Becoming a Nomadic Housesitter in Midlife: Faith’s Story

After taking early retirement in their fifties, Faith and her husband, Alan, decided to retire to Mexico, but soon got restless. They now housesit professionally, moving from country to country for gigs—enjoying exploring the world and living a pared-down lifestyle out of one suitcase.

Tell us a little about your background…
I was born in Ireland, where we lived for a few years before moving to the UK for my dad’s job as a Police Officer. My dad was then recruited by the Canadian Police Force and before we knew it we were off to a new life in London, Ontario.

My mum, dad, sister, and eventually a little brother settled well in Canada but for me, there was always something missing. As a child at the tail end of the baby boom (1959), all the “good opportunities” felt taken. When I finished high school in 1979, I attempted to access a sound recording program at College but was told that it was for “boys only.” So I entered the work force only to be hit with the nasty recession, which meant horrible waitressing jobs. As a result, I decided to go home to England.

My sister Louise and I fishing as kids

I spent the next 10 years living in London, England, where I married and had my son. We lived in South East London, where I had a job I loved working in a Video Production Company that specialized in producing training videos for corporations. I was lucky enough to have great bosses who taught me about writing scripts and how to develop ideas for training stories. I became a script editor and often ended up creating small scripts for the training videos.

After my marriage broke up in the late ‘80s, I returned to Canada and hit another recession, so decided to go to University and finally get that degree. I adored university; getting to read, research, and study was heaven for me. I also became an activist on campus, fighting for single parents who wanted to go back to school, getting involved with developing a feminist newspaper, and much more. As a result of my activism, I was asked to be on several government boards and panels to bring about changes to student loans and social supports for single parents working to access higher education. I ended up with a degree in Anthropology and a dedication to community development and working to make change.

From this jumping off point, I became involved in entrepreneurship because it was my belief that community economic development was the only way to empower people living in poverty. I was motivated by the old adage about teaching someone to fish.

I started a business for women back in the mid-’90s that concentrated on providing local hospitals and the burgeoning health food industry with gluten-free baked goods for Celiacs. The company was comprised of three women I had worked with in the social justice movement. We all thought very much alike but brought very different skills and talents to the business and so we created a food company that specialized in working with local producers and growers. We worked with the Delaware community of indigenous peoples to create recipes that would appeal to the gourmet market for their white corn. We consulted and mentored new immigrants and refugees who wanted to develop food-based businesses. We acted as mentors for the Federal government Community programmers and helped rural communities develop value-added food products for the crops they grew.

Our business did very well and eventually, we sold it to a much larger producer in Toronto. From that point, I became an independent consultant advising food-based businesses on how to market their business and use the internet to attract customers. I also worked with a small business center to mentor food-based business development. As a result of my business experience, I became the local specialist on how to develop revenue streams for not for profits and charities.

During the development of our business, I remarried and we became a blended family with three boys all around two years apart (pictured below). My husband, Alan, worked at the Post Office and we had known each other for many years and had been fixed up by a friend. We got along like best friends from the beginning and our boys did as well. We always had a shared dream of retiring and traveling the world together.

When did you start to think about making a change?
Alan and I had planned to retire early and travel. My parents had retired at 55 to a Caribbean Island and we learned then that living a life elsewhere was never as expensive as you think it is. Island living was cheap—fresh fish, fruit, and veggies cost less than a third of Canada and no heating bills, no snow. It seemed like heaven. As a letter carrier, Alan knew that he wouldn’t be able to take the winter in Ontario forever so his dream was to get out and head somewhere warm.

Around three years ago, Alan took early retirement at 55 and waited for me to retire as well but there was absolutely no way for us to live in Canada without one of us working; it was simply unaffordable. I was really enjoying my work managing a Community Theatre but it was getting tougher and tougher to do the 60-hour work week in a not-for-profit organization. There was no job security, no benefits, and no paid overtime; it just became too much for too little. We had a 5-year plan in mind but things changed a little when the organization I worked for began to change dramatically, in ways I completely disagreed with, so the decision to move to Mexico was made.

Our beach in Chelem, Mexico

What is your next act?
I am a professional housesitter.

While Alan and I thought we would retire to Mexico and live a simple, quiet life, truth be told, we got a little bored. I had been researching housesitting for quite some time and we decided to take the plunge and join a few housesitting sites. We applied for around 15 sits in the UK and Ireland on a whim. We got offered a couple but they just didn’t pan out. We did get a Skype call from a couple in Tipperary who had seven dogs and were having difficulty getting a sitter. We took the job; it didn’t worry us we were accustomed to having lots of dogs and cats around and we knew we could handle it. So we had our first job booked seven weeks in Tipperary with seven dogs and a cat. After that first domino, things just fell into place. We got another housesitting job in Toronto just before we were to leave for Ireland and the timing was perfect, we could visit with all our family and friends in Ontario and then head to Ireland.

In Tipperary, with two of the seven dogs we were looking after

We had a brilliant six weeks in Toronto in a gorgeous, renovated home in a prime location. I had begun working on a travel blog when living in Mexico, just for fun and to keep family informed about our adventures. I had always written before that but mainly blog posts for my work—government grants and local food blogs.  Once I started my own blog, I found myself suddenly in demand to write for others on travel, culture, and food. I began guest writing for free and decided that I should try my hand at getting paid. I started working on Upwork, a freelance site, and began earning a little money. Eventually, once I had built a reputation on that system, I started getting offers to write for corporations and organizations needing blog posts, business plans, marketing plans, and social media management.

All of a sudden, I was a writer. I specialize in a few areas such as food, culture, and travel. Because I have an abiding interest in history and family legacies, I began a job writing for a company that is currently developing a website and business around preserving family legacies and memories. I also developed a talent for social media management and I continue to write and assist others with business and marketing planning, as well as editing white papers and research documents.

As a housesitter, I have now had the opportunity to travel for the past two years with no mortgage or rental expenses. We have had the chance to spend a considerable amount of time in Ireland and England—in Tipperary, Dublin, Donegal, Belfast, Yorkshire, Berkshire, and London, and Palomares, Spain. We are currently housesitting in Paphos, Cyprus for three months. After Cyprus, we are back for a 6-month housesit in Northern Ireland.

I make sure that each housesit we take has good internet access so I get to write anywhere in the world and earn a pretty good part-time living. I specialize in writing about a variety of things and have had jobs writing stuff as simple as how to build a blog and as complex as working with entrepreneurs who want to create a blog to highlight and enhance their existing businesses. I also do a lot of social media management for business people who want to utilize social media but simply don’t have the time for it.

My “office” in Cyprus

How hard was it to take the plunge?
We had been planning on early retirement to Mexico the Yucatan to be specific. We figured it was the cheapest option and we could easily survive on Alan’s pension there. We thought we might stay in Mexico for a few years (well around 10) until our government pensions kicked in, increased our income, and then travel abroad. Fortunately, housesitting sort of fell into our laps and that became a real opportunity for us.

We had been selling our antiques and getting rid of stuff slowly for several years but once we decided to leave, we got the house looking fresh and new, put it on the market, and began to sell off our other major possessions such as cars and a motorcycle. We put the stuff we felt we couldn’t part with into rubber tubs and stored them in our son’s basement and when we sold the house, we were ready to go.

 

How supportive were your family and friends?
Incredibly supportive! We have a very tight circle of friends that did nothing but encourage us to take the plunge. Our children were grown and working towards lives of their own, so it was a great sense of relief that we could just go and not worry.

In Spain with our best friends from Ireland

What challenges did you encounter?
To be truthful not many. In Mexico, the challenges were heat related—as an Irish redhead, 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) with 100% humidity does not agree with me, and for two months out of the year, it is unbearable. That was also a deciding factor in our wish to find another place to retire to. Where we lived in Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula was in a small fishing village, so it meant having to have a car so we would be able to get groceries and fresh food. Food in that area of Mexico was a challenge: The local produce was very poor, the choice of restaurants limited, and who has to money to eat out every day? Unfortunately, that meant having to shop at places like Bodega (Walmart-owned) and Costco. These were adequate but who moves to a foreign country to shop at Costco?

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?
No, not once did I ever feel like giving up; in fact, our goals just got broader and broader and when you are searching for a forever home the challenge of being able to see locations and places you never thought possible in your lifetime is so inspiring. We get comments about being “brave” all the time but it never occurred to us that we were doing anything brave; we just felt there had to be more to life and now was the time.

The Shambles in York

What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I am normally a pretty non-sociable type of person so getting to stay with different homeowners and learning about the house and pets was difficult for me. Having to make conversation with strangers and live in their homes is a delicate balance. You don’t want to say or do anything off-putting and you sure don’t want to complain in any way; I mean, after all, you are staying for free in their homes. However, some do take advantage and insist you do things you wouldn’t normally do and you have to abide by their rules. There is also a level of discomfort knowing you are in somebody else’s house and will you come up to their standards of cleanliness, pet care, and so on? It can be a bit nerve wracking.

I did learn to control my outspokenness and not discuss politics, religion, or things of that nature. I am a very liberal person, a feminist, and occasionally do have the urge to share that with the world. So I have learned to censor myself, somewhat, but I won’t compromise my values and beliefs when it comes to racism, sexism, and pretty much any ism.

One of the really incredible things Alan and I both learned though was how tied down we are as a society with “stuff.” We travel with two carry-on suitcases and have pared our lives down to owning virtually nothing. We, like everyone else, bought into the need for more and more stuff and getting rid of it all is immensely liberating. We donate our old clothes to secondhand shops and pick up “new” clothes as needed from the same place, or we simply make do and mend. We don’t need to buy things for our house since we are basically homeless and we can enjoy the world so much more for it.

Enjoying a market in Malton Yorkshire

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would take the chance on housesitting before settling in Mexico. I would have applied from my hometown and given it a shot to see if I liked it. I would have prepared myself with local house and pet-sitting jobs to get good references and build a reputation before applying abroad. I also plan to stick to my rule of if we find a place to retire, we will rent for a year first to decide if we really do like it.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Jump! Just go for it, but make sure you have backup plans and enough income to support yourself. Get your ducks in a row—things like insurance, health care, and so on have to be taken into consideration in midlife. I travel with diabetes and Sjogren’s and have had no issues whatsoever. Dental care was a 1000% times cheaper in Mexico so we both had major work done there. In the UK, prescriptions are so much cheaper than Canada or the US; even if you have to pay $50 to see a doctor, the drugs you might need will cost you a 10th or less.

Oh, and research, research, and then do some more research; the information is all there online, all you have to do is look for it.

On our boat in Lake Erie, Ontario (I’m in the visor)

What advice do you have for those interested in housesitting as a way of life?
Try to start creating an income before you leave your country of origin if you can. There are hundreds of ways to start online by becoming a Virtual Assistant (VA) or a Project Manager. You can start with websites that hire freelancers initially; you won’t make much at all but it gets you a reputation and from there, you can build your own business as a specialist VA. If you love social media (SM), there are hundreds of people looking for SM Managers, all of which can be done on line. The key is to start a couple of years before you leave, to build a reputation and get some experience behind you.

If you have the potential to get EU citizenship through descent or birth, apply for a passport from your home country. In many EU countries, you can claim citizenship if your parents or grandparents were born there and that passport can make all the difference to ease your traveling in Europe.

 

What resources do you recommend?
If you want to housesit, start at home. Pet sit for friends, volunteer at the Humane Society or animal shelters or even your local vet. Work with animals of all kinds and get some references built up. It doesn’t matter if it is for friends and family, it is a very good beginning and it’s where we all start.

Do your homework. If you want to sit in Europe, is there a way to get your EU citizenship? Do you have parents or grandparents born in an EU country? How long can you stay on a tourist visa? And so on. More importantly, where do you want to housesit and do you know the local language or can you get by? Preparation is everything and there will still be something you miss, but you learn to go with the flow.

Mojacer, Spain

Here are some excellent resources for housesitting:

Housesitmatch: a new platform for us, but I have been really impressed by the support and customer service aspect and they appear to be growing in leaps and bounds every day.

Trusted Housesitters: a very popular site, quite likely the largest range of sits and sitters on the internet so a lot of competition. $99US per year. Recently they have changed their system and there has been much grumbling about the expense of getting their police checks and required certifications in place. This is also a very popular site and it can be difficult to get sits from here without much experience.

House Carers: Costs $50 US per year and this is the site we have had the most luck with. We have obtained all our sits to date from this platform

Nomador: I really like Nomador. You get three free applications for sits before you pay. The cost is around $89 US a year. Many of the sits are in France but they are starting to get a broader range of sits. It’s an easy-to-use platform and they also have stopovers, where you can stay in between sits.

Mind My House: Cost of this platform is $20 US and it covers worldwide with lots of sits available.

These are the top rated housesitting platforms and the most commonly used. There are other country-specific platforms as well. I recently discovered an even better way to search these platforms as some of the functions on each site are not very good. This site appears to be able to search easily amongst all the housesitting platforms Housesitsearch. I have a really good basic Housesitting for Newbies blog post on my website where you can find these resources and a lot more if you are interested.

In Spain

What’s next for you?
We are in the process of deciding what country we would like to retire to permanently. Where do we feel the most at home? Currently, we are torn between Ireland and Spain and trying to figure out if we can do both. So we shall see! You never know; we are off to Cyprus next and that may become our forever home.

 

Contact Faith Coates
Email: daehder@gmail.com
Websites: XYU and Beyond and The Artful Marketer
Facebook Page
Twitter: @daehder




Joining the Peace Corps in Midlife: Janet’s Story

After a long career in fundraising, a move, and a divorce, Janet made her dream of joining the Peace Corps come true. She writes about leaving everything behind to move to Kazakhstan with her new husband, in her memoir: At Home on the Kazakh Steppe.

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born at the start of the baby boomer generation, 1948. I’m aware that advertising has been aimed at me all my life; stories in leading magazines have been written with me and my cohorts in mind. It can be a bit heady.  And, I’m lately learning how powerful the idea of “white privilege” has been.

I grew up in New Jersey, just close enough to Manhattan that it became a backyard playground for my friends and me in high school. I attended what we called back then “an integrated” public school. Most of my friends from school were – we used to say Negro, then Black, then African-American. Now I understand we’re using “global majority.”

I’m the only child of an only child (and a single mom) so our family gatherings were quite small. But I spent a lot of time with my mother’s cousins who were more my age than hers.

Seven years old

I grew up in an evangelical, fundamentalist religion. And at 14, I was sure I was going to be a missionary nurse somewhere in Africa. But, after two years at a Bible college, I knew the missionary part was not for me; nor was the religion.  And, after one year in nursing school, that plan too dropped by the wayside. I realized those had been my grandmother’s dreams for me; I still needed to find my own dreams.

I went on to finish college at New York University (There was never a doubt that I was going to college; I was the first in my family to do so), majoring in sociology which had been the only class I’d gotten an A in prior to transferring to NYU. I married shortly after I graduated in 1971—as so many women did back before Ms. Magazine and feminism became more pronounced—and moved to the Midwest.

My sons were born in ‘73 and ‘76 and I was a suburban stay-at-home mother, trying my hand at hanging wallpaper, baking bread, and playing bridge. I was good at the first, OK at the second, and pretty terrible at the third. My sons were my joy and my life’s inspiration, as the song went.

With my young boys

I went back to school to get a Masters in sociology when my younger son was in school full time and, while I was writing my masters thesis entitled “The relationship between resources and responsibility,” I began a career in fundraising that would last nearly twenty years.

 

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

What makes this hard to answer is that I’ve had several 180-degree turns in my life.

One of the fundraising jobs I held was as Finance Director for my local Congressman. I worked for him for three years and vowed I’d never work another campaign year—too chaotic for my taste.  So, when I left that job, rather than go to another fundraising job, I went back to school, this time, January 1989, into the Ph.D. program in Political Science. I was in that full time for about four years. But a family crisis, which will be the focus of one of my next two memoirs, pulled me out before I could finish and I went back to fundraising for another five years. This time, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The crisis lasted from 1991 until 1994 and it pushed me into filing for divorce and moving to Philadelphia. I’ll just leave it at that for now. I’m still working out how to talk about it.

So, there was the leaving my husband of 23 years and moving back east to Philadelphia at age 45. Then, I ended my Mary Tyler Moore single life and married my new love, Woody, at age 51. That same year, I left fund-raising and fell into a new career as a psychotherapist. And, I gave that up too, to join the Peace Corps at age 55.

My wedding to Woody

Tell us about joining the Peace Corps. Why did you choose to do this?

While we were still in our “dating” phase, Woody and I had talked about joining Peace Corps. I have a scene in my memoir and have corresponded with former President Jimmy Carter about this, but Lillian Carter, the president’s mother, was an influence. She joined the Peace Corps in her 60s, you know, serving as a nurse in India. Until I had read that, I hadn’t realized that Peace Corps has no upper age limit.  So, Woody and I talked about how we’d both like to “join Peace Corps in our 60s, someday.” Of course, I failed to recognize at the time that since we are ten years apart, his 60s were going to come a good deal sooner than my 60s.  Then, we had 9/11 and as our country plunged quicker and quicker into war, a war that neither of us welcomed, we felt it was time to fulfill that earlier dream.

 

How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?

