Author Archives: Maren

Women’s Health

During a peak period in parent care, I checked in with my primary care physician for an annual physical. I reported symptoms of fatigue, brain fog, dry skin, joint aches, cold intolerance, and low heart rate – all classic signs of hypothyroidism. My doctor told me that I was depressed and suggested that I go on antidepressants. I explained that I did not feel anxious or depressed. He said, “If it walks like a duck and squawks like a duck, it’s a duck.” I passed on his advice and opted to see a naturopath instead. A simple blood test pointed to a thyroid problem. With the right medication, all of the symptoms went away.

stethoscopeUnfortunately, my experience is all too common. Studies reveal a gender-biased medical system that treats women as invisible, ignores their legitimate concerns, and belittles them. In a 2001 study (“The Girl Who Cried Pain”), men and women presented the same symptoms to their care providers. The men generally received pain-relief medication, while the women were directed toward sedatives. The presumption is that women are too emotional to report symptoms accurately. This dismissive attitude is especially troublesome given the prevailing hormonal epidemic. According to Dr. Aviva Romm, MD:

  • 85% of women experience troublesome premenstrual symptoms
  • At least 75% have painful or heavy periods
  • Up to 20% of women experience chronic pelvic pain
  • 10% of women have endometriosis, and half of all women aged 60+ will have had a hysterectomy
  • Between 5-10% of women have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • An estimated 30 million women have hypothyroidism

What has happened in the last 70+ years to have gotten our hormones so out of kilter? It turns out that our inner and outer ecosystems are no longer health promoting. We’re dealing with poor nutrition, elevated stress, substandard quantity and quality of sleep, poor digestion, a dysfunctional microbiome, toxic exposure and accumulation, excess use of over-the-counter and prescription medication, inflammation, and oxidative stress. That’s quite a lot! Mercifully,  Dr. Romm tells us that our sorry state of affairs can be reversed. We do not have to put up with unpleasant health outcomes!

In Hormone Intelligence: The Complete Guide to Calming Hormone Chaos and Restoring Your Body’s Natural Blueprint for Well-Being, Dr. Romm shares everything you might ever want to know about women’s health along with a 6-week detailed program for getting things back on a natural and balanced track. It includes:

  • A discussion on healthy eating along with detailed advice on what to eat and what to avoid for hormone health
  • An exploration of stress and its impact on hormone health along with a prescription for de-stressing your life
  • A fascinating look at the body’s natural rhythms and how to get the body’s master “clock” and peripheral “clocks” to synch up
  • A detailed discussion of the gut-hormone connection that covers topics about which I’ve posted earlier – i.e., the body’s enteric system and microbiome (Who knew that the small and large intestines would be so crucial for optima health?)
  • A prescription for detoxifying our bodies
  • Strategies for revitalizing cellular repair

The book is so jammed-packed with great information that I’d advise female readers to keep a copy of it on their bookshelves (or Kindle) for reference. It will equip them to have a more engaged dialog with their primary care providers. To that end, Dr. Romm offers the following tips to get the best medical care:

  1. Work with a woman. Studies show that they listen more, interrupt less, and make fewer mistakes.
  2. Remember, you’re the boss. You do not have to accept your doctor’s recommendations or treatment. You are entitled to get second opinions.
  3. Trust yourself. If something is “off,” don’t let yourself be shamed out of getting help to resolve it.
  4. Be your own advocate. (Dr. Romm’s book will help you gear up for that role.)
  5. Bring an advocate who can support you during your consultation – especially a forthright and/or knowledgeable one.
  6. Know when it’s time to get another doctor. If your care provider is disrespectful, condescending, distracted, or unskilled in a therapeutic modality that interests you, find someone with whom you can forge an effective partnership.

Cognitive Error

Last week, I shared some insights regarding memory from Dr. Catherine Sanderson’s Introduction to Psychology. As she points out, our memories are not nearly as good as we think they are. It’s also the case that our powers of discernment and problem-solving skills are not all that ship-shape. Here are a few ways that we tend to go wrong:

mistakeOverreliance on Intuition: “Gut instincts” serve us well when our survival depends upon the ability to make and commit to a course of action quickly. They’re also helpful when providing a “sixth sense” that something demands our considered attention. However, sometimes snap judgments are flat-out wrong.

Confirmation Bias: Even when we slow things down and give an issue our due consideration, we have a tendency to pay attention to data that affirms our earliest sensibilities and ignore information that does not fit our preconceptions.

Fixation: When we become rooted into one way of thinking, we can find it difficult to see a circumstance or problem with new eyes – e.g., doggedly searching the same place for our house keys even though they’re clearly not there.

