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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thoughts While Watching Babs On YouTube

First, there was the article in Sunday’s paper on Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett.  Then today I heard that Barbara Streisand’s latest album made it to #1 on iTunes.

Bennett is 88, Streisand 72.  These are the better known old people who are still making hay with their creative gifts, and we are all the more grateful for it.  Then there’s the truly awesome Helen Mirren, who at 69, keeps taking creative risks both on stage and screen. 

And the writers—my people—who keep cranking away:  P.D. James, 94; Joyce Carol Oates, 76; Julian Barnes, 68; Martin Amis, 65; Paul Auster, 67.  And Philip Roth, who hung in there until he was 79.

Endless: this list of creative people who keep being creative.  And the research goes on: how long into our decrepitude can we hope to be creative?  To stay creative?

It depends, sort of.

If we have made a life-long habit of being creative—in music, art, writing, science, math, or technology—it would seem that we have a slight advantage over those who come to creative endeavors at an advanced age.

Whatever “advanced” might mean.  My father, a fairly good singer throughout his life, including as a member of several barbershop quartets, would often say, “We McCarthy’s are late bloomers.”  My maiden name is McCarthy and I can say, as concerns my own experience, this is true.

I didn’t graduate college until I was 28, which, in 1971, was considered old.  I didn’t get my master’s degree until I was 45 (pretty darn old for that kind of thing in 1988); didn’t get published or start my professional life as a teacher until shortly thereafter (closing in on 50); and didn’t become a published author* until I was damn near 65.

Which is why, I suppose, I like working with adults who are new to writing as a creative pursuit.  It has been a hard won practice for me—and I remain an imperfect practitioner—so I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned with those who, like myself, have come late to this particular party.

Consider, then, LaChapelle’s Five Habits of Highly Effective Writers (especially Newbies of a Certain Age.)

1.  We must honor the practice by consciously making space for it on our weekly calendars.  Doesn’t matter how many hours a week we can realistically devote to writing, but we must write down those days and hours, than strictly adhere to them. 

2.  We must let everyone in our family, and among our friends and co-workers know of this weekly commitment.  They must support our adherence to it.

3.  We must read more than we write.  Much more.  And the really good stuff, except for the crap novels we get to read before falling asleep (at night).

4.  We must join a community of writers who support our endeavors, especially by telling us the truth about our work.  Their remarks should not be mean or ugly or green with envy.  But they should react honestly—as readers—to what we have put on the page.

5.  Finally, we must regularly submit our writing for publication. We do this by setting goals such as:  I will send out my writing every two months.  Or four.  Or whatever is realistic given the truth of our non-writing life.  I think it helps to set a modest goal, then raise the bar as we go along. 

I recall Scott Turow once saying that at the beginning of his writing life—while he still toiling full time as a lawyer—that if he could get one story—not even an entire novel—but one story published a year, then he could call himself a writer.

I believe that those of us who write and submit our writing regularly can do likewise.

*Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Stories (Marion Street Press, 2008)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Risky Business

When feeling wistful and/or doing some kind of life review, Boomers and Beyonders often speak of regrets: of certain losses and roads not taken.  If prompted, they will tell you the whole sad story of a particular regret:  who they didn’t marry; the job they didn’t take; the places they didn’t travel.

I tend not to go there a lot, because, well, why?  Time past is time past, and I wonder how belaboring a regret will help me or anyone else.


If in reviewing a particular past regret, we’ve learned something useful—for ourselves and especially for others, something that can be applied in the present, then I say, OK, tell that story.

Or, instead of regrets, we can focus on the risks we’ve taken in our lives.  I think a risk has greater storytelling potential than a regret.  There is something dramatic built into the notion of a risk.  It’s often a more active experience, whereas a regret often tends to be passive: the thing we didn’t do.

Considering personal risks was an exercise I had people do in one of my recent Composing a Life journal writing workshops.  Titled Risky Business, here’s how it went:

Begin with a list of the various risks you’ve taken in your lives, including in love, work, travel, health, money, and moves.  When making this list, think about what taking a risk involves.  List those risks that you believe paid off and those that didn’t.

After people made their lists, I gave them two additional exercises, each designed to help them discover the important thing they learned about risk-taking in their lives.

I’m doing another Composing a Life workshop in October.  Come, and write about the risks you’ve taken—or plan to take—in your life.  In the process, I promise you'll discover something important about yourself as a risk-taker.

