The not-so-empty nest

Posted on August 20, 2014
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Come fall, I can’t resist the maternal impulse to shop for back-to-school supplies, even though it’s been a while since I’ve had a student at home.

My only child did exactly what most parents hope their kids will do: He grew up, earned a degree from the university of his choice, found a place of his own, and started a grown-up job soon after.

I’ll never forget the day his dad and I helped load his possessions into the back of his SUV, then followed him west across I-94. After unpacking his clothes and computer equipment, we waved a tearful good-bye in front of his new flat in Chicago and drove back to Detroit as official empty nesters.

Today, five years later, we still reminisce about our early years of parenthood and marvel at how quickly they flew.


Even so, our empty nest transition wasn’t nearly as wrenching as so many magazine articles had led us to believe.

Just as menopause isn’t a disease to cure, the empty nest isn’t a syndrome to overcome. Sending children to college, helping them move to their first apartments, and watching them exchange wedding vows are natural rites of midlife passage.

Better yet, many of my Boomer friends are happily redesigning their lives after raising families. One is booking exotic cruise trips with her husband; another started violin lessons. Others are busy refueling stalled careers and sluggish relationships.

 Rolling with the changes

So maybe we need a better term to describe our empty nest years?

“A word signifying a void or a vacuum is an unfair way to describe a time when life can be full of growth possibilities,” note Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt in The Launching Years (Three Rivers Press). The authors also remind us that young adults fare better on their own when they know their folks are adjusting to the changes, too.

In other words, helicopter parenting doesn’t benefit anyone. Letting go means allowing our kids to score their own victories and learn from their own mistakes — without our hovering.

Still, it’s normal to grieve the loss of your old parenting role. And there’s no shame in admitting you’ve got an achy little tug on your heart when you first unload your grocery cart and notice you’re buying half as much ice cream as you did when the kids were home. When that happens, indulge yourself (like I did) in a private meltdown in the car. Or adopt another pet (like I did) from the local shelter.

But don’t make your child feel guilty for leaving you with an empty bedroom to redecorate. Let her know you’re proud of her independence – and celebrate the life you are crafting outside the boundaries of parenthood.

“There’s a trick to the Graceful Exit,” wrote syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman in her farewell piece. “It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving on rather than moving out.”

Even if your kids have flown the nest – and even if you don’t have grandkids — treat yourself to some new school supplies this fall. Grab a fresh notebook and a set of pens in every color. Start taking notes on everything you want to do with the rest of your life.

This column originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Michigan Prime. 

Zen and construction dust

Posted on August 18, 2014
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Like many flood victims in Oakland County, we’ll soon have a dumpster in our driveway and a construction crew in the basement. Watching our contractor haul rolls of soggy carpeting to the curb this morning, I recalled the following column, which I wrote in 2003. The full version is reprinted in Writing Home.

Zen and Remodeling

We are always in transition. If you can just relax with that, you’ll have no problem. – Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun

The construction crew hasn’t even started yet, but I’m already bracing myself for several weeks of chaos and plaster dust. Half of our clothes and most of our toiletries have been temporarily stashed in other regions of the house. With the exception of our master bedroom, in fact, everything upstairs is in a state of minor upheaval. I hate living like this.

It’s all in preparation for our next remodeling project, which includes new plumbing, tile, and fixtures for our circa 1926 bathroom, plus expanded closet space and a paint job for the spare bedroom. The crew is scheduled to begin this week, but that’s just what they tell me. Until I see trucks in the driveway, I know better than to count on anything. Being married to an architect and having survived several remodeling projects, I now have a grasp of what I call “building trade ethics.”

Even in the most professional situations, building trade ethics bear little resemblance to the Protestant work ethic. For starters, people in the building trades do not follow a nine-to-five schedule. These guys have their own system, and it’s up to you to figure out what that is.

They also speak a different language. For example, if the plumber who’s installing your new toilet says he’ll be back to finish at noon on Friday, it’s possible that he really means maybe sometime on a Friday next month.

With few exceptions, though, the results are worth it. If you love your old house as much as we love ours, you realize that a disrupted schedule is a small price to pay for the lifestyle improvements you’ll get eventually.

And if you really want to feel smug, you can tell yourself that your renovation project is also for posterity. Fixing up an old house is a gift to the community – which is why I cringe every time someone tears down a perfectly decent old home, only to replace it with a brand-new Big Foot palace. But that’s a topic for another time.

