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Old. Yeah. So what?

IdaThe world – well, 3.5 billion of us, at least — just spent 17 days watching highly trained, super-disciplined, extraordinary physical specimens show us what a human body can do. Those Olympic performances were both inspirational and aspirational, weren’t they? I don’t mean that watching Simone Biles inspired me to want to be Simon Biles, to do what she does. Ha. I mean that marveling at her performances might inspire me (us) to push ourselves, to embrace (or at least entertain) the notion that we can move forward in bold and astonishing ways. We might aspire to the attitude behind her performance, the fierce determination that we are not defined or limited by our past. Her story inspires us more than her (unattainable) physical prowess.

Now that we have celebrated the Olympics, and now that we’re sated with images of hard-bodies who’ve devoted most of their young lives to athletic performance, how about celebrating much older people (much older people) who have attained equally lofty heights of physical achievement. Consider those profiled in a recent special edition of New York Times’ “Well” blog.

Here’s a story about Anna Sofia Botha, 74, the coach of the South African runner who broke the long-standing 400-meter world record. The news media flocked to her (after all, a WHITE HAIRED LADY!!!), clamoring for interviews. Surprised, she replied: “The whole coaching scenario is an everyday way of life for me.” Gotta love it.

Or how about this story profiling a 100-year-old runner. Says Ida Keeling, who started running at 67, “Time marches on, but I keep going.”

Or read about Tao Porchon-Lynch, 97, a competitive ballroom dancer (she started at 80) and a yoga teacher, who says, “I haven’t finished learning.”

When we see Olympic athletes compete, we don’t dismiss their performances as “the exception that proves the rule” – the rule being that almost none of us look like they do and can do what they do. Instead, we enjoy their achievement and are motivated by it. Maybe we can work on adopting that same attitude about these older “outliers.”

These women (and many others — you’d be surprised how many others) are outside the norm, just like the Olympic athletes. Let’s not dismiss them as exceptions that prove the (well entrenched) “rule” about older people, the rule that states that old means frail, feeble and fragile; that old people live constricted, restricted sad little lives. How about, just as we admire those Olympians and are inspired by their stories, we enjoy the stories of world-class (older) women and embrace the attitude behind their achievements? How about that?

August 24, 2016   No Comments

Vacation…or lack thereof

backyard vacayIt’s the last half of August, the final chance for some of us to enjoy a summer vacation. Will we?

Maybe not.

Did you know that American workers get the least mandated, paid vacation time in the world. Zero, in fact. Employers in the U.S. don’t have to give their staff any paid leave – although some are paid for at least a few of our 10 national holidays. That means that many, many workers get no paid vacation. This is simply not the way the rest of the “first world” treats its workers. Just how many days of mandated, paid vacation do people get elsewhere? Here’s a partial list: Sweden, 41; Finland, 40; Lithuania, 39; France, Portugal, Iceland, 37; Austria, 35; Slovia, Croatia, Poland, France, 31; Italy, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand, 30; U.K., Australia, 28. And so on.

Maybe as an American worker you get vacation days…or maybe not. (One in four do not.) When I worked as a caregiver at an Alzheimer’s facility (part of research for a book I was writing at the time), none of the hourly staff got any paid vacation – or, for that matter, any sick leave. At another of my jobs, workers were entitled to 1 week after 1 full year of employment, 2 weeks after 2 years. And that was the max.

That’s bad. Equally as pitiful is the fact that full-time employees in the U.S., when they are given vacation time, take only half of their eligible days. And more than 60 percent report working while on vacation. (I cannot remember a vacation during which I did not work.) We work hard. And a lot. And on vacation (if we are lucky enough to get vacation and smart enough to actually take advantage of it). So that must mean we have the most productive work force on earth.

Uh, no.

Norway – which requires all employers to provide 25 days of paid annual leave — has the most productive work force. Luxembourg (also with a 25-day minimum leave) has the second most productive work force. U.S. is number 3 (yay, us!) but it’s worth noting that numbers 4-7 (Belgium, Netherlands, France, Germany) trail only ever so slightly in productivity while mandating a month of paid vacation for every worker.

I’ve written about this subject before, back in the spring when I returned from Austria where people eat more calories, consume more red meat and smoke more cigarettes than Americans…and are significantly healthier. One explanation (among many) is their national vacation policy. I thought it was worth writing again about the health effects of taking vacation while we still have a few weeks remaining in August. So listen up.

The landmark Framingham Heart Study – the largest and longest-running study of cardiovascular disease – found that men who didn’t take a vacation for several years were 30 percent more likely to have heart attacks compared to men who did take time off. And women who took a vacation only once every six years or less were almost 8 times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack compared to women who vacationed at least twice a year. Lack of vacation has also been linked to higher blood pressure, bigger waistlines and increased incidence of depression.

