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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Old Love, Within Limits

In 1967, when my father and stepmother married, they were considered old.  Or, at least, at 56, my father was.  Bess was seven years younger, still in her 40s, though it was hardly a May-December romance.  Each had been married before, their spouses now deceased, and each had grown children.

The marriage lasted 40 years, longer than their first marriages had, ending only with my father’s death, just four months shy of his 95th birthday.

My father and Bess were very companionable and well suited, lending their skills and talents equably to the relationship.  Bess was an excellent cook and kept their 2-bedroom condo in good order; my father handled both the finances and their social life with ease.

That social life blossomed once they moved into an independent living facility in 2002, a move encouraged by their children.  We’d known for a while that our parents--my father now in his ninth decade--would be better served living in a communal setting, especially one where healthcare professionals were on hand to respond to any crisis.

And so now it seemed that my father and stepmother were finally, really old, though my father, as his doctor once told me, was a good imposter, hiding the inevitable ravages of age pretty well.  He’d been a salesman all his life, and the posturing such a profession often requires, served him well as he recovered from various falls and dealt with both legal blindness and poor hearing.

Then the inevitable happened and before our parents could move into the assisted living floor of their building—a move we and they had all agreed was next—my father, following yet another fall, ended up in the nursing home part of the facility, a separate building on the same property.

Ever the optimist, my father expected he’d quickly recover—hadn’t he always?—and return to living with Bess.  And even if it meant their moving from independent to assisted living, it would be just four floors down from there current 6th floor apartment, and within easy reach of the facility's social events they regularly attended with their favorite fellow residents.

Which is why he was so devastated when the facility’s manager told him in a meeting to which we were all invited that policy dictated otherwise: the health and well-being of Bess, who they determined was in no position to be my father’s primary caregiver, his live-in aide, had to be taken into consideration. My father would remain in the nursing home.

Now, I’ve no idea how Bess really felt about this decision—out of her hands, really, and one to my knowledge that she in no way influenced nor likely even understood.  Born in 1917, she was of a generation of women who took it as their lifelong duty to care for their husbands at home, and for as long as needed.

What I did notice, though, was that when I'd visit them out at the facility--my father in the nursing home, Bess in their original apartment--she seemed calmer, more relaxed, gaining back some of the steadiness she'd lost as my father's health declined while they were still living together.  She even became more social without my father's help, finding a group of women residents with whom she appeared at ease.

My father didn't last long in the nursing home, a not surprising turn of events, falling again, then finally landing in the hospital and dying.


This bit of family history came to mind after recently reading, and ruminating on, a Modern Love column in the New York Times: "My Father's Last Romance."

For me, the piece illuminates just how much may be changing in this "new" old age, especially among those within shouting distance of Boomers, a generation that saw so many cultural revolutions as they made their way into and through adulthood.  For while older people luckily still fall in love, they may now make different choices about how to respond to the "in sickness and in health" part of their relationship--whether it is officially codified in marriage or not.

At least Arlene, the "romance" part of the article, did. And unlike my stepmother, she did so without benefit of an official policy.  All the more courageous, I think, for her having done so.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Gig Economy

I no longer have a resume that reflects reality.  Or, to put a better face on it: I have helpfully condensed my work experience for the sake of brevity and readability. As well as eliminated the first 15 years of my working life.

A life, by the way, that I was ill prepared for.

What the fine nuns at my all-girls Catholic high school prepared us for were not sterling careers in medicine, engineering, or business.  No, all they wanted was that we graduate into good Catholic marriages, eventually becoming good Catholic mothers.  If we had to work until that happened, well, it was hoped to be of a short duration, and usually in one of the pink collar ghettos available to women in the early '60s: teaching, typing, or nursing.

But that's not how my life played itself out.

Starting with my first job at 20, as a mailroom clerk in the corporate headquarters of a large grocery chain, I've worked all my adult life, though unlike most of my peers, I didn't stay in any one job for long.  That is, except for this last one, the one I made up for myself circa 1991, as a writer and writing coach.

In other words, I became a freelancer, something rather unusual at the time, especially for a nearly 50 year old divorced woman who'd only recently completed her graduate work in English, the alleged training for the made-up job.

But I was not without training in freelancing itself, having spent way too many years as a temporary secretary, a "job" that required me to hit the ground running each week, sometimes each day, at an endless round of real estate companies, law firms, ad agencies, and corporations. As a result, I knew what it was like to not know from one week to the next what my income would be; I knew what it was like to live without health insurance and other benefits, including paid holidays.

Mostly, though, I knew that despite all the risks involved in living the freelance life, it was the only one I could bear, especially if I was to find truly meaningful work. As for the money part, well, as the book title assured me, Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow. (I'm not sure the book promised exactly when, but I was fortunate to be born an optimist.)

And, now, it turns out that a whole generation of workers--our endearing Millennials--are not only themselves seeking the freelance life, and in record numbers, but are, in the process, transforming the 21st century idea of work.  I salute and encourage them in their quest to make their work more of a calling, and to insist that it be just one part of a well-lived life.

Which is all I ever wanted for myself.

For more about Millennials and The Gig Economy, see below.  I've excerpted bits from each link:

"According to a recent study published by Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk, there are 53 million Americans in the U.S. workforce who have opted for the flexibility of freelancing rather than working the traditional full-time job for a steady paycheck. That is 34 percent of all American workers."


