Writing and Speaking After Her Cancer Recovery: Darryle’s Story

Hit with a cancer diagnosis in her 40s, Darryle found solace and healing in making mosaic art. A desire to sell her art online would lead her to write and speak about her recovery, and to co-found WHOA, an online platform for women in midlife.


Tell us a little about your background…

I make mosaics by taking a jumble of different pieces that don’t seem to fit together, and I assemble them into one beautiful whole. That’s exactly how I envision my life journey—a mosaic.

The first piece is Miami Beach, where I grew up in the sixties. It might seem like a very glamorous and glitzy hometown, but in reality, it was a safe, close-knit community. I was the oldest of three kids. We played outside in the street, we could walk or bike to public school, my mom gave us milk and cookies when we got home. My childhood sounds like a cliché of the American dream, and it really was, until one scene spoiled the pretty picture.

Family photo in Miami Beach

My incredible mom died in 1968 at 41, after my freshman year in college. She had been in the hospital for a couple of months; we kids were told it was just a back problem. Her death was a complete shock and it took five years for my father to finally tell me Mom had cancer. This truth reshaped my past and my future; cancer became my greatest fear.

Meanwhile, I transferred to Yale, graduating in the first class ever to include women. My degree was in History, and this extraordinary experience shifted my thinking—from assuming I would find a husband in college, to finding a career.

I fell into the perfect career almost by accident, becoming a TV writer, reporter, and anchorperson in Miami, working on documentaries and news. A romantic twist was added when I interviewed Mel Brooks, who played matchmaker, setting me up on a date with his manager. Four months later, we were married and I moved to Los Angeles, where I worked as a reporter and freelance writer and had two kids.

With Mel Brooks and my first husband

When did you start to think about making a change?

My early 40s brought big changes: divorce, remarriage, and moving with my children from Los Angeles to Carmel, California. Though Carmel is idyllic, my life was stressful, working full time and adjusting to a new community, new marriage, new everything. Making another change was the last thing I was thinking about.

Naturally, that’s when I got hit with my worst nightmare: cancer. I got my pathology report of stage III breast cancer on July 17, 1995, the day of my one-year anniversary with my new husband, V—definitely the most memorable anniversary ever. (We’re still married.)

I wouldn’t call this an “aha” moment; this was a nuclear bomb blast that shattered everything I thought was safe, good, or even possible.

Losing hair during chemo

I had a very bad prognosis, and I truly believed I was going to die, as my mother had, leaving my children motherless. At the start of my cancer journey, just living a little longer was my top priority, really my only priority. I was forced to shift my focus from taking care of my kids to taking care of myself. I had a full year of treatment: two chemos, five surgeries, and radiation. I tracked down every possible option to boost my odds of survival, and I write about that in my book. Today I’m very lucky, grateful, and proud to be a 22-year survivor.

One part of healing was trying to escape emotionally and mentally from the bombardment of stress. I tried everything from music to meditation to yoga but I could not get my cancer, or my fear, out of my head for even five minutes. Then one day I took my 7- year-old son into one of those little paint-it-yourself pottery studios.

I was never artistic or crafty. I had zero talent and even less confidence. It was a good diversion, and I really enjoyed it. So I went again by myself, and something kept me going back to paint at that little studio—really, my sanity. While I painted, I was so focused I didn’t think about anything else, including cancer. That realization was a revelation, one that turned into a reinvention.

My mosaic studio in Carmel

I was one of those people who never really had a passion for anything before. It was a shock to discover any interest or ability to create art. I went crazy for it—painting bowls, mugs, vases, a set of dishes, cookie jars to give everyone I knew. My addiction developed into obsession once I started making mosaics.

I developed my own art process. I would paint a group of different tiles, then break them up and rearrange them into mosaics. So many things about this appeal to me: the jumble of different shapes and sizes and colors, the mixture of patterns, the lack of order. Kind of like my personality.

My real epiphany was when I suddenly realized that mosaics are a metaphor for life. Life can break things that are most beautiful to us. To make mosaics, and to make my life work again, I was picking up broken pieces, rearranging them into something different that is beautiful in a new way. Just like we all do. This is resilience, being the artist of your own life.

I explain this in my TEDx talk and my book, I Never Signed Up for This…: Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces. That’s why my book subtitle is “Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces.”

My working life was always creative, but everything I had done before involved words. Art was a departure: using my eyes and my hands, not my brain. And I was healing myself. My series of whimsical women’s torsos called Boobalas came right out of my experience losing both breasts.

Mosaics were so therapeutic and rewarding; there was nothing else I wanted to do with my time and my life. I started selling them, making pieces by commission, and I opened my own studio. Maybe my most satisfying moment was being asked to create a piece for the same hospital where I had cancer treatment.

What is your next act?

In addition to mosaic art, my next act has been writing and speaking. Through humor and perspective, I focus on various aspects of my life experience—from resilience to parenting to loss to health to aging—that anyone can apply to his or her own life.

Honestly, this next act doesn’t fit neatly into a category or label. I’ve described it with the tagline and title I’ve used for my blog and my book: “I never signed up for this….” Because of all the times I’ve said those words.

Those words can apply to something bad, like cancer, or something good, like giving a TEDx talk. The common thread is that life takes you in directions you don’t expect, and we all can adapt. A book, speaking, social media, videos, workshops, websites—nothing about my reinvention was on my radar at first.

It started when someone suggested I try blogging to market my mosaics online. This was years ago, and I had no idea what blogging was. When I found out, it intrigued me, so I jumped right in and created my blog called “I never signed up for this….”

It had been years since I had written anything, years when I had experienced so much, and words started pouring out as art had poured out of me. In addition to my own blog, I started writing for the Huffington Post and other sites.

I rediscovered the joy in writing, and I’m still feeling it almost 10 years later. I loved the immediacy, the independence, the freedom to express myself, the wide range of creative aspects that could flow from a blog.

There’s another major reason writing felt so fresh and new, and so right. In my previous career, I was an observer. As a journalist, I told other people’s stories. Now, for the first time, I was telling my own.

What challenges did you encounter?

At first, I had no idea what I was doing. That’s typical of me. I don’t read instruction manuals. I can be impulsive. I often act or speak, and then think. There was no preparation or research; I felt that this was the next step for me, so I leaped, and trusted my instinct that it would work out.

Even so, I was intimidated by the technology and I really struggled with it. It took me weeks to learn how to post a photo on my blog; no one I knew was blogging yet and I didn’t know where or how to find help. I was entirely self-taught and just muddled through. Despite the aggravation and frustration, I loved learning a whole new world. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment to figure out how to do something that scares you. Overcoming my fear of technology was a big deal.

This is a new age, the whole world has moved online, everything is evolving and changing so fast. That feeds my creative spirit and suits my sensibilities. I felt lucky to stumble into it early on. There are so many possibilities, my brain could not keep up with everything I wanted and still want to pursue. So my path has a lot of twists and turns.

Another challenge was my age. I was in my fifties. I have never felt defined or limited by my age personally, but bloggers my age were outliers. I had to put a page on my site explaining to my peers what blogging was.

I didn’t realize I wanted or needed a community and there was no community in existence for my age range. Very gradually, I started finding people, by writing for other sites, reading other bloggers, some young enough to be my children. I felt connected since we were all moms, and what might have been considered a negative became a positive.

I was living in a small town at the time and felt isolated. That changed when I attended my first event for bloggers and then my first conference, which was BlogHer 09 in Chicago; and I got to meet online friends in person.


How supportive were your family and friends?

My kids were the only people around me who knew what blogging was, and I think they were amused by the whole thing. My husband was supportive; my ex-husband was skeptical—mostly about me sharing my life, and by extension, his. My friends had no idea what this was all about but they loved reading my blog, especially when they were featured in it.

Mother’s Day with my kids

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Partly I re-learned things I already knew. I learned to appreciate my strengths and accept my weaknesses. I learned I still love to learn. I learned I still hate promoting myself. I learned that I had skills I could dust off and use. I learned that to make things happen, you need to ask, to take risks, to put yourself out there. I learned that I should take the initiative, rather than wait for someone to approach me. I’m still working on that one.

I learned to use my voice, to share experiences and perspective that could be useful to others. I’d been supporting and advising parents and women with breast cancer for years. I had lots to offer and nothing makes me happier than connecting and sharing, and hopefully changing lives for the better.

Over the years, writing brought related opportunities. As an example, a pivotal part of my next act started when I was a BlogHer Voice of the Year. I read my post on stage, about how women over 50 can feel invisible. Afterwards, a woman I didn’t know in the audience tweeted me about my talk and wanted to meet me. We met out in the hallway. Her name was Lynn Forbes; a year later, we co-founded WHOA Network. Women Honoring Our Age is an online platform for women in midlife and beyond—to support and show that we are vital, powerful, and authentic at every age.

With Lynn Forbes

In addition to the incredible, inspiring people I’ve met, and opportunities that opened up, WHOA led to me doing a TED talk when one of our advisors recommended I do it. And the success of the TEDx talk led to expanding it as a book.

In my sixties, the main limitation I feel is time. Not that I’m going anywhere! But at this point in life, I make choices based on what speaks the most to my heart and my gut, what has the most meaning, what can make the most impact. Age is an advantage in that way. You learn how to prioritize and what’s important—it’s not how many people like your Facebook page.

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Funny you ask. This directly follows from my last answer about choices that matter: I would have spent less time on things that do NOT matter, such as devoting a year to my second blog Cluttercast. Don’t even ask. Related: I wish I had been more organized, especially with time management.


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

I’m not sure women need to seek reinvention. Even if you don’t, it will probably find you anyway! I would say just be open and roll with it. Life is filled with challenges and change is healthy. I would embrace change and practice resilience in all ways you can. At any age, being adaptable is probably the most useful life skill anyone can have.

Our productive working lives span so many more years than they ever did, new fields and possibilities are being created by the minute. Reinvention in careers is already the new normal. And whether you succeed or fail, there’s always another opportunity to do something else.

Reinvention requires a leap of faith for most of us, and the first step is the hardest, just putting yourself out there, taking a risk, and trying something new. But without that first step, you can’t move forward.

Not to imply anything deep about reinvention here—but what just flashed into my mind is the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they jump off the cliff. Taking a leap is much easier when someone is there to hold your hand.

Looking back, I wish I had sought collaborators earlier. Aside from my husbands (and that was only 50% successful), Lynn was the first partner I ever had. Finding the right person can be dicey; it can be a risk. But if it works, having a great partner really makes a difference.

Last thing, and maybe most important: DON’T BE SO HARD ON YOURSELF. Particularly for women, striving for perfection is a prison and we should all break out of it. (This is the topic of my TEDX talk and I think most women struggle with this ) There’s a line I saw recently that I love: “If only I had the confidence of a mediocre man.”

Speaking at Hope Lodge

What resources do you recommend?

For me, Suzanne Braun Levine is the guru of women later in life, and I would recommend any of her books. For careers, I would start with Marci Alboher, The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life.

WHOA Network has featured women who specialize in reinventing yourself, so I suggest checking out some of our videos and resources.

As their own second acts, my friend Ann Voorhes Baker has retreats called Women at Woodstock; and Johanna Herman Wise created Connect, Work, Thrive for women re-entering the workforce or reinventing themselves.

What inspires me most are stories of resilience. Since you contacted me, I’ve read quite a few interviews on this blog. It’s a wonderful collection of stories and a fabulous resource. I enjoyed learning more about my friend Helene Bludman and for obvious reasons I especially related to Mary Farina and her gorgeous glass art.

When it comes to cancer resources, there are so many today that it’s actually overwhelming. I think I am reading a book every week with cancer as a theme. I guess the best starting point no matter what your cancer might be is the American Cancer Society. Another resource I wish I had had is Facebook. I would suggest finding a group that fits your needs—whether you are looking for support or information.

What’s next for you? 

One reason I’m reading all these books about cancer right now is that I’m already working on my next next act. I’m deep into research on a book involving cancer.

Taking my own advice, I’m working with collaborators and loving that aspect of it. This book is very different for me, it’s intense research, an important story, and I’m incredibly excited about it. Although sometimes I can’t believe I’m taking on such a huge project at this point in life.

Plus I’m still doing speaking and freelance writing, so I’m busier than ever. I’ll always have a next next act until I stop breathing.


Contact Darryle Pollack at DarryleP@gmail.com


WHOA Network

Twitter: @DarryleP


WHOA Facebook page

Book: I Never Signed Up for This…: Finding Power in Life’s Broken Pieces

Let’s Hear from an Expert: Dr. Caroline Apovian, Director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Boston Medical Center

What unique challenges do women face related to nutrition and weight as they enter midlife?

Most women know that the ovaries produce estrogen, but many are not aware that fat cells also produce it. During menopause, the amount of estrogen produced by your ovaries decreases. Your fat cells try to compensate for the hormonal imbalance by swelling and becoming larger. These larger fat cells typically congregate around the waist, explaining some of the weight gain that accompanies menopause.

Aside from unwanted weight gain, extra fat stored in the belly increases risks for serious health problems. These include heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome. Hot flashes, headaches, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disruption can also be triggered by the lower amounts of estrogen (and progesterone) produced after midlife.

Another challenge people face in midlife (not unique to women) is sarocopenia. This is the natural muscle loss that begins in our 30s and accelerates in our 40s. Our basal metabolic rate is primarily determined by the amount of lean muscle mass we have, so as we lose lean muscle mass, our metabolism slows down accordingly.

I might also add that stress and sleep deprivation significantly contribute to weight gain, and the pressures and stresses that middle-aged women face are a challenge that needs to be addressed in regards to weight and health.


Are there opportunities unique to women in midlife that they can leverage?

I would say so, yes. Women in midlife, as a general statement, tend to be wiser, more aware of their strengths and limitations, and have many years of practice balancing competing responsibilities. They also better understand their bodies and individual needs, and how caring for those needs is essential to maintain their physical and emotional health. This is also a generality, but many women in midlife who have families have children who are older, with a greater level of autonomy. This is a definite advantage when it comes to working in time for ourselves to engage in physical activity, manage stressors, and sleep 7-9 hours per night.


What are your best tips for women in midlife with respect to nutrition and weight, and living the second half with energy and health?

It’s difficult to say which aspects of nutrition and health are most important, but here are a few recommendations that patients have found helpful.

Eat a diet rich in protein. Protein is necessary to preserve, protect, and build muscle. I advise my patients to build meals around lean protein sources, such as fatty fish and poultry. As protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients, you’ll feel full longer and experience fewer energy highs and lows throughout the day. Enjoy a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables with your protein sources, as well as limited amounts of whole grains.

Work out with weights a couple of times per week. In order to counteract the process of sarcopenia, work out with weights a couple of times per week. You’ll be improving your metabolic speed and your strength, lowering your stress levels, preventing bone loss, sharpening your cognitive abilities, and reducing risks for cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. If you are new to weight lifting, start with lighter weights and fewer repetitions. Build up in weight and intensity as you get stronger.

Walk whenever possible. Stay active! It helps to burn calories, manage stress, reduce pain, preserve mobility, and improve quality of life.

Sleep 7-9 hours per night, every night. Sleep is crucial for our health. Adults who sleep 5-7 hours per night (or less) are 30-80 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, or to die prematurely, as those who sleep 8 hours or more. My weight loss patients are often surprised when I ask them about their sleeping habits, but the two are closely related. A chronic lack of sleep increases cortisol (stress hormone) and ghrelin (hunger hormone) while simultaneously slowing down your metabolism and decreasing leptin (a satiety hormone). Cortisol prompts the body to replenish energy in the form of hunger pangs. This is why chronic lack of sleep is contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Try intermittent fasting. Research has revealed that intermittent fasting helps with weight loss, decreasing inflammation in the body, reducing blood pressure, improving metabolism, and decreasing risks of type 2 diabetes.  At the clinic, I combine this principle with the fact that we need to feed our muscles protein to protect them, and the fact that most people who are trying to lose weight will have difficulty sustaining a complete fast as they go about their normal schedules.

Taking a temporary break from solid foods and having high protein smoothies instead achieves many of the same health benefits while simultaneously helping people to feel full and guarding their muscles. Swap out a few meals per week for protein smoothies and try having one all-smoothie day per week. I have developed a protein powder especially for this purpose, which can be found here. It’s a mix of whey and casein protein powders, as one of them works quickly to protect muscles, and the other digests slowly, over the course of several hours, to sustain a feeling of fullness. However, any unsweetened protein powder can work for this. Combine it with water, fresh fruit, and fresh veggies for a low calorie, high protein meal replacement.


