Updating Your Life Story

Have you ever had the feeling that you are living out a story that was written a while ago by some familiar but mysterious stranger? Yes, you are the author but there also seems to be another hand at work.  The story is so familiar that it has to be you but you didn’t intentionally write it.

The choices you make in following these scripts don’t really feel like choices.  It’s as though you are sleepwalking, passing other options as though they barely exist.  You march down a prescribed path like a character in a Greek Drama.  The path feels almost like destiny.  Because you are the child of this mother or father, whose ideas about your future have suffused your being, you make choices over and again in obedience or in contradiction to the life they imagined for you.  Because you were born into a particular era—say the post War 1940’s—you are upwardly mobile, married, with three children, and living in the suburbs, as though the zeitgeist had written the script for you.

Most of the time, the narratives that define our lives remain unconscious.  We believe that we have chosen our own fate.  We think we have decided what kind of person to marry, what kind of work to do, whether and how to pray, what type of communities to join.  We feel the tug on subconscious forces, like strings commanding puppets, though not so much that we feel the need to break free.

But sometimes these narratives break into consciousness and we wonder: Whose life am I leading?  I awoke one night during graduate school, for example, with a realization: I was studying history, reading philosophy, and writing poetry—the very pursuits my father felt he had been denied—the pursuits he had bequeathed to me.  He never said this explicitly, but somehow I felt I had to live out his unfulfilled dreams. Then, with that realization fresh and real, I stepped out of my dream state and made a series of different choices — deciding, for example, to switch from history to psychotherapy.  It was as if the sky had parted and a god had offered me my freedom.

Usually, the moments when we see our narratives not as destiny but as choices often emerge during times of decision, change, or crisis, when the regular choices don’t feel right—even if we can say exactly why.  Imagine, though: our spouse has a new job in a new city, our way of thinking about ourselves comes apart. No matter how confusing, annoying, or terrifying, for a moment we can actually choose what we want to do.  The opportunity is luxurious.

Developmental crises—adolescence, midlife, retirement, for example — are famous for bringing the regular flow of life up short. Take midlife crises.  Silly and awkward as they may look, they often represent earnest efforts to break from what feels like a prison of prescribed choices.  Or sometimes they reflect a long-buried wish to leave the accumulated boredom and disengagement that comes from cruising based on old injunctions: Take care of your family! Make something of yourself! Find someone who will care for you.

Often the break into consciousness comes with questions.  From this point on, am I condemned to repeat myself, to live within these prescribed boundaries?  Can I escape?  Do I want to escape?  Isn’t this good enough?  Might I lose what I most value if I change my life? Won’t I hurt others if I rebel?  You could call the sum of these moments identity crises.

But it’s important to remember: These narratives, however powerful, don’t represent all that you are.  They are stories told over and over, stories that have gathered confirming experience to themselves.  Each new experience seen through the lens of our narratives provides the proof that this is who we are.  But the stories also gloss over parts of ourselves.  For instance, a family person might yearn for solo adventure.  A heady professional might long to work construction. .

Over the many years I practiced and taught psychotherapy, for instance, I’d maintain a stream of significant renovation projects at home.  The projects were concrete, definite.  They provided a kind satisfaction that was sometimes missing in the complexity of psychotherapy, when I wasn’t always sure that I was helpful or helpful enough or helpful in the right way.  A kitchen wall was a kitchen wall.  I could see it and others could, too.

I wondered if I might take a few years to build houses—on spec, no less—and relax my mind.  If I had taken the years, I’m pretty sure that my life and the narratives that guided it would have turned in many ways.  My relationship to my family and freinds would have shifted.  My image of myself would likely have been transformed.  I would have, essentially, tossed the script aside.

I don’t think I pulled the construction idea from the sky.  My father, raised in the Great Depression, had wanted me to have a trade, some safe way to support my family.  This was the other side of his philosophical dreams, and I absorbed it, too.  Being a child of the 1950’s, with its great prosperity and endless opportunities, I became a ‘successful’ professional.  But there was always this other narrative of working with my hands, of making things, that has lived not so far beneath the surface.  As a matter of fact, I wonder if my writing pursuits stem from and join both narratives, producing concrete verbal entities that all can see.

There are several, maybe many, narratives that float in our unconscious and peak or break through during times of crisis – for example, narratives of adventure, helplessness, invisibility, peacefulness.  My mother, for instance, could never let go the idea that she was meant to be an explorer like Thor Heyerdahl who ventured across the Pacific in a straw raft.  Even as she lived a conventional life, almost every event in her life was interpreted, at some level, in terms of how she had fulfilled or abandoned that narrative of risk, adventure and rewards.  In a way, that narrative represented her identity almost as much as the one she lived every day.

Old age offers a particular opportunity to experiment with new stories about ourselves; the long-standing, dominant ones are less tightly secured than they were by schedules, responsibilities, business, and the familiar people in our lives who keep them in place.  You might say that we are vulnerable to these ‘intrusions,’ or that they come as welcome guests to enliven our years.  Let me illustrate an odd one that I seem to carry with me.

There is a rabbinical narrative within me, maybe because so many of my forebearers were rabbis, but it’s not the rabbi you might expect.  There’s a quiet man, not a preaching man with a congregation.  He is chanting and pious, with his head and shoulders covered in a prayer shawl.  I don’t know where this image comes from but it has strength to it.  Here is how it continues: I have left the flock, whom I loved but who also have burdened me because I never knew if I could give them what they wanted or, more importantly, what they needed.  Even as I held that ambivalence, I never felt it was right to leave them.  So I didn’t.  Now I am old, and they have gone.  In this story, I don’t know if I’ve left them or if they have left me.  But I am free of responsibility and mostly alone.  I can be quiet.  I can be calm.  I’m hidden beneath my prayer shawl. I feel content.

