7-1-05: BOOK REPORT: The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Rather than looking forward to see what we're going to do with our unexpectedly long futures, I happened onto a book on the restack dolly in the Santa Maria (CA) library that brought a delightful focus to something in the past that many of us shared. It was the running of the first sub-four-minute mile!

There were two achievements that were considered undoable on foot before the end of World War II: running a mile in less than four minutes and reaching the peak of Mount Everest. Multiply that by the odds that either, much less both, would be achieved by an Englishman in the early 1950s, when the "gentlemanly amateur" attitude of England seemed to have been eclipsed by the "professional" athlete particularly in the U.S.--best shown by England’s solitary gold medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics (that in the last equestrian event on the last day)--and it bordered on the miraculous.

On June 2, 1953 two feathers almost simultaneously popped out of England's proud hat: Queen Elizabeth's coronation took place the day that the world first heard of the British Expedition's successful scaling of Mount Everest! All that remained for the “impossible trifecta” was for medical student Roger Bannister to reach the magic mile before upstart record holder John Landy, from Australia, or America's Kansas wonder Wes Santee.

I was a wee, skinny high school sophomore at that time who followed the quest on the Chicago Tribune sports pages, and it all seemed so remote and improbable that all I recall now was wondering when it did happen, on May 6 the following year, how much lower the record would go. I didn't have long to wait because a few months later Bannister and Landy both run under four minutes in the same race, in Canada. Santee never ran faster than 4:00.5, but the record is now about 15 seconds under four minutes and continues to drop…

Bascomb's book is a look at life in the 1950s as the three greatest runners of that time overcome personal hardships and work their way through college while whittling seconds off their personal bests. What stays in my mind is the extraordinary training feats each undertook--and pioneered for runners to follow. As interesting is the roles played then by such legendary names as Emil Zatopek, Franz Stampfl, the McWhirter twins (who later composed the Guinness Book of World Records), and Paavo Nurmi. The text reads like the true-life adventure it was, with the kinds of personal insights, fun, and derring-do that could only have come from the extensive one-on-one research the author conducted with the three respective national champions.

It's a great read even if you think running is for kids. You'll see how true that is!

5-1-05: BOOK REPORT: Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky.

I’m always hunting for “heroes,” seniors doing something exceptional and valuable, to share in my speeches and workshops. Aaron Lansky, a 40-something, hardly qualifies by age. If it weren’t for the curious thing he did (starting at age 23) and the charming, funny, and moving book he recently wrote about it, Outwitting History (NY: Workman, 2004), that I stumbled on in a library far from home, we’d miss sharing this valuable insight into the man who rescued 1.5 million Yiddish books and saved a dying literature!

His interest in Yiddish was nil (it wasn’t spoken at his home, and looked upon by others as something like “Black English”) until he saw “Fiddler on the Roof”! (As a non-Jew, that same musical prompted me to see what else Sholem Aleichem had written, and from there I wondered through Haim Potok and got hooked on I.B. Singer’s masterpieces about Poland.) With no money, spare storage room in friends’ apartments, and others’ certainty that Aaron was on a fool’s errand, the book takes us through his 25-year venture (during which he received the MacArthur “genius” fellowship) to the final repository, the magnificent National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he is founder and president.

The fun of the retelling centers around the people Lansky met (and with whom he worked), including many of the top Yiddish writers in their last years (with tales of other greats they knew). Mostly, though, it is the gratitude of the elderly afraid to die without having passed on their reading treasures, delivered to him one book at a time—but only after a proper nosh of gefilte fish, kasha, blintzes, and kugel.

Experts said there were only 70,000 Yiddish-language books in existence when he began his quest. Yet from attics, barns, basements, dumpsters, and buildings just hours from demolition, then other countries throughout the world, came yellowing pages, memories, and dreams, until what began as chutzpah now finds every saved volume also digitally preserved! Why is that important? Says Lansky, “Yiddish literature is finite, it is enormously important, a link between one epoch of Jewish history and the next. Especially now, after the unspeakable horrors of the twentieth century, (it) endures as our last, best bridge across the abyss.”

As touching were Lansky’s zamlers, his scouts, like the Fields who were in their eighties and lived in an upper floor of a New York City co-op high-rise. They gathered several hundred books every six weeks by taking the bus all over the Bronx, ringing doorbells, and each carrying back four books at a time! Or Sam Ostroff who was told by the doctor that he’d had enough excitement in his life and he should now sit home and do nothing. But rather than waiting patiently for the Malekhamoves (the Angel of Death), he collected books and went to the senior center to teach other old people how to make things “instead of waiting around for You-Know-Who to come calling.”

If we’re looking for something valuable to do with our extra 30 years, and Lansky is to be rewarded by emulation, we needn’t limit ourselves to the well-trodden path. Find his book at the library, even buy it, and see if it doesn’t stir your juices!