What resources do you recommend to women in midlife who wish to maintain or improve their nutrition and weight?

Building Strength & Stamina by Wayne L. Westcott. This is an excellent book about strength training for health and weight loss, with plenty of helpful routines, photos, and an included DVD.

Ellen Dolgen for menopause-related advice and articles.

Weight Watchers is a reputable program that has helped many women and men to lose weight successfully.

The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight is my latest book, and contains more information on all of the points I mentioned above. I also have a blog that features advice, articles, and recipes.  DrApovian.com


Contact Dr. Caroline Apovian at Dr.Apovian@gmail.com



Book: The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight


Caroline Apovian, MD, FACN, has worked as a leading researcher, treatment provider, and professor in the field of weight management and nutrition for over 25 years.  She is the director of the Center for Nutrition and Weight Management at Boston Medical Center, a professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, and the vice president of The Obesity Society.  Her federal government positions include acting as a nutrition consultant to NASA and an appointed member of the federal government’s panel on the evaluation and treatment of overweight adults.  She is the author of The Age-Defying Diet: Outsmart Your Metabolism to Lose Weight, in addition to hundreds of papers, reviews, and book chapters on obesity and nutrition.  Her publications appear in the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of Women’s Health, International Journal of Obesity, Obesity Research, Digestive and Liver Disease, and Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, amongst others.  She has also co-founded the company Science-Smart, a provider of scientifically-supported products manufactured under strict laboratory conditions to facilitate healthy weight loss and sound sleep.

Advocating for Mesothelioma Awareness: Heather’s Story

Shortly after her daughter was born, Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Now 11 years cancer-free, she has made it her mission to raise awareness of this deadly disease.


Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in a small town in The Black Hills of South Dakota called Spearfish, which has a population of about 8000 people and is home to a small liberal arts university. My mom and dad moved us there when I was in kindergarten, so I don’t remember much before that. I have only one sister who is 4 ½ years older than I am. I graduated high school in 1987, took a year off and was a nanny on the east coast before I decided to go back home and give college a try. After a few years, I decided a regular college was not for me and enrolled in cosmetology school.

Our wedding day, 1999

I loved doing hair. I not only worked in a salon but was an educator for Redken, a color and product company. That job was what brought me to Minneapolis/St Paul, where I still live today. I met my husband, Cameron, shortly after moving here and we got married a short 10 months after. We knew it was right the first night we met. We decided to hold off on starting a family while I pursued my career; I eventually became part owner of the salon I worked in. After two years, we decided it was time to try and get pregnant, after all, I wasn’t getting any younger! Lily was born a little over a year later, on August 5, 2006. I was 36 years old.

After I had Lily, I started to experience some puzzling symptoms. I was losing an extreme amount of weight, and looking back, I had only gained 5 pounds during the whole pregnancy, so that was concerning. I had a low-grade fever that lasted a few hours every evening and I was beyond tired. I was bone weary, that is the only way I can explain it. I was also anemic and had been since my release from the hospital when I had given birth to Lily.

Then in mid-October, it felt like a truck was parked on my chest, I was having trouble breathing and would get out of breath after the smallest of exertions. Many of the symptoms I had were chalked up to being postpartum; I never dreamt it could be anything worse. Only after a very frightening incident—I had gotten a load of laundry up from our basement after I had put Lily in her swing, then sat on the couch and passed out for over an hour—that I knew something was seriously wrong.

Baby Lily

 When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?

November 21, 2005 is the day the bottom dropped out of my world. I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that is almost always caused by asbestos exposure. I was exposed to asbestos as a child when my father worked with it and brought it home on his clothing. I remember wearing his dust-covered jacket to do my outside chores. I would grab his dirty coat to go feed our rabbits, rake leaves, or even just to go grab the mail. His coat always hung on the doorknob in our entry. I’d also run errand with him in his car, which was just as dusty as his coat.

My dad did construction, drywall sanding and clean up, and that joint compound had asbestos in it. He also did a lot of demolition, tearing apart old boilers that were covered in asbestos insulation, which meant he worked with a lot of it. Sadly, he died almost three years ago due to renal carcinoma, which can also be caused by asbestos exposure.

When I was diagnosed with mesothelioma, I was given just 15 months to live if I didn’t do anything. My baby was just 3½ months old and now I may not live to see her second birthday, my doctor told me with tears in his eyes. But he was prepared with a list of options for us. I could do chemotherapy and radiation, hope it would halt the cancer, and maybe give me five years, or try an experimental surgery, assuming I was a candidate, that consisted of removing my entire left lung where the cancer was. It would be performed by the best pleural mesothelioma surgeon in the world, Dr. David Sugarbaker, located in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Without hesitation, my husband said “Get us to Boston.”

After surgery, Feb 2, 2006

Facing a potentially life-ending diagnosis and dangerous treatment will change you on a foundational level. I lost my career, my salon, and many people who I thought were friends. The early days of my cancer battle were incredibly isolating, terrifying, but at the same time, life altering.

When I was diagnosed, I did what anyone would do. I went online and read up on what I was up against. Boy was that a bad idea. In all my reading, I learned that most mesothelioma patients didn’t make it past 18 months and that the 5-year survival rate was less than 2%.

Just let that sink in for a minute. You have a new baby. You just found out you probably won’t make it to see her second birthday, and the chances of seeing her turn five and go to Kindergarten are even worse.

I had to put everything I’d read aside and get it into my head that these are just statistics and that from the minute I was diagnosed I skewed the statistics. For one, I was about 35-40 years YOUNGER than the average mesothelioma patient. Second, I was otherwise healthy. I HAD to beat it.

Cancer in and of itself is isolating. People don’t know how to act around you. The people I had worked with all but pushed me out the door. I felt very little support from those who I thought would help me the most. Instead, I felt like a burden and a pariah.

After my diagnosis, I went into the salon that I had been part-owner of to gather my belongings and tools that I had bought throughout the years, only to discover they had cleaned out my station and let everyone claim them. I had to go around to everyone’s station and get back the hundreds of dollars of tools that people had claimed. I felt not only unwanted, but as thought they’d already written me off for dead. Who does that to someone? I quickly sold off my share in the salon and have not had contact with many people from there since.

To be honest, having the people I thought were friends turn their backs on me hurt more than getting diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t have many friends outside of my work friends, so I felt really alone. Thankfully, my clients stepped up. I had the best clients in the world. One of them paid my car payments for two months; another came over every week and cleaned my house. I found out who my true friends were and who really cared about me.

in ICU after the surgery

On the other hand, support from my husband and my families could not have been better. I have two sisters-in-law who live nearby in the Minneapolis metro area and they were there for us at a moment’s notice. My mother-in-law, Lois, would make meals and bring them over to us. My sister-in-law Debbie, who’s also Lily’s Godmother, would take Lily overnight every Friday or Saturday while I was going through treatment, to give my husband a break from his caregiving duties. My sister-in-law Karen was always available during the day to watch Lily when urgent medical issues came up, like the time I needed a transfusion.

Our families also banded together with my clients to put on a benefit for us. They all worked to make things easier for us during a tumultuous time. My cancer diagnosis brought us all closer together as a family, both on my and on Cameron’s side. We know what is important, and we are there for each other when it matters. It’s so good to know I can count on them when I need them and I’m happy to help them too, as the need arises.

My husband was my rock through this whole thing. Even though the possibility of losing his wife and being a single parent was very real, he never let that grief take over. I was pretty self-sufficient during treatment and could take care of myself ok, but where he was invaluable was his help with Lily. There were times during chemo when I literally could not get out of bed, so tending to an 8-month old was nearly impossible.

Cam, my rock

When I was done with treatment, Cameron when back to school to get his degree so he could get a better job, knowing full well I would not be able to return back to work. He worked full time while also going to school full time for two years, and graduated with honors. His schedule was brutal. He would get up at 6am, drive a delivery truck all day, go to school at night, study until 1 or 2am, then wake up and do it all over again. He got a job working in IT at US Bank before he even graduated and has been there for six years now and loves his career. So my diagnosis was not only the catalyst for my next act, but for his as well.

I decided not to concentrate on the hurt. I had a much bigger battle on my hands. I had no time for petty people or people who would not support me. I held my head high and put my energy into what mattered, my health and my daughter. My daughter is what got me through the really hard times. Just looking at this sweet innocent baby who was born into this mess and didn’t deserve any of this was my entire reason to fight and rise above. I refuse to play the victim.

My “aha moment” came when I realized I didn’t want anyone to feel the way I felt. If it meant personally reaching out to every newly diagnosed mesothelioma patient, then so be it. I NEEDED people to know they were not in this alone.

With Lily during recovery


What is your next act?

I am an advocate for the prevention and treatment of mesothelioma cancer.

I am a patient advocate: a mentor, sounding board, supporter. When someone is diagnosed with mesothelioma, they usually go online and find, like I did, all bad things and very little hope. I wanted to be that beacon of hope in a sea of despair.

It started simply with talking to other patients every time I returned to Boston to see my surgeon for checkups, a trip that will take place regularly twice a year for the rest of my life. After Dr Sugarbaker started telling journalists who reached out to him about me, news stories started cropping up on Reuters and the local newspaper.

However, what really launched my advocacy was meeting a woman by the name of Linda Reinstein at a mesothelioma conference, about four years after my diagnosis. She and I clicked right away. She had lost her husband to mesothelioma a couple of years earlier. They had started a nonprofit called The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. She invited me to speak at their annual conference the next year.

Speaking at Senator Franken 2016 event to raise awareness about asbestos

After that, things just started to roll. I was approached by The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance to be an advocate and blogger for them and I couldn’t say no. The blog has been hugely successful and reaches far and wide. The blogging community has been instrumental in getting the word out and helping me raise awareness. It’s been an amazing journey and my life has been enriched by the incredible people I’ve been able to meet as a result of this.

By sharing my story, blogging, and telling patients and their families that there are treatments that are helping patients with mesothelioma live longer, I give them that bit of hope that they so desperately need. I am available to talk to anyone and help anyone who finds themselves facing a mesothelioma diagnosis. There aren’t many people who are willing to put themselves out there for that purpose. I also serve as a conduit for information; I’ve learned a thing or two in the 11 years since my diagnosis and if my experience can help someone, then I’m doing the right thing.

I help point people to the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation so they can understand all their options. I DON’T offer medical advice as I am not medically trained, but advice from someone who’s been through something similar always helps.

Speaking at the 2016 ADAO conference


Can you tell us more about mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the organs, of the mesothelium. There are three types: pleural (my diagnosis) which affects the lung; peritoneal, which affects the abdomen; and pericardial, which affects the heart. There is even a rarer subtype that affects only men and is found in the testicles.

Mesothelioma is almost always caused by asbestos exposure and has a latency period anywhere between 10 and 50 years. It’s a very rare cancer, with only about 3,000 people a year diagnosed in the US. Most people, upon diagnosis, are given mere months to live and are told to go home and get their affairs in order. The prognosis is poor, with most patients not making it past 18 months, or certainly beyond 5 years.

Many doctors don’t understand mesothelioma and therefore don’t know how to treat it. The best thing to do is seek out a specialist who knows how to treat the disease. That is who I credit with saving my life, my surgeon, mesothelioma specialist Dr. David Sugarbaker, who’s now at The Lung Institute at Baylor in Houston, TX.

Treatment varies depending on the type, but surgery is the main way people usually deal with it, along with chemotherapy and sometimes radiation. Treatments vary depending on the severity of the disease and whether the cancer has metastasized (spread to other places in the body). Immunotherapy is now being used as well in many clinical trials. Different treatment centers will gear treatment for each specific case; it is not a one-size-fits-all treatment plan.


Why did you choose this next act?

I’d say it chose me. I knew I wanted to help people, I just didn’t know how to go about doing it. Situations presented themselves to me and I jumped at them every time they came my way. It has not always been easy. I have to constantly relive those days of my diagnosis and the most uncertain time of my life, but when I do, it empowers me and takes the fear away. I didn’t know that this is what I was going to do—it was not a conscious decision to take it as far as I have—but I feel like there is so much more to do. I would love to do more public speaking and more fundraising. So many things to do! 

Kayaking for Meso, 2016


How hard was it to take the plunge?

Taking the plunge into advocacy and being an activist just feels RIGHT. A person’s story is powerful, especially stories of overcoming obstacles. I feel that my story can inspire others to think “If she could do it, I can too.”  I didn’t prepare for it; as I said before, the opportunities presented themselves and I took them. I still feel like there is so much more to do. I just know how I felt in those early years after my diagnosis and how I felt during treatment, I don’t want anyone to feel that loneliness and abandonment that I felt. Nothing like personally living it to prepare you for something!


Tell us about your challenges.

I try not to dwell on those. I have health challenges. Cancer treatment changes you. I don’t have the stamina I used to have. Chemo affected my brain in a way I never thought. I tend to be forgetful and have a hard time staying on task. It’s very similar to ADD and I recently started taking Adderall to help with the “chemo brain.”

I have to be careful of what I eat, how I eat, and when I eat because of stomach and esophageal issues due to my radiation treatments. I’ve lost most of the feeling in my left hand and don’t sweat on my left side anymore due to the surgery. There are all minor inconveniences, though, because I am still alive and well!

When you are involved in the cancer community, you are immediately thrust into a world of uncertainty and constant reminders of how fragile life is. People die. Sometime I lose three or four people I know in a week. Some hit me hard, but it doesn’t change the fact that cancer is an ugly ugly disease.

With Lily during my treatment

I lost my own dad to cancer. I watched him change from a health vibrant man to a mere shell. I held his hand as he passed, after we told him it was ok to go. It was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever been through. That is the ultimate in trust, to let another human take care of you in your most vulnerable state. I’ve been fortunate to be there for a few people near the end of their lives and it is something that changes you on a visceral level. I have a very different relationship with death than I did 10 years ago. It used to scare me, now I see it as part of the circle of life, something greater than you or me.

There are times when it gets to be so incredibly overwhelming. The stories are heartbreaking and the stark reality of being a patient advocate is that people die. Mesothelioma is particularly brutal; this cancer wreaks havoc on your body and you are a shadow of your former self.

I’ve lost more friends than I can count. There are weeks when our mesothelioma community loses 3-5 people. It’s devastating and my heart just shatters every time it happens. I’ve had to take time to take a step back, mourn my losses and recover. But I get up, dust myself off, dry my tears and jump back in. It is those losses that keep me going, as strange as it sounds. I feel like I need to be their voice.

With fellow advocates and women who’ve lost family members to mesothelioma, 2016

The patients’ loved ones are the biggest supporters I have. It’s incredible, really, when you think about it. These people have lost someone so dear to them, whether it be a husband, wife, mother, sister, or brother, but they tell me that they are proud of me. I love to hear the stories of their loved ones, who they were, what they were like. See, I only get to know the people when crisis strikes, after the diagnosis and not before. They are more than a cancer diagnosis. They lived full lives and now we are left with their memories.

The mesothelioma community is incredible and it is those relationships that I’ve built in my 11 years that keep me fighting. In the beginning, though, it was all about my baby girl and my husband. I was not going to give up for them, but the emotions got pretty raw in those dark hours in the middle of the night after I was diagnosed. I couldn’t sleep so I would get out of bed and go into my baby’s nursery. I would watch her sleeping by the glow of the nightlight and vow to fight for her. The tears would silently fall as I thought how unfair it was to her. She didn’t deserve to have a sick mommy; she needed me. That right there was 100% my reason to keep going. She just turned 11 this last August, and I am just in awe of the person she is becoming.

My family, 2016


What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Wow, where do I start? I learned I was stronger than I ever thought I could be. So many people tell me how brave I am, and I sometimes don’t know how to take that. I don’t think I was brave. I didn’t choose to get cancer. I had to fight, I had to live to raise my daughter. I don’t know if that is bravery or just stubbornness.

I learned that the desire to help people feel good about themselves when I was doing hair, crossed over into my advocacy work and that desire is even more ingrained than before. I learned that I have a voice and that I can use it to bring about change. I’ve learned that having faith is instrumental. For me, it is faith in God, faith in my medical team and most of all, faith in myself. I love that.


Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Honestly? No. Being diagnosed with cancer was all at once the worst thing that ever happened to me, and the best. It made me who I am today. The people I’ve met since are some of the most amazing people and we connect on a deeper level because of what I’ve been through. There is so much more I want to do that I don’t waste my time thinking of the “what ifs.”  My life is what it is because of what happened to me and the way I chose to react to it. I’ve never played the victim, and never asked “Why Me?” Instead, I took the position of why NOT me? I’m a fighter, I come from a long line of strong, independent women and I draw on that strength to move forward.


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen? In my case, quite honestly, the answer was that I could die. I thought long and hard about that. So, if I do die, I want to leave a legacy. That gave me the courage to pursue this. For most people, reinvention is something incredibly scary. Find people who inspire you, people who have done something you admire, or have taken something awful and turned it around.

There is an author and speaker whom I admire greatly; her name is Glennon Doyle Melton. I was listening to Minnesota Public Radio and she was talking about her life and series of choices and circumstances that brought her to where she is. She says to run TO that which frightens you. Embrace it. I LOVE that! How often do we let our fears take hold and blow things out of proportion? If you face those fears it takes their power away, and lets you conquer them!

This is the whole premise behind our Lung Leavin’ Day celebration we have every year near the anniversary of my surgery, when I lost my lung on February 2, 2006. We write our fears on a plate in sharpie marker and smash those plates in a bonfire in our back yard. In Minnesota. In February! It’s a tradition shared by 100 or so of our closest friends. So, run TO that which scares you and conquer it.

Lung Leavin’ Day, 2013


What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing advocacy?

Draw on your personal experience. Speak from the heart and take chances. Advocacy is an intensely personal journey. It is born out of a desire to right that which is wrong, or to help others. It is incredibly rewarding but at the same time really hard. You need to be prepared to have your heart broken and to celebrate. Blogging? Well that is pretty easy, sit and write! Ok, easy may be pushing it. Having a love of writing helps, as does a topic or lifestyle that you want to share. Many blogs have started out simply as a way to document a journey for their kid and it grows into something much larger. That choice is up to you, as to how much time and energy you want to commit to it.

With Dr. Sugarbaker, 2015


If someone wants to learn more about mesothelioma, how would she do that?

The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

My blog on that same site: www.mesothelioma.com/heather

The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization

Imerman Angels (a cancer patient mentoring organization)

I Had Cancer


What other resources would you like to share?

I like inspirational women. Women who overcome, who do things on their terms, despite what people say. These women are strong beyond what they imagined.

Jill Smokler of Scary Mommy: She took a funny web page and turned it into a movement.

Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery and her new book, Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.

The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, who speaks often about mental illness—bravo! She has three books out: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, and You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds.

Jo Hilder, a friend and author from Australia, who is a cancer survivor as well. She has written two books about cancer: Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner and Things Not To Say To Someone Who Has Cancer.

Luvvie Ajayi, who started The Red Pump Project, a nonprofit raising awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls.


What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

I hope to write a book about my journey. We shall see if that comes to fruition. I would also love to be an inspirational or motivational speaker. TEDX! That is my bliss.


Contact Heather Von St. James at heathervsj@gmail.com


Twitter: @HeatherVSJ

Main Blog Page

10 Year Blog Series with my entire story


Helping dogs with water therapy: Laurie’s Story

With Gunny

After a demanding legal career, Laurie followed her heart to open a business offering healing water therapy for elderly and ailing dogs. She’d go on to write a memoir of her adventures with her beloved dog Gunny.


Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in Port Arthur, TX, which is a small town on the Gulf of Mexico near the Louisiana border. I have a brother and a sister. We raised horses when I was young, and I showed my horse competitively until I was about 13. The first time my parents let me out of the yard, I came home with a puppy from the neighbor’s house, who I named Bandit. My current immediate family consists of me and my husband, Juan Carlos Duperier, and our chocolate Labrador retriever Dino.

I went to college in San Angelo, TX at Angelo State University and received a BA in French and English. I then completed a joint degree in law and a Masters in Foreign Service (JD/MSFS) at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, in 1990.

I started practicing law when I graduated from law school, and began my career in Los Angeles, CA for a big New York law firm (Shearman & Sterling) in the litigation department. I wanted to leave DC, because, honestly, there were just too many lawyers and it seemed that everyone I met and spoke to was a lawyer and wanted to talk about their work more than anything else. (In LA, everyone wants to talk about the entertainment industry, but that was more interesting for me because it was not an industry that I was working in.)

When I lived in LA, I spent most of my free time with my cousin Brian, who is like a brother to me. We decided to go to Madrid, Spain one winter on a “two for one” special with American Airlines, and that turned out to be a life-changing trip. A couple of days after we arrived in Madrid, we went to a little tavern near the Plaza Mayor called the Meson de la Guitara, hoping to hear some Spanish guitar music. Sitting at the bar that night, clapping to the Flamenco music, was Juan Carlos, who later became my husband. We struck up a conversation with him and ended up spending a lot of our vacation time with him. This was 1995, not long after Terry McMillan published her book How Stella Got Her Groove Back about falling in love with a guy in Jamaica when she was on vacation. When I returned home, I got teased a lot about how I got my groove back in Spain! Juan Carlos and I literally mailed letters back and forth for over a year, talked on the phone, and saw each other every 3 or 4 months, at which point I decided to move back to Washington, DC because it was a much shorter trip to/from Spain. Two years later, in 1997, he moved to the United States and we married.


We had discussed what to do about wedding presents, and decided that his present to me would be a puppy. I had not had a dog since college because my long work hours just didn’t permit me to care for another being, so I was pretty excited about the thought of a puppy. We agreed we would get a chocolate Labrador retriever, and he went alone to the breeder to pick out our dog. Although we did not know it at the time, he found my long lost soul mate for me—Gunny—and nothing was ever the same again.

After about five years in Los Angeles, I decided to move back to Washington, DC. By then, I was working for a Washington, DC based law firm (Arnold & Porter) in their Los Angeles office, so it was relatively easy to transfer to their DC office.  Eventually, I became an in-house lawyer at The Philip Morris Companies, now known as Altria. I was posted to Hong Kong, then Lausanne, Switzerland, to the headquarters of Philip Morris International, where I became Vice President of Compliance Systems, overseeing world-wide compliance for the company.

In 1995, I came back to Washington, DC to work for Altria as Vice President and Associate General Counsel, supporting the government affairs, trademark, and corporate affairs groups. I did a variety of things in my legal career—litigation, regulation, corporate affairs support, and compliance—and it was all interesting.

In total, I practiced law for 18 years, most of it quite happily. My work was challenging and I worked with incredibly smart and talented people throughout. But, as often happens, the further up the ladder you go, the further away you get from doing what you were trained to do (and love to do)—and the more time you spend on HR issues, conflict resolution, internal politics, and managing lots of people. Those aspects of the job I found draining and much less rewarding.

Living in Switzerland


When did you start to think about making a change?

I had a low level of dissatisfaction for a couple of years, whereas previously I really had loved my jobs and the people that I worked with. I was losing my passion for what I did, but I didn’t know what else I wanted to do or could do—and what I was doing was quite lucrative and made for an easy life financially. So, while I thought about quitting and doing something else, I also told myself that I could keep doing what I was doing for a while longer and figure it out later. After all, I was in my mid-40s and had a lot of life left ahead of me.

And I thought that by sticking it out for several more years, I would be more financially settled and better able to transition to whatever the next something was going to be. That said, the phrase that was always humming in my head was, “How long am I going to wait to start living my life?” I worked incredibly long hours, traveled frequently, and didn’t feel that I had much of a life outside my job.

Then, a really crazy thing happened. I was laying in my hammock in the back yard reading the Sunday Washington Post when the base of the hammock suddenly broke and the giant 4×6 piece of wood from which the hammock hung catapulted into my head. It knocked me unconscious and tore a big gash in my forehead, barely missing my eye and resulting in extensive stitches. Luckily, there was no concussion or bleeding on the brain, proof of just how hard my head is!

But for a couple of inches, I could have lost my life rather than have a scar on my forehead, and that is when I decided that the answer to my question about how long I was going to wait to start living my life was “not long”. I couldn’t wait to start living my life because, as I was reminded so jarringly on a regular Sunday afternoon, none of us knows how long our life will be. So, it was time to get moving and figure out what to do.

Lucky for me, my chocolate Labrador retriever, Gunny, had been working on a plan for me, and he led me to my next act.

What is your next act?

I own Gunny’s Rainbow, LLC, a warm water swimming pool for dogs. I focus mainly on rehabilitating geriatric dogs suffering from arthritis and dogs recovering from various orthopedic surgeries. I also am a Reiki master and incorporate that healing energy into my practice with many of the dogs.

The first thing I did after I quit my job in 2008, at 44 years old, was sell my house, buy a new house about a mile away from my perfectly good house in Bethesda, MD right outside Washington, DC, and build an indoor swimming pool to open Gunny’s Rainbow. Gunny was my heart dog, my soul mate, and the guiding light of my life. He needed a lot of physical therapy, including swimming, in order to maintain his mobility and his quality of life, so from his need sprung the idea for the next chapter in my life: I was going to build and run a dog swimming pool. Gunny knew that I needed a change from my legal career, and I think he knew that I could care for other dogs with the same compassion and love that I cared for him. He knew that I would do anything to help him, and if that meant that I needed to stop practicing law and build a pool for him and other old dogs, then that was what I was going to do.

There are many things to love about working with dogs all day, especially geriatric dogs. For starters, they are always honest and most always very kind. They take their aging in stride, much more so than people do, despite often suffering greatly from arthritis and other degenerative diseases in their later years. So, they are incredibly happy and grateful to have the chance to swim and float in warm water, which enables them to move without pain. It also helps to ease their pain as the warm water soothes their joints and allows them to float, weightless for a time, in the water.

What I love most about swimming with old dogs is the relationship of trust that develops between us, and knowing that I have brought comfort to them in their last years. By helping the dogs, I am also helping their people who so often feel helpless in the face of their dog’s physical decline. As one client said to me, “swimming at Gunny’s Rainbow makes an old dog feel young again.” And often, it really does!

Gunny lived for several years after I built the pool, and he was really happy that the other dogs had a place to swim and heal, although as it turns out, he had zero interest in swimming. Too bad! After getting me to quit my job, buy a house, and build a pool, he swam twice a week whether he liked it or not! It really was an important part of maintaining his quality of life. Unfortunately, he continued to fight various diseases along with his orthopedic problems, and when he turned 14, we knew there was not a lot of time left.

Gunny at the pool


You have gone on to write a book. How did this come about?

As Gunny’s health declined, and our inevitable parting loomed, another evolution began to materialize. We were two souls that had become one: I no longer knew where I ended and where he began. Soul mates. And for years, people who knew of our crazy adventures around the world and all of the life-or-death moments we experienced, had said to me, “You should write a book!”

I thought that WE should write a book. So I asked a friend who was an animal communicator to interview Gunny on about 20 topics or so, and over the course of about six months, she did. I incorporated the thoughts and feelings that he expressed into our memoir, The Endless Path: A Memoir. It is a story about love, loss, courage, and what it means to walk through life with a soul mate that you have known over lifetimes.

In many ways, publishing the book was actually much more difficult for me than opening the pool. I found it terrifying to share my intimate thoughts and feelings publicly, and I was concerned that people would think that I had totally lost my mind. As if opening a dog pool wasn’t enough, now I was publishing a book sharing my innermost thoughts and feelings about my dog, our immeasurable love for each other, and worst of all, the depth of my grief when he died. It was truly unnerving. But I promised him before he died that I would tell our story, so there was never any question that I had to see it through. And I did. The Endless Path: A Memoir was published in September 2015.

Much to my delight, I have had nothing but lovely reviews and messages from people about the book. Many people have taken the time to review it on Amazon—all 5-star reviews so far. Other people have reached out to me to tell me what the book meant to them and how they completely understand loving a dog so much; they shared with me the depth of their grief when they lost their heart dog. It turns out a lot of the world feels the same way I did. Like me, they just never felt comfortable talking to people about it because it didn’t seem “normal.” Several of my clients at Gunny’s Rainbow are therapists and they recommend the book to their clients who lose a companion. I did not set out to write a self-help book. Gunny and I just wanted to tell our story. But we are certainly happy if in fact our book—and me “going public with my crazy” as I call it—gives others comfort.


Why did you choose this next act

I really never considered doing anything other than opening Gunny’s Rainbow when I quit my corporate legal job. I was motivated by love for Gunny and wanting to help him and other dogs, and it coincided with my need to find a new career path for myself.

Early on, I toyed with the idea of maybe looking for a position on a Board of Directors for a company to earn some money and keep one toe in the legal/corporate world, but I quickly became immersed (pun intended) in doing water therapy and the two things did not seem compatible. One reason I say that is because I went from a job where I de facto put on body armor every day to withstand the conflicts and ordeals of corporate life, to a job with dogs where I really was able to work with an open heart and total vulnerability. A dog is not going to hurt you emotionally. Pretty much ever. And there are no hidden agendas and politics to manage. So, I felt like it would be Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde to try to do both well and I preferred to just be one person—the nice, open-hearted one.

Because I was totally “done” with practicing law, I have not missed it at all. I loved it almost all the years that I did it, but I did not want to do it anymore. So in that sense, it was not hard to quit. Financially it was very scary, however. I had always drawn a paycheck every two weeks, had paid vacations, and had good health insurance. Those days were over the moment that I quit my job. Under the best of circumstances, working in the pool I would be able to make no more than 1/10th the amount I had made as a lawyer, and likely a lot less. Plus I had the added expenses of building and running the pool. So, while I had enough savings to ride it out for a while, it was a plunge into the unknown in terms of financial security.

I wish that I could say I did a lot of thoughtful preparation, but I didn’t. I looked at the numbers to see how long I could last running the pool in the best and worst cases, and then I just did it. Because I was motivated by love and a deep desire to make this change, I did not do a lot of the financial due diligence that one frankly should do. I did take classes on how to swim/rehabilitate dogs, so I made sure that I knew what I was doing in my new chosen profession, even if I did not exercise as much financial diligence as I should have. The reality is that I was going to open the pool and give it a shot even it did not work financially in the long run.



How supportive were your family and friends?

It was a mixed bag. I think most everyone understood my desire to quit my job—they knew that I had worked awfully hard for almost two decades and how little free time I had in my life to do fun things. It was a great run, but it came at a cost to my personal life.

However, quitting a high profile lucrative job to open a dog pool was a bridge too far for many of them. Had I quit to do consulting, or work in a law firm, or practice law and use my degree in some way, I think it would have been more understandable for them. For starters, swimming dogs is not really a “profession” in anyone’s mind. Second, it is not anything that I had any background or training in, so it just seemed weird to people. Third, and very importantly, they did not see how I was going to ever have a client or make a living since most of them had never heard of a dog therapy pool.

In a nutshell, I don’t think anyone was against me quitting, they were just baffled by what I was going to do in my “new life.” They saw, I think, little chance of success. And for many, they also saw little value in it. That always amused me because why would I have more value to society as a tobacco lawyer than as a dog water therapist?

My husband was supportive of me quitting my job and opening the pool, even though it meant big changes to our lifestyle because I had been the main breadwinner in our family. We did not have a safety net other than our savings. No wealthy family members and no lottery winnings! No one knew better than Juan Carlos how stressed out I was, and I was often in a really bad mood. I worked late every night and many weekends, and was exhausted a lot of the time. That said, we had a nice standard of living and took great vacations and had all that we needed. They say that once you have enough money to cover the essentials in life of food and shelter, having more money does not correlate to happiness and I think my experience proves that rule. I did not need more stuff. I needed to be happy and have time to enjoy my life. The Spanish are expert at enjoying life so that was a concept that Juan Carlos was 100% in agreement with!


With Juan Carlos and Gunny


What challenges did you encounter?

Regarding the dog pool, the first challenge was actually constructing the pool room and getting all the equipment that I needed. It was also a huge challenge to run the business out of my home because of all the regulations on home businesses where I live.

Once I tackled all of that, the next challenge was to get clients and build a business. Serendipity found me when the first person who called to bring her dog to swim happened to be a website designer and she wanted to barter swims for website design! It was perfect because a real client, who really knew what I did, designed my website. I hoped that “build it and they will come” would be enough, and in a way, it was. Clients found me on an Internet search, and I really have not had to do any paid advertising at all. That website, a good reputation, and word of mouth have kept the pool full of clients for 7½ years now.

