A Book for Boomers (but Not Only Boomers)

I recently read 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal by Elizabeth White, even though I’m a couple of decades younger than 55. Although the book might be most useful to Americans of the Boomer generation, the reader’s age isn’t so important, because people younger than that (and some in the 75+ crowd) might benefit from it as well.

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What brought me to the book to begin with? I happened to see it at the library and read through its section on employment issues (fewer full-time jobs with benefits and pensions, more part-time/contractual/freelancing/gig work, and age discrimination in hiring practices), and then I checked it out.

I recommend it as a kind of ‘starter guide,’ as it addresses a number of important issues, including:

  • Social isolation, shame, and anxiety.
  • Options for more affordable housing, along with things that need to change, such zoning restrictions that don’t suit current needs.
  • What to do if you don’t have enough saved for retirement (most Americans don’t have nearly enough).
  • What to do, and how to cope, if you aren’t finding a good job or any job.
  • Finding the right mindset for making your life worth living and meeting the difficulties head on, even if your life isn’t turning out the way you expected it to.

Anyone can use this book to plan for future problems or find insights into current difficulties. One of the book’s strengths is the number of resources the author shares – a large number of organizations and their websites covering all kinds of areas, including assistance with work and housing.

I also liked the author’s tone. It’s compassionate, firm, and straightforward. She obviously supports taking responsibility for your life, but she also doesn’t ignore various issues that people don’t have control over (such as the recession of 2008). She’s a level-headed person, and she’s clear about the fact that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for each problem she discusses. You might read through this book and find little that helps you, but even if you get one or two ideas for what to do next, it could be worth it.

The book is also full of short, often moving contributions from other people. Sometimes, they share their struggles, and you can commiserate. Other times, they share solutions for what works for them.

It’s worth checking this book out.

Dealing With Regret: Insights From an Australian Novel

“There’s always a chance to start over” is a common message. It’s meant for encouragement, and plenty of times it’s accurate. People do often rebuild their lives after an abusive relationship or a job loss or an illness. Their life may not look exactly the same, but it can wind up being better in a number of ways.

Other times, there’s no fresh start, not in the way one hopes for. A missed chance is gone. An opportunity won’t return. There are limits to the ways in which we can start over.

Regret naturally follows. And regret can throw up a wall around you, keeping you locked up with your past, tormented by “what-ifs,” and unable to perceive present and future possibilities.

Insights From Tirra Lirra by the River

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Last year, I read Tirra Lirra by the River, a novel by Jessica Anderson. As a young woman, the main character, Nora, jumps at the chance to leave the backwaters Australian community where she grew up. As an old woman, she returns and wonders whether leaving had been the right decision after all.

Nora has a gift for art. In various ways, she draws on her artistic skills after leaving home, but towards the end of her life she also thinks that she would have grown more as an artist had she stayed.

Throughout her life, she suffers various heartbreaks, including a wretched marriage. After her marriage, she wonders if some paths are permanently closed to her:

I knew that like fruit affected by a hard drought, I was likely to be rotten before ripe. Sometimes I believed it was already too late, but at others I was seized by a desperate optimism that expressed itself in spates of chatter and laughter and hectic activity.

But it would be wrong to say that her life has been devoid of joy, interest, and friendship. And this is what brings me to the main point – What insights does the novel give us about dealing with regret?

Avoiding sentimentality and self-pity

Nora may feel angry, crushed, or terrified at various times in her life, but she doesn’t indulge much in self-pity. She also doesn’t try to sugar coat reality. Her retelling of her life has a clarity and straightforwardness that’s admirable. She can also take on a wry tone, finding absurdity in depressing circumstances.

She isn’t invulnerable to despair. But her general level-headedness is a way of dealing with regret and getting on. She doesn’t spend a lot of time railing against fate. She doesn’t lie to herself and pretend that everything is ok when it’s not. And – this is also important – she doesn’t pretend that something isn’t good enough when in fact it’s quite lovely and inspiring. Without being sentimental, Nora can appreciate what’s good.

Avoiding what-ifs

Nora has her “what if” moments during the book. But for the most part, she doesn’t dwell on alternate scenarios or choices left unchosen. She also doesn’t waste mental energy on “should haves” or “shouldn’t haves.” (“Things shouldn’t have turned out like this!”) Whether they should have or not isn’t really something we can fully understand or control. Things are as they are; hard work and powerful hopes don’t guarantee certain outcomes. Sometimes we do have the power to change things, but not always, or not to the extent we like. We face our circumstances, make various choices, and that’s it.