And the title? The great Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich predicted that Yiddish would prevail even though half its speakers were killed in the Holocaust. Why? “Because Yiddish has magic, it will outwit history.”

3-1-05: What Are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World, by William H. Thomas, M.D. (Acton, MA: Vander Wyck & Burnham, 2004)

I was first drawn to this author by an article in the AARP Bulletin (11/2004) called “The Search for Being,” which was a summary of Dr. Thomas’s book. The book leaves me with mixed reactions. The writing is clear, the examples are well chosen, and the premise is enticing, but it leaves too much unsaid about elderhood and it spends too much time blaming adulthood, of all things, for much of what’s wrong with today’s society, and by extension the direction it is taking us in the future.

Let me first set aside the last third of the book in which the Eden Alternative (a brilliant concept central to Dr. Thomas’s current life) and elderhood (the last years of one’s life) are featured. It left me wanting to know more…and I was unconvinced that elders will save the world, or how, as the subtitle of the book suggests.

What I found excellent was the author’s discussion of senescence (which will be the topic of my next book, hopefully out this fall.) This is where most of us are at present, at the end of the “doing” (because we must) phase of adulthood and entering or in the being-doing phase (where we do things because we want to).

Thomas divides life into five ages: childhood (pure being), adolescence (doing-being), adulthood (doing), senescence (being-doing), and elderhood (being again). The two most exciting stages are the transitional ones, adolescence and senescence, both indeterminate in length. They are the eyes of change where the greatest freedoms (and uncertainties) lie.

What attracts me to senescence (other than simply having lived that long) is its utter uniqueness: before 1900 only a very few survived adulthood to experience it. Today, more than 50% of the people who ever reached 65 are alive, and they’re all senescents! It’s the time, says Thomas, when we’re tired of the job and hustle, ready to release the family to its own quests, and eager to find some quality time to do new things and explore. In botany, senescence is when the flower ripens.

Thomas gives a poignant example: baking cookies. For adults, it’s on the “to do” list. Kids are either banished or, as the author says, “included, with some apprehension. The cookies are baked with dispatch, and dire warnings about eating raw cookie dough (possible salmonella) are issued along with lessons about the virtue of cleaning up as you go.”

The senescent doesn’t have to bake cookies, she wants to. Kids are welcome. “Flour, sugar and eggs are used with abandon. Bizarre and experimental cookie shapes are encouraged. Eating raw cookie dough? ‘Never mind what your mother says; go right ahead.’”

I like everything that Thomas says about aging, about senescents being a blessing rather than the economic bane of the future, about the need to recognize the natural flow of the five ages. And what he says about elderhood is flat on. What Are Old People For? plows new paths in understanding particularly relevant to those of us reading these pages as we wade mapless through the newfound land.

11/1/04: How to Care for Aging Parents by Virginia Morris (2nd ed., rev. and updated. NY: Workman Publishing, 2004)

Need I say more: if you live long enough and your parents live longer, they will become your aging parents. And at some point they will need care.

Why go it alone? Why not use Virginia Morris’s practical, loving, and up-to-date advice, plus her “Yellow Pages” to find professionals? If 80% of those 85+ are cared for by family, well, here’s a buddy book that discusses all the things we’d probably rather not. Like incontinence, the will, the car keys, latter-life drinking, and that 92-year-old penniless swain courting your not-so-poor mom!

Our issue is usually balancing career and caregiving, and how we can help our folk(s) fully enjoy their active, involved second lives while we just get through our first lives and into our second. Is it a big issue? Since 1995 the number of adult children caring for a family member has increased from 4 million to 19.5, and by 2007 that is expected to reach 39 million. (My daughters are reading this with trepidation since their mother and I are wasting fast but showing no signs of a quick demise.)

How to Care for Aging Parents is excellent. The writing is crisp, touching, and always on target, with plenty of humor. It’s a 700-page comfort that may be the best Christmas gift around.

Let me simply list the chapters to show the breadth of its contents, and let you decided if this will help meet a present or pending need: Get Ready, Get Set; Your Parent and You; Caring for the Caregiver; Healthy Aging; Heart, Mind, and Soul; Tips for Daily Living; Getting Help; More Help, at Home; The Inner Circle; Doctor Do’s and Don’ts; The Body Imperfect; Matters of the Mind; On the Fifth Floor (in a hospital); Paying the Way; Paying for Health Care; Legal Issues; Home Away from Home; A Good Nursing Home; Making the Move Work; The Aging Brain; Living with Dementia; Managing Day to Day; The Last Good-bye; The Aftermath; Good Grief; You’re Next, and The Yellow Pages of Help.

A last thought. Some of us are those aging parents—how did that happen? And, odd as it sounds, this is a dandy book of self-guidance for our own aches, concerns, frailties, and indecisions. It may be as good a self-gift this Christmas!