If you are quiet and allow your normal responses to situations flow by, if you detach from your dominant life narrative, I wonder what stories and imagery might come to mind.

 

Ritual and routine hold me like a good mother

I imagine that I’ve pushed the limits of your patience with my apocalyptic warnings about the state of our nation and my “honest” talk about the trials of getting old.  For a change, I’d like to talk about my good fortune at having arrived at an advanced age feeling good.

It’s 6 AM and the sun has already risen.  I hear the fountain outside our bedroom window, spraying water from the little pond right outside, and — I know this even though I can’t see it from my bed — spreading the coating of light green algae to the pond’s far edges.  A few robins are chirping.  A squirrel is chirping, too, as he speeds up the oak tree’s trunk.  I feel so damned good this morning. =

Already, the day reminds me of an ee cummings poem that I loved as a young man, a poem, coincidentally, that my sister-in-law, Marcia, recites to herself each morning, wanting a reminder of what the day might be.  I’d like to quote it in full.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)”

There are too many days when I’m not as attuned to those “leaping greenly spirits” as I’d like to be, but even before and after I explode with exasperation at what I read in the newspapers, I am still aware of the great privilege I have in being alive at 76, with my ears and eyes still working, my body ready to go, and my spirit alert to possibilities.

I might focus my gratitude on the love that persists in my marriage and family, but today I want to focus on simpler things: the routines and regularities of life in retirement that bring pleasure to even the worst of days and allow me to pay attention to nature’s bounty.

Each day, as I awaken, Franny is next to me.  I can see the sky, cloudy or sunny, it doesn’t matter.  I ease out of bed, walk about 20 feet to the bathroom and go through my ablutions.  I like the rhythm and the sound of the electric tooth brush and the taste of the water washing down the two pills that I take.  Dressing, especially in summer, is easy: underwear, t-shirt, and shorts.  Everything feels clean.  I’m ready.

Next I make coffee for Franny and me, and we sit in our easy chairs with the newspaper.  The news isn’t so great but there we are, together, as the light shines through the roof windows and the window door and gentles our moods.  Almost every morning, we look at each other, nod, and feel our good luck.

After the newspaper, we separate. Franny either stays in the living room or goes to the second floor to do some work, or what, she says, passes for work these days.  I go to my study to write in my journal, first in that free, undirected, ambling way that I’ve practiced for almost 50 years.  If I’m not calm to begin, the writing calms me.  If I’m calm, it deepens the feeling.

Next I write something “serious.”  I work on an essay for my blog or chapter for the memoir that I’m writing.  Sometimes this goes easily and well.  Sometimes it’s a slog.  Then I push and either break through or give up, hoping — maybe assuming — it will be better tomorrow.  I can get aggravated when I feel the writing has gone badly but I am comforted by the fact that I am there.  I have been sitting in my desk chair, in front of my computer, thinking and typing away.  Every day.  It’s the everydayness that soothes the aggravation.

When I’ve had enough of the writing, I read a few articles from The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books, which make me feel just a little smarter, just a little bit more in touch with the New York intellectuals I’ve long identified with.  It’s like touching base with my community.

Now I’m getting a little restless, though.  I feel it in my body.  When I get up from the desk, my knees and back are stiff.  I’m thirsty.  I need to move.  So I do.  Franny and I may take off on a walk.  These days, I may hit a tennis ball against a backboard for about 25 minutes, and then walk for about 40, knowing that I need to put in at least an hour of exercise to reassure myself of my health — and to feel good.  I have always needed exercise to get those endorphins going in order to calm my body and soul.

Upon returning home, there’s a shower, and very few things feel as good as that hot—or cold—spray running down my body, taking away the sweat and the effort, until I am fully relaxed.  Even the drying follows a ritual.  First my hair, rubbing and rubbing with a towel, probably until the brain is active again, then my back and chest, then the legs and the feet.  The towel always returned to the hook for drying.  The return to my very light clothing.  I’m ready for the next act.

In the late afternoon, I read, generally nonfiction — a biography or a history book — leaving fiction for the evening, when I no longer require myself to keep learning.  The reading might make me sleepy and, now in my dotage, have begun for the first time in my life to take naps.  They are sweet.

Franny and I come together for dinner.  Then we might have friends to visit.  We might read, talk on the phone, or watch TV — we love mystery series, news, and documentaries.  I love sports.  If there’s a big basketball, baseball, football, or tennis game on, we split up, then come back to each other for conversation and sleep.

Not every day is like this.  Sometimes, I do some work—coaching young executives, for example.  A little strategic planning consult with a nonprofit.  A meeting for a board of directors.  On Mondays, I spend time with Franny and Lucy, our 17 month old granddaughter.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we spend a few afternoon hours with our 5 and 8 year old grandsons.  At times we travel and then there is no routine.  Franny has her own activities, of course.  And frequently we meet friends, separately or together, for walks, coffee, or drinks—or to dream up future projects.  There’s always something new.

But it is ritual and routine, by surrounding and supporting all the other activities, that relaxes me enough to appreciate what is new and different.  It’s the surrender to the routine, not having to be in charge all the time, that keeps me calm.  It’s the routine, holding me like a good mother, steadily but not too tightly, that invites me to notice the leaping greenly spirit of life.

