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Facing — DEFEATING — ageism

Among the countless things that anger (stun, depress, disgust, worry) me these days is institutionalized ageism. Yes, I said ageism. Not racism, sexism, homophobia. Well, of course racism, sexism, homophobia. But those -isms and –phobias are at least part of our national conversation. We have created policies around them. They are discussed in schools, in the media, on the lecture circuit. I am not saying we have conquered these forms of discrimination, just that we are aware of them and sometimes do the right thing. Although now less than before.

And then there’s ageism.

It is not just firmly embedded in our culture, it is mostly invisible — thanks to the imposed and self-imposed ghetttoization of the elderly (from nursing homes to retirement “communities”). And accepted virtually without question. Old people? Hell, yeah. They are frail, useless, boring, sexless. The street signs show us what we think: A silhouette of a stooped (oh that dowager’s hump) old lady grasping a cane. She can hardly place one foot ahead of another. Watch her struggle as she totters, oh-so-slowly, across the street.

Presumably we all have a soft spot in our hearts for our old people – grandpa, great aunt Tillie, old cousin Bill – but we lose patience with everyone else’s. The grandma at the grocery store. She’s looking through her cavernous handbag for coupons. She’s taking forever to count out the change from her purse. She’s holding up the line. Come on. The geezer in the car, the one whose gray head you can barely see above the top of the driver’s seat. He’s driving 22 in a 35 mph zone. He’s actually making a full stop at the stop sign and looking both ways before proceeding. Get off the road.

And maybe even, sometimes, we lose it with our own kin. Grandpa (Dad) pulls out the old photo album. Again. He launches into the story about…fill in the blank. Again. We roll our eyes and find the first excuse to leave the room.

Old and in the way.

Really?

I am about to go to my weekly volunteer stint at Food for Lane County’s Dining Room where we feed (restaurant-style not soup-kitchen style) 300 or so people every day. For some this will be the only meal they eat all day. Although there are a few younger volunteers, most who work these shifts are retirement-age and some are decades past retirement age. This place, like so many other volunteer-staffed social service agencies, could not exist without OLDER PEOPLE giving their time and energy.

Yes, I said ENERGY.

The Dining Room shift is two hours of constant movement. A number of us wait tables, taking (and remembering) orders, bringing plates of food balanced up our forearms, and glasses of milk and mugs of coffee on laden trays. One volunteer constantly circulates with a big dessert tray. Another constantly circulates bussing and cleaning tables. In the back, people are scrapping huge pots and pans, chopping bushels of apples, working the steamy dish pit. This is not easy work. I clock two miles on a shift and often work up a sweat.

My co-workers – many in their 70s, some in their 80s and at least one in his 90s – work just as hard.

Because, my friends: This is what OLD really looks like.

I want to replace the image of the “don’t hit this frail old lady” street signs with empowering images of the older people in our midst. I want our heads, individually and societally, to be brimming with images of vibrant, engaged older people, funny, feisty, perceptive, talented, passionate, compassionate older people. Older people who not only have experience but still seek it. I want to be that kind of older person.

The photo is of a 3000-year-old olive tree (in Crete). Which is doing just fine. And bears olives every year.

April 12, 2017   3 Comments

What, me worry? Hell, yes.

Wait…isn’t worrying is bad for your health? Doesn’t worrying turn you into a negative, pessimistic person who sees danger around ever corner? Doesn’t it cause stress, which triggers tsunamis of cortisol and lead to chronic inflammation, the gateway to all kinds of diseases?

Maybe not.

Maybe there is a positive side to worrying. As a life-long, deeply committed, card-carrying worrier (well, okay, I don’t have a card), I hope so. And research backs me up.

To be clear, I am not talking about obsessive, nail-biting, heart-palpitating anxiety. Occasionally, that’s called for, as when the Zombie Army is at your door or the person appointed to head the Department of Education doesn’t actually support public education. Those unlikely scenarios aside, I’m referring to everyday worrying: What if I catch this awful stomach flu everyone seems to have? Will I run out of gas before I reach the gas station? Suppose nobody buys my newest book? Any of my books?