5/1/02: BOOK REPORT: Creating Your Future: Five Steps to the Life of Your Dreams, by Dave Ellis (Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

Here’s a dandy book brought to my attention a couple of months back by John Azzaro that parallels my own book (How to Plan a Great Second Life) in significant ways, particularly in using a dream life as the goal one might seek and reasonably expect to attain, plus time lines, prioritizing, and sharing with a mate. This book reads well, is believable throughout, and is full of solid ideas about why and how one can gain control of their life and direct their future. He builds his theme around the five C’s: commit, create, construct, carry out, and celebrate.

Committing to your future involves dreaming, goal setting, and planning all parts of the process, not predicting it. “(It) is designed to raise the vitality, quality, and enjoyment of your own life.”

Creating that future, for Dave, “involves a continuous cycle of reflection and action.” This is the book’s strongest chapter and offers solid ways to let the creativity flow.

Constructing means taking those dreams and plans and giving them an intended form. To do that, the editor suggests adding these things to each creation: time lines, priorities, categories, and partners.

The most overwhelming chapter discusses “carrying out,” in which Ellis suggests 22 ways to convert the goals into practical reality. These range from focusing your attention, speaking candidly, revising your habits, appreciating mistakes, to contributing. Where to begin? Anywhere, Ellis would say, but begin!

His chapter about celebration is obvious, but he encourages us to also keep the planning process alive so that others will also be encouraged and ultimately benefit.

There are three significant differences in Dave’s book and mine. He speaks to readers of any age rather than focusing on and addressing latter-life considerations. He provides clear guidelines, solid examples, and encouragement but isn’t process focused, nor does he provide any tools (like charts or financial sheets) to help the planner along the way. Third, Ellis speaks of money and health but apparently assumes they will take care of themselves as the planner moves forward.

This isn’t a criticism because the book is highly recommended reading. It was written from a clearly different point of view and for a different reason.

There is also a welcome sense of joy on his pages. He says, “Although creating the future can be serious, it does not have to become somber.”

Ellis previously wrote Becoming a Master Student, which sold three million copies.

I knew nothing of Ellis, nor I’m sure he of me, as we concurrently created our books. It’s exciting to see that we both looked at life and saw a similar need: to grab hold of the future and direct it your way. We were two souls plowing in an empty field (there was nothing at all in print about this topic for either of us to expand upon or react to) who cut similar furrows that ultimately go in different directions, less in spirit or intent than in the way we saw our readers, those who would most benefit from or most needed our words. Ellis’s book is a must-read for 30-year-olds; mine, for those 40-50 and up (with fill-ins).

We both agree, as Dave says, “that creating your future is an act of artistry. When you do this kind of creating, you are the ‘author’ of your future.”

3/1/02: BOOK REPORT: Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can’t Get Unless You’re Over 50, by Joan Rattner Heilman (13th Updated Edition, Contemporary Books, 2001)

When I first compiled resources for my own book (How to Create Your Own Super Second Life: What Are You Going to Do With Your Extra 30 Years?), I ran across a half-dozen “free stuff” and “free deals” books for seniors that seemed to be uniformly outdated and mostly a grab-bag of “deals” not worth making.

But I like Joan Heilman’s book, despite its glitzy title, for a series of reasons: (1) it talks about things that I want to know more about or places I’d like to affordably see (and think you would too), (2) a wholly unscientific check of eight random items found all of them to exist and to be as described, (3) you don’t have a 13th edition by publishing twelve earlier losers, and (4) can 850,000 buyers be wrong?

The book mostly focuses on travel. After some introductory chapters, it discusses airfares, hotels/ motels, alternative lodgings, car rentals, trains, buses, boats, travel abroad, trips and tours, intergenerational adventures, singles on the road, learning after 50, “good deals for good sports,” parks, summer camp, and other matters like volunteering and taxes.

Two segments were sufficiently different for me to share here, but the rest is in fact a real bargain at $12.95. (Incidentally, the 14th edition will be available in mid-April, for $14.95. Check your bookstore or

We all know that most major hotel/motel chains will give those of us 50+ discounts with an AARP card or something equivalent, but throw some adventure into the mix and Heilman lists some unique “alternative lodgings.” The Affordable Travel Club is an example, where for $60 a year you get a directory and twice-yearly newsletter to some 1,400 places where you can stay for $15 a night ($20 for a double), breakfast included. Then you host someone else. Call (253) 858-2172. These “lodgings” range in price and posh (and sometimes reciprocity) and include American-International Homestays, Del Webb’s Sun Cities, Elderhostel Homestays, the Evergreen Bed and Breakfast Club, Seniors Abroad at (858) 485-1696, Servas International, the Women Welcome Women World Wide, and others…

Dancing your thing? Then Joan has just the ticket for single men 45+ with excellent dancing and social skills. (Do such men actually exist?) They become “gentlemen hosts” on cruise ships, sailing almost free and tripping the light fantastic worldwide on such lines as Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, and Royal Olympic. All the details on applying are included.

