, and the world changes with dazzling rapidity, the choices seem limited: keep running (and learning) to keep up, or fall hopelessly behind. I need additional options.

    Some ten or more years ago, without any basic understanding, I backed into my knowledge of computers, by learning how to email friends, family and clients. Proud of these new skills, I moved on to exploring the internet, marveling at the vastness of what I could search for and learn. A joyous experience.

Until joy morphs to despair when things go wrong. Error messages pop up or drop down. Printer lights blink. Email fails. Wireless fades in and out. My breathing too, becomes labored.

Recently, during a difficult phone discussion with a techie who had to constantly  revise his language to meet my level of comprehension, I heard a subtle shift in his tone, suggesting that I was the problem, not the system. His interest waned as he offered me additional phone numbers for others to consult. Despair.

Not only was my problem unsolved, but perhaps even more troubling was the intense emotion behind my unspoken response. It seemed disproportionate. Even hours later, my eyes brimmed with tears when my son called and I spilled out the story of the frustrating phone conversation with the unknowable person who had only a first name.

His comforting words: A temporary disruption in your email is not just a technical problem, but a social one — a loss of connectedness, in the most important sense.

Was that what brought tears to my eyes? I think so. And, it is more than that. It is  loss of control over this magic box which not only represents my means of reaching out to the people important to me, but also now provides the pathway to productivity, to identity.

In the past, when faced with day to day problems, the study of understandable texts sufficed. Now, I must try to master elusive concepts, in a foreign language.

My solutions:

I will breathe in and out and search for an able consultant, who is also a skilled translator and teacher. Or adopt an eighth grader.

Len’s Janis Ian

 In the 1980’s, my husband, Len, became aware of Janis Ian, a singer/songwriter. He was captivated by her voice and the stories her songs told. One by one her CDs appeared next to our stereo.

By this time our kids had all moved on to their adult lives, so the choice of music in our home was what we alone favored. Len listened to Ian’s songs with an intensity I’d never before witnessed. If I was present, I felt like an intruder. I walked to another room.

Soon Ian tapes were bought for the car, though not played when I was a passenger.

Rather than being drawn to listen and share her music, I was silently jealous of this woman who had so captivated my husband’s attention. Did he fantasize having her in his life in some way?

I knew my reaction was absurd, and did not speak of it.

Then one day Len told me that he had written a letter to Ian to tell her how moved he was by a particular song, (the letter never actually mailed as far as I know, but perhaps it was). Momentarily, I felt a twinge akin to panic. I said nothing, feeling too foolish. Or too vulnerable? Not sure. The moment passed, only occasionally brought back to mind.

When Ian was not in the room, our loving ways were undisturbed.

On to part II of this story. Len died in 2002 bringing a close to our 53 year marriage. I knew his music collection, mainly classical, would be prized by our musician son, Grey, so I suggested he take what he wished. He took all of the Janis Ian CDs, at that time still tinged with what I thought of as Len’s yearning interest in this “other woman”.

Now, fast forward to a year or two after Len’s death. Snug in bed one morning, reading the Times, I came upon an article beneath a picture of Janis Ian and her partner, Pat, taken on their wedding day. Maybe you’ve guessed, Pat is a woman, and the two of them had traveled to Canada where it was possible for same sex couples to marry.

I was filled with delight! How I wished that Len could know.

And the story has another wonderful chapter.

As part of his varied life as a musician, our son, Grey, is the music editor of the magazine, “Sing Out”. He had, in the recent past, transcribed an Ian song for that publication. His work drew her attention and she found it admirable and subsequently hired him to do all of the transcriptions for “Folk is the New Black”, her newest CD song book. How overjoyed his father would have been to know of this connection.

These days, I often listen to Len’s Janis Ian; over 40 of her songs reside in my iTunes library. I welcome being pulled into the past, and so enriched in the present.

Taking To The Sky

My husband learned to pilot a small plane when in his forties, and he fell in love. If the weather was good, he wanted to fly. If the weather was poor, but not too poor, he wanted to test his mettle. When dark, he wanted to practice night flying. Flying became his passion. And he wanted to share his passion with me.

Covertly, I was an anxious passenger. Noise of the engine and crackle of the radio precluded conversation. Ever vigilant, to prevent colliding with other aircraft, I couldn’t fathom what kept us aloft. My visual was the Disney cartoon in which a furry animal raced toward the edge of a cliff and then kept right on running into thin air, only to suddenly look down and drop like a stone (and bounce).

Len’s patient instruction about the principle of airfoils didn’t help.