Seeking beauty

With her artist’s eye and her powerful determination, Nora does find beauty in all kinds of situations:

In whatever circumstances I have found myself, I have always managed to devise a little area, camp or covert, that was not too ugly. At times it was a whole room, but at others, it may have been only a corner with a handsome chair, or a table and a vase of flowers. Once, it was a bed, a window, and a lemon tree. But always, I have managed to devise it somehow, and no doubt I shall do it again.

This skill in seeing beauty has been with her all her life. For instance, when she was younger:

I was amazed and enthralled by the thickness and brilliance of the stars, by the rich darkness of the sky, and the ambiguous peacefulness of the blazing moon. In an aureole of turquoise the moon sailed across the sky, and as I watched, our block of land became a raft and began to move, sailing swiftly and smoothly in one direction while the moon and clouds went off in the other.

And when she’s an old woman:

… at the other end of the veranda, I can see the dark leaves climbing one behind the other, casting on the timber a shadow perforated by tear-shaped fragments of sunlight.

This ability to perceive beauty in various forms and make space for beauty even in the middle of pain or misery, is a potentially life-saving skill. And it can certainly help temper regret.

Notes from a New Year’s Day Fitness Fair

In what is a promising way to start 2020, I went to a fitness fair at a health club and community center. All of the classes at the fair were free, and it was a fun way to try some different activities. Here are my notes:

MELT method for improved neck and shoulder posture and pain relief

– I didn’t know what the MELT method was, and unlike in a regular class, the instructor didn’t have time to explain. She kept using certain terminology (like “shearing”), and she mentioned how this was about connective tissue.
– The particular exercises she used were supposed to help with the healthier position of the neck and shoulders and a release of tension in those areas, which is important for me, because when I write I have a tendency to get a tortoise neck (where my head pushes forward towards the laptop screen). So I thought maybe this could help.
– The exercises involved lying on a mat and using a cylindrical tube, a roller, made of foam that sometimes didn’t feel soft at all, like when it was digging into my spine.
– Some parts of me did feel genuinely more relaxed – not numbed, but truly more relaxed. But I also developed a pain in a part of my upper back. So, mixed results.
– Maybe it would have worked better with a smaller class where the instructor can stop next to each person and make sure their technique and roller positioning are good.

Nia Dance

– Ok, this was fun. So happy I signed up for this one.
– It was an hour-long workout combining dance, martial arts moves, and other types of movements (free-styling too). The warmup and cool down were effective, and the workout itself was energetic and called on the whole body.
– Also, the energy in the room was fantastic. A friendly vibe, people enjoying themselves. This was seriously a great activity.
– I felt happy, relaxed, and at peace with the world after.

A lecture on sleep

– Some of the stuff I learned kept me awake at night. (Just kidding, somewhat.) Anyway, sleep is a critical part of good health.
– It’s important to consider both quality and quantity of sleep.
– The lecturer talked about some things I’d like to look into further, like blue light from various screens and light fixtures (fine during the day, but could disturb ability to sleep when exposed to it at night before going to bed).
– Low-quality sleep can arise for multiple reasons, ranging from anxiety to problems in the physical environment. Also, the lecturer brought up a disturbing attitude towards sleep, where some people consider it unproductive or a waste of time.

Meditation

– Really low-key instructor. A relaxed, quiet guy. You could tell he meditates.
– The first meditation, which was just breath-focused, was pretty good, but I also felt impatient some times. The instructor talked about how to gently note the impatience and gently return attention to breathing whenever attention slips.
– The ticking of the clock sounded like a caterpillar munching on a leaf.
– The second meditation was more successful for me. It was focused on breathing and on a single word of your choice. I chose “mayim” (pronounced “mah-yim”), the Hebrew word for water. This also got me to imagine water flowing over me (including on the MELT-induced upper back ache), and to picture myself at one of the best beaches I’ve ever been to – the one at Halibut Point State Park near Rockport, MA. This is a photo I took when visiting there in the summer of 2017:

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– The third meditation involved focusing on a feeling of warmth and closeness. That one was good too, but for meditating on a regular basis I think I’ll do the second one most frequently.

