Saturday, October 14, 2017

You don't see my addiction, but it defines me nonetheless.

I've never been a huge Oprah fan. I respect her success, certainly -- she's obviously talented and goal-oriented and all kinds of things one should aspire to be. But the "YOU get a car and YOU get a car and YOU get a car" stuff is cloying. I don't know why. She's just always seemed a little too much.

Until recently. I saw an ad in which Oprah, famous in small part for her weight struggles, was talking about the ways being on the Weight Watchers plan has changed her life. Mainly, she said, it allowed her to be in control of her eating. And as she elaborated, I thought, well, Oprah, maybe we have more in common than I'd assumed. It was clear as she talked of her challenges that the same The same monkey -- addiction -- is on each of our backs.

(A side note here: I'm a Weight Watchers member, but this post isn't about that. Weight Watchers isn't an MLM thing, for starters -- I don't profit in any way from endorsing it. It's worked for me, but I'm all for whatever makes and keeps anyone healthy.)

Food addiction is truly a thing -- as much a thing as is addiction to alcohol or Oxycontin or sex or anything else that provides immediate gratification so intense that it's difficult to see beyond the high. It's weirder in some ways, though, because it can hide in plain sight. If you're addicted to alcohol, chances are you're not going to allow yourself to get drunk at a work lunch. Me? I've been known to be elbow-deep into the contents of the bread basket five minutes into the conversation, becoming "inebriated" right before my co-workers' eyes.

My food addiction, when I'm not actively addressing it, looks like this. I wake, and immediately my thoughts turn to what I'll eat for breakfast. If I'm in the middle of a binge cycle, chances are I ended the previous day with something sugary, usually eaten in secret -- Pop-Tarts or a bunch of Jif straight out of the jar. Or maybe I binged in the middle of the night. So, like a lab rat who's become accustomed to pressing the sugar-water lever, I'm out the door and on my way to the convenience store. My bounty? Carbs and sugar. A biscuit, maybe, with cheese and egg. Some chips. A Clif bar for now, and maybe one for later.

I settle in at work, and by mid-morning, the second Clif bar is gone and I'm wondering what I can score for lunch. When I'm managing my addiction, I pack my food at night and pre-track my nourishment for the day. But when I'm in a binge cycle, I don't begin to pack anything; if I were to do that, how could I justify grabbing a couple of pizza slices or a giant burrito? After lunch, I obsess over what I can eat later in the afternoon, when my sugar cravings seem to be the worst. Dinner? That's at least two to three helpings of whatever, the more carb-laden the better. And on and on.

I have a wonderful job that I enjoy, a loving and supportive husband and children, and an abundance of material goods. Everyone I love is healthy, and for that, my life is charmed. But as any addict knows, sensibilities and gratitude fly out the window when you're using -- bingeing, in my case. When I'm not controlling my food issues, food is absolutely controlling me. It's demoralizing and exhausting.

Any accomplishments of which I'd normally be proud pale in the harsh light of the refrigerator's open door. When I'm bingeing, I hate myself.

What causes food addiction? Theories are mixed as to its origin; chances are it's a combination of biology and environment. People who suffer early and profound losses often repress pain, then use different behaviors or substances to stuff it down when it starts to surface. In my family -- and please understand I am NOT blaming anyone in my life for my behaviors -- food was medicine. Food was comfort and recreation and reward. That's not unusual, but the way some of us process and respond to that appears to be out of the ordinary; I'm really the only person in my family of origin who has a weight problem.

Addicts often deal with accompanying issues as well; I'm not sure I believe the "addictive personality" theory, as I've never had an interest in other substances or chemicals, but I do live with the "obsessive" side of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I manage it pretty well, and, like many people afflicted with it, I've figured out how to use it to my advantage; often, people with OCD are perfectionists who strive to be high achievers. But it does feed (no pun intended) into my tendency to hyper-focus on what I'm eating, or not eating.

Other things can become part of the addiction mix, too -- in the story "Craving an Ice-Cream Fix" in the September 20, 2012, New York Times, Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, notes that the human body is biologically adapted to deal with foods found in nature, not those that are processed.

"We don't abuse lettuce, turnips, and oranges," Dr. Brownell says. "But when a highly processed food is eaten, the body may go haywire. Nobody abuses corn as far as I know, but when you process that corn into Cheetos, what happens?"

