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In it for the L-o-n-g Haul

Rectangularization of Morbidity. It trips lightly off the tongue, does it not?

It does not.

It is the anthem of my life. My motto. My hope for the future. The goal I work toward every day. The bumpersticker I would put on my car if I had a really really long bumper.

What is it?

Simply put: Do all you can to create, nourish and maintain high-level wellness and maximum vitality. Sustain that state for as long as possible. Then die. Or, as I’ve expressed it to audiences when I talk about this:

Healthy, healthy, healthy, healthy, dead.

This is the opposite of how most of us age. We are, most of us, living much longer lives these days. The dramatic increase in life expectancy is heralded as one of 20th century society’s greatest achievements. Life expectancy for someone born in 1900 was 50. Today, in the US, it is 79. (In Japan, it is 84.)

But our healthspan – our years of healthy living — has not increased. That means we are living out the last 5, 10, 20 or even more years of our lives with often debilitating chronic illness(es). The average elderly person in the US is taking five different prescription medications. (For those in nursing homes, the number is seven.)

The third third of our lives – a gift! – is spent without the strength, vigor and energy to live fully, to participate with physical, emotional and creative vigor in the lives of our families, our communities, our nation. There is so very much to do, these days more than ever. We, all of us, young, old and in between need to meet these challenges with enterprise and élan, with zest and zeal, with sustained in-it-for-the-long-haul optimism. How to do that?

Rectangularization of Morbidity.

June 28, 2017   No Comments

Wanna hear me vent?

I just need to vent, you say (I say) right before launching into a litany of complaints: the stupidity and gross incompetence of others, liars and hypocrites in government, how GBBS is shit without Mary Berry, the discovery of another varicose vein, the unfairness of the universe, et cetera et cetera and so forth.

Your friend listens. Then she vents.

And then you both feel better, yes?

And then you both feel better, no.

For those who still believe in science (uh oh, that was kind of a backhanded vent), let me explain. According to psychologists who have studied venting, not only does expressing negativity tend to make us feel worse, not better, it also makes listeners feel worse. Kind of like second-hand smoke.

So your mood worsens; your friend’s mood worsens – and, according to neuroscientists, your brain begins to wire itself for negativity.

You know how this works: Throughout your brain are little gaps between nerve cells (synapses). Chemical and electrical bridges are built between these synapses as you think, learn – and, yes, as you complain…that is, as you have recurring negative thoughts. The more often you think (and express) these thoughts, the stronger the electro-chemical bridge becomes. The brain is rewiring itself to make it easier and quicker to think these thoughts. It’s just being efficient. This means that not only do repeated negative thoughts make it easier to think yet more negative thoughts, they also make it more likely that negative thoughts will occur to you in other situations. A kind of default.

Also, the act of venting about something you’re upset about can, itself, make you upset. Reliving and narrating the anger (disappointment, frustration, whatever) you have felt can trigger the stress hormone cortisol. You know the demon, right? Not only does it inflict temporary harm (for example, raising blood pressure), excess cortisol over time leads to chronic inflammation. That’s the inside kind you can’t see or feel, the kind that medical researchers are beginning to believe underlies just about every chronic disease.

Venting makes you sick!

I am NOT suggesting suppressing anger. We all know that doesn’t work. I am suggesting going zero-to-sixty from pissed off to possible solution, from “this sucks” to “this is what I’m going to do about it,” from anger to action.

Now would be a really great time to get crackin on this.

June 21, 2017   5 Comments

Bunk, balderdash, malarkey

Lest you think this post is akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burned (which he didn’t, by the way: The fiddle wasn’t invented yet.), I will say pro-actively and in my own defense that I DO, in fact, think and care about MUCH MORE IMPORTANT things than the subject of this post. But, frankly, I am all Comey-ed, Trump-ed and Session-ed out. Oh, that’s yesterday. Today there’s a horrific fire, yet another crazed shooter. These neural pathways need a momentary rest. And so I am allowing myself to feel righteous indignation about something else. Something small. Like these stupid sayings. I am calling bullshit on these sayings.

