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Friday, December 22, 2017

On Taking a Purposeful Break

Lucky me, I’ve been given next week off by the CEO here at LaChapelle INK. And so I’ve been lining up movies to see—including Coco, Darkest Hour, and The Shape of Water—though what I should be doing is plowing through the stacks of books overtaking my living space.

Among those that keep rising to the top are Mary Oliver’s Devotions; Brenda Peterson’s memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth; Thomas Moore’s Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy; and a book by one of my favorite English professors from grad school, American Indian Literatures by LaVonne Ruoff.

Oh, and then there are the titles I keep adding to my reading lists—books reviewed in the print and online publications I scour daily.  The latest one on that list is philosophy professor Michael Ruse’s On Purpose, in which he considers the question of the purpose of life, even of a life, a topic of great interest not only to philosophers, of course.

Among the review details, what I found most memorable is Ruse’s short list of what he believes makes for a meaning-filled or purposeful life:

“Taking his cue from his own Quaker upbringing, [Ruse] argues that three things remain deeply satisfying in life, even if philosophically one ends up on the side of Epicurus and his denial of design: family; a life of service to others; and, not surprisingly for a philosopher, the life of the mind.”

It is a most interesting selection, methinks, especially the second, which makes me want to read Ruse’s book. Maybe it will reveal the intersection between the author’s Quaker past and his philosophical present.

See you in the new year.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

What I Wonder About Aging

I recently read actor Bill Pullman’s comment about his new movie, “The Ballad of Lefty Brown”: that it was his “coming-of-age-at-63” role. Meaning, I think, that not only does he play an older character, but that he is doing so at age 63.

Kind of fun, that phrase, and it put me in mind of what’s been written lately about the current (vs. traditional) aging process: that there are different stages, tasks, and opportunities within it.

One of the authors who considers this is Michael Gurian. In his book, “The Wonder of Aging,” he suggest three developmental aging stages:

--the Age of Transformation: approximately 50 to approximately 65;
--the Age of Distinction: approximately 65 to the late 70’s;
--the Age of Completion, approximately 80 – 100 and beyond.

I quite like Gurian’s use of the word “approximately,” as we know that no one person ages the same as another. In fact, though age-wise I’m tucked comfortably in the Age of Distinction, I may not quite reach it by my late 70’s. Some of us—as my father remarked when I completed my master’s degree at 45—are clearly late bloomers.

Which means I could be transforming, distincting, and completing all at the same time, assuming I live as long as my father did, until age 95.

What I mostly wonder about the wonders of aging is whether we should use “coming of age” to describe it. After all, that term typically refers to our moving from our teen-age years into adulthood, when, as the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it, we attain “prominence, respectability, recognition, or maturity.”

But then isn’t it true that each developmental stage in our too brief lives has its own “coming of age” markers? Childhood, adolescence, adulthood? And so why not old age? Or what psychologist Erik Erickson called Late Adulthood, his 8th stage of development?
So it would seem that we agers need to figure out how to move into and through our Late Adulthood. And decide what we want to attain while there. Each of Gurian's three-part aging process offers its own distinct tasks and opportunities, which might give us some useful ideas.

To learn what those elements are, you can read Gurian’s book, "The Wonder of Aging." Click here to see more info about it:

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Aging With Purpose

When I was growing up in the ‘50s, the idea of there being a purpose to aging would have seemed ludicrous. Purpose to getting old? Aside from hoping to retire before you died—so you might squeeze in a little traveling, more golf, and special time with the grandkids—what other purpose was there?

But then the Boomers came along, some 77 million of them starting in 1946, and changed the whole experience of aging, in part because those that turned 65 in 2011, a mere six years ago, can expect to live, on average, to 83. Some even longer.

But beyond the sheer length of their lives, Boomers by some accounts will age in better health. And not only because of the wonders of modern medicine. Many took up healthier lifestyles as adults, including quitting smoking and regularly exercising.

And even though I’m not a Boomer, having been born a little over two years before they arrived on the scene, I find that living both longer and healthier has trickled down to some members of my own "war babies" generation. (For instance, in my late 30's, I finally quit smoking, and also took up serious walking, a habit my rescue dog helped me develop.)

And so, in some weird way, for many of us getting old has become a bit of an adventure, urging us to think about what we want to do with those extra, unanticipated years. As a writer and teacher, I’m keen not only to explore my own options, but also help others consider theirs.

Hence my newest journal writing workshop: The Purpose of Aging, Aging with Purpose. It’s inspired by much of what I’ve been reading about aging for the past several years, including Reinventing Aging: Harvard School of Public Health—MetLife Foundation Initiative on Retirement & Civic Engagement (2006). 

Here's an excerpt from the Initiative, one that I'm interested in because of its focus on civic engagement. After all, might not our collective life experiences benefit those communities we choose to engage with? And, in the end, isn't that a win-win for all involved?

“When psychologist Erik Erikson delineated his concept of the life cycle, he saw the final stage, commencing in one’s 60s, as a retrospective undertaking toward the end of life. Erikson later revisited his earlier work to take into account the new demographics, and warned against “an initial retirement holiday followed by a dangling and unproductive aging of many years’ duration.” Erikson and colleagues urged those in their 50s to develop plans to meet the challenge “squarely,” advocating “‘clear insight’ into how the elders in our present society can become more integral coworkers in community life.” An organized effort could help boomers envision, and plan for, a life that achieves meaning in their later years by connecting in new ways to the larger community around them.”