What happened to me was this: After years of alternating bingeing with leveling off, I found myself, at 49, weighing 216 pounds on a 5'5" frame. My cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure were high. Walking up a flight of stairs taxed my lungs. I couldn't wear shorts because my legs rubbed together and chafed. I had heart palpitations and sore joints. I'd already had both knees replaced, but my weight likely would cause the prosthetics to fail sooner rather than later.

I was professionally accomplished -- but the self-hate was nearly unbearable. My children had reached adulthood, and I knew that unless I took control, I likely wouldn't be around to be part of their children's lives. I was tired of being defined by the way I looked, and by what I wasn't able to do. My doctor recommended Weight Watchers, and I committed.

As anyone who deals with addiction knows, though, the story didn't end there. Several months ago, I eased up on my program, then eased up some more, then stopped attending meetings altogether. As a result, I gained back a third of the weight I'd lost. Three weeks ago, I took control again, and my behaviors are back in check -- for now, anyway. I'm not "cured," and I take this day-by-day.

As a society, we're woefully ignorant about food addiction. As evolved as we are, we still see overweight people as lazy and undisciplined. Overcoming addiction takes discipline, to be sure. But just as an alcoholic may process alcohol differently from the way someone without a drinking problem may process it, food addicts eat and react to eating differently. And we know how others regard us, and that stress may manifest itself as a desire to eat an entire cheesecake while hiding in the pantry or -- my personal favorite -- driving.

And conversely, people around us can also behave in less-than-constructive ways when we're trying to get the addiction in check. We're accused of "dieting to get attention," for example. Of wanting to be thin because we're vain. Of being obsessed with eating healthily. (And that last one may be true -- but hyper-focus is necessary when a person is trying to make a huge lifestyle change.) People sometimes say snarky things about my being "selfish" in refusing to skip my Weight Watchers meetings, or for spending time at the gym. But just as therapy can make a difference, doctors tell us exercise can help "rewire" the brain in a way that can help us manage addiction.

When a drug or nicotine addict or alcoholic decides to seek treatment, those around him or her are usually supportive. Few people urge "just one drink" or "just one cigarette." But I can't tell you how many well-meaning people in my life still say such ridiculous-to-me things as, "Just have one cookie." "Just have one helping." Or -- my personal favorite -- "Just eat less." Oh, OK. Thanks.

If you love someone who's dealing with food addiction, don't say those things. Listen and offer support, but don't offer advice unless you've been there. Most importantly, don't judge. Recognize and and affirm that losing weight and keeping it off is challenging, and feel free to encourage. Most importantly, as in all things, just be kind, and understand that in the wrong hands, that bread basket on your dinner table can be just as destructive as a stiff drink on someone else's.

And if you're struggling with food addiction, read about it. Learn to stop blaming and hating yourself. Recognize what's happening, and talk to someone. Know you're by no means alone. And consider, when you're ready, finding a way to take control.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Self-confidence vs. the kickball field: Does that little voice ever really leave us?

Self-esteem is a funny thing. You think yours is in good shape, and then something floors you and you realize you still need to do some work.

I was at the gym tonight, trusting my trainer as he added weight to the bar on the rack in front of me. He'd slide plates on, clip them, unclip them, slide them off, and replace them with heavier ones. We'd talk a bit as I rested, and then I'd duck under the bar, settle it on my shoulders, and lift whatever he'd served up for me.

And I'd sit down and stand up, over and over, with the bar on my back. And then I'd put it down and swing a really heavy (to me) kettle bell 20 times, and then we'd repeat the cycle.

And in the midst of conversation, he said, "You know, if you trained for another year or so, you could totally compete."

And my first thought, despite the degree to which I like to think I've evolved, was, "What? I'm not athletic. And I'm too old."

And then: "I've gained some weight back. I'm too heavy to do this. If this fat weren't slowing me down, well, then, maybe. Really, though -- no way."

But like a shy little girl, I responded, "Really? You think I could do that?"

"Sure," he replied. "You're strong and you're competitive. And you have a great work ethic. You have a ways to go, and I'd need to look up what's going on and when, but, yeah. You could totally do it."

We have a history, my body and I. It's been sick and it's been healthy. It spent a lot of years carrying too much weight for its heart to handle, and then it spent a little while -- thanks to the physiological and emotional support of Weight Watchers -- pleasantly and healthily lean.

And then it became addicted to the leanness, which then became thinness, and then undernourishment as I obsessed over every calorie I put in my mouth. (Example: I wouldn't swallow a vitamin unless I could look it up and determine its calorie content.)

