Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Parade

Hi, Boomers,
I don't quite know how to respond to Easter. I was raised a Catholic so I celebrated Easter every year until I married a Jew, had two sons and since then celebrated Passover. It seems ironic that I went from the New Testament to the Old Testament in a few short years. The fact is that I was raised a Catholic (my father's side), but my mother was Jewish but not raised Jewish. She used to say when finally revealing her parentage that my grandmother was Jewish, but she didn't really recognize that she was Jewish because she knew nothing about the religion. My mother told me when I was 19 years old that Grandma Rose was Jewish. When I asked her why she decided to tell me that very important fact about her life when I was 19, she told me that since I was dating a Jewish boy, I should know.
If you get that logic, you're a lot smarter than I am.
Except to say that I was well aware that San Francisco and environs carried heavy anti-semetic prejudice. My mother told me that job applications during most of the early 20th century asked what religion the applicant claimed. If you put Jewish, then you most certainly wouldn't get the job. My mother put down that she was Protestant. My mother had no idea what that meant. It just sounded neutral.
Religion is complicated. I went to a Seder on Monday night and had the most fabulous time I have ever had celebrating Passover. Who knew it could be so much fun! We all read from the Haggadah the story of the Jews flight out of Egypt and there was clapping and cheering and the ritual passing of bitter herbs and hard-boiled eggs and kosher sherry, and we even took some intermissions for dancing before we settled down around 10:30 to eat the most delicious food I have ever tasted, which was laid out beautifully on the dining room table. Middle Eastern Jews - the Persians and the Iraqis sure know how to bond as families and feel the intimate joy of oneness.
My Easters were dull affairs without celebration or bonding. My Irish relatives had no sense of cuisine. Outside of the celebration of the Mass on Easter Sunday, very little ritual lingered after 10 o'clock in the morning. The drive from San Rafael to San Francisco in the mid-afternoon was tedious. No one spoke except to wonder if the ham would be salty. I hated ham so I knew I would't eat. Brussel sprouts were overcooked as was everything else that was supposed to be green on the table. The Irish weren't big on fresh green salad; the closest they came to salad was potato salad swimmings in mayonnaise with too many pieces of, what else, green pickles. My cousins and my brother and I played with each other with little interest, and most of the time I sat in the living room waiting to go home, slowly sipping a coca cola that was forbidden to me at home.
In terms of religion, each holiday represents different philosophic concepts. One of the uncles at the Seder took me aside and told me that what really mattered about Passover was the central theme of freedom. The Jews finally got out of Egypt and were able to be free as they went on their journey to the promised land. Easter represents redemption. It was reported that Jesus, crucified two days earlier (Good Friday) and buried in a cave, rose from the dead and was proclaimed the true Messiah by a group of his followers. Some of his disciples said that he made a few visits before he ascended into heaven. Mankind was redeemed; our sins were forgiven. We are not concerned with freedom - freedom of thought, in particular.
But then there was some European pagan ritual that got mixed up with the redemption of Christ and we got Easter egg hunts and chocolate bunny rabbits and an annual NYC Easter Parade . Now if you can find the logic in introducing a pagan ritual into a spiritual context - and mix that with ham - and it simply baffles me and often vexes my sense of spiritual decorum.
I have a tendency to think that religion is based on mythology - like the Greek and Roman mythological stories we may be familiar with. The books in the new testament written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were all written 50 years to 150 years after Jesus lived on the earth. Facts can be altered to suit someone else's truth. It's a little unclear who actually wrote the old testament - probably lots of contributors and lots of good stories ranging from forbidden fruit to an array of punishments that even frightens adults. Did I mention sex, the subservient role of women in marriage and worshipping idols? Neither old or new testament give much credence to individual thinking or philosophic exploration.
