She Did It

This is where people share their success. Stand out and be a She Did It. You are our everyday heroes. Inspire other women by sharing your story:

  • You have rappelled down a cliff for the first time
  • You are crossing the finish line of a half marathon
  • You just launched your new business
  • You have helped someone move forward in their life and you want to share it
  • Your youngest child gets into college
  • Your have your first grandchild
  • You and your sister just baked the most gorgeous cake ever
  • You have found a new passion
  • You changed your first tire
  • You learned how to do something new


Take Advantage Of Cooler Weather: Open Yourself Up To Change

time for changeEven though summer has just about wrapped up, a lot of us are still riding the summer wave, soaking up the sun’s rays, even imagining there is blue sky behind the clouds creeping in.

What frame of mind are you in? In summer, we are naturally in a better mood, and the farthest thing from our mind is . . . school!

Okay, so let’s make school part of our geography of the moment. The weather is clear, the horizons sharp. How would it feel to be in a clear, sharp frame of mind? Imagine you could look far ahead, every day, with clarity and feel the sun shining on your life. With the right tools, you can create success in your life for the fall and embrace a new and proactive frame of mind.

What can you learn from going back to school?

“Going back to school” means embracing a more structured environment and preparing for routine. It’s a kind of renewal, symbolizing the change of season and the start of new learning. It’s a time to revisit priorities and values and to surrender to a more designed life—because, as the days get shorter, our need to fit into the organization of our lives grows.

Whether you are actually going back to school or your children are, it’s important to take some time from the free flow of summer to plan. What about books and supplies? What about your or your children’s wardrobe? Time to clear out those overstuffed closets and update?

When I went back to university as a mature student, I organized my outfits so that, in the morning, I could be out the door in a flash, drop my son off at school and be on my way without thinking about how I would look to my less mature classmates.

Some of us like to get a new haircut for the fall, a new look for the season to come. Some start new hobbies and others let go of unwanted things. What steps would signify renewal and reframing for you?

Fall Time-Off

Though the word “staycation” has fallen off the radar, what hasn’t entirely disappeared is the recession. So traveling may not have been on your calendar this summer.

Why not take a break this fall? Maybe a trip out of town to recharge and stretch the summer out just a little longer? With the cooler weather and lower prices, now is a great time to take advantage of off-peak travel opportunities.

Try Virtual Travel

Is your budget still tight? Embrace the going-back-to-school frame of mind and travel the world through books.

I’ve just finished reading a story set in the Glénan Islands, a group of islands in the Atlantic off windy Brittany. With endless white beaches, appearing and disappearing with the tides, these islands and their stormy, unpredictable weather were side-protagonists in this thriller, which told the story of snobbish Detective Dupin, who had been sent off to this remote community to solve a violent crime—and was suffering from sea sickness.

The book, called Lunedì nero per il commissario Dupin, by Jean-Luc Bannalec, transported me to a European country I had never visited, immersed me in rich French wines and entertained me at intimate family restaurants. The meals at the Quattro Venti Restaurant were so succulent, I felt I was dining with all the murder suspects.

This fall, choose a book set in another country or in a city you have always wanted to visit, and travel in your imagination. Enjoy the thrill of discovery—and the freedom from airport security and delayed flights.

Or go to a movie or two. Only Lovers Left Alive took me to Tangiers, as well as the grunge music scene of Detroit. It’s a beautiful love story of a profound, century-long relationship, with a cultural message of how we humans are damaging our surroundings. Trip to Italy allowed me to travel to Italy without having to visit my parents, making it the most enjoyable and relaxed trip I’ve had to Italy in decades. Amazing scenery, amazing food, no extra calories or dangerous cholesterol. Win-win all the way!

Who doesn’t need a few hours of laughter and world travel? Get into the going-back-to-school frame of mind and upgrade, read, travel! It’s time to open yourself up to new possibilities.

We Moved Our Life Onto A Boat

downsizing to 54 feetWhat is it that makes people leave their homes and all the trappings of comfort that they worked their entire lives to obtain? I can’t answer that question for others, but I know that for me, I was ready for adventure.

My husband and I have been living on a 54 foot sailboat for a year now, and I don’t see us ever going home to our old life.

I was connecting with a friend from home last week and updating her on our travels. This life aboard a sailboat is foreign and hard to comprehend for many people, especially those with limited exposure to boating. My dear friend explained to me that she could not be confined to a boat and that she needs the comforts that only a house can provide.