This body has forever sought to find its equilibrium. And a few months ago, as I found myself agonizing over every morsel, I thought, enough. I was just tired of it all. And I joined a class at the gym and decided I'd try to shift my focus from the size of my body to the strength of my body.

And I found I liked lifting heavy things. Running has always appealed to me, but I run a certain distance and then I stop; I can't seem to motivate myself past a certain point. Strength training, though, seemed to be different. I watched as my form improved. I recognized in the mirror the dancer's body I hadn't seen since I was 18; the lean shoulders. The strong legs. A body too stocky to have developed into a ballerina's body, to be sure, but sturdy and capable in its movements.

I developed definition in my biceps. My balance began to improve. My pesky, weaker left quadriceps muscle began to respond. And, lo and behold, I began to want to fuel this new body with the food it needed -- not withhold from it, but feed it good food. Not punish myself for being hungry, but listen and respond appropriately when my stomach growled.

I felt a connection with the trainer teaching the class; smart and kind, he reminded me somewhat of my son. He was knowledgeable and committed and knew how to push me to do just enough, but not too much. So when the gym offered a great personal-training deal, I signed up.

And that takes me to tonight. And Grant, whom I believe and trust, was telling me I could possibly do this amazing thing, and after the doubt passed, I thought: "Yes. Just say 'yes.' Pretend you're encouraging your children, who you know are capable of tackling any challenge. Don't worry about the potential for failure. Set a goal, and commit to working toward it."

I'm a capable mother, a capable employee, a capable friend. I'm confident in my talents and in my ability to contribute to all facets of life in which I'm involved. I love building others up, mentoring them, helping to develop their skills and their confidence. And yet sometimes when I look inward -- all too often when I look inward -- I see the girl who was awkward and shy and chosen last for kickball. I feel her sense of being "less than." And I hear the voice that says, "You can't."

But tonight reinforced that indeed I can. I can lift heavy weights -- not above my head, but on my shoulders. And much more importantly, I can share the weight of my own challenges, my own frailties. I can let go of the need for perfection and be proud of myself for trying so hard to be healthy.

"You alone are enough," Maya Angelou wrote. "You have nothing to prove to anybody." I can remind my children of that. Someday, God willing, I'll sit on the front porch with my grandson and remind him of that.

And tomorrow, I'll hoist that bar again. And I'll remind myself.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

There is no failure here.

My niece got married yesterday. I adore her, and I adore her sister. They're my nieces by marriage, and they've remained my nieces through divorce.

I'm a fairly quiet person. And when you're quiet, you tend to hear things. I was at the gym today, basking in the glow of last night's wedding festivities, when I overheard a couple of women in the locker room talking about upcoming nuptials, presumably those of the daughter of one of them. "It's a good thing (husband's name) and I have been married so long; on his side, there are just marriage failures," she said.

I walked away because my buzz was killed, and I didn't want to hear more. The comment made me so sad. But as I walked home, started to feel angry. It was the word "failure" that set me off.

My first marriage, to my nieces' uncle, didn't succeed. We were young and made mistakes, a great many of them mine. No offense intended to my husband or my ex-husband's wife, but the divorce is my greatest regret because of the toll it took on our children.

But no one can convince me divorce equals failure -- primarily because of those children, and the hope that's evident within them as they embark on their own marriages, and the strength we continue to demonstrate as a family unit -- a nontraditional one, but a unit nonetheless.

We weren't always this functional; it took a long time for us to get to this point, and in the process, the kids sustained a lot of hurt. My ex and I lashed out at one another, pushed buttons in any way we could, and behaved in some really immature and ridiculous ways. But I choose to focus on the fact that eventually, we figured out how to relate to one another as parents -- "for the kids" as they say, but also for the sake of our own emotional health. It's not good to hate someone, especially the other person with whom you created two wonderful and deeply loved humans.