Right now, I’m trying to focus on the positive. Compared to one of our last projects – a kitchen makeover and a sun room that took nine months to complete — this next effort should be … less of an effort.

Still, every time our walls give way to a sledge hammer, I’m reminded that change is messy. More often than not, you must tear something apart and disrupt your routine to make things better. You can’t install a new shower, for instance, without uprooting the old one. You can’t hang new wallpaper over old wallpaper and expect to end up with a smooth, bubble-free finish. And you must never varnish a hardwood floor before sanding away its stained or splintered imperfections.

Likewise, you can’t sugarcoat the rigors of self-improvement.

Come January, everyone wants to be thinner, healthier, wiser, smoke-free, and less wrinkly. And we’d like to achieve these goals as quickly as possible, preferably with a single-dose pill that works while we’re asleep.

But self-improvement takes time and willpower, which is why some of us give up before we’ve hit the target. As every dieter knows, the “in between sizes” stage – the first plateau — is the trickiest. The process is ongoing, arduous, and more than an act of faith.

My dear old house is also a work in progress. It has taught me how to be patient and how to make sense of the chaos that precedes any kind of transformation. With a little luck, I think we can survive another month of plaster dust together.

So, bring on the building crew. Whenever.

Loving the skin we’re in

Posted on August 11, 2014
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heartAmericans are hard on aging women. If fashion and beauty editors aren’t ignoring us, they’re constantly reminding us that we need lifting or correcting. In my August column for Michigan Prime, I share some thoughts on how I’ve learned to embrace my changing body image and to seek out role models who demonstrate healthy aging. The print edition was delivered August 10 with the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press, or you can click here to read the column online.

Artwork by Cindy La Ferle

Who wins the wrinkle wars?

Posted on July 30, 2014
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BEAUTYThe old proverb, “Beauty is as beauty does,” assumes a whole new meaning for women of a certain age. 

Apparently, we’ve got a lot of work to do. Pick up any women’s magazine and you’ll notice the terms “anti-aging” and “age-defying” are used to market products to girls who’ve barely graduated from high school. In television ads, surgically altered actresses tout the wonders of lifting serums and other “miracle” creams.

We get the message: Aging is shameful and must be fought at any cost.  She who looks youngest wins.

The anti-aging movement has spawned a new crop of books addressing the “surgery vs. product” faceoff.

“Both the subliminal and obvious messages of the beauty trap are designed to make you dissatisfied with your looks — and to make you go to great lengths and expense to change them,” notes celebrity dermatologist Dr. Harold Lancer in Younger: The Breakthrough Anti-Aging Method for Radiant Skin (Grand Central; $27).  “That being said, there is nothing wrong with wanting to improve your appearance.”

Lancer advises women to focus first on skincare and nutrition, reserving dermal fillers or cosmetic surgery as a last resort.

French mystique

Years ago, I swore I’d never waste a minute worrying about under-eye bags or any other flesh that was starting to head south.  I promised to age gracefully; to make peace with the inevitable march of time and the pull of gravity.

I was kidding myself. Today, my medicine cabinet proves I’ve become another foot soldier in the war on wrinkles. Armed with an arsenal of products, I’m constantly battling the encroaching lines on my face.

Of course, expensive creams are easier to justify than cosmetic surgery. While fillers and facelifts have gone mainstream, there’s still a feminist stigma attached to “getting work done” — especially if you end up looking like an homage to Joan Rivers.

“Cosmetic surgery all over the world is becoming almost a religion, and many people worship at the doctor’s office till they are stretched like a too-tight blouse and bear frozen smiles,” writes Mireille Guiliano in her new book, French Women Don’t Get Facelifts (Grand Central; $25).

Guiliano reminds us that mature women are still considered sexy in France – and that cosmetic surgery isn’t as popular there as it is in America. French women might “partake in a little Botox or another filler,” Giuliano reports. But for the most part, she says, they rely on good skincare and cleverly tied scarves to enhance their seasoned beauty.

A second look

Sadly, miracle creams really don’t work miracles. This morning I caught a glimpse of my tired reflection in the bathroom mirror, and for a moment I considered booking my first Botox treatment. Then I felt guilty for being so hard on myself.

Yes, there’s more work to be done.

For starters, we all need to stop judging the cosmetic choices of other women. At the same time, I believe each of us should choose carefully, whether we opt for a facelift or fillers, or simply settle for an attitude adjustment.  And short of moving to France, we must keep challenging our own culture’s ambivalent views on aging.