The third challenge was a physical one. It is very difficult to lift 80 to 120 pound dogs in and out of the pool, and tough to be submerged in water for 5 hours a day. I had sat at a desk for most of my life, and this was physically demanding work even if it was not mentally demanding the way my legal job had been.


We had to expand our home to build the pool

Lastly, there was a huge emotional challenge that I had not really properly anticipated—dealing with loss and grief. In many ways, what I am doing is hospice work. I am absolutely improving the quality of the life of the elderly dogs and their people, and bringing them joy and relief from pain, but the personal loss that I suffer with so many of them dying has been emotionally very difficult.

Regarding writing and publishing The Endless Path: A Memoir, there were innumerable obstacles.

The first obstacle was having the time to really concentrate on writing while running the pool. I had the person who was working with me work an extra day of the week so I could have that time to write. It is very difficult to write a memoir for half a day and then go socialize and swim dogs in the other half.

Book signing

Secondly, it was very challenging to confront all of the emotions that came up writing the book. The writing itself was not difficult—I had been writing my whole life, albeit in the legal world—but I am a natural writer so it comes easy for me. Gunny and I had made a promise that we were going to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, regardless of whether it reflected poorly on one or both of us, and some of those truths were hard to tell.

Third, I had to decide between self-publishing and trying to get an agent/publisher. I made a small attempt to find representation and ultimately decided that I would rather have complete control over how our story was presented, so I went the self-publishing route.

Lastly, the skills and tasks involved in actually publishing the book and marketing it are things that I could NOT do alone, so I hired some very competent people to help me and that is how I resolved those challenges. I found the perfect website designer to design the book’s website; found a professional proofreader; started publishing at the famous local bookstore here in Washington, DC (Politics & Prose); and, with patience, found someone to help me with a marketing plan to sell my book.



Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Although it sounds trite, failure was not an option. In terms of the dog pool, I believed that the business could work and it does. Dogs get better and live longer, people are happy, and new clients come to fill in the spots of the old dogs when they pass away. So honestly, no, I never thought about giving up. The closest I came to giving up was when the expense and stress of leaks and equipment failures overwhelmed me. Once I got those resolved, I did not look back.

In terms of writing The Endless Path, I would not say that I thought of giving up, but there were times when it was really quite emotionally difficult to keep writing. I did not really have a choice, however, because I made a promise to Gunny that I would tell the world his/our story, and I always keep my promises.

I guess through it all, the truth is that Gunny kept me going on both fronts. Both the pool and the book were his legacy and I did not want to let him down. Had I done this only for myself, I don’t know if I would have a different answer. But I wasn’t doing it just for me, so I was highly motivated to see it all through and to succeed. I was also fortunate to have a husband who really wanted me to be happy, and who was willing to make changes in his own life to help me make changes in mine.



What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that there is nothing more powerful than the power of love. So now, when faced with a challenge or negativity, I throw love at it. I did not know that I was capable of loving so deeply, and did not anticipate the strength that I would find in loving and being loved with such intensity.

I also learned that I can do more than one thing in life well. We always hope that we are good at more than one thing, but now I know that I can practice law and argue with the best of them; I can run a business; I can write a book; and I also can go to the most quiet and tender part of my being and just “be” with a dog who is hurting and bring him comfort. Those are wildly different things, and I am surprised to find that I am able to do all of them pretty well. I already knew a lot about what I did not do well—such as accounting or sports, it is a long list—so it was nice to have a longer list of things that I can do. And hopefully I will discover some new things in the coming years!


Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

I honestly don’t think so. I think I did what I needed to do at the time I needed to do it. I could not have written the book earlier. I could not have opened the pool later. And I could not have kept working in my lawyer role for much longer or I would have become physically ill. I feel that I listened to my heart rather than my head when there was a decision-making moment, and that my heart kept me on course.



What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Listen to your heart/your gut/the “knowing” place inside of you. If you feel you need to make a change or you feel an internal dissonance in what you are doing and what you want to do, value that and listen to it. I am not saying that your good brain has no role to play, but I think if you try to be only logical, only rational, or listen to others, you may not end up in the best place for you. I think we all know on some level what we are here to do and it is not necessarily just one thing in our life! So let yourself realize the full expression of your unique self and don’t let others who are timid or afraid hold you back or make you doubt yourself.

I think changing what you do for a living often involves getting in touch with parts of yourself that you may not have really been well-acquainted with before the change. So it is hard—on you, your family, and your friends. And I think it always brings change to your life in a variety of aspects from your friends to your finances. But it is your life, and I think it is important not to sit back when you are old and ask “I wonder what would have happened if I had . . .?” Better to know the answer to the question, and follow your heart and your inner desire, come what may.

Book club!


What advice do you have for those interested in working with animals?

If you think that you want to work with animals, fantastic! But don’t think that working with animals means you avoid working with people; the people are the ones who bring you the animals, love them, and are involved in their care. So you have to interact with and love people, too. And, know that there is almost nothing that you can do in terms of working with animals that pays much money, other than being a vet. It doesn’t matter how good you are. There is a ceiling on the amount of money that you can make unless you start to franchise and expand. And then guess what? You aren’t working with animals any more, just lots and lots of employees. That is fine; but just know, that’s how it goes!

For those thinking about writing a book, I would say that you need to remember that the book process has three distinct and totally unrelated parts: writing it, publishing it, and marketing it. It requires three different skill sets and it takes a really long time. So, if you have a story to tell, tell it! Hire good people in each of those three areas to help you as necessary. And persevere in the face of a rejection.



What resources do you recommend?

With regard to running the dog pool:

La Paw Spa in Sequim, WA teaches dog water therapy to adults, most of whom are looking to change careers.

Kathleen Prasad at Animal Reiki Source is a resource for people who want to learn reiki for animals.

For certain swim equipment for the dogs: Dog Leggs, Critter’s Inflatable, Ruffwear.

With regard to writing my book:

Teresa Spencer provides a variety of services to assist authors, from ghost writing to, as in my case, helping me outline the book before starting to write it.

Jo Spring for proofreading services and other author publishing assistance.

Politics & Prose was instrumental in handholding through the publishing process.

I ultimately published with Ingram Spark. They have drawbacks, but are the biggest book distributor in the world so the book is easily available on Amazon, B&N, etc.

Leigh Kramer at Helicopter Marketing, for assistance in marketing the book.



What’s next for you?

I think my next transition is to slowly move from working with dogs in the water to writing full time. As I age, it is harder and harder to do the physical work required in the water, and it is harder and harder to deal with death on a constant basis.

Having told my story in The Endless Path: A Memoir, I would like to keep writing to tell other people’s and dogs’ stories who are unable to tell them for themselves. Everyone has a story and, to me, they are all fascinating. So, I would like to help give voice to those stories, much as you do here on your blog!


Contact Laurie Plessala Duperier at info@gunnysrainbow.com.


Twitter: @lduperier

Websites: theendlesspath.com and gunnysrainbow.com


Let’s Hear From an Expert: Walker Thornton, Sex Educator

151106_walker_t_0412-1You write and speak about sex in the hopes of educating your audiences. You also counsel midlife women (and men) about sexual issues. What have you found are the most common challenges when it comes to sex for women in midlife?

The biggest challenge I see for women, partnered or single, is adjusting to their aging bodies—menopause, body image, life stressors and their impact on our bodies and our sexual desire. I speak to women who seem to have shut down at some point and they want to figure out a way to enjoy sex again but often don’t know how to begin. How do women find the answers to deeply personal questions? I think that’s one of the biggest challenges given our reluctance to talk about female sexuality in an open and positive way.


On the flip side, are there opportunities related to sex that are unique to women in midlife?

Oh, absolutely. Post-menopause, there is tremendous freedom once we’re past that phase of monthly periods and worries about pregnancy. As women become more confident in themselves, it’s a time when sexual expression can be a lot of fun.


What messages do you seek to share with women in midlife about their sexuality?

I want women to feel they can talk about their sexuality comfortably, without feelings of shame or awkwardness. We’re not given many positive messages about female sexuality or aging and I want to change that.

We can admit that we don’t know how things will change as we age and that’s OK, as long as there are resources designed for this demographic. That’s part of why I wrote my book—to help women explore and embrace their sexuality.


You have just released your new book, Inviting Desire. Tell us more about this book and how it helps women in midlife.

Inviting Desire: A guide for women who want to enhance their sex life was written for those midlife women who want a better sex life, a better understanding of their sexuality. As I say in the intro, it is a book about self-love and self-respect. It is about finding enjoyment in your body—physically and emotionally. Inviting Desire is not about reversing the aging process, dieting, or getting a new makeup regime. No need to ‘reinvent’ yourself or contemplate plastic surgery to become more in touch with your sexuality; you already have the necessary ingredients—a rich map of your abundant life of gifts and talents. We will explore and discover those as we begin this journey together.

This is a time when many women find themselves in a tired, stale relationship, or maybe struggling with menopause and life stress. And many of these women want sex; they want to feel sexual desire but don’t know how to go about figuring it out. So I wrote the book based on my work with women and my own experiences. I use a series of approaches—writings, images, exercises, and other resources—to deepen awareness of the body and senses and teach women how to embrace themselves as sexual individuals.

This is a quote from the book:  “To think of yourself as a sexual being is first and foremost a state of mind. At any age and at any point in our lives we can become, we are, sexual beings. We do not need a partner to make us sexual. Learning to awaken your sexual desire is about you as an individual. “



Besides your own writing, what resources do you recommend to women in midlife who wish to become better educated about their sexual wellbeing?

  • Middlesex MD is a great resource for women, written by a gynecologist. “We believe that as we age, women, whatever their lifestyle or preferences, have the right to fully enjoy their sexuality.”
  • Our Better Half is a podcast hosted by Laura Collins Lyster-Mensch, a writer and public speaker, who decided to learn more about sexuality during midlife. She interviews a wide range of individuals with grace and humor.
  • Lauren Streicher is a gynecologist with a focus on female sexuality. She writes a regular column for Everyday Health on women’s health.
  • Em and Lo, two women who offer sex advice and curated content about sexuality offer a reasonably mild portrayal of sex in our culture.
  • Books: Joan Price, is a speaker and author with a focus on aging sexuality—while her target audience is slightly older, her book, Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex, and blog of the same name, offer information of benefit to women and men of all a
  • Healthy Sex Drive, Healthy You : What Your Libido Reveals about Your Life by Diana Hoppe, M.D.
  • There is a new The Joy of Sex, by Alex Comfort—always a good standard and enhanced with nice pictures.


Contact Walker Thornton at walker@walkerthornton.com


Inviting Desire: A guide for women who want to enhance their sex life


Twitter:  @WalkerThornton



Walker Thornton is a sex educator, speaker, and sexual health writer. A former executive director of sexual assault crisis centers, in Alabama and Virginia, with many years of nonprofit board experience at the local and state level, Walker now works to educate and support older women with sexuality-related issues. 

Walker offers straight-talk about sex, occasionally mixing in personal stories to emphasize her point. Her mission is to help women embrace their sexuality in a way that feels comfortable at each stage of life. Her writing has appeared on the American Sexual Health Association website, Huffington Post, Better After 50, Senior Planet, and other sites. She is the Sexual Health Columnist for Midlife Boulevard and writes about midlife sexuality at Kinkly.com. Walker currently serves on the Sexuality and Aging Consortium of Widener University’s Leadership Committee. She has presented at the Sexuality and Aging Symposium, CatalystCon, and in other venues across the country.

Becoming a Triathlete in Midlife: Lisa’s Story

profileA difficult breakup at age 50 led Lisa to take a hard look at herself and her life and start a serious workout regimen then challenge herself further by signing up for triathlon training. She’s now a competitive triathlete with aspirations to combine this passion with her love of travel and her desire to support women.


Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in a New Jersey suburb called Totowa, about 20 miles west of Manhattan. I am Italian American and the eldest of two. My sister and I were athletes with my sport being softball. I learned how to pitch at a very young age and continued playing softball through college. My dad was one of my coaches up until high school and both parents were actively involved in my sports/athletic life.



I graduated with a BA in Psychology from Rider College in Lawrenceville, NJ and thought I would continue down the path of becoming a Psychologist. That never happened yet I did land a job in the Human Resources department which, looking back, at times had similar roles and requirements. I decided I wanted to continue my career in this field so I enrolled in the masters program at The Milano School, which is part of the New School for Social Research in New York City.

I graduated with an MS in Human Resources Management and continued my career within the human resources field. After a few years in HR, my career took a turn to the world of software application implementation and business process work. My various jobs led me to Minneapolis for 18 months, then to Boston for another 18 months, then back home to Manhattan, where I stayed until I was 41.

After realizing that I wanted to make a difference in the world, and that living in Manhattan was not for me, I quit my job at age 42, traveled solo for six weeks, and ended up in Portland, Oregon. I began graduate school in 2004, two months after arriving, and proceeded to work in a volunteer capacity for a non-profit organization called Children’s Justice Alliance. I became immersed in the world of children whose parents are incarcerated and consider this to be one pivotal point in my life.

Upon graduating with my Masters in Public Administration degree in 2009, I researched working at non-profit organizations and talked with employees who worked at non-profits and determined that I couldn’t make ends meet. So I decided to return to the world of systems implementation and analyst work for one primary reason: the salary. During my time in Portland, I became involved in community work as a volunteer with a few organizations while earning my salary in the world of business analysis and software implementation.

Graduating with my Master's in Public Administration

Graduating with my Master’s in Public Administration, with my dear friend Jane


When did you start to think about making a change?

After an emotionally challenging break-up at age 50, I took a step back and looked at myself; I didn’t like what I saw. After some intense self-reflection work, I joined a gym and was given my free personal training session with a trainer who also was a triathlete. After hearing myself say I have always wanted to do triathlon races and giving him excuse after excuse about why I haven’t and why I can’t, I paused and said screw it, sign me up for training sessions for the summer 2012 tri season. My 50th year on this earth was one of the two most liberating years for me.

This “aha” moment seemed as if it just happened. However, as I write this in hindsight, it becomes clear that the break-up was the final straw to the culmination of a few years of not living my authentic self.

I had a second “aha” moment two years later, at 52, when I realized that for all of my career life I did work that society expected of me and which I thought I was meant to do. I was good at my job, liked my work, but a big part of me was missing. Somehow I had lost myself along the way and was able to find myself and my courage through the triathlons.

During this reflective “aha” period, a friend mentioned a friend of hers who had quit her job and completed one year of travel around the world. I read and reread her blog. I sought out other women who traveled solo, checked my finances, and researched parts of the world I wanted to visit. I also enrolled with a volunteer organization where I planned to take an assignment somewhere outside the US (Vietnam was my first choice) and help teach English. I connected with friends living in Europe and started to plan potential visits.

In Kakku, Burma

In Kakku, Burma

After nine months of planning, I gave notice and left my job in January 2014. I traveled for seven months, four of them solo. I can’t begin to tell you the excitement and liberation I felt when I clicked ‘Book ticket’ on the United Airlines website for my one-way ticket to Thailand. I had no idea where I was going except to volunteer upon arrival at a post detox center in northern Thailand for two weeks, possibly do a one-week retreat at Plum Village in France, and maybe teach English in Vietnam through a volunteer organization. For the first time in my life, I had no clear path and couldn’t wait for this next act of my life to start.

But when I returned home after seven months, I felt I did not belong. After struggling to adjust to being back in the place I’d called home, I reached out to a friend of mine who recently became a life coach and whose focus was on people who were thinking of a career change or who had quit their jobs and were wondering ‘now what’. She too had left her career and traveled solo; I decided to reach out to her because she understood some of the feelings, emotions, pains, and joys I was experiencing.



What is your next act?

I am a competitive triathlete (competitive with myself!). I love the sense of accomplishment I get after completing a race. I love the camaraderie with the people I work out with; I love how I feel after a bike ride, swim, or run. My first trainer told me I’m an endorphin junky and he was so right! I love the sense of accomplishment after finishing a workout or race. I love the act of commitment and dedication I show towards myself.

What I love the most is that I don’t even think about training; I just do it (no Nike pun intended). The mindset around training has become a part of my day. I don’t even think about it. It goes without saying, however, that there are some days when my body and mind are just so tired that I can’t work out; thankfully this isn’t the norm.