Here's what I wish I had told the woman in the locker room today about children of "failed" marriages:

  • They don't know only failure, and they don't see their parents as failures. Of course, given the choice, I daresay every child of parents who split up wish their dads and moms had worked out their differences and found a way to stay together. But children of divorce often witness the strength of single parents and benefit later on from the tenacity that was being built while they weren't aware any "life lessons" were going on. They learn to be financially responsible because money is often tight. They learn to appreciate what they're given because chances are someone had to work like hell to give it to them.
  • They seek out and value honesty, and their emotional maturity is well developed because of it. By far, the most difficult conversations in my life were the ones my children and I had when they became young adults and questioned exactly why their dad and I divorced. You want your children to adore you, and it's a risk to allow them to see that you're capable of having been a pretty flawed human being. But in most cases, if they know they're not being lied to, they can evaluate, and they can -- thankfully -- forgive.
  • They can, and often do, go on to have solid marriages of their own -- precisely because they're determined to prevent the problems that took down their parents' unions. My son and daughter, married three and two years, respectively, insist on communication in their marriages, and on heading off small issues before the problems are allowed to become big ones. 

I wish the locker-room women could know my family. At niece Alli's wedding reception last night, I sat at a table with my ex, his wife, my son, and his ex's sons. (My nieces and their parents still welcome me as family and not an "outlaw" -- a something about which I'll always be grateful). We talked and laughed -- not to impress anyone with our "example," but because we like one another and enjoy spending time together. A funny thing happens when your divorce is several years in the past; the brain pushes the bad stuff to the back and highlights the attributes in that person that allowed you to want to marry him or her in the first place. My ex is kind and funny. He's a wonderful son and brother, and a loving father. That's all I see now.

I wish they could also have seen something else. Alli's parents are divorced as well, and as her dad, Bob, began his father-of-the-bride toast, the first person he credited was Alli's mom, Phyllis, for instilling the values in Alli that made her the lovely woman she is. He praised Phyliis in a way you'd expect to hear a man praise a woman whom he continues to value, admire, and respect. It was beautiful and spoke volumes not only about Bob as a person, but about the union that created my nieces -- a union that could in no way be regarded as a failure.

We all know of marriages that are simply toxic; the partners can't abide one another but remain together. One could call this admirable; there's much to be said for placing a value on commitment. But I also ask myself what's to be gained from the resentment and martyrdom that might exist in those marriages. In those cases, does "staying together for the kids" benefit those children, or does it adversely impact their views of what marriage can be? I can't pretend to know. Would staying with my ex have harmed the kids in the long run? Could we have worked things out? We'll never know; we can simply continue to move forward, doing the best we can.

But, please, gym ladies and everyone else: Don't automatically judge divorced parents, and don't automatically consider their children as somehow "less than." My children and my niece are extraordinary, if I do say so myself. In the case of my kids, I used to tell people they were fabulous "in spite of" their dad and me, but I've seen things differently for a while now. Their dad and I chose one another, and we chose to create them, and we're pretty decent individuals, so our son and daughter are pretty great people because of us, as well ... "failure" be damned.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

One hundred years of memories, and I can't wait to hear more

My grandmother Teresa, the one with the tiny chair 

I visited my dad's 100-year-old cousin today. (First takeaway from the visit: Please, God, let me have those genes. Not just the longevity, but the one for great hearing and beautiful skin. She looks fabulous and is sharp as can be.)

I've seen Jennie once or twice over 50-plus years, but Dad had a lot of cousins and everyone was scattered, so the children and grandchildren of those cousins don't all know one another. I recognize the surnames; besides Lavias, there are DeFinos and Sodas and Romeos and Punellis and many more that I can't recall. I'm friends on Facebook with first and second cousins I've seen probably only once, if at all.

I'm curious about this side of the family. On my mom's side, we were closer; I grew up very attached to my aunt and saw my Nana quite often. I look like that side of the family, and for whatever reason, I feel more connected to them.

But the Lavia genes are in there, too. The curls. The tendency to ruminate. The slender-ish legs and big bellies. The introversion. No doubt I'm my dad's daughter.

But Dad didn't talk much about his family, and I've always wanted to know so much more. So when Jennie sent me a photograph of my paternal grandparents after she cleared out her house to move into an assisted living community, I wanted to do better than send a thank-note.

She seemed happy I wanted to visit. I hope that when I left, she was as happy as I was that I had come.

I was delighted to listen to her talk. She showed me photos of her family, told me of her childhood in Des Moines and Chicago and about a boy who was sweet on her when she was 15. She told me about my dad and his brothers as young men -- "good-lookin', every one of them."

She brought to life relatives I'd never known. My paternal grandfather, her uncle and godfather, who died when I was 4, was a carpenter at Mercy Hospital just north of downtown and walked to and from work; sometimes she'd meet him on the sidewalk and talk to him a little before she reached his house. He was so talented with his hands and could build anything, she said. (This made me laugh at the memory of my unhandy dad, who relied an awful lot on duct tape.)