Science Says: Our Aging Brains are Active, Agile, and Resourceful

  • Primary references are at the end

 

Each morning, I wake up feeling good: clear-headed, energetic, eager to learn, eager to think.  I may not be poised to break new scientific or artistic ground—I never was—but my thinking seems as good as ever.  Right?

It’s likely enough that I’m deceiving myself.  Supposedly my brain is in the midst of a long, steady decline.  The clues are obvious.  My capacity to retrieve names is abysmal.  Sometimes words escape me, at least for a while or until I fire up Google to trigger my retrieval system.  I say trigger because, as often as not, I remember the word or name before Google has rescued me.

Conversations with friends are filled with anecdotes about mental lapses.  Absentmindedness often heads the list.  You walk into a room at a determined pace only to find that you’ve forgotten why you’re there.  Then, as you leave, you generally remember.  It’s hard not to speculate about the meaning of the lapse, hard not to think that you’ve lost a mental step or three.  Any effort to ignore or minimize the lapses seems like denial.  And there are lots of people to remind you of this weakness, some with amusement and some with worried faces.

Conversations with peers are filled with both humor and empathy about our decline.   They provide a sense of relief in the sharing and a place to hide together.  But even the humor reinforces the narrative of decline.  The narrative is ever-present, popping up like some Skinnerian behavioral stimuli.  I am declining.  I am declining.  Eventually you believe it—or you yield to a stark reality, a better way to put it.

Our adult children notice the lapses, too.  Usually they are patient and sympathetic, as well-raised children should be.  But that’s a mixed blessing, since most of us both appreciate and resist their kindness.  Who wants them to focus on our weaknesses? I, for one, would prefer a keen focus on the stupendous and miraculous accomplishments and adventures that have marked my life.  I wouldn’t even mind an emphasis on my bold and romantic spirit, my heroic nature.  Instead, they take control of our narrative by telling our story through the sympathy in their eyes.

Beyond friends and family, there is the general culture.  You’d have to travel to Antarctica to escape the media-driven warnings about dementia.  If you don’t have it now, they say, it’s probably just around the corner.  Here are the signs.  Here is how you should eat, exercise, socialize to minimize dementia’s impending grip. It’s a plague and you are unlikely to escape—soon or eventually.

But, as I say, I feel mentally alert almost all the time.  What does that tell me?  For one thing, it tells me that I am an individual person, neither a trend nor a statistical marker.  My developmental course is my own.  The later in life that I am clear-headed, for example, the more likely I am to keep my senses for a long time.

Current research debunks the idea that our brains grow duller and less able to learn as we age.  For instance, the flexibility and growth potential of our minds (neuroplasticity)—our ability to learn and change–continues throughout our lives. This is accomplished by using different regions of the brain in old age.

Late in life, “unique new circuits and ways of thinking are produced using more connections to and from the advanced frontal lobes.”  By continuously using our brains in different ways, new neurons are created through new learning.  New connections and synapses keep on developing.  In addition, both sides of the brain are utilized, whereas only one is primarily used in the younger adult.  In other words, we literally create new ways of thinking through new brain structures.

OK. We have more and more sustained brain power than we have been led to think. But what about those lapses that are completely real?  Are there ways to compensate?  Yes.  Simply put, we need external reminders in our life to trigger what we know.

Research shows that “…when the hints come from the environment, the difference in memory vanishes.”  As a matter of fact,  “In tasks that rely on external information, elderly do better. They are better in such perception and learning. While reliance on external cues becomes a pattern in the elderly, this doesn’t mean they are impaired when they don’t have these cues. Using the environment saves brain energy as a strategy in old age.”

One of the main reasons that the aging brain continues to function well is that it changes in a fundamental way by recruiting other parts of the brain.  Unlike younger people, the elderly use both of their frontal lobes.  By Using both sides of the brain gives us greater resources and greater connectivity between all of the brains “modules.”  We then become better internal networkers, encouraging communication within the vast knowledge stores of our brains.

In other words, older people are much better at integrating their knowledge and mental abilities.  This gives us perspective, an ability to see the big picture.  Alert elderly people “understand many different patterns that appear in their sensory input—circumstances, ideas, and experiences. The older person’s superior ability to size up situations are then coupled with better social and emotional regulation–hallmarks of wisdom.”

The bottom line here is that I may not be deceiving myself too much.  America’s youth-oriented culture has created a kind of panic in the elderly and the soon-to-be elderly.  But Neurological evidence tells us that, for most of us, our brains keep renewing themselves.  They are, therefore, active, agile, and resourceful—and will be for years to come.  So why don’t we relax and enjoy the play of our minds?

When we think that we are clear-headed, we probably are.  All those neurons and synapses are clicking away, making sure of the continued neuroplasticity in our brains.  We don’t have to worry so much about the missing names and even the missing words because they are less of an omen than they are a simple condition that we can usually overcome by using environmental supports, like Google.  When we think we have lots of perspective to share, we probably do.

And, with these conclusions, I may find myself not only clear-headed in the morning but also in good spirits.

 

 

I roamed pretty freely in the popularized literature of brain research, but the best references I found and the ones from which I quote throughout my paper are:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-memory-and-thinking-ability-change-with-age

https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-aging-brain-affects-thinking

https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Know-Your-Brain

 

Reining in a Father’s Pride

Pride is strange.  The good side is obvious. With our children, for instance, our heart swells with love, admiration, belonging.  The bad side concerns ownership and a lack of humility. Who are we proud of?  Sometimes it’s ourselves, even when we say it’s about others.