It’s funny you use “take the plunge” for I’ve used the metaphor of jumping off a high dive many times to describe some of the choices I’ve made over the years. I say that I make sure there’s water in the pool below, then I jump and figure the rest out on the way down.

Once I finally made the decision to join the Peace Corps (my husband had been pestering me for a few weeks to “read their website”), we filled out the application and medical forms and continued to live our lives while following the different hoops they set before us. Then, we learned of a completely unexpected “hoop” in the midst of all this, but a lovely one. Just as we’d emptied our house in Philadelphia and relocated to Chincoteague, Virginia where we had a small weekend cabin, we found out that my two sons were about to have their first babies.  So, everything got put on hold as we waited for my new grandbabies to arrive.

With my grandbabies

The process of applying to the Peace Corps has been dramatically streamlined since we went through it, that’s important to know. Now you can actually know where you are going and when you’ll leave before you begin your application. But in 2002 when we were applying, those were the last things we learned. There were legal hoops (background checks, fingerprints, etc.) and medical hoops (it’s a bit more difficult for those of us in our 50s and 60s to collect our medical history than it is for those in their 20s or 30s).  It just took longer. And, each time a question arose, there was a new medical test to undergo, all at our own expense of course.  We had caps put on teeth that our dentists had felt weren’t yet necessary.  But, since Peace Corps is fully responsible for your health and wellbeing, they didn’t want to suddenly be faced with having to put caps on our teeth in the middle of some third-world country.

I was 55, Woody 65, when we left for Kazakhstan and that new life so very far away – and not just geographically, culturally too. I gave up my home in Philadelphia, my new career that was just getting established after five years, lots and lots of tangible “things,” and my dog.

The mountains around Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan

How supportive were your family and friends?

For the most part, they were excited for us. My sons especially. My son David actually said, “Go now while [the grandchildren] are still young enough to not know you’re gone.”

Some colleagues of mine thought I had lost my mind.  And as we were selling my house, I recall a few of the prospective buyers, upon hearing why we were selling, responded with “better you than me.” My stepfather was the only one definitely against it. But that made joining seem an even better idea.

My family

Can you tell us a little about your experience in the Peace Corps and about the Kazakh country and people?

The Kazakhs pride themselves on their hospitality and that is what we certainly found while there. One of their many sayings, “Guests are a gift from God,” was such a dramatic departure for me, who prided myself on keeping tight boundaries on my private space.  My husband and I both taught English; I was at a teacher’s college and Woody was at the local university. I had only taught two semesters, while a teaching fellow at Kent State, and it hadn’t been a very good experience. But Woody had been a college professor for nearly 35 years. He knew going in that he was going to teach English.  But I had no idea until we were placed in Kazakhstan, just two months before we left.

Woody and I at the home of one of our students

 

What challenges did you encounter in the Peace Corps and coming home?

Challenge is what being in the Peace Corps is all about. Some you meet easily and smoothly, like when this gorgeous bathtub that I really wanted to soak in had no stopper. I just created one and used my heel to hold it down. Others are more difficult, like the expected culture shock that happens at about the two-month mark, when I just wanted all the “newness” to stop.  But language issues are fairly common; cultural differences, of course, are a constant. Like how I wound up flipping my students “the bird” for my first three months, without realizing it of course, because I didn’t realize that for them the pointer finger is considered vulgar. And then, when I learned that, it was quite difficult for me to stop doing something that I was used to doing so automatically. But I did learn and still today I tend to not use my finger to point, even at a blackboard. I use my palm or I grab a pencil if I must point.

Here are some photos of our first apartment. We moved in after living with a host family for the first nine months (Peace Corps policy).

Coming home, we faced the inevitable: what to do next. We knew we wouldn’t be living in our little vacation home that we’d kept (and rented while we were gone). And I knew I had changed. I began noticing things about American culture I’d not noticed before: how violent our TV shows were, how “entertaining” our news shows had become, how much greed has permeated our culture and become acceptable. It was quite troubling. That may indeed be why a life on an isolated 30-acre farm in Vermont was so appealing.

We came home in June of 2006, but our home was rented out through August. So, we wound up spending the summer traveling the east coast of the U.S. visiting Woody’s family, who lived in Canada and Florida, and my family, who lived in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Along the way, my son Jon, who was living in Cincinnati at the time, asked us to “swing over” into Vermont to gather some real estate information for him as he and his family were thinking of moving to Vermont. So, coming south out of Canada, we just hung a left along the way and spent two glorious weeks in Vermont in early August. And, while we gathering lots of information for my son, we also discovered this tiny stone house situated in the Green Mountains of northeastern Vermont.  And, Jon and his family, by the way, moved instead to Cleveland.

Our yard in Vermont

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

My big moment was about two or three months in. I was mostly exhausted (being enmeshed in a foreign culture is, actually, exhausting), and wound up sobbing on the post office wall.  But that turned out to be just what I needed. Here’s an excerpt from my book:

At least my explosion at the bus stop was among strangers and I could blend quickly back into anonymity. But later that week, another low point hit me while I was sitting in the teachers’ lounge. My witnesses were my colleagues.

The day was cold outside and the chill seeped through the walls. The teachers had been talking about the upcoming election.

“Things here will never change,” one of them said.

As though on cue, something deep within me burst. “With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder!” I snapped.

I knew immediately I shouldn’t have said it. At best, I’d said something rude, and, at worst, something intentionally insulting. But none of the teachers in the small room reacted. There was not even an uncomfortable silence. It wasn’t a language barrier issue. There simply wasn’t an aggressive bone in any of them. I wanted to scream; I wanted them to be angry, angry with me, just like I was.

Deep in my genetic code, there was a belief that any problem could be at least addressed if not fixed. No mountain too high, no ocean too deep, yadda, yadda, yadda. But in Kazakhstan, I found no ethic that said if the system is broken, it should get fixed. And what was even harder for me, I rarely heard anyone acknowledge that anything in the system was broken.

From where I stood that particular gloomy day, everything I saw was broken. From the women rifling through my grandchildren’s birthday presents, to teachers pushing a Ping-Pong ball up some stranger’s pant leg, to the scene at the bus stop. I was tired of dealing with behaviors I didn’t like, never mind understand.

I was worn out by the terrible bleakness all around me. I was irritated by eating when not hungry only because whoever offered the food might be offended if I didn’t. I was sick of drinking tea so full of the caffeine that wreaked havoc with my sleep. I was tired of trying to believe none of it mattered. In short, I was tired of being culturally sensitive.

I badly needed someone who would just listen to me, help me see things in perspective, laugh with me. Bakhit, the woman at my college whom I’d thought might become my first friend, had never again showed any interest in me. And Tatiana, a woman for whom I held out much hope for friendship during my first month in Zhezkazgan, had moved to Moscow the week after we’d met.

I’d lost Woody, too, as far as I was concerned. I was disappointed that he couldn’t cheer me up, that he never brought me broth when I was sick unless I asked him, that I had to ask him. I was annoyed at constantly tripping over his stuff in our tiny room and angry that when I tried to share my struggles with him, he didn’t understand.

I worried whether I even knew my husband at all. We’d once been so close. Perhaps we’d been too close—like standing before a tree or a mirror, so close you can’t see either the forest or the face. Now that I’d stepped back a bit, I wasn’t seeing what I expected to see. And the distance between us felt immense.

How much easier my adjustment would have been, I decided, if the Peace Corps had placed me in Africa or the South Pacific. With different clothing, an occasional loincloth at least, the visual reminders that I was in a different culture would surely have made my adjustment easier.

In Kazakhstan, the cultural differences were enormous, yet they were subtle, often out of sight. People looked like Americans, wore American clothing, had American hairstyles. The differences that were knocking me over were hidden from view. And things I normally did on automatic pilot, I now had to think about.

I couldn’t walk through a doorway without a conscious, “I must pick up my feet.” I couldn’t enter a home without going through the very conscious ritual of removing my shoes, a literal “rite of passage.” I didn’t mind removing my shoes. I liked the custom in many ways. What I minded was the thinking about it. I was on hyper-alert all day long, every day, and I was exhausted.

I pictured myself sitting by a pool, with a gorgeously tanned and well-muscled man with a flirtatious smile serving me an ice-cold margarita, a curious image, given that I don’t tend to enjoy pools. Pure luxury, that’s what I longed for, and a little relaxation. A respite.

I hit my metaphorical bottom a few days after I blew up at my colleague. After picking up a package with photos of my grandchildren, I sat on the cement wall outside the pochta, that clear no-no in this land of superstitions, to open it. But on this particular day, as I sat on the wall, no old woman ran over to me, insisting I stand up. Probably my loud sobbing kept them all at bay.

Tired of pushing my sadness away, tired of fighting it, I finally accepted that the only way around this difficult time was to go through it. “The only way around is through” was a mantra that had helped me through the painful years leading up to my divorce.

I’d spouted the adage over the previous ten years in workshops and various keynote addresses, in the textbook Woody and I wrote together, and with my clients in my psychotherapy practice.

“The only way around is through,” I repeated to myself now, and knew it was time to sit still and feel my feelings.

“Courage,” another adage I’d often quoted, is “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” Now was the time for me to face up to my own fear du jour and push forward, confronting what I’d been afraid of, embracing my inner demons, if you will. I wanted my Peace Corps years to be good ones, my time worth all I’d left behind. I wanted to be happy again. That much I knew.

I thought of the yoga teacher I’d had throughout the early 1980s. Larry Terkel had taught me to find my “point of resistance” and “play with it.” His advice had been vital a decade later as I came out of my stuttering closet, finding that moment when I was stuttering and just staying with it, not being in such a hurry to get away. No more numbing out, no more excuses.

Sitting on the cement wall outside the Zhezkazgan post office, I’d do it again. I’d honor my “point of resistance,” feel my sadness, and stretch and pull it all I could.

My sobs helped. I sobbed through my embarrassment that I, the certified Gestalt psychotherapist, had been stuffing my feelings and numbing out to the many disappointments I’d found. And I sobbed through my dismay that I, the Master of Arts sociologist, had been seeing this culture through my own ethnocentric filter, wearing a sun visor of “my way” that colored everything I saw, judging the new by what I knew.

I sobbed for the discriminating eye that had served me well in so many arenas back home in my own culture, but that was wreaking havoc on me in Kazakhstan. And I sobbed through the denial that had convinced me I’d feel fine if only I gritted my teeth, stepped up, and plowed on. I sobbed through the frustrations and the anger of the past months: the institutionalized chaos that stopped me short on a daily basis, the neglect that surrounded me wherever I looked, and the dust that covered me with every step. And I sobbed away my disappointment in Woody, and my fear, believing that if we weren’t destined for the “happy ever after” I’d expected, I’d still be okay.

Mostly, I sobbed into my acknowledgment that I couldn’t control any of it. I leaned into my crying eagerly, hungrily, knowing as sure as I knew my name, that crying “clears away the sadness and creates a space for joy.”

When my sobbing had run its course, I blew my nose, wiped my face, and recognized a long-lost sense of excitement. I felt the eager anticipation of the unknown as I once had the night before leaving for a new summer camp, the days before a new school year began, or the weeks before each of my sons was born.

With renewed energy, I walked home, eager to share my metamorphosis with Woody. Hoping, too, that I’d no longer be so constantly angry with him.

I’d climbed that high dive for Woody in the beginning, then jumped off it for the stories I could tell my grandchildren about “making friends for America.” The resultant fall—where I’d been—had seemed endless. But once I hit, there on that post office wall, I knew the rest of my time in Kazakhstan would be categorically different.

I was there for me now, and the fact that I had no idea exactly how the rest of my time there would be different, was OK. I just knew it would be.

Toasts are important in the Kazakh culture. Here, Woody and I give a toast at a wedding.

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned I can be unexpectedly tenacious in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. I have a core strength that, if I only tap into it, will carry me through. I had given up so very much, I was determined to make my time there successful. No matter what. It’s what I tried always to instill in my clients. It’s what I had believed cognitively for years; now I was actually experiencing it. It was a bit heady.

 

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

After Peace Corps, I’d have taken more time and talked more directly with my sons about our move to Vermont. We are a very long way from them in Ohio, from my grandchildren. As a direct result, I am not as involved in their lives as I’d like to be.

Woody and I with members of our first host family at Peace Corps’ Culture Day

You wrote a memoir about your experience. What prompted that?

At Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir developed out of my need to understand my experience. Why had I given up a life I loved to go half way around the world? What had I learned about the man I’d married? What had I learned about my own country and culture? Writing has long been a path to understanding. So, I began to write in January 2007, a few months after we returned home. Somewhere in that process, I realized I had a universal story—one of midlife change, of taking a risk, jumping into that great unknown, and not just surviving, but surfacing a stronger and more confident woman. And I hope I offered a new way of thinking about the artificial boundaries we so often place on friendship. At that point, it was a matter of learning how to write memoir, which works best if it reads like a novel. Workshops, books, mentors, and editors all helped me. But what drove me the most was my inner compulsion to tell this story.

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife? Joining the Peace Corps?

Don’t wait until you are not afraid. Courage is “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” Listen to your heart; your body knows what it needs; learn to trust its messages to you.

The process for joining Peace Corps has changed dramatically since I did it in 2002.  So, my advice is to start at their website. I think the successful volunteer needs to be someone committed to representing their country in a part of the world where not many Americans go. That’s one of the three Peace Corps goals that have stayed the same for over 50 years now: to introduce people of other countries to Americans and our ways. Of course, the third goal is to bring the culture of the country we lived in back home and share it with others.  Hence, my various speaking engagements, my book to some extent, and some of my blog posts. The second goal, by the way, is to bring the skills or talents that the host country seeks; in other words, to do the job we were sent there to do.

When Woody and I first sent in our applications online, our next move was to go to our local bookstore and order every book they could find that was written about the Peace Corps. I believe I wound up at the time with about four or five, among them two memoirs that were outstanding: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.) by Peter Hesler, who served in China, and The Village of Waiting by George Packer, who served in one of the African countries. Packer’s story was helpful to me while I was first acclimating, for his story was one of nearly interminable boredom.  As I never experienced that, I had a beacon telling me I was doing OK.

Celebrating my 56th Birthday with locals in Kazakhstan

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

I’m looking for what that next act will be. Certainly, I love the writing life. At 68, I now get to call my own hours; I can take off and visit the grandkids in Ohio at most any time I want.

And I love writing and researching for my weekly blog post at And So It Goes. Yet, the memories of those years as a psychotherapist are with me daily and I’d love to see clients again. I’m good at what I do; that much I’ve learned. I bring some of that experience and training into my blog posts, encouraging a robust conversation. I know there are women out there I can still reach with a message of hope – belief in yourself, trust in the universe, and faith that no matter what, you will be OK.

Our yurt

We just had a yurt installed in our front yard but, once again that jump into the unknown, how we will use it we are still figuring out.  Turns out our insurance won’t allow us to rent it.  Perhaps it’ll become a therapy room for my new practice.

 

Contact Janet Givens at givensj48@gmail.com

Book:At Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir

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Twitter @GivensJanet




Becoming a Pilot in Midlife: Juliette’s Story

Juliette’s life has been full of adventure and brush with fame—Cat Stevens, Hugh Hefner, Bruce Springsteen—not the least of which is getting her pilot’s license and using that skill to help rescue animals after Hurricane Katrina. What an odyssey!

 

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born Juliette Bora in London, England, in 1951. An only child, I lived in Turkey with my parents for the first four years of my life. My father was Turkish, and died when I was 10. My mother was French and a very unbalanced woman. I think we know today she was bi-polar and suffered from extreme depression, but in those days no one really talked about that kind of mental illness, especially in England—you kind of lived with it. There were no therapists or help of any kind. You very much kept your troubles to yourself.

When I was five, we went back to live in England, where I grew up and went to school. My childhood/youth was pretty harsh. Because my dad died so early, life changed dramatically for us; mother was in a panic and we pretty much financially went downhill. When I was 13, my mother bought me a horse because she thought it might ease the loss of my dad but we really couldn’t pay for a horse, so to earn the necessary money to keep him, I worked as a stunt rider for MGM Pictures, which happened to be two miles from where I boarded my horse. I spent two years riding, falling, getting knocked off by bandits and jousting in full medieval armor—just about anything you can do on a horse—to make whatever money I could. I got hurt quite a bit, so when I turned 15, Mother sold my horse (without telling me) and that was that for my equine career.

On Amber, at age 13

I left school at 15 and went to work. I got a job after a year at the London Playboy Club as a casino dealer and tried as best I could to help my mom pay the bills. It finally all caught up with us and one night in the winter of 1969, the Bailiffs arrived at the front door to take my mother to debtors’ prison—yes, that was a thing back then! It took some fine double-talking on my part to convince them to give us a few days to come up with a certain amount of money. They didn’t know we owned a crumbly car, so the next day we packed the car and drove to Istanbul, Turkey.

Working as a casino dealer at the Playboy Club

The car broke down in Bulgaria. This was 1970 and you didn’t want to be two women stranded at 2:00 am on the main (cobbled) highway in the middle of a very communist country. We did survive this (very long and hair-raising story involved) and finally arrived in Istanbul, Turkey, in the back of a cattle truck.