She loved my uncle, my dad's oldest brother -- the one my dad seemed to see and speak to in the days before he died. His name was Emilio, but he was called E.A. or Tony or Milly; in World War II, he was a prisoner of war in Japan. He survived, but died young, in his 50s. I was 9.

"Tony was the handsome one; since he lived in California, you know, he probably could have been in movies," Jennie said. "We were the same age, so he would have been 100, too. And probably would have still looked good."

She remembered, vaguely, my dad's little sister, who died tragically at age 5, and that the family was never quite the same afterward.

My dad, she said, was the funny little one who followed his older brothers around and was close to his mother, who died when he was 16. In what was, for me, the sweetest part of the conversation, Jennie described the grandmother I never knew as being "tired, you know, with all those boys running her ragged, and with cooking all the time, and she was sick so much."

She brought my grandmother to life for me by describing the tiny rocking chair that was hers; she was only about 4 feet 9 or 10 inches tall, and it was a chair made for a child. She would have rocked my dad in that little chair.

Jennie talked about her life, too; how difficult it had been a few years ago to bury her son, who died of lung cancer; how much she still misses her parents and the siblings she's lost. How difficult it was to leave her home on the south side, to sell or give away many of her possessions and try to find space in her tiny apartment for the others she couldn't bear to part with. How the new place is fine, but it's not home.

When I was young, I had relatives in, as we called them then, nursing homes. I didn't visit those relatives enough. And although I saw my dad several times a week, there were instances in which I complained about visiting him because I believed myself to be too busy.

Maybe it's because of the degree to which I miss him, and my aunt, and my grandparents, and all the others who are no longer around to tell me the stories I crave hearing. Maybe it's because in my line of work, I understand the value of older adults and their stories. Whatever the reason, I'm unspeakably grateful for today.

And I'll keep going to see Jennie as long as she'll have me.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"You Really, Really Mattered."

He had me at horse heads.

It was my first day at my new job. First day in a new industry. I was nervous. Had I made the right decision? Would people like me, and would I like them?

I walked up and down rows of cubes, my manager introducing me to my new co-workers. And at the end of one row was a dark office.

"Charles sits there," my manager said. "He's traveling, but you'll meet him soon. Charles is a character. You'll like him."

I peeked inside the partially open door and saw ... horse heads, At least a dozen of them. Not the heads of real horses, thankfully, but various and sundry heads. Ceramic ones. Plaster ones. Drawings. Paintings.

I had noticed no one else kept a lot of personal effects in their work spaces. I planned to, so I knew that in spite of the fact that I wasn't really a horse person, I'd likely have something in common with this guy.

It took about a second to realize my hunch was right. Charles showed up a week later, an imposing figure in a too-big sport jacket and too-big pants. I was in the break room, putting together my breakfast.

"Girl, that looks good!" he said, eyeing my food. "I'm Charles Hall, and as you might guess, I like to eat."


We talked that morning as if we'd known each other for a long time. I learned he was in the midst of losing weight -- he was down 50 pounds despite almost-constant travel, and as I had some upcoming travel on my schedule as well, he shared some tips.

He told me that yes, he loved horses, and his children, and his grandchildren, and his work. He was a nurse who served as the organization's director of clinical excellence, and his passion for his job was evident.

I quickly came to realize passion was an integral part of Charles. Whether it was a team member's birthday, recognition of an award someone had received or simply a sunny day, Charles celebrated.

He delivered handmade birthday and anniversary cards to every team member, and probably to every resident in every community our company owned. He was a giver of gifts -- meaningful ones -- and he expected and desired no recognition for his generosity.

He was the first to volunteer to help with a project and the last to leave an event. Often, whether or not the occasion called for it, he wore a tuxedo, He owned three, he told me, in various colors.

When Christmastime drew near during my first year in that job, Charles became aware that a team member was in the midst of some personal difficulties, including financial issues. Charles didn't ask for details -- all he needed to hear was that because of a situation beyond a child's control, that child probably would not have much under the tree on Christmas morning.

Quietly, he slipped the team member an envelope of money, enough for presents and a tree. He insisted the team member accept it, and his only demand was that no one be told.

It doesn't matter who knows now, sadly, as Charles isn't around to hear the praise that would certainly surround and embarrass him. He passed away this week, after a cancer battle that he fought with a few trusted friends by his side. He had limited any news of his daily struggles to a small group, so as not to trouble anyone or disrupt life at the office, and his quick decline was devastating to many.