I used to feel that way as well. I couldn’t imagine a life without fresh flowers on the dining room table, throw pillows on the couch that reflected the seasons, a set of china for special occasions, and an attic full of Christmas decorations.

But things changed, my priorities especially.  Fresh flowers growing on shore have replaced the flowers in a vase. The throw pillows are limited to two now, their covers reflecting the décor of the boat. China has been replaced with everyday melamine, with curved edges so that food doesn’t fly onto the floor when the boat pitches.  But we have the stars above us, the ocean before us, and shores of unique islands to explore.

Our lives are no longer about things, and more about experiences.

I’m often confused by some reactions we have received.  The most often asked question is, “What about your house?”  Well, it’s a house and I suspect that it will still be standing when we come back in a few years.  The basement is still waiting there to be cleaned and the Christmas decorations are still in the attic. We’ll find homes for the china and special silverware. After living a scaled down version of living, we really don’t need those things.

People ask about our kids and grandkids, and it tugs at my heartstrings.  Of course we miss them. But airplanes fly in and out of many of the places we visit and stay, and I have visited them and my son has stayed with us, and of course there is Skype. We aren’t falling off the face of the earth, just exploring it, and we love to share those explorations with our kids.

My feeling is, I could sit at home and knit sweaters for my grandkids that they will never wear, or I can be the mom and grandma that is living her dream.  I would think that my kids and grandkids are proud to say that their parents/grandparents are confident sailors and are out on an adventure.  Our decision to cruise is a choice, and the implication that it’s a selfish choice is far from our intention. There comes a time in everyone’s life when they must make a choice as to what makes them happy and feel relevant and alive. This is our choice.

Others ask if I am scared. This has made me laugh, made me re-think my pat answer of, “No”, and do a lot of honest soul searching. I’ve fielded questions about weather and hurricanes and pirates and broken masts and drowning and going overboard, sharks, bad people with guns, and poisonous fish (the list is endless)….and yes, I was scared before we left. But after experiencing some hair raising conditions and frightful passages, I’m a little less scared now.

Fear is just vulnerability.  We’ve all felt vulnerable at one time or another. The emotion can cause some of us to crawl into a shell like a turtle and retreat into what we know that will keep us safe and free of criticism or harm.  Or we can embrace our vulnerability and trust our skills, learn along the way, and take the risk or not.

Before we left a year ago I answered these questions for myself:

Will there be bad weather and heavy seas?  You can count on it.

Will there be bad experiences with fish or people?  Most likely.

Will there come a time when we doubt our skills and heat of the moment decisions? Absolutely.

But there is no certainly without risk.  There is no joy without first facing fear.

Will there be sunny days and cocktails, meeting pleasant people and learning new languages and cultures?  Yep.

Will there be days when the wind is right and miles to go and not a glitch is even considered?  Absolutely.

So, my answer to the question of, “Aren’t you scared?” is Yes.  Yes I’m scared. I’d be stupid not to be.  We are vulnerable to the weather, our skills, other people.

But I’m not scared enough to stay home. I can’t imagine not experiencing what lies before us due to a case of vulnerability.

Fear Not: Teaching In Cambodia

sue guiney volunteeringCambodia. A country I knew nothing about. It was never on my bucket list of places to visit. If anything, growing up in America during The Vietnam War made it a country full of frightening associations. I am a timid person, but despite my fears I now not only spend two months a year in Cambodia, but I have written two novels about its people, and have created a nationwide Writing Workshop for its most at-risk children.

It happened by surprise.  In 2006, a group of families from my son’s High School were going on a volunteer trip and we decided to join them. We crisscrossed Cambodia’s dirt roads, building houses in poor villages and working with impoverished children. It was supposed to be a learning experience for our teenage son, but I was the one whose life  changed.

At the time, I was writing my first novel. This in itself was a crazy and frightening thing to do. I had always dreamed of being a writer, and at age 51 I decided it was now or never. Maybe that’s why I was in a somewhat “other-worldly” state during that trip, and so had a special perspective to all I was experiencing. But when my novel was published (sometimes by not realizing you can’t do something, you end up doing it after all), I knew that I wanted to write about what I had seen on that trip. The result was the novel, A Clash of Innocents, and a deepened connection to that country halfway around the world.