“That’s like comparing apples to oranges” – meaning you can’t compare the two because they are so different. What? They are both fruit. They both grow on trees. They are spherical. They are both in the top five most-consumed fruits in America. Why the hell can’t you compare them? Apples are better than oranges. See. I just compared them.

“Everything in moderation.” Seriously? Like love your children in moderation? Like be moderately creative? Moderately empathetic? Moderately generous? I. Don’t. Think. So. Be excessively loving. Burn with creativity. Open all the gates to empathy. Be generous to a fault. Because it’s not a fault.

“One picture is worth a thousand words.” Speaking as both a writer and a photographer, let me say: Bullshit. Still images can have enormous power and emotional resonance. It is possible to read subtext into an image. But not 1000 words of subtext. Or text. Words also have power and resonance. Aside from communicating emotion, which images do quite well, words can communicate what happens or happened outside the frame: backstory, context, inner and outer motivation, relationships, nuance. In fact, my friends, one word might be worth a thousand pictures. Love. Trust. Respect.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” First of all, in the scope of things in this world, in the universe, in the ether of time, it’s all small stuff: your divorce, your kid’s shitty report card, the 45th president. Small stuff. Second, of course sweat the small stuff. From a writer’s point of view, it’s all about sweating the small stuff: laboring to find the single right word, cogitating over the use of a comma, spending an hour crafting a single sentence that sings. It is the culmination of sweating all the small stuff that leads to the good, big stuff. Now if I could only find the single right word for stuff.

“Live every day as if it were your last.” Okay, I don’t know how YOU would live your final 24 hours on earth, but here’s what I’d do: Plan A: All-day hike among the early summer wildflowers in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, fueled by multiple generous handfuls of high-quality gorp. Plan B (should I be physically incapacitated on my last day): Binge watch every Thin Man movie while eating chocolate éclairs (maybe a cannoli or two thrown in) and having my feet rosemary-oil massaged. So, really, I can’t live every day as if it were my last, can I?

Your turn.

June 14, 2017   2 Comments

My so-called (Facebook) life

Here’s what a few of my friends were up to today (via Facebook): Taking a dip in the Blue Lagoon in southwestern Iceland; eating brunch at a café in an impossibly picturesque French village; signing advance copies of her brilliant new book at BEA in New York; celebrating 18 years of marriage so perfect that its participants still swoon over each other.

Here’s what I did: Climbed a 12-foor ladder with a broom and a dust rag to bat at spider webs and sweep up dead insect carcasses in the vaulted entryway of my unkempt home. Cleaned the cat litter box because apparently I am the only one with a sense of smell in this household. Drank 4 cups of tea and chain-chewed most of a pack of Orbit Sweet Mint gum while sweating my way through the writing of a chapter of my new book, the book that for six months it seemed that no publisher wanted.

All this might lead me to suffer from the now well established Facebook-fueled FoMO phenomenon (Fear of Missing Out), that feeling that all your peers are doing, in the know about or in possession of a something better than you. Disturbingly but not surprisingly, “FoMO” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. But, actually FoMO is not where this leads me. Or at least not all the time.

Where it leads me is to a deep sadness about our insistent (and it seems to me increasing) lack of authenticity. (I do NOT mean the  happy and successful FB friends I referenced above are inauthentic! I mean the FB world can be and can encourage us to be.)

Facebook is an easy target – too easy. It is, literally, the face we want to show to the world, and most of us want to show our best face. Most of us don’t leave the house without “putting on our face” (and I’m not talking foundation and blush here). Many of us have a “game face” we use when we believe it is warranted, or to our advantage. We all, at one time or another, employ a façade – that is, an outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant or creditable reality.

I think the more we do this, and the more circumstances during which we do it – Facebook being only one — the farther away we get from who we are. And over time, creating and perfecting that façade, training ourselves to conceal, walking that talk, we deepen and strengthen those particular neural pathways. And we forget who we are.

I mean we really forget.