It probably doesn't matter much because when it comes to a spiritual belief system developed out of organized religion there is little apparent logic. Belief in a higher power or religious institutions is emotional. I suspect that the need to believe in something other than ourselves is based on our fear of dying and the need to be spiritually and morally supported by "the other" throughout life. It's challenging to live without some powerful ally. God, Jesus, Allah are on my side. Some think that belief in a higher power is based on the concept of surrender and acceptance. Others think that a belief in a higher power is a crutch; i.e, our human belief system developed from our own sense of virtue is not strong enough to get through life and pass on into death. No matter the reason for belief in a universal power or organized religion every person has to get through life and death in his/her own way.
Powerful forces can also exist within our own psyches or souls. Stepping back a bit from ourselves, detaching with that 10% reserve to observe our actions (kindness and forgiveness is good) is also a fine way to access our moral compass. Finding the power in the energy of our universal is another way of surrendering to and accepting our lives and our eventual death. For after all, we are only passing through this life on the way to death. We can choose to make it joyous or fraught with struggle. We can choose to live by virtue and a strong moral spine or we can simply collect a bunch of bad karma.
The longer I live the more I realize that there is an Easter parade going on all the time in our hearts and minds. It always comes down to having an attitude of gratitude. This is my religion.

Friday, April 15, 2011

I've Got The World On A String

Hi, Boomers,
Do you remember when Sinatra played Madison Square Garden in 1974? He was singing in the middle of a boxing ring. Howard Cosell introduced Frank. The place was packed, alive and exciting. The great man's voice was golden. He was in his prime and he never hit a false note. Those were the days. At least, those were some happy times. Frank never failed to stir my emotions.
When I moved to Las Vegas in summer of 1964, I landed in a frontier desert town covered with a hodgepodge of sage and cactus. It was not only sparse but land had no visual appeal except for about three long blocks on the Las Vegas strip where the fancy hotels were built: the Sahara Hotel, the Frontier, the Dunes, the Sands, the Desert Inn, the Stardust, the Flamingo. The El Rancho Vegas was gone by the time I got to Vegas, but I remembered it years before when my parents took me to see Sophie Tucker perform. I got her autograph that night. I was a big deal to a kid of 10.
In those days, the downtown area was small. Binion's Horseshoe Casino, the Golden Nugget, and the Four Queens were the biggest places, but there were five or six smaller casinos - where the locals and Greyhound bus traffic frequented at all hours of the day and night. It was a seedy section of town in the mid-60's. There were several downtown banks, a court house, some office buildings, Penny's, Sear's and one very small art house movie theater. That was a place where I used to hide out when the sterile environment became overwhelming for me.
And there was a kind of university off the strip - I say kind of because there were only 3 buildings and a library. It was called Nevada Southern University when it was first built. I hadn't finished college yet when I arrived newly married so finishing college actually became an option. But not until I worked all that summer at the Sahara Hotel as the secretary to the catering director. He never found out that I didn't take dictation and never had a course in short hand. I got the job from a friend of my ex-husband's who knew the president of the Sahara. I think he was a mob guy.
The frontier aspect of Vegas made it easy pickings for mob control, and in the late 50's ad throughout the 60's, Vegas was run by the mob. It was a fairly strange existence because every body had friends in the mob. The Jews and the Italians split control over the hotels and casinos. And somewhere in the mix there were the teamsters. The mob and the teamsters had a cozy arrangement. Everybody greased everybody's hand.
What runs in my mind every time I see clips of Sinatra and the rat pack was that I was there, in Vegas at the Sands Hotel and I bore witness to their mythology. Frank, Dean, Sammy, Joey Bishop and once in awhile Peter Lawford. They were the rage in the mid-60's - the height of their popularity. The whole experience of living in Vegas during that time was one of excitement mixed with bewilderment. During that first summer I worked at the Sahara, I met the most popular comedians and singers of the day. During that first summer, my ex-husband studied for the bar (as in law) and I wondered how I ended up in a city where entertainment and gambling were the major recreations. It set the tone and style for many years to come.
