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Thursday, May 26, 2016

On Not Leaving Home

Today is my Dad’s birthday; had he lived another nine years, he’d be 106, an age none of us would’ve been surprised to see him reach. This guy was not ready to go when he did, at 95 in 2007, a few months shy of his 96th.

We had a complicated relationship my father and I, which, from this distance, I now realize makes for some pretty good stories. The complications—and the stories—were made more interesting by the fact that after my mother died in 1964, at 50, it was just the two of us, my older brother having married in 1963.

Before we were two, the four of us had lived in a modest Georgian in a suburb due west of Chicago.  When that house was sold in 1965—why keep it for just two people?—my father and I moved even further west, to a two bedroom apartment in a new development called Royal Glen. No royals or glens were in sight, but it did have an outdoor pool, a clubhouse, and a modest patio overlooking a bland manmade pond.

By that time, now going on 22, I was getting itchy out there in suburbia, especially while attending Loyola University’s downtown campus, often heading for a nearby bar after late classes.

And so it was that one night, while my father and I sat in the living room after dinner, likely watching TV, I mentioned that a classmate and I, Mary Ellen, wanted to rent an apartment together in the city. I may have even mentioned where—in the Rush St. area near campus—but by that time my father’s voice had raised itself to glass-breaking levels, reaching a grand crescendo with, “Fine! Move out, move into the city. Just don’t call me while you’re being raped.”

In truth, I should not have been surprised by his reaction. When my brother planned his move out of the Georgian—with his friend, Jerry, and some years before getting married—my father had screamed at him late one night, “ I never did this to my father!”

Because that’s just the way it was in my father’s time, in his growing-up-Irish-Catholic years in the 1930s: you did not leave your parents’ home unless it was to marry--or to go into the convent or seminary. He had no context, nor imagination, to understand that things had changed by the 1960s.

Now here’s what's true about memories: they are often stirred up by some experience or overheard dialogue or bit of news that calls them forth.

Thus it was with these memories: my father’s long-ago reactions to his adult children leaving the nest for what he would consider no damn good reason. And worse, especially for the girl-child, only to come to great harm by doing so.

Following is this headline that was making its way all over cyberspace the past couple of days. All I can say is: my father would both totally understand and heartily approve.


For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18- to 34-Year-Olds

“Broad demographic shifts in marital status, educational attainment and employment have transformed the way young adults in the U.S. are living, and a new Pew Research Center analysis of census data highlights the implications of these changes for the most basic element of their lives – where they call home. In 2014, for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household.”





Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A B&B Brief: Piers Sellers Has No Time To Wait

I read this New Yorker article the day after my blog post, “What are you waiting for?" went live. The piece seemed eerily related to that question—from the standpoint of both Piers Sellers and the planet he has devoted his professional life to.

Sellers is a former astronaut, space walker, and now acting director of the Earth Sciences Division at the Goddard Space Flight Center. He was recently diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Here’s his response to the diagnosis as described in the article:

After the diagnosis, he briefly considered living his final year or so—assuming his doctors’ expectations prove correct—as a rich man might, in a tropical, hedonistic splurge. “I thought of myself sitting for weeks on a beach,” he said. “What would I do? I’d be thinking about climate. And I know that I’d be thinking about the problem, and thinking about areas that needed to be investigated. All these things would just be going around in my head. I’d be sitting on my beach with my margarita—and it would be pointless.”

I am struck by this response for two reasons. First, that Mr. Sellers imagined he'd spend his final days so unlike the way he'd spent most of his life. And second, that he quickly realized how "pointless" that would be.

So interesting to me: this process of imagining what we would do with our lives when our days are suddenly--and really--numbered. Even more interesting: what we ultimately choose.

*****

For more on Sellers and his work, 




Thursday, May 12, 2016

“What are you waiting for?”

I’ve been thinking lately about my last hurrah, that "final appearance or effort, especially at the end of a career.”* I’d fiddle with that definition a bit, so that the emphasis would not be on a career but on a life, and on “effort” more than “appearance.”

And so I’ve been asking myself these past few months: what do I want to spend the last part of my life doing? Where do I want to direct my energy, my talents, my passion? I have an inkling, though I’m not yet sure I’m nearing that last part.

As if any of us would know when that's due to arrive.

But the fact that I’m thinking about it makes me wonder what it would take to fully commit to one's last hurrah? What changes would need to be made in one’s current lifestyle? Would other people—both known and yet known—factor into the process? Would oodles of cash be necessary? Or maybe lots of time at the gym?

These questions were quietly circling as I read the essay “Songs of Transition” in the New York Times. It’s from the January 3, 2016 print issue, which had buried itself for months under one of the several stacks of paper spread throughout my untidy apartment.

What first drew me to the piece was the description of the author Jennifer L. Hollis. She’s a music thanatologist, a job title I’d never heard of.  Here’s how she describes it:

I am a music thanatologist, trained to offer music in a prescriptive way, to create a calm space for dying patients and their families.

I was hooked and so kept reading. Then when I came to this part—where Ms. Hollis describes what being in the presence of death reminds her of—those circling questions got a bit louder,  especially when I read this sentence, “What are you waiting for?”

I feel pure astonishment in the presence of death. Who am I to be there? I feel the stillness of time and also its relentless push forward. As they leave, these patients remind me of my own body’s fragility and willfulness. By inviting me to witness their death, they teach me to live, to craft a life with joy and attention. They call me to be bold. What are you waiting for? I imagine them asking, as the door of their life gently closes.