Here’s the good news for us committed worriers:

We are more highly evolved! Worriers are more aware of potentially threatening situations than non-worriers. And that awareness would have kept our ancestors alive while other, less cautious cavefolk perished. It’s kinda nice up here at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, ain’t it?

We’re quick(er) thinkers. Moderate levels of some worry-related hormones (like cortisol) actually fire up the brain’s learning abilities, according to research from the University of Colorado. If you think you’re in trouble, it makes sense that your brain would be hyper-focused and ready to absorb and tackle new information, the research suggests.

We’re motivated. Obsessive worrying can be debilitating, but worrying-lite can lead to constructive, thoughtful self-evaluation and action, shows research from Stanford University. Anxiety can push us to plan more carefully, work harder and persevere.

We’re better prepared to deal with both good and bad news. There’s a kind of worrying that researchers have dubbed “defensive pessimism.” It’s when we dive head-first into the worry pool, but as we’re swimming/ flailing around we come up with contingency plans for various outcomes. Whatever does happen, we are in better shape to cope with (or enjoy!) it than those who try to distract themselves from worry. So says some very interesting research from UC Riverside.

As one of the UC/ Riverside researchers is quoted as saying, “Set your expectations low and think through the negative possibilities. It drives optimists crazy.” And it works!

Think of worrying as self-empowerment. I do. (When I’m not worrying about worrying so much.)

April 5, 2017   2 Comments

I gotta little list

I love making lists. Even more, I love checking off items from the lists I make. Often I do something that is not on my list, and I add it to the list just for the joy of checking it off. Oh yes, I know some of you do this too. I have also been known to make lists of my lists. That may be taking it too far.

Here is a list of the reasons I love making lists.

1.  Making a list quiets the omg moments that keep me awake at 2 am.
2.  Making a list is a low-bar entry to actually doing whatever needs to be done. Sure, no sweat, I can make a list! It is way less scary (not to mention time-consuming) than starting the project itself.
3.  Lists break down huge tasks (writing a book, getting rid of a President) into manageable action items.
4.  Lists simplify life. Whaaat? All I have to do is these 5/ 10 things!
5.  Lists help me think things through. They demand logic.
6.  Lists clear my brain. I no longer have to try to remember all this. I wrote it all down!
7.  Lists are finite. It may not seem like it, but my tasks are not endless!
8.  Lists keep me from procrastinating. Uh, Friday…and two more things on the list? Better get to them.
9.  Crossing something off a list = instant gratification.
10. If you save your lists (um, yes, I do), they provide an historical record of your life. A power point diary.

I also love to READ lists: The 500 greatest albums of all time. The 100 books everyone should read. Twenty places to visit before you die. Top 10 most popular lists on listserv. When the “25 random things about me” crazy hit Facebook, I read everyone’s list. Most favorite part of the old Letterman Show…can you guess?

March 29, 2017   3 Comments

D E T E R M I N A T I O N

What does it mean to be determined?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, like many of us have, as we watch –in a state of almost indescribable horrific awe — the actions of a man determined to bring disrespect, dishonor and ridicule on the office of the presidency. And on our country. Which is to say on all of us.

But I have also been thinking about our determination, determination to show ourselves, our neighbors, our communities and the rest of the world what we value and what we are willing to fight for.

Which has got me thinking about what determination actually is and how to nurture it in ourselves and others. Because we need a lot of it. And we need it now, and we need it for the long haul.

Lest you think determination is an unpleasant scowling, grit-your-teeth experience, let me suggest just the opposite: Determination is a positive emotional feeling that involves persevering toward a difficult goal in spite of obstacles. It is about facing challenges with (I love this phrase) anticipatory enthusiasm. In the field of positive psychology – the best thing to happen to psychology since Freud died – determination is studied and identified as a constructive and optimistic force that compels us toward action and results in important outcomes.