In those early years I had a tenuous hold on my world. It was difficult to rectify leaving Berkeley in the 60's for Vegas in the 60's. No two universes were ever so far apart. I felt like I was wandering in the desert looking for the promised land, which by the way I had just left for a marriage and an uncertain life. I was never quite sure how I got there. I actually don't remember make such a life-changing decision.
But Frank always made it better. I'd listen to his music, see him when he was in town, and somehow those tunes would put me in a better place - a place with some kind of hope. And it actually worked out in some kind of rational way because I went back to school, got lots of degrees, had years of teaching experience from high school to college - several years after I got my first degree, the university changed its name to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas - and I co-founded and was the artistic director of Nevada's first legitimate year round theater. To top that off, the mob was my best fund raising arm. The donor plaque in the theater lobby had a list of who's who in the Las Vegas mob.
I ended up by having the world on a string and it lasted for 18 years. Some people think I did time during those years, but I don't look at that way. I remember a girl of 19 who was present at the Sahara Hotel when the Beatles landed on the roof top in a helicopter, bore witness to Elvis's comeback at the Hilton, saw Bette Midler's first live show at Caesar's Palace, and was insulted by Don Rickles. I remember having the best lineup of friends, the most loyal theater customers, the best education (after Berkeley, that is) and saw most of the greatest 60's foreign films ever made in that little art house around the corner from the Golden Nugget.
In the city of dreams and illusions, I grew up, became an adult and fulfilled most of my dreams. I became and educator, a seasoned actress and a theater entrepreneur. What more could I have asked for. And while I lived in Las Vegas that desert town with no visual appeal morphed into a bigger, brighter, thriving city with plenty of neon lights and glitz and glam.
We all made the best of it once upon a time in Las Vegas, and now the irony is that my sons and their families live and work in Vegas and they are making the best of it. Strong survival instincts are alive and well in our family's DNA.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Losing Our Minds

Hi, Boomers,
I want to share something with you. Something very important. It's concerns our brains. The brain is a very complex organ, composed of approximately 100 billion neurons and each one of those neurons communicates with up to 10.000 other neurons. It's a loaded minefield in our heads.
We have been, and rightly so, very concerned about losing our minds, or more specifically succumbing to memory loss before our time. After all, some of us have seen our parents or grandparents suffer from dementia or early onset of Alzheimer's disease. In my case, I have seen how my ex-husband has had to handle his wife, Diane, who has suffered from Alzheimer's for well over a decade. The disease probably began in her mid-50s. Her mother died from this terrible disease. Diane probably didn't have a chance between her DNA and the lack of a cure.
Presuming at mid-life that we will not have Alzheimer's and may just be part of the hundreds of thousands of elderly people who begin to lose short term memory, like my mother, and then finally lose so much that she cannot remember to eat, there is great interest in how can we manage this process just a little bit better than our parent's generation. There is definitely power in knowing and understanding just a little more about how we learn and retain information.
I have been reading about the brain. It fascinates me because I am preparing to go out as a speaker and talk about the boomer generation. The speaking process is very different form the writing process. When I wrote Sixty, Sex, & Tango, Confessions of a Beatnik Boomer, the memories were active in my head and they were important enough to me to be clearly remembered for decades. The key in writing my memoir was that I had a very strong emotional attachment to the subject.
But if I'm trying to motivate someone as a speaker, trying to get people to change behavior or try new behavior, I need to know how the brain receives and retains and then acts or on the messages. People learn when they apply the concepts given to them with consistently.
Part of the learning equation is how interested we are in the subject. But the way we learn best is when we are given a few related points and build on these points for effect. The denser the points, the more the points are illustrated, the more we will retain. The least effective way we retain information is by just plain memorizing.
Another way we retain information is by picking up on active verbs, which animate ideas. When speakers get us to think about doing what they're talking about, we are learning. But the key is whether what we are learning is meaningful in terms of feelings, which are generate by emotions. That involves the limbic area of the brain - the pain/pressure center. It's the area that turns words into memory. We also learn better through context than content. This means we respond better to what we know through experience. When I hear Buenos Aires, I have an immediate, tactile sense about the city. If one speaks to me about Buenos Aires, I am immediately at attention.