Excessive Negative Thoughts: Coping Strategies

This video from Psych2Go starts out discussing the terrible effects too much negative thinking may have on your health. After that onslaught of negative thoughts, it lays out several coping strategies (starting around two and half minutes in).

One important point that comes up during the suggestion to use distractions: these strategies aren’t meant for avoidance. Even when you distract yourself with a book or a movie, the goal isn’t to keep trying to escape from a problem in your life. The goal is to help yourself become less stressed so that you’re able to deal with the problem more effectively after you’ve become more calm.

Good luck! (I can tell you that the tip about paying attention to body language caught me off guard. Jaw unclenched, for the time being…)

A Reminder About Humility in Judgment

A couple of days ago, I was thinking about something that often happens online (and offline too) – when you have a conversation with someone, and they aren’t really speaking to you; they’re speaking to their misconception of you.

In the conversation, you feel like an image has coalesced next to you. It vaguely resembles you, and it’s made up of the other person’s mistaken assumptions about your motives, beliefs, hobbies, etc.

To varying degrees, I think we all have a tendency to do this to other people. We fly to quick judgments about them based on stereotypes or based on our own fears or interactions with superficially similar people. Some people do this maliciously; they deliberately create cruel and damaging misconceptions that they try to force as truth during a conversation.

I remembered something I wrote a couple of years ago around this time of year – the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was a piece on humility in judgment. Humility isn’t a fashionable characteristic, especially because it’s often confused with ‘humiliation’ or ‘abject lowliness.’ In truth, it’s an aid to clearer thinking and integrity.

From that piece:

Humility opens up space for self-awareness, thoughtfulness, and doubt. You make a judgment whenever necessary, while remaining conscious of the fact that you may have erred or acted on incomplete knowledge. You acknowledge the possibility that you’ll need to revise your judgment in the future.

Forming a judgment with humility isn’t the same thing as assuming a non-judgmental pose or deciding that you aren’t capable of judging at all. Rather than kill your ability to judge, humility refines it. You’re less apt to rely on snap judgments and more likely to assess a situation thoughtfully, with a better sense of your limitations.

This isn’t easy. Humility is an admission that you’re living with uncertainty. It reminds you of the limits of your knowledge and powers of thought.

Let’s keep aiming for genuine humility in judgment, in conversation, and in thought. You can still speak with conviction but without overestimating how much (or how well) you know or understand.

Understanding the Difference Between Feeling and Acting

Have you noticed how often people confuse a feeling with how they act on that feeling?

For example, when parents beat their kids, and you ask them why, they might say, “I was angry.”

But that isn’t an answer. It’s a description of an emotional state. An answer would be, “I chose to act on my anger by beating my kid.” It was one of multiple options for how they could have handled their anger. “I was angry” is not an answer. It’s not an excuse for inflicting harm.

Even if the action isn’t something as severe as a beating, it can still be a damaging choice. “Screaming at,” for instance, or “putting down.”

Another example is how desire is used as an excuse for rape or sexual assault. As if there’s only one way to act on feelings of sexual desire. Like you’re on autopilot between the first stirring of desire and the act of harming another person.

And here’s another point to consider: An action doesn’t need to be external. It can be an internal response. For instance, someone might react to anger by suppressing it or pretending they don’t feel angry. This is ultimately a damaging choice, because if you suppress anger too often and for too long, it can lead to chronic high levels of stress, burnout, depression, addictive behaviors, and maybe over-the-top outbursts at some later point.

Managing your emotions and exercising self-control are a critical part of being a mature person. Ideally, you begin to learn useful lessons as a kid for how to understand feelings and figure out ways to deal with them that don’t involve harming other people or hurting yourself through self-destructive choices. Many people unfortunately don’t learn these lessons growing up, or they learn them inconsistently and poorly. Regardless, as an adult, it’s important to work towards greater maturity by distinguishing between emotions and actions and building up habits of thought and behavior that will help you avoid destructive choices.

I’m not saying this is easy to do. Sometimes the distance between an emotion and an action can seem incredibly small; it can even feel nonexistent. People have areas where they’re especially vulnerable, like sex or relationships more generally, food and drink, acquisitiveness, various kinds of fears. There are insecurities roiling beneath the surface, beliefs about what you’re entitled to, ingrained behaviors that kick in thoughtlessly, and other deep-seated issues that need to be examined and addressed. You also can’t be complacent about the self-control or maturity you’ve achieved so far. In day-to-day life, the hardest struggles often involve the power of various feelings and the temptation to take the least path of resistance to them, to surrender to them fully. But that isn’t the path of maturity and wisdom.