As Dr. Lancer notes in Younger, “True beauty is being the best you can be in all aspects of your life.” Beauty is as beauty does.

 Original artwork by Cindy La Ferle; collage with borrowed detail from Botticelli’s Primavera.

As I turn 60

Posted on July 19, 2014
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-4I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that several of my friends turned 60 last year. 

At birthday parties large and small, they raised their glasses to six eventful decades. Some recalled pivotal moments and milestones of our youth: Kennedy’s assassination … the Beatles’ American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show… Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Others joked about wrinkles and hair loss, yet also expressed sincere gratitude for the hard-won gifts of maturity.

Even harder to digest is the fact that I will turn 60 next month. For starters, I don’t feel much different than I did when I turned 30. Aside from the lower back pain that underscores a long day of gardening, I’d have to say I’m in better shape — physically and emotionally — than I was 12 years ago following bilateral hip replacement surgery.

Regardless, like Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings, I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned from past mistakes while mapping a nebulous future. I’m reconsidering what it means to grow up and grow old. Ready or not, I’ve arrived at the doorstep of seniority.

Wearing it well

Along the way it occurs to me that ageism isn’t going away without a fight. At 60, we’re more likely to see our peers represented in Viagra commercials than cast as romantic leads in a TV series. Fashion editors overlook us. Teenagers dismiss us. And even if we manage to keep pace with technological changes, we still work twice as hard to stay visible in our professions. Sixty is the new old.

Yet we’ve earned some real advantages too. We’ve achieved goals and survived crises we couldn’t have imagined in our twenties. Our bank of experience is so much richer now.

“One of the useful things about age is realizing that conventional wisdom is often inertia with a candy coating of conformity,” writes Anna Quindlen in her midlife memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House).

My 60-year-old friends would agree. Conducting an informal poll, I asked a dozen older folks I admire to list the biggest perks or benefits of maturing. Not surprisingly, I got several versions of the phrase: “I’ve stopped caring what other people think of me.”

For instance, a woman who’d been fretting over dressing appropriately for her age said she finally decided to ignore the fashion police and wear what she loves. Her purple nail polish and cowboy boots wouldn’t work on just anyone — regardless of age — but isn’t that the charm of authentic, original style? I admire how my friend’s wardrobe matches her damn-the-torpedoes attitude. She isn’t wearing her age the way my grandmother did.

Likewise, I was impressed at how many 60-year-olds said they don’t lie about their age. They own it. After all, fibbing about something as fundamental as your birth year only makes you appear vain or deceitful, not younger. The absolute-coolest human beings I know have stopped trying to hide who they are.

Taking no prisoners

Age seems to have blurred our stubborn edges, too. Or maybe it’s just that we’re tired of playing small. By the time we hit 60, we’ve endured enough heartache and buried enough loved ones to know that nursing crusty old grudges (or regrets) is a waste of precious time.

Maturity enables us to accept apologies and admit when we’ve been wrong or controlling or foolish. Maturity is expansive. It teaches us that forgiving others — and ourselves — clears the path to inner peace. We can’t be right all the time, just as surely as we can’t please everyone.

That said, we’ve earned enough self-respect to realize we don’t have to endure abuse, neglect, duplicity, rudeness, and other “less than” treatment from friends, family, or business associates. We’ve discovered, as Ann Landers once pointed out, that nobody can take advantage of us without our permission.

We’ve learned that every strong relationship is a gift and a privilege — and should be treated as such. We know that real grown-ups look for opportunities to reciprocate a favor or pay it forward. We know that good fortune — in our careers and in our relationships — doesn’t go half as far as sheer effort, and that taking anything wonderful for granted is the first step toward losing it.

Watching my fifties vanish in the rear-view mirror, I’m still struggling with what it means to age “gracefully.” One pal tells me it’s a matter of knowing when to quit, but that sounds like another euphemism for giving up. It’s too passive. Then again, unless you’re Mick Jagger or Tina Turner, it’s probably wise to have at least one alternative career plan. The way I see it, as long as you’re sincerely committed to the passion that fires you up in the morning, whether you’re talking animal rights or landscape design, well, it’s all up for grabs.

My 60-year-old pals and I are just gearing up for the next part of this crazy ride. So far, it looks like we’re seizing the next decade with moxie — and grace has taken a back seat. I’m actually looking forward to this.

This is a revised version of a shorter essay originally published in the January 2014 issue of Michigan Prime. The top photo of Doug and me (at a Boys & Girls Club fundraiser last year) was taken by our old buddy, John Schultz.  

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