What about the ladies from 50-90 with dancing shoes without beaus? Then the Merry Widow Dance Tours (with one gentleman host for every four women) is just for them, with tours of 7-18 days to a dozen exotic locales. Call (800) 313-7245.

If you don’t already know about Elderhostel, this book properly reminds you several times that they are one of the best things about being 55+. Better yet, they now have cruises and overseas programs. Their thick seasonal catalogs should be must reading the moment the last kid flees or is locked out of your house.

Joan Heilman’s book isn’t brain surgery. It’s how you fill your extra 30 years with fun, excitement, and growth, before the brain surgery (or shrinkage).

12/1: BOOK REPORT: How We Choose to Be Happy: The 9 Choices of Extremely Happy People—Their Secrets, Their Stories by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks (2000, Perigree Book)

In the last SSL Newsletter, I shared a quick way to define our own happiness, then build from it. The technique came from Foster and Kicks’ book, which I had read about in another text. Yet the concept of creating extreme happiness intrigued me. None of the nearby libraries had the book so I drove to San Luis Obispo and scoured the Barnes and Noble shelf. Success! (While I was there, I also saw the Cal Poly Drama Department’s presentation of Moliere’s “The Miser.” Double, vintage happiness.)

In summary, this is an excellent and very useful book: extremely well written, with clear steps, realistic examples, and simple actions we can take to immediately infuse happiness in our lives, for now and for later. It’s not brain science—if we’re getting these gift years, why not intentionally wrap them in happiness both forever and as soon as possible?

For the past decade or so, the authors traveled widely to test, then interview the happiest people that others knew. “Rich or poor, black or white, married or single, old or young, they each created happiness by making the same nine choices,” they concluded. So in 1996, they began applying what they learned to interactive happiness workshops so the participants could learn how to build greater happiness into their lives. The results of the testing, interviews, and workshops have created an intriguing guidebook.

The book’s contents are a detailed elaboration of what they call “A Holistic Model of How We Choose to Be Happy.” The nine choices are intention, accountability, identification, centrality, recasting, options, appreciation, giving, and truthfulness.

About them, Foster and Hicks say “each of the nine choices made by happy people stands alone as an important and valuable life choice. But when they come together, they create a synergistic system. In other words, when they work as a whole their total result is far greater than the sum of their individual parts. And that synergy creates deep, long-term happiness… Happiness is a recipe. It’s like the chocolate cake your grandmother baked from scratch. It’s made of nine ingredients and they’re all there for a reason. The cake becomes a cake because of the chemical interaction of all the ingredients. If you leave one of them out, the cake won’t turn out to be a cake. Much like the complex recipe, if we use these nine choices together, they will create the energized, glowing countenance we associate with extremely happy people.”

My fear was that what the authors saw as happiness might be some bouncing, giddy, Pollyanna–like quality that denied reality and hid behind denial. Far from it. Their examples were open-eyed people just like us who felt sadness and grief and all of the usual assaults on happiness but moved through them and displayed “a profound, enduring feeling of contentment, capability and centeredness.” People with a rich sense of well-being and a “deep sense of engagement—living in the moment and enjoying life’s bounty.”

Are we one of those blessed souls? They offer a three-page “Happiness Inventory” to rate ourselves, then a book that suggests ways to build (or is it lighten) up our areas in need of repair.

I was surprised to see that the authors also used a Dream List. One excerpt shows how that list works. It is the story of “Margaret,” a therapist and author, who initially thought that personal happiness was a silly objective.

“At first the question ‘What makes me happy?’ sounded shallow. When I created my Dream List in the workshop, I judged myself for how simple and insignificant things like ‘walks on the beach’ and ‘long bubble baths’ were, compared to more important things, like service and duty.

“But as the workshop progressed, the question of happiness began to move me. I saw how I could really improve the quality of my life by indulging myself in those small ways. I felt I didn’t need to accept my life the way it was. It was as though I was seduced by the power to make myself happy. If I could be happy in these small ways, why couldn’t I make myself happy in large ways? From the beginning the process of identification had a profound effect on my whole life.

“I believe more than ever about giving back to the community. But now I also believe that I can build happiness into my life. When I do, I’m more energized and less stressed. I’m nurturing myself as I nurture the community.”

The authors comment: “Margaret has overcome her most significant obstacle—feeling that she didn’t deserve to spend time on herself. She is more loving toward herself.”

I found another quote buried near the center of the 227-page text particularly worth sharing, since what binds us together is our interest in creating and using the best possible options in our second life.

From an example called Phyllis: “I have a philosophy. Any choice can be reversed, but not choosing at all is irreversible.”

One good choice, if a bit of happiness would enrich your chocolate cake of a life: read How We Choose to Be Happy: The 9 Choices of Extremely Happy People—Their Secrets, Their Stories by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks. (Check your library at 158.1.)