Yet, for several years, I flew with him, even making two cross country trips. He was in his element. I was always so happy to be back on firm ground upon landing, that this was the emotion he noted. But my secret could not be kept.

The proposed solution? A psychologist who specialized in desensitization of phobias, for that was how my fear was defined. At the second session, she asked how often I flew with Len and I reported that we flew 3 or 4 times a week. The therapist expressed  surprise, and in a puzzled tone questioned why I went so often if I didn’t enjoy it?

Aha! A defining moment.

The therapeutic path? We changed course and focused on exploring what other fears were being kept hidden. Like the fear of not living up to my concept of what a good wife should be, and the fear of being abandoned as unworthy.

I’d like to report that recognizing those fears erased my fear of flying in a small plane, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, I gave up flying with Len. A good solution for me, less so for him. I could relax, and was even able to tell him of my decision without undue guilt. He expressed sincere disappointment. Fair enough, we were both entitled to be authentic.

Len found many other flying companions, including our daughter and his then 73 year old mother. Both accompanied him to fulfill his boyhood dream of exploring Alaska by plane.

Did he continue, from time to time, to express regret about my not being his companion on some exciting adventure? Yes, and that made me sad, for a while. Sometimes, old feelings of insecurity returned.

But not for long. And if anything, honesty drew us closer.

Just My Name, Please

 It used to be forty, then fifty, now maybe even fifty-five, before women start to notice that no one is noticing. Add an additional ten years for men. Most of us make peace with advancing invisibility as we age. We can take pride in what we’ve become, what we’ve learned, what we are still able to achieve.Then, surprisingly, even a small stab can deflate a well earned sense of self.

Here’s my story.

I am visiting a new doctor, a well reputed specialist. The waiting room is crowded, many of the patients past middle age, some very elderly with another in attendance. The office staff exudes efficiency and a friendly ease.

Before long I am ushered into an examination room, one in a row of six or seven.

Eye drops are administered and some basic questions asked by an assistant, my answers noted for later review by the busy physician. A smile, a magazine and a not too long wait is promised, and I am left alone.

Soon I become aware the doctor is in the examining room next to mine. He is talking to someone about the process of reapplication for a driver’s license which has lapsed, the tests to be anticipated, how to avoid likely obstacles. I conjecture that the patient is hard of hearing as the doctor’s voice is raised. His tone is gentle, unhurried and indulgent.The listener’s responses are barely audible.

I am warmed by this doctor’s caring way, the sensitivity with which he addresses the elderly patient who I assume is vulnerable and confused. I will praise this kind doctor,  soon, when we meet.

He knocks and enters, smiling, with his hand outstretched in greeting.

“Hello, young lady, how are you doing?”

I feel diminished, categorized, even disrespected. I am not young. Please, doctor, do not call me “young lady”. This strips me of dignity. Young women are 25 and under. You can use my full name, or no name at all.

But these words, although screamed, are unspoken. I simply say “hello.” My rehearsed words of praise for him are swallowed.

I have lived more than seven decades and value the richness of my experience. Joy, and sadness, both in good measure, and good health, allow me to look to the future with optimism. I accept the deficits of aging, but want my status recognized, not made a foolishness.

Was his greeting viewed by him as a kindness, or was it simply thoughtless ineptitude? And does it matter in the larger scheme of things?

Yes, it does.

The Cow in the Cottage

My irreligious mother, although a sophisticated artist in the latter half of her life, was a child in the early years of the last century, born in what is now the Ukraine. She loved to retell a story she claimed to have heard at her mother’s knee:

A sad, bedraggled, care worn peasant sought the advice of the village Rabbi, complaining bitterly about the overcrowded  cottage in which his wife, four children and mother-in-law all lived in just two small rooms. (You can imagine the ways this scene was embellished depending upon the mood and time available for the telling.)

The Rabbi’s advice: Move your cow into the cottage.

Incredulous, but obedient, the peasant did just that. But, one week later, on return to the Rabbi, he complained even more fervently about the intolerable conditions in his home.

The Rabbi’s advice: Now move the cow out of the cottage and back into the field.

The peasant returned the next week bearing gifts and full of gratitude for the wise advice he’d been given, for now his home was more spacious than ever.

Moral of the story (personal just for me): I have been posting commentaries on both Wednesdays and Sundays for several months now, causing more stress than wise, as the rest of my life becomes less well managed. So from now on, at least for a while, I am putting the cow out of the cottage, and will only post on Sundays. So, dear loyal reader, we can all take a deep breath.