A few months ago, my daughter, Jessie, invited me to join her on a trip to Florence and Rome, where she’d be giving some talks at international conferences on infant mental health, her specialty.  I have been a fan of my daughter for as long as she’s been alive and was being granted a place of honor during her march towards professional prominence.  Who wouldn’t be proud? …proud of her; proud that she trusts and enjoys me enough to share this part of her life.

What I liked best, though, was the opportunity to see her in her element.  Like other parents, I know Jessie, one to one.  I know her as a family member,—as a daughter, of course, and, through observation, as a mother and wife.  I would even say I know her as a friend.  I haven’t really known her as a professional, except at a distance, through reports and stories.  Yet she does spend 50 hours a week (I’m exaggerating downwardly here) at her work and it occupies a huge share of her mind, as well as her sense of self and fulfillment.  So there has been a missing piece.

There were 1,700 participants at the Ergife Palace Hotel in Rome, just about every one of them eagerly networking with colleagues and potential colleagues, catching up with old friends, whirling around in a wild and perpetual motion.  At the same time, I was invisible.  Of the hundred or so people to whom Jessie introduced me—“This is my Dad”—not a single person asked: “What do you do?”  Or, granting them the excuse that I looked old: “What did you do?”

But the invisibility provided me with an advantage: I could observe as an outsider; I could learn about my daughter without interjecting my own interests and, ordinarily strong—some might say, intrusive—personality.  As a result, I got a pretty good look at how Jessie spoke to audiences, how she worked a room, how she collaborated with colleagues, how she listened and learned.  Everyone seemed to like and respect her.

An easy admission: Before the trip, I was already a very proud father.  Jess had clearly grown into a highly competent, confident pro, working hard in the service of traumatized children, standing for values we shared.  So even if I struggled towards some kind of scientific objectivity in viewing Jess, I was bound to at least a little proud of her after sitting in on her world.

Sitting in the observer’s seat also gave me time to observe myself and to wonder:  What does it mean that I’m proud of my daughter?  Returning to where this essay began, there’s the good side of pride: Your heart swells.  The feeling is partly physical.  You feel enlarged.  Whatever you are observing has enhanced you, too.  And, of course, there’s something generous in being enhanced by the achievements of another.

But pride has connotations that cut the other way.  There is something narcissistic about it.  Sometimes we are proud of another because they make us feel good about ourselves.  Their achievements are partly our own.  We think that we have made our children into the people they are today.  In other words, we are, at least in part, proud of ourselves.  Not a terrible thing but maybe a little less generous than we might like.

There is something controlling about pride too.  The implication is that, at least partially, we own the success, the beauty, or the sweet personality of the people who make us proud.  If then, something in them changes, we might find ourselves embarrassed and even rejecting.  “That’s not us,” we might think.  “What made them stray?” In order to retain our pride, the other person might have to keep acting in a way that we approve.

And as many cultural and religious traditions tells us, pride touches on arrogance.  A proud person might well have an exaggerated sense of her own capabilities or act as though she were better than others.  In which case, the very act of pride is dangerous.  Thus the saying:  “Pride goeth before the fall.”  Why?  Because it reflects a self-centered attitude.

This said, I think that pride, in the best sense, is a good thing.  This kind of pride is beautifully portrayed in an article Michael Chabon wrote for GQ in 2016.  He had watched his son, Abe, grow into a teenager consumed by fashion, which confused and, in part, put his father off.  As a bar-mitzvah present, Chabon brought Abe to Men’s Fashion Week in Paris.  Instantly, Abe was in his element, gravitating to designers he idolized and attracting mature designers by his own stylish dress.  Chabon, the father, was soon bored with the shows but held on for his son.

As he prepared to leave, Abe resisted.  At first, Chabon, who would like to get home, was taken aback.  It’s not the fashions, themselves, that have provided such joy, Abe told him.  It’s the sense of being with people who ‘get’ him.  He loved being with the designers, who made him feel at home, totally engaged, affirmed.  The environment helped Abe to see himself clearly,  and, by the end of the week, Chabon saw his son clearly as well..simply and deeply. At a certain level, he’d just met Abe; and he was very proud of his son.

Chabon’s article helped me see Jessie more distinctly.  For a whole week, I watch her closely.  Sometimes I had the normal array of feelings: that I love her; that my early and regular endorsement—and occasional push—had supported her confidence and drive.

But the stronger feeling I had was how different she is from me.  How distinct, how separate.  To state the obvious, she is a researcher, who loves data and policy and changing the ways that programs interact with and support children and families.  She sometimes even deals in…RCT’s…randomized controlled trials, for those in the know.  During conference sessions, Jess was rapt when people discussed statistical measures and techniques, while my eyes glazed over, from lack of interest and total ignorance.  She thrives in building an international network of like-minded colleagues.  I’m more of a local guy.  I generally feel lost in conferences and reach my fill of people in small and large doses pretty quickly.  She’s at home with social media.  I’m a dinosaur who wished Facebook and Snapchat had never come to be.  Her laugh is hearty, mine restrained.  She’s funny; no one has ever accused me of being a comedian.  I like broad, sweeping ideas, common to philosophers and historians in the 19th century.  Jessie is more practical and deeply knowledgeable about her field, which is plenty broad itself..

One particular exchange was telling.  I mentioned that I had participated in a similar professional revolution, shifting clinical emphasis from children to whole families.  “I respect, even admire, what you and your colleagues did, Dad,” said Jessie, “but there might have been more flash than science.  No one in your day proved that their approach was effective.”  What can I say?  The truth is that I would have been impatient with the need for proof through what I would have considered boring research activities.