One obvious outcome is that we “win.” Our determination defeats the obstacles. But that may be an in-it-for-the-long-haul outcome. What about in the meantime? In the meantime, as we are being our determined selves, we are nurturing perseverance and resilience. And as we persevere, we develop important coping mechanisms. As we persevere, we get stronger.

Determination in the face of daunting obstacles strengthen and empowers us. Strengthens and empowers. It fuels us. It stokes the fire.

Oh, and here’s something else from the woman who brought you Counterclockwise (that would be me): A number of studies have linked the meeting of challenges with determination to increases in physical health and mental well-being. Some specific positive outcomes include illness resistance, increased survival rates and decreased levels of depression.

March 22, 2017   1 Comment

Liar, Liar, President on Fire

What we are seeing, what we are in the throes of, my fellow Americans, is part Huxley, part Orwell – and a whole lot of Leon Festinger.

OK. So Huxley is obvious. As in Brave New World, we are seeing the construction and manipulation of a “state” based on the principles of obedience, homogeneity and consumption. Indoctrination is not via hypnosis but rather tweet blasts and bald-faced lies masquerading as “alternative facts.”

And then there’s Orwell, literary creator of a dystopia controlled by privileged few and headed by a leader who enjoys an intense cult of personality. (Um…?) Remember newspeak and doublethink? War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength. Black is White. A true believer not only proclaims black is white, but believes black is white and forgets that anyone ever believed the contrary.

But who the heck is Leon Festinger?

Leon Festinger was an American social psychologist best known for developing the theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when you are faced with reality that goes against what you firmly believe. For example, you firmly believe – you have been led to believe (you voted based on the belief) – that the Affordable Care Act is “imploding,” and that Trump’s plan will, as promised, insure more people, giving them more choice, at a lower cost.

Then you are faced with the reality of that Plan: that millions of people will lose their coverage or not be able to afford coverage (so choice is not an issue) and that the cost for those who most need insurance – hint: not the young and healthy – will increase (and I use this word advisedly) astronomically. And that you, working-class, rural, Red state supporter, are in the crosshairs.

What do you, true believer, do with that information?

Leon figured that one out back in 1956 – it’s known as “belief disconfirmation” — when he and colleagues wrote When Prophecy Fails. Here’s what happens: In the face of patently contradictory, inarguable verifiable information, your original belief is…deepened. Or, slightly reconfigured to make room for the clearly contradictory information without that new information materially changing your original belief.

You may have heard about the famous study that underlies this finding. It had to do with an apocalyptic religious cult, members of which had given up homes, jobs, material possessions — and left their families – in preparation for the end of the world. The world was ending because of Sodom-and-Gomorrah type corruption (like, oh, being able to use the bathroom of the gender you identify with). Only the self-sanctified members of this cult would survive, spirited to the planet Clarion by an alien spaceship. No, this is not the plot of a 1950s sci-fi pot-boiler.

The world would end (big flood) right before dawn on Dec. 21, 1954. The rescue spaceship would arrive at a predetermined place on the stroke of midnight.

The cult assembled. Midnight stroked. No spaceship. The disconfirmed prophecy caused them acute cognitive-dissonance: Had they been victims of a hoax? Had they foolishly given up everything? What Festinger found was that to resolve the dissonance between apocalyptic, end-of-the-world beliefs (oh, let’s just call them Trumpisms) and the earthly reality (oh, let’s just call it reality), most of the cult restored their psychological consonance by choosing to hold a less mentally-stressful idea to explain the missed landing. Instead, they decided to believe the alternate facts their leader presented: The aliens hadn’t arrived not because the prophesy was false but because the aliens had given planet Earth a second chance. In the face of the prophesy-that-didn’t-happen, people did not leave the cult. People did not stop believing in the corruption of the world and their own sanctified status. In fact, they got out and proselytized.

As Festinger wrote, “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.”

March 15, 2017   4 Comments

Put your best fork forward*

March is National Nutrition Month! (“Put your best fork forward” is the catchy tagline this year.) Let’s all celebrate by 1) eating a wonderfully nutritious, real foods/ whole foods meal 2) enjoying this brief romp through the history of diet fads — which SPOILER ALERT are not about good nutrition.