Functional Fixedness: We may perceive a person, issue, object, or circumstance as fixed and unchanging. We aren’t open to new information or new approaches – e.g., insisting upon using a screwdriver instead of making do with a dime, nail file, or knife.

Availability Bias: We perceive an event as more likely to occur if it more readily comes to mind. For example, we may forego air travel for fear of death by plane crash (a 1 in 11 million chance per annum) as a function of the harrowing publicity that accompanies air traffic accidents. Yet we don’t worry so much about motor vehicle accidents for which our risk of death is 1 in 5,000 annually.

Stereotypes: When a superficial description fits a preconceived rubric, we make mental short-cut and fill in the blanks with our stereotypes rather than let the page stay blank and fill it in with the new experience. Racial, gender, and cultural biases top this list.

Representation Bias: Wording affects our perceptions. We feel good about consuming something that is 95% fat-free without stopping to consider that it’s actually 5% fat. Likewise, an item purchased for $19.99 feels like more of a bargain versus one price at $20.00. And, as folks approach a milestone birthday – say, 80 – they’ll confidently state that they’re in their 70s the day before even though they’ve clearly lived 80 years already!

Overconfidence: We tend to overemphasize our known knowns, down regulate our known unknowns, and outright dismiss our unknown unknowns. This phenomenon comes to the fore among groups whose participants share similar views and come together under a strong leader. Their belief in the power of collective judgment fails to recognize the inherent aversion to outside perspectives and the social pressure to conform.

Dr. Sanderson ends the lecture with a message of hope. We can overcome our vulnerability to error be recognizing our affinity for shortcuts and opening our minds to possibilities. Helpful strategies include:

  • Slowing down and enjoying the exploration.
  • Actively seeking out persons with different perspectives and listening attentively to their views
  • Encouraging dissenters to speak up and welcoming their full-throated participation
  • Choosing leaders who take seriously the mantle to draw everyone out

Memory

Ever since I watched Dr. Sam Wang’s 36-part educational series entitled Neuroscience of Everyday Life, I’ve been fascinated with the brain. I’ve done additional research and written a few blog posts on the subject. This week’s installment on memory comes courtesy of Dr. Catherine Sanderson and her series entitled Introduction to Psychology.

memoryMost of us think that our memory processing works like a computer. We receive input through our five senses, we encode the data, and we place it in storage. When we want to retrieve the data, we go back into our data repository and pull it back up. While we might admit that we don’t quite capture or retain all of the data, we generally believe that the parts we store accurately reflect the source data.

The truth of the matter is that memory is a constructive process. As discussed in an earlier post, memories get stored in shorthand based on what the brain considers important. In particular, we pay attention to certain bits of data and ignore the rest. There’s also good evidence that we erase and re-write our memories every time we recall them, often changing them in the process. And, we invent details to fill in the gaps and create a more coherent story.

Of all of the memories that we might think we’d retain accurately, those related to major life events would top the list. Dr. Sanderson refers to them as “flashbulb memories” – e.g., where you were and what was happening when the twin towers fell on 9/11. Yet even those memories are subject to change, in part because we tend to process them a lot. And with each recall, we make subtle changes to the story arc. At first, we might get a twinge to suggest that something isn’t quite right. Over time, those small adjustments become entrenched. As my father used to say about one of my relatives: “The first time she tells a lie, she knows she’s made it up. The second time she tells it, she’s believes it’s true because she has heard it before.”

Here are a few other factors that put a monkey wrench into our total recall:

  • Memories fade over time, especially when they lack periodic reinforcement (a.k.a., the Decay Theory).
  • Similar memories compete with one another when vying for our attention (a.k.a., the Interference Theory). With proactive interference, old stuff interferes with our ability to learn new stuff. With retroactive interference, new stuff interferes with our ability to remember old stuff.
  • We remember some piece of information, but we don’t remember where we picked it up (a.k.a., Source Amnesia). This issue can prove troubling in the medical or political realm because we can be manipulated into believing false information.
  • We block out information that we don’t want to remember (a.k.a., Motivated Forgetting) – e.g., how much buttered popcorn we ate while watching TV.