Trusting Snap Decisions

The conventional wisdom: when faced with an important decision, consider the pros and cons. Sometimes I do, perhaps just in thought, or with written lists. But, most often, by the time I get around to this deliberate approach, I already know what my decision will be, at least what my more impulsive self yearns to do. Then, having made the decision, occasionally I question the lack of serious attention given to the more analytical process.

What were some of those decisions? To decide at nineteen to marry Leonard Larsen (we married young in those days.) Selecting the house we bought in the late 1950s. Deciding to go to law school in the mid 1960s, and then, in the 1980s, to transition from the more lucrative litigation based practice into mediation. Major decisions, made almost in the blink of an eye, well in advance of the systematic analysis that at times followed.

On my desk is a small black and white photo of two newborn rabbits, eyes not yet opened, nestled on a soft cloth crumpled into an old cigar box. A hand, large in comparison to the tiny creatures, holds the box, and next to it is a small beaker of milk with an eye dropper. I explain to those who ask, that the photo was taken on the day I first met Leonard, to whom I was later married for 53 years. The hand in the photo is his. When walking in the woods that bordered our college campus, he had rescued these little bits of wildlife, after their mother had been killed by a predator.

I never examined the reason why I wanted to have the picture close by. I think I now know.

A year or so ago, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Blink”. He describes the ability we all have to make quick judgments  based on our past experiences, which quite accurately serve as a sound guide for current decision making. He calls this instant processing the “the power of thin-slicing” and maintains that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience. The premise is detailed and well researched, but offered with the emphatic caveat that the results of quick decisions based on erroneous data we may have absorbed,(i.e. unexamined prejudices) are often disastrous.

My past experiences suggested that the young man tenderly caring for orphaned rabbit babies was a kind and compassionate person. We were drawn to each other, no doubt making other snap judgments along the way. We married two years later. The very significant differences in our backgrounds suggested to many that our decision was unwise. But, we never added up the pros and cons, and gave little heed to the caution of others. Happily so.

Now, when I am “thin-slicing”, I am more aware of it, and more readily trust the choice made.

Difficult Moments

On a Sunday afternoon, I walked three city blocks through a gentle rain to spend a few hours in a favorite place, the public library. Planning to just browse for a while, I was surprised to hear music coming from the large atrium performance space. Before a seated audience, sat (and stood) a jazz trio, with a piano player spokesman interrupting the flow from time to time, to explain the interplay of the instruments, the improvisation. I wandered in and settled behind those already gathered.

Glancing about at my fellow listeners, I saw young and old, some families, a few children playing at their parent’s feet, paging through books. Colorful rain gear completed this inviting scene with its mix of downtown residents and visitors. And the music, drawing us all together.

It filled me with pleasure.

An older couple was seated just in front of me. The man casually put his arm about his wife’s shoulder and pulled her closer. They exchanged brief comments and smiles now and then, during lulls in the music.

As the minutes passed, my throat tensed and tears filled my eyes.

In recent years, since the death of my husband, solitude has often been my companion. A welcome, comfortable companion. But here, quite unexpectedly, I felt painfully alone and found myself overwhelmed with sorrow. In the midst of the closeness of others, partners and families, in a setting not unlike one I’d shared so often with my loved one, imagining how much he would have enjoyed this experience and yearning for his touch, sadness eclipsed pleasure.

I left, catching my breath and collecting myself on the walk home. Remembering it, even now, the tightness in my throat returns.

Here’s what I wonder. I often warm myself, when alone, choosing to recall happy memories of my dear lost love, feeling lucky to have shared so much of my life with him, maturing together, really. I sometimes reread letters written so many years ago and those are satisfying times. A contradiction? Out in public, with others about me, his absence must be accepted as the painful reality. I cannot pretend, not even for a moment.

I understood my sadness in the midst of such an enjoyable experience, and also my need to leave. Do people who have suffered painful losses draw into themselves, some even isolate themselves, to avoid reliving even happy events which make the loss so much more present?

An Experiment

I’ve launched an experiment with a sample of one.  And the question is: can one call the streets surrounding one’s home a neighborhood when there is a constantly shifting cast of characters?

Almost a year has passed since I moved into a loft apartment in an old downtown Cincinnati building which over the past 40 years has undergone many incarnations, but which to me will always be Shillitos Department Store. I live in what used to be “Better Woman’s Dresses”, as is still proudly proclaimed in the large art deco elevator.

Having given up a front porch and garden six years ago for the ease of apartment living, my most recent move is into what is basically one large room ( 1025 square feet but with a twenty foot high ceiling !) on the third floor, overlooking a busy city street. A new life completely on my own, for the first time ever.