Three Parenting Styles to Avoid

I was recently talking to someone about “modern parenting,” and they were telling me how the main problem with parenting nowadays is that it’s too lenient. Lenient in the sense that kids get away with too much, run wild, fail to stay off people’s lawn, that kind of thing.

I don’t agree. I mean, there are definitely parents who are too permissive (and I’ll bring them up in the post). But based on what I’ve observed over the years, permissiveness isn’t the sole problem, or even one of the most important problems. A lot of dysfunctional parenting involves parents controlling their kids in unhealthy ways or placing expectations on them that aren’t realistic (like, “You will never fail, you will always be happy, you will always be my friend, you will be the answer to all my problems” etc.).

The three dysfunctional parenting styles I’m bringing up in this post are:

The Helicopter Parent

Helicopter parents hover over their kid in a stifling, unrelenting sort of way that’s inappropriate for the kid’s age and abilities. They micromanage many or all aspects of their kid’s life and keep the kid from confronting reasonable challenges.

Helicopter parents create a situation where their kids can’t function independently. They then say, “Because my kids can’t do things on their own, I need to swoop in and save them.” They thwart independence and exacerbate dependence.

These kids have a difficult time learning how to do things on their own, deal with setbacks, and work out interpersonal problems. They’re more likely to feel helpless and think of themselves as ineffective across different situations. Problems like anxiety and depression can easily take root in them.

The Buddy Parent

There’s nothing wrong with parents and kids being friendly with each other or having fun together. But there are parents who act as if they’re friends with their kids the way a classmate or sibling would be.

They don’t tend to set rules, define boundaries, or act as a reasonable authority figure or guide. (Far from consistently, anyway.) They want to be liked at all times. Some of them talk to their kids as they would to an adult friend and share their personal problems inappropriately. (They might in some ways wish to be kids themselves.)

In reference to the issue mentioned at the start of the post, this kind of parent is generally too lenient. (However, wanting to be your kid’s best buddy isn’t the only reason parents become overly permissive. Sometimes, parents aren’t particularly interested in their kids, and their permissiveness comes from being detached or neglectful.)

The Sculptor Parent

To these parents, the kid isn’t a person but a project. The kid can be shaped into a trophy, something the parent will be proud to display in-person and on social media posts. The kid can be crammed into the mold of an athlete, straight-A student, artist, scientist, beauty pageant contestant, or whatever else the parent needs them to be.

Parents who get competitive with each other, who strongly need approval from other people, or who want to live out various dreams and hopes through their child are all susceptible to becoming sculptors. Another scenario is when parents can’t stand certain qualities in the child – usually qualities that the parents hate in themselves. They lack the self-awareness to deal with their emotions in a mature way, so instead they apply the chisel to the marble or squeeze and squeeze the clay, as if their kid can be made into anything.

This parenting style hampers the child’s ability to explore and develop their own personality and interests in healthy ways. It teaches kids that they aren’t loved for themselves but for how they perform to expectations. Kids raised like this can wind up suffering burnout, depression, and an intense fear of failure, a sense that if they aren’t successful or given approval, they won’t be worth anything.

What Does Dysfunctional Parenting Typically Boil Down To?

There are other dysfunctional (and abusive) patterns of behavior that I haven’t covered here. But a key characteristic of dysfunctional parenting, regardless of the form it takes, is the parent’s inability to genuinely see their own child and treat the child as a distinct individual.

Parents wind up using the child to serve some psychological need. They might need the child to be a scapegoat, a vessel for the parent’s dreams, the parent v2.0 with certain bugs fixed, a clingy dependent who’ll never walk away, a best friend who’ll always like them, an uncomplaining servant, or whatever else.

Parents will often be controlled by the psychological need. They won’t be aware of it, at least not fully, and they’ll resist thinking deeply about their own actions, because the need is painful, powerful, and rooted in them. Parents usually find ways of rationalizing their behavior (“I’m keeping them safe, I want them to succeed”). But these parenting styles aren’t about safety, success, or happiness. They serve the parent psychologically while undermining the kid.