My reading about the brain indicated that the brain is lazy and has to be stimulated or coached into consciousness. However, if the brain understands that what someone is telling them is really good for the person - the "what's in it for me" idea is a powerful listening device.
All that said, now is the moment to ask: How can we stop some of that memory loss? How can we keep our minds from aging? The standard answer is do crossword puzzles. I balk at that because I'm terrible doing them so I feel left out of that loop. I can't dredge up a word to go with a cue unless it's about movies or the theater.
But there are actually three theories that help the brain's retention. The effects of meditation on the brain has been studied at the UCLA brain mapping center. All results point to a connection between meditation and more brain activity. A yoga practice adds longevity to our mind and body since the practice connects the mind and body through the breath. And any kind of exercise, even just walking is a key to longevity. In fact, exercise is number one on the anti-aging list of things to do to stay young.
But I heard something else today pertaining to the brain, which sparked my interest. There is something called adaptive competency - this is the ability of the brain to bounce back from stress. In other words, adaptive competency allows us to move off our anxious state or stress related experience and into a present state where that stress passes through us. My mother had that in spades. I remember when a stressful or unpleasant experience occurred, my mother would say, "Just get over it, dear. Leave it behind you." She never in all the time she was alive "chewed" on the negative. She slept well every night she lived on this earth. This characteristic of the brain is called cognitive reserve.
The way the brain adapts, it's cognitive reserve, or does not adapt - very little cognitive reserve - determines our ability to release stress and, therefore, live longer. A practice of meditation and yoga helps to build up our cognitive reserves.
It might be interesting to examine daily how long we hold on to our stress. Then take a yoga class for the next six months and see how your cognitive reserves have built up.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Boomers R Us

Hi, Boomers,
You are on my mind lately. I'm trying to write a speech about you/us. I'm not technically a boomer. I'm three years ahead of that curve, but I identify with the zeitgeist because who wants to be associated with hamburger casseroles and green stamps.
The desire to write a speech about the boomers was a direct result of mounting demographics. The first group of boomers turned 65 this year. We're 18% of the population. We've invaded social security and medicare and we are taking the lion's share of entitlements before the next generation even turns 40.
But what have we left on the table? What was our contribution to the world?
We were once the golden generation, advancing the American dream by leaps and bounds. We created a mythology that still prevails in clothes, music, literature, finance. We were the most educated, the most socially hip, the most literate, the most able to advance the cause of good government and social causes. We were the best and the brightest, the most entitled and the most betrayed when Vietnam became up close and personal.
Then we lost our way. We were deceived by Vietnam. It was a brutal war, and we lost too many lives, and it lasted way too long, and it took us years to recover our lives and our economy and our reputation. And some of us never did. We outed post dramatic stress disorder.
Boomers had guts and fortitude and stamina and we roared back by working hard and living good lives. Yet, there were some who were lead astray by America's materialism and forgot the message of the American dream. Peace and love turned into greed is good. What happened to the best and the brightest? We may have amassed great fortunes but some forgot spirit of generosity and fair play. And some forgot how to run a government who serves the people.
So what's up with us now? Some of us have even been dealt another blow. Some of us lost a lot of money in the market during the most severe economic recession since the Great Depression. Some of our retirement is seriously compromised. The possibility that we can retire wild, free, and happy might not happen in a timely manner. The Pew Research Center tells us that we are a seriously depressed generation. No wonder. We had it all but when the going got tough, our mythology started to implode and our star quality began to fade. After some serious decades of success, all those victories appear pretty hollow.
So what I want to say to the boomers in my speech is to take a journey back to the beginning - the that was then part of your life - and see where we are in the present and where we might be going in the future. Got any ideas about what that future would look like?