Now nestled among only my most cherished possessions, feeling expansive in my cavernous but cozy room, new horizons  appear. Downtown is no longer a place to just pass through, bent only on a destination. Now as I walk about, architecture, both old and new, draws my appreciative eye. But most pleasing of all, is the mix of other people walking the streets.

How different these streeets are from those we walked when my husband and I first moved to Cincinnati after spending five years living in NYC, where Len completed graduate study at Columbia. Our arrival in the urban midwest of 1956 was culture shock. People waited for the walk light even when the roadway was empty. Differences in the garb or speech of someone passing by, which would have gone unnoticed in NYC, evoked a stare, apprehension. People of color were met infrequently, except for those providing service. Even our inner city suburbs were wholly segregated.

So, here’s the experiment: as I walk the few blocks to my office each morning, or stroll to the home of a friend in the early evening, and pass others purposefully walking along, I no longer avert my eyes, as is the habit of most passersby on city sidewalks, but instead try to make eye contact, smile and offer a greeting, “hello” or “good morning”. Not infrequently the greeting is returned, especially if my fellow city dweller (or worker) joins me in the complicity of eye contact. I’ve not yet reached the level of shared nods and smiles I once enjoyed on the tree lined streets of homogeneous suburbia, but I’m working on it. And as summer is hard upon us, I think the count will surely rise, along with my sense of neighborhood. Check back.

Men From Venus?

I’ve never been a serious fan of televised sporting events, although there was a time in the distant past that I pretended to be, just as a way of sharing cozy moments with my husband. I wasn’t actually a complete fraud. I could get caught up in the ballet of basketball or the graceful beauty of Olympic skiing and skating. And, although I experienced  watching a football game as a complete bore, I found I really loved watching the post touchdown hugging, and even the congratulatory slap on the rump.

I’m used to seeing women embrace when they greet each other in a social setting, or on departure, while men, with greater reserve, shake hands. Something about seeing men lose that reserve with other men, joyously sharing a celebratory hug, I found heartwarming. Sporting events used to be the only time I got to witness this, except among close family members. And in many families, the embrace, even between fathers and sons, remains awkward or absent.

I know I need to be on my guard about gender stereotyping, and perhaps this particular stereotype, that women are more physically expressive in a joyous moment, is truly beginning to fade. I vividly recall, fairly early in 43’s first term, when the president was addressing a joint session of congress, both Senator Daschle and Representative Gephart exchanged bear hugs with Mr.Bush, in the televised view of millions. I noted that those hugs were worthy of comment on the front page of the Times the next day, so at least four or five years ago, outside the sports arena, for men (and here of opposing political parties!) hugging in public was remarkable.

There are some other gender stereotypes that have definitely fallen by the wayside, which, professionally, I now  occasionally witness.

Women who happen to have the higher income, when couples divorce, are no happier paying child support or alimony than most men ever were. Women who’ve accumulated larger pension funds than their divorcing husbands often fail to see the fairness in having to share those funds with their spouse. They are likely to use the exact same rationale so often expressed by men: But I’m the one who worked so hard to earn it; surely that is mine alone to keep.

I hope that women don’t diminish the importance we now place on being expressive and nurturing relationships, as we break through the glass ceiling, become more and more politically visible and share power with the suits. Far better, from my perspective, if it works just the other way around and men loosen their hold on cool reserve.

Pretending Not to See (Our Sexy Hero)

I own a small sculpture which hangs on my office wall. It is a carved wooden face, eyes wide open. Splayed across the face is a hand with elongated fingers which cover the eyes, but the fingers are spread just far enough apart that the eyes are only partially obscured. One has the sense that the eyes can see while appearing to be hidden from view, or to be hiding from the view. To me, it artfully displays hypocrisy, pretending to not see or know what is actually going on right before our eyes, or within the core of our being.

I was drawn to this sculpture in part because of the artistry, the texture, the composition. But it also spoke to me of all that we choose not to talk about or admit, day by day, of our hidden private thoughts, yearnings, imaginings and of course, shame. We seek to protect our private life, yet are often eager to secretly peer at the private lives of others. Who doesn’t pick up People magazine in the waiting rooms of our lives?

We’ve always liked our heroes handsome and sexual, our heroines beautiful with a thinly veiled sexuality. Throw in some power and the formula is potent. Yet when, some years ago, former President Clinton’s sexual contact with a pretty, seductive young woman became front page news, many pundits predicted his down fall. A personal tragedy of huge proportion was said to be looming.