She wasn’t being harsh or confrontational.  Just stating her case and, for some reason, I didn’t take offense.  As the days passed and our differences were highlighted, my love and respect for this very distinct person began to supersede my feelings of pride.

As pride slipped away, a maturing sense of intimacy moved in.  I know this is a curious statement, so let me try to explain.  When you step aside, take yourself out of the equation, you begin to see that even this very close person is neither you nor not you—but her own self.  The conference experience was like being admitted to secret society, speaking an unfamiliar language. I observed her through her own eyes and through the many, varied eyes of colleagues.  I could see the 47-year old, mature, working woman. I could see the full mix of confidence and uncertainty, assertiveness and reticence.  The quirks, the intelligence, and the pure energy she gives off shone brightly.

Even as I write that sentence, I’m tempted to say (proudly) “And she’s my daughter.”  And I’d be incapable of distancing myself completely from that feeling.  But she’s not just my daughter, which is what permits me to know her and love her as she is.

Our Adult Children: Celebrating the Arc of Their Lives

When my daughter was still a little girl, we would move through long periods of calm,  punctuated by cycles of comfort and struggle.  It’s hard to say what set off the struggles.  Some might say that Jessie was disobedient or that she disappointed me—by not trying hard in school, for instance, or refusing to do her chores.  Then I’d criticize and she’d push back.  Others might begin the sequence with “unnecessary” demands I’d make.  No matter where the tiffs began, the cycles of misbehavior and correction, rejection and recrimination followed with dull and disheartening regularity.

At a certain point, I realized that something else was at work.  Jessie didn’t seem to be growing up “exactly” as I wanted her to.  Eventually, I understood that I was interpreting her actions in terms of being-as-I-prescribed—being me—or not being me.  This is a very common form of parental narcissism that blots out the obvious: Often, she was just being herself.

When that realization dawned, I saw my daughter very differently, as a separate person, with a personality and trajectory of her own.  Not that she was in charge of everything.  I retained rules for her and I protected her, but I also grew curious: Who is this child of mine?  This whole little person?  Once my curiosity and respect were aroused, I grew less controlling, Jessie felt the freedom, and whatever fight we were having at the moment dissolved.  Distance yielded once again to closeness and love—and a protection, not of who I wanted her to be but of who she was.

Psychologists might say that we both matured through a form of differentiation.  For many years, I thought it was I who managed the process but I have come to think that Jessie and I did that together.  Her stubborn refusal to be another me—I don’t think she yet knew who a distinctive her would be—was as crucial as my realization and backing off.

My journey with my son brought that point home.  In adolescence, he wrenched himself free, touted his independence, insisted that he both knew what he was doing and, most tellingly, maintained that he was well.  He wanted to be the person who judged him well or ill.  We all know that 15-year-old boys don’t know everything—their brains aren’t fully formed, for god’s sake—and can’t be completely in charge of their lives.  We set limits, maintained rules even when they became mutually understood fictions, hoping that they would somehow guide him in the present and eventually be internalized.  But in a deep sense, Gabe may have been right.  He would set the direction of his life, figure out what was important and how he wanted to be.

He has been utterly persistent in this belief.  Franny and I eventually yielded to it.  And, since I surely love and respect the outcome—he’s 39 now and, like Jessie, now 47, a person whom I love and respect—I have to believe that his ability to define himself has been a good thing.

I consider the recognition of my children as distinct and independent people as one of the most important achievements of my life.

But there is a second theme that runs through our relationship that is equally important and, at this point in my life, maybe more so.  I have wanted to see the arc of their lives, who they are and who they are becoming over a long period of time. The differentiation continues through the years and I want to witness how my children keep evolving.

My father died at 50 when I was 26.  We never really knew one another as adults, man to man.  I was very much a work in progress and, while we were extremely close during my childhood and well into adolescence, we grew more distant after that.  I suppose I’m not just talking about knowing one another in the sense of having a close relationship, though.  I’m talking about being known, about feeling that an important person has born witness to my life, knows me as separate person—and affirms me.

To an extent, we internalize this feeling of being known.  Most of us can say, “My father would have liked that, disapproved of this, laughed, if he were around, at that episode.”  This sense of presence through the years is critical for our well being.  My father gave this to me and, I hope, I have given it to my children.

But bearing witness to the lives of our children over a long period of time, as they move well into adulthood and parenthood, and through professional achievements of their own—that is something else, something more concrete, an experience for parents and children almost as important as all that internalized parenting that we provide.

My mother knew me as an adult, as I knew her.  She died at 87, when I was 64.  We talked regularly, shared at deep levels, laughed together, vented about political triumphs and disappointments, even shared some friends.  This was one of the great pleasures in my life.  Even the uncomfortable times:  when she married again—without  my “approval.” And when she attended a lecture I gave in Washington, DC, and she embarrassed me by proclaiming, amidst a number of people who had admired my talk, “I didn’t know you were funny.”

My mother witnessed the person I had become, not just my early promise and her own hopes.  Often she resisted my successes because they somehow suggested that I had inherited more from her than she could acknowledge in herself.  “Don’t get a fat head, Barry,” she would say.  “You’re not that good.”  By which she mostly meant that she wasn’t that good.  We joked about this and I like to think that witnessing my life raised her own self-assessment at least a little. Most of all, we reached a point where we knew one another and, to the end of her life, could still discover things about one another.  Our relationship was never entirely dulled by the ritual knowing that many relationships fall into.  I believe that we continued to surprise one another.

