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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Improve A Long Term Relationship

two gannetsOn occasional Wednesdays I offer tips for adulthood.

This week’s post goes to the heart of keeping a long-standing relationship going. If you’re in one – whether with a partner, a spouse or even a roommate – you know that over time, things can get a bit stale. You start having the same fights over and over. You start completing your partner’s sentences, in a way that breeds boredom rather than intimacy. You know – with agonizing specificity – exactly what the other person likes to eat for breakfast.

So it’s time to shake things up a bit. Change the routine. And also change the way you act towards the other person. You’ll be surprised how well it works. Here are five concrete suggestions for how to do this:

Read the rest of this post over on Better After 50….

Image: Northern Gannets by Al Wilson via Nature’s Pics Online 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Billy Joel Songs That Speak To Middle Age

billy joel

billy joelI’ve been listening to Billy Joel again. Yes, I say that loudly, proudly and unabashedly. If you grew up in the 1980s as I did, it’s pretty impossible *not* to be in love with Billy Joel. When “The Stranger” was released in 1977, it was all anyone listened to for several years.

My husband gets this. He’s the one who got me started on my new Billy Joel kick when, upon surfing the internet one day, he came across a series of videos where Billy not only performed a set of songs before a live audience, but also explained the meaning of the songs as he went through them. Side note to Billy Joel fans – (in case anyone who is *not* a Billy Joel fan has gotten this far into this blog post) – he doesn’t like Piano Man all that much…Sniff.

Particularly as I get older, I find that Billy Joel’s music speaks to me even more than it did back in junior high.To wit, five Billy Joel songs with particular resonance for middle age:

1. James – This song comes from one of Billy’s earlier albums, Turnstiles. It’s mostly a song about those early, intense friendships we have in childhood and adolescence that often dissipate as we grow up and choose different paths in life: “I went on the road. And you pursued an education…” I always feel incredibly sad when I hear the lyrics to this song, because it reminds me of the bittersweet, awkward feelings such relationships inspire, especially if you ever find yourself reunited with said friend and realize that you have very little in common anymore. But it’s also a song about regret, which is, for me anyway, one of the central emotions that we must learn to navigate in midlife. As Billy asks his erstwhile friend: “Do you like your life? Can you find release? Did you ever write your masterpiece?” Ouch. Most of us didn’t end up writing our masterpieces. But the song ends with some sage adulthood advice, encouraging James – and all of us – to follow our own dreams, not those set by others: “Do what’s good for you, or you’re not good for anybody.” So true.

2. New York State of Mind – Closely linked to regret is nostalgia, another inescapable feature of adulthood. I grew up in the tri-state New York area and while I’ve subsequently lived in many cities across many continents, there are a handful of Billy Joel songs that bring me right back to the place which, for me, will always be home: “I don’t care if it’s Chinatown or on Riverside…” For me, this song readily calls up the summer in college I spent living on Riverside Drive in an impossibly posh apartment one of my father’s friend managed to obtain for me and trying every bar in town…the numerous times my mother hauled all four of my siblings into the city to see previews of the original cast performances of shows like Evita, Annie and Sweeney Todd…the smell of pretzels mixed in with the city’s gritty streets. (Note to the super fans: if you want to see a truly miraculous Billy Joel moment, watch this video where he allows a very talented piano player from Vanderbilt University to spontaneously accompany him while he sings this song.)

3. Vienna -“Slow Down, you crazy child…you’re so ambitious for a juvenile...” Dear Lord, do I feel that this song was written for me. As someone who has lived much of her life at a gallop, I’ve had a very hard time learning that life is not a crew race, it’s more of a marathon. As Billy enjoins us: “Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while.” So when I hear Billy sing this song, I always feel like it’s a sort of musical version of mindfulness practice.

4. I’ve Loved These Days. Another gem. This is ostensibly a song about people who’ve been overdoing it – living it to the hilt with drugs, sex and God knows what else – but knowing that very soon they’re going to need to stop their outrageous lifestyle and get real. (Sort of the Brideshead Revisited of pop music, if you will). But for me, it’s always been a song about break ups. About those terribly clear moments when you suddenly know that a relationship is over but you still want to squeeze whatever joy that you can out of the final hours/days/weeks together: “So, before we end, and then begin, we’ll drink a toast to how it’s been. A few more hours to be complete, a few more nights on satin sheets…” It’s a song about the inevitability of loss and recognizing that all good things must come to an end – another bittersweet reality of growing up. (n.b.: This was my high school’s senior prom theme, which makes it all the more touching.)

5. Allentown. An ode to all those middle-aged folks who once had a job and a company and a place in society where it all made sense. And now, their entire their lives have been upended (by globalization/by modernity/by the internet/by time/fill in the blank…) and they don’t know how to be anymore: “Well we’re waiting here in Allentown for the Pennsylvania we never found. For the promise our teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved…” In the year of the angry white voter, this song could be ripped straight outta 2016.