11/1: BOOK REPORT: First Hired, Last Fired by Dr. Robert M. and Susan J. Bramson.

The sub-title of this 1999 Contemporary Books book explains its singular, one-note purpose: “How to Make Yourself Indispensable in an Age of Downsizing, Mergers, and Restructuring.”

“Who cares?” you ask. “I’m easing out of that craziness and slipping into a cushy second life.” Great, but rejoining any work force, paid or voluntary, almost guarantees that without some survival strategy greater than “a few extra bucks for the kitty,” you will put yourself into that all-too-familiar “last hired, first fired” category.

It seems to me that skilled, motivated folks wise enough to create a second life are usually looking for a vehicle (like a firm, association, or organization) through which they can make a dent in the world. Often their effectiveness depends upon three things: (1) the clarity of their vision about what they want to do, (2) their ability to use the vehicle—and be used by it—to affect change, and (3) their knack for making themselves truly valuable and needed so they can stick long enough to see their visions happen. The toughest hurdle is the first three months…

So I was intrigued by this thin (246-page) primer in the library (658.14) that is full of wisdom and how-to steps. Its contents are equally as valuable for your kids or grandkids, and might be a fun topic for a serious conversation in which all the readers have a similar stake in its message.

The Bramsons’ focus on six key qualities that make indispensable people stand out as special:

* They have certain qualities of mind—they have a “system” orientation to problem solving, see beyond the surface of problems, don’t oversimplify complex issues, have flexible minds, get broad input, think a lot before they decide, and are loaded with practical intelligence.

* They have an odd notion about employment—they have an owner’s mentality (though they are seldom the owners), see themselves as responsible for the success of the whole enterprise, are more attuned to their own sense of quality and ethics than organizational policies, and their work is highly satisfying to them (though they kept it in balance with the rest of their life).

* They are ready to interact with others (but only in certain ways)—they will help others when needed, willingly work as part of a team, are supportive of coworkers who deserve support, are candid, and listen thoughtfully to others.

* They stay relatively free from most organizational tensions and conflicts—they are confident of their abilities yet continually learn, aren’t status conscious, avoid turf battles, aren’t driven to compete for higher levels of success, and are extraordinarily productive because they seek to better their own performance.

* They have positive, can-do attitudes—they are consistently positive, yet realistic, about the possibilities in any problem situation.

* They are adaptable to change—they are survivors and victors in any upheaval, self-motivated and confident that they will be all right.

Almost as surprising were the “obvious” qualities that turned out to be irrelevant to one’s indispensability, such as being the most technically competent, always showing up, working long hours or weekends, deciding quickly, appearing aggressively success-oriented, being loyal to the organization, being seen as highly creative, or even having a pleasing personality.

If your reaction to becoming vocationally indispensable to somebody else in your second life is revulsion, enough said. But if this piques your curiosity, the book clearly explains each of the points made above, then walks you through the steps of “Becoming an Indispensable Person (I.P.),” “Planning Your Indispensability Program,” “ Thinking Like an Indispensable I.P.,” Enhancing Your I.P. Interpersonal Skills,” and “Developing an I.P. Perspective.”

 This is a book to share. The indispensable will read it, then promptly return it.

10/1: BOOK REPORT: Growing Old in America by David Hackett Fischer

In the Dark Ages when I taught prehistory of the Americas at a Midwestern college, I was surprised to discover that Aztecs considered drunkenness a capital offense, yet anybody reaching 50 was exempt from the rules. So when a book about demography and aging was recommended by a fellow social historian as perhaps the best on the topic, I dug in.

David Fischer’s heavily-footnoted Growing Old in America is full of surprises. It’s scholarly, fun to read, and enlightening. An eye-opener is his first chapter, “The Exaltation of Age in Early America.” He shows that veneration of old age was widely preached, and held as natural and normal—if God favored a person to live long, others were to honor that choice. Obligation and deference were to be shown. Older meant better; oldest meant best.

There were, of course, far fewer to venerate —only 2% reached 65 and length of life, by the 1770s, was one third of today’s. That high regard also quickly disappeared as one dropped in financial status. The only thing sadder than a poor widow was an old slave.

Of those rare few who were well positioned and long-toothed, the Puritans believed that old age was not an accident but a special gift of God’s pleasure. They assumed the roles of elders (in church and state) and sat in the most favored pews. The image of God as an old man continues to this day, but then the Puritan image of Christ also had hair “white like wool, as white as snow.” And their image of angels was of men in their seventies.

The older clergy were typical of their peers: they preached until their dying day. If dismissed, it was almost always for cause rather than age. The same for judges, schoolmasters, and political leaders. This also translated into slowness to surrender land to their children, who were held hostage, usually married and living at home until late in their own lives.