At 19, I became a cabaret singer at the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul. Then, a year later, in 1971, I moved to Beirut, Lebanon, where I lived for four years singing in clubs and hotels. I basically got on a plane one day, while Mother was visiting Grandma in England, and left. When she returned to Istanbul, she was furious, but I had to get away; I was choking. The war started in 1973 and I got out in the beginning of 1975 on a super scary drive, with bullets flying around, huddled on the floor of taxi cab to the airport on the last day it was open.

After a few more years working as a singer in London and Europe, I moved to the USA in 1976—Los Angeles—where I then started working for Playboy, singing across the country in all their clubs.

With Hugh Hefner and Robert Culp, 1977

Singing at the LA Playboy Club, 1979

During that time, I moved to New York City (1979) and got married to a now very well-known Broadway actor, Terrence Mann. I always wanted to become a writer so I started writing plays and movies—mainly plays—and had a few produced in small, unknown, cold and drafty theaters but nevertheless I was loving it. I also started a workout class that was a kind of ballet/Pilates intense stretch class, which I taught in the city for the next 16 years. It was very successful.

In 1989, Terry found his soulmate. I honestly can’t say I blame him as I wasn’t the best person I could have been. I realize now how much influence and power my mother had on and over me—thus creating in me a second version of her, which was very damaging. But Terry found his soulmate and had to go. It was meant to be.

Of course I was completely unprepared. Terry had been the major breadwinner so everything—credit, nice apartment on the Upper West Side with a $3000 a month mortgage, most of the money in the bank—was in his name. My friends told me to leave the apartment and get a couple of roommates, oh, and burn all his clothes outside “her” apartment where he was living.

I was not about to leave my apartment; it was my home. I was way too old for roommates (I was 38 and didn’t much care for people anyway) and I was not about to break the law and burn anything, but I had to do something fairly drastic because money was running out. I doubled up on the classes I was teaching, established my own credit, and became more focused than ever before. I was running out of time and it was catching up with me, so I called the President of Citibank (not an easy task and I don’t think it would work today) and told him my story and asked for an extra five years on the mortgage to reduce my monthly payments. I think saying my husband had just left me for a ballerina helped! They gave me the five years and I struggled along. When I kind of ran out of food, I realized I was going to have to earn a lot of money to stay in my apartment and live in NYC, so I took a play I had written to ABC Daytime TV and applied to become a Soap Opera Writer for One Life to Live (OLTL). I got the job and stayed as a soap writer for the next four years, earning an Emmy Nomination and two WGA (Writers Guild of America) awards.

Hanging out with the “One Life to Live” gang

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

Working as a writer in Daytime TV was very stressful. I had to write a 90-page script, edited and delivered in five days, 52 weeks a year, and I could absolutely NOT be late on delivery. I loved the writing but I worked for very intense, ambitious women executives and that was a challenge. It was a lot about “who likes me this week?” I did well on OLTL and we got the Emmy nod which was great, so for a few weeks everyone liked us!

Then I moved to a show called Loving (which spawned Michael Weatherly who is now on the number one show Bull); they were doing a huge turnaround and changed all the staff. There was a new Producer, Haidee Granger, who is one of the finest women I have ever known, not to mention very talented in her own right as a TV producer. Haidee turned Loving around and we were getting serious notice from the networks.  As is very typical in daytime TV land – someone high up decided that Haidee was getting too successful; in three days she was gone and replaced by another producer

The two WGA Awards we received for Outstanding Achievement in a Daytime serial were entirely due to Haidee’s work. At the WGA awards ceremony in NYC at the Waldorf Astoria, I caused a big scene by holding up the show, asking Barbara Walters to sit down (as she was coming back to the stage to host), and giving Haidee the accolade she deserved. Everyone in the room applauded except the ABC table—they all turned their backs to me. Two weeks later, I was gone from the show. But I felt amazing. It was worth getting fired for doing what I truly believed was the right thing. That was the first time I felt the power of being truthful, authentic, and giving to someone with not a care about my own safety.

I met Jason in 1992 at a small cabaret hangout in New York City. He was dating a mutual friend and I was already divorced and on OLTL and had absolutely no thoughts of getting married again. I didn’t want children and I was perfectly happy just hanging with my friends. Well… God has a great sense of humor and after a few months I realized I had met my soulmate. We dated for two years then married in 1994. While we honeymooned in Jamaica, I sat on the beach and contemplated my future. I was 43. I knew daytime TV was not for me. I remember thinking, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” and “What would you do for free?”

Wedding photo with Jason, 1994

Fly an airplane!!

My father had been an aircraft engineer and it had always been in my blood.  Also, we were very fortunate at that time as Jason was doing very well in his voiceover career and, for the first time in almost 30 years, I didn’t have to work! We could afford this. When we got home to New Jersey (we had moved there in 1993) I called the local airport and off I went, at age 43, to become an airplane pilot.

At the controls, 1995

What is your next act?

I am an Airline Transport Pilot (ATF) and Master Flight Instructor, qualified to fly 19 different airplanes.

Flying is something quite extraordinary. You take off and climb to thousands of feet above the ground and you are in another world—literally. You are talking to Air Traffic Control (ATC); they are your lifeline, responsible for making sure that over 20,000 aircraft that are airborne at any given time, fly, land, and take off safely. I love the language of pilots and ATC, the unwavering professionalism that is so prevalent in the air amongst us. I always felt surrounded by “my people.” It is peace at its finest.

Back in those days, before 9/11 and all the shit that followed, all was well with the world. And there is nothing better than bringing that plane home to the airport and feeling the wheels gently thunk to the ground. Your airplane is not a machine like the car; it’s a part of the family. I purchased my own airplane and loved it. It carried us all over the country: me, hubby, and two dogs!

With my plane

 

How hard was it to become a pilot?

It took three years for me to secure my Private Pilot’s License and my Flight Instructor license. I was very fortunate as my first instructor was a young man named Marcus McCall (now a Jet Blue Captain). He was 22 and just a few weeks graduated out of Embry Riddle Aviation University. I was his very first student. He was so talented and guided me through this very difficult process.

Many times, I really thought I’d have to quit.  Sometimes our lesson was cancelled because of wind and weather and I remember in those early days being secretly relieved—I had a day reprieve!  See, I had fear. Not the scared of night shadows fear but real, mind-numbing terror. Here I was in a small—no, tiny—little lawnmower with wings; up in the air and feeling every wind bump and strange noise that little airplanes make and thinking, “have I lost my mind completely?” Marcus was so patient!

The academic side to flying is all about math—my worst ever subject—but I found that when I was learning the technical side of flying, the math fell into place. Why hadn’t that nasty math teacher I’d had in school told us that Pythagoras’s Theorem totally applied to airplane navigation?

With Marcus during training, 1995

Landing was the tricky part. Taking off is optional—landing is compulsory. It was my Achilles’ heel. For some reason my spatial awareness was all wonky. You really have to “feel” the landing as there is a time about 10 feet off the ground where you are on a kinesthetic journey of just knowing when the wheels will touch. I thumped that little plane down hundreds of times and poor Marcus was sometimes quite pale, but off we’d go again and again and again, round and round the pattern, landing—or should I say meeting the ground firmly. I was so determined to become a Master that I didn’t stop. I went to the airport every day and practiced. Sometimes I scared myself but I pressed on. Today, I can pretty much land anything, anywhere.

I remember the day I soloed. My instructor Marcus got out of the airplane—not as confident as he would have liked—and I was alone in this little tin cup.

And as I learned and gained knowledge, my confidence increased. I spent over 117 hours as a student before Marcus could sign me off to take my Private Pilot’s license. But because of that arduous, although thrilling journey of learning, I became an excellent instructor as I knew what it was to struggle in the flight training process. I found I could really help people with their fear—everyone has it.

With the help of some of the most extraordinary pilots I have ever known, I honed my craft. Every time—to this day—when I have a challenging flight, I think of all my teachers and what they used to say “Just wear the airplane and fly!”

Jason and I had moved to Red Bank, New Jersey after our wedding, in 1994, and right after we got there and I started flying. I struck up a friendship with Bruce Springsteen at our local gym. One day, I sat down beside him and he said, “What’s the topic of the day?” And off we went for the next few years having extraordinary chats about everything. This was Bruce’s local gym and he’s just that kind of guy—one of the most gracious and kind people I have ever met.  We would pretty much see each other every day at the gym and he sort of became my flying mentor in a strange kind of way. He loved that I was learning to fly and used to ask me every day how it was going. He nicknamed me Sky King (from the old series Sky King & Penny).

I remember the day before my first exam—the one that would give me my Private Pilot’s license and make me an official pilot. I was sick-to-my-stomach terrified, hoping for awful weather or that I’d come down with some lengthy illness—anything that would prevent me from going to the airport the next morning to face The Examiner! I was sitting in the gym and I told Bruce my exam was the next day. He was thrilled; I was not. I asked him, “Have you ever been scared to go on stage?” and without missing a beat he nodded and said, “Oh yes. A lot.” I was amazed. He has faced thousands of people and played for hours. Scared? Really? He patted my hand and said I was going to do fine and he’d see me in a couple days to hear the good news. Strangely, knowing that Bruce Springsteen got scared also was exceptionally comforting.

The next day, I aced the test and got my license. The following morning, I was getting out of my car at the gym and turned to walk in across the parking lot. There was Bruce standing with his arms open wide mouthing “Well?” I said I passed and he literally swept me up in a huge bear hug, congratulating me. That was a special day. He never knew it but Bruce Springsteen had an awful lot to do with my success as a pilot for the next 15 years. Whenever it got rough, I would often think of those days at the gym in Red Bank and the lovely friend I had in my corner.

With Jason at Best Friends

 

You’ve used your pilot’s license to help with animal rescue. Tell us about that.

As I improved and passed all my pilot’s exams with flying colors, I started to think, “What can I do with this?” “How can I be of service?” So in 2003, Jason and I moved to Kanab, Utah to work at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. They are the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the world. Set on 3000 acres in Southern Utah, a half hour from the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park, Best Friends is one of the most amazing places you will ever see.  Funded solely by individual donors, they bring in over $55 million a year and most of it goes to the animals. They have been instrumental in a lot of legislation changes around the country with regard to animal shelters and rescue. Just a look at their website tells you everything.

I took my airplane and worked as a Volunteer Coordinator and their animal transport pilot for ten years. They sent me to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to aid with their animal rescue and we rescued 6,000 dogs, cats, and various other species. I stayed down there for nine months. My first stationing was in Tylertown, Mississippi, where Best Friends had set up a temporary shelter/receiving area. We put in a 19-hour days, 7 days a week. At 1:00 am every night, a huge semi-truck would arrive filled with rescued animals from the city (New Orleans). We would take them and vet them. Some were in such a bad state we had to do emergency surgery there on the spot; some were so thin and cold they couldn’t walk; some were ok but so frightened they would bite everyone who came near them. But we didn’t care. They were our kids now and we would fix them.

Dog transport for Best Friends

 

What we were not prepared for, however, was how few people ever came to claim the dogs, cats, bunnies, snakes, reptiles, and varied assortment of critters we had accumulated. So after a while, we started adopting them out and sending them to other animal rescues across the country, which is where I came in: I flew the animals to various locations for adoption. I once had to fly a “family” of Tarantula spiders to a Tarantula rescue in Alabama. They were in a large roomy dog crate on the back seat of my airplane and I spent three hours steeling my nerves with those large, black, hairy creatures over my shoulder. I think I aged a bit on that flight!

In 2006, Jason and I moved to New Orleans itself, where Best Friends had set up a holding/rescue station in the city called Celebration Station, which Jason ran. This was very different: Every day we had a steady stream of people coming through the doors to adopt. Anderson Cooper even came from CNN and did an interview with me! I was primarily an adoption coordinator and we had to be very careful as most of our dogs were pit bulls. I worked side by side with my dear friend Cathy Scott, who wrote an amazing book about this experience called Pawprints of Katrina: Pets Saved and Lessons Learned. We had to be very careful as you never knew who was running a dog fighting ring and had come just because we had pit bulls.

Taking a miniature pony in the plane to the vet

One day, Cathy and I were working through a line of very impatient people wanting to adopt, when a guy who honestly looked like he was “straight out of Compton”—all black leather, gold chains, sunglasses that would have made Elvis squirm, with a posse of Dr. Dre wannabes—leaned over my desk, laid out three $100 bills and said, “I want the black one in cage 12.” His nose was about six inches from mine. My brain did that thing where it goes super slow—you know when you run through the list of options—as I figured out how to say no, as I knew in my heart he wanted this pit bull to fight. I then contemplated the various death scenarios that could possibly transpire as a result of my channeling Braveheart and facing down a gangster, not to mention Jason having to deal with the fact his wife was dead because she was “brave.”   Oh but it was such an easy decision. I stood up; looked Mr. Rapper square in one sunglassed eye and said, “No, Sir. That dog is not available to you. None of them are.” I could feel Cathy holding her breath as I basically waited to die. An eternity of seconds went by. Mr Rapper stared at me, pushed his nose an inch closer, turned on his heels, snapped to his boys, and walked out the front door.

I have no idea why he left but I felt like a million bucks. I knew I had just saved a life: the black dog in cage 12.

In New Orleans with rescued dog

How supportive were your family and friends?

It’s always ever just been my current husband. Everyone else thinks/thought I was mad, too old; too ambitious (for my age), etc. But when I succeeded in each endeavor – yup, they all said how great I was. How amazing! How I was so fabulous! My favorite was, “You are always so lucky.” Luck is when opportunity meets preparation. Or even semi prep in my case!

Jason and me today

 

What challenges did you encounter?

Sticking with it. Overcoming real fear. Getting into that plane every day. Trusting my instincts were right and this was my mission. Learning to understand that because this was so difficult and I had so much resistance, this was what I was supposed to be doing for a much larger and more important reason. I had no idea what that was as I wasn’t really that interested in only being an airline pilot. I just knew that even though most days were hard, I still had days of pure exuberance and joy like I had not felt since I was a child. I remember my first really good landing, where the plane met the ground and you didn’t even feel the wheels touch. That was beyond words amazing! That’s when I knew this was right. It was one of the first times I solely listened to my gut and ignored the chattering committee in my brain.

With rescued puppy

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Yes. I think about quitting and just riding my horses and not thinking about being on a mission or changing the world, but that’s not my destiny. Thankfully I do have my amazing husband who is my consummate cheerleader, but that’s not enough is it? So I always go back to, “I’ve done this before.” When I was learning to fly I couldn’t land the airplane, I mastered it because I made it critical to my life. When I was learning to deal roulette and Blackjack at the Playboy Club and I couldn’t count fast enough and was on the brink of losing my job (and if I had, my mom was going to be put in debtors prison), I had to learn so I could keep the job. I found a way.

So I remember these times (and many others, when all looked hopeless) and remember how I focused and accepted nothing less than success. When it all looks hopeless, I create a critical commitment within myself.  I just say it’s time to make magic happen!

With my dog Peetey

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

Be brave beyond anything you could ever have imagined.

Ask yourself, “What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail”?

And most important of all, scare yourself at least once a day!

Find mentors. I created my own: Maya Angelou for her wisdom in such few words; Eckhart Tolle to keep me in the Now; Bruce Springsteen for his extraordinary eyes on life; Tony Robbins when I need a kick somewhere. And always look for teachers who love teaching. They will be the best at what they do.

 

What advice do you have for those interested in becoming pilots? What resources do you recommend?

Get in your vehicle, drive to the airport and sign up with a flight school.  Find a good instructor and just do it. It’s really a hands on deal. You will get all your study textbooks from your flight school. But there are a few extra things I recommend.

AOPA is the Pilots association for private pilots. Become a member and you will also get the magazine.

King Schools: The training program I used for all the theory exams that you are tested on. Here’s an article about the founders, John and Martha King.

The cost varies depending on which kind of flight school you attend and a lot of other variables.  Here’s a good page for that info.

 

With Yusuf Cat Stevens, then and now

What’s next for you?

I am launching my new business, Act Three Productions where I hope to help women who want to change their lives and live a long-lost dream but just don’t know how or where to start. The kids are gone. Husband is doing what husbands do. Retirement looms in the distance. Now what? These women have been wives and mothers for so long, they realize they have lost themselves in who they’ve been for other people.

I am developing a Reinvention Program that will include one-on-one online mentoring and Reinvention Weekend Retreats, where we will delve into each person’s individual dreams and goals and work to achieve them by creating a new and different way of thinking about… What is my Third Act? How do I start? How am I in my way? What do I need to overcome to achieve ultimate success?

I’m also working on my speaking career and have officially signed with the Denver Speakers Bureau.

My book, Just Watch Me, will be coming out in spring, 2017. This is my autobiography told with nothing held back: my life starting as a child in England; my very first, fall-head-over heels-in-love-as-only-you-can at 17 relationship with Cat Stevens; my life as a Playboy Bunny and move into becoming a cabaret singer. Being raped at knifepoint in Liege, Belgium and taking two months to catch the guy, by myself, charge him, and put him away in prison for 15 years. Being tricked by my best friend into going on a holiday to Lausanne, Switzerland, and finding out it was just a ruse to send me into white slave traffic to an Arab Sheikh, then my subsequent hair-raising escape back to London, England. Telling Mother I was going on holiday to America in 1976 and never going back. Being told by some very nice Italian men from New York that I was going to play the lead in the movie of Judy Garland and finding out I was just their front for robbing casinos in Vegas. Walking the firewalk with Tony Robbins. And a lot more. The book will then continue on to the present day—very exciting.