How about you? Do you dare to own your secret passion for Billy Joel and, if so, which are your favourite tunes?

Image: Billy Joel by David Shankbone via Flickr

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

On occasional Fridays, I point you towards some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

a. I’m big on regret as a central theme of adulthood. Here’s a handy list of 15 things you’ll regret when you’re older. Learning a second language is a biggie for many of my friends.

b. And as a big believer in mindfulness, I really enjoyed this detailed, step-by-step instruction on how to prepare a cup of tea…mindfully.

c. If you’re into data visualizations – and sewers – I thought this historical trip through London’s sewers by The Guardian was amazing.

d. I’m a huge Leonard Cohen fan and loved this posthumous tribute to Leonard Cohen in The New York Times. Even better is Cohen’s acceptance speech upon finally winning a Grammy.

e. Finally, whatever your political preferences, you’ll enjoy this BBC’s round up of Biden and Obama memes about the Trump Presidency.

Have a fantastic weekend everybody!

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

On occasional Fridays, I point you towards some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

a. Regardless of how you feel about the outcome of this week’s U.S. Presidential election, Thomas Mallon’s fictional take on 2016 in The New Yorker is, hand’s down, the best thing I’ve read about this electoral season.

b. Also on the election, The Financial Times had a superb piece on how to re-visualize the U.S. electoral map, while the New York Times had a fantastic rendering of what swing states look like from space.

c. For all my expat friends out there, here’s a great piece from Global Geneva on what it’s like to be a trailing spouse.

d. And while we’re on the subject of marriage, Bloomberg explores the economics of dining as a couple. Personally? I favor autarky.

e. Finally, I thought I’d end with 15 brutally honest illustrations that sum up adulthood. This week, #9 about how long it really takes to get to Friday, has particular resonance.

 

And on that note, Happy Friday! Have a great weekend…

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

On occasional Fridays, I point you towards some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

a. If you’ve ever worried that you’re spending too much time on screens…you are. Read Andrew Sullivan’s confessions of an internet addict over on New York Magazine.

b. If you’re into podcasts, I can’t recommend Nicholas Quah’s newsletter, Hotpod – about trends in the industry -highly enough. Hugely informative but funny and thoughtful at the same time. A model for all of us.

c. For those of us (cough) who have firmly entered midlife, I was delighted to discover the online magazine, Next Avenue. Some great material there.

d. Another great resource for bloggers is Bad Redhead Media’s #Mondayblogs. I plan to participate this coming Monday on twitter.

e. Finally, if, like me, you like to swear, here are five fascinating facts about swearing on The Conversation.

Have a great weekend everybody!

Advice for Writers Struggling with Genre: Ask This Question

bookshelf

bookshelfIf you’ve ever thought about writing a book, the very first thing anyone will tell you is to figure out which “shelf” it will sit on in a bookstore. It’s not enough to simply have a topic, or even an angle into a topic. You need to know who’s going to buy this book. Because book publishing, like anything else, is a business and the key to a successful business is knowing your market.

I knew all of this, of course. Over the years, I’ve been in enough writing groups and consumed enough resources devoted to the art and science of getting published that I knew that were I someday to approach an agent with an idea for a book, I’d need to be able to provide a cogent answer to this question.

And then someday arrived and I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to answer it.

Let me back up. I’ve been working for several months on a book about…drumroll please…swimming and adulthood. After more than 25 years as a “casual runner” – someone who ran three times a week to stay fit – my body was telling me that that I could no longer run. The reasons why I needed to stop running aren’t all that interesting. (Well, OK, something called Piriformis Syndrome, if you must know…) But the upshot was that, on the advice of my doctor, I began – somewhat reluctantly – to swim.

This obviously not an entirely new topic for me. This blog’s strapline – “Finding Yourself In Adulthood” – is all about conceptualizing adulthood as a journey, not a destination. But whereas the blog tackles topics ranging from work and parenting to therapy and the arts in a much more general way, the daily act of swimming enabled me to analyse these subjects through a single prism. In essence, swimming serves as a metaphor through which to explore what it means to be a grown up in the contemporary age.

But even after I started writing this book, I still struggled with where it fit on the proverbial bookshelf. Was it an extended meditation on swimming itself, Like Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies?  Was it a sports memoir a la Gerald Marzaroti’s Late to the Ball about picking up a new skill (tennis) in midlife? Was it a humorous, loosely themed take on daily life, modelled on David Sedaris or Sandra Tsing Loh?  Or a was it a collection of more serious essays like Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable?

On alternate days it felt a bit like all of these.