Then, to the surprise of many, given a moment for the roiling seas to calm, Clinton’s rating with the public actually rose rather than fell. His political “capital” surely then diminished, but today he remains a charismatic personage. Just this past week his photo appeared on the front page of the New York Times, embracing a smiling Hillary. His presence is in great demand, and met with adulation throughout the world, drawing huge crowds (and high fees) when he appears to speak. I’m not surprised.

Isn’t it plausible that as we are daily inundated by lurid tales of violence and abuse, our secret fears, we can also privately and silently cheer our sometimes irresponsible, handsome sexy heroes and heroines? What are our thoughts when we view a flawed but otherwise admired celebrity? Some, just forgiving, as Hillary appears to be? Do others frown with apparent disapproval, looking askance at a censurable adventurer, all the while being offered approbation and acceptance of who we might actually choose to be, if only in our day dreams?

A More Personal Introduction

How should I define myself to readers who do not know me? Some years ago, I would have written: I am a lawyer and mediator, been married forever to Leonard Larsen, mother of three grown children and numerous grandchildren.

My entry, in 1969, into what was then virtually an all male profession was born in significant part of an early Betty Friedan push. My luck (was it luck?) was to have married a man who admired and was not threatened by strong women, and who dreaded life with a wife trapped in an unsatisfying role, once the claims of motherhood were eased by the passage of her babes to school age. Three nights a week for four years, he came home from his University work to care for our children while I gleefully entered the adult world of night law school.

Now, three years since the death of my husband, it is that loss that first defines me, even if I seldom initiate talk of it with others. Although in most respects my identity has not changed, important shifts have taken place. With the passage of time, I can make this assessment without tears, but as I touch the keyboard and these words appear on my screen, the tightness in my throat does not relax.

A week after Len’s death,  I returned to work, to the surprise and unspoken disapproval of some, but with the understanding of others who know me well. Allowing myself to be absorbed and rewarded by competence developed over so many years of professional practice (and observation of the human condition, my own and others), allowed me to sustain in the face of sorrow. When alone in the office, tears might briefly flow, but I was following my family’s spoken and unspoken mantra: when facing difficult times, breathe in and out and go to work.

Life at the office changed. No rushed mid-day trips home to check on things nor calls to our home health aide, or anxious anticipation of the latest medical test results. If called upon to work late with clients, I could do so. Without guilt, I immersed myself in and followed to conclusion whatever professional task or quandary faced me, rather than postponing, perhaps indefinitely, completion of a task to tend to another’s needs. Last minute arrangements for dinner with a friend were possible. For the first time in my life, I had no one else’s timetable to consider.

My generation, especially the women, were expected to marry by their early twenties and I did not disappoint my mother. I went from living at home directly to the college dorm and then to sharing life and space with a husband. Until his death, I never lived alone.

Surprisingly, I find I love solitude – the quiet, if I wish it to be quiet. Choice of what I do is completely my own. I love being in control of that which I can still control, and so work hard to preserve health, flexibility and strength despite the ever increasing time and energy that requires. Vanity and fear remain potent motivators. Friends and family are as important as ever, but if precious time is to be wasted, it is on my terms, most of the time.

Life at home has changed as well, some changes slow to come about, others immediate. My husband, especially after becoming house-bound, was almost always surrounded by wonderful music, a taste we developed together over the years (he the more sophisticated listener). For more than a year after his death, I could play no music in our home without feeling intense sorrow, so none was heard. Slowly that part of my life has come back into focus, and now I am almost never without lovely sounds. A soaring female voice especially brings me joy, vicariously allowing me to cry out in memory of what is no more a part of my life, while rejoicing in my great good fortune to have had a partner who made so much of my present life possible.

An Introduction

To many I am reintroducing myself, as for a number of years I presented commentaries on a public radio station which reached out into several Midwestern states. To others I am not known, so a few words of introduction are in order.

I am a lawyer with a 36 year professional history,the last 20 of those years primarily spent as a mediator. More recently the  focus of my mediation practice has been on relationships, int he main marital, some parties struggling to continue to be together but most on the path to dissolution.

My past commentaries have been wide ranging, both personal and professional. I plan to continue in both veins. But as my experience has grown, I’ve come to wonder whether my daily observations and interpretations of the relationships which play out before me, as husbands and wives struggle to negotiate their parting and their future as parents, might serve others, might provoke a thoughtful pause and even new ways of behaving towards each other. Perhaps a commentary on the dynamics of relationships which have faltered can offer useful insights to others.

We shall see, as the stories unfold.