I am self-publishing on Amazon and plan to make it a Best Seller! My hope is to catch the interest of a traditional publisher once that happens. And then the movie!

 

Contact Juliette Watt at Juliette.watt@gmail.com

www.ActThreeProductions.com

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Sharing her Travel and Diving Adventures: Tam’s Story

060a5e9351a079b9b76885db07615141After the kids were out of the house, and her husband had successfully survived a double lung transplant, Tam decided to travel the world, indulging in her love of the ocean, diving, photography, and conservation. She continues to go strong!

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in Dayton, Ohio with my parents and brother, Michael. My brother and I were adopted by our parents, two years apart. I had the quintessential Midwest childhood: a big house, large yard, plenty of space to roam in a brand new suburb still being built when we moved in. Our family vacationed every year for two weeks in Ft Lauderdale, and that is where my love for the ocean and its animals began. I loved to travel as a child, and that love has only strengthened throughout my life.

I married shortly after moving to Dallas at age 20, and Randy and I are still together today. I always felt sad that my children wouldn’t know the same type of childhood I had: They couldn’t go out on their own and ride bikes and explore, they had “play dates” and parents watched their children closely.

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While my children were little, I went back to college and graduate school, where I earned a Master’s degree in Sociology. My main “act” in life has always been my husband and children. I have loved being a mother to my daughter, Alexandra, and my son, Wes. They are both adults now, and married. Next come grandchildren?

My career has always changed… I worked in a brokerage firm, a bank, became a travel agent. I went back to school then lectured at the University of Texas Dallas; I loved teaching. I went into private practice as a college consultant, working with families and students to help facilitate the college search and application process. I love teens and young adults. Life ran into a wall in 2013, when my husband suddenly had respiratory failure and had a double lung transplant! Obviously, at that point, life took another direction. (Here is that story – start on page 9).

My husband had a long recovery, and we did do some traveling within the USA, but being on anti-rejection medications means a suppressed immune system, and traveling usually ended up with Randy becoming ill. We had had big plans to travel and dive the world before his transplant, but it was clear that Randy could not travel to remote destinations without access to stellar transplant health care. My desire to travel and dive was strong, and Randy encouraged me to go on those trips and have those experiences. I am glad he is supportive, otherwise it would be difficult emotionally to travel as much as I do.

 

Our family, 3 months after Randy's surgery

Our family, 3 months after Randy’s surgery

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

After my children were in college, and the empty nest arrived, I began to want a solo experience, doing volunteer work abroad, doing something completely on my own. My interest in the ocean has always been a part of my life, and I chose a program that took me to Tofo, Mozambique, to help study Whale Sharks, Manta Rays, and do fish surveys on the reefs. I can say that going to Africa in 2012 made a huge impact on my life, and created change. The trip was challenging: At 50+, I was the oldest volunteer, and physically struggled to adapt to tough conditions on land and in the ocean.

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I emerged from that trip with confidence in myself, pride in my accomplishments and inner strength, and a hunger to continue. I had seen a documentary, Queen of Mantas, about a woman who studied Manta Rays in Tofo; I met Dr Andrea Marshall on my trip, and I have traveled with her several times since then. She has become a friend as well as an inspiration. (You can read about my incredible trip HERE.) This was before Randy became very ill, so he joined me at the end of my trip, and we continued on to Tanzania and safari!

 

With Dr. Andrea Marshall

With Dr. Andrea Marshall

 

What is your next act?

mintonI am a travel blogger at Travels with Tam, a midlife, empty nest adventure blog. Most are travel adventures (I have traveled all over the world) but, as we all know, there are plenty of interesting journeys in midlife and I write about those as well, especially the journey of our family to our family to my husband’s double lung transplant!

I have traveled all over the world, and I love it. I began traveling before I was old enough to know that’s what I was doing. My parents loved the beach and we went to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, every single year until I was 20 years old and moved to Dallas. We were beach lovers, and the ocean quickly spoke to me, and it never left.

I write about travel, life events, aging… and scuba diving! I began diving when I was 26, 30 years ago. I was on vacation in Cozumel, Mexico, with girlfriends, and I have little patience for “laying out.” A dive instructor came by asking if we were interested, and since I had always dreamed of being a diver with Jacques Cousteau, I jumped up right away. I was hooked immediately.

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I do a lot of photography. I am always encouraging other midlife women to get out there and leave their comfort zone.

Here are some of my most popular posts:

Extinction Is Looming

“15 Photos to Make You Want to Go to Cozumel”

“Close Encounter With a Great White Shark”

“Am I Invisible?”

“Lung Transplant Approval, an Unexpected Journey.”

“Diving the Revillagigedo Archipelago in Mexico.”

I love what I do. I love taking photos and helping with fish surveys and fish identifications. I am committed to ocean conservation, and my greatest contribution is participating in citizen science trips. If that interests you, check out REEF.org and MarineMegafauna.org. Ray of Hope Expeditions are absolutely wonderful.

Close up with great white shark

Close up with great white shark

 

How did you decide to start blogging?

It is strange how this act came about… When Randy became so ill, I was still working as a college consultant. He became ill in August of 2013, and the fall is the busiest time for college applications. I worked with my students from the waiting room at the hospital, and made sure that I was on top of every detail. I was an excellent counselor and advisor, and I did not want “my kids” to suffer, so I made sure they had every consideration from me.

After Randy’s homecoming, I had several consultations with new families, but upon finding out that Randy had had a double lung transplant, not one of them signed on with me. Their concern was that I would drop the ball if something happened to Randy. I understood the concern, and I knew that I would work as hard for new students as I had my former students, but only one family took the chance. I am working with her right now, as she is a senior applying for college, but she is my last student.

During my African adventure I kept a journal online for my friends and family. I have always loved writing, and this journal morphed into my travel blog. When Randy became ill, I began to blog about that journey, as it happened, for family and friends. Randy’s illness has been, without a doubt, a long journey.  When Randy was recovering, I began adding my photography to the blog, and I met several other 50+ bloggers who were shaking up their lives, and a new career began to take form.

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How supportive were your family and friends?

They were very supportive. I think there were some doubts among them, because traveling meant I left Randy behind, most of the time, although we still took trips together. I was fortunate through this entire ordeal to have friends and family who have absolutely been there for me and for my children.

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My daughter’s wedding

 

What challenges did you encounter?

One challenge is my physical limitations I have to consider before every trip. I am 56 years old, and have chronic back pain, (my spine is held erect with 4 rods and 8 pedicle screws), psoriatic arthritis, and other various nuisances. I know each trip will bring pain and challenges, but scuba diving is actually very good for my spine, as I am almost weightless in the water, supported, and almost free of pain. It is really the only big physical activity left to me, diving and snorkeling.

Another is more of an emotional challenge. It isn’t easy to leave Randy for long periods of time, even though he is stable and living a mostly normal life. He has had to give up some of his hobbies and activities, and that has not been easy for him. We keep in touch by text, email, and even phone calls; it just depends on how remote my location is. Sometimes, as in Komodo National Park this year, we were unable to communicate for a week.

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Were there times when you thought about giving up? 

Oh yes. Every single trip! On every expedition I have a moment at the beginning when I think, I bit off more than I can chew this time, I’m not going to be able to do this. All I can do is try. So I try…and I do it. I remember my trip to Mozambique to volunteer for All Out Africa, doing fish surveys and whale shark identifications; I thought I would never make it. Our volunteer house was on a hill, and it was physically very difficult to get up and down the “stairs of death” to get to the beach. There are no marinas in Tofo, so we had to push the zodiac out over the surf. The diving was unlike any diving I had done before, with more surge and more current. I truly thought I would have to quit. But every day, I just put one foot in front of the other, and before you know it, I was up and down those stairs without a problem. Every trip has its physical challenges, all you can do it do it. And if you cannot, you can do something else.

I know someday I may not be able to go full speed like I do now (full speed for me), but right now, I can do it, and all we really have is right now. Tomorrow is promised to no one.

Taking out the boat

Taking out the boat

 

What did you learn about yourself through this process?

I learned that I am strong. I am capable. I am talented, and tenacious. Yes, I am starting to age, but who isn’t? I’m going to go as fast as I can as long as I can. As Hillary Clinton said, when there isn’t a roof, the sky is the limit. Though, in my case, probably 120 feet under the ocean is my limit. While I am diving, I have moments of pure bliss. It is another world, another dimension. I love it.

 

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

My advice is do it. If you are afraid, do it. Look deep within yourself and find out, what is it you want? What do you want to do? Maybe you want to help others, or be a caretaker, or travel, or learn to ski, or sky dive or scuba dive, or start a business or write a book… Whatever it is, grit your teeth and take a leap of faith. For some, truly living means getting outside of your comfort zone (that’s me). Perhaps others seek peace and quiet, and others enjoy a simple life. Whatever it is, do it. And take a few risks along the way. What is life without a little risk or adventure?

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What advice do you have for those interested in travel and travel blogging? What resources do you recommend?

If you are looking to get monetarily rich, find something else! If you are looking to make your life bigger, richer in experience, and to serve something larger than yourself, travel and consider Voluntourism or Citizen Science. I have personally traveled with All Out Africa; Ray of Hope Expeditions at Marine Megafauna Foundation; and Reef. There are so many others! Check out The Giving Lens, service through photography. GVI has many different types of voluntourism, and Red Travel Mexico, with whom I may be doing a trip next year. You don’t even have to go very far, but get out there in the world and experience something different. And share it with others.

I do work with companies, writing reviews or trying products. I’ve worked with IHG Hotel Group, Hyatt Regency Hotels, Coca Cola, Nestle, Mrs. Fields, Bandaid, Pro Dive Mexico, Occidental Allegra Hotel and Resort, AT&T, Dove, OneSole Shoes, Four Seasons Resorts, Chico’s Clothing Line, Ray of Hope Expeditions, Backscatter Photography, Expedia, Hotels.com, Avis, Allianz Travel Insurance, City Pass, Skyscanner.com, Travelocity and Vayama. I am a Level 5 Reviewer on Trip Advisor. You don’t even have to go very far, but get out there in the world and experience something different. And share it with others.

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What about advice re. midlife and solo travel for women?

Helene in Between is a great resource—she teaches people how to blog and how to do it for a living. Other great examples of women who are in midlife and enjoying travel in the empty nest are Suzanne Stavert of Adventures of Empty Nesters, Sara Broers of Travel with Sara, and Melody Pittman of Wherever I May Roam Blog. Also check out Lois Alter Mark of Midlife at the Oasis. There are so many others!

Women Traveling Together is for women who want to do small group travel with other women; G AdventuresWomen’s Travel Group.

Or you can do what I do and just go by yourself. Check out these wonderful resources for women who wish to travel solo. Check out Journey Woman, Adventurous Kate, Solo Traveler Blog.

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

I’m sure I do! Last year I became a mother-in-law twice—both my daughter and my son got married in 2015! That was busy! I’m sure grandchildren will come along in due course. Grandma… It sounds unreal to me! I’ll be Tammaw, I think.

 

Where else would you love to travel?

I am headed to Antarctica in January and that will be all seven continents for me! In February, I am off to Raja Ampat in Indonesia to dive. I want to go to the Galapagos, Cocos Island, Palau, and back to Thailand and Africa and Australia… Basically the globe is on my list!

In December, 2017, I am co-hosting an adventure trip with Red Travel Mexico. Check out the details here and please join me!

 

Contact Tam Warner Minton at travelswithtam@gmail.com

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Launching Women at Woodstock: Ann’s Story

ann-voorhees-bakerAfter marrying and moving across the country at 52, Ann yearned for the connection with other women in midlife. She launched Women at Woodstock weekend gatherings to bring women together and share experiences, support, and fun.

 

Tell us a little about your journey…

I always have to smile at the word journey when applied to my life, because I would describe it as more of a series of meanderings, mad dashes, dilly-dallying, chasing after interesting things, and arduous hikes. It is this:

Me in high school

Me in high school

I grew up in Southern California in a beach community, went to UCLA and earned a bachelor’s degree in cybernetics, then fled eastward for a place that had spring and fall and winter—Cleveland, Ohio, where I earned a law degree. I practiced law in New York City for 10 years (environmental protection), married, and returned to Shaker Heights outside of Cleveland where I raised two daughters. I founded and for 15 years published two regional parenting magazines, during which time I developed relationships with many of the magazine’s advertisers and started helping them with their ads and marketing.

Eventually I sold the magazines and concentrated on PR and marketing, then served as the director of communications for a school district for a couple of years.

I got a divorce after 23 years of marriage and eventually moved back to my original Southern California neighborhood at age 52 to marry a wonderful man who I had dated right after high school. I developed my own practice in social media marketing, SEO, web design, and ghost writing.

My daughters are now 32 and 29 and I’m very proud of them. Both graduates of Columbia University, one has lived all over the country and done everything from PR to working as a merchant marine to bartending and has just returned to Cleveland to earn a master’s degree in counseling, and the other is a managing editor at Pearson Publishing and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

My wedding

My wedding

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

While I was happily married, I was also lonely after the move. Frankly, when I returned California, I just never connected with a new posse of friends. At the same time, I had wonderful relationships with my clients, mostly women over 50 from all over the country. I yearned to connect in person with other like-minded women—not for business, not for spiritual development, not for yoga, but for interesting conversation, brainstorming, friendship.

 

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What is your next act?

I am the founder of Women at Woodstock. This is a gathering for women over 50 in our generation’s symbolic birthplace: Woodstock, NY. We’re now in our fifth year with our next gathering this October. We spend a weekend together with speakers, workshops, evening salons (guided discussions), yoga, brainstorming sessions, good food, wine, and fun. There is no theme except to share information, encourage and help each other in the pursuit of our creative efforts, businesses, or personal goals, and build friendships.

We have an entire property to ourselves for our gathering – the Lifebridge Sanctuary in Rosendale, NY, about 20 minutes from Woodstock. It’s an eco conscious restored farmhouse plus cottage, solar powered, with wood-burning fireplaces, a large great room, and spectacular views of the Hudson Valley.

Because of Women at Woodstock, I’m reaching out and getting to know more and more interesting women all over the country— the world, really—week after week. I’m definitely no longer lonely. I’m bathed in friendships and ideas and encouragement and support and I gladly give it back. The women in the “Women At Woodstock community” report the same feelings. It feels like a movement, yet we have no agenda except, really, carpe diem.

Interestingly, and not surprisingly (since women over 50 have lived a lot and know a lot and can move mountains if they want to), several business results have come out of these relationships: companies launched, jobs changed or found, clients developed, deals negotiated. And several relationship issues have been repaired: A mother revealed the painful truth about her adult son for the first time ever; a wife faced the raw facts of her marriage and gained the strength to make a needed change.

Among the more usual activities of workshops and learning and exchanging ideas and finding mentors and that sort of thing, small miracles have happened, and they continue to happen every time we gather together.

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How did you come up with the idea for Women at Woodstock?

For many years, as a business owner, I had followed all kinds of advice for building my business. I joined an online women’s business owner organization. I went to in-person networking events. I established a mastermind group in my area. It all worked fine. But it wasn’t the real me. Not that I was being phony; it’s just that the real me was inside turning the knobs and pulling the levers. You know, consciously. It was psychically tiring.

One day I had a conversation with an author to whom I had been recommended as a publicist. This was an opportunity to gain another client, but I found myself simply enjoying talking with her. She was one of those like-minded women, you know? Within minutes, I found myself talking about my idea for a women-over-50 gathering that was neither conference nor woo-woo retreat and she was immediately excited; we talked intensely, ideas flying back and forth, for an hour and a half. I hung up the phone and realized that I’d completely sidetracked the conversation away from the services I could provide. I’d lost the chance for a new client, yet I felt better about my plans for the future than I had in a long time.

I made two decisions: 1) Make Women At Woodstock a reality and 2) ditch the PR work, which I finally admitted to myself I did not like and did not have to do just because I knew how to do it (a huge revelation). I decided to stick to writing, social media, web design, and the techie SEO stuff, all of which I enjoy. 

Workshop

Workshop

 

How did you make Women at Woodstock a reality?

I’ve started and run several businesses but I’ve never organized events, and frankly, I mostly hate events. Networking is not my thing; cocktail parties are not my thing. But somehow the inspiration for Women At Woodstock just came over me. It just flowed naturally and whenever I talked about the idea to other women my age, they got super excited and they said, “You’ve got to do this, Ann! You must! Do it and I’ll be there!” So more out of feeling—how can I put this best—out of feeling a desire to be me among women whom I truly like and admire, I went forward. It turned out to be a really great decision.

I’m an impulsive person, always have been, so I can’t lie and say that I devised my plan for Women At Woodstock after careful planning, consideration, fact-gathering, and judiciously seeking advice and guidance. I thought of it, I felt compelled to do it, I did it. Parts of it clicked into place: It had to be in Woodstock, the iconic place of our generation. It had to be women over 50. It had to be casual. It had to be constructive and grounded in everyone’s reality—no religious or belief-system-based agenda.