Maybe that should have been enough, but once my first Cambodian novel was published, I knew I wanted to bring the fruit of my inspiration back to the people who had inspired me. At the time, I led a series of creative writing workshops for students with learning disabilities, and I believed that same program could work in Cambodia. I understood that English was the language needed to land jobs there, but more than that, I had learned how desperately Khmer children needed to learn to think conceptually. Greater English fluency, an ability to ask and answer the question ‘why’, and a belief that what you have to say is valuable and worth expressing, is a combination which is, I believe, an antidote to poverty.

I heard about an educational shelter in Siem Reap called Anjali House, and I approached the Director with my idea. He said yes, but with one caveat. I couldn’t just go once, connect with these kids and then leave them forever. If I went, then this had to be a commitment. With the support of my now grown children and an incredibly understanding husband, I bought my ticket and flew, all by myself, to the other side of the planet. Was I frightened? You bet. But even more, I was excited.

OOTR front cover-1That first trip led to the next and the next. Now fast forward to today. I have published a second novel about life in today’s Cambodia, Out of the Ruins, and my Writing Workshop has spread to schools and shelters throughout the country. The demand has grown so much that I am creating an organization, Writing Through. I train others to deliver the workshop and, if that isn’t enough, I am looking to expand the program beyond Cambodia, helping the most at-risk children around the world to find their own voices. With them, I am finding my own voice, too, and in the most unlikely of places.

You can read more about Sue Guiney, her novels and poetry, at  Learn more about the Writing Workshop she founded at

10 Ways I’m Stronger One Year After My Husband Died

after my husband diedIt was the worst of times….losing my husband just about a year ago. My perfectly happy comfortable life melted away in a matter of minutes. I look back now and believe it was the worst time in my life….but not the worst year. Grieving and growing for 12 months has brought challenges, surprises, discoveries and highlights that have created a new comfort zone; a new kind of happiness and a whole new me.
This is what I found:
  1. Weight loss is a good thing. My recent check up showed I’ve lost 12 pounds since last summer. My clothes are too big; but my aches and pains are gone, my lab results were excellent, I have more energy and my eating habits are green, clean and lean. If I use the hot cycle on the washer and dryer, I can shrink an outfit a bit and wear it once.  I took a few favorites to the alteration lady and discovered pants in the junior department fit best right now. Thanks to my sister, my nutritionist and online fitness blogs, I’ve leaned how to buy fresh farm-to-table-food and prepare healthy meals with little cooking!
  2. Strength is not just for men. I needed to do the heavy lifting, hauling, pushing and pulling now….so weight training took on a different meaning. I am so.much.stronger! I actually see a little definition in my arms…..but that underarm jiggle is there to stay at my age. Planks and bridges are great for your core….and fun to do with little ones. Having my weights on the living room floor and music always playing means I can do a few sets here and there all day long.
  3. I look at overall fitness differently too….no more Zumba and Pilates just for the fun of it.  I work my butt off to stay alive and well. Walking, swimming, spinning, yard work and floor play are all part of active aging.
  4. Patience.  Be it spiritual, common sense, everyday hassles….I’m growing less anxious and more accepting. My husband constantly reminded me not to fret; not to sweat the small stuff. Even in girlfriend gatherings, someone would remind me not to fuss, worry or try to take care of all the details. When I accidentally switched my iPod to shuffle I had an “aha” moment…’s okay to not know what’s coming. Acceptance and patience are peaceful.
  5. Living in the now…living in the moments around you. What better place to learn this than on water with boats and geese and paddle boarders floating by and you’re lost in serenity and aloneness. I listen to my breathing, laugh at the cat more and delight in walking to the end of parking lots to my car because I find coins. This week I found 47 cents! I find happy moments everywhere just looking and listening. I had to give it a go on purpose at first; now it happens naturally when I’m out and about.
  6. Friendships new and old. I am lucky to have so many villages full of friends. It did take all of them to give me strength and support in the beginning…..but now I treasure each and every one who has stuck by me. The ones that knew I could do it….and who cheer me on as I evolve. Family, forever friends, neighbors, colleagues and my online pals……thank you.
  7. I’m still working on financial awareness, but it’s getting better. I’ve become more frugal, stopped more services and taken advantage of lower rates by refinancing the house again. Remember I was spoiled and careless….now I’m cautious and annoying; “don’t waste a french fry” I say to the grandkids. “Grandma can’t afford it” I remind them when they want to hit the mall or a local restaurant. But they understand and hopefully learn from it. Someday I will take each one on that vacation of their choice we promised years ago.
  8. Writing opportunities are out there and I have great mentors. But I don’t have the same discipline or the drive to strive for compensation. There was another writer in the house in my old comfort zone; perhaps I’m leaning toward a new avenue or passion. But you know I will always write. I’m still a work in progress here….zone, where are you?
  9. Ask and you shall receive. I have become more comfortable asking for help and advice when I need it. Whether phone calls, store personnel, neighbors or needing a place to stay….I know I’ll learn through others’ thoughts and suggestions. Kindnesses that I’ll pay forward; this too grows a better me.
  10. Self image and confidence. I never thought I’d manage without my cheerleader. I didn’t think I’d move forward let alone on my own. But my soul inside is resilient and less vulnerable. Or maybe it’s more vulnerable but in a good way. I know I’m looking and feeling good. I’m making good decisions and showing my children and grandchildren how to live life as it comes.  This makes me comfortable and happy with myself again.