1820: Vinegar and Water diet made popular by Lord Byron, who, I must add, died at the age of 36. So maybe not.

1825: Low Carb Diet (that’s right, in 1825). It first appeared in The Physiology of Taste by Jean Brillat-Savarin, a more-than-pleasantly plump French lawyer and politician who pretty much invented the gastronomic essay, aka food writing.

1830: Graham’s Diet, invented by the man who would found the American Vegetarian Society and, more importantly, invent Graham Crackers, without which there would be no s’mores. PS: He believed vegetarianism was a cure for masturbation. What about that, you vegetarians?

1863: Banting’s Low Carb Diet, which was so popular that “banting” became a common term for dieting during this time period.

1903: Fletcherizing. Horace Fletcher’s dietary advice to insure high-level wellness: Chew your food 32 times. No not 33.

1917: The birth of “calorie counting” (damn) with the publication of Lulu Hunt Peters’ book, Diet and Health.

1925: The cigarette diet, as in “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” Really.

1928: The Inuit Meat-and-Fat Diet calling for consumption of raw fish, caribou and whale blubber. Not wildly popular.

1930: The first of the liquid diet drinks, courtesy of a Dr. Stoll and – 1930 being a big year for fad diets – the Hay Diet which proclaimed that carbs and proteins could not be consumed together. Whaaat? No steak and potatoes?

1934: Bananas and Skim Milk Diet (backed by – here’s a surprise – United Fruit Company)

1950: Another hallmark year: The Grapefruit Diet and the Cabbage Soup Diet. And people say the 1950s were boring.

1964:The Drinking Man’s Diet (like on Mad Men)

1967: Birth (that’s a pun) of the hCG diet, a combination of injections of Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (produced in a pregnant woman’s placenta) and a 500-calorie diet.

1970: The Liquid Protein Diet. One version was marketed as The Last Chance Diet, a name it earned when several people died using the product.

1976: My favorite: The Sleeping Beauty Diet in which the dieter is heavily sedated for several days (and thus doesn’t eat).

1981: Beverly Hills Diet. Unlimited quantities of fruit – and only fruit – for the first ten days.

1985: The Caveman Diet in which one enjoys foods from the Paleolithic Era. Yes, the Paleo craze has been around for this long, longer if you count the whale blubber version.

1987: The Scarsdale Diet – low carb, low-cal. Its originator, Dr. Herman Tarnower, was famously murdered by his mistress, the head of a posh private school.

1988: Calorie Restriction (CR) Diet in which you satisfy all nutritional needs while consuming 30 percent fewer calories than your body requires. Forever. This is very very difficult to do. (Plus you look unpleasantly cadaverous.) The good (and bad) news? This diet works.

1990: Return of the Cabbage Soup Diet. Because it worked so well the first time.

1994: The high-protein, low carb Atkins’ diet.

1996: Eat Right for Your Type, a diet based on your blood type. O. No.

1999: The holy triumvirate: Juicing, Fasting, Detoxing.

2000: Raw Foods.

2006: Maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne. ‘Nuf said.

2010: Baby Food Diet: 14 jars of baby food a day. Diapers optional.

2012: The ascent of Gluten Free.

2014: The Bulletproof Diet, the secret of which is drinking “bulletproof coffee” (coffee laced liberally — as in 400 cals a cup — with butter or coconut oil).

2016: The Mono Diet is a one-food-and-one-food only plan that continues to resurface, year after year. 2016 was The Year of the Banana.

Not to mention: tape worms, Bile Beans, cotton balls, feeding tubes…What’s next? Don’t answer that.

 

 

March 8, 2017   2 Comments

Breakfast of Champions

Sitting in the stands in Matt Knight Arena this past weekend watching a women’s basketball game, I was distracted from the action on the court by the overabundance of corporate signage. In additional to the usual local sponsors (from a nearby Indian Casino to a hometown grocery store chain, there was a huge McDonald’s banner. The brand was again touted in a digital display running under the scorers’ table. It read: McDonald’s the Official Breakfast of the Oregon Ducks.