I love the idea of giving back, getting involved in the green movement, health and care-taking, ecology, teaching in disenfranchised neighbors, tutoring youth, the Peace Corps, Global volunteers, soup kitchens, meals on wheels, helping seniors manage technology. Get off the couch and get involved whatever needs fixing in our communities. We've got so many useful skills and and so much personal power that can change little corners of our world.
Boomers, this is the most exiting time in our lives. We possess more positive potential for growth and transformation at this very moment in our lives that we ever thought possible. This time around we can create another peaceful revolution but one that is deeper and more profound.
Remember Timothy Leary? Tune In, Turn On....
but don't drop out. Maybe we could re-arrange our lives to be more productive and useful at the same time.
Well, we'll figure it out.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Love in the Time of Sixty

Hi, Boomers,
I've been thinking about love lately. I've been in and out of love a few times but I'm not currently in love so I'm giving myself permission to, well, think about love for this blog. (Okay, maybe for longer than this blog.) And I'm not in a relationship at this moment so that's the best time to think about love. No responsibilities, no messiness, no flights, no disfunction, no connectivity, no cherishing. Damn! I'm already missing love.
I miss the energy of love. I miss the contact in love. But love is so complicated. how do we love and cherish throughout the years and maintain happiness? Tough question.
A few months ago, a friend of mine came in town who spends about 3 months in LA. He lives in a city that will remain nameless. I will protect his identity. We like each other, and while we were together for those months, we talked about relationships among other things. We are both boomers - well, we are at the upper end of the boomer generation - well, we are three and four years above the official limit - and it has been interesting to talk about love and relationships at our age.
It feels that love at this age has a different, more mature, more direct connection. It's more think outside the box kind of thing. And we can make our own rules about our love connection. It's actually freeing, kind of liberating to think about love in a broader sense. And it's nice not to leap into love as we do when we are younger. I think when we are younger, it's more about lust at the beginning, so caught up in the sex of it all.
When we are older, sure there is a sexual component, but it's more about the com-munication of the relationship and how that communication shapes the intimac. And that's a process and it takes time like a fine wine coming into maturity.
When love is seasoned both partners keep up with the changes in each other's lives. Lillian Hellman said once,"People change and forget to tell each other." In any relationship, married or not, most successful couples note the changes. For those of us who come to love later in life, it takes time to have sufficient past information to feel comfortable in the love zone. We don't know what he/she was like 20 years ago. so we have to take the present conscious moments and season them with what is divulged from the past. So begins the moment of securing a truly intimate relationship.
All couples have to know how to fight fairly. We have to be aware of our inherent passive aggressive natures. No throwing out dirty laundry or past associations unless they are relevant to the present. True power comes from knowing how to discuss differences fully and honestly. In my last blog, "Talk Pretty to Me," I noted that we have to be cognizant and conscious of throwing out hot button words. It's destructive to any relationship. I read somewhere that if you do not feel stronger and more intimate than you did before you started the argument, you are not building a stronger, more loving relationship. Argue with class and dignity I always say. No hitting below the belt because it's more important to respect the differences.
People in love have all kinds of challenges that us single women don't have. People in love by definition take care of each other. As we age, there are physical challenges as well as mental and emotional challenges and the two love birds are collaborators and helpmates forging a rather new and different relationship. This takes heaps of energy and fortitude and patience. I'm not there yet and maybe I never will be, but I sure respect and honor that journey.
One of the things I am aware of are the physical challenges inherent in a relationship between boomers. Affection is really an important part of a relationship at any age; however, as the boomers age, there are hormonal changes in both men and women. So staying physically connected with passion is a must to combat physical and emotional obstacles and to maintain a physically satisfying and sensual relationship. Keep the fires burning.
Whether dating or in a relationship (oh, so long ago) I know adding new ways to play together is crucial. Couples bond more closely when they do new and exciting activities. Take a painting class together, open up a bed and breakfast together, sign up for the Peace Corp, exercise together, take a yoga class together, meditate once a day together. Invigorate love and find joy.
Okay, I'm going to take my own advice. Now I just need a man to fall in love with.