Here’re the basics of that workshop:

When:  3 Saturdays, October 4, 11, and 18, 1-3 pm
Where:  Bookends & Beginnings Bookstore in Evanston. 
Workshop limit is 8; pre-registration required; cost is $150

E-mail me at for more info and/or sign up.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Here We Go Again

Well, it’s time, once again, to compose my life.  All the Geezer Gurus tell me that Act III has begun, and me without a script.

More and more of the aging pros—psychologists, geriatricians, financial analysts, public policy wonks—are speaking of the unprecedented numbers of old people who are simply not going gently into that good night.  They aren’t even going gently into retirement or onto the golf course or into the bingo parlor. 

Instead, many are poised to enter the next stage/phase/act of their lives, a time period they see stretching out—and while they’re still in reasonably good health—for another 20, 30, even 40 years

To do what?  My question precisely. 

And so, as is my wont, I take to my journal, to the blank page, to try and answer that question.  I have some ideas, some stirrings of long untended passions, a real need to shake things up while I still can.

And as always, I begin with my days.  What do they look like now?  What might they look like when shaken & stirred? 

Where would I live? 
And with whom? 
Would I still teach?  Maybe. 
Still write?  Sure. 
Will there be large animals involved?  Possibly. 
Might I get arrested for some act of civil disobedience?  Geez, I hope so.

Days and questions.  That’s where I’m living right now.  Care to join me?

By Philip Larkin

What are days for?
Days are where we live.  
They come, they wake us  
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:  
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor  
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Source: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Kicking Up A Fuss

Evolutionary biologists wonder—or they should—why human beings live so long beyond their reproductive years.  Way long beyond.

I’ve been wondering this myself lately, as in:  what am I supposed to do now?  Now that I’m way long past all that and well into my decrepitude, I ask: “Life, what do you want with me?”

I suppose there’s the usual: to mentor the young; to volunteer to do things I used to get paid for; to give my unsolicited advice to anyone who doesn’t ask.

OK, yes, but I just don’t see the juice in any of that, no fire burns inside, no pot presents itself for maniacal stirring.  In sum: no fun.

But what is fun, at least from this vantage point, is in kicking up a fuss.  And for all the right reasons.
Like this one: working to maintain a livable planet, this beautiful blue and green watery life-filled Earth.

But where do I begin?  Me, a little teensy spot, an oldish one, located somewhere on this Earth. Well, here's how I did begin: by sending an email today to my fellow Nazareth Academy graduates, the handful of high school “girls” I’ve kept up with over the past 50-ish years, not one, to my knowledge, who shares this particular fuss-kicking interest with me. 

But where else could I begin?  Just ask T.S. Eliot—he knew:

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Here’s the email.  The subject line read:  Pope Francis & Climate Change.  (Never let it be said that I don’t know my audience.)

As you all know, I'm about as lapsed as a Catholic girl can be, BUT this guy Francis has caught my attention, especially as he has expanded the concept of social justice to include environmental justice.

Here's a pretty interesting article in America, the magazine of the Jesuits, about his forthcoming encyclical on the environment:

I send you this, along with a short film--it's under an hour--that you might share with your fellow parishioners, especially those inclined toward enviro/social justice issues.  I saw it yesterday with a group of people in Evanston--a gathering of strangers united in our common interest in addressing, as individuals, the reality of climate change, and especially its impact on future generations--our kids, grands, and great-grands.

The purpose of the film is to galvanize interest in the march being held in New York City on September 21; it will coincide with the United Nations Climate Summit beginning there on September 23. 

Here's the link to the film:

I welcome all my blog readers to view this film as well, no matter what fuss you are interested in kicking up.  It will give you lots of good ideas for how to proceed.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Geezer Gratitude

Last year, I responded to a magazine’s invitation to readers: what did we think were the 10 secrets of aging gracefully.

Now normally, I wouldn’t touch these dumb things with a 10 foot etc., (secrets?? really??), but I guess I’d been thinking about aging and how I was doing it, and so sent mine in.

My contribution, alas, wasn’t accepted.  Perhaps because one of the so-called “secrets” was repeated three times on my list, a simple rhetorical device that may have escaped the editors.

Oh well.  But I guess I liked them enough to save them.  Maybe for right now.

So here they are: my own little list of secrets for negotiating this amazing aging thing.  Feel free to share them.  Better yet, send me yours and I’ll post them.