It didn’t help that when I showed my précis (2 page overview) of the book to a few friends I got very different advice. One friend thought that it needed to be funnier, more like my daily status updates which I post on Facebook recounting the cast of characters I run into at my local swimming pool. Another friend thought that it should be a novel. Someone else advised me to convert it into an inspirational journey, the sort of Eat, Pray, Love of swimming.

Instead of writing the book, I began to obsess about genre.

And then, one day, at the tail end of a dinner party while chatting about this problem with a friend, I had my Eureka moment. My friend is a novelist who has written several novels in the Lad Lit genre and is on the cusp of becoming a sensation with his latest work-in-progress, which has already been snatched up by a major New York imprint. (He’s also sold the film rights. As he put it so beautifully, “Who knew that becoming an overnight success took so long?”)

After I regaled him with all of my anxieties about what the book could and should be, he looked at me and simply said: “Write the book that only you could write.”

It wasn’t rocket science. Nor was some dark, heretofore unknown secret of the publishing world. But for me, it was sort of like that age-old adage: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” And just like that, I immediately felt better.

Because I realised in that moment that I actually *had* been writing the book that only I could write all along. While it had elements of several different styles, at the end of the day the book I was writing was essentially a self-help book, albeit one very much rooted in my own experience. (I’ve since learned that there is a name for this sub-genre – self-help memoir or prescriptive memoir. Thank you, Jane Friedman.)

For me, my friend’s throwaway line (heartfelt, to be sure, even if infused with a few glasses of red wine), was clarifying: I need to stop obsessing over what other people think my book is meant to be. That comes later. For now, the book is already what I need it to be: a place to bring my voice and my insights to a topic I’ve long been passionate about with a fresh angle.

In a year where my new year’s resolution was to embrace authenticity, that feels pretty good.

Image: Bookshelves by Hernán Poo-Camaño via Flickr

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

On occasional Fridays, I point you towards some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

a. One of my favorite new (to me) websites is The Conversation, whose tagline “Academic Rigor, Journalist Flair” had me from “Hello.” Check out this fantastic post on why zebras aren’t like horses. (“They look like stripey horses so why can’t we ride them?”)

b. Another recent discovery is Better After 50, a website devoted to sharing real stories from women about life after 50. I was thrilled that they featured my recent post about the Brangelina divorce as well as one on friendship in adulthood.

c. If, like many of us, you’ve been pondering that whole Bob Dylan Nobel Prize thang, distinguished writer (and friend!) Naomi J. Williams has a hilarious blog imagining what would happen if we opened up all of the Nobel prizes to other disciplines.

d. On a more serious note, BBC Mundo has some absolutely gorgeous and heartbreaking photos of the war in Colombia.

e. If you’re a Billy Joel fan (say it loud, friends) you will love this archive of interviews and performances with the pop star. Here he is talking about Piano Man. Sniff.

f. In the category of “Just For Fun,” here are famous art masterpieces revisioned with smartphones. Brilliant.

g. And finally, over on Slate, I give you the Dress Tent.

Have a fantastic weekend!

Brangelina: Why We Rejoice In Other People’s Divorces

brangelina

brangelinaBack in what now seems a life time ago, before kids and mortgages and migraines set in, my husband and I were friendly with a couple we called, privately, “the beautiful people.”

They were, quite simply, gorgeous to look at. He was a tall, athletic and European and she was a lithe, exotic artiste of unknown ethnic origin. They were smart and successful and rich and beautiful and, seemingly…happy.

Until they weren’t.

One day they told us that they were separating and – just like that – the beautiful people were no longer. And with their split, the myth that you really could have it all – that you could be successful professionally while also throwing nice dinner parties having pitch perfect bodies *and* still be in love – disappeared.

While I liked them both, my first instinct was to feel smug.

This feeling resurfaced this week when I learned that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had split up after 12 years, six kids, two films and a joint production company (and a partridge in a pear tree…)

They, too, are beautiful people. And between their outrageous professional success, their large, blended family and the odd humanitarian ambassadorship for the UN thrown in, Brad and Angelina seemed to stretch the limits of what could be possible in coupledom. (Heck, Angelina is even a visiting professor at the London School of Economics this year…I mean, c’mon!, what *isn’t* that woman doing?)

It’s tempting, at first, to gloat at these failed marital projects. We can feel better about our own pathetically normal houses/children/relationships/fill in the blank. Or we write these couples off, saying (not unjustly), that it’s amazing how long it lasted in the first place…that it was only a matter of time until the whole thing imploded…and thank goodness that we ordinary mortals don’t have to co-star in films with Marion Cotillard and endure the temptations of the flesh that ensue…

That may all be true.

But I think we are lying if we don’t also admit that we’re all much more invested in other people’s marriages – and divorces – than we typically let on.