Back To School In Midlife

going back to schoolMidlife women are challenged, even driven, to make improvements to their lives in many ways. We are often in the process of implementing self-improvement projects. Changing careers, revising our relationships with spouses, parents, children or friends; adjusting diets; initiating or accelerating exercise plans; monitoring health issues; reducing stress; trying to do more self-care.

But in this back-to-school season, I would like to encourage ALL midlife women to think about improving their brains – about the importance of learning, studying, and being a student once again. There are so many different options for engaging in lifelong learning these days: degree programs, continuing education courses, certificate programs, workshops. Online courses are certainly an option. But there is a unique alchemy that takes place in a physical classroom. And in programs designed for midlife learners, fellow students often contribute as much to what is being taught as the instructor does.

I know the value of being a midlife student from personal experience. When I turned 40, I felt the urge to take stock of where I was. I looked around, assessed, and then gave myself a State of My Life Address. I declared that the current state of my life was pretty good. I was a married mother of two wonderful children, and a full-time associate art director at a national magazine.

But then I admitted to the less than good news: having been laid off twice before, I had acquired a pretty good sense of impending employment doom and I sensed the publishing company I worked for was on shaky economic ground. I was worried.

The other less than good news I had to confront was that after two decades working as a graphic designer, I was no longer satisfied with my career path. I longed to do more than just make things look nice. I yearned to learn and to expand my intellectual capabilities.

So my State of My Life speech ended with realization and hope: I realized I wanted to go to back to school, and I hoped it could also help me rearrange my professional life.

As soon as I was aware of and committed to this dream, a whole string of “coincidences” occurred. A colleague told me that the local public research university offered a full scholarship to full-time employees who took that university’s classes. After a few months of searching, I landed a full time job in the communications department at the business school at that university.

Finding a graduate program to enroll in was more challenging. Most programs demanded that students attend full time. Not only would it be impossible for me to work full time and attend classes full time, the university’s scholarship program only paid tuition for one course per semester and only for employees who worked full time. So the phone calls I made to inquire about degree programs I already knew about and was interested in ended quickly, to my frustration.

But I was stymied for only a short time. During one of our meetings, only a couple weeks after I started my new job, my boss – a woman about my age – mentioned she was leaving her job, having taken a better position in a different department. She said it was a direct result of having just received her master’s degree in a part time program at the university. She said enrolling in that degree program was the best thing she had ever done. I eagerly asked her about it, confessing my desire to go back to school and describing the obstacles I had encountered.

She told me all about it, and it was obvious that it fit my needs perfectly. Her enthusiasm was so energizing, I made an appointment with the program’s administrator for the following day and began the application process that week. I was accepted and enrolled in my first class within three months.

Next to having my children, it was, indeed, the best thing I ever did.

So, if this story resonates with you, then add one more category to your midlife improvement list, right next to the kettle ball and burpee exercise program. Think about what you want to do about your intellect, your talents, your curiosity. Think about finding a place in your schedule for robust discussion in a classroom full of other inquisitive people.

I’ll be exploring the many kinds of learning opportunities that fit the lives and needs of midlife women in upcoming BA50 articles. The next one will be about that masters degree program my former boss and I loved so much. Join me… and start dreaming.


Why I Gave Up Biking

why I gave up bikingThe bike path leading from Nantucket center to Sconset is dotted with wild raspberry and blackberry bushes.  Never being one to pass up free food, I dragged my mountain bike to the side of the road, braved a few thorns, and feasted on sweet berries until my husband started getting annoyed. Mike tolerates stopping for short periods, but he is wary about eating things that grow by the side of the road. I know what he is thinking: “you think you know what you’re eating, but you may end up dead.” But I am pretty sure a blackberry is just a blackberry.