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How supportive were your family and friends?

It helped tremendously that my husband was supportive, standing behind me and quietly cheering me on. It’s so incredibly freeing and empowering (pardon me for using that word, which I hate, but I can think of no other) to have someone important in your life see you for who you really are and say “You are smart. You have good ideas. Follow your dream. I applaud you.”

My daughters too said that it sounded wonderful and they encouraged me to go ahead with it. That sounds like a no-brainer maybe, but I have to give this background to explain why it was in fact so meaningful to have their support: During the time that they were growing up, I was winning awards for my two magazines and growing the marketing services of my company, but the business that I ran was an enormous cause of friction in my marriage. Unfortunately, my then-husband during those years did everything he could to sabotage my work and persuade my daughters that what I was doing was stupid and that I was being neglectful and uncaring and I was risking the family’s financial security. They have to have, still, very mixed feelings about my business undertakings. Yet they warmly encouraged me to follow this new idea of mine. Clearly they still believe in me and my ideas.

With my daughters Hannah and Sarah

With my daughters Hannah and Sarah

 

What challenges did you encounter?

Well, to be blunt, as an event organizer I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But what the heck, you research and you seek advice and make a plan and stay very organized. When I sent my schedule for the first Women At Woodstock to the group sales coordinator at my venue, we had a phone call to discuss the particulars, and as we were wrapping up, she said, “How many years have you been doing this?” I said, “I’ve never done this before.” She was floored. She said my level of organization was better than just about anything she’d ever seen. I know, buttering me up maybe. But I don’t think she would have been very positive if things weren’t in good shape.

So that’s what I did. I believed in my mission and I did my best and yes, I learned a lot by the slap-in-the-face information delivery system rather than classroom lectures or books—like, when you book a venue for an event, you have to ante up a portion of the expected cost up front, and you have to sign on the dotted line obligating yourself to pay up to 80% of that expected cost whether your event flies or not.

My background as a lawyer stood me in very good stead in negotiating those contracts; my business background stood me in good stead in mapping out the whole plan and eventually hiring an assistant and delegating duties; my marketing and web design background stood me in good stead in building my website and growing my online following; and my core desire to have this event be what I envisioned it to be—not to build a business just for the sake of building a business, but to make Women At Woodstock the different thing that it is—gave me the drive and the strength to make it happen.

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Were there times when you thought about giving up? 

I’ve had more nights than I care to talk about waking up at 3 am and wondering if everything was going to come together and whether I was going to cover expenses. But I’ve had many more days of great conversations, idea development, extensions of support, and just plain fun. I never thought about giving up. The women who’ve come together over this, they’ve kept me going. And my husband standing behind me, that has too.

 

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

The more you are yourself, plain and simple, no trying to fit into any mold you think you should fit into, the happier you will be.

Ask yourself what’s missing. What do you need? What talents or creative forces have you not yet allowed yourself to unleash? Ask yourself what drives your desires. Then move in the direction you’ve pointed out for yourself.

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What advice do you have for those interested in organizing an event such as yours?

Don’t do it.

OK, I’m kidding. But seriously, my path is not one of exponential financial growth or big business or fame or fortune. It’s one of meaning and happiness—according to my own terms. It’s not for everyone. If you have a real reason to do something like what I’m doing, then go for it.

 

What resources do you recommend?

Wow, that’s a hard question to answer, because I have called on so much deep background to pull this thing off: My experience as a lawyer; my marketing, writing, and design skills; my organizational talents as a long-time business owner…

I’d say you need to know, or hire people who know, how to read a contract down to the last detail, understand it, and be able to negotiate for changes or addenda if needed; how to organize a schedule and a flowchart for lodging, meeting rooms, speakers, workshops, meals, and events; how to set up and effectively utilize a website, social media sites, bulk email, and a blog; how to reach out to speakers and workshop leaders and construct a package for them that provides them real value in return for their time and expertise without breaking your budget; and how to get and utilize feedback on an ongoing basis in order to make your event the best that it can be.

And you have to have a sense of “what the hell,” and above all, a sense of humor. There’s a certain attitude of freedom and joy that has to wrap around the whole thing; otherwise I don’t know how you would keep going.

Wild Apricot has a good bare-bones article on how to organize an event, along with a checklist of what you need to do, plus videos, case studies, and membership software you can buy, priced anywhere from free (50 contacts or less) to $270/month for 15,000 or more contacts.

For taking registrations and payments, I highly recommend Wufoo, a free online form-building program that’s very user friendly.

You will need to be able to process payments online as well; Paypal is of course a well-known payment processor for small businesses, but I find it clunky and if you don’t use the “Pro” version to streamline credit card processing, it often throws people off. A lot of people recommend Stripe for payment processing. If you plan to seek sponsorships for your event, check out Linda Hollander, the “Wealthy Bag Lady” for advice and guidance. She offers a lot of information free.

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What’s next for you?

I want to keep producing Women At Woodstock for many years to come. In my “day job,” I’m continuing to cut loose more and more work that I do not enjoy or find interesting. I’m turning, degree by degree, toward writing more than anything else.

Which brings me to the next chapter (pardon the pun). Finally, I’m writing a book, which is my hidden dream. I’m very excited about this. I finally feel free to let the dream out in the open and I’m writing on a serious and extended basis for the first time in my life.

 

Contact Ann Voorhees Baker at ann@womenatwoodstock.com

Women at Woodstock website

Please visit this page to find out about our gathering on October 28-30.

And visit this page to find out about our week of writers’ retreats October 31-November 6.

Sign up for our email to receive my updates, finds, announcements, and sometimes rantings and ravings about life as a woman over 50.

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Becoming an Advocate for Positive Aging: Lynne’s Story

LMS headshot 2016One more naysayer was the final straw for Lynne to quit her job and devote herself full time to writing, in her 50s. She became passionate about empowering women to celebrate growing older through her writing, both fiction and nonfiction.

 

Tell us about your background…

I grew up in Southern California, in a loving family headed by a violent father and a codependent mother. My life has been a series of steps in becoming free of negative childhood influences. As a kid I escaped into work. I babysat, worked retail while in high school. I also tried my hand at selling cosmetics and tending bar before starting in Human Resources at a very low level, as a filing clerk in the payroll department. I attended college in the evenings, picking off one class a semester, sometimes two (I graduated at age 36, after 18 years of night school!). At the same time, I worked my way up the ladder, applying for promotions or changing employers for promotional opportunities. At about 1/3 of the way through my 30-year career, I entered management.

 

At age 20

At age 20

 

When did you think about making a change?

Although I was following a career path that would pay my bills, I wanted to write from the time I was a child. While working full time, I was too exhausted and used-up to write, but I kept the dream alive by writing bits of stories, taking occasional classes, and reading about the craft. And I never stopped dreaming about being a writer. Never.

I always hoped and prayed that, having gone to work so early, perhaps I would be able to retire early by some miracle. And after 30 years in HR, my miracle arrived in the form of my third husband. My first two husbands refused to work. They were bad mates but good teachers, in the sense that they taught me much about human nature and about life. From them, I learned the importance of valuing myself, fighting for myself. I think the two most important lessons were (1) to judge people based on their actions rather than their words, and (2) that no matter how hard we try, how much we sacrifice, or how brilliant our lectures, we cannot change other people. As Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” So when I met my third husband, I took my then-fiancé to meet my therapist, really to get his opinion. After talking with both of us together, Dr. O turned to me with a chuckle and said, “He’s got a job, Lynne. What the hell do you see in him?”

Lynne and Bill wedding 1997

Marrying Bill in 1997 – this one’s a keeper!

When a law firm offered me a consulting job, I quit my full-time career. After three years of that, my work partner, a man who was ten years my senior, opined that, “You’ll never write that book.” That’s the magic phrase, and that was my “Aha!” moment. Tell me I won’t ever do something, and I’ll prove you wrong. I hadn’t known this about myself, but it had a certain ring of truth, because I suddenly remembered in my early 40s, an older man had tried to dissuade me from learning to play golf. It made me mad enough that I not only learned it, I became a 19 handicap, shot under 90 four times, and once even got a hole in one. Not bad for an older novice.

But when that man told me I would never finish my novel, I quit that consulting job to devote myself to my writing. A couple years later, I published my first novel, at the age of 58.

 Dakota blues cover image with award

 

What is your next act?

I am an author and advocate for positive aging.

Dakota Blues is a novel about two women, one 50 and one 90, who take a life-changing road trip together. It incorporates themes of self-discovery, particularly later in life; family ties, including our ancestors; individuality and sacrifice; and love. It was awarded Honorable Mention/Finalist by the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

My second book, Middle-Aged Crazy: Short Stories of Midlife and Beyond, is a collection of short stories and essays. The shorts all feature main characters who are at least 45, and most are older than that.

I also blog (on Any Shiny Thing – Life After 50) and speak about the positive aspects of aging, with the goal to raise awareness about ageism. And of course I write stories about it. My process is to gather information, assess it, and disseminate it.

MAC COVER THREE

 

What led you to become passionate about positive aging?

As I prepared the manuscript for my novel, I delved deeper into the experiences of older age and became intrigued. I began to think there are two “coming-of-age” stories in American life: the first is arriving at adulthood, and the second is post-adulthood. After we’ve accomplished our goals—typically marriage, children, home, and career—what then? When we reach the second half, do we just keep doing the same thing, or do we review our circumstances and change? Do we take a great leap or a small one? What are our obligations at this point? What do we do with our newfound independence? And in a more pragmatic sense, perhaps, how do we deal with the new challenges of older age?

I am driven to write stories—fiction—about this time of life. So many questions arise for people in this stage, and yet the prevailing culture tells me it’s not a topic of interest. I am told it’s better to focus on youth. And I am sorry to say that when I talk about Older Adult fiction, some of my friends and colleagues have responded negatively. They wonder why I am so sensitive about perceived ageism? I am told I should lighten up, have a sense of humor, and not make a big deal about it. I assume this is based in fear, but denial isn’t a strategy.

I began to learn about brain development in older people, and was astonished at the positive changes. I was further astonished that no one seemed to be celebrating these changes, and I vowed to start talking about them. You can read one of my essays, “10 Reasons to Be Happy About Getting Older,” here.

Speaking on aging

Speaking on aging

Last summer, I began to wonder why I was spending so much time and money on the process of coloring my hair. Who was I doing it for? What was I trying to accomplish, beyond looking nice? Couldn’t I do that without color? And what was my color? It bothered me a little to think that I didn’t know what my natural hair looked like. It felt inauthentic. In all honesty, I realized that I—and this is true only of me; I don’t want to speak for any other woman—was coloring my hair because it was a habit of compliance. I was complying with some vague sense that it was what the culture expected, but really, who cared?

This awakening jarred me, because if I have one core value about aging, it is to be awake and aware about my life. I fear having some great realization on my deathbed that I wasted my opportunities, that I wasted my one precious life. Now that I realized I was coloring my hair out of mindlessness, I contemplated stopping, which was frightening. AND THAT took me even another step into self-study: Why was it frightening? What was I afraid of? The answer: I would be announcing to the world that I was old. Call it older, oldish, aging—it’s still the same, and that is to step into a group that is not valued by this culture. Yet I was the one supposedly celebrating aging! I became angry, and thought, “F### you, society. I am going to do what I want. I am no longer going to color my hair for you.” For me, going gray was nothing less than an act of anarchy. I wrote about going gray here.

  Desert Expo Book Fair 3-11-2015 (4)

 

What challenges did you encounter?

Sometimes I felt like giving up. Being a pro-aging advocate is sometimes difficult, but more and more people are coming onboard. I think Baby Boomers are helping. They were the worst, at first, with their attempts to remain young. But now so many of us are old-ish, and regardless of surgical, cosmetic, or other interventions, we’re accepting that we can’t stop time. As a result, I see us becoming more organic, more accepting, of this stage of life. And it’s so empowering! Only when one stops feeling as if one must apologize and bow to the Gods of Youth does one come fully into one’s own.

One of the most powerful emotions is gratitude. Seeing our peers pass on has a way of centering us. Now, looking and acting “young” isn’t the standard. The new standard is to look good and act any way you please; to celebrate the freedom to decide for yourself; and to feel grateful for the strength of mind, which is a gift of a long life.

And my close friends and my family have been 100% supportive. People who don’t know me as well may wonder what the big deal is. Guess which group’s opinions I care more about?

 

With new friends at a blogging conference

With new friends at a blogging conference

 

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

Don’t go crazy. In the new book, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, author Barbara Bradley Hagerty suggests the most successful reinventions are when we try things out incrementally, nudging up beside a new idea and trying it through volunteerism, for example.

Another idea I like is to remember what we were passionate about as kids, and build on that core. (For me, it was writing). I have given a talk called, “Who You Were at Eleven,” taken from Dr. Christiane Northrup who said that after menopause, when our chemistry changes and we are no longer in a reproductive fog (I’m paraphrasing) we become more like our girlhood selves, more like the person we were at eleven (i.e. before puberty).

 Lynne's books on aging

 

What resources do you recommend?

I would like to recommend a very empowering new book: This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, by Ashton Applewhite (and her website Yo Is This Ageist?). It is funny, smart, and enlightening, and will change the way we think about aging. Do you know there are 70 million Baby Boomers in this country? What if we stopped criticizing ourselves for being older, and began to celebrate the good things about having made it this far, this well? In the 1970s, we stopped a war. We have no limits, except those we place on ourselves.

Other books:  Dr. George Vaillant’s Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development and Barbara Strauch’s The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind.

Websites I enjoy:

Changing Aging (and Dr. Bill Thomas in general)

Senior Planet

Next Avenue

I would also recommend watching the Amy Cuddy Ted Talk about how changing our posture for two minutes can create success. It’s a fantastic life hack for building self-confidence. It has helped me as I prepare to do speeches about positive aging, and would be useful for any person of any age, who is facing a challenging task and needs a boost.

Lastly, here’s a quick trick for motivating myself. I sometimes lose my initiative, wrestling with the eternal question: at age 62, have I worked enough to be able to rest? Or should I put the pedal to the metal, because who knows how much more time I have? Ultimately, the answer is individual, but for me, I found my answer by Googling “famous people born in 1954”. When you realize that Oprah Winfrey or the chancellor of Germany are your age, you do feel like getting up off the couch!

 Lynne takes up piano at 62

 

What’s next for you?

My next act is twofold: First, to publish a dozen novels about people over fifty triumphing in the second half of life. And second, to engage in what psychologist Erik Erikson calls generativity, the giving back to society. In my case, I helped birth the Diamond Valley Writers’ Guild, a warm and nurturing central gathering of writers in the Inland Empire of Southern California. I hope to step away from leadership after it is off and running, and simply be supportive. But we’re having a blast trying out new ideas and seeing what works. My greatest joy comes from seeing the enthusiasm with which the writers visit with each other after the monthly meetings.

My third act will consist of the fairly selfish pursuit of learning to play the piano. It is a lifetime dream, and I began lessons just before I turned 62. My goal is personal satisfaction, but I also hope to demonstrate positive aging to my adult kids and grandchildren. I want them to look forward to this stage of life, rather than fear it. If I can inspire my peers to take up this cause, we could change the culture to treasure and enjoy aging. What a worthwhile effort that would be!

 

Contact Lynne M. Spreen at LMSpreen@yahoo.com

Books:

Dakota Blues

Middle-Aged Crazy: Short Stories of Midlife and Beyond

Amazon Author Page

Social Media:

Facebook

Website and Blog

Twitter




Launching a Travel Business at 46: Mylene’s Story

Hollick-1With her kids in high school, Mylene needed to find a new pursuit. And because her husband is in the Army, she needed to be able to work anywhere. A chance to get some business advice convinced her to start her own agency; she puts her research and planning skills to good use while helping her clients realize their travel dreams—affordably.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

I was born in the Philippines and moved to New York when I was four, then Texas when I was 13, just in time for high school. I graduated in 1992 from the University of North Texas with a degree in Business/Marketing, then moved to Atlanta to work as a sales rep for Pitney Bowes. I met my husband, Adam, when he was at Officer Training Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, two hours away. He took a break with friends and drove to Atlanta. I was out with friends in the same bar. We started a long distance relationship before he eventually moved to Atlanta and we married.

When our daughter Sophia was 11 months old, she got very sick while in daycare. They tried calling me but I was in a sales meeting and had my cell phone off. They also couldn’t get a hold of Adam. When I got to the daycare, Sophia was listless in a crib with a washcloth over her face. She had a 105-degree fever; we took her to the hospital straight away. That’s when we decided that I would be a stay-at-home mom.