Companies often invest a great deal of time and resources in something they call "culture." I've worked for a lot of organizations, and all of them either took pride in or were working to enhance their cultures -- essentially, their environment. Their ambiance. What it feels like to work in that space. The "face" team members show to each other and to the external community.

It struck me as Charles fought his fight that although the people who loved him would surely miss his compassion and passion and consistent drive to make everything and everyone around him better, entire groups of people -- whether their members knew him well or not -- would be deprived of the way Charles impacted entire cultures. And that's a shame.

It also struck me that companies could learn much from the example that Charles didn't even know he was setting. Everything was organic with him; it wasn't "let's put a plan together" to improve this or that.

It simply came down to the fact that he was a naturally kind and loving person. His faith was a part of that -- not just what he believed, but the way he lived that faith. It was with selflessness, a deep desire to do unto others.

And then, it was the fact that it didn't occur to him, thank goodness, to censor himself. He loved, genuinely and openly. He didn't care who was watching, or whether he might be judged.

Charles also didn't care about being right. He probably didn't care a lot about being successful as "success" is defined by others. He dressed professionally, but didn't care about labels. If he wanted to wear cowboy boots, he wore cowboy boots. He was proud of his bald head, saying -- along the lines of the Velveteen Rabbit -- that he had lost every hair worrying about someone he loved.

Charles wasn't about exteriors. He cared about making others feel loved. Valued, Treasured, even.

Three months ago, I left the company at which Charles and I had worked together, Business is business; needs and positions change. Opportunities present. People leave jobs, and the world goes 'round.

But leaving was tough, and I was hurting. I missed many people with whom I had formed close relationships. Charles and I had exchanged notes, and he understood and validated the reasons for my sadness.

One day shortly after I started my new position, I arrived home to find a gift on my front porch. I opened it, and it was personal and lovely.

The card, though, is something I'll carry with me always. It's something that will influence the way I treat people. The way I view and try to influence that intangible thing we call "culture."

It was handmade, of course, and signed with a flourish.

"Don't forget," Charles had written, "that you really, really mattered."

Charles: I dearly hope that you know, from your new vantage point, how very much you did, too.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Pass the cake, please, but only after you put all 53 candles on top.

With my grandma when she was the age I am now.

I remember when my grandma turned the age I'll turn this month.

That gives me pause.

I'm not ashamed of my age; how is it even possible to be ashamed of an age? It's simply something you are. And what I am, soon, is 53.

Still, though ...

Fifty-three. When you consider the fact that I certainly have more life behind me than ahead of me, the number is startling.

I remember, as a child, thinking 50-year-olds were elderly. I also recall my first husband's dismay on his 25th birthday as it occurred to him he was halfway to that milestone.

But my own 50th, strangely enough, was a happy day. I was in the process of taking off the weight that had dogged me for 20 years; my kids were in good places in their lives, one having graduated college and the other one about to do so. We were all healthy. Life was good.

We're all still healthy, thankfully, and life is still good. But for some reason, I'm feeling a sense of urgency I didn't feel three years ago; Fifty-five is right around the corner; 60 (60!) won't be far behind. I used to assume I had expanses of time to while away; now, of course, I know that's not true.

So I need to get a few things done while I'm still young and healthy enough to do them. But I also feel the need, more strongly than ever, to communicate a thought or two, especially to those who can't conceive of themselves facing down 53 candles on a birthday cake.

What does it feel like to be turning 53? a young co-worker asked me this week. 

I didn't have an answer for her when she asked, but I thought about it, and here's what I want her to know about turning 53, and about gratitude and common sense and other things I've learned as the birthdays have run together.