Living long exacted a price. “To be old in early America was to be wracked by illness.”  Benjamin Franklin was a case in point, afflicted with “the stone” and gout, which he kept at bay with massive quantities of opium. Says Fischer, “as (Franklin) lay in misery upon his deathbed, his daughter tried to console him with the hope he might live many years longer, ‘I hope not,’ he replied.”

There was little change for the first 200 years. Then “The Revolution in Age Relations” began, from 1770-1820, through the ashes of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. In church seating, wealth replaced age. Being old fell out of favor. When lying to the census-taker, people dropped rather than added years. Men no longer dressed to look older; wigs and white powder were replaced by knee breeches and trim coat cuts. A new vocabulary of pejorative terms emerged to express contempt for age, like fogy, codger, geezer, baldy, and oldster. The direction of age bias was quickly reversed.

As more lived longer, the eminence of age diminished. The increase in the number of elderly was dramatic: in 1830, about one-third of all native-born Americans survived to the age 60; more than half did in 1900; in 1940, two-thirds; in 1960, three-quarters, and in 1975, four-fifths. Two words born of the wars spelled the elders’ fate: equality and liberty… And in the early 1900s a new word described many if not most of those 50 or older: poor.

Fischer walks the reader through America’s history as seen by older eyes, showing the slow emergence of retirement, Social Security, and pension plans. The most important lesson is how the older American’s role and status has been completely turned around, and is only now beginning to find balance.

That the book was published (by Oxford Press) in 1977 does not affect its historical insights and solid research. But it would be interesting to see how much the ship has righted between the 1950s and today.

At no point in American history until the past two decades has the concept of a Super Second Life been even close to reality. That it is possible and sustainable by a majority of Americans today is as alarming and encouraging as any fact in Fischer’s book. A careful reading of his pages make our unique position all the more remarkable—a sort of two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth homer for our team!

9/1: Book Report: New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time, by Gail Sheehy

Most of us read (or heard about) Gail Sheehy’s book Passages, published in 1976, in which the journalist defined life by time periods, until 50, and contended that not only did we think and act alike during those periods, we were also disturbed or distressed in roughly the same way during the intervals between them, or the passages. (A debatable premise but there are enough similarities at age plateaus to build around.)

Surprise! As Gail aged twenty years, she discovered that she (or we) needed a book that covered the 50+ period, plus a quick review of the earlier book, particularly the now remarkably different 40-50 age segment. New Passages is that update, published in 1995.

What did Gail find, then document in this highly-readable, example-filled book? That what society presumes about deterioration and aging is largely a myth, and much more individualistic than biological. If people stay mentally and physically active, avoid dietary extremes, and follow their health regimens, they can determine and maintain the high quality of their lives until their last few months, when, often, illness intrudes. And even illness isn’t inevitable.

It’s understood (at least by readers of this newsletter) that we are taking longer to die, but has is only recently become obvious that society is taking longer to grow up (although this won’t surprise anybody with college-aged, and 30ish, kids). Start at 20 and add about ten years to every life passage and we are closer to 21st century truths. Then see menopause, retirement, and the “empty nest” as the gate to Second Adulthood, with another 30-40 years of potentially healthy, vigorous, alert living possible, and we have the territory she calls the “Passage to the Age of Mastery” (at about 50) and then “The Passage to the Age of Integrity” at around 60.

What I liked best about Sheehy’s book was both her research (mostly using census data) confirming that we are the healthiest and brightest “old folks” ever (and can remain so well into and through our 80s, even 90s) and her examples showing the myriad of new, liberating lifestyles we can assume if we take the effort to do so.

She also emphasizes the need to plan, to find anchors we can moor to, when we start seeing our friends dying around us. That we must have purpose, be productive, and intentionally enjoy life, otherwise “when the seas become unpredictably rough, the wave may break over us and we’ll begin losing ground.” Gail says we must take responsibility for our future, integrate that with our mates, and inject new meaning into our gift years. “The secret in the search for meaning is to find your passion and pursue it.”

Though the book is five-plus years old, it remains a profitable and enjoyable read. Her examples are well chosen and her message carries promise. She notes that with the pace of life constantly accelerating “we seldom take time to process even the most meaningful experiences of our lives; we just speed through them." In a Second Life we can create the time and we can apply the brakes as needed. She provides a good analytical tool to evaluate our past and present lives so we can plan our own best future.

(In the same issue I look at one segment of New Passages to share Gail Sheehy'sslnewsletter9-1-01.htm">


8/1: Book Report: Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, by Dr. Mary Pipher

This is a difficult book to review since it is almost totally anecdotal or told through examples. Two things I can say: (1) Mary Pipher is a gifted, gentle writer whose words sing, so its reading is a literary pleasure, and (2) if you still have parents (or older kin or loved ones) still in your life, it is full of sage advice and good models of ways to begin that needed, final dialog to bring guidance and comfort to your life and theirs.

Many know Dr. Pipher, psychologist and lecturer, as the author of Reviving Ophelia and The Shelter of Each Other.