 For more information about my workshop, scheduled in Rogers Park on Thursday, February 15, 2018, from 6-8 pm, please email me at

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Family Stories: A Holiday Tradition

Stories I wish I knew about my family

Were any of my Irish relatives trapped in steerage as the Titanic sank?

Was one side of my mother’s family really related to the Lloyd’s of London?

How did my parents—my Catholic father and Lutheran mother—convince their parents that it was OK for them to marry. Especially in 1934, when marrying outside of one’s faith was not only rare, but often marginally accepted.

How did my upper middle-class maternal grandparents get on with my working class paternal ones?

What about my aunts and uncles and their stories? My parents moved from Philadelphia to Chicago before I was born, so I grew up seeing those relatives only once a year, twice if there was some special occasion.

And what about all those great-uncles on my father’s maternal side—the Sullivan boys? I knew only one of them—Vincent. He’d remained a grieving bachelor his entire life—his fiancĂ© dying young of TB—and ended up living with my widowed grandmother until she died.

At her funeral, my father invited Uncle Vince—now somewhere in his 70’s—to come live with us in Hillside, Illinois. Now I was only 14 or 15 at the time, and he seemed to me more stranger than kin, someone I didn’t warm to, let alone want to know much about.

Of course, now that I myself am his age, I so wish I knew his stories. Because he was my kin, my father’s uncle, my grandmother’s brother. What could I have learned from him? Not only about my grands and greats, but about the times he grew up in? And the places?

Somewhere in Uncle Vince’s story I believe there is a part of my own. And around the holidays, I find myself especially missing his.


If you have stories you’d like to pass along to your family, consider coming to my workshop Writing Family Stories: The Holiday Version. It takes place at the Rogers Park Library, 6907 N. Clark St., on Monday, December 18, 2-4 pm.

Here's the link to the Library's website, including a description of the workshop and how to register. There is no charge for attending.

Any questions about the workshop, please feel free to email me directly at

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Perhaps A Kindness Journal?

So for this week’s Thursday blog post—which falls on the holiday that everyone in the media is writing and talking about; that people are shopping and cooking and cleaning for; that zillions are going over the river and through the woods for—I was at a loss for what to write about. I just didn't want to add to the zillions of (often) trite expressions and sentimentalisms currently circling the web-o-sphere.

Luckily, though, this morning at Starbucks, while inhaling my Grande Half-Caf, I read the following essay in the Wall Street Journal. “Random Acts of Kindness? Hardly,” by Bob Brody, nicely illustrates what’s been on my mind lately: community. And especially how our being part of one encourages us to step outside of ourselves and serve others.

Here is the piece, along with my favorite paragraph in bold. And while I have a bit of a quibble with kindness being “easy,” I thank Mr. Brody for inspiring me to be a kinder person. In fact, maybe instead of keeping a gratitude journal, I should keep a kindness journal. I’ll wager that could make being kind, if not easy, at least easier.


The scene is Yankee Stadium in 2016. My 10-year-old cousin Grant charges toward the dugout every inning after the home team bats, screaming for a ball to be thrown to him. Eventually the first-base coach flips him just such a souvenir.

But Grant wants his friend Clark, also at the game, to get an official MLB ball, too. So inning after inning my cousin makes that beeline for the dugout and yells for another. All to no avail. Eventually he tells Clark “here,” and hands over his ball.

One recent morning something similar happens in a fast-food place near my home. A man pays and instructs the cashier to give a homeless man sitting there doughnuts and coffee after he leaves. When the cashier obliges, the homeless man shares his surprise bounty with a fellow homeless man two tables away.

Why do we call acts of kindness random when they are so clearly intentional? Are acts of kindness any more random than acts of cruelty? The answer is no.

It’s 6:30 in the morning and raining hard. A woman caught in the downpour without an umbrella ducks inside a coffee shop. “I have to get to the hospital,” she says to a stranger. She’s a nurse due for a 7 o’clock shift. “See those people over here?” the stranger asks, nodding to a mother, father and two children. “They just pulled up in a car. You could ask for a ride.”

The nurse is skeptical, but the stranger is encouraging. When she finally goes over to ask for a lift, the family instantly agrees, and out the door they go. As they pull away, the nurse waves goodbye to the stranger, smiling.

Though rare, such flashes of empathy and altruism—of going above and beyond ourselves, setting aside, if only momentarily, our personal wants and needs—do occur. In Hebrew, this kind of good deed is called a mitzvah, literally meaning “commandment,” as in thou shalt be kind. Those who perform mitzvahs are in Yiddish called mensches, defined as people of integrity and honor.

My daughter Caroline is at a table outside a cafe in southern Italy. A father holding his baby daughter comes along for an espresso. The baby looks at Caroline. Caroline looks at the baby. The father notices their rapport. He brings the baby over and hands her to Caroline to hold for a minute.

A few days later, the father comes back, again with his baby. This time the baby recognizes Caroline. The father surrenders custody, saying he’s going inside for coffee and will be right back. Off he goes, leaving his daughter with my daughter.

Make of all these stories what you want. But I’ll say this: Unless we help each other, who will? Being kind is easy. It has taken me 65 years to learn this, and how desperately I wish I’d known it sooner.

I’m at the supermarket deli counter and overhear someone say something about tomorrow. Then he adds: “Who ever even knows if tomorrow is coming?” The doubt gets under my skin, and I turn around to face him. “Tomorrow is coming,” I say. “Mark my words.”

And guess what arrives the next day? That’s right. What used to be tomorrow.

Mr. Brody, an executive and essayist in New York City, is author of the new memoir “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”