Being known by her, being appreciated by her, have been invaluable to my sense of solidity in the world.  But I’m a father and it’s my father’s inability to bear witness on my adult life that I’ve missed.  And it’s my capacity to bear witness to my children’s life that means so much to me.  To have what he could not have, to give this to myself and to my children.  This is what I mean by seeing the arc of their lives.

I’m pretty sure my adult children know my love and respect—even though they no longer depend on it in concrete ways.  They live their own, very full lives.  Day to day, I am a footnote to their children, work, and even friends.  Certainly the current version of me is a footnote, not nearly as strong as the historical version that lives within them.  Nor, of course, do they figure as much into my day to day life.  Often enough but not nearly as often as when they were children, they move me in that primitive, powerful way that our children touch the deepest corners of our hearts.

We are close, my children and I.  We talk and laugh and share many values.  This, along with my marriage, is life’s greatest gift to me.  And my continuing ability to observe—and participate in—the arc of their lives continues to nourish me.

I’ve seen them, known them, for a long time, watched them move through stages in their own lives—childhood, youth, early adulthood, marriage, parenthood, professional development, owning their own homes, having and sustaining friendships.  With each new stage, their story seems more and more distinctive.  I’ve seen them struggle and I’ve seen them solve problems.  Just like I did.  Just like Franny and I did and do.  In other words, I see them as I see myself and my friends.  As whole people with complex lives of their own.

I watch them now with appreciation and curiosity, wondering what’s next. I watch their children, too, with so many years ahead of them.  The span of years, hundreds of years, from my grandparents through to my grandchildren, amazes me. It is almost too many to contemplate. But I do and I will.

He’s 80, She’s 70: Notes on Aging as Couples

I find myself saddened and a little frightened by the struggles of older couples where the woman is considerably younger and the man begins to age badly.  The age difference, for decades, no problem at all, emerges powerfully when he has a stroke, a heart attack, cancer—or a series of assaults on his health; and she finds herself cast more and more in the role of caretaker, having to put aside her own needs and desires and the optimistic life trajectory that she had imagined.  As he struggles with physical and mental diminishment and she with the narrowing of life, it can be hard to hold fast to the love and friendship they had shared.

Franny and I, eight years apart, watch this drama with trepidation.  We have friends who are in their late seventies and eighties.  We are in our sixties and seventies.  It’s hard not to imagine their struggles as our fate.  Franny tells me that she has begun sharing a kind of anticipatory anxiety with friends.  She’s way ahead of me.  I’ve just begun to let in the possibilities.  The crisis may be a ways off but the fears are now present.

What do we see in our older friends?  In the worst case, there’s the physical labor of bathing her husband, helping him stand and walk, the same work that challenges the strength and stamina of young nurses.  There’s the effort to organize helpers and dealing with finances which, having often rested with the men, seem intimidating.  There’s shlepping almost every day to doctor’s appointments and hospitals—and the lengthy stays at the hospitals when things go badly.  These are times of fear and boredom and growing resentment.  “This is how I’ll spend my old age?,” the women intone, either out loud or in private to their female friends.  “Would you do this for me?” one female friend said to her husband.  “No, I don’t think so,” she answered for him.  She is not unique; her pessimism is shared by many others.

The emotional exhaustion may even supersede the physical while the caretakers try to hold hope and generosity in the forefront.  Even as the women work in their selfless ways, they fall prey to self criticism when generosity and even love fails, even for a moment.  Finally, there’s the desire for all of this to be done, even when she knows the meaning of being done: the horror of wishing a loved one would hurry his dying.  Which brings on more self-criticism and drowns out the possibility of grief.

For the men who are ill or failing, there’s the pain and disability, itself, but the psychological trauma is almost as upsetting.  First among the trauma is probably the dependence and the indignities that follow disability: how people talk down to you and around you; the inability to do simple tasks like buttoning the collar of your shirt; the incontinence. Even as the men ask for help, they hate it.

With time, passivity can set in.  At first, yielding to their neediness can be a relief to the men. But it also feels damning, as though they are relinquishing their souls.  Self loathing and panic may follow. In that mood, they may become moody, quarrelsome, hard to please.  They withdraw, become isolated, possibly despairing.   Death looms just over the horizon.

Observing this bleak scene scares the hell out of both younger women and men. There is a sense of foreboding.  For women in their sixties or early seventies, looking at their future is like gazing through the reverse side of a telescope and seeing the diminishment of their lives.  For the men in their mid to late seventies, averting their gaze is easier than facing a potentially harsh future. As many of my friends say, “Who’s old?”

Many of these anticipations seem to be hidden from one another or contained in discussions of finances, wills, and formalities that at least seem to have answers.  But lately the ability of these discussions to deflect a clear-eyed view of the future has waned.  I know that Franny has been thinking ruefully about the future.  And she tells me that she’s had conversations with numbers of friend who also have older husbands.  To my surprise, the air is abuzz with the talk; and I hate it.

Still, the women need to speak.  They need this gathering of information and commiseration.  They need the companionship now and the promise of later support.  Men do, too, but we are slow to act. =

Though these conversations speak mainly to the future, and though they are good preparation, they can also be dangerous by coloring the way that men and women see one another.  Here I want to be careful.  People generally look for first causes: the problems begin with male decline; no, they begin with female reactivity.  Rather, I want to portray an interactive process in which it doesn’t matter where you begin.  In that spirit, here’s what may constitute an early stage in a typical, downward spiral.