The race season officially starts in June and ends in September, at least here in Oregon. I have competed the Sprint distance race (1/2 mile swim, 20k bike and 5k run) and one Olympic distance race (0.9 mile swim, 40k bike, and 10k run) have stayed within the Portland metro area. I start the season by doing a practice triathlon, called the Mock Tri with the Portland Triathlon Club. It is a great way to get myself acclimated to racing again.


After my first triathlon, June 2012

After my first triathlon, June 2012

Races are categorized by age and the age is determined by how old one will be in the year of the race. For the 2016 season, I race in the 55-59 age category as I turn 55 in 2016. For the 2012 season, I came in 3rd place in all races I did (and in my age category). I took 1st in my division in the Sprint race and 2nd in my age category for the Olympic distance this season.

I work individually with a strength coach and also take his group strength training classes in Portland.  I recently started taking swimming lessons, which allows me to swim in open water (in a lake and river) and helps me swim better when alone during my pool swims. As an aside, I don’t swim enough in open water and for those of you training for your first or 100th race, swim in open water as much as you can. I try to work out five to six days a week; that can include any combination of activities.

I have always eaten healthy, so eating for the race season is no different. I don’t eat processed foods or fried foods much, but I do find that when I exercise hard and often, my body craves protein and carbs. I try not to eat much meat but haven’t kicked the habit completely. Eating during training is a funny thing—you need to eat a lot of carbs to keep the fuel going yet it feels counter-intuitive to be that hungry all the time and ingest more food than you thought you would ever eat in a day.


Post race rewards!

As far as my support system, I look to my coach during the sessions and to my training mates when I bike with a group or another friend. However, I am a loner in the sense that I feel more comfortable running, swimming, and cycling by myself. I do find that training with others is a great motivator for me and I am learning to do more of that.

Off season, I keep up with running outside whenever I can; Portland’s weather is favorable for that. I do have to say that time on my bike either stops or dramatically decreases off-season. If I have the money, I’ll keep up with my gym membership and swim indoors once a week. My friends and family are super supportive; they know that I have a lot of energy and they love what this training and racing has done and continues to do for me. While they aren’t usually present at the races, I always feel their support.

I played competitive softball since I was in grade school through my freshman year in college. I’ve always had a competitive edge and find that this endorphin junkie side helps me moving forward. Training is hard work and it takes a lot of time and effort. It also can be draining at times so having this innate sense of competitiveness and experience participating in a sport most of my life has truly helped me at this phase (next act) in my life.
My favorite part of the race is the reaching the finish line! My second favorite part of the race is the cycling portion.

I have found a supportive and fun community within this sport. I work out, and have met, people who are training for ironman and ½ ironman races, all levels of the multi-race sport (duathalon, tri, aqua/bike race) and those who aren’t racing yet love the sport of cycling or keeping in fitness shape.


With my girlfriends at the end of the first annual Cycle Oregon women’s ride earlier this year


Why did you choose this next act?  

The triathlon training and racing picked me. I never gave it a thought as to why I chose this next act. Looking back, I realize that my love for competition and commitment to sports was something that had always been a part of my life, and that part had been missing for a very, very long time.

I was sick of hearing myself give excuses and when I said out loud that I was going to train for the 2012 season, it all just happened. I realized that my life for a while was one big excuse and I did not want to live like that any longer.


What challenges are you encountering?

When it comes to maintaining my training regimen, I have to be diligent at working out in the morning before work and in the evenings after work (or during work hours if I have evening plans). I’m a social being and when I don’t get the right combination of friend/community time along with my training time, I feel a bit “off.”

During the triathlon training and season, one challenge is keeping my promise to continue racing to the last race in September. It is a long season and it takes a lot of time, energy, commitment and dedication to continue. After a race, I find I stop doing most of my training for at least a week. I lose the motivation post-race for some reason. I get my motivation back when I realize that I start to fall into old patterns of giving excuses to myself about why I am not exercising, which then leads to decreased brain energy both at work and at home. It is a wake-up call to me not wanting to fall into old patterns.

The most challenging part of the completing a race for me is the open water swim. I wouldn’t say I’ve gained the confidence of swimming in open water as of yet but I do it anyway. I recently chose to not sign up for a race because of my fear that I couldn’t finish the swimming part. Whether that is grounded in truth or not, I chose to listen to my self-doubt and fear—or was it my realistic voice telling me the truth, I’ll never know, will I? I have learned however to get in the open water as much as possible and started to take swimming lessons this season. The instructor owns a home on a lake and our lessons are there. It has helped me tremendously and I will continue taking those lessons as it definitely boosts my confidence.

I also have to keep my energy level up and be able to focus on my work. I am grateful to have a job I like with a livable wage, which helps to allow me to purchase individual training sessions and group trainings most of the times when I need them. I do not have the financial means however to buy all the gear and a new bike so I learn to use what I have. Being a triathlete can be a costly venture as there are race fees and membership costs along with the cost of the gear. To help defray the costs, one can purchase used gear such as a bike or wetsuit. One doesn’t have to work out with a trainer or join group strength classes or a gym as you can work out on your own.

There are times when I think of giving up, when I become unsure of my swimming in open water ability. But then, I wake up the next day and realize how good racing makes me feel and what it does for my body and mind.


After training swim in Williamette River, Portland, OR


What did you learn about yourself through this process?

That I can do anything I set my mind to. That I have the courage and determination to follow through with something. That there are other people like me who have insecurities and force themselves at times to keep going. That having a healthy body is a big part in what makes me have a healthy mind.


Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

I would have tried to do an Olympic distance tri race in 2012, which leads to the bigger item of having more faith in myself that I could do it. I took the plunge and did an Olympic distance race this season. While I knew intellectually that I could do it, psychologically I held myself back. Finishing that race (and coming in 2nd in my age category) was such an amazing feeling. I would not have waited so long to challenge myself.

I have committed to more individual training sessions with my strength training coach (Shawn Bostad with Steelhead Coaching) and have asked for workouts that concentrate on getting me stronger to do the longer swim distance, and with having the strength to continue on to finish. (My body is getting tired thinking and writing about it!)

With my

With Shawn, my strength training coach


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Do not listen to anyone who tells you that you are having a midlife crisis. Follow the voice of your soul; she will never steer you wrong. It isn’t easy reinventing yourself after so many years of living in the shell—one you were never meant to live in. You will get pushback and negative energy and comments from some of the people whose support you yearn for. Push through it because your own support and words of encouragement are enough. The reinvented you always existed; she was living in the shadow of the public you, waiting for the right moment to show herself.


What advice and resources can you give those interested in starting triathlons in midlife?

Be committed to the workouts. Recognize that your body will hurt and your mind will tell you to stop. Listen to your body as long as it isn’t your mind telling you to stop.

Join a triathlon club. Find running groups with runners both at your level and more advanced. Do group bike rides. Get in as much open water swimming as you can.

Do yoga – you will need that sense of fluidity and balance.  Follow your heart and passion and add to your life that which gives you joy.

For professional life coaching, Lisa Hoashi helps people get unstuck so they can move courageously toward a life and work they truly love.

Triathlete website for beginners and seasoned triathletes.

Runners World website and magazine.

For personal and group training in the Portland OR metro area, I highly recommend Shawn Bostad of Steelhead Coaching.

Race Center for PNW race schedules and related information.


I took second in my age group!


What advice and resources do you have for those interested in traveling solo for months at a time?

Regardless of whether you are a planner or not, look into countries that hold some points of interest, throw a pin to a map, and book a flight!

Read blog posts by people who have traveled solo. As a woman traveling solo, one has to be super diligent yet the hype and fear instilled in us about violence abroad is not always accurate. Those of us who live in the US face more violence than in many parts of the world.

One’s finances do play a role in the choices you make about where and for how long you can stay yet it should not be a deterrent from making the decision to travel. Staying in hostels, pensiones, home stays, and other community type of environments helps to make the travel affordable (if money is an issue).

Volunteer with organizations or within communities as much as you can; your skills and desire to contribute will be met with open arms if presented properly.

Buy travel insurance; it is even required before entering some countries.

Read up on the country’s traditions, cultures and norms. Do not assume that what you know to be acceptable behavior as an American (or whatever country you call home) will be acceptable in the country to which you visit. And please be respectful to the country’s cultures and traditions. Always remember you are a visitor in another land.

Be prepared for culture shock and to unlearn things you were taught. Traveling solo is an amazing experience and you will learn so much about yourself and the world around you.

For access to the solo travel community, I love Solo Travel Society on Facebook and www.solotravelerblog.com. I follow Jodi Ettenberg and continue to read about her adventures on her blog Legal Nomads. World Nomads is another blog I follow.

In Cusco, Peru

In Cusco, Peru

What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

I want to travel again and this time my next act will be taking the racing and all that goes with it on the road. I have an idea that I want to turn into a tangible pursuit, where I combine my project management experience, networking aptitude, triathlon training, and race experience to help support women in midlife who want to do multi-sport races (whether racing or training for one)—preferably outside of the US.

I want my next phase of life to be meaningful to and for me, where I can take everything I have experienced and learned over the years and live and work outside the US participating in the multi-sport race in whatever capacity I find myself. My goal is to make a salary to help sustain my being abroad for a bit, while working in communities who need or want an extra pair of hands.


Contact Lisa Alfano at alfanolm@gmail.com


Instagram: travelingalfano

Blogging About Believing in Yourself: Margaret’s Story

margaret-rutherfordAfter switching careers from music to psychology, Dr. Margaret was seeking a new creative outlet. She found it in her blog, where she writes about mental health (especially what she terms “Perfectly Hidden Depression”), midlife, and relationships.


Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in the Delta region of southern Arkansas, in the little town of Pine Bluff. My father was a funeral director and bank director, and very loved within the community. My mother was a heels-and-hose, beautifully mannered and kind woman, who cared for me and my two older brothers. I took etiquette lessons, learned to walk with a book on my head, and read Shakespearean verse. I was supposed to come out as a debutante at around 16, but I informed my mom I was already “out.”

Me with my mom, aunt, grandmother and brother (photobombing)

Me with my mom, aunt, grandmother and brother (photobombing)

I have always rebelled against following rules – sometimes a strength, and sometimes a weakness.

I originally graduated from Southwestern At Memphis (now Rhodes College) with a degree in French. I went on to become a professional vocalist in Dallas (music had always been my first love). I sang jingles during the day and jazz at night. But I wasn’t very happy personally—the lifestyle didn’t fit me. I had grown up in a very stable environment, and it was hard to constantly look for gigs or always be selling your talent to jingle producers. Plus, the jingle business was constantly searching for fresh, new voices. It was very easy to get replaced, and get replaced quickly.

Singing in a nightclub in Dallas

Singing in a nightclub in Dallas

I changed my career to something I knew would be more stable. I wanted to use my mind more – and I wanted to help others. I learned this when I volunteered at Dallas’ Battered Women’s Shelter. That was a life-altering experience. I had never felt better as a person than when I ended my shift there at the shelter. So I used all my savings to go to Southern Methodist University and study Music Therapy, then applied to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School for a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. I did get in, but was told years later that it had been due more to curiosity than much else: They’d never had a singer want to become a psychologist. I was granted my Ph.D. at the age of 38.

I have been married 25 years to a wonderful guy, and we were lucky enough to have a son through in vitro fertilization. That son just graduated from Vanderbilt and is headed to California to work. I was in practice in Dallas for a short period of time, but have been in private practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas, since 1993, where I see mostly adults and families. I specialize in depression, trauma, and marital work.



When did you start to think about making a change?

After 20 years in private practice, in 2012, I decided that I wanted to extend the walls of my practice to try to reach more people. I loved being a therapist. I wasn’t burned out at all, but I thought writing would give me another outlet to share some of the wisdom I had learned from the patients I had seen. I had time on my hands, since our son had left for college. And I needed a new creative venture.


What is your next act?

I am a writer. My blog, Dr. Margaret Rutherford, which I launched at age 58, has turned into another job. Posts vary from giving advice on depression to helping build skills in relationships to how to handle grief—basically the things that I do in my practice. Popular posts have included my work on a particular presentation of depression (Perfectly Hidden Depression), articles on sexual abuse, and my musings on marriage after 24 years.

My two criteria for continuing to write are: I am getting feedback that my posts are helpful, and I am having fun. Those remain my guideposts. Sometimes, when the cart gets before the horse, or I take on too much, I stop having fun. That’s when I have to breathe and sort out what’s causing the tension.

I’m still seeing between 30 and 35 patients a week, and have been since the beginning. But I also spend at least 20 hours a week writing. I have contributed my writing to two books, Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor (A. Herzig), and The Stigma Fighters Anthology (Volume 2) (S. Fader) and have my own eBook, Seven Commandments of Good Therapy available for free download on my website.


I’m the mental health featured writer for Midlife Boulevard, and you can find my work on The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, Better After 50, Vibrant Nation, The Mighty, and Arkansas Women Bloggers. I’ve guest-posted on Psychology Today, and my opinions on depression and relationships can be found on Readers Digest, The Cheat Sheet, and Huffington Post Divorce.

I’m now researching and writing my own book on a syndrome I call “Perfectly Hidden Depression.” PHD is depression gone underground, so to speak. There are people who may or may not realize they’re depressed, but actively hide their sadness and loneliness by erecting a perfect façade of happiness or contentment. They’ve learned that it’s weak or not acceptable to express pain.


Why did you choose this next act?  

I knew I wanted to do something creative. I had done a fair amount of acting and singing in the community in my 40s and even early 50s, and had really enjoyed it. So I tried to go back to theatre, but it didn’t work for me as well. Singing is something you have to work hard on every day, and I hadn’t had time to practice, or even sing, in years. When writing was suggested, I had to stop and think. “Me? A writer?” And then, I thought, “Well, if nobody reads it, I guess that will give me the information I need. And I’ll try something else.”

I love writing. I had always loved to write funny emails, or actual letters (If anyone reading remembers letters…). But other than that, after my dissertation, I had sworn I would never write another word. There was a steep learning curve in the first year, and my writing changed drastically. Now I’m trying to learn to switch from the kind of writing that fits a blog, and the kind that works in a book.



How hard was it to take the plunge?

As far as blogging is concerned, I actually worried about the ethicality of writing more than anything else. Therapists don’t talk about themselves with their patients, or only when it might be clinically helpful. Would me writing about my own life, or my experiences and thoughts as a therapist, somehow muddle or harm my work with patients? What if they read it? How would we talk about it?

I saw, however, that many mental health professionals were on social media like Facebook or Instagram. And since I live in a smaller town, it’s not at all difficult to find out things about me. I’m a very open, direct therapist—if it became a problem for someone, we would talk about it. It did one time. I had written a post about my empty nest feelings. One person said, “I know you’ve been upset, I feel funny talking about my problems.” I asked her to quit reading the blog, and she agreed. In many ways, my posts are a good litmus test to see if you’d enjoy working with me. So the benefits outweighed the concern.

I don’t think I prepared at all. I read a few blogs, but quickly realized I didn’t want to be overly influenced by the writing style of others. I dove in, head first!


How supportive were your family and friends?

My husband has been tremendously supportive. I don’t think I’ve done more than two loads of laundry in the past two years. My son only reads my blog occasionally, but that’s as it should be. He’s always asking about how “the writing” is going, however, and has cheered me on.

Some friends were a bit dubious, mainly wondering why I wanted to add to an already busy schedule. But they’re now very supportive.


My book club

My book club


What challenges have you encountered?

Time. There’s not enough of it. I’ve had to practice time management, even more than normal. And I know I have, at times, pushed myself way too hard. I’ve maintained a full patient load (that’s seeing around 35 patients a week) and blogged regularly. It’s been a challenge, to say the least. I’m now taking a day off every week, but that only began in May of this year.


Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

I’ve not thought about giving up blogging. But it’s difficult occasionally not to compare my life with others. Keeping my eye, and my spirit, focused on my purpose, has been vital to maintaining my joy in the process. The hours it takes to write cut into my time with family and friends. But it’s worth it.

Every time I have thought about stopping, I’ll get an email, or a comment, thanking me for touching their life. That’s all the motivation I need.

The same goes, actually, for becoming a psychologist. It can take several years to get all the training, and I remember thinking about what my other friends were doing with their life – buying homes, having children. In midlife, the equivalent might be early retirement or traveling. It takes sacrificing some things to reach your own goal. At times, it can be lonely.

With my husband and son in Puerto Rico - we love to travel!