"I call that traditional view, 'Big Work,' and millennials intuitively understand that's not where the future is. They are, in a sense, the first generation of freelance natives. They’re embracing freelancing in a way no other generation has. And now, they’re the majority of the workforce."

"A recent Millennial Branding report found 45% of Millennials will choose workplace flexibility over pay.  Dori Albert, crowdscourcing practice manager at Lionbridge Technologies Inc., stated that Millennials helped create a “new nature of work,” with increasing reliance on the gig economy and freelancing."

"Reports and studies seem to indicate three roots to Millennials’ discontent and the resulting upheaval: the drives for flexibility, purposeful labor and economic security."

Friday, October 16, 2015

"This Is What Democracy Looks Like"

I can still see this scene in my mind’s eye, as if were yesterday and not some decades earlier: My father and I sitting in the living room of our 2-bedroom apartment in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, the one we’d recently moved into following my mother’s death and my brother’s marriage. 

It was just the two of us now, me, 23 years old and not yet married to Vietnam vet Philip LaChapelle, my father at 55 not yet re-married to the nice Italian lady who stuffed her own sausages and didn’t mind how much he drank. 

What my father says to me in this scene is “Am I going to have to spend money to bail you out of jail?” Or maybe it was “If you think I’m going to spend my hard-earned money to bail you out of jail…” 

Doesn’t matter, same idea.

In truth, I do not recall the source of his comment.  It wasn’t yet 1968 when Philip and I, by then married, stood in Grant Park in opposition to the war, staring down the Illinois National Guard as they stood facing all of us who’d gathered in protest.

And it wasn’t 1961 when off to college at Northern Illinois University I apparently protested against the cafeteria food.

(Neither time did I end up in the pokey.)

In between those two extremes--and over the years--I've called and written my congressional reps on topics that interest me, many involving environmental issues.  And in the early '70s, I walked around Rush Street asking people to sign a petition to halt commercial whaling.  It was during my lunch break from a really stupid job at a small public relations firm.

But except for a very small climate action last summer in downtown Chicago, I’d not shown up to chant and march for something that deeply mattered to me until last Wednesday, when I joined 300 others at Old St. Pat’s Church in the West Loop, then, after practicing a few hearty chants in unison—

Leader: “Show me what democracy looks like.”
Response: “This is what democracy looks like.”

—heading out the church doors and on to the Thompson Center, home of Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, petitioning him to implement the Clean Power Plan for our state.

It was a beautiful fall night, and I do believe—the focus of the march notwithstanding—that a good time was had by all, a grand diversity of age, religion, gender, race, and occupation.

Over the next hour, we moved in a loose and friendly arrangement along the sidewalks, unhurriedly crossing major intersections, ticking off the drivers who had to wait for everyone to get from one side to the other: the young couples pushing strollers, the eager college students, my fellow grey hairs.

Along the way, I ran into two people I’d first met just weeks earlier at an interfaith convocation on the Pope’s encyclical. Then I spotted Marshall from one of my long-ago teaching gigs, which was just after I'd made a nice connection with members of a “green” synagogue in Evanston.

I imagine there were a lot of those connecting moments for everyone that night.

As for who was officially represented at the march--the "unprecedented coalition of environmental and environmental justice, labor, faith, and student groups"--here's the Who's Who:

The Archdiocese of Chicago, EcoCampus UIC, Faith in Place, Fight for Fifteen, IIRON, Jobs with Justice, NEIS, NRDC, ONE North Side, People for Community Recovery, SEIU HCII, SEIU International, SEIU Local 1, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, Unitarian Universalist Advocacy Network of Illinois

Then there was me: little, old unaffiliated me, in need a nice march for a good cause on a beautiful fall night in Chicago. 

(And without ending up in the pokey.)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Seeking Role Models

The year I gave up the full-time academic life--in 1990, as I recall--I hadn't a clue what to do next.  I was nearing 50, divorced, with an aging cat and dog to support.  I also had a recently minted master's degree in English and a few years of teaching writing at the University of Illinois/Chicago and DePaul.

Despite my age, I'd been accepted into a Ph.D. program in the teaching of writing, but could not imagine a professional lifetime of freshmen comp and developmental writing classes.  As admirable a job as that is--essentially making up for all the years students had little or no high school writing instruction--it did not have my name written all over it.

What did, it turned out, was teaching writing and journal writing to adults in non-academic settings, starting with my signature journal writing workshop, Composing a Life. Based more on the title than on the specific content of Mary Catherine Bateson's book of the same name, the workshop was designed to help people more consciously "create" their lives using a personal journal.

Among those people I targeted as a market for Composing a Life was myself.

And among the many writing exercises I designed for the workshop was one inspired by people who were doing a bang-up job of it already, those role models--people known to us personally; historical figures (the 19th century French writer George Sand was a personal fave of mine); or those in the public eye--who seemed to be living their lives more intentionally.

I've been thinking of that exercise recently, especially as we Boomers and Beyonders are now living longer and healthier lives than any other generation in human history.  Specifically, what are we planning to do with the extra 10 or 20 years we didn't even know we'd have?

I trust I'm not alone in this wondering  And so I ask this question of my readers: How are you composing this stage of your life?  How are you using--or thinking of using--this "gift" of years?  What are your priorities for this third act? And have they changed in any way?

If you're interested, please send me your thoughts at  At some point, I will do a post dedicated to the responses, using only people's first names, pen names, or simply Anonymous.

Let us create some possible role models for those generations coming up behind us, shall we? A handful of possibilities for how they might think to compose this part of their lives.