  • Let’s say that he has become more forgetful and doesn’t take care of practical matters like paying bills or turning off the oven as crisply or reliably as he once did.
  • This makes her nervous, raising questions of safety and security. She says so.
  • His pride is hurt.  He own fears have been articulated.  He gets defensive.
  • She feels unheard, grows more nervous and criticizes.
  • He explodes or distances himself or both.

Even when men are still mostly healthy, women have grown alert to decline—or, possibly, hyper-alert to decline.  In their desire to be equal parts helpful and self-protective, the women may overreact.  They may see decline where it isn’t.  They may treat their men as if the decline is already upon them.  Feeling respect slipping away, men try to make the women’s concerns illegitimate, neurotic.  He grows reactive. This is a fight that divides the couple and they have to call on all their resources to bridge the gaps.

Now here’s how the difficulties may play out in their later stages:

  • The more he declines, the more she worries
  • The more the she worries and articulates her concerns, the more he worries that his wife is right—and begins to hide.  When emotional distance has been the norm, this may exacerbates an old struggle about their lack of intimacy.
  • When he hides and grow fearful, himself, she believes she is being asked to maintain a lie, as though things are as they had been.  In this awkward, irritating, imprisoning, and fearful position, she, nonetheless, still also feels guilty.  “Why can’t I be more loving and accepting,” they ask.  When they can’t, do so all or even most of the time…
  • He feels demeaned, as though his status in the marriage—and in life, generally—has plunged.  That saps his confidence, which, in turn, depletes his actual competence.  In that state his ability to support and love his wife shrinks.
  • Her fears are confirmed. She grows alternately compassionate and resentful, often as inconsistent as her man.
  • His fears are also confirmed…
  • And so it goes.

And so the downward spiral goes, taking on a life of its own and becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I’d like to think that many of us can step outside of this ghoulish prophesy.  I’d like to believe that awareness of its destructive potential will steer us in more collaborative and loving directions.  Why can’t we—men and women together–keep in mind all of the times and all the years when we have solved problems together, when we have moved through dark and dispiriting events and back into each other’s arms?  Throughout long marriages, we have lost and restored our friendships more than once.  Why can’t we discipline ourselves to keep respect and love in the forefront?

Maybe we can.  I believe we can.  That’s my purpose: to bring the threat to light, hoping it provides fuel to our ability to overcome it.  You’ll have to tell me if it has helped you.

 

 

A Bathing Beauty Contest for Men

It’s clear that women will continue to pursue the fight against inequality, harassment, and abuse, but it’s not yet clear that men will do their part in transforming gender relationships.  Many of us are readily convinced by the moral argument for equality.  Many comply with formal and informal rules of engagement that have been built slowly and with constant effort and struggle, over the last half century. Some of us even thrill to the feminist march towards freedom.

But mostly men’s sympathies don’t go deep enough.  Beneath the surface, there remains a wish to distance ourselves, a powerful urge to resist and even a rage that we have been put upon.  Take, for instance, the demonization of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi by many of the most liberal men.  Implicitly, the same tendency to demonize is played out in countless households.  When pushed about their hostility to Clinton and Pelosi, men say it’s a generational thing—time for new leadership.   There’s some truth to that claim, but there’s another truth: It is hard for the men to admit or even to have access to how threatened and, subsequently, how furious we are with declining power in our homes, our workplaces, the political arena, and anywhere else that women lay claim to the legitimacy of their positions.

I believe that men need to dig deeper into the psychological foundation of their resistance in order to learn about and acknowledge their more primal fears.  It is only then that we will be able to turn around our own gender politics in the profound and trustworthy way that is necessary for cultural transformation.

There are moments when men do reach that deeper awareness.  Here’s a story about such a time.  As you’ll see, the story hinges on a male bathing beauty contest, which may seem to trivialize such important issues but, because it speaks to the archetypal way that men trivialize women, may bring home the message very clearly.

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The year is 1971.  The story begins with an Alternate Lifestyle Workshop that I had helped organize at a retreat center on Cape Cod.  In those days, many people thought to challenge the primacy the nuclear family which, among other things, held women in their traditional place. It also isolated children with just two adults.. More loving adults would make children more secure and free them from having to fulfill the stifling demands of overly concerned parents. These ‘pioneers’ built communes, formed extended families, nurtured networks of like-minded but unrelated people to share money, shelter, and the responsibilities of child rearing.

The first day was planned as a fair of sorts.  Each of the alternative lifestyle groups had a booth and everyone at the workshop could walk around and ask: “What’s it like to live in something like that?” The discussions were animated, the laughter contagious.  People had come to party as much as to learn.

Not everyone was pleased, though.  As evening neared, three women approached me, looking very serious…or was it angry?  I thought I recognized the oldest of the three. –  Betty Friedan!  The second was Gloria Steinem.  I didn’t recognize the third woman.  Individually and collectively the women were way above my status in life; and I felt the whole Second Wave of feminism rolling in on me.

With little prelude, they said that the workshops were not addressing the most basic alternative life style: women gaining equal power, in families and elsewhere.  “No matter how you reconfigure men, women, and children in communes and the like, there remains a fundamental inequality,” said the third woman, who I think turned out to be Letty Pogrebin, one of the founders of MS Magazine.

Who could argue with their declaration?  Before I had time to contemplate their contention, they made a proposal, which sounded, to my 29 year old ears, a little like a demand.

“We would like to take over this evening’s activities.”

As they continued, I grew embarrassed.  We had neglected gender issues in the workshop design.  I didn’t share my embarrassment.  There was a matter of dignity to retain.  I simply tried to keep my cool and said:  “Sure.”  I also made an executive decision, not to even ask my boss if we could change our agenda.  Wasn’t that the manly thing to do?