A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have been on that bike path- I found all bike paths annoying and for wimps- too flat, too crowded with families, runners, rollerbladers, crazy teenagers and old ladies on three speeds with wicker baskets. If you are a serious biker, you generally stay away from bike paths.

And that’s what I was…well, perhaps “semi-serious” is a better descriptor, but serious enough. You could tell by my outfit: padded bike shorts (and like a real biker, I wore them “commando”), click-in bike shoes, biker’s shirt with the pockets in the back, cool biker sunglasses.  A good ride was 30-50 miles with friends, chatting as we rode from crowded suburb to somewhat less crowded suburb, hearts pumping up the hills, focused attention going down. I loved it.

But last year, as if from everywhere, lots of people I knew personally started getting hurt in biking accidents.  The horror stories started piling up like a multi car crash—I don’t need to describe them all, I am sure you have heard plenty of your own.  A friend went head-over-heels over a pothole, concussed and broke bones. Another got hit by a car and ended up on life support. These were not just “some” people—these were people I knew. And they were not reckless people. They were people like me.

And just like that, I became a nervous rider. I started to feel it was just a matter of time for me.  My heart skipped a few beats when cars and trucks “wooshed” past a little too close.  Sand, potholes, acorns and twigs in the road made me sweat. Being locked into my bike felt imprisoning. When my BA50 partner’s husband was hit by a truck on his bike last July, I stopped riding completely…though he did not.

So why was he able to get back in the saddle, and I was not?  Why are my friends still able to ride on without me? Why does my husband refuse to give up his motorcycle, no matter how many motorcycle accidents we hear about? (Yet he is scared to eat a berry picked by the side of the road… Go figure…) How do we increase our tolerance for risk taking… and should we?

To quit before I have even scraped a knee seems strange to me. But there is a little voice in my head saying, “quit while you’re ahead,”  and that’s the voice that’s the loudest right now.  It has drowned out the voice that says, “Don’t you DARE let fear win!” And the longer I get away from that second voice, the fainter it is.  Perhaps I simply did not love biking enough to pay heed to that voice. In any case, ignoring it now feels absolutely right.

So this summer, my bike attire is stuffed in a drawer somewhere, and my racing bike is with my niece.  I pedaled along the Nantucket path wearing a pair of Sperry’s, a tank top, and shorts with panties underneath (and didn’t I look skinnier from behind, Mike?*) I smiled at the old ladies with their wicker baskets, and waved at the crazy teenagers.  As I rode, I didn’t think about going fast, or getting enough miles in. I thought about how grateful I was that I had two strong legs, and that I could stop to pick a few berries to sweeten my day.

But if you hear about someone dying from a raspberry they picked on the side of the road that wasn’t really a raspberry… do me a favor, don’t tell me.


*Don’t answer that…


The PMC: A Community That Makes A Difference

riding the pmcRarely have I met anyone who doesn’t love to show up at their annual traditions.

Looking forward to celebrating with friends and family anchored by a good meal or an adventure pushes me to buy that plane ticket to Thanksgiving, spend all day cooking to host a holiday, or train my butt off to show up at my annual biking fundraiser.

But what if showing up at the “event” puts you at risk of a job, your health, or your relationship or even your life? No question, you’d have to ask yourself – how much does this mean to me? Maybe I could just send a check?

This year I had to ask myself, how much risk and misery I was willing to accept to be part of a tradition that I have participated in for 28 years — the Pan Mass Challenge. This one weekend bike event raises money for cancer research at Dana Farber – and this year is committed to a $40 million dollar goal.

The event is a 2-day 194-mile bike ride across Massachusetts from Sturbridge, Mass to Provincetown. For 25 years I have ridden the entire 194-mile event. These past 3 years I have opted for the 1-day ride of 84 miles from Wellesley to Bourne.

No matter the distance, the weather or life event that has tempted me to opt-out – I’ve never regretted showing up.

Unfortunately, for the first time this summer was accurate in their forecast.  Saturday morning as we rode out of Wellesley in 90% humidity and 69-degree temps, as predicted, within one-hour we were pelted by rain, which did not let up for the entire ride. The temperature dropped to a cold chill of who knows – maybe 62 degrees about 30 miles from our finish. It was brutal and the most challenging ride I have done in my 28 years.  It was the “coldest sustained rain in the 35 history of the PMC.” That said – I showed up for the ride knowing these were going to be the riding conditions as I was fully committed to the cause.