With my husband and son in Puerto Rico – we love to travel!


What are you learning about yourself through this process?

My friends tell me I’ve emotionally opened myself up more, and I think they’re right. I’ve risked stating my experience, my opinion, and my ideas over social media. That changes you.

I’ve learned that 5:00 in the morning is a great time for self-reflection.

And I’ve learned (again in some ways) that risking is worth it. You’re never too old to learn something new.


Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

This is a loaded question! Lol… I have regrets in my life, mostly about being divorced twice. But in some ways, those failures caused me to be even more driven to change in a positive direction. I had had enough of chaos. I know those painful experiences give me empathy for others.

As far as becoming a psychologist, there are programs out there that don’t include writing a dissertation. It’s called a Psy.D. I might have done that instead, since I wasn’t all that interested in clinical research.

My blogging venture? I would’ve reached out more, early on, to other bloggers. I didn’t realize how much support was available from blogging colleagues.


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

When I hear anyone say that they’re too old to try something, I ask this question. “Do you believe you have a reasonable chance of living for another decade or two?” The answer is usually yes. “Then why wouldn’t you want to spend that time doing something that intrigues or challenges you, rather than not?”

Yes, it’s true that the dreams we might have had in our twenties cannot practically happen now. But you can get close to the feelings and experiences you once might have treasured. If you wanted to be a ballerina, take dance classes. If you wanted to travel the world, pick somewhere you’d like to go, and go. If you wanted to teach, get back in a classroom, or volunteer to help someone learn to read. You can honor that part of you that wants expression. As long as you have your health and your mind, it’s all possible.

I still perform: Playing Cookie Cusack in "Rumors" in 2013

I still perform: Playing Cookie Cusack in “Rumors” in 2013


What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your reinvention path?

If you want to become a therapist, realize there are many different ways of doing that. Some take longer than others. You need to look into social work, licensed professional counseling, as well as psychology.

As far as blogging is concerned, it’s important to know what you want to create, and stay true to your own writing voice. Comparison with others will kill the joy in it. I also think it’s very helpful, if not vital, to have someone who will be honest about your writing, and make editorial suggestions. That person can also act as a cheerleader!

At the Great Wall in China

At the Great Wall in China


What resources do you recommend?

This is a very practical article about becoming a psychologist.

Here’s a great article about the many sorts of helping professionals.

Here are some great blogging start-up suggestions.

The best help for bloggers who want to make money blogging? Susan Maccarelli’s website Beyond Your Blog.

We love our Arkansa Razorbacks!

We love our Arkansas Razorbacks!


What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

Currently, I’m writing a book on a topic that has gone viral on my site, Perfectly Hidden Depression. I have a literary agent, and am learning all about proposals and trying to get the attention of an acquiring editor. I’ve worked on it for a year already, and there’s a steep learning curve!

As far as the next few years…

I’ve advised others – if it doesn’t exist, create it.

I imagine that if I’m disappointed in where my life is going, or frustrated about finding purpose, I will continue looking for opportunity to create what I need. It’s probable others would enjoy or need it as well!


Contact Dr. Margaret Rutherford at askdrmargaret@drmargaretrutherford.com


Twitter: @doctor_margaret





Creating a Community for Caregivers: Carole’s Story

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.35.40 PMCaring for her mother in her final years helped Carole find her mission later in life. She is helping others in the Sandwich Generation cope with the challenges of caring for their loved ones, while celebrating the privilege of being a Caregiver to her elderly parents.


Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and still live in the same neighborhood. I was raised by wonderful, loving parents and am the third of four kids. I have fond memories from my childhood. My parents created a warm and loving home and exposed us to the arts and cultural district early on.

My mom was a creative genius: a great seamstress, knitter, crocheter, designer; a creative cook and baker; a writer and lyricist, writing jingles back in the day. She also became a prolific painter in her 60s. She enjoyed using collage in her paintings and her designs were always unique. She loved to dance and was always taking educational classes. She was full of life and love and was a dedicated homemaker, wife, and mother.


At 10, in one of the many outfits my mom made for me

My dad was an engineer and worked at Westinghouse until he got his law degree while we were in grade school. He went on to have a long, thriving law career, not retiring until the age of 85! He had his own practice and taught us much about reaching for your dreams, following your heart and passion, and never giving up. Both my folks set stellar examples of what a fine human being is. They were married for 65 years and showed us what a good marriage is too.

I went to Ivy School of Professional Art after high school and graduated a two-year program in Fine Arts with a focus on fabric art, including batik. I have a varied work history. I was in the restaurant business for ten years in a variety of capacities. I owned a soda pop vending machine company for eight years. I worked in customer service. I also owned a custom frame shop/art gallery with my sister, Jan Steinle, for five years.

Our shop and gallery was a beautiful, creative place to work in daily. We became a leader in the frame industry, in large part thanks to our efforts to market our business online via elaborate e-newsletters. The industry was behind the times digitally and we understood the power of the net to generate business. As a result of my e-newsletters, I was hired by a leading editorial in the art and framing business to write a five-page, feature article on e-Marketing. It was an exciting offer. That was a defining moment in my life. I had a strong love for writing that I didn’t know about until I hit my 40s.

I was married at 23. I have four children: a daughter Katie (33) and three sons Thomas (29), James (28), and Steven (26). We’re a close-knit family and we all live in Pittsburgh except for Thomas, who lives in Boston. I divorced in 1995 and remain friends my ex.


In our frame shop, 2005


When did you think about making a change?

When the store closed in 2009, I became my mom’s Caregiver for the next several years, while managing a small professional organizing business. My mom died on November 23, 2014 and, since then, I have been my dad’s Caregiver during the workweek.

When I took on the role of Caregiver for my mom, it was because I was unemployed after closing my art gallery; I stepped up as “the daughter.” Jan helped on a part-time basis and was also caring for her mother-in-law. My other siblings worked full time and were unavailable during the workweek. I fully expected to get another job, but this was 2009 and the marketplace was tight. I applied to many companies and had a couple of interviews, but nothing was gelling. I was searching for my calling, but finally understood that my calling was to care for Mom. There were times I was very at peace doing the Caregiver gig and other times I felt a need to move on due to Caregiver burnout and emotional turmoil during the duration of my Caregiver role.

There were moments during my Caregiver journey when I believed that I was right where I was meant to be. Still, I was squirming about what my lifetime calling was because I knew my role with my mother wouldn’t last, for obvious reasons. I didn’t know until late in my journey with Mom that I was a Caregiver; I didn’t know that terminology. Caregiving was not my career path. I didn’t know anything about the industry. I stepped up as the daughter because my parents needed help. They had been my best cheerleaders, always very generous and loving over the years, and it seemed the right thing to do was to come to their aid when they needed me most.

I shared my mom’s last years in the best way, the most loving way I knew possible. I would do it all over again. It was a privilege, in my opinion, to care for her. It was an extremely difficult journey. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease after my store closed; it was devastating news. We didn’t know about the disease, but we certainly knew it was not good news. My dad was still working full time and needed help. Her diagnosis came almost a year later after we were suspicious of her peculiar behavior and oddball memory loss.

My parents, 25 years ago

My parents, 25 years ago

During the time I cared for my mother, I felt withdrawn, isolated, and overwhelmed by sorrow and loss long before my mother died. It was an excruciating process. I am typically a social person, but my world was rocked hard, and my personality deeply affected. There are no words to describe how deep down inside this impacted my life, still to this day. What I witnessed in my mom’s personality changes was intense and extremely sad. I felt the overwhelming sorrow of anticipatory grief. I had a broken heart. My best friend was dying and I was losing her long before she died. My learning curve was huge. The role changes that took place were monumental.

A purpose-driven life is a powerful thing. It’s all encompassing when you can wake up and know you have a voice in your destiny. Pursuing my life’s path has been a rocky road. How could it not be? I was caring for my mom when she needed me most and reevaluating my own life and career path. I can’t think of anything more important that I could have done at the time. She loved me and our journey early on was meaningful when she knew changes were coming her way. It was a tender time.

I’m so grateful I have discovered my purpose-driven life. I took three different seminars with John Stanko (Purpose Quest) in a classroom setting in 2014, with the aim to understand my purpose in life, and each one helped me greatly. I was hungry and longing for answers and I knew it required work to pinpoint what I was meant to do. There were workbooks and class participation to help me to discover my calling. I knew I needed to find a way to help Caregivers connect and find comfort in their shared journeys.

All I could think about was that there must be thousands, if not millions, of people who were going through something like I was. I longed to rise above the pain and make friends with others who, like me, were giving their best, giving their life, to save a life. Caregivers all around the world are my heroes!



What is your next act

I have a created a community for the Sandwich Generation and for Caregivers, SanGenWoman: The Heart of the Sandwich Generation (formerly known as The Sandwich Woman).

The statistics regarding Caregivers are truly mind-boggling, with an estimated 43.5 million adult family caregivers caring for someone aged 50 or older, in the US alone. Read more here. We learn at a very young age how to love and nurture others; we are groomed from the time we are toddlers to show love and taught to care for others. Caregiving is not a new concept. In this modern day society, support groups are popping up everywhere for Caregivers, due to the mammoth numbers of people who need help to get through their day due to aging, illness, or special needs. Caregivers and Carers (our European sisters and brothers who provide care for their loved ones) are a global, diverse population growing by leaps and bounds as medicine prolongs our life to a ripe old age.

I launched my Facebook community page, San-Gen-Woman: the Heart of the Sandwich Generation, in February 2015; we are now a community approaching 4,000 and are represented by 45 countries. The need for Caregiver support truly is global. I added Twitter and Instagram in May 2015. I publish a blog every other Wednesday too. My sister Jan and I have an online retail store we launched in August 2015, TangledArtBoutique.com, that houses Zentangle® Inspired Art (ZIA) we create ourselves. You don’t have to be an artist to make a Zentangle; the beautiful images are created by drawing structured patterns. The Zen, or meditative aspect of the art form, is the best part. I’m in a peaceful place when I create my Zentangle Inspired Art.

We also house a special gallery of designs to affirm and support Caregivers that includes several gift lines including tote bags, cell phone cases, and greeting cards. It’s a fun store to shop in with all the customization features. I don’t know of a Caregiver gift line like ours; the designs are quite unique. There are 140+ designs to choose from.


My first book, The Artistry of Caregiving: Letters to Inspire Your Caregiver Journey, is now on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. A unique format, this is truly a book of inspiration, art, and 33 letters — affirmations and imagery to express my deepest love and gratitude to those who are living the life, traveling down the slippery slope of caring for someone who relies on them wholly. My book does not focus on any particular illness. It is meant to help others, of all ages, who are navigating the emotional journey of Caregiving. The Artistry of Caregiving: where words soothe and ideas & art delight. If you don’t have the time or focus to read, you can look at all the dynamic Zentangles in the book to feel affirmed and supported. It’s a book that can be referred to over a lifetime.

Out of something so dark as witnessing my mom’s very serious, extreme memory loss and death, came something beautiful and supportive to the Sandwich Generation – SanGenWoman: the Heart of the Sandwich Generation social media platform. This is my passion, my calling, my mission. My grief could have taken me down, but in fact, it’s my inspiration.

My goal is all encompassing. I want to impart peace, healing, recovery, education, and inspiration, as well as offer gift lines, to those who supply and support the Caregiving industry.

Fruit of the Spirit wth Border1


Tell us more about the challenges you see in midlife and in the field of Caregiving.

There is a lack of praise, value, appreciation, support systems, and financial reward for a Caregiver. We are in a major crisis with more of us living longer and the rise of chronic illness and dementia unlike ever before. The projections are staggering for millions of people, worldwide, who will be affected by Alzheimer’s/dementia. We need more funds for research to stop this life-stealing disease.

Our healthcare system is not easy to navigate. It costs a huge amount of money to save a life if you need aides or need to hire people to care for your loved one. Many family members are taking on the role of caring for another and trying to juggle their personal and professional life too, while keeping their sanity. It’s no small feat to be able to do everything and do it well. Caring for someone else is a big responsibility and a huge job that requires energy, stamina, a strong voice of reason, and patience.

Aside from support groups, we need trained professional counselors who can advise us in all areas of life, dealing with the stress and pressure to meet all of the demands. We need someone to talk to who can advise us, put things in perspective, and help us to nurture ourselves and make ourselves a top priority so we remain healthy, able and strong.


With my dad, one of my very best friends


How did you get started creating your community?

I had never written a blog, didn’t know the first thing about it, but I jumped in with both feet. I didn’t worry about having my ducks in a row because my desire and passion to help others superseded my grief and lack of knowledge. All I could think about was helping others because my Caregiver journey was so isolating and emotionally tumultuous.

When I launched my Facebook page and blog, I sent out a questionnaire to 150 women in midlife, asking them to respond to 33 questions about how they dealt with being the in The Sandwich Generation. The questions were very personal and somewhat invasive, but I made it clear they could reply anonymously and answer as many or as few questions as they wanted. The responses I received were interesting to read: how everyone was dealing with being part of The Sandwich Generation. I heard many common themes, for example, financial concerns: how these women would maintain jobs and income while caring for both children and elders, as well as how they’d plan for their own long term care.

My Twitter community now has 1,000+ followers and my Instagram account 700+ followers, with a strong momentum. Each of my social media platforms has generated important contacts for me in my industry and has opened many doors for me. I have made personal friends and business associates with my audience, including people in other countries such as Indonesia, Switzerland, and Europe. These connections make my heart beat a little swifter, enjoying every moment. I love it.


How supportive are your family and friends?

My dad and sister Jan have been a big support system for me, along with my children and close circle of friends. My dad is the editor for my blog; he’s a wonderful teacher and I have learned a lot in my writing journey with him. My parents have always been my biggest cheerleaders over the years.


What challenges are you encountering?

It has been a challenge to find a nice, sweet way to blog about what I have learned without it being a total bummer or upsetting someone. I’m discovering all the time what it is that I truly want to do with the knowledge gained from my experience caring for my parents. Some of my posts were tear jerkers to write, but mostly it’s been a positive experience and certainly has helped me adjust to the new normal.

Life is good and I’m in a peaceful place. I’m happy to be able to profess that. With great love comes great loss. I am full of gratitude to have been raised by my parents. Good memories throughout my whole life. What more can one ask for?


My kids

My kids


What are you learning about yourself through this process?

I have what it takes to overcome my emotions and think with my voice of reason. If I set my mind to it, I can accomplish many things I never dreamed of. I have something to offer to others – hope, comfort, affirmation, support and love. And, lastly, I have what it takes to create a book and have it come to fruition! That was a very large undertaking, but written with love for my readers.


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Take some classes to find your passion. What makes you happy and excited? What brings you joy? If you’re unsure, I’d suggest reading about finding your purpose in life via books and on the Internet, finding programs to take, getting support from your place of worship, and surrounding yourself with people you admire and respect in life and in business.

I am always making lists for a variety of things. I suggest writing a list of what is a positive in your life. That is a good starting place. It wasn’t long ago someone said the same thing to me. It sounded so cliché. When you’re reflecting on what matters most, it can open many doors in unexpected ways. I am currently seeing this in my life. All the connections I’m making now via social media are a direct result of that lifestyle.

Don’t wait to have it all figured out before you take the leap. I didn’t know how to create a blog, Twitter, Instagram, or an online store. I didn’t have all my ducks in a row. I didn’t take classes on social media or how to craft a message on any of these platforms—I jumped in with both feet and didn’t care about anything except getting my voice heard. I didn’t get bogged down in the “how to” and just figured it out as I went. I had a calling and my calling was to write a book and to help others who are doing what I did. Emotional support is so important to everyone in general, and certainly in a crisis situation when a loved one is suffering, for the person dispensing care. I cannot overstate this point. Emotional support is a must so that the person who is caring for another can do a job well done.

I heard something recently from a senior woman on the radio talking about her lifetime of success and she said when you have a passion about something it borderlines “obsession”… I can attest to that. Most days I eat, sleep, breathe SanGenWoman. It’s not something I work at – It just IS.

With my sister Jan

With my sister Jan


What advice do you have for those interested in sharing their own journeys to help others?

Decide whether your journey is something you want to continue talking about in your life. I do have some limitations about what I’m willing to share and how much I’m willing to talk about my mom and her illness. It was a very personal time in my life—not a fun one to talk about either.

There are a lot of really good people all over the world who are making large strides for senior care, health care, special needs, medical research, writing, and blogging about Caregivers and midlife.