Now I’ve been in the presence of death, and especially early in my life, and have always accepted that there are no guarantees as to how long any of us has to live. And that even if long-lived our lives are astonishingly short.

Has that life-long realization made me bold? Not especially, though I have gone out on some pretty interesting limbs through the years.  But I could’ve been bolder. And the good news is, I still can be.

Maybe that’s what one’s Last Hurrah is finally all about: heeding the call to be bold.

~~~~~~

To read Ms. Hollis’s essay and get your own bold on, click here:


 *as described in the online free dictionary.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A B&B Brief: Gray Divorce

Yes, yet another result of this new old age: the increase in the number of couples over 50 who are getting divorced.

A recent New York Times article about this phenomenon describes its effects on the adult children of these couples. Here are some excerpts (in bold) from “Never Too Old to Hurt From Parental Divorce,” by Jane Gordon Julien.

1.  First the stats, then the inevitable study:

The effect on adult children is undocumented, said Susan L. Brown, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University, whose 2012 study with I-Fen Lin, “The Gray Divorce Revolution,” established that the divorce rate among people 50 and older had doubled in the previous 20 years.


2. Most therapists treat adult children of divorce the way they treat those who are grieving from any other loss, or who are depressed or anxious. Without a wealth of recent research on gray divorce and its impact, gathering information is left to the therapists.

When I read this part, I thought of what it was like to be a young adult—age 21—not long after my mother died and my 53-year-old father started dating. That didn’t feel so odd, but when he finally re-married at 56, things got weird for me, especially as his new wife was so dramatically different from my mother. I believe that made me grieve her loss all over again.


3. Dr. Hughes is part of a small but growing field of therapists working with lawyers to encourage divorcing parents to consider the needs of adult children. Her practice, part of Collaborative Divorce Solutions of Orange County, “is very active on this topic,” she said. “I think we’re in denial as a nation as to how adult children are affected by divorce.”

It seems that therapists are often on the front lines of social and cultural shifts; they will often discover patterns in their clients who share the same experience, patterns that reflect what’s going on in the larger culture.

For instance, I remember when I first read Claudia Black’s book, It’ll Never Happen to Me! in 1987. It describes what she’d discovered in her work as a therapist: that her clients who grew up in alcoholic homes had psychological/emotional issues specific to that experience.  Seems obvious now, of course, though I don’t believe it was at the time.


For more on the effects of gray divorce on adult children, click here:




Monday, April 25, 2016

Late Bloomers

As with most life-altering decisions, this one began with a lousy job.  It was 1985, I was going on 42, and this was—give or take—job number twenty-something. It wasn’t the worst I’d ever had; that might have been at the shower curtain company.
           
But for pure tedium, the university job qualified. I was a “program administrative assistant,” meaning I typed stuff, filed stuff, and stroked the egos of the Big Wigs in the Vice Chancellors office, not one of whom had a decent sense of humor.

To break the tedium, I’d sit at my computer and, with no one the wiser, do my own writing—creative writing, personal stories, anything to keep my head from hitting the desk, whether on purpose or from boredom.

I did try finding another job, mostly in editing.  One thing my two self-important bosses did manage to compliment me on was how well I improved their overwritten, jargon-laden letters, memos, and reports.

But when months passed and nothing materialized, I felt trapped, rudderless.  And me with a dog, a cat, and an aging Volkswagen to support.
             
Then during one particularly dark night of the soul, a light suddenly clicked: Graduate school!  And in English!! Hell, I loved to read.
           
And so it was that I was admitted to the MA program at the University of Illinois at Chicago; acquired both a student loan and a part-time clerical job; and began what I thought would be my lost years: nine wonderfully aimless quarters spent reading English literature and wandering the university library. 

Such a pleasant way to stay distracted, I envisioned, while trying to figure out what I really wanted to do. 
           
But here’s the thing about being lost: sometimes you are found.  It happened to me while studying the works of the masters:  Chaucer and Milton and Eliot (both T.S. & George), Austen and Auden, and especially Samuel Johnson, that crackpot 18th century writer who created the most comprehensive Dictionary of the English language in 1755, which, for this writer, is equivalent to the Bible.
           
But I was doubly found in my second year, when I was accepted as a teaching assistant in the university’s English department.  To prepare to teach our own classes, all TAs were assigned a full-time professor to shadow, usually someone who’d taught college writing for years.

We would be required to teach some of their classes, and read and grade student papers. My mentor was the head of the composition program, and the day I taught my very first class to 21 college freshmen, he sat in the back of the room, silently observing while taking extensive notes. 
           
When the class was over, still dazed from the experience, I went to get my things and leave.  As I approached Dr. Miller, he looked up, smiled and extended his hand.  And without a false note in his voice, said: “Welcome to the profession.”
           
I was just shy of my 45th birthday and finally launched into my real work.

Those heady days came back to me while reading the recent article, “Taking On the Ph.D. Later in Life,” by Mark Miller in the New York Times.

A couple late-in-lifers are featured, but I was most taken by Robert Hevey’s story, especially since he started on his masters in plant biology at 53, following a “30-year career detour” into accounting. Detour, indeed.

He will be 66 when he finishes his Ph.D. and hopes to work in the field he’s pursuing in his studies. Oddly enough, he’s quoted as saying, “I’m certainly not going to start a new career at 66 or 67,” referring to those who complete their advanced degrees and then go into academic teaching.

But, of course, that’s exactly what Mr. Hevey is doing, although more than a new career, it sounds like he’s returning to what has fascinated him since childhood—plants.

So, as we oldsters are often fond of saying, maybe everything old really is new again.