In 2000, we moved to Maine to be closer to family—my mother-in-law lived in New Hampshire and we wanted the kids to know their extended family. Since then, I have had short stints as a financial consultant for MetLife, a professional fundraiser for The March of Dimes and owner of a couple of network marketing businesses. None of them fulfilled me as much as being home with my kids, Sophia and Joshua.

wedding

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

My husband is in the Army and travels a lot. With our kids in high school, I needed something to keep me occupied. I wanted to do something for me, something to make me happy. I saw an ad on Facebook for military wives and female veterans: V-WISE was coming to Boston to help women like me start a business. V-Wise, Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship, is a program by Syracuse University helping women veterans and military wives start businesses. I jumped at the chance.

with Lt Gen Darpino

With Lieutenant General Darpino at V-Wise

 

What is your next act? Tell us about what you are doing and what you love about it.

jetset logoI launched my travel business, Jetset Destinations, in October of 2015, at the age of 46. I help people find wonderful vacations. From cruises to all-inclusive trips to everything in between. I wanted to help others use their vacation time in the most wonderful ways, to help make their travel dreams come true and maybe check one or two things off their bucket lists.

I work with families and groups that are looking for a full service experience. I interview the client by asking questions such as: What was your favorite vacation and why? Where do you want to travel to for this vacation? Who are you going with and what is your budget is? Sometimes clients want to go to a specific country but really don’t know very much about what is offered there. My job is to inform them and give them vacation options.

I had a client call me on Dec 23rd. Her husband had died a month before, after a long and painful illness. She wanted to take her daughter away after Christmas. They needed a break. They needed to make some good memories. I found her a great cruise on the Norwegian Getaway that was leaving on the 27th for a week. My family and I took that same cruise earlier that year and highly recommended it. Within a day her cruise, airline tickets, hotel the night prior, and all transfers were booked. I printed out her itinerary, baggage tags and even had seasickness remedies ready for them just in case.

Norwegian getaway

I specialize in vacations with families, such as Disney and the Caribbean and Central America, but also work with groups. I’m putting together a cruise with a group of high school seniors.

While you can book your own vacation on Expedia or through the hotel directly, you’ll need to spend hours researching locations, hotels, and flight options. I do that all for you with no extra cost. The fees and commission you would pay to Expedia is what I make. I have different tour companies that I can book with. With the volume of trips booked I can offer the same price or better and sometimes with enhanced amenities. I also work with air consolidators who can give great discounts for both international and domestic flights. I make my money through the tour companies, cruise lines, and hotels directly. The customer gets the same price and less work—it’s a no brainer. And if something happens while you’re on vacation, instead of calling the 1-800 number for Expedia, you call me. It’s a win-win.

There are some benefits that come with being a travel agent such as discounted travel and FAMs (familiarization trips). From time to time, cruise lines and resorts offer trips to travel agents to experience their brand. These trips are usually very busy and have very little down time but it’s a great way to visit different countries, resorts, and cruise lines.

While I do use Facebook to promote my business, I get most of my clients through word of mouth and referrals. I plan to do more advertising as my marketing budget increases.

 

Why did you choose this next act?

I launched my travel agency because I love to travel and I can do this work from anywhere. As long as I have a laptop, Wifi, and my cell phone, I can work remotely. As I said before, my husband is in the military and my kids will be going off to college soon so my life needs to be flexible. We’ve been lucky to have been posted in Maine while our kids were young—we have lived in our house for 12 years. My husband has now moved to NY without us so that the kids can stay in their current school. After they graduate, I will most likely move with him to our next duty station.

My family and I have always loved traveling and seeing new places. From the beginning, my husband and I made a pact to travel somewhere new with the kids each year. Some of our most memorable trips have been to the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Disney, Washington DC, California, Colorado, Costa Rica, and Scotland, as well as all over the Caribbean and US. Just recently, we visited Puerto Rico; we rented a car and saw most of the island. We loved hiking, kayaking and snorkeling.

I also considered opening up a Food Truck business because of my love for food but decided it was not at all flexible and the startup costs were too high.

In Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico

 

How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?

V-Wise showed me how to write a business plan, market my business and network with others. I meet 200 other entrepreneurs going through the same thing. They helped me answer hard questions. I made sure that I was ready for the hard work of owning a business. I learned about social networking.

It was scary. There are startup costs. My husband was the only one working and money was always tight. I researched how to start a travel agency and wrote a business plan. I researched host agencies vs. franchising vs. being on your own. I chose to become affiliated with KHM Travel Group. They help me with training and marketing. They also have relationships with vacation.com, funjet, gogo travel and many others. This helps me with getting better pricing and incentives for my customers. They were reasonably priced and seemed very helpful whenever I had any questions.

KHM can also help you get training on just about anything. I’ve gotten my certifications in Disney, Princess Cruises, Norwegian CL, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean. Getting certified with cruise lines and resorts ensures that you know how they do business and how to differentiate the various brands. Once you get certified, you can put it on your business card and sometimes get better incentives for your clients. They may also give you discounted rates to try out their cruises.

The more I learn, the more confident I become. With my extensive travel experience all around the world, I feel that I’ve made the right choice in starting Jetset Destinations.

Grand Canyon

At the Grand Canyon

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

They are very supportive. My husband loves that I have a plan now. He was worried about the empty nest syndrome and wanted me to do something for me. We’ve always traveled well but now my taste in travel has been broadened. My husband and I want to see more of the world after the kids graduate. My kids also love traveling and are very excited. We are planning on a Senior Trip to the Caribbean with my daughter’s class for next year.My friends and family also help with referrals.

 

What challenges are you encountering?

There are never enough hours in a day. I’m learning to fit it all in. I’ve always volunteered. I’m on the Football Boosters and Boy Scouts committee for my son. I’m also a Family Readiness Leader for my husband’s unit in the military: I help families make sure they get the information they need and the resources that will help during a deployment. And I’m busy helping our kids find their perfect colleges.

I haven’t managed my time very well. I seem to be working all the time. When a client calls or needs help, I tend to drop everything and do my best to help them. As my business grows and my experience increases, I think I will be able to have office hours. The kids have been very helpful in taking care of themselves. My daughter drives herself and her brother to school and activities.

Scotland

Scotland

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?

No, never. I love my job and love my business. I wish I had more time to attend seminars and conferences. But that time will come soon enough once the kids go off to college in a couple of years.

I have learned that I am strong and capable. I learned that my life is not over yet. That life is ever evolving and always changing. I know I will miss the kids when they go off to college but I’m looking forward to having more time for me, my husband, and my business.

 

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

Take a look at your passions, your hobbies. What makes you happy? What are you naturally good at? For me, I love to travel. I love seeing new places and meeting new people. I love eating at new places. I’m good at researching and planning a trip and vacation. I’m good at traveling with kids. I have lots of inside tricks and knowledge. I know how to stretch a vacation budget.

In Costa Rica

In Costa Rica

 

What advice do you have for those interested in becoming a travel agent or owning a travel business?

Do you have experience or is this a new career? Research the different host agencies and do your due diligence. What kind of time are you willing to give to your new career?

If you are interested in becoming a travel agent and have always loved to travel – Do it! There are host agencies out there to help you with training, marketing, and booking. I chose KHM because they help new agents. They have a low cost of ownership and plenty of people to help you along the way.

Favorite business resources:

If you are a military wife or female veteran, look into the V-Wise program. It’s a tremendous resource, with two days of training and motivational speakers.

Go to the Small Business Administration website to help you write a business plan and marketing plan.

I read and used The New Business Road Test: What entrepreneurs and executives should do before launching a lean start-up by John Mullins as a starting point.

I also found helpful Stepping Out of Line: Lessons for Women Who Want It Their Way . . . In Life, In Love, and At Work by Nell Merlino.

Fiverr is great. I used them to design my logo.

Favorite travel magazines and books:

Of course I love Travel & Leisure magazine; I use it like I did the Sears catalog as a kid—looking for the next big thing, getting ideas for myself and my clients.

I also love watching Rick Steves on PBS and the Travel Channel for great information.

 

Contact Mylene Hollick at Mylene@JetsetDestinations.com

Website

Facebook Page 

Twitter: @JSDestinations

LinkedIn

Pinterest

 




Let’s Hear From an Expert: Esther Greenhouse, Environmental Gerontologist

headshot 3As a specialist in the relationship of the built environment to the well being of seniors, what trends are you seeing?


First, finally people across society are beginning to see the importance and impact of good design. More builders are reporting having clients asking for features that enable successful aging in place.

Second, consumers, professionals, and civic leaders are understanding that the built environment is a missing variable in health. There has been increasing research, emphasis, and awareness on the design of our communities with regards to walkability and access to fresh and healthy foods. My work takes this a step further, considering housing and zoning, as well as details like traffic light controls and crosswalk design. In particular, municipalities are increasingly evaluating and updating their policies for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) to make it easier for a relative to move into a finished garage, basement, or addition, whether is be an aging parent or an adult child who is boomeranging back home.

Third, the growth of Age-Friendly Communities: Under AARP’s leadership, this World Health Organization initiative is currently assisting over 75 communities (and growing) in making policy, service, and infrastructure decisions which will enable their elders, and citizens across the lifespan, to thrive.

 

 Print

 

One service you provide relates to multigenerational community planning. Tell us more about the benefits and challenges of such communities. What are some examples of communities you’ve worked with?

A county I worked with in the Northwestern US is a Rural Retirement Destination, where the in-migration of older adults is over 15% annually. Persons 60 and older comprise about 17% of the population in rural communities, but in the various municipalities in this county, it is anywhere from 25 to over 50%. This is not only due to in-migration, but is also party due to the departure of younger adults and children, in large part due to a lack of affordable housing.

This situation is not unique to this community, nor to rural communities. These communities tend to have a large discrepancy between the financial resources of the full-time residents and the vacationers/seasonal residents. Often, there are only a handful of building contractors whose work is primarily large budget vacation homes. The communities are often rural, too, so a lack of infrastructure, services, and great distances can be a challenge to elders and to people of all ages.

The first elder-focused ER at Holy Cross Hospital

The first elder-focused ER at Holy Cross Hospital

My Enabling Design Approach considers and recommends:

1)  Understand that the built environment impacts our behavior and functioning no 
matter how well or how poorly it is designed. We have the power to enable through good design. Communities need to examine their infrastructure (housing, transportation, streets, public spaces) to unlock its full potential to enable their citizenry.

2)  Examine policies: Identify existing zoning policies—such as permits for ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units, either attached or detached from the main dwelling), minimum square footage requirements, density—which are exacerbating problems, and develop new policies which enable solutions. One of my favorite policy solutions comes from New York City’s Age-Friendly pilot program: Older residents in an East Harlem neighborhood did not use the public pool because they were uncomfortable with the 
jumping and splashing children. So the pool developed Seniors Only hours several times a week.

3) Understand that meeting the needs of seniors is linked to meeting the needs of younger generations. One example is creating jobs for younger adults by expanding or creating services which meet the needs of the older population. This may also mean increasing public transportation options so that home health aides (who typically earn about $10/hour) can have a low-cost alternative to owning a car. This may mean having busses running more frequently, which could increase the availability of aides to people who only need services for short shifts, like four hours. These changes can have additional positive impacts, such as benefitting family caregivers, many of whom are women who are also working and raising children.

 IMG_7707

 

Another service you provide is around age-friendly housing design. For many of us who wish to plan ahead as we age, or who have elderly parents who many need to rethink their living situation, what advice do you have?

First and foremost understand that the built environment can either enable or disable based on the features. Most residential housing, whether new or old, is not designed considering people’s needs and abilities across the lifespan.
One must realize that this is not rocket science. We’ve landed a satellite on a comet; we can remove basic barriers and enable independence! These features are important, but not complicated.

The key areas on which to focus are:
Getting in and out of the home as well as being able to bathe, toilet, cook, and do basic self-care as independently as possible, for as long as possible.

Specific features include:


Zero-step thresholds: at the entry, throughout the house, and for the shower.

A full bathroom on the first floor, which does not need modifications as abilities change, or only needs minor additions (such as more grab bars). Make sure there is an extra outlet adjacent to the toilet for a bidet seat. It can allow for greater independence and minimize the need for caregiving.

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 12.22.32 PM

A universal bathroom

Lighting: Multiple options and light levels in each room. For example, in the kitchen, under-cabinet lighting provides higher levels of illumination for tasks. While indirect ceiling lighting provides general illumination. Look for easy to use controls, and consider remote controls or apps on tablets. It is crucial that lighting does not cause glare, often caused by poorly shielded or clear light bulbs.

Technology: I am very excited about the option of using apps to control lighting, heating, unlocking doors, etc., from a tablet. An application for remote operation of home automation can enable independent living. Using a tablet, one is able to adjust the size of the displays and controls. And tapping and swiping are often abilities that are retained when the abilities to grasp and turn are gone.

Plan for first floor living: People often assume that living on the ground level is necessary and preferred for independent functioning. A ground floor unit or ranch home is beneficial as everything is all on one level. However, there may still be issues of steps in and out of the home and doorways which are too narrow. You can live in a multilevel home if you plan for first floor living. Design a den or home office to double as a bedroom. Make sure that there is an adjacent accessible full bath. Having these options in your home allows anyone at any time who may have temporary or permanent difficulty with stairs to function as independently as possible on the first floor.

This den doubles as a first floor bedroom

This den doubles as a first floor bedroom

Reach range: Design your home and arrange key items so that as many as possible are within the ideal reach range. For most people, this is between 18” and 44” off the floor. Consult with qualified professionals: Hire contractors and designers who have knowledge and experience with these types of projects, and ideally have credentials like NAHB’s Certified Aging in Place Specialist designation. To meet the needs of a loved one with more specific needs, involve an Occupational Therapist.

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 12.22.21 PM

Pull-out trays make for easier access

 

What resources do you recommend to those concerned about housing as we age?

Laurie Orlov’s Age In Place Tech website

This Caring Home

AARP Guide to Revitalizing Your Home: Beautiful Living for the Second Half of Life by Rosemary Bakker

Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America by Cisneros et al. with the Stanford Center on Longevity

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 12.23.08 PM

 

Contact Esther Greenhouse at esg@esthergreenhouse.com or 607-592-5433

Website

LinkedIn

Twitter: @EstherGreenhous

Facebook

 

Esther Greenhouse is an environmental gerontologist—a specialist in the impact of the built environment on older adults. She is a nationally recognized expert on Universal Design and Aging in Place. A catalyst for change, Ms. Greenhouse applies the Enabling Design Paradigm in her work with communities as they evolve to meet the needs of both seniors and younger generations, resulting in successful age-friendly and multigenerational places. An award-winning and enthusiastic instructor and speaker, Esther advises clients to view the built environment as a missing variable in public health, infrastructure, and social services. This is the key to enabling greater independence and well-being. Esther served on the American Planning Association’s Aging in Community Policy Guide Task Force, co-authoring the Housing, Zoning, and Transportation sections, has written portions of the Livable NY Resource Manual, and teaches the NAHB/AARP Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) courses (for which she was awarded CAPS of the Year). Her innovative perspective has resulted in invitations to contribute to the book Independent for Life, the 4-part PBS series “Design for a Lifetime”, and the design of the nation’s first elder-focused emergency department.

 




Blogging from Costa Rica: Deby’s Story

IMG_2342Deby and her husband fell in love with Costa Rica on a surf trip. When they retired there, Deby needed something to occupy her time; she started blogging about her adventures with cooking and baking in the jungle.

 

Tell us a little about your background…

Before our next act, my husband Chuck and I were responsible parents living in Los Angeles, California, raising two sons. I mention responsible because now we can be less responsible—and we are loving it.

I grew up in Norwalk, California with my parents and sister, one dog and a cat. We had a neighborhood full of kids running around, playing outside until the streetlights came on. It was the ‘50s. We walked everywhere around our little town and in the evenings, when it was time to come home for dinner, our mother would clap her hands and whistle and call my sister and me by name. She was a stay-at-home mom for the most part, but always involved in politics—that’s a whole different story. My father worked at a glass plant and then at Metal Toys for many years. Yes, my kids did get some very cool toys!

with Chuck high school

I met my husband in my senior year of high school. We went all through high school together and never knew each other until our senior year, in 1970. We both had gym class at the same time and we had to pass each other in the hall. I guess it was the eye contact. We were married in 1972 in the rose garden of the University of Southern California (USC). Hippy-ish? You bet. Chuck’s father worked at USC at the time and it seemed like a beautiful place to marry and have 300 of our friends and family with us. I know, crazy.

1974 wedding USC

Four years later, we started our family in Norwalk, California, down the street from Chuck’s grandmother Marie. This is the woman who taught me how to cook; we became very good friends. I would walk down to Marie’s house and she would be cooking something… Spaghetti sauce—I still make it her way today. Polenta with that wonderful sauce, all kinds of cookies, her Mac and Cheese, oh the bread. And sometimes it was just popcorn and we would sit and talk and eat popcorn. She was wonderful. Each time I cook, there is a bit of Marie in it—even when I crack an egg. She made the biggest impression in my life for the love of food.

Chuck and I stayed in that Norwalk house for 15 years, then moved to Redlands, California, and we still own that home. We have two sons, now almost 40 and 32. The oldest is an Art Director and the younger one is a Video Editor. We are very proud parents.