June 7, 2017   2 Comments

Staying Sane

The way we begin each session of the writers’ group I run at the Oregon State Penitentiary is with a five-minute writing prompt. Every two weeks I come up with another prompt, generally a single word – trust, hope, friendship, power – that invites the guys to write about what they know and how they feel. Sometimes we do lists: 10 pieces of advice I’d offer to a new inmate; 10 things I’d do if I were prison superintendent for a day (an all-time favorite).

Last week I had them write a list of 10 things that keep them sane, that allow them to wake up every morning, morning after morning, year after year – some of them for more than 30 years – and keep on keeping on. The answers ranged from finding a sense of purpose to listening to music, from spiritual practice to indulging in Skittles. Faith. Will power. The knowledge that others have it worse. Books. Visitors. And, of course: WRITING.

I write along with them. They want me to, and I want to. It is part of the writers group atmosphere I work hard to establish. This isn’t a class. It’s a group of people trying to make sense of the world and themselves through writing.

So I wrote my list, in full realization that it is infinitely easier to stay sane if you are me, healthy and free. Still, there is enough out here in the “free world” to make you run out into the streets screaming, to bring you to your knees sobbing. I offer my list below in hopes that you, dear reader, will write in with yours. We all need to expand our keeping-sane repertoire.

1. Writing. Always, since those first leatherette diaries with locks that didn’t lock, I have used writing to make sense of my world, to capture experience so I can learn from it, to try to understand others, to talk sense to myself.

2. Reading. Since I read my first chapter book (My Friend Flicka) and disappeared into someone else’s world, reading has been for me both an intense exploration of and immersion in the other and the most glorious of escapes.

3. Lists. I make them. They bring order to chaos. They calm me. I’ve written about them here.

4. Sweaty, full-on, challenging physical activity: long-distance biking, running, hiking, ballet, barre, holding two-minute planks, mini-triathlons. Without exercise, my mood plummets. I can be awash in negativity.

5. Simon, the cat. Sonny, the cat. Tenderberry, the cat. Sally, the cat. For cat-lovers, I need say no more. For others, you wouldn’t understand.

6. Solitude.

7. The heart-stopping physical beauty of the place I call home. Plus clouds, from every angle, especially looking down from 30,000 feet.

8. Sleep. Yes, it does knit up the raveled sleeve of care. I’ve written about it here.

9. My stubborn belief that most people are kind.

10.My family. I put them last in recognition of the fact that they are also sometimes the cause of my temporary insanity.

Now your turn.

May 31, 2017   8 Comments

Ageism. Again.

It’s time to rant again about ageism.

This time, however, it’s not about those offensive intersection crossing signs that feature stooped over, cane-holding old ladies or those offensive birthday cards like the one for 50 — yes, 50“remember that ill-advised sleeve tattoo you got during your misspent youth? Think how it looks to your doctor while you sit in his office complaining of incontinence” or those offensive ads targeting clueless, brain-fogged old people who cannot seem to manage the intricacies of a normal cellphone.

Nope, this is about how older people are sometimes complicit in the creation and maintenance of these stereotypes. (In fact, as I wrote in Counterclockwise several years ago, unlike just about every other group on the receiving end of an –ism, a disturbing majority of older people actually believe the damaging stereotypes about older people.)

This was a video clip that came across my morning updates yesterday, a CNN story about “beating loneliness after retirement.” The story is about these old guys who don’t know what to do with themselves after retirement. Fair enough. So they go bowling. Now I love bowling. Nothing against bowling. But here is how one of the guys described his decision to join in: “It was either this or sit on the couch all day and watch TV.”

Seriously? That’s the choice?

If you have the energy and strength to go bowling (and yay for that), then you have the energy and strength to be a mentor to a kid who needs an adult in his life. You have the energy and strength to volunteer at your local food bank. To hammer a few nails for Habitat for Humanity. To go play with dogs in animal shelters. To tutor adults who can’t read.

To be visible and useful and show that you are a caring, contributing part of the community in which you live. Otherwise, you actively contribute to the stereotype of older people as useless. In the way. Just taking up space. And resources.

End of rant. For now.

Oh, P.S. Can I just say/ shout/ proclaim on high:

RUTH BADER GINSBURG

May 24, 2017   1 Comment

Sleep

Let’s take a moment to contemplate the magic that is sleep.