Based on our current understanding of neuroscience, Dr. Sanderson offers the following advice for those who’d like to improve memory:

  • Chunk it. When tasked with learning (or memorizing) something new, break the information down into manageable units. Focus on processing a chunk at a time.
  • Create retrieval cues. Exercise your creatively to come up with devices that help you retrieve information. Use acronyms or clever phrases to prod memory. For example, musicians use the phrase “Father Cooks Good Dinner Always” to remember the order in which sharps appear in a key signature (F, C, G, D, A).
  • Organize it. Create an outline to identify the major points and the associated details. Focus on the major points first and create a memory structure to solidify them.
  • Repeat it over and over. Studies show consistently that we do best when breaking up our study periods into multiple sessions and reviewing content at each session. By contrast, cramming is an ineffective way to learn. We’re handicapped in the moment, and our long-term retention suffers mightily.
  • Focus on it. Really pay attention to what you’re doing when learning something new. Stop multitasking. Bring your full senses to bear on the task.

One final little tidbit from Dr. Sanderson: Our most vivid life memories form between the ages of 15 and 30 because that’s when many of our first-time life events occur. Perhaps those of us on the far side of 30 should try squeezing in a few novel experiences!

What Happened to Home Cooking?

“You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”
— Harry Balzer, Food Marketing Researcher

If you pay a visit to the Center for Disease Control’s website, you’ll run into some rather alarming statistics about obesity in the United States:

  • Between 1999-2000 and 2017-2018, the prevalence of obesity in the US increased from 30.5% to 42.4%.
  • Obesity-related medical conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. These conditions are among the leading causes of preventable, premature death.
  • The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the United States was $147 billion in 2008.

In a 2003 study, a team of Harvard economists tied the rise in obesity to “reductions in the time cost of food, which in turn has allowed more frequent food consumption of greater variety and, thus, led to higher weights.” A 2014 study by Drs. Monsivais, Aggarwal, and Drewnowski showed a positive relationship between the amount of time spent on food preparation and diet quality as reflected in the daily intake of vegetables, salads, fruits, and fruit juices.

So what caused us to abandon healthy food preparation? Laura Shapiro, a food historian, provides answers in her book Something From The Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America.

canned foodProduction of processed food geared up in the early- to mid-1940s to support the armed services during World War II. As the great conflict drew to a close, food manufacturers had substantial capacity to produce freeze-dried, frozen, and canned goods without a ready market to consume them. They turned their attention from military to civilian appetites and supported their product offerings with heavy advertising.

Despite valiant efforts to entice home cooks with the promise of convenience, sales of processed foods did not take off. Ten years into peacetime, households spent only $.07 per food dollar on frozen and canned goods; that figure rose to $.14 in 1960. It was progress, but certainly not the “home run” that industry insiders anticipated. Early offerings did not satisfy American taste buds. Household freezer capacity had a dampening effect on market demand. But the biggest obstacle proved to be the prevailing notions of a woman’s value.

home cookingFrom time immemorial, women have been judged by their ability to cultivate a happy home life for their families. Through home cooking, they demonstrated their care, concern, and affection for their families and friends. Housewives of the 1950s and 1960s equated “convenience foods” with shirking their responsibilities as homemakers. Moreover, the quality of their home-cooked meals reflected their social standing. Middle class housewives aspired to the ideal of “gracious living.”

Processed food advertising capitalized on this sentiment by reworking its messaging around creativity, not convenience. It encouraged homemakers to forego the unnoticed drudgery of meal preparation and invest their time on the finishing touches. For instance: “Don’t worry about baking a cake from scratch. Spend time glorifying it!” Using  so-called “foolproof” formulations, homemakers were also relieved of the stress of an imperfect result.

The inaugural Pillsbury Bake Off of 1966 embodied the industry’s new approach to marketing. The allure of national recognition and appreciation for homemaking skills drew thousands of women to the contest. Flour sales skyrocketed, and women eagerly anticipated the annual event and its companion cookbook.

Meanwhile, the post-war era brought profound changes in women’s attitudes toward paid employment. Six million women served their country by joining the work force during WWII. In a 1944 study, 80% of those employed said they had no wish to leave their jobs after the war. As Lillian Gilbreth noted: “The businesswoman or industrial worker has one job. The housewife has a dozen.” While 3 million women were let go when able-bodied veterans returned to work, the percentage of women working outside the home came close to its wartime high by 1953. Paid employment gave women more challenges, more respect, and more money. The latter contributed mightily to the post-WWII economic boom. By 1960, 40% of women with school-aged children worked outside the home.

Columnist Poppy Cannon supported this sea change by showing readers how to conduct their domestic lives with intelligence, grace, and a modern sensibility. Far from demonizing those who found fulfillment outside the home, she developed strategies to help them live comfortably in both worlds. Interestingly enough, the data showed that women working outside the home were no more likely to avail themselves of processed foods than stay-at-home moms.