The book’s back cover describes its contents better than I can, so let me share that with you, to see if its reading would be a valuable use of your time: “The landscape of age is that of Another Country. In this helpful, hopeful field guide, Mary Pipher turns her keen eye to a troubled passage—the journey into old age. She writes about our parents and grandparents, because as they grow older, the relationships among us become more complex and difficult just when they need to be the closest and strongest. And the aging process can be just as painful for us—daughters and sons, granddaughters and grandsons—as for them. The gradual turning of life’s tide can take us by surprise, as we find ourselves unprepared to begin caring for those who have always cared for us. And many of us realize that we are also lacking a useful way to think about growing older ourselves. We need ways of supporting one another—new ways of sharing our time and our energy and our love. In Another Country, Mary Pipher shows us how.”

I’ve read this book twice in the past year, even though my last parent died eight years back. I wish I had read it 15 years ago because it would have given me new ways to share with my mother and father. There was some sadness during the first reading because of things not said or done. I frankly don’t know why I read it again. I picked it up one Saturday morning and spent that afternoon enjoying Pipher’s words, her warmth, and her friends.

Caring for parents can be a gnarled, touchy, testy jungle whether you’re in the same home or you are a continent apart. Pipher helps strip back a lot of the unknown and gives everybody involved loving tools to say and do those final things.

7/15: Book Report: Dr. William Sadler’s The Third Age: 6 Principles of Growth and Renewal After Forty

If you want interesting, living examples of folks doing what this newsletter advocates, here’s a book that not only breaks the process into six “second growth steps” (which Sadler somewhat complicates by calling “paradoxical principles”), it provides clear illustrations of the steps in action.

I found the Introduction and first and last chapters the most useful in defining both the “Super Second Life” concept and the promise of a full, satisfying life that its planning and implementation can bring.

In the Introduction, Sadler, a Harvard-trained sociologist, explains that when he was working in East Africa he was amazed by the attitude and vigor of his African coworkers, and the seemingly premature aging of his comparable forty-and fifty-year-old American colleagues. Many years later he again “critically question(ed) our culture’s assumptions about ‘normal’ patterns of adult development and aging.” The results are this book, directed to help readers “discover, understand, and develop a creative growth process that will transform the entire second half of their lives.”

He rejects as myths that we will face some distinct (and presumably life-shrinking) midlife crisis, that more years mean feeling lousy, that aging diminishes our love and passions, and that we must relinquish what we earlier enjoyed. With the new 30 additional years that we have to  live, Sadler argues for the need for a new paradigm that injects a richer, more vibrant, more meaningful transformation into what the “declining philosophy” would have us believe is a period of stagnation and slide before demise.

“Getting older has commonly been associated with five deadly D words: decline, disease, dependency, depression, and decrepitude. After these, of course, comes the sixth dreaded D word, which marks the end of the line… It’s time to trade in our old model for a new one… (I)f we learn to take advantage of our life bonus, we can design our future so that it is characterized by vital R words such as renewal, rebirth, regeneration, revitalization, and rejuvenation.”

Sadler sees the alternative to middle-aging as “second growth,” which the book then develops, with examples of how we can apply the “paradoxical principles” to our own lives. These six steps, and the chapters devoted to them, are:

· Balancing mindful reflection and risk taking
· Developing realistic optimism
· Creating a positive midlife identity—growing older/growing young
· Balancing greater personal freedom with deeper, more intimate relationships
· Creating more meaningful work and more play
· Caring for self but also for others and for the earth

In the opening chapter, Sadler decries the dated vocabulary like middle age, aging, and life stages, seeing them as self-fulfilling prophecies of decline. He sees the more recent European four-stage model as being more helpful. The first age is for learning, the second age for work and family, the third age for living, and the fourth, for aging.

Our focus here is on the third age, which in America is a new, vaguely perceived concept that the longevity revolution is forcing us to deal with and define. Previous generations died too soon to enjoy that third age. It’s still a terra incognita yet to be planted on life maps.

Sadler suggests that we look at the discovery by women 30 years ago to overcome the cultural and linguistic biases and give the new period its own identity. “Age norms are as artificial as gender stereotypes. Both age and gender norms are cultural artifacts, not genetic givens.”

The rest of The Third Age: 6 Principles of Growth and Renewal After Forty the book develops the theme through steps and examples, with a capstone chapter, “It’s Your Life After All: Stepping Into More Purposeful Living,” which starts by asking us to create our own mosaic, forgetting the old status symbols to create a post-institutional identity in an era when society doesn’t particularly value maturity. We will be plowing against the cultural stream with little social support. There will be darkness, loss, and pain, but the goal is to live fully the extra years, then age successfully in the final few.

This is a mind-expanding and reaffirming book that is at times a bit academic but never deviates from its core message that we are pioneers suddenly blessed with extra years, better health, more education, and far more knowledge and who have a unique opportunity to make a huge difference to ourselves, our families, and our world.