No, not: How much sleep do I need? What happens if I don’t get what I need? How can I sleep better? Deeper? How do I create the best “sleep hygiene”? What about insomnia? Sleep apnea? Sleeping pills? Circadian rhythms?

No.

I am talking about the transformative power of sleep. The way you can go to bed emotionally drained, psychologically fragile, wounded, staggering, after a day that ricochets you off hard surfaces, harder surfaces that you knew existed, places you didn’t want to go to but did, thoughts you didn’t want to think but did, emotions you were unprepared to feel but felt. That kind of day.

And you can’t think your way through it. And you can’t talk your way through it. And you can’t eat your way through it (although you try). But you can throw open the windows to a cool night and settle between clean sheets and close your eyes and breath, not imagining the impossible will happen.

And then it happens. You sleep. And you awake your own strong, true self. Ready. Again.

May 18, 2017   4 Comments

Dear Vienna, I love you. But…

It is easy to hate the U.S. these days. I don’t mean the land which, from sea to shining sea (with the exception of that 880 mile stretch on I-40 through Texas), is one hell of a country. And I don’t even mean most of my 321.4 million fellow citizens, including the almost 63 million who, out of fear, desperation, lack of belief in basic American principles or, sorry, just plain stupidity (Bring coal back? Really?) voted for the man who makes it so easy to hate America.

And it is easy to love (at least parts of) Europe. And not just for usual reasons Americans fall in love with Europe, like food, art, music, history, charming villages, vibrant cities, joie de vivre, dolce vita, food and um, food. But, these days, for France’s spirited stance against right-wing extremism and Germany’s open borders, for the Netherlands pioneering LGBTQ policies and Scandinavia’s take-it-for-granted egalitarianism.

I’ve just spent three weeks living in Vienna. I say “living” rather than visiting because I wasn’t so much a tourist. I worked. I lived in an apartment. I shopped at the local Spar. I did laundry and hung it on the line.

I absolutely love this place. What’s not to love? The city regularly ranks #1 as the most livable city on the planet. It is a city of baroque castles, 19th century palaces, gilded concert halls, grand gardens, sweeping public squares and an urban forested oasis twice the size Central Park. And did I mention free health care, almost free higher education, efficient inexpensive public transport, six weeks of paid vacation, parental leave for both parents (which can be taken sequentially) and really really good bread? Also, consider this: UNESCO has listed an “official” Viennese pastime as lingering over an espresso drink with a pastry while reading the newspaper. That’s right, I said READING the NEWSPAPER.

But, lest you think my hatred of my homeland coupled with my love affair with The Imperial City (nice nickname) has completely blinded me to the latter’s shortcomings. I hereby declare that Vienna is not perfect. That’s right. You heard me.

Here are two of the city’s most egregious faults.

Toilets. As in few and far between. As in, they cost money. I mean, I pay $400 to see my physician for 15 minutes, but I’ll be damned if I have to pay 40 cents to take a pee. And then there are the porta-potties, as we call them, which you can sometimes find in parks. Is the CEO of the Austrian porta-potty companies a 2 year old? PiPiBox? ToiToi? Really. Is there no dignity in urination?

Spargel. Or, for you non-German-speakers: asparagus. It is spargel season here, and Austrians go nuts for it. And by “it,” I mean big, fat, thick spears of overcooked white asparagus drowning in cream sauce. It’s crime against the vegetable kingdom. Asparagus is my favorite spring vegetable: thin, bright green spears served naked and al dente, the way god intended.

So you see, Austria, you’re not perfect.

Only nearly so.

May 10, 2017   5 Comments

Dear America, Get over yourself. Love, Europe.

I decided to practice what I’ve been preaching. I know: What a novel idea.

When I talk to journalists, as I have been doing for the past week and a half here in Vienna (and in workshops elsewhere), I stress the importance of being smarter than the material you want to write about, of not writing until you have done the careful work of trying to understand what lies beneath the surface. I stress the importance of not imposing yourself on a story, not striding in brimming with self-confidence you have no right to feel, firing away questions you think are important, setting the parameters instead of discovering them, establishing the tone instead of listening for it.