It’s easy to see how more work can translate into other unhealthy behaviors: more stress, unhealthy eating habits (eating on the run/ in the car, reliance on take-out and fast food), more time sitting in a chair, less sleep, less family time.

While it’s still summer, take a vacation!

August 17, 2016   8 Comments

What state are you in?

10690255_10205886556743490_3276295862642274759_nStates in which I want to permanently dwell:

state of Wonder. You know…that state we lived in as children (or, later, for brief moments, on hallucinogens): wide-eyed, breathless, astonished, amazed, in awe. Ever curious. Senses keen. Alert to both the ordinary and the extraordinary. That state of simple transcendence, which is not simple at all, when all you can do is shake your head, silently marvel, breath deep and – if you are like me – forcefully hold yourself back from tweeting it out.

Recent travels in the State of Wonder: Watching Simone Biles on the vault. Reading Norman Maclean. Again. Listening to Astral Weeks Live, in the car, on the way to a solitary week at the beach. Staring out the mesh ceiling of the tent at a sliver of a moon, a cool breeze off the Willamette.

state of Being. You know…just being. Not planning, thinking, remembering, worrying, evaluating, catastrophizing, fantasizing. Not reading, running, baking, writing, doing laundry. Just being. That I-am-totally-present-in-the-moment state that coincides with residency in the state of Wonder — and from which you exile yourself the moment you start instagramming that moment. I speak from experience. Too much experience.

state of Acute Fluency. Given that I am much better at doing than I am at being, I find meaning and delight in the state of Acute Fluency. Ever hear of it? It is when you are happily immersed in the act of creation or exploration, deep in an almost trance-like mental state that is both taxing and blissful. Fully engaged, wholly focused. The joy is intensified by a sense that time has been suspended. Also known as: in the zone. Also known as: The Flow (as per the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

state of Oregon. Yes, finally, an actual geographic state: land of feathery gray mornings and cool summer evenings, of misty autumns, soggy winters and blindingly green springs. Land of blackberries and Bernie lawn signs (yes, still), of drivers who let you in traffic (really), of #iadoregon.

August 10, 2016   2 Comments

Life lessons on two wheels

bike tour selfieWhat do you think about on day three when you’ve been in the saddle for six and a half hours and there’s a big hill you didn’t expect looming ahead and your Bike Brain says it’s 97 degrees and you need to believe that this biking/ camping adventure is more than just a biking/ camping adventure?

Here’s what you think about… Allow me to present these nuggets of sweaty wisdom (with their bike-centric application, in parentheses):


Yes, you can have everything! Just not all at the same time.
(“Everything” in bike touring terms: generous shoulders, wind at your back, no traffic, scenic road, shade. Each one is a joy in itself; together, they are pure ecstasy – but they never occur together.)

When it looks like it can’t get any worse, it does.
(That first-day 95-degree heat becomes 97 on day 2 and 101 on the afternoon of day 3.)

When it feels like it will never get better, it does.
(Thanks to Chamois Butter applied liberally to nether regions.)

Don’t ruin a good experience by thinking about how fleeting it is.
(Ah, that glorious nano-second-of-relief patch of shade. Breath into it, lean into it, don’t mourn/curse its passing even before it passes.)

You have to do the hard miles to earn the easy miles.
(Self-explanatory, in life and on the bike.)

And in the end: It’s all good miles.
(The tough uphill ones, the blazing hot ones, the no-effort downhill swooping ones, the ones at the ragged end of a long day, the one’s in the cool of the morning with a stomach full of oatmeal. All of them.)

And, perhaps one nugget that has minimal application to every day life but did sustain (and entertain) me up an endless, merciless incline:

Whoever wrote “the hills are alive with the sound of music” never biked up one.

August 3, 2016   3 Comments

Mary Berry is scrummy

AA Mary-BerryWhaaaat? You’ve never heard of Mary Berry?

Mary Berry is a household word and a national treasure – in the U.K. She is a culinary superstar, the author of 75– yes, I said 75 – cookbooks, and the co-star of one of my most favorite TV shows EVER, “The Great British Bake Off” (now in season 7).

Two years ago, she launched a new solo show on BBC, “Mary Berry Cooks.” Last year she launched another BBC show, “Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourites.”

She is both quick-witted and thoughtful, funny, smart and gracious with a bearing that manages to be both regal and down-home domestic. And – just icing on the Victoria sponge cake – she’s a looker.

I mention all this and bring Mary Berry to your attention not just because The Great British Bake Off is the best show ever and you ought to see how the Brits do “reality TV” – with intelligence and humor and, gee, kindness. (Yes, even in competition….no “You’re fired” or “You’re chopped.”) I bring Mary Berry to your attention because she is 81.