7/1: It’s Only Too Late If You Don’t Start Now: How to Create Your Second Life After 40 by Barbara Sher

I saw this book sitting on a table at a university library almost three years ago, and since the table was empty, the book had clearly been abandoned (probably by some head-shaking sophomore barely two decades wet). I sat down, picked it up, and laughed for two hours. Because laughing in libraries is discouraged, I laughed out loud (stiff-lipped and internally), then went home and immediately ordered my own copy.

Not only was I struck by the similarities in our program titles (my own book was in its first draft and was then called How to Design Your Own Super Second Life), I was also surprised at how differently we saw what were the key components of that second life. Surprised because we were about the same age--to that sophomore, anybody over 40 was about the same, appalling age. Barbara and I were both plunk in the middle of our second lives.

Perhaps the quickest summary of our differences is that Barbara Sher works from the inside out, from the mind and soul, helping the reader create a new persona (or at least a liberated one) who will, in turn, modify (or ignore) the externals needed to most fully use and enjoy their last 30 years, while I help that person look at a smorgasbord of factors--primarily money, health, and dreams--first, to help them create a planning base, hoping that the dream component (what they want to do with or during those 30 years) will then become the engine that will direct the full use of those other components.

Yet our destinations and grander intent are the same and the approaches are fully compatible. Sher is a therapist and career counselor; I am a social historian. We see and describe second life paths through eyes differently trained, yet we build from the same critical assumption: the second life is a fresh opportunity to revitalize old dreams or create news ones. Those dreams can add new depth, texture, and meaning to our lives. They give us an opportunity to use our knowledge, learning, experience, and passion to start over and fully live again!

But this is Barbara Sher’s hour. It’s Only Too Late If You Don’t Start Now: How to Create Your Second Life After 40 is absolutely first-rate: eye-opening, funny, soul-lifting, and full of step-by-step strategies, exercises, and techniques. My first reading told me it was a woman’s book full of gender-shared carryovers. My second found a lot of wisdom that any reader would benefit from, with a wellspring of liberating ideas that second-life women would particularly value.

A look at the book’s contents, in order, conveys its flavor and direction: Nature and Instinct: Your First Life; You Are Here; Don’t Panic, It’s Only a Midlife Crisis; You Are Not the Favorite; Illusions; Time Limits; Age; Beauty; Love; What’s Your Score; Escape to Freedom; Power; Reclaiming Your Original Self: Your Second Life; The Courage to Live Your Life; Turning Dreams into Goals, and Going for Greatness.

My copy of Sher’s book is so full of highlights that I want to retell you almost everything she says. But she does it so much better in the original that I can only strongly suggest that you read her words and apply the parts that will make your coming years as full and exciting as you wish them to be.

Let me limit myself to extracting my favorite points from Barbara’s first chapter, “Don’t Panic, It’s Only a Midlife Crisis,” to give you a taste of why I think this book is important and worth reading. But let’s do that at

6/15: Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America by Marc Freedman

This is an extraordinarily good book, a term I seldom use.  Marc lays the rationale and process for a coming groundswell in senior community service, really a salvation to a nation starving for care, wisdom, and time-free attention to its social needs. That’s a two-way road: America benefits and we benefit, using our knowledge and resources to be better people.

Freedman first explains the phenomenon of the "30 extra human years," then shows the tensions that creates: are we new old people, living beyond our procreative use, going to drag society down or elevate it? He champions the latter, then shows in detail how that might be done.

Most important of all, this isn't guesswork from academia. He's one of the vital players in the field. His solutions will appeal to all political stripes.

This is the thumbnail review in the newsletter.. Let me go into much more detail, and link to the many volunteer programs that Marc discusses or suggests, at

6/1: You’re Fifty—Now What? by Charles S. Schwab

While the second half of the book’s title is, predictably, “Investing for the Second Half of Your Life,” the book is much more than the usual half-scare, chart-and-tremble financial tome reminding us that a reserve of many millions will still be far too little…

Schwab the person pops through on almost every page. A decent man who seems to have a solid grasp of where the average person is. He shows in straightforward fashion how we can reduce the “bag lady”/”street bum” terror out of living longer, paying more, and probably saving less.  The expected conservative financier with admonitions to save is there, of course, but this book is a solid, useful read and resource.

One surprise is Schwab’s advice to keep at least 50% of our second-life earnings in stocks, rather than the usual “swap stocks for bonds” recipe. He also tells us that “90% of (our) long-term investment return variability is determined by asset allocation (and) less than 10% of (our) return is determined by (our) choice of individual investments.” And that the difference between a regular coffee and a specialty coffee drunk five times a week (if invested for 20 years at 10%) is  $27,028—when we could use it most! Consider how much richer we’d be if we just drank tap water.

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Gordon Burgett
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