1.  Be grateful.  

2.  Become a mentor.

3.  Write your family story.

4.  Move.  A lot.

5.  Be grateful.

6.  Take risks, especially in romance and travel.

7.  Learn a new skill: drawing, writing, playing the piano.

8.  Stay outraged by injustice, no matter its form.

9.  Live in your body, not some idealized version thereof.

10.  Be grateful.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Work Story

Conventional wisdom has it that certain experiences take the true measure of a person: achieving or losing great power; achieving or losing great wealth; having children; losing a job; the death of a loved one.

It is said that these life-altering episodes reveal our structural weaknesses and strengths, providing us an opportunity to grow beyond our perceived limitations, those small selves we drag around with us most days.

Now, you get to a certain age—I am there—where you’ve likely accumulated several of these experiences: the gains and losses, peaks and valleys, the successes and failures of a long and deeply lived life. 

And from among all of it, none so tested me, so revealed my structural faults, as working retail.

I’ve not done a lot of retail work, infrequent at best, and chiefly to augment my income as a social worker or college counselor or writing instructor, and mostly in bookselling.  Starting in the early ‘80s, I worked at a small indie store in Chicago two nights a week, for pocket change, which was good, because that’s what I made. 

I loved it, being around the books, schmoozing about them with customers, buying them at a discount, decorating my modest apartment with them.  I was immersed in the written word, swooney with all that well-wrought language and well-told stories.

OK, I was a bit put out that I also had to unpack endless cartons of books, put them on the shelves, dust books already on the shelves, and do the tedious work of inventory.

Still, nothing—the pitiful wage, the physical labor, the occasional unpleasant customer—could detract from my romance with books, the only reason, as I saw it, for ever working retail.  After all, it’s not like you can make a living wage in the service industries (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America). 

Years passed between bookstore gigs, and then, towards the end of 2007, hard economic times hit, I needed some part-time work, and so it was back to selling books.  Only this time, with so many indie stores now disappeared, the only place I could get hired was at one of the two big chains.  (Question: is there more than a passing relationship between “chain store” and “chain gang?”)

Now I admit that I may have romanticized working in that small indie bookstore back in the ‘80s, one that sold just books and a handful of magazines, one staffed by people who read books, loved talking about books, and were encouraged by management to do so.  Yes, it was a business and yes, the owner wanted to make money, but he hired people who knew books, to whom books mattered.

This I discovered was not the case at the Chain, which probably didn’t surprise anyone but me.  For starters, I learned that some of the managers were hired for their basic management skills, no matter where they were previously gained: DSW, Home Depot, or Applebee’s. 

As such, it didn’t much matter what they’d learned to merchandise—shoes, soap, or chicken wings, which was of course evident in what the Chain was: a crazy-quilt marketplace of coffee, muffins, and sandwiches; CDs and DVDs; greeting cards, stationery, and related doo-dads; and so many magazines that many of my “bookselling” hours were spent re-shelving piles of read and re-read copies of People, Us, and Teen Vogue.

Now actual books did figure at some point in my workday: when I was on the floor at customer service, and maybe while stocking books.  But not at the cash register, where my habit of talking books to customers while ringing them up once got me “written up” for allegedly slowing the line down.

At customer service, I could help customers find books, and, while walking to that section of the store, might sneak in a brief conversation about their selections—or suggest other authors or books.  But I needed to keep it short, as the phones might start ringing or the line at the info desk grow deeper. 

Still, being on the floor made me feel like an actual bookseller, though I had no control over where I’d be scheduled on any given day:  customer service, cashiering, shelving books, re-shelving magazines, often a combination of all four.

Now, you might see the problem here.  When I took this job, I was clearly stuck in some gauzy bookselling past, an Edenic past where I could really sell books because I knew, read, and loved them, believed in their power to transform lives, could spend time sharing my book enthusiasms with customers and with my fellow booksellers. 

But, as I soon came to learn—the hard way, by working there—such is not the Chain culture. 

What was revealed to me during my (blessedly) brief stint in that culture--my structural fault--was that, where books were concerned, I was not willing to compromise. 

And for all the reasons cited above, but mostly for this one:  Several months after I started at the Chain, my own book was published, was, in fact, sitting on a shelf in that store once it appeared in print.  And while I’d never been willing to treat books as just so much “merchandise,” that inclination was now doubly so. 

For now I knew firsthand all the heart and soul that went into writing one.