And NO ONE MAKES A BIG DEAL ABOUT IT. There’s no: Wow she has so much energy for her age. Look what she is accomplishing at her age. I wonder how she does it at her age.

Because age is not the point. Because she is who she is. Because she transcends age and, in doing so, compels us to confront and eschew our own ageism.

I love Mary Berry. Mary Berry is scrummy.

July 26, 2016   3 Comments

Time, fast and slow


Time keeps on slippin’ slippin’ slippin’/ Into the future.

Yeah, what’s that about?

Why does time seem to speed up the older we get? Why did 8 weeks at summer camp when I was 12 seem like a lifetime, and last year – a full year – go by so quickly I barely registered its passing.

Time is weird, right? We have long striven to measure it with exactitude (from sundials to atomic clocks), but we all know the folly of objective time. Time is not objective. It is subjective. Time is experienced. Time is perceived.

And it turns out we experience and perceive it at a faster clip the older we get. Why? And what can we do to slow it down?

Our friends the neuroscientists have answers to both questions.

Our perception of time, how we experience (and remember) time, is dictated by how much information our brains need to process. When we feed the brain more information and expose it to more stimuli, the moment (the day, the summer) seems to last longer. We perceive it as passing more slowly. It is when we are bombarded with new experiences, and our brains are flooded with stimuli (that is, when we are younger, when every day presents a new experience), that we perceive time as moving slowly.

But, as neuroscientist David Engleman says (in a New Yorker profile): The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass. Or look at it this way: A mundane activity, a routine, gives us no new interesting stimuli to process. So when we look back on that moment (year), we can’t remember it distinctly, and we perceive it as zipping by.

You see where this is going, right? I have written so much about taking on new challenges, raising the bar on your own life, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. It turns out that all this is not just a fun, exciting and productive way to live life, it also slows time. You are feeding your brain more new stimuli to process. Doing something new means your brain has to pay attention. When it pays attention, your perception of time is altered.

Time does not keep on slippin slippin slippin away.

July 20, 2016   No Comments

Old redefined

simpsonWhat is “old”?

I’ve come to realize that old is whatever age you are not yet. When I was in second grade, I could not imagine ever being as old as Teresa DiNapoli, my 17-year-old babysitter, who wore eye make-up (quite a lot, in fact) and went on dates and sneaked out to the backyard to smoke Parliaments while I watched cartoons. And then, all of a sudden, I was 17 (alas, both mascara-less and dateless – but I did sneak cigarettes). And 17 was no longer old.

In college, I thought 30 was old. I mean really old. Settled, boring, embarrassingly unhip. And then I was 30. And I wasn’t boring (I thought). But oh those 40 year olds – how ossified they were. And, of course 60 was absolutely ancient and absolutely unimaginable. Sixty-five was when, weathered and beaten down, creaky, crabby (or, alternately, sweet and grandmotherly) you spent your days complaining about ailments, tending violets and baking cookies.

Yeah, yeah, Bernie mounted the most energetic campaign possibly in the history of campaigning at age 74. And Grandma Moses didn’t start painting seriously until she was 78. And sure, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is rocking it on the bench at 83. But whenever we hear about active, engaged, interesting people who are 70 or 80 or older, they are presented as the exceptions that prove the rule. The rule, as we all know, is that old people are creaky, crabby creatures who totter around (if they’re lucky), eat mushy food and hold up the line at the grocery store by writing checks. Checks.

Regardless of the millions of role models out there who disprove the “old and in the way” mentality of the not-quite-as-old, regardless of our own experiences through life which prove that what we thought was old turns out not to be (when we ourselves get to that age), the stereotypes persist.

That’s why I loved loved loved this video in which the young come face to face with their ageism and emerge much wiser. It is very much worth a look. So please do.

July 13, 2016   3 Comments

not-so Truisms

Apple_and_Orange_-_they_do_not_compareI’ve been thinking about our dependence on tried-and-truisms that are actually, if we stop to think about them, just bad advice wrapped in clichés.

Here’s a few I question – and soundly reject:
Take baby steps.
Absolutely not! Be audacious. Take big bold steps. Lengthen your stride, especially when you’re feeling the most timid. One giant step really can lead to another giant step.

Play to your strengths.
Really? Why would you want to do that? You already know how to do that. You’re already good at that. Why not play to your weaknesses? Why not explore those underdeveloped parts, open some doors you’ve never opened?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Seriously? You mean don’t dream up cool new things just because the old things are working okay? Don’t tinker and fiddle? So, speaking as a writer, does this mean if the prose is serviceable, don’t mess with it. I. Don’t. Think. So.

Write what you know.
If this is meant as a warning to not write from a position of ignorance, then sure. If this is an invitation to write about only what you’ve personally experienced and understand at the moment, I reject it! Writing about what you don’t already know means you have to go learn about it, research it, think about it, stretch yourself to understand what you don’t already understand. So write what you don’t know. Think and write yourself into a place of knowing.