I was, for the most part, a stay at home Mom, but always on the go. As the kids got older, I needed something to do, so we started a Tree Farm and Nursery on our property and sold trees and plants. I would go and buy large trees and plants from wholesale nurseries and sell them at my nursery, Plant-It-Earth Farm. It was fun for about six years. Chuck worked full time as a Union Carpenter and on the week ends I would have him go to customer homes and deliver and plant large trees for them. One day, he said, “Deby, I am going surfing on the weekend” and I said, “I want to go too.” So we started to close the Nursery so we could go and have fun. We slowly sold off the trees and plants and I moved on to my next job. I went to college just long enough to to get the credits to work at a child care facility; it ended up being a Montessori school and I loved it.

family

Our family

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

Chuck and I took a surf trip to Costa Rica in 2005, when we were both 53. After landing in the capital, San Jose, with my sister and her husband, we drove first to the beach town of Tamarindo, and then a couple of hours farther south to Nosara. There we found surf, beautiful beaches, and great restaurants.

We were already starting to think about retirement. At the time, I was still working at the Montessori school and Chuck had been working for 30 years now. As he used to say, “I am beat up from the feet up.” It was a natural time in our lives to retire and make some more memories.

To live at the beach in California was very expensive, so we thought we could live close to the beach, without it costing a fortune, in Costa Rica. And we did just that. Today we live about a seven-minute walk to the ocean, a walk that takes us past beautiful green jungle. Nosara is a small town on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, surrounded by green hills and three beautiful beaches just outside of town. We have everything we need here. There’s a great market, hardware store, post office and small airport. We love our life in Nosara. it’s vibrant and healthy.

Chuck surfing

Chuck surfing

 

What is your next act?

In July 2015, I started my blog, Cooking in the Jungle, about the cooking and baking I do in the Costa Rica jungle, and our life in this beautiful place. I write about the things I bake or cook in my outside kitchen on the patio, or the rancho, as it’s called here. Chuck built me an outside kitchen with an oven, sink, and counter, and our dining table is out there too. I also write about the paths and potholes and my beautiful beach walk and, of course, collecting sea glass.

outdoor kitchen

I am always looking up new recipes online. Chuck always says, “now that’s an expensive recipe book Deby, please don’t get food on it.” He is talking about the computer. I find two or three recipes and sometimes combine them to fit my needs. I always give credit to the author of the recipe I use, if it’s not mine. Sometimes a recipe will just pop into my head and I have to find a way to make it, if I haven’t made it before. I have been making popsicles lately. It’s so hot here in the jungle, a refreshing popsicle comes in handy. Check out my recipes for Cantaloupe and Vanilla Ice Cream Pops and Sunset Popsicles.

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I love to bake and this cake was a fun one to make: My take on the Ding Dong Cake.

dingdongcake

This one was a challenge and yet rewarding. It’s a delicious bread called Fougasse.

bread

My blogging sure has been fun and rewarding. My husband always says, Deby, just leave me out of it.” I don’t. I even blog for him, on Chuck’s blog. Strange, I know; it’s really me writing about my crazy self, through him. Some people think it’s funny—really funny, if you know Chuck, because Chuck would never in a million years blog, but he sure is a good sport. And “he” can say things about me on “his” blog, which I find myself laughing at.

You’ll have to check it out to understand. Here are some of “his” most popular posts here and here.

Sometimes I hold a small class on the rancho and a few of us women here will make bread or something sweet. It’s a treat for me to get together with these young women; we have a great time.

Chuck

With Chuck

 

How did you decide to start a cooking blog?

Really I just needed something else to do with my spare time. I have always loved to cook, and now I have more time to do it. I love to bake and my neighbors have been great at giving me feedback about my baking. Chuck and I can’t eat all the desserts I make, so I give most of them away. One day, my young neighbor, Heidi Blackman, said, “Deby why don’t you blog about your baking?” So I thought about that for a year. One day, I asked Heidi if she would help me get started. She did and now it’s been almost eight months, and I can’t stop. I have never written in my life. I guess you could say I have been saving up.

withHeidi

With Heidi

 

What challenges do you encounter with your blog and your cooking?

Blogging is not an easy thing for someone in her 60s. Many of us in middle age have a hard time with new technology if we don’t have a young person sitting next to us at the computer helping us out. I just learned to copy and paste. I had, and continue to have, lots of questions.

Another challenge was learning to take good food pictures. Oh no! Something else to learn. I bought a new camera—foodie people call it a starter camera—so I can improve the quality of the photos on my blog. I also joined a food styling Facebook group, Food Styling Critique by Jennifer Janz. Most of the time, my pictures don’t make the grade—I admit I have a long way to go with my food styling. It’s funny but at this age you really don’t care as much as you used to about this kind of stuff. So I keep plugging along.

Sometimes I can’t find the right ingredients in Costa Rica. But even that is changing here at our market. The owner is so open to getting or trying to import what we expats need or want. But there is a price you will have to pay for that brown sugar or the good vanilla. Or really good chocolate, that will melt before you get it home in this heat. The humidity plays a role here as well. I have tried to make meringues and what a mess—can’t be made in this high humidity.

I’ve had challenges with my oven too. This little oven has seen a lot of life go by, here in the jungle under our Rancho. It’s electric, I had never used an electric oven before, had to get used to that, and I did. It’s outside in the elements, a little rusty now after eight years. A raccoon got the oven door open while we were on vacation and tore the rubber gasket on the inside. It still works. A pizote  (like a raccoon but bigger with a long nose) got on top of the stove and pulled back the coils and almost broke them off. Chuck cut a piece of wood for me and we put a piece of oilcloth on top so it looked nice and would stay clean. And as you can see in the pictures, my cats love laying on the top of the wood while I am not cooking. Seems everything loves this oven as much as I do.

Like so many things here in the Jungle, you get used to it or you don’t. You adapt or you don’t. Yes, it’s different here, and for me that is the draw.

 

What challenges have you faced moving to Costa Rica?

We have encountered many challenges here in Costa Rica. Banking is not easy; we usually wait 45-60 minutes just to take out money from the ATM inside our bank. Chuck has a pension, and now we both get social security. This is what we live on. Chuck does ding repairs on surfboards—he calls it his beer money.

Construction was very difficult for my husband, but we did build our own home. We hired five men to help us build our home. None of them spoke English and our Spanish was not good. Getting building materials was always a long wait at the very small hardware store. It’s a lot better now. These five men, some not yet 18, were as great and patient with Chuck as he was with them. They became our good friends. Still are. They say Chuck taught them so many things about construction. They called him teacher.

home Costa Rica

Another challenge was dealing with residency. Getting and keeping your residency is a problem sometimes. Laws change here rather quickly. And if you want to keep your residency, you have to go along with the change. We now have to buy into the healthcare system. That was tacked onto our residency. Weather you use it or not, Costa Rica is now saying if you want to renew your residency, we will need new marriage certificates. I guess Chuck and I will have to get remarried here in Costa Rica! I’m wearing white.

But with all the challenges—and really, there are many—I just love it here. So far in this life I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ll take the bad with the good. Am I an optimist? For sure. And I want to enjoy the time we have here. It’s been 8 1/2 years so far and I never tire of the beauty of this place and of all the fun people we have met here.

My day starts with, of course, a cup of Costa Rica coffee out on the rancho, in my favorite chair. Listening to the monkeys and birds. Then I begin to water my plants and clean my yard. Things grow here like they are on steroids—fast. Some days, I rake up leaves and Chuck will pick up my pile of leaves. Other days, I walk on the beach, my favorite thing to do. I have been wearing a FitBit now for a year, so I got to get the steps in, right?

monkeys

I will bake or cook something most days. But not every day, I can be lazy too. And that’s ok. Many nights, Chuck and I walk down to the beach to see the sunset. I have never seen a bad sunset—always spectacular, even if you don’t see the sun because of the clouds. Friday nights we head down to our hangout, Bar Olga’s on the beach, a local restaurant and bar, where lots of expats and locals hang out on the beach for a cold beer and the sunset. We all must love it; we meet every Friday evening and then some of us, usually six or more, will go to a local restaurant for dinner. Sometimes we go listen to the local bands that play in one or another of the restaurants here. In Nosara, there are many restaurants to choose from. Still, it’s a small town; we always see someone we know. This is one of things I love about this place. The people.

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At Olga’s

 

At least twice a year someone, friend or family, will come for a visit. We always seem to get into the tourist frame of mind. And that’s fun for us to show our family and friends around.

Now that we have a grandson, he has presented us our biggest challenge. We are definitely being pulled by the family string that binds us. We go back to California more often now; we miss him so much. We love Face Time—not sure how we would do it otherwise.

 

Were your friends and families supportive of your move?

Our families have become supportive. At first I think they (our mothers and our sons) thought we wouldn’t stay this long. But after they visit us they understand why we stay. Our sons are so proud of us. We are doing something many people do not do. I guess we are adventurers at heart. Now my husband can surf whenever he likes and I think that makes our sons so happy for their hard-working father. They love to see pictures of us doing fun things. But of course our family misses us and we miss them. This is the life we chose, for now.

 

 

What have you learned from your Costa Rica adventure?

I have learned so much! First off, I never gave a thought about spending all, or almost all, my time with Chuck, the two of us. When he retired, I didn’t think, “Wow we are going to be together all day.” Lucky for us, it has worked out just fine.

I have learned patience and to slow down. I have always stopped to smell the roses, now I breathe in a little longer and walk a little slower. I have found out I can get used to just about anything, from giant bugs to no water during the day and electricity going off and on.

I have learned that retirement is for us to savor and enjoy. I want to use the time we have left for fun. Whose life is it anyway? Come on, I’m blogging in my 60s! I would never have thought this of myself. Write? I can’t even spell. Love spell check. (Although it can’t spell sometimes too). I now know I can do most things if I just try.

 

 

What advice would you give to women in midlife, or someone thinking of retiring to Costa Rica?

Don’t always sweat the small stuff. There will be big things that come along in life that we can worry about. Let life live in you. We all deserve a life lived well. You make it happen for yourself, when you think you can’t, you really can. For me cooking and baking and living in a far away country has opened my eyes to different ways to live and cook.

The cool thing about this age is not being so worried about rejection. Huffpost/50 accepted my story about being long distance grandparents (mine is the one titled Ethan And I post sometimes in the Wall Street Journal Expat Facebook group about my life here in Costa Rica. And I also did a small story for International Magazine’s Postcards online. So you see I just put it out there; the worst that can happen is, they say no.

I love the Wall Street Journal Expat site. People from all over the world tell their stories of living abroad.  And these guys, who call themselves the Gypsynesters, just look like they are having a blast. For cooking inspiration, here are my favorite blogs: Joy of Baking and Joy the Baker.

If you are thinking of retirement in Costa Rica, I say go for it. If you are going to try and make a living here, think about that one—it’s not easy. We see more people fail than succeed. When someone starts a new thing here, too many other people try it also and then there are too many of the same kind of business, and not enough tourists to support these new businesses.

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What’s next for you?

There are times when Chuck and I think about moving back to California, I wouldn’t call this giving up, that’s for sure. I would call it making a change. I am always up for a change. But if and when we do move back, it would be so we could spend more time with our grandson and families. And then take off again, who knows where. I think Chuck and I have maybe two more next acts left in us. Stay tuned.

 

Contact Deby Hogue at debyhogue@gmail.com

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Publishing Her First Novel While Living Off-Grid: Jenni’s Story

Jenni Ogden author picAfter 24 years as an accomplished neuropsychology professor, clinician, and researcher, New Zealander Jenni Ogden is living off-grid on Great Barrier Island, off the northeast coast of New Zealand, and finally making good on her dream to publish her first novel.

Tell us a little about your background…

I grew up in a country town in the South Island of New Zealand, in a home bursting with books and music. I had one sister four years older than me, and the best parents. As a child, I had rheumatism and spent about three or four months bedridden every year in the winter from the age of 8 to 13. I quite enjoyed it in a way and became an avid reader, being assessed as having a reading age of 18 when I was nine! My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 12 and died five years later. Looking back, that was a tough five years.

Jenni with mother, 1951

With my mother, 1951

As a kid, I wanted to be a vet, but when I did the first year of veterinary science at University, I didn’t reach the grades required in Physics and Chemistry and had to repeat them (and decided I’d take university more seriously from then on), so to fill in time I took some psychology courses. These were so much easier and I really enjoyed them so I decided to ditch Veterinary Science and instead graduated with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in animal behavior and psychology.

Jenni and John, 1920s dance, NZ, 1972

With John, 1972

Love came along and around my 23rd birthday; I moved in with an ecology lecturer I had met as a student and took on his two children, aged 11 months and almost 3 years. Because the children were so young, they quickly adapted to me as their mother. We moved to Canberra, Australia, and got married a few months before our daughter was born. Three years later, we adopted a baby from Sri Lanka. I went over there for three weeks and adopted him while my husband stayed in Australia with our other three children. It was just before the civil war and Sri Lanka was very unstable, and quite an experience. Our new son was about 12 months old at his adoption, had had all sorts of tropical diseases and was malnourished; for six weeks, I had to carry him, sleep with him and never leave his side. But within six months he was healthy, happy, and able to go to playschool with his sister.

Son Joachim day after his adoption, Sri Lanka 1977

Our son Joachim, the day after his adoption, Sri Lanka, 1977

While living in Australia, we went on lots of camping trips and spent summers on the Great Barrier Reef where I worked as a volunteer turtle tagger. I did a postgrad university diploma in social sciences by correspondence and, when we returned to Auckland, New Zealand—our youngest was two and our eldest ten—I enrolled at Auckland University part-time for my Masters in Psychology. I loved being a student again and followed that with a three-year postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Psychology, followed by a PhD in Clinical Neuropsychology and a postdoctoral fellowship at Auckland Hospital.

Jenni's PhD graduation with John and children, Auckland, 1984

My PhD graduation, with John and our children, 1984

In 1985, when I was 37, we spent a year in the US; my husband had a research fellowship at Harvard and I had a postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was in the right place at the right time and was privileged to work with H.M., the most famous amnesiac in history. (Read my Psychology Today post on HM.)

We returned to Auckland, where I became the Director of the Postgrad Clinical Psychology program at Auckland University, only three years after graduating from that same program! It was a very steep learning curve, and very stressful, especially as I wanted to continue with my research, had a substantial lecturing load and also worked as a clinician and supervised students in our psychology clinic. And then there were our four school-age children!

Cover Fractured Minds 2nd ed Cover US ed of Trouble In Mind

For the next 24 years, I immersed myself in my job and wrote 60 chapters and peer reviewed articles for academic journals, and two books, Fractured Minds: A Case-Study Approach to Clinical Neuropsychology and Trouble in Mind: Stories from a Neuropsychologist’s Casebook. Fractured Minds, first published in 1996 by OUP, New York, with a 2nd edition in 2005, is still a good seller after 20 years, and delivers me a worthwhile royalty check every year. In 2015, I was honored with the Distinguished Career Award by the International Neuropsychological Society.

International Distinguished Career Award

We have been extraordinarily lucky with our children who are all very independent and active; they love the great outdoors, are warm and intelligent, share our left–leaning values, and have a great sense of humor. The two middle ones have provided us with five grandchildren, ages 4 to 13.

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

I loved my career as a university teacher, researcher, and supervisor of clinical psychology students, and a big part of this was always writing. Of course, it was nonfiction writing, from research articles to writing case studies of dysfunctional families for my clinical students to use as practice scenarios.

Although I wrote research papers on large group studies, my greatest passion was for single case studies. My specialist area, clinical neuropsychology, gave me the excuse to delve into the lives of patients with various brain disorders (similar to those Oliver Sacks wrote about), discover new things about their disorder, and hopefully find new ways to assess and rehabilitate people with similar problems, and also to find out more about how the mind works.

I discovered some unique cases and wrote them up in top journals. Although these articles were scientific they were also very easy to read, as basically they were stories about very courageous people. That’s when I decided to write my textbook Fractured Minds. Way back then, I nursed a fantasy that one day I would write a novel, and in the acknowledgements of that first edition of Fractured Minds in 1996 I thanked my editor who took a punt on a new author who wanted to write a novel disguised as a textbook!

At that point, I was in my late forties, and in truth had no time to write fiction even though I day-dreamed about it. I had been an avid fiction reader since childhood but usually only managed to read novels in bed at night before falling asleep. The university was becoming more and more business oriented and as I rose higher in the academic system, so did my administration tasks. By then, we had purchased our holiday home on Great Barrier Island (now our permanent home) and I was dreaming up ways we could live there full time and I could write fiction.

Jenni (front) with my graduating clinical psychology students, 1999

With my graduating clinical psychology students, 1999

My husband, who was also a university professor, was six years older than me so we figured that we could retire on my 60th birthday, sell our house in Auckland, and go live on the island so I could write and John could continue with his own writing and conservation work. But this seemed a long way off so we came up with a proposal to go part time and live on our island for six months of the year (the summer half!) and work full time at the university the other half.

It took a lot of talking and meetings and telling the university we would resign if they didn’t agree before we finally had our new part-time contracts. We went part-time when I was in my mid-fifties, with an agreement that we would retire fully on my 60th birthday. It was a wonderful move and we’ve never regretted it. Starting off part-time gave us a chance to practice being together all day, every day, on a remote island, and it worked most of the time. It helps that John has his study upstairs and I have mine downstairs!

We wanted to enjoy living in such an idyllic place while we still had our good health and for both of us, simply living by the ocean gave us joy and enormous pleasure. We also planned on many more years to indulge new passions (for me, taking my fiction writing seriously) and continue to enjoy old ones (travel especially). We weren’t sure how long our money would last for luxuries like travel, but we thought we could manage with careful budgeting and smart travel planning.