Humor became an effective way to bridge the gap between the image of the “perfect housewife” and the reality of the modern woman. Shirley Jackson captured the struggle of the homemaker who narrowly escapes disaster in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Erma Bombeck was the reigning queen of domestic chaos for over 30 years. Her I Hate to Cook Book gave women permission to put a “good enough” dinner on the table without agonizing over it.

cuisineThroughout this period, haute cuisine remained the province of men under the assumption that remarkable cuisine was beyond the capacity of ordinary housewives. Julia Child dispelled that myth. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, she had no tolerance for the snobbery that accompanied highbrow cooking. She took up the mantle to teach American cooks how to prepare exquisite meals and proved that anybody could cook like a gourmet chef. Her seminal cookbook – Master the Art of French Cooking – became an unbridled success as did her television show, The French Chef.

Unfortunately, the food industry eventually prevailed in its goal of capturing the American palate. Convenience foods have become so prevalent that the average home cook spends a mere 3.5 hours per week on food preparation, down from 17-18 hours per week in the 1950s. As noted earlier, this change has clear implications for our general health.

Given the prevalence of obesity and the chronic health conditions that accompany it, a return to home cooked meals merits serious consideration. However, the responsibility for healthy eating must transcend the gender divide; working women (whether paid or unpaid) cannot shoulder the burden alone. Ideally, food planning and preparation is a team effort that affords all household members an opportunity to contribute while spending quality time with one another in the kitchen.

It’s COVID Booster Time!

Last Spring, my husband and I took our place among the millions of Americans who received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, thereby substantially reducing our risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19. It was quite an experience!

vaccineWe both took part in the mass vaccination at the Oregon Convention Center. You have never seen such an efficient operation! Volunteers provided assistance with parking, check in, and registration. Medical professionals staffed the 50-75 vaccination tables and received a continuous supply of vaccines from other volunteers. A comfortable seating area afforded the opportunity to cool our jets for 15 minutes to make sure we did not have an adverse reaction. Then it was homeward bound. I was in and out in 30 minutes… along with thousands of other Oregonians.

Unfortunately, quite a number of Americans resist getting vaccinated. Some believe themselves capable of withstanding the infection without medical intervention. Some worry that the vaccine may harm them. Others are under the impression that the vaccine is associated with nefarious intent. I lament those responses both for the risks to their health and to those they may unwittingly infect.

I don’t think vaccines are anything to fear. They’re a marvel of science that leverage the body’s natural defense mechanism to protect itself from infection and disease. They help us get our intruder-specific armaments ready without having us go through a full cycle of infection to get them (or risk disability or death in the process). The two most common ways to make that happen include:

  • Injecting the patient with an inactive version of the virus to give the body a template from which to build its defenses
  • Injecting the patient with a viral agent that is similar to the noxious intruder but for which the body suffers no ill effects

The Pfizer vaccine uses a slightly different methodology to produce an entirely safe and effective response. It injects a custom-designed messenger RNA molecule (mRNA) that’s used to build a protein that simulates the COVID virus. As with the other two mechanisms for inducing an immune response, neither the mRNA nor the associated protein should induce harmful effects. They simply give the body something on which to build a COVID defense force. While this form of vaccine is relatively new, research into mRNA has been around for quite some time. And as witnessed by the pace at which the COVID vaccine was developed, this technology holds the promise of vastly accelerating our ability to respond to new and potentially deadly pathogens.

Alas, our two-shot Pfizer protection attenuates over time. Mercifully, the FDA approved booster shots for seniors and persons with selected medical conditions. Spike just got his booster shot last week and suffered no ill effects. I’m hoping to get mine within the month.

I’m grateful for the dedicated scientists who worked diligently to break the code on COVID-19 and create a vaccine. I’m grateful to the folks who funded the development and to the thousands of volunteers who helped distribute it nationally.

I still wear a mask, maintain social distance, and wash my hands frequently. But I rest easier knowing that I have COVID-19 warriors swimming around in my bloodstream.

Patsy Takemoto Mink

I haven’t placed a spotlight on an inspirational person for quite a while and decided to remedy that situation with a short bio on the first woman of color to be elected to serve in the United States Congress.

Patsy MinkPatsy Matsu Takemoto was born on December 6, 1928 at a sugar plantation camp on the island of Maui. Her mother, Mitama Tateyama Takemoto, was a homemaker who raised Patsy and her older brother, Eugene. Her father, Suematsu Takemoto, was the first Japanese-American to graduate from the University of Hawaii and worked as a land surveyor for the East Maui Irrigation Company. The family moved to Honolulu after World War II when Suematsu established his own land surveying company.