The Sandwich Generation is full of responsibility in all areas of life, and there is plenty of room for anyone who would like to focus on this subject. If you’re driven to share your story, find the means to do so. If you don’t want to write about it, how will you manifest it? Only you will learn the answer to that, if you don’t know already, through your passion and pursuing of your purpose and dreams.

My purpose driven life didn’t come easy. It’s been an oh so long journey of trials and tribulations. We are created to solve problems and find resolutions to situations that arise. To manage a life well lived is a goal I aspire to, daily.



What resources do you recommend?

I think it is vital and critical to anyone who is in the role of Caregiver to ask for help, anywhere you can get it. Agencies, nonprofits, and community colleges are a huge resource to support Caregivers. I never even thought to go there during my years of caring for Mom. I had too many pressing, daily duties to even think about reading anything.

Looking back, I’m sorry I didn’t connect online early on because that can potentially be a saving grace to find a community that understands your pain and role in the caring of someone else’s life. One site I did find and recommend is The Caregiver Space. It’s a great resource and inspired me to forge ahead in developing my own platform. I also recommend the National Alliance for Caregiving for up-to-date information on the subject.

According to my grief counselor, Barbara Coyne, grief is a gift. She is wise about processing grief and embracing it as a gift. I went to one of her support group meetings and it changed my life. I learned how to live with loss and grief from Barbara. She is one of the most peaceful persons I’ve ever met.

Pastor John Stanko, is my advisor, mentor, counselor, spiritual leader, good friend, and the editor of my book. He published the first edition of the Kindle version of my book. Dr John’s mission is living a purposeful life and teaching others how to do that. Purpose Quest is his calling. Read his information and the free assessment survey. It’s one of the most unique and life changing courses out there that I’ve come across and taken. A combination of heart, soul, mission, and spiritual calling to formulate what is going to define the meaning of my experience as a Caregiver.

Finally, for those interested in selling your art as part of your mission, I recommend our boutique supplier, Fine Art America.



What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

I haven’t had much time to think about this because publishing my book was all consuming for the last couple years. I also care for my dad during the week and write a blog and spend time on social media and that is all very time consuming. I’d like to spend more time creating my art. That brings me so much peace and satisfaction. My creative juices are at an all time high and I’m always in the mode of what’s next to post or write about. As for another next act, I am not really looking at the future in that way. I’d like to keep writing and see what doors open now that I have published my book.


With my kids, in the photo booth at my niece’s wedding


Contact Carole Brecht at cbrecht4@gmail.com

The Artistry of Caregiving: Letters to Inspire Your Caregiver Journey



Tangled Art Boutique online store

Facebook Community

Twitter: @SanGenWoman


Becoming a Hearing Health Advocate in Midlife: Shari’s Story

Shari!Growing up in a household where her father’s genetic hearing loss was treated as shameful made it hard for Shari to confront her own progressive hearing issues as an adult. She now seeks to educate people about living with hearing loss and to create a community for others with hearing loss.

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in New Jersey, the older of two sisters. I was always a tomboy, playing on my town’s softball team—even stealing home base once. In high school, I turned my attention to modern dance and my studies.

Me at 10, playing softball

Me at 10, playing softball

We were a fairly typical family, with one exception, my father’s hearing loss. It was genetic and began in midlife. As a child, I was not always aware of his problems hearing. I knew he wore hearing aids, but I didn’t see how he struggled with embarrassment and shame, hiding his hearing loss to the detriment of his career, his personal relationships, and our family life.

I do remember one time at a party when I found him sitting alone off in the corner. I asked him why, and his reply was, “If someone wants to talk to me, they can come find me.” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I realize that he probably found socializing in the loud room challenging and was seeking refuge from the embarrassment of trying to converse when he could not hear. I struggle with that same problem today.

My family was not supportive of him. I remember my mother whispering secrets to my sister and me behind his back. When we looked concerned by this behavior, she commented, “Don’t worry, he can’t hear us.” Her actions taught me that hearing loss was something shameful and bad, and something my father had to tackle alone. Thinking back on it, I am horrified by our lack of compassion.


With my dad, at age 12

I always enjoyed school and graduated at the top of my class, heading to college and then to New York City for a career in finance. My life in New York was great—my career was progressing well, I found love and friendship, and I fully enjoyed my life as an independent young adult. I took my hearing for granted, as most people do.

After a few years of working, I decided to return to business school. It was there, in my mid-20s, that I first noticed my hearing loss. It became difficult for me to follow some of the comments that the other students made in class, particularly ones that were said as a joke or as an aside. Given my family history of hearing loss, I decided to get tested. The diagnosis of mild hearing loss was not a surprise, but it was devastating nonetheless. I remembered my father’s struggles and wondered if they would also be mine. For the moment, the loss was minor enough to ignore. So I did.

After graduation, I moved back to New York City, got married, and jumped back into my career, working hard to develop a following as an equity analyst covering retail stocks. I enjoyed my job as an analyst—I always liked math and spreadsheets, and I got plenty of that. My job also involved a lot of writing, which had never been a passion of mine. But as the years passed, I honed my craft, enjoying the excitement of finding the right headline to grab my client’s attention. It was here that I learned the power that the written word had to influence, inspire, and terrorize.

I remember one report I wrote about a retail company that was not performing well. I was critical of the company’s strategy, but more so of the CEO’s inability to set a clear plan and to execute on it. My goal in writing the piece was to educate my clients, not to harm the CEO. Nevertheless, the next time I saw him, he ripped into me, telling me how I had embarrassed him in front of his family and the world. While I didn’t feel that I had done anything wrong, this experience taught me how impactful the written word can be. I take that responsibility very seriously in my writing today.

My hearing loss worsened. While I continued to ignore it as best as I could, I finally broke down and purchased hearing aids. I would wear them for work when I needed them, but never socially or at home with my family. I remember sneaking them into my ears in the taxi on the way to work, and ripping them from ears in the elevator on the way out of the building at night. I am amazed I was able to keep it a secret, but I did.


My honeymoon


When did you start to think about making a change?

My career progressed, and so did my family life. I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl and, two years later, to a bouncing baby boy. It became more difficult to balance the travel and late nights demanded by my career with the allure of evenings at home with my children. I decided to move into a managerial role, where I could continue to utilize my financial analysis and writing skills, but have better control over my hours.

This went well for a period of years, but I hadn’t expected the difficultly my hearing loss could bring to my role as a manager. As an equity analyst, most of my work was done in a quiet office at my computer, or speaking on the phone (amplified) with clients. I was able to pop my hearing aids in and out as I needed them for meetings and conferences. I quickly learned which clients were hard for me to hear so I could prepare in advance.

But as a manager, it was much tougher. People would come into my office and tell me their secrets—“my mother is sick,” or “I am pregnant,” or “I hate working with my boss.” These types of confessions are not often spoken in a loud and clear voice with maintained eye contact, making them harder to hear, and the sensitive nature of the communication makes it difficult to ask people to repeat what they said in a louder voice! But still, I adapted, wearing my hearing aids all the time at the office now, and was able to function well most of the time.

A few years into my management role, in 2008, the market and the economy went into a steep downturn. Financial institutions were under significant pressure and my job function began to change. Rather than spending my days mentoring our up-and-coming analysts, I was in meetings debating how many and which ones should be fired. This continued for several years, at which point, I felt demoralized. I had lost interest in my work. Having survived the numerous rounds of cuts in my own department, I voluntarily decided to retire, in 2010, at age 41, hoping to find more rewarding work outside the day-to-day grind of financial services.

Our young family, 2008

Our young family, 2008


What is your next act?

LWHL_LogoI am a hearing health advocate.

I write a blog called Living With Hearing Loss to share the ups and downs of living with hearing loss and to build a community for others with hearing loss. My goal for the blog is to help others live more comfortably with their own hearing loss. My most popular posts discuss the difficulties of living with hearing loss, but I always try to include some tips or suggestions on how to counteract these challenges in the post. Examples of this include 5 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Hearing Loss and Do You Get Hearing Loss Exhaustion? Other popular posts include tips for things like How To Choose A Restaurant When You Have Hearing Loss or How To Have A Better Conversation With Someone With Hearing Loss.

I am on the Board of Directors of Hearing Health Foundation, the largest nonprofit funder of hearing research for a cure.

I am also on the Board of Trustees for Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), an organization dedicated to enabling people with hearing loss to live life fully and without compromise.

My advocacy work continues to grow as I strive to expand coverage of hearing loss in the mainstream media. Writing for Huffington Post and Good Housekeeping provides a platform to talk about hearing loss outside of the hearing loss community that already cares about it. It is challenging, because hearing loss is not often seen as “newsworthy” or as “sexy” as other illnesses or disabilities. I find this surprising given how widespread hearing loss is (50 million Americans!) and the strong links between hearing loss and devastating diseases like diabetes and dementia. You can see my writing on Huffington Post here. My favorite piece on Good Housekeeping is called I No Longer Feel Shame About My Hearing Loss.

So, I keep trying. The more that hearing loss can become a regular part of the health care dialogue and the more the general population can understand the risks and difficulties of hearing loss, the more the stigma will fade. Without stigma, even greater improvements in technology and legislation will become the norm for the millions of people living with hearing loss.


Recognition Award for my service as HHF Board Chair


How did you become a hearing health advocate?

After my early retirement, looking out at my upcoming days filled with unscheduled time was frightening, but also exhilarating. I had the time to think through what was important to me and to choose a new path. I started practicing yoga regularly and exploring various ideas for what could come next.

Part of this exploration was looking into getting involved in the hearing loss space. While I was still hiding my hearing loss from almost everyone in my life (my father’s influence was still at play), I became aware of an organization called Hearing Health Foundation (it was called Deafness Research Foundation at the time) that was funding research towards a cure. A cure sounded good to me! I reached out and was soon involved on the Board of Directors, moving into the Board Chair role after a year.

Putting my business skills to good use, I worked with the Executive Director to conceptualize and launch a new way of doing hearing research—a consortium model, where scientists worked together to solve problems rather than competing with one another for funding. I am proud to say that the Hearing Restoration Project is in its fourth year and is making important strides in finding a way to regenerate the inner ear hair cells that could restore hearing for millions of people worldwide.

It was around this time that I started coming to terms with my own hearing loss. Up until this point, it had always been a heavily guarded secret, similar to how it was for my father. But as my children grew, I became concerned that they would start to notice me hiding my hearing loss, just as I had watched my father do. My hearing loss is genetic, so I may have passed it onto them as my father had done to me.

I needed to set a better example for my children than my family had set for me. I did not want them to feel the shame and stigma that my father and I both did. I needed to accept my hearing loss. So I did.

My work at Hearing Health Foundation made it a lot easier. People asked me why I was involved with the organization and it was a great excuse to tell them about my hearing loss. In most cases, they would go on to tell me about a family member or friend who also had hearing loss. This should not be too surprising since there are 50 million of us in the United States alone.

As time went on, I grew bolder, becoming more proactive about disclosing my hearing loss and seeking accommodations like quieter tables at restaurants and caption devices at the movies. I was inspired to share my newfound acceptance with others, so that’s when I started my blog, Living With Hearing Loss.

Was anyone listening? Like most blogs, my first readers were friends and family but, over time, its reach began to grow. I started getting comments and emails from readers—other people with hearing loss from across the globe—sharing their struggles with me and thanking me for helping them feel less alone. There was one woman who sounded almost desperate for someone to talk to who would understand what she was experiencing. A man from Germany also didn’t know any others with hearing loss. I realized that the company of people who can understand what you are going through was incredibly important.

These interactions with readers helped me feel less alone and more empowered to increase my work as an advocate. I became involved with Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), and began attending chapter meetings in New York City. Through these chapter meetings, I connected with others in my local community who had hearing loss. They are now important friends and supports in my life. It is hard to imagine that I would not have known these inspiring, smart and incredible people if it were not for my hearing loss.

I recently joined the national board of HLAA and am excited to work with them to help break down the stigma of hearing loss, to encourage those with hidden hearing loss to come out of their hearing loss closets and seek treatment, and to improve the accommodations available for people with hearing loss through looping (induction looping is a sound system in which a loop of wire around an area in a building, such as a theater, produces an electromagnetic signal received directly by hearing aids), captioning, and better insurance coverage. There is much important work to do while we wait for the scientists to make progress on a cure.



HLAA Walk 4 Hearing in New York City


Why did you choose this next act?

This next act was driven primarily by my love for my children. Since my hearing loss is genetic, I may have passed it onto them. It is adult-onset, so we won’t know for 15 years or so, giving me plenty of time to change the face of hearing loss—medically, legislatively and socially—before they may need to experience it. I want them to avoid feeling the shame and social stigma that I faced early on and that destroyed my father’s life.

Involving them in my work has been fun. My son helps me scope out the best seat in any restaurant so I can hear my best, and my daughter boldly wears her earplugs at school dances and events. They both help me think of good topics to write about on my blog. I am proud of their attitudes about hearing loss and feel confident that they will be much better prepared than I was, should they need to face these challenges.


What other options did you consider?

I had also considered writing a book about my experiences working on Wall Street and providing tips for those graduating from college and business school on how to get a job there. However, once I became involved in my hearing loss work, this quickly faded into the background. Its importance as a topic paled in comparison to the difference I could make for other people with hearing loss.


How hard was it to take the plunge?

For me, the plunge was more like a gentle wade into welcoming waters. Each step that I took to deepen my work as a hearing health advocate seemed to flow naturally from the next. I can’t imagine dedicating my time to anything else at this point.


How supportive were your family and friends?

My family and friends have been incredibly supportive. As I have become more comfortable talking about my hearing loss, it has become just a regular topic of conversation, not one whispered about or referred to only in code. Nobody blinks when I rearrange the seating arrangement at the table or move people around at a family gathering so I can hear them better. It’s not perfect—I still have difficulty hearing certain family members more than others and I can get frustrated and exhausted from working so hard to hear every day—but being open about it allows for solutions to be found.

I am very lucky to have such a supportive husband and two wonderful children who don’t treat my hearing loss as something shameful, but as a simple fact of life that needs to be incorporated into the family dynamic. They try their best to follow communication best practices so that I can hear them better. I do my best to keep my frustration in check and we all make it work. There is no other option.

Eberts Family 2016 (68 of 342)


What challenges did you encounter?

The primary challenge I encountered was my own fear. Could I develop a new life for myself outside the hard driving finance career I had always envisioned? Could I open myself up to others, sharing my secrets and feelings in a way that would benefit not only my children and me, but also others with hearing loss? I have always been an incredibly private person so to put my life on display was a big change, but a worthwhile one. The feedback I have received has been very positive. I am always grateful when someone who has read a blog post reaches out to let me know it has touched him or her in some way. That is my goal.


Were there times when you thought about giving up? 

There have been many ups and downs — the frustrations of learning how to have impact within the nonprofit sector rather than the private sector, the struggles to get mainstream media interested in the topic of hearing loss and to grow readership for my blog. But through it all, I have never considered quitting. The cause is too important and way too close to home.

Through this process, I learned that I could create a different life with hearing loss than my father had. Writing and publishing my first few blog posts was incredibly scary, but it was also cathartic. I find it incredibly therapeutic to write—particularly some of my more personal pieces. I have realized how rewarding it can be to share your true self with others.

I have also met many wonderful friends and colleagues because of my hearing loss and this new phase of my life, most of whom I would never had met otherwise. I am grateful for each and everyone one of them.

My only regret is not coming to terms with my hearing loss sooner. It takes people an average of 7-10 years from the time they start experiencing hearing loss to acknowledge it and take steps to treat it. It took me 10. That is a lot of lost time wasted on embarrassment and shame.



HHF Billboard we did to raise awareness about our search for a cure


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

I think midlife is the perfect time for reinvention: We are more confident, more comfortable in our own skin, and more skilled at life. And perhaps, most importantly, we know what matters to us. Finding the passion for a cause or a new vocation can make all the difference in the amount of time and energy you want to apply to it. New challenges keep us feeling young and vibrant—and who doesn’t want that? Go for it.

I spent so much time trying to hide my hearing loss and worrying about whether people would know that I couldn’t hear in various situations, that it was exhausting! My fear held me back from seeing friends and family, from attending the theater, from going to meetings at my children’s school, and many other things. All wasted time.