On the island, many folk live by the motto “We work to live” and not “We live to work,” and the fact that the island is home to a vibrant population of very fit and healthy community- and conservation-oriented independent people over 65 (many of whom are eccentric) was a good sign. It had always seemed to me that many people work long stressful days for most of the year in order to be able to afford two weeks’ annual holiday on an island like ours. How much better to wake up here every day!

 

What is your next act?

My next act has three strands: Living off-grid, writing novels, and traveling.

 

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Our home on Great Barrier Island

Tell us about living off grid.

Great Barrier Island is off-grid except for telephone service (where we live there is no cell phone coverage). We do have satellite Internet connection. We fell in love with everything about the island the first time we came here on a camping holiday about 30 years ago. It is a magical place, and helps us move a little closer to our aim to reduce our carbon footprint. The bay we live on has only a tiny population, a few summer houses, and almost no permanent residents other than us. The island itself is mountainous with stunning white sand beaches, and is 100km from the NZ mainland and Auckland, the biggest city and our home for 30 years. The regular boat takes five hours to get here but fortunately there are two small airlines and the flight, in good weather, is only 35 minutes. The plane we fly in has six or eight passengers! We only go to Auckland for the writer’s festival, or briefly on our way to somewhere else.

Perfecting the art of living off-grid is an ongoing experiment but one with lots of participants, as our entire island is off-grid, with no services apart from the telephone, and our satellite internet connection, which makes an enormous difference to my writing ventures. Which solar system or water or sewage system is best is an ongoing conversation amongst the 800 inhabitants.

Picking our salad and vegetables out of the garden two minutes before it is time to prepare dinner, wandering our mostly deserted beach, swimming every day in summer, and eating the fish my husband catches from his kayak (and fillets and cooks—he is a great cook)—well why wouldn’t we want to live here? (See my Psychology Today post on off-grid living.)

In our winters (late May to mid-October), we escape to Australia and spend three or more months in a small apartment we own in Tropical Far North Queensland (gateway to the Great Barrier Reef). It is in the holiday rental pool when we are not there. The average daytime high in mid-winter is 28 degrees Celsius (82 Fahrenheit).

Another drop in the island, Lizard Island on Great Barrier Reef Australia, where we camped,August 2012

Where we camped, Lizard Island on Great Barrier Reef, Australia, 2012

While there, we take camping trips, usually to wild places that require 4WD and river crossings with crocodiles lurking. My husband John is an ecologist and bird fanatic so seeking out rare birds takes us to many remote locations. Every two or three years, we also travel to UK/Europe/Africa/US depending on our mood and finances (I am a master at planning cheap travel). I often plan parts of our travel around writers’ festivals (where I sometimes speak), writers’ workshops and masterclasses, music festivals (blues, jazz and folk are my loves, although I also enjoy classical music), and wine and food festivals. We are fortunate that we get to travel in the NZ winter (that carbon footprint shamefully increasing in size as we fly across the world), but the best road is always the road home.

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What is your first published novel about?

A Drop in the Ocean, just published by She Writes Press, will, I suspect, always be the novel that contains the most autobiographical material. The protagonist, Anna, is a Boston neuroscientist—although she is almost the reverse of me personality-wise—and the main part of the book is set on Turtle Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which is modeled on Heron Island, where we spent many summers long ago.

Anna becomes involved in turtle tagging research and many of her tagging and snorkeling experiences are closely based on my own experiences as a turtle researcher in my younger days (including coming face-to-face with a giant Queensland Grouper!). Near the end of the book, Anna goes to Unst, the northern-most island of the remote Shetlands in the UK. Just before I started writing the novel, we spent some time there, and the descriptions of Shetland, the croft Anna stays in, and the trip to the gannet colony are based closely on this.

The story champions marine turtle conservation and also touches upon the tragic genetic disorder of Huntington’s disease. I include author’s notes on both these topics at the end of the book, as well as suggested topics for reader group discussion.

And I’m proud to report that A Drop in the Ocean just won a Gold prize in the US Independent Publisher Book Awards for Best Regional Fiction–Australia/New Zealand.

Jenni turtle tagging, Heron Island, Australia, 1978

Tutle tagging on Heron Island, Australia, 1978

 

You wrote a previous novel that hasn’t yet been published. How did you finally begin that process?

I wasn’t one of those writers who had been penning stories since babyhood (see my post “Apprenticeship” on She Writes). I knew it would be hard of course, but I also knew it would be challenging and fulfilling. It is one of my purest pleasures to spend time finding the perfect word, sentence, and paragraph to express what I am imagining in my head (and heart).

I began my first, as yet unpublished, novel (currently titled That Old Sweet Song) when we went part-time from the university. I had no clue really what I was doing, and I spent more time planning intricate parallel plotlines and making complex genealogical charts of my numerous characters instead of just writing. In the half year we were back full time at the university, the novel fell into a deep hole and had to be resurrected again six months later. So I was determined that when that 60th birthday rolled around in 2008 I would go cold turkey from university stuff and concentrate solely on my new novelist career.

Living out of reach on our island, I did manage to divorce myself from the academic life, but then I got a request from my Oxford University Press (OUP) editor to write a third edition of Fractured Minds, which was still selling well. I declined, and instead decided to write a nonfiction case study book for the general reader—a memoir about my patients and what I learned from them— Trouble In Mind. OUP New York published it in 2012 and an Australian edition was published in 2013. But that took time and put my fiction writing firmly back into second place.

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Our bay, Awana, on Great Barrier Island

I found it frustrating not being able to write the novel, but at least it motivated me to write Trouble In Mind very quickly! I was also asked to become an expert blogger for Psychology Today and I agreed to that, so that keeps me involved in psychology at a different level. Writers’ festivals began to request talks from me about my cases in Trouble in Mind as well, and that was exciting. (Here’s a video of my talk “Mind & Its Potential,” Sydney, October 2014). I have always loved writers’ festivals, mainly for the fiction, but I wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity to become a speaker even if it wasn’t (yet) on my fiction.

So it wasn’t until late 2010 that I had the time to really focus on my fiction writing. I blame my long career in the university for my failure to resist the temptation to keep on learning, sometimes to the detriment of my writing. Especially in the early fiction writing years, I spent lots of time joining webinars on writing, book publicity, and publishing options, and querying agents.

Then there was all that social networking I discovered writers had to get involved in, and that was another enormous learning curve. But I liked it all (well, the social networking not so much) and loved the time when I was actually writing or revising the novel. The only hard part was banging away on the computer while the sun shone outside and the sea, a two-minute walk away, was warm and inviting! But so far I’ve never thought about giving up.

Our library in our Great Barrier Island house

Our library in our Great Barrier Island house

What challenges have you encountered in writing fiction? What have you learned?

After I completed novel number one, I had to learn about being rejected. I didn’t find it too hard though; again, my university career had got me used to this and I took it all as part of the learning curve. Five years on, I’ve completed three novels, queried countless agents, and no longer spend more than two seconds’ regret when another rejection pings in. There is always some bright spot: an agent who wants to read the full manuscript and gives me positive feedback, even with a final rejection; winning mentorships with authors and creative writing teachers who critique my writing, and so on.

After many rejections of my first novel, an agent suggested a fantastic UK editor (now based in Los Angeles), Philippa Donovan of Smart Quill Editorial. I sent her my manuscript and was amazed by her insights. More revision, but I found I loved this part of the process. Later, I sent her the next two novels as well, and the second one (A Drop in the Ocean) she thought was so good that she submitted it to some select agents for me. But no takers—although a lot of praise. Finally, after exhausting research, I signed with US publisher, She Writes Press (SWP), to publish novel number two. SWP follows a traditional publishing process, which takes a year or more from accepting the manuscript to publication.

This has been an incredible experience and, apart from producing a beautiful novel that I am proud of, there have been many bonuses. I have learned an enormous amount about the publishing process; I now have a great group of SWP author friends; and I have discovered that the price of paying for the right publicist is priceless! (See my guest post on Writers Digest on this.)

I had no real idea how much work getting the book buzz out would be; for months before and after the book comes out, life becomes a round of social networking, writing articles and blog posts, in addition to the proof reading, cover design decisions, and all the other things that go into making a fine book.

 

Mind and Its Potential Conference at Chatswood 2014

Book signing at Mind and Its Potential Conference, Sydney, 2014

Tell us about the other two novels you’ve been working on.

The first novel I wrote (That Old Sweet Song) has been revised many times. Following advice from agents and publishers that their upmarket women’s fiction readers like female protagonists, I gave my male protagonist a gender change: from a male to a female neurosurgeon. It bears little resemblance to my own experiences other than my knowledge of the life of a neurosurgeon in a general way (from my 30 years of research working with neurosurgeons). However, my psychologist background plays into the panic attacks that topple neurosurgeon Georgia from grace, and her therapy is hopefully reasonably realistic as a result of my years of experience as a therapist.

The locations are also familiar to me. It begins in London where I have a spent a few holidays, and a major part of it takes place in New Orleans, which is one of my favorite places. However, the main event in the novel is Hurricane Katrina, and I wasn’t there during that—it almost feels as if I were there after the amount of research I did on it. I think that if on my death bed someone asks me what the most traumatic event in my life was, I might say Hurricane Katrina! The final major location for this story is Great Barrier Island where I now live.

My editor thinks my third novel, something of an experiment as it is Domestic Noir (psychological suspense), is my best yet, so we shall see. I’m apparently good at dramatic tension. It is set in the area of Far North Tropical Queensland where we spend our winters, and the protagonist is a clinical psychologist. There are many psychological issues in the story including sleepwalking and night terrors—about which I thankfully have no personal experience—but that I know about as a psychologist.

Grandchildren (Josie's) Ted, Louie and Belize, West Coast, South Island 2016

My grandchildren on West Coast, South Island, 2016

How supportive have your family and friends been?

Generally my family are supportive, although as our children are all adults and live a long way from us, this is not really an issue. Our youngest son is one of my major supporters and hauls all his numerous friends onboard!

One of my daughters rolls her eyes and won’t push my book at her friends… (“You’re my mother for heaven’s sake. How embarrassing to ask my friends to buy it!” ) But she is supportive, just not publicly, and is herself an avid reader. The book club she belongs to is keen to be one of the first to read A Drop in the Ocean when it is out. Of course, she warns me that they will treat me just like any other author, and to expect honest critiques!

My husband John is a firm believer in me and my writing, and although he gets bored with all the details, he rarely has a problem with me spending enormous amounts of time on my writing, as well as considerable money.

My friends are all supportive even though they must secretly wonder if a novel is ever going to be published after all these years! My greatest source of writing, publishing, and emotional support comes from my many new author friends, most of whom are also SWP authors. It helps that we are all in this together, and we never get bored discussing this topic!

 

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With Joachim, John, and Josie on our deck at Great Barrier Island

 

What advice do you have for fiction writers?

Write a story you are excited about. You’ll be living with it for a long time! Think of the early months and years as the learning phase—that saying that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at a new skill applies to writing a novel. Working on your first novel is your degree in creative writing.

Read writing craft books and learn how to put yourself into your characters’ heads and feel what they are feeling. Then express it in words. If your character is feeling disgusted, imagine being forced to drink a glass of warm fat! (You get the idea…)

Find your voice. This is no easy task but, in my experience, it shows itself in that writing that tumbles out of you without too much conscious thinking. Often, for the reader who knows you well, their reading experience will be reminiscent of listening to you telling them the story after a good dinner. In other words, it truly does sound like your voice. Of course the actual writing will need revision, but if it flows and feels right, then try not to revise it so much that it loses its soul and freshness.

Remind yourself to be realistic and put glumness aside as the rejections trickle or pour in. They are telling you that the competition is fierce, perhaps that your book is not commercial enough (but ignore that if this is the story you want to write), and that you need to keep revising and getting better. Stamina and a belief that you can do it are so important!

Take the time to go to Writer’s Festivals and workshops, and join webinars that might have something useful to tell you. Many are free or not too costly. (If you get a chance to participate in a Donald Maass workshop, take it!)

Jenni at Waiheke Writers Festival, NZ, Nov 2015

At Waiheke Writers Festival, New Zealand, 2015

Read, read, read other novels in the same genre and in other genres. Be generous and review the books you like on Amazon, Goodreads and anywhere else you can post reviews. One day you’ll want readers to do the same for you.

If you can find a group of like-minded writers to share your highs and lows with, whether online or in person, enjoy! This is one of the major bonuses of becoming a fiction writer: finding new friends with imaginations and dreams as crazy as yours.

Get an author website up as soon as possible and make sure it is one you can update yourself. I use the author website offered to US Author’s Guild members for a very reasonable fee and hosted by them—it also includes a newsletter and e-mail subscriber link—but most authors use a WordPress website. Likewise, begin to build your e-mail list of supporters, perhaps with an e-mail newsletter. In my opinion once a month is enough for a newsletter, otherwise it is too stressful, and no one wants to hear from you every week…

Choose the social networks you enjoy most and interact; leave all those others behind.

When your book is as fabulous as you can make it, resist the temptation to query agents too soon and instead send it to an editor you have very carefully selected, based on references from trusted friends and sources. Then revise and revise! Only then begin querying agents, or begin the self-publishing journey.

When your book is on the way to publication (yeah!) scrape together your pennies and hire a great publicist, or go to webinars and be your own publicist. Get your supporters onside as a “street team” to help you. However you do it, publicity and marketing will consume enormous amounts of your time, but you need to do it if you want anyone to know your book exists. Self-published ebooks seem to do well with online marketing, using the best Amazon keywords, so get the lowdown from webinars.

Enjoy the journey; it lasts much longer than the bubble of the destination. Relish the chance to learn new things on writing, revising, querying, publishing and marketing, then move on to the next novel, and on and on. Never forget there is a big bonus; all this is keeping your brain sharp and firing on all cylinders. Perhaps you’ll still be publishing your stories into your nineties!

Speaking at Mind & Its Potential conferenc with HM on screen, Sydney Ocy 2014

Speaking at Mind & Its Potential Conference (with HM on screen), 2014

 

What resources do you recommend for aspiring novelists?

I find Scrivener the best program for writing. It takes a while to get the hang of it, but it is worth it. It would be especially good for self-publishing; with a click, you can convert to a Word doc, pdf, or any e-book file with linked content pages, etc. (One hint: if you are making any changes/revisions, however small, make them on the Scrivener file and not on the Word.doc file and then re-convert to a new Word doc. Otherwise all sorts of confusion can result later!)

I recommend these books on writing:

For the big picture, motivation and inspiration:

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers

For the craft:

All of Donald Maass’s books from Writing the Breakout Novel to Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling

Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

Anne Tittenberg and Laura Whitcomb’s Your First Novel: An Author Agent Team Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream

For a great writer autobiography:

Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life

I subscribe to many writers’ magazines in the US and UK (most have both print and digital editions). Although I often feel I have read much of the craft advice before (many times!) I still love to read them—I think because they consolidate my identity as a real writer. They also include up-to-date information on writing competitions you might enter, conferences and websites.

If you are self publishing, Joanna Penn’s website The Creative Penn is very helpful.

Join the She Writes community. It has more than 27,000 members, all women writers. She Writes Press (SWP) is a highly respected partnership press that is associated with She Writes, but separate from it. It selects the manuscripts it publishes and follows a traditional publishing and distribution model.

My favorite novels:

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

In This House of Brede and China Court by Rumer Godden

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

My favorite authors:

Anything by Sebastian Faulks, many of the books written by Elizabeth Howard, Anna Quindlen, Sue Miller, Lionel Shriver, Ian McEwan, Chris Cleave, Nicholas Evans, Kate Atkinson, Sebastian Barry, Richard North Patterson and numerous others.

DSCN2892

On “Bronte chair” near Haworth, Yorkshire, 2014

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I also read fiction constantly and try to review most of the books I read on Goodreads as I know how important reviews are for authors. I rarely put up a review of less than three stars though unless the author is very well known and has hundreds of reviews, so mine will not make a difference to the overall star rating, and I really don’t like the book.

I have even become a Netgalley reviewer, another bonus of publishing with SWP, as that is where I discovered Netgalley and got lots of great advance reviews for A Drop in the Ocean. Now I sometimes get to read and review my favorite authors’ new books before they are out in hard copy (which I can’t afford, especially as postage to New Zealand doubles their cost).

Please support struggling authors to encourage them to keep writing books for you to read. Buy or borrow the book, read it, and PLEASE review it on Amazon, Goodreads or wherever you can, especially if you like it! Don’t be shy, even a couple of sentences about your favorite character or the writing style is enough. Even just a rating is better than nothing. If you don’t know what to say, read a few other reviews that have given it a similar rating, and see if something those reviewers say clicks with you. Then use it or something similar in your review!

Spread the word. Tell your bookish friends, suggest it to your bookclub, post your review on your social media, and buy a copy for someone you think will love it! And subscribe to the author’s e-mail list/website/newsletter.

Kissing Giraffe

Kissing a giraffe, Kenya, 2014

Contact Jenni Ogden at jenniogdenauthor@gmail.com

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