  • Turning 53 feels like turning 23 or 33. Inside, I'm still young; so much so that when I look in the mirror and see the face of an aunt I think of as being perpetually 50, I'm startled.
  • In some ways, I'm nicer than I've ever been, and in other ways, I'm far less nice. Life now consists of more gray areas than I'd ever believed possible, so I truly try to walk in others' shoes before I judge. At the same time, I'm more likely to cut someone off at the knees if that person is behaving in a discriminatory, unkind or otherwise unfair manner. 
  • Older bodies can do amazing things. I took up running at 50 and ran 22 races in two years; I'd still be out there if my hip and foot had cooperated. Still, though, I walk at least a 5K every day. I lift weights. For the first time in my life, I can do real push-ups. Most days, I feel capable and strong.
  • Older bodies can also be attractive. Desirable, even (sorry to gross you out, kids). Sure, gravity does its thing, but confidence can offset any perceived physical flaw. 
  • People my age can be adept at technology -- more so, sometimes, than millennials. Two workplaces ago, my boss was told to hire a millennial to help us with social media. We did, and she came to me for help in understanding Twitter.
  • We know we can't mistreat our bodies and expect them to last as long as we need them to. We're more likely than younger people to practice vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. We eat donuts sometimes, but not every day. We take our vitamins and our low-dose aspirin and drink our water, and we cross our fingers.
  • As we get older, we want to make a difference. This can manifest itself in the need to realign our personal or professional lives to make sure what we're doing feels right to us. 
  • We talk more because we have more, borne of life experience, to share. But we also listen more because we understand the value in a disparate point of view. My politics lean left; one of the co-workers I'm closest to is a conservative retired Marine. Ideologically, we're pretty far apart, but he has a huge heart and a desire to always do the right thing. We look past our differences and enjoy our friendship. 
  • I'm less apologetic about the things I don't do well. Work in Excel, for example. I try, but navigating that program is not my strength. I also hate football with a searing passion and don't feel the least bit compelled to pretend otherwise.
  • I'm also less apologetic about who I am. I'm impatient and easily bored; I'm sensitive and prone to worry. I overshare and wear my heart on my sleeve, and when I love someone, I love big. I spent much of my life trying to censor myself, and I don't feel the need to do that anymore. 
  • We understand that plastic surgery won't make us look younger; it will just make us look as though we've had work done. Some friends have chosen to do it anyway, and we all support each other. Same with hair color; people know I'm gray. Whether I choose to show them is up to me. 
  • For me, my friendships with women are more important than ever. I adore, value, and yearn for time with my friends, and I come away from that time rejuvenated. 
  • Those of us who are parents never stop being our kids' moms and dads. At the same time, though, we enjoy reclaiming ourselves once our kids are raised. I'm still as committed to my kids as ever, but I also delight in seeing them make their own paths and excel in their own careers. I also feel responsible for demonstrating to them that people can continue to grow and thrive as they age.
I'm in a line of work now that reminds me daily of all the good things about aging. What's not good is the prejudice our society extends to older adults. As long as people feel the need to lie about their ages, there's work to be done.

Let's own our ages, shall we, and the good things that come with them? As the cliche goes, growing older is a whole lot better than the alternative. And it rings true: My mom was only 42 when she died. For me, every year beyond that has been gravy.

So happy next birthday, whenever that may be, to any of my over-50 brothers and sisters who are battling what they may feel is a collective attack on their relevance. We're as relevant as we think we are, and I don't know about you, but I'm planning to stick around for a while and to be as impactful as I can while doing it.

Pass the cake, please. But first, put all 53 candles on top of it. Maybe even one to grow on. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

"I'll Remember You"

When it came to just about anything, Jarrett and I didn't agree.

That proved to be a bit problematic, given that he was my boss.

Jarrett hired me to work for him in 2003. He was marketing communications manager in a department that functioned as an internal agency for a large financial-services provider. My job: to write about health insurance.

Exciting? On even the best day, no. But I had two children. Obligations. The company was highly regarded. The pay was good. My skill set, as they say, was a match.

So, onward and upward. I reported for work and planned to have a pretty easy time of things. But soon it became clear: I hadn't planned on Jarrett.

Ah, Jarrett. First impressions: The guy was nice. Nice as could be. Also enthusiastic. Eager as a Boy Scout, he wanted to help me succeed. He wanted to help everyone succeed.

He also really liked details. And spreadsheets. And internal deadlines. I quickly realized that simply because I had a deadline that was a month away didn't mean Jarrett wouldn't be checking daily to see how I was doing.

It didn't take us long to realize the road ahead was likely to be bumpy. The more he encouraged me to do things a certain way, the more I balked. The more I urged him to allow me to do things my way, the more nervous he became.

"I like the final product," he would say. "But I need to know how you got there. I need to know your process."

"For the love of God, why?" I'd respond. And then, often, just: "No."

Looking back, I have no idea why I thought being so insubordinate was OK. I have no idea why he didn't fire me. Maybe he tried, but probably not. He was that nice.

I had bonded with Jarrett's boss, and I sought his counsel. Although Dale and I were friends, his allegiance was, as it should have been, to the department.