Patsy enrolled at the University of Hawaii with the intention of pursuing a career in medicine. Having earned bachelor degrees in zoology and chemistry in 1948, she secured placement as one of two women admitted to the University of Chicago Law School. While playing bridge one evening, she met a former U.S. Air Force navigator named John Francis Mink. The two fell in love and married in January 1951. That Spring, Patsy graduated with her Juris Doctor degree, and John received his Master’s Degree in geophysics.

Despite impressive credentials, Patsy faced employment discrimination as a female, married, Asian-American. She stayed on in her “student job” at the University of Chicago Law School library while her husband worked for U.S. Steel. The couple welcomed a baby daughter, Gwendolyn (Wendy), to the family in 1952. Having grown weary of Chicago winters, the family relocated to Hawaii. John found work with the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association, and Patsy became the first Japanese-American woman licensed to practice law in the Territory of Hawaii.

Patsy had never taken much interest in politics beyond a resonance with the ideals espoused by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Territory of Hawaii had long been the province of Republican white businessmen who controlled the economic life of the islands. Weak leadership and internal dissention prevented the Democratic party from mounting a substantive challenge. In response to her participation in a series of meetings on Democratic platform reform, Patsy founded the Everyman Organization to give voice to a younger generation of voters.

With the advent of statehood, Hawaii held a special election to fill 3 seats in Congress (2 senate and 1 representative). Patsy hoped to secure the post as Hawaii’s representative but was defeated in the Democratic primary by the party’s preferred candidate, Daniel K. Inouye. When a second representative seat opened up for the United States Congress, Patsy tossed her hat into the ring and mounted a grassroots campaign with her husband as campaign manager. Though lacking support from the Democratic Party leadership, she eked out victories in the primary and general elections. On January 4, 1965, she was sworn into office by the Speaker of the House as the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress.

As a trailblazer in high political office, Patsy pursued her work with seriousness of purpose while being cognizant of stereotypes that anticipated quiet, self-effacing, acquiescent behavior. The media made things all the more difficult by referring to her as “the hula princess from Hawaii,” “the girl in the grass skirt, “and the “diminutive Patsy Mink.” She took such characterizations in stride and got about the business of governing.

Patsy’s appointment to the Education and Labor Committee gave her the opportunity to work on issues that mattered a great deal to her. She introduced legislation that would provide custodial care and educational development for pre-school children. Though opponents expressed concern about creating incentives for women to work outside the home, Patsy continued to work tirelessly in behalf of the working poor for whom work outside the home was an economic necessity.

A second term appointment to the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee gave Patsy the chance to support economic and political development of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. She joined her fellow members of the Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation on a visit to Hawaii’s Big Island where they discussed bills she’d sponsor to safeguard sacred Native Hawaiian sites. She thwarted the Corps of Engineers’ attempt to demolish the seawall of Kaloko, thereby preserving an important wetlands for native birds and presumed burial site of King Kamehameha. That site became the Kaloko-Honokohau National Park in 1978.

Patsy’s appointment to the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee also rekindled the fight to end nuclear testing in the Aleutian Islands. When denied access to documents believed to demonstrate government agency recommendations to cancel testing, she and 32 other members of Congress filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency to compel disclosure. Though defeated in court, the case provided the impetus to strengthen key provisions in the Freedom of Information Act. This legislation set precedents that subsequently called for the release of President Nixon’s White House tapes during the Watergate inquiry.

Patsy was an early and vocal opponent to the Vietnam War. She objected to our involvement on moral grounds and found the secrecy surrounding our engagement unacceptable. She disturbed party leaders when voting against President Johnson’s military appropriations, believing the money would be better spent on domestic programs. She tossed her hat briefly into the 1972 Presidential election to provide a national forum for challenging Nixon’s lack of moral leadership and drive Democratic front-runner George McGovern toward an antiwar stance. She felt that she had to do everything possible to promote peace in Southeast Asia.

Patsy is perhaps best known as the co-author of Title IX of the Education Act Amendments of 1972. It prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender by educational institutions that receive federal funding. It covered areas such as recruitment and admission policies, financial aid, pregnancy, housing, and athletics. Though signed into law, controversy erupted when athletic departments at major universities came to terms with the reality of funding men’s and women’s programs equally. For the next three years, Patsy had to work doggedly to ensure that the provisions of Title IX would not be watered down by Congressional amendment or regulations issued by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Her efforts paid off. In 1975, the final HEW regulations set forth the requirement that female athletes receive the same privileges and benefits that male athletes enjoyed.

In five re-election campaigns, Patsy faced tough primaries during which the local Democratic Party tried to oust her. She had strong opinions about her political agenda and would not be deterred from its pursuit by the party’s influence. She relied heavily on her supportive family and volunteers and mounted grassroots campaigns financed largely through small contributions.