Allow me to rant a moment. It feels so good to rant about something other than, well, you know what. Presidents come and go. But McDonald’s, like The Dude, abides.

The most common breakfast at McDonald’s is the sausage Egg McMuffin which derives more than 30 percent of its calories from fat. The bad kind. One little sandwich, consumed in a few bites in less than a minute contains 25 percent of the saturated fat you should take in for the entire day – if, indeed, you should take in any saturated fat. Cholesterol content? That would be 87 percent of your daily max. Wondering about sodium? Wonder no longer. That little sandwich contains more than 1/3 of your total daily sodium intake. Somehow or another, amid all that fat and salt, McDonald’s recipe geniuses managed to throw in a teaspoon of sugar.

It’s all about what’s called in the junk food/ fast food biz, the “bliss point,” that carefully calibrated magic combination of fat, salt and sugar that activates the pleasure-reward pathways in our brains. It’s the laboratory-orchestrated “flavor profile” that keeps us eating (gobbling, really) without being satiated (for very long).

Every day, one in four Americans eats at a fast food restaurant. As a nation (a Fast Food Nation), we spend more than $200 billion a year on meals like the Official Breakfast of the Oregon Ducks. That’s a chunk of change. Ironically, $200 billion is also the estimated cost of U.S. medical spending directly related to obesity. People love the “flavor profile.” People hit the “bliss point.” And it’s cheap! The food is cheap because the major commodities used to produce it are heavily subsidized by the U.S. government.

Speaking of more money than most of us who are not President of the United State can imagine, fast food restaurants spent $4.6 billion in advertising in 2013 (most recent stat I could find) with McDonald’s easily topping the chart, outspending #2 Subway by 60 percent.

It’s not just that this Official Breakfast is BAD for you. It is also not what today’s health-conscious, high-energy athletes DO eat to stay in top shape. But most of all, the “Official Breakfast” proclamation is not what all those hundreds of kids in the stands should be reading, the kids who idolize the athletes, who want to grow up to be just like them. They won’t grow up to be just like them by breakfasting on McMuffins and McGriddles.

March 1, 2017   4 Comments

My Favorite Things

For this post, blame my friend Florian Niederndorfer, a reporter at DerStandard, who alerted me to a news story announcing the appointment of Patrick Park as our new ambassador to Austria. The selection (made by you-know-who) was based on … wait for it … Park’s love of the movie “The Sound of Music.” Which was filmed in and around Salzburg. Which is in Austria. So a big fan of the movie would be very very knowledgeable about Austria having watched the movie as many times as apparently Mr. Park has. (“I know every single word and song by heart,” he is quoted as saying.) Okay, then: Hired.

I too know the songs by heart. But not being an old, rich, white-man crony of the man in charge, I lack the essential credentials.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

No, not in angling for the position, but rather in revisiting the musical score to see what might be running through our new ambassador’s head. How about “My Favorite Things”? I’m thinking that maybe, amidst all of the current sturm und drang (see I even know a little German! Hire me!), we could take a moment to focus on what continues to give us joy – our favorite things.

When Mr. Ambassador Park sings the opening lines to the song, I wonder whether he thinks about who that biting dog and stinging bee might be?

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

Herewith, the favorite things that are sustaining me and keeping me (almost) sane.

The news, almost every day, from Oregon, Washington and California of governors, legislators, judges, faith-based groups and corporations taking big, bold, principled stands against the thoughtless, hurtful, ignorant, dangerous, unAmerican edicts coming from the White House.

But also, coming from a far different place:
>The glorious, loving expansion of our family from five to six truly outstanding humans
>Wordstreak
>Van Morrison, then, now, forever
>The extraordinary men in my Lifers’ writing group
>That floating space between sleep and wakefulness
>Rain. Soft hiss, pounding needles, open windows
>My Seattle storytellers
>Kim
>Kettlecorn

And yes, Lizzie, of course: whiskers on kittens.

Looking forward to your lists. Post in comments!