"Stop being so hard on him," Dale said. "My God. He's a good guy. Just do a little of what he wants. Just a little."

Maybe Dale wore me down. Maybe I was tired of fighting. Or maybe I realized that if I wanted to keep my job, I'd have to compromise. So for a project I was working on, one that had many parts, I went in on a weekend and created a spreadsheet.

I left it on Jarrett's chair. Monday morning, he stopped by to see me. I thought he was going to weep.

"This is beautiful -- amazing!" he said, "All your collateral is here. All your deadlines." And then: "Let's just brighten up the colors a bit. Here, let me help you." And he sat down at my desk and turned my spreadsheet into a work of art.

And the worm turned.

As easily as we had become adversaries, we became -- well, not adversaries. And then it became clear: We were becoming friends. And as we began to like each other more, I worked harder to please him. And as I worked harder to please him, he eased up on the busywork.

We discovered a mutual love for bad '80s music and John Hughes movies. We'd quote lyrics and dialogue back and forth. I met his little daughters, whom he often brought into work late in the day or on weekends. And I heard often about his wife, Melanie, whom he summed up this way: "I can't believe she married me."

He studied the tchotchkes with which I decorated my office, and added to my collections with trinkets here and there. We collaborated on projects, and we laughed loudly and often.

One day, working with him in my office on a project that involved a challenging client, I also realized I was learning from him. We were commiserating, and I parroted one of his frequent pieces of advice back to him: "Once in a while, it's OK to let the other guy win."

"I couldn't have said it better," he replied.

Although we had become friends, our relationship also possessed some elements that resembled sibling rivalry; he won an award for a project, but had neglected to add my name to the entry, even though I'd worked on it. I sulked.

And once, after he had given up Diet Mountain Dew for a whole year but was continuing to crave it, I decided to test him. It was his birthday, and I bought an extra-large, extra-cold bottle, tied some ribbon around the neck, walked into his office and set it down in front of him.

I heard the hiss of the opening bottle cap before I'd walked six paces. He told me I was evil, but he drank the whole thing.  

One day in 2008, Dale called me and Jennifer, another team member, into a meeting. Jarrett was already in the room.

"Jarrett has accepted an opportunity outside the company," Dale said. "He's leaving."

I started to cry.

For the next couple of weeks, I wouldn't let him talk to me. Then, one day, he sent me an email. I still have it.

"I want to tell you about this. Please," he wrote. "You'll be so happy for me. This job is perfect."

And he did, and I was, and it was.

His last day, we went to lunch. Over barbecue -- side dishes for me, ribs for him -- we laughed about our journey. I made light of things, as I often do when I'm sad or nervous. I didn't want him to go.

As we went to leave, he said, "Let's not go back to work."

He's still my boss for the rest of the day, I figured. So, OK.

We ran an errand first; Melanie had seen a door she liked at the second-hand home-improvement store, so he went to buy it for her. He was excited to surprise her and talked, again, about having "married up."

And then we just drove.

We headed up to the area north of town where he had grown up; he pointed out landmarks and told his patented "Jarrett stories" -- long, with embellishments. We stopped for ice cream. And, of course, we tuned the radio to an '80s station.

"I Remember You" by Skid Row came on. He opened the windows. The wind blew us around. We sang at the top of our lungs on the way back to the office.

As he was dropping me off at my car, I felt I needed to somehow put a cap on things.

"I was hard on you," I said. "I shouldn't have been. But we got past it. I've always wondered if maybe you looked at me like one of your projects. I was a challenge that you knew you had to try to solve."

He smiled. "Something like that, at the beginning," he said. "Now you're just my friend."

Jarrett and I stayed in touch. The last time we talked was a year ago; I wanted to tell him about my new job. He was doing well, happy at work, happy with Melanie and their girls. He was planning, always planning. Working on a deck. Creating a spreadsheet, naturally, to help Melanie pack for a camping trip.

He was Jarrett. And a week ago, unexpectedly, he died.

At the funeral, I sat next to Dale, who had so long ago urged me to cut Jarrett some slack, and I thought about all the lessons I'd learned through that experience: My way is not always the best way. Winning is not always the most important thing; above all, proceed with kindness.

And strive to possess the grace of this man who sought to win me over when I was behaving too badly to deserve to be won.

I left the church and started my car. The radio came on, and I sat in disbelief: "I'll Remember You" was just starting.

I rolled down the windows, I let the wind blow me around, and I sang at the top of my lungs.