In 1976, Patsy gave up a “sure bet” of a seventh Congressional term to pursue an open Senate seat. The old boy political network supported fellow House member Spark Matsunaga with financing, media coverage, and volunteers. This time, the party machinery proved too much, and Patsy was defeated.

With the untimely death of Senator Spark Matsunaga in 1990 and the appointment of Representative Danial Akaka to that seat, Patsy saw an opportunity to return to Congress. Though not the party’s preferred candidate, her “Experience of a Lifetime” campaign and impassioned belief in Democratic ideals won favor in the primary and general election.

Upon her return to Congress, Patsy found significant retrenchment in the legislation on which she’d labored years earlier. Where she’d once found her political ideals in the majority, she now fought uphill battles to gain traction for programs about which she was passionate. She advocated for universal health care long before it was passed into law by the Obama administration. She was an outspoken critic of the Republican-led welfare reform and fought to preserve safety nets for families and children. She authored the Family Stability and Work Act as an alternative welfare reform measure but was unable to secure the requisite support. She joined colleagues in successfully pressuring President Clinton to veto welfare bills in December 1995 and January 1996.

Late in her twelfth term as a United States Congresswoman, Patsy fell gravely ill with pneumonia. After a month’s hospitalization, she died on September 28, 2002 in Honolulu, Hawaii. She was re-elected by a wide margin in the November ballot. Democrat Ed Case went on to fill her seat following a special election. Colleague Norman Y. Mineta remembered her as “an American hero, a leader, and a trailblazer who made an irreplaceable mark in the fabric of our country.”

More Thoughts on Love

While I’m on the subject of love, I thought I’d share some musings from American author, feminist, and social activist bell hooks’ reflections entitled All About Love: New Visions.

CLARITY: Give Love Words. As Erich Fromm tells us, love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s growth.” In this view, love is an action, not a feeling.

JUSTICE: Childhood Love Lessons. There can be no love without justice. We must teach our children to treat others with respect and dignity. We must instill in them (and ourselves) a responsibility for their actions.

loveHONESTY: Be True to Love. The heart of justice is truth-telling. We may find gain in lying – to avoid conflict or discomfort, or get what we want, or eschew responsibility. Yet lying erodes trust, the foundation of intimacy. One cannot know love in a context of secrecy and lies.

COMMITMENT: Let Love Be Love in Me. We foster personal growth through constancy. We expand our capacity for trust, care, respect, and responsibility. We must create homes, workplaces, and communities where love thrives.

SPIRITUALITY: Divine Love. When we live our lives in connection with Divine Spirit, we experience the presence of divine love in all living beings. Love unites and binds all life. It is a way of living that acknowledges and honors our interdependence. All awakening to love is a spiritual awakening.

VALUES: Living by a Love Ethic. This sensibility declares that everyone has the right to be free and live fully and well. When put into practice, this ethos places the value of human life above material considerations and the accumulation of wealth. Living into the fullness of love dispels avarice and fear. It is the ultimate gift of freedom. It enables us to embody a generous and neighborly view of self-preservation.

GREED: Simply Love. Fixating on wants and needs traps us in a cycle of endless craving. Love cannot abide in addiction. By choosing to live simply, we break the bonds of greed and free up our capacity to love.

COMMUNITY: Loving Communion. Love is not reserved for romantic partners; it is the foundation for engagement with ourselves, family, friends, and associates. It allows us to face conflicts, betrayals, negative outcomes, and unfortunate events in a life-affirming way. It teaches the merits of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Enlightened, healthy parenting gets a boost when situated within extended families and supportive communities. Children deepen their practice of core values and gain fluency in honest, forthright communication.

Mutuality: The Heart of Love. Love flourishes among equal partners for whom both risk loss, hurt, and pain for the sake of reveling in the joy of interdependence. It does not happen spontaneously; it requires patience and practice.

ROMANCE: Sweet Love. When try love happens each partner feels attuned to the deepest and most authentic identity of the other. Psychotherapist John Welwood captures this essence as follows:

“A social connection is a resonance between two people who respond to the essential beauty of each other’s individual natures, beyond their façades, and who connect at a deeper level… It is a sacred alliance whose purpose is to help both partners discover and realize their deepest potentials.”

The Art of Loving

If I were to ask 100 people to define love, I’d get quite a range of responses. I’d expect most to narrate love in terms of feelings they experience in relation to family members, romantic partners, close associates, treasured pets, and/or humankind as a whole. They’d certainly be influenced by scores of poems, songs, stories, and other works of art on the subject. But for a far less sentimental approach, I turn to Dr. Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving.