February 22, 2017   5 Comments

Nevertheless, she disappeared.

I learned a big lesson recently: I am utterly and completely replaceable.

No, not at home! I am talking about in the workplace.

You would think this revelation would be depressing: I am not as important as I fooled myself into thinking I was! But it wasn’t depressing. It isn’t depressing. It is instead an ego-confronting moment that has the power to transform. It is liberating.

I recently exited a place where I had been working for a very long time. A very very long time. I was single and childless when I started working there. People typed memos and placed them in mail slots when I started working there. Over the course of multiple decades and more than a dozen book projects, I worked at this place, became part of its fabric, became a weaver of its fabric.

And then, suddenly, it became harder and harder to be a weaver. But that’s what I am. I need to weave. And so I needed to go.

I left, by design, without a public announcement, without the standard good-bye party. I wanted it that way for a number of reasons, including this one. I wanted to know: Would anyone realize I was gone? Would I leave behind a hole where I used to be? Was I, you know, irreplaceable?

The answers? No. No. Yes.

I am so very thankful to have learned this. The exit experience shows me how essential it is to do things, to create, innovate, weave, whatever, to contribute, for the good of the order, for the joy of it, for the fun of it – and not for the ego, for the (oh please) enduring legacy. I love that whatever tiny hole I might have left behind so quickly closed that no one was aware that it had existed at all. I love that I was the only one who honored my exit.

I wrote about just this kind of moment at the end of my last book, Raising the Barre, when, after my final performance dancing with the Eugene Ballet Company – an accomplishment I doubted even as I was doing it — I didn’t arrange to meet up with anyone to note the occasion. I hurried out of my costume, jumped in my car and started to drive home. Then, suddenly, I wasn’t in a hurry. I wanted to sit in the moment for a while. So I stopped at a neighborhood watering hole. Here’s what I wrote. It’s the last scene in the book:

Me and my baggy sweats and my over-the-top eye make-up walk into the bar and sit between an old guy eating a burger and a young hipster nursing an IPA. And they don’t know who I am or where I’ve been or what I’ve done. And that’s just as it should be. Because the only person who knows what this means to me, the only person who can truly celebrate this moment with me, is me.

February 15, 2017   15 Comments

Doing time

For two hours every other Thursday we sit in an incongruously cavernous room around a rickety table drinking bad coffee out of Styrofoam cups and talking story. How to tell a story, why to tell a story, how writing is thinking, how writing lets you see what you ignore, remember what you forget, feel what you built a wall around feeling, how to craft a narrative of your own life so nobody but you can own it.

The other people around the table, eight of them, are Lifers, men who have been sentenced to either Life with or Life without. The “with” and “without” refer to the possibility of parole. Possibility. One of the guys is entering year 34 of a Life with sentence. He’s been denied parole eight times so far. Three of the guys were sentenced to Life when they were 17, one without the possibility of parole. The oldest in the group will be 79 next month. The youngest is 37.

You get a Life sentence for doing something bad, generally very bad. Not “just” murder, but aggravated murder. When I started working with these guys, coming into the maximum security prison to lead a writers group, I stayed purposely ignorant of the details of their crimes. I wanted to see them for the men they were now not who they were when they did the worst thing they’d ever done. I asked them not to tell me their last names so I wouldn’t be tempted to look them up in the system.

For a time, that worked. Now, for various reasons mostly having to do with references in their writing and conversations around the rickety table every other Thursday, I know. I know sometimes more than I want to know.

And here’s something odd and in a way wonderful and for me transformational: It doesn’t matter. I see clearly what they did. I see the horror and cruelty and amorality of it. But I also know who they have become. I see how almost all of them have, over time, faced the guilt, the shame, the pain they caused and continue to cause, the lives they ruined that they can never make amends for, the history they forever changed. I see that, against all odds, some are blooming where they have been planted. I see that change is possible, that emotional, psychological, moral rehabilitation is possible. I see that the cracks have let the light in.

I am learning so much more than I am teaching.

February 8, 2017   9 Comments