And that’s because all marriages – indeed, all long-term relationships – are inherently fragile. Even the strongest ones are rife with unresolved resentments, longings and deficits, and it is inherent in the marriage project itself to somehow learn to accept and endure those inherent blemishes. Indeed, some would say that  marriage is about learning to love your spouse very specifically, not despite – but because of  – his or her specific, individual flaws.

So when we see a famous marriage go bust – whether it’s Al Gore or Sandra Tsing Loh or Brangelina – we are reminded of the fragility of our own relationships. And that, quite simply, is terrifying. Their plight could, we know deep down, also be ours. But instead of owning that fear and feeling genuinely afraid, we mask that insecurity through sniggers and snarky comments.

If we’re going to be really honest with ourselves, we ought to acknowledge that when marriages split up – even, or perhaps especially, among the “beautiful people” – they are, in effect, breaking up for the rest of us.

That’s not something to gloat over. It’s something to thank them for. And be glad that it wasn’t us.

Image: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt via Public Domain Pictures.net

Tips For Adulthood: Teaching Life Skills To Teenagers

teenagers

teenagersI think it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that parenting teenagers can be challenging. The teenage brain is still evolving, teenagers are very stressed out and anxious, and they can be an absolute nightmare at the dinner table.

Above all, we know that teenagers are prone to take risks. (Warning: Don’t read this article if you don’t want to imagine all sorts of dangerous s$%t your teen might be getting up to right now…).

And so those of us trying to parent a teenager spend many of our waking hours wondering: how will they ever “graduate” to adulthood? Will they have the life skills they need to succeed as grown ups?

We vaguely know the sorts of things we’d like them to be able to do as responsible adults – which run the gamut from the more practical life skills (how to use an ATM machine, how to get the oil checked and – yes, you guessed it – how to change a lightbulb) to the more abstract life skills (executive function skills, moral integrity, emotional awareness).

If you’re like me, you’ll read through the lists in the links above and find yourself nodding your head vigorously.

But how, in a person who is biologically, emotionally and socially conditioned to resist our best efforts to impart these skills, do we get them there?

This week’s tip list brings a raft of suggestions for teaching life skills to teenagers. To wit:

a. Give Them Responsibility.  I was amazed, when reading this article in the Washington Post, at how much of the advice for teaching life skills to teens boils down to this: start giving them responsibility. (I know, I know, duh.) Whether it’s about giving your teenager a quarterly clothing budget (to practice managing money), bringing them along to the insurance agent when you add them to your automobile policy (to teach them about handling emergencies) or instructing them in those most basic of skills – how to address an envelope and how to write a check – the advice is that you need to get them going on these small things now.

b. Offer Them Things To Read – A close cousin of the “give them stuff to do” is “give them stuff to read.” Of course, not all kids will respond to a reading list, but some  (my own, for example) tend to respect advice more when it comes from an expert. I’m a huge fan of adolescent expert Nicola Morgan, whose website is chock full of resources – for parents, for teachers and also for kids themselves – about topics ranging from sleep to exams to stress. On the life skills end of things – since a common one that comes up is learning how to manage time – Nicola has a whole study skills guide for kids.

c. Play Games. If books aren’t your kids thing, try games and activities. This site lists “fun” life skills games for adolescents of different ages that gets them working on things from anger management to job hunting to healthy eating. (I want to play the Shhh! game!)

d. Outsource it. You don’t need to do it all by yourself, either. There are organizations that specialize in helping teens adjust to adulthood. I was recently at a food allergy clinic with my son and the doctor told us that once my son turns 16, he will join an adolescent clinic where the kids come to get their allergy testing themselves. Because kids with allergies face special risks when it comes to things like alcohol and drugs – (bottom line: you don’t want to eat the wrong thing when you’re high) – but also with food preparation and consumption, it’s important, the doctor said, that my son begin learning how to cook and shop for himself now. They’ll start him off with seven “safe” recipes he can make on his own. To which I said: Bring it on…

e. Go with the flow. Finally, if the idea of trying to turn your kid into a responsible adult before s/he is ready doesn’t float your boat, exhale deeply and just let go. There’s a lot to be said for letting teens be teens and enjoying this period of life for what it is – one of experimentation, fun and creativity – rather than trying to rush them through it. After all, we were teens once too.

How about you? What tactics have worked for you when teaching teenagers life skills and which ones do you think matter most?

Image: Teenagers at Play via Wikimedia.com

 

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

On occasional Fridays, I point you towards some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

a. Nope, we’re not going to talk about Brexit. But we *are* going to talk about this very cool visual from The Washington Post about the rise and fall of Europe – in maps.

b. Cooler still is the history of the number zero – in animation – from The Royal Institution. (Hat tip: Slate)

c. The BBC World Service brings you  the top 10 most annoying sounds in music. Love the Cher…

d. And finally, in the category of “just because,” how the French play Monopoly.

Have a great weekend everybody!