Fromm locates our deep-seated yearning for love in a desire to transcend separateness. Interpersonal union acts as a salve for anxiety-producing aloneness. Yet Fromm cautions against seeking love’s healing balm amidst feelings that come and go. While we feel great when falling in love, what happens when the excitement inevitably wanes? In like manner, true love cannot be found by cultivating an object of affection in expectation of basking in the glow of the other’s eyes. Such behavior may satisfy an instinctual need but does not form the basis for sustained happiness.

According to Fromm, mature love emanates from a condition of inner wholeness and independence; it demands nothing from the beloved. Such love establishes an abiding bond that unites the parties while maintaining each person’s integrity and individuality. It finds expression in the sharing of joys, interests, understanding, knowledge, dreams, humor, sadness, and all other manifestations of our “aliveness.”

Mature love is characterized by four foundational elements: (i) care and concern for the life and growth of the beloved; (ii) responsibility for taking action in response to the beloved’s needs; (iii) respect for the beloved’s unique individuality and developmental journey, and (iv) deep knowledge of the beloved’s life. These elements do not stand alone. Fromm tells us:

“To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by knowledge. Knowledge would be empty if it were not motivated by concern.”

the art of lovingA practitioner in the art of loving must strive for mastery in four essential character traits: discipline, humility, faith, and courage.

Discipline forms the basis of excellence in any art form. It is an expression of personal will along with an intention to make continuous improvement in one’s abilities. When applied to love, discipline implies proficiency in skills that may seem tangential – e.g., being sensitive to oneself, living fully in the present, avoiding distraction, listening with the intent to understand. It also implies an exercise in patience. One never masters an art when expecting quick results.

Humility serves as the antidote to narcissism. We must learn to experience life and the people with whom we share it objectively. We must not taint our perceptions with our own desires, interests, needs, and fears. Fromm deems humility, objectivity, and reason essential to love.

Rational faith implies reasonable certainty in our convictions and confidence in our powers of thought, observation, and judgment. One who has faith in oneself can have faith in others – the core of who they are, the reliability of their fundamental attitudes, their love. “Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love.”

Love also requires courage – the ability to accept risk and a willingness to accept pain and disappointment. Whoever insists on safety and security cannot truly love or be loved. “To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person.”

In short, Fromm sees love as an attitude and an activity. It is the active use of one’s powers in a constant state of readiness to be open and giving toward the beloved. It is an attitude that must prevail in all aspects of one’s life, not just toward the object(s) of one’s affections. An attitude of openness, objectivity, and generosity determines the relatedness of a person toward the world and is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.

Döstädning (a.k.a. Death Cleaning)

“Will anyone be happy if I saved this?” – Margareta Magnussen

As an octogenarian mother and grandmother, Margareta Magnussen faces the end of her life with concern for the state of her affairs when she departs this earth. She does not want to be a burden to her loved ones. In that spirit, she took up the mantle to encourage the elderly to clean house in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.

Having participated in my mother-in-law’s estate by marriage and attended to my parents’ estate as executrix, I’m keenly aware of the effort involved in finding new homes for decades’ worth of belongings. While it would have been efficient to rent a dumpster and be done with it, I don’t want to add unnecessarily to our land fills while there are things that continue to have useful lives. But it takes time to process all that stuff in an ecofriendly way. (I’m still in the midst of it!)

Recognizing the time commitment, Margareta suggests that we launch döstädning at age 65. We set aside time regularly to slowly and unobtrusively rid ourselves of things we no longer want or use (and may not even notice we have). We take all due moments to relive the memories that the items may conjure up and say good-bye to them. We let friends and family have first crack at taking them on and share any stories that may go with them. We extend our network to third parties through direct sales, auctions, or charitable donation. And we sustain motivation by looking forward to a finish line in which our lives are simpler and less cluttered.

A phased effort takes a seemingly overwhelming task and chunks it into manageable efforts. Initial phases focus on areas in which there is little to no sentimental attachment – e.g., storage areas, garages. It develops organizational skills and knowledge of outlets for recycling all the while building confidence in the task at hand. The items that remain have a defined use and a logical place for residence.

When going through clothes closets, the easy discards include items that do not fit, have no anticipated use, or have exceeded their useful life. What remains should look good together and find expression regularly in the day-to-day or special occasion wardrobes. If lacking powers of discernment, competent stylists can lend a hand.