I had set myself the task of trying to see how Trump’s America was “playing” in Europe. Well, in Austria, in Vienna. This I would write as a blog post, a dispatch from overseas. And so, not practicing what I preach, I proceeded to ask everyone I met, “What do you think of America under Trump?” And I got opinions. I got opinions that had a lot to do with whom I asked (schreibers, kunstlers, lehrers) and how I asked it – I do not have a poker face, and anyway, my phrasing “Trump’s America” is kind of a giveaway. That and the Bernie sticker I still have on my macbook air.

Then I caught myself (well, after three days I caught myself), and I shut up, observed and listened. Just what I tell others to do.

Here’s my report:

My fellow Americans, we should get over ourselves. No we shouldn’t stop making noise and taking to the streets and supporting the organizations and policies we believe in. What we should stop is thinking we are it. Because we aren’t anymore. The writers and waiters, the teachers and grocery store shoppers, the social democrats and unionists and other Lefties are looking elsewhere for inspiration. We are not the guiding light. We are not the world’s leader (in anything that is important). We have nothing to teach others about how to act ethically in the world, about how to treat our citizens with dignity, about how to create a just and joyful society.

Spain was once it. Britannia once ruled the waves. The Ottomans. The Romans. I understand that the Habsburg Empire used to be quite the deal.

But greatness ends. The man who ran on “Make American Great Again,” has, if the conversations I’ve been listening to are any indication, succeeded in lowering the world’s opinion of us to the extent that they care much less than we think about “Trump’s America.” They worry that we will do harm to the global environment. Yes. But they look to alternative energy innovations in China. They look to health care successes in Scandinavia. They look to the Netherlands for enlightened LGBTQ attitudes and laws. They look to Canada for compassionate immigration and refugee policies. They look past America.

What do they think of America under Trump? They think America is increasingly irrelevant. They think we – like the rest of the world – should look elsewhere for inspiration and innovation, for compassionate and egalitarian ways of behaving. They think we have a lot to learn.

May 3, 2017   4 Comments

Old World New World

Tomorrow I leave for several weeks to teach writing seminars in Vienna. I am very very interested in what people there think about Trump-era America. I will be asking everyone I meet and reporting back to you.

Although the population of the US has become increasingly diverse, still about 72 percent of Americans trace their ancestry to Europe. (Before 1965, policies limited immigration and naturalization opportunities for people from areas outside Western Europe. Exclusion laws enacted as early as the 1880s generally prohibited or severely restricted immigration from Asia.)

America was considered “the new world.” The “Old World” was Europe. Thus, many of us (particularly the almost three-quarters of us whose families originally came here from Europe) may think we have much in common with western Europe.

Actually we don’t.

Because I will be asking “Old World” Austrians how they perceive “New World” Americans these days, I wanted to get a better sense of the (everyday experience) lens through which they see us. In doing that research, I discovered how little we have in common.

Here’s a short list:

Elections of 2016. In 2016 election, the Trumpian far right candidate was defeated. Former Green Party head Alexander Van der Bellen, the child of political refugees and a committed liberal, won.

Health care. In Austria, everyone receives publicly funded care. (They also have the option to purchase supplementary private health insurance.)

Energy. Lower Austria, the largest of the country’s nine states, gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy (hydro, wind, solar). The rest of Austria gets 75 percent of its electricity from clean/ renewable energy.

Education. The country’s university system was free until 2001. Now the cost for Austrian citizens is €366 per term ($391). This includes masters, Ph.D., medical school, etc.

Language. Multilingualism is the rule – not the exception – in continental Europe, with more than half of EU citizens speaking a second language. In the US, 22 percent of us can speak another language (and it is far and away Spanish, the result of first and second generation Americans with Mexican ancestry)

Vacation. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four work weeks of paid vacation. Austria, which guarantees workers the most time off, has a legal minimum of 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays each year. Parental leave is law.

Who we are must seem increasingly strange to Europeans. Let’s see what they have to say.

April 19, 2017   3 Comments