This next one is not bad advice, just a cliché I hate so much that I’m going to grab this opportunity to rant about it:

That’s like comparing apples to oranges.
This is supposed to mean that the two things being compared are so different that a comparison is ridiculous. Actually, the saying is ridiculous. It’s pretty easy to compare apples and oranges. Fruit. That grows on trees. Spherical. Little seeds you spit out. Makes good juice. Lunchbox favorites.

The idiom is not unique, but other languages are more inventive in their “don’t compare” comparisons. My favorite is the Serbian expression: “That’s like comparing grandmothers to toads.”

In case you’re interested (and even if you’re not), this metaphor for dissimilarity began as “apples and oysters,” first published in 1670 in a collection of proverbs.

So there.

I invite you to write in with your truisms that aren’t.

July 6, 2016   No Comments

Ups and Downs

petuniaI did not see that coming.

That’s what we say, to others or to ourselves, when the shit hits the fan, when life unexpectedly slaps us upside the head. But it works both ways, doesn’t it? Maybe whatever it was we didn’t see coming was a good surprise.

Like this morning, walking out of the Barre3 studio at 7:15. (That’s right, I took the 6:15 class. Uh huh, 6:15 in the morning.) So there I am exiting the downtown studio, already consumed with “to-do” thoughts, busy working out a schedule in my head, when I am slammed by what I would best describe as a Wall of Fragrance. Jasmine? Lily? Something so overwhelmingly, deliciously, perfumy that it stops me in my tracks. (It’s the enormous baskets of pink and white petunias hanging from the lamp posts. The ones I hadn’t even noticed before.)

I smile at the unexpected pleasure of it and move on… only to be stopped in my tracks, a few steps later, by another aromatic blast, this one coming from Noisette, the French bakery two doors down. It’s that baguettes-just-came-out-of-the-oven smell. You know the one. The one that gets the saliva spurting in the mouths of even the most committed of the gluten-free. And I smile.

I did not see that coming.

It’s good to remember that, amid the surprises we’d rather not experience – flat tires, sugar ants on the counter, adult acne, domestic infidelity — are the little pleasurable ones, the ones that sneak up on us, the ones we might ignore – or take for granted — because we are forging ahead, intent on checking off items on the list.

Oh god, please know this is not some vapid “take time to stop and smell the roses (petunias, baguettes)” message. It’s really about how it’s good to remember that there is a daily up and down rhythm to life. To be disappointed and then elated, weary and then energized, pissed off at the world and then all hakuna matata…that is what life is about, right? We’re restless, then content; disillusioned then hopeful; self-doubting, self-confident; snarky, saintly.

All these ups and downs stretch us in important ways. The daily rollercoaster promotes empathy, keeps us alert, keeps us learning and, I think, keeps us resilient. It’s a good thing. Or that’s just how I’m feeling at the moment. Hakuna matata.

June 29, 2016   5 Comments

Occupation or vocation?

Mark TwainHow do you spend your working hours – in an occupation or at a vocation? An occupation – something that occupies us or we occupy it — is employment. We do it because it makes use of our skills, because we were trained to do it, because at some point an opportunity presented itself and we took it and the path led in this direction, because it was what was available at the time, because it was what was expected of us, because the hours were good, because it paid well (or enough). We choose and occupy our occupations for all kinds of reasons, many of them good and sensible, but none of them from the heart.

I am not saying that we don’t love our occupations. Many of us do. I’m not saying that we don’t bring our best game to work. Many of us do. I am saying that we don’t bring our deepest selves. Our deepest selves emerge when we are engaged in our vocation.

A vocation is what we do because we have to, because we were wired for it, called to it, because we don’t feel whole or truly ourselves unless we do it. That sounds high falutin’, I know. But I also know it’s true, whether one’s “calling” (the derivation of vocation…vocare, to call) is nursing the elderly or growing tomatoes or fixing cars.

Some people craft a life in which occupation and vocation are the same. I have tried hard to do this as both a writer and a teacher of writing. But the truth is, one is an occupation, and the other is my vocation. I bring energy, commitment and creativity to both. I learn and grow from both, and my goal is for others to also learn and grow.

But it’s clear where my heart lies, where my deepest self is engaged. Years ago I took a full-year sabbatical from my teaching position, and the absence of teaching did not leave a hole in my life. I felt just like me, only not teaching. But during those down times between writing projects when I am not actively working on something, I feel not quite me, not quite whole, untethered. My brain doesn’t work as well. My focus isn’t as sharp. Things are not quite okay even when everything else in my life is just fine. Maybe it’s this simple: Writing is who I am; teaching is what I do.

What are you doing when you are the most deeply engaged? Are occupation and vocation different for you?

June 22, 2016   2 Comments