Memorabilia can be a stumbling block if allowed to derail progress on the downsizing effort. I’m not partial to things, but I’m highly attached to pictures and the memories they carry with them. Technology provides an enticing solution. I digitized the family’s prints and 35mm slides, and cleaned them up using PhotoShop. The resulting quality far outpaces the originals, and I’ve decluttered a good deal of closet space to boot. I also find that I look at the pictures far more often than when I housed them in boxes and albums. I’ve just made sure to have back-ups in my safe deposit box and cloud-based storage!

I chuckled when Margareta covered the topic of things you would never want your children or grandchildren to know about. While she cited the example of sex toys, I hearkened back to my mother-in-law’s hope chest and the discovery of her old journals. Her daughters delighted in reading the entries aloud. Not sure I’d want others sharing my private thoughts…

Part of döstädning entails training oneself to be a window-shopper instead of a consumer. There can be joy in imagining what it would be like to own something in lieu of succumbing to the temptation to buy it. Most of us just don’t need to own more stuff and may get little use out of impulse purchases.

I’m ready to start another phase of döstädning in league with my husband. While this activity falls way outside his list of pleasurable things to do, I’m encouraged by his willingness to declutter and find peace in a future state of minimalism.

Making Marriage Work

“People with the greatest expectations for their marriages usually wind up with the highest quality marriages.” – Dr. John Gottman

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Dr. John Gottman and his “Love Lab” at the University of Washington. This lab is an apartment that hosts couples for short stays while monitoring their behavior and select biometrics (with all due respect for privacy). Through observational analysis, scientists predict with 91% accuracy which couples will endure. The last post covered healthy and unhealthy ways to navigate conflict. This one summarizes findings from Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work.

make marriage workNot surprisingly, happy marriages are based on deep friendship in which the partners share mutual respect and genuine enjoyment of each other’s company. Trust and commitment are “weight-bearing walls.” The partners have faith in one another and let positive sentiments about the relationship override negativity as it arises. Each person’s happiness is contingent in part of the other’s feelings. They support one another’s hopes and aspirations.

With that backdrop, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues unearthed the following seven strategies for cultivating an emotionally intelligent marriage.

Principle #1: Enhance Your Love Maps. A love map characterizes a partner’s joys, likes, dislikes, fears, stresses, hobbies, interests, etc. When we enhance our love maps, we are making cognitive space for deep knowledge of our partners. We stay attuned to changes in their lives. We can more ably predict what they are thinking and feeling. These sensibilities help us provide effective support and enable us to navigate conflict successfully.

Principle #2: Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration. Focus on your partner’s positive qualities and express appreciation for them. Take pride in the other and your history together. These habits of mind cultivate the sense that one’s partner is worthy of love and respect. We find it easier to like as well as love them.

Principle #3: Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away. We each make “bids” for attention, affection, and support throughout the day. Successful couple turn toward their partners and respond 86% of the time; those who eventually divorce turn toward only 33% of the time. Such interactions can be as simple as looking out of the window and saying, “Wow. What a beautiful day,” and the other responding by looking up and saying, “I know!” Turning toward also means that when our partners need us, our worlds stop, and we are 100% present for them.

Principle #4: Let Your Partner Influence You. Share power. Consult one another in important decisions and take the input seriously. Be a team player.

Principle #5: Solve Your Solvable Problems. As they arise, get in touch with your own feelings and sensibilities while cultivating empathy for your partner. Recognize that there are two valid sides to the story and take responsibility for your part in engendering conflict. Then communicate effectively by: (i) Establishing a safe space to enter into discussion; (ii) Make and receive “repair attempts” to de-escalate tension; (iii) Soothe yourself and each other by taking “time outs,” listening to music, going for walks, etc.; (iv) Finding common ground and compromise; and, (v) Processing any residual grievances so that they don’t fester.

Principle #6: Overcome Gridlock. Even with the best of intentions and stellar communication skills, we may stumble upon irreconcilable differences. Dr. Gottman finds that these matters tend to be signs of hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are a part of one’s identity and confer meaning and purpose. They are frequently rooted in childhood. So, the task at hand involves getting behind the surface level tension and figuring out why a position carries such weight. That understanding may open up avenues of flexibility, illumine pathways for support, and establish ground rules for compromise, even if temporary. Again, the core of the discussion centers on mutual respect and high regard.

Principle #7: Create Shared Meaning. This practice has to do with what it means to be a family member and how we build a life together. Its four pillars are: (i) Rituals of connection – i.e., structures or routines that are enjoyable and reinforce intimacy; (ii) Support for each other’s roles as spouses, parents, sons/daughters, friends, employees, hobbyists, etc.; (iii) Shared goals; and, (iv) Shared values and symbols.

Dr. Gottman’s book provides gaggle of exercises through which couples can explore these principles in depth. It’s well worth a careful read.