My advice—if you have a hearing loss, or some other disability you have been hiding—is to let the fear go and come clean. The quicker you do, the sooner you can get back to living your engaging and vibrant life. And for those people in your life who cannot handle this new truth, move on from them. You will be surprised how few of these people there are, and you may discover some new friends and supporters along the way.


What advice do you have for family and friends of those struggling with hearing loss?

For the family and friends of hearing loss, the most important thing you can do to be supportive is to help de-stigmatize the hearing loss by talking about it and encouraging your loved ones to do the same. Make it part of the normal conversation by asking them where they would like to sit to hear you best. Encourage them to take action to treat their hearing loss and to reach out to others with hearing loss for support through organizations like HLAA.

Try to follow these best practice rules of clear communication:

  • Make sure you have the person’s attention before speaking.
  • Face the person and speak clearly—speaking too loudly or exaggerating your mouth movements only makes it harder to lip read.
  • Make sure the setting is well lit and that your mouth is visible.
  • Turn down background noise which can distract from hearing speech.
  • Ask the person with hearing loss how YOU can help them hear you better.
  • And don’t say “never mind” if they didn’t hear you— this is dismissive and insulting. Try to rephrase what you said instead.


Speaking at a seminar class for doctoral audiology students


What resources do you recommend for those wishing to get better informed about hearing loss?

There are many great organizations working on hearing loss issues where you can get involved. For scientific research on hearing loss, I recommend learning more about Hearing Health Foundation and its Hearing Restoration Project, as well as Stanford’s Initiative To Cure Hearing Loss.

For hearing loss advocacy and to find hearing loss support groups on the national and local levels, visit Hearing Loss Association of America. To help shatter the stigma of hearing loss, visit HearStrong Foundation and be inspired by its growing list of HearStrong Champions.

For assistance in building a blog and submitting your writing for publication, check out these excellent websites and FaceBook groups: Women of Midlife and Blog Share Learn.


What’s next for you? 

My next next act is to write a book based on my blog posts. I don’t have enough material yet, but every week it grows. I also hope to broaden the list of mainstream publications that will feature writing about hearing loss and related issues. And finally, my hope is that by sharing my hearing loss story, I will continue to help others to live more comfortably with their own hearing loss.


Contact Shari Eberts at shari@sharieberts.com



Twitter: @sharieberts



Becoming a Motorcycle Racer at 46: Rebecca’s Story

Rebecca Berneck portrait by Elizabeth McQuern April 2016 - 1 

After her divorce, Rebecca bought a Vespa scooter. Soon enough, she would trade up to a motorcycle and meet a welcoming community of riders, who encouraged her to start racing.

Tell us a little about your background…

I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was the middle child in a family of five. We moved from a small house on Dupont Avenue to a large house on a dead end dirt road in Maple Grove when the Minneapolis police department allowed its officers to live outside of the city’s boundaries; my dad started as a beat cop (and later retired as a detective). I was sad when we drove away from the house because I forgot a stack of Partridge Family trading cards that I was hiding on the windowsill.

I was a dancer, beginning lessons at the age of three. When I was five, I sang “Aquarius” by the Fifth Dimension to a rather large audience while older women danced behind me. I remember being upset because my mom wanted me to wear a faux-fringed leather vest without a shirt. I won: Red shirt with dark blue vest.

I graduated from Osseo High School in 1982 with good grades and letters in cheerleading for both football and basketball without a clue about what I wanted to be when I grew up.


With my siblings as a young girl — I’m on the right

I attended Mankato State University but got itchy after my first year – I don’t learn from books but rather by doing. I was loafing around my parents’ home for a few months when they slyly coaxed me out of the house at the age of 19. I rented my grandparents’ house in Robbinsdale, MN, while working full time as the Computer Specialist at Herb Kohn Electric in St. Louis Park, MN, computerizing their manual systems.

All the while, I continued to dance. Being of drinking age, I went to First Avenue in Minneapolis Thursday through Sunday to be the girl “dancing behind the screen.” I drank water while creating a dancing shadow and loving the funky music screaming from the speakers. From this experience I got invitations to dance in a few of Prince’s movies (Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge) and a Jets music video. Oh, the ‘80s were grand!

In 1989, I met a boy while on vacation in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and ended up moving to Chicago in 1990 to be with him. There, I landed a job at a strategic management consulting firm, Sibson & Company. A few hops later, I became the business manager at RNW Consulting, a position I held for 15 years; I enjoyed being an entrepreneur with someone else’s money, and learned to build and manage every aspect of a business.

With my girls when they were young

With my girls when they were young


When did you think about making a change?

In 2002, after 10 years of marriage, I was 38 years old, had two babies, a full time career, and no real freedom to grow the person I was hiding behind my personal curtain as I took care of all those around me. I opted for divorce, believing my girls would be better off watching me interact in healthy adult relationships rather than an unhealthy relationship I had with their father. (Twelve years later, my oldest may disagree; however, she turned out to be an amazing, independent, and strong young woman in her own right. She will understand when she is older.) At this time I moved from Chicago to Evanston, Illinois.

Shortly after I got divorced, I bought myself a Vespa Scooter that I called Bella Vespa. She lightened my heart and brought me joy. I rode her all about Chicago in a sundress, sunglasses, and sandals and began to find the woman I had been hiding for most of my life.

With Bella Vespa

With Bella Vespa

One day, I was sitting on Bella Vespa under a viaduct in Evanston (at Church and Benson) waiting for the light to change when a “chick on a bike” pulled up next to me. We exchanged words and she pretty much told me to “upgrade my ride.”

Although it took me a few years after that encounter to take action, I bought my first motorcycle in 2007, at the age of 42: a 1975 Honda CB 360T—because I believe the more you can see THROUGH a motorcycle, the more beautiful it is. I had never driven a motorcycle but remember feeling the wind in my hair in my youth, while riding on the back of my father’s many motorcycles.

With my Honda CB360T

With my Honda CB 360T


What is your next act?

I am a motorcycle racer. I focus on land speed racing, specifically, to hit 100 miles per hour. My last run at Bonneville in 2013 resulted in a 99.97 MPH run before a torrential rain ended the meet, so I believe the bike can take me there. Once I beat 100, I trust my husband will build a new bike that will take me to 120!

It may sound odd, but I love to road race motorcycles because it reminds me of when I used to dance. My race bike has become my lead partner who takes me around the track while I get to be the graceful rider who is smooth and fast and lilts with ease from one side of the machine to another to make it around the turns.

It is no surprise that I ended up racing motorcycles because I move fast in everything that I do. I think fast, talk fast, walk fast, type fast. Once I make a decision, I follow through to completion quickly then move on to the next act.



How did you get into motorcycle racing?

I am pretty much a do-it-yourselfer, which some may call stubborn, as I find it incredibly difficult to ask for help in any capacity. When I got my first motorcycle, I attempted to rebuild it myself, but the best I could do was rattle can it (spray paint) and design and fabricate a custom seat with one-inch checkers running right down the middle. While struggling in my alley to get the engine to turn over, I ran into a fellow motorcyclist who introduced me to ChiVinMoto.

ChiVinMoto stands for Chicago Vintage Motorcyclist and is an offshoot of VinMoto, which is the mother ship for all vintage motorcycles lovers across the country. I not only met the right people to rebuild my newly acquired motorcycle, I met the most kind and wonderful friends who became the community I had longed for since moving to Chicago. Toss out any stereotype you might have for motorcyclists. ChiVinMoto is made up of engineers, entrepreneurs, artists, mechanics, photographers…you name it! And the number of women in the organization has grown since I joined so there is a nice subset of women riders.


With Bob

Big Bob Burns and his lovely wife, Jennifer, took me under their wing and gave me confidence to take my wobbly 360cc motorcycle on the track in 2008. This experience not only gave me the skills to be a better street rider, but it also increased my confidence in all areas of my life. Sufficient peer pressure was applied in 2009 by many ChiVinRacers and I caved in when I felt it would be an exciting experience that would take my street riding to the next level. In 2010, I purchased 2 ½ bikes worth of parts that would be my road race bike. Big Bob dismantled the heap of junk then expertly built a production 1975 Honda CB400F motorcycle.


My first road race was in June of 2011, when I was 47, with the American Historic Racing Motorcycles Association (AHRMA) and, although I have yet to make it to the podium, I continue to travel the United States to race in the novice class.

Remember that confidence boost I mentioned? I also sing the national anthem at all of the AHRMA races that I attend, with the largest audience being 70,000 attendees at the Vintage Motorcycle Festival at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. I plan to contact the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Bears to see if I can help them with the National Anthem…in my spare time! I was also featured on the cover of American Motorcycles Magazine in July 2011 as part of an article, “All Bike All The Time.”


In the lead at Barber

Returning to 2010, during the road race bike build phase, I was approached by my now dear friend, Daniel May, with a request to land speed race his production 1954 BMW r25/3. I set land speed records with the BMW on asphalt with the East Coast Timing Association (ECTA) in 2010 and 2011, then continued to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2012, where I set more records but, more importantly, let my heart go PING about Dr. Jarl Wathne, my now husband who actually has more land speed records than I do – not that there is any competition…


With Jarl on our wedding day

In the area of land speed racing, the BMW is now on display in my office, a beautiful reminder that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. I now race a 1990 Moto Morini Dart 350 under the team Officeheads Racing. I hold three records on this bike at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and one at the Ohio Mile.


Accepting the AMA Land Speed Award


Were you able to continue working at RNW Consulting while racing?

During this time of fantastic motorcycle adventures, I lost my job. RNW Consulting diminished in size to a point where I was no longer adding value. In May of 2008, one year after I purchased my first motorcycle, I was “released to the workforce.” Although I told one of the founders, my friend and mentor, Glenn Wolfson, that it was the right business decision, it took me a few weeks for the fog to clear. After 15 years, I never thought I would not work at RNW Consulting.

When reality sunk in, I believed that it would be easier to start a business than update my resume and go job hunting, so I began to freelance as an operations specialist. In my job, I ask small business owners, “What drives you the most crazy about your business and would make you the happiest if it could be made more efficient or delegated?” Then I help them solve that problem.


My new Officeheads leathers

During Memorial Day weekend in 2008, I was trading emails with another great friend of mine, Don Reed, a comedian and tag writer in Hollywood, to come up with a company name. I have to give him full credit with the name Officeheads, and immediately thought, “Oh damn, I can’t just hang a shingle because Officeheads deserves to be on park benches and the sides of buses!”

Don ended up being my first client; I assisted him with the transition of his first one-man play, “EAST 14TH Street” from Hollywood to off Broadway’s New World Stages in New York. His show became an immediate success, and he not only wrote and produced more one-man shows, he became Jay Leno’s audience warm up comedian during his run on the Tonight Show.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 8.37.22 AM

With Don Reed

My goal is to expand Officeheads brand and services to a national level. Officeheads doubled in 2013 and 2014 and almost met this goal in 2015. I am over-the-top passionate about teaching entrepreneurs to operate financially healthy organizations, and believe that Officeheads can impact the economy not only by creating jobs, but also by supporting entrepreneurs nationally to increase revenue and optimize profits.



Road racing at Barber Motorsports Park


How supportive were your family and friends with your new passions?

Ha! My parents stopped talking to me when I started racing motorcycles, but we are back on speaking terms now that they see how organized, safe, and well managed the sport is. My vintage motorcycle community became my foundation, so of course they were supportive in the racing. I am continuously learning to be better, and rely on the mechanics to keep my bikes in tip-top shape, and get many opportunities to participate. They actually think I work too much and should race more!

unspecified-1My daughters are now teens. Zoe is 19. She moved into her own apartment last August, and is working and attending a local college. She is an artist and a vocalist who is interested in psychology. Bailey is 17 and is about to be a senior at Evanston Township High School. She is a musician, focusing on drums with also skills on guitar, bass and piano. I used to take them to races, but the pits were boring for young girls, especially when their mom was more focused on the race than them. They told me, “Mom, we are glad you found something you love, but just don’t make us do it too.” They did learn to ride on 1965 Honda Passports during a motorcycle show. They have not shown keen interest in riding or racing, but I just acquired a Passport thinking they are old enough to commute to and from school.

My friends have been incredibly supportive and often remind me to slow down and enjoy some social time too.


Ice biking with friends in Wisconsin


What challenges did you encounter?

Time. Racing is a time-consuming hobby in that most races are held in other states and you have to drive in order to transport your bike. I would love to fit in five road races and three land speed events per year but, as Officeheads grows, I have less time for racing or practice track days to get more “seat time” (the best way to improve your skills.)

Money. Yikes! This is also expensive – but worth it!

Focus. When it comes to road racing, a racer has to have their head on the track or they become a liability to themselves and others racing with them. Again, as Officeheads grows, my mind, at times, becomes filled with C-Suite issues. I cancelled two races in 2015 because I simply was not mentally present and focused.

Balance. I continuously struggle with work-life balance—but when you love what you do it doesn’t feel like work, right?


ECTA Land speed racing in NC


Were there times when you thought about giving up?

Because of time and focus, I considered giving up road racing in 2015 and went so far as to tell my fellow racers that I had retired. They understood and supported my decision to stop, but suggested I use the word “hiatus” instead of retirement. That way, I could return to the track when my schedule allowed. My racing leathers are hanging on display in my office and my race bike is on a battery maintainer in my garage in wait for that day.

Land speed racing is fantastic, and I have never considered a pause. But then again, I am only the racer on other people’s bikes. I doubt I will ever stop land speed racing since my husband is my mechanic and a fellow land speed racer. I’m sure I will always have a bike to race.



What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I cannot put into words the confidence that I gained by getting on the track. I have always been a confident person, yet the adrenaline rush of racing was like a nitrous boost to my soul that I carry with me in business and my personal life.


With Moto Morini at Bonneville


What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Jump, baby! JUMP! During our whirlwind weekend of Officeheads’ naming, my friend Don Reed and I talked about the word “jump.” He and I are incredibly similar in that we figure out what we want, then we just JUMP! We believe that successful people don’t let things like insecurity, lack of confidence, fear of failure, or fear of success get in the way of taking action. I quickly consider my options, compare the pros and cons (most likely sketched in boxes and arrows on a very large white board backed up with extensive Excel models to understand the financial mechanics), then jump! Without hesitation.

This has been my modus operandi since I was a child. Singing Aquarius, dancing in music videos, racing motorcycles, starting a business, singing the national anthem. Why not? What is the worst thing that could happen compared to the wonderful outcomes that could further add to the colorful story that my life tells?

JumpCardI have been known to give my “Jump” presentation to women’s groups, in order to share my experiences but mostly to give them permission to jump! I still have the 3×5 index card upon which I doodled JUMP while conceptualizing Officeheads. It travels from my desk to my bedside table to my home office credenza. It shows up unexpectedly every month or so and stands as a wonderful and empowering reminder to always go for the gusto!




What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing motorcycle racing?

Take baby steps.

  1. Select a racing type – I fell in love with road and land speed racing yet there are several more options depending on your interest. Check out this list.
  2. Partners – Find a mentor to help you select the right motorcycle and the proper gear, as it is imperative that you be safe.
  3. If you don’t already know how to ride, take a hands-on course approved by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.
  4. Get as much seat time on the streets as possible until you trust you bike and your skills. Find twisty roads in the country; they are the best!
  5. Find a track that hosts track days then sign up in a novice class.
  6. Select a sanctioning body to race with. For example, I road race with AHRMA, and land speed race with ECTA and AMA.

There are no age limits to motorcycle racing. Children begin when they are very young and AHRMA offers free racing for those over 70 years old! The AMA has a plethora of information for women who are interested in riding and racing.


In the lead at RoadAmerica


What motorcycle riding and racing resources do you recommend?

American Motorcycle Association

East Coast Timing Association

Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic

Harley Davidson Riding Programs

Proficient Motorcycling: The Ultimate Guide to Riding Well by David L. Hough

Twist of the Wrist: The Motorcycle Roadracers Handbook by Keith Code

The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel by Garth Stein

Motoworks Chicago

Out of Nothing movie: I was at Bonneville when this was filmed and met the stars.

Dainese Apparel

Vintage Motorcyclists


My old leathers on display at the BMW Museum in MD


What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?

Absolutely! I just don’t know what it is yet!


Contact Rebecca Berneck at rebecca@officeheads.com
Officeheads, Inc.
1900 Greenwood, #9, Evanston, IL  60201
847.866.8877 x1

Twitter: @Officeheads