“I suppose we’ve been more exotic than realistic,” I said, trying to join the spirit of their proposal.  “What do you have in mind?”

“Leave it to us,” said Betty, who seemed to be in charge.

“I’d appreciate knowing some of what you’re doing,” I countered.  I did have responsibilities, after all.

“Fair enough, “ Betty continued. “We’ll be conducting a series of role plays to help everyone understand the power of male dominance in our society.”

I worried that the image of dominance might seem extreme to workshop participants and make them uncomfortable. I was well acquainted with role play and psychodrama.  They were psychotherapy techniques that helped people release and redirect long suppressed feelings.  But this wasn’t a group therapy meeting and I worried that matters could get out of hand.  Since my boss was nowhere to be found, though, I mostly listened, and then complied.

“I’m with you” I said, trying to sound like a co-conspirator in this revolutionary moment.

After everyone gathered that evening, Betty, Gloria, and Letty walked to the center of the room—they had insisted that there was no need for me to introduce them—to describe the evening.  Instantly, the three women had everyone’s ear.  For a bunch of experimental people, it seemed to me that the participants were very passive.

They began by describing a broad feminist agenda – fair enough, and nothing that these progressive individuals hadn’t heard before,  It was also mercifully brief.  Then they announced that they would be facilitating a series of activities that, in small ways, promoted that agenda, and launched into their program.  The first activity was an old fashioned Sadie Hawkins dance.  That was fun and made no one very nervous. Indeed, many women, and men too, seemed delighted by what some later said reminded them of elementary school.

The second exercise intensified matters.  The crowd was divided into groups of five for discussion of several key topics.  In each group, a woman was put in charge of leading the conversation, following prompts on note cards that had been distributed to her. The men were instructed simply to fall in with their group leaders’ “program” — no questions asked. The themes under discussion were framed as a series of questions, each of which proposed solutions to the longstanding dominance of men in all aspects of life: What if only women were now allowed to managed household finances?  What if women were responsible for initiating sex? What if, for the next 25 years, only women were allowed to run for political office? The discussion that followed produced some, but no unbearable, friction and some timid objections from the men.  I could sense the tension rising in the room, but we were still operating on a rational level and the feelings were manageable.

The next exercise had women lead the men through a series of callisthenic exercises.  “Do this!”  “Do that!”  “Jump!”  “Fall down!”  This activity went on for a while.  The idea was for men to experience grinding, repetitive powerlessness.  Discussion followed as the atmosphere heated up.

The final exercise was a male bathing beauty contest. The women in charge began by building a platform on which they would stand.  They wanted to be high above the male contestants.  Then they ordered the men to strip down to their underwear.  “Yes, everything but that one item off!”  At this point, all but a few of the men hesitated.  Some initially refused and stepped to the side, saying they hadn’t agreed to this when they had signed up for the retreat.  It seemed exploitative.  They didn’t like being pushed around.  Others slinked off; these guys were quiet and slightly embarrassed, disappearing into themselves. But in the end, all the men complied, many expressing to me later that it would have been even more cowardly to refuse.

I too considered staying out; I told myself that as one of the retreat organizers, I should. You never knew when my services—and a level head—might be required.  I didn’t announce this, I just stood to the side.  “Uh Uh,” said Gloria Steinem.  “Everyone participates.  You’re not exempt from social conditioning and you’re not exempt from learning.”  I couldn’t argue the point and joined in, despite my misgivings.

Each man was required to take the long walk from the beginning of the line towards and past the podium, where the women stood in judgment.  Some of their judgment was kind:  “Nice legs… good shoulders” and so forth.  Most of the comments were less kind.  “Ugh, what a hairy body… skinny ass… sunken chest… You need to get some exercise in… Is that the best you’ve got?”  Over time, the commentary grew cruder, louder, and more boisterous.  The women were having fun.  Each of us walked that long runway by ourselves.  We were lonely and frightened and angry—without a legitimate target for our anger.

The judges didn’t just hoot and holler.  They also rated each of us, from 10, which is the best, to 1, which is dismal.  As you might imagine, none of the men rated anything above about a 3, maybe a 4.  There were no passing grades.

That was hard.  But it was at least as hard when Betty Friedan announced that the men would have to talk openly about their feelings.  “What did it feel like to walk by us and be evaluated?  What did you think of your grades?  Do you know that this is how you treat us, more or less, every day?”  As we men spoke, the tone became more like confessing to crimes than confiding our insecurities.

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The workshop cracked the shell of civility.  That evening the men didn’t seem to need long lectures about inequality and its impact.  They felt it and, for a moment, they couldn’t run away. What they did with those lessons, I don’t know.  Time would tell and I’m sorry that I didn’t, with the perspective of time, have the opportunity to ask.

But now, more than 45 years later, I can distill a few lessons.  I think we could be alert to moments like this—they do arise—and take advantage of them. At such times, we can talk at a depth not always attainable in regular conversation.

In addition, we men can tell stories about times when the shell was broken and our feelings made available.  Maybe we can talk among small gatherings of just men, maybe we can dare to talk among men and women.  At such times, we can ask one another:  “How did you, how could you, how might you respond to these and other challenges to your manhood?” We can ask ourselves to skip our declarations of agreement and alliance with the feminist agenda.  What’s underneath the agreement?  How hard has it been to fall in with it, and how far do you still have to go to come to terms with it?  We need to speed our way.