On the road survival ruled. I left my group, unable to wait at water stops as the chill of the day threatened to settle into my bones. With fogged glasses, clammy cold and ineffective rain gear layered with the dirt spitting off the tires of the riders in front of me – every pedal stroke required full on focus.

Chilled to the bone I zeroed in on pictures pinned to the shirts of the riders around me.  Pictures of moms, dads, kids, and friends lost to cancer. I thought about the 3,700 volunteers and the 5,700 riders who came out this past weekend. We are proud that none of the money donated is wasted on top heavy administration. 100 percent of the Pan Mass Challenge donations go directly to cancer research at Dana Farber.

Every rider has a story at this event and Cancer is our common thread. This disease impacts us all. Personally, cancer has attached itself into my closest circle of friends and family and shifted the very fibers of our lives. And frankly, like so many, I feel helpless.

This 2-day bike ride gives all participants an opportunity to communicate their losses, feel the community of those who understand, while at the same time physically participle by riding and raising money for this cause.

The PMC event creates the glue that binds all of us together in our search to help one another as we struggle with this deadly disease.

So as I pedaled forward to the Day 1 finish in Bourne – those thoughts fueled me forward.

I am so grateful for the community that the PMC has created which includes all the riders, the volunteers and the donors who collectively are joined in one singular mission – to find a cure.

However, I admit that next year I wouldn’t mind a little sun, a sweet tail wind and moderate temps. But no matter, as long as I am able, I will ride this event again and again.

P.S. Thanks to my husband Bill Cress for co-writing this piece with me



Why I’m Glad I Had A Boob Job

I had a boob jobRecently model Kate Upton did a zero gravity photo shoot and my only thought looking at the pictures was how happy I was to no longer be her boob size.

My boobs came in early and huge.  I was the girl who needed a bra at 13, mortified when I measured a DD at 16.   My friends called me ‘Dolly Parton’ once, causing me to burst into tears. After I had my first baby, a friend found my bra hanging in my bathroom and exclaimed, “one of these cups could literally fit over my head”. I never attempted breastfeeding since I knew I had to go back to work at eight weeks and I couldn’t imagine getting any bigger than I already was (EE) once my milk came in.  Never did I revel in the fact that I had huge, grapefruit size breasts with cookie size nipples.

In my mid-30s I decided it was time to take action.  My gynecologist recommended an excellent plastic surgeon.  During the initial visit he took pictures of my breasts (the only pictures that have ever been taken of them nude, I can assure you) and we decided to be proportionate to the rest of my body, I would become a full C cup.  He discussed the possibility of complete nipple sensation loss.  As I had very little sensation anyway, that was not an issue.

The surgery went well.  He removed over three pounds from my breasts.  I had to wear a tight binding over my chest for several weeks, which made me look unusually flat.  I worried perhaps he had taken too much out and made me a B cup.  Not to worry, once the binding came off, I was a beautiful C with quarter size nipples.  I had no idea that my own breasts could be so beautiful!  The surgeon also gave me a ‘lift’ so now that I’m 50, my boobs are where a 30 year olds would be and I couldn’t be happier.

The irony is that my beautiful breasts have absolutely no sensation at all—none.  My sister would love to have this surgery as well but won’t because her breasts are such an erogenous zone for her.  My 22 year old daughter talks of having a reduction (she’s a DD also) as well.  My best friend, who is an A on a good day, offered to take my left overs so we both could be Cs.

The most pleasant surprise came when people who had no idea what I’d done saw me for the first time.  “Have you lost weight?” was their first question.  Why yes, yes I have—from my boobs!  I just smiled and replied yes.   “You have a waist!” exclaimed my Mother-in-law.  Well, I’d had one all along but I had to wear such big tops you’d never been able to see it.  My breasts are now proportionate to my body, which is a beautiful thing.

My recommendation to anyone thinking of having a ‘boob job’:  do your research.  Pick a highly recommended or well-known plastic surgeon. Know what you’re getting into because it’s not just the physical appearance that gets altered.  There’s a huge psychological component as well.   Understand the risks and possible outcomes—are you OK losing all nipple sensation?  If you have a partner, how does he/she feel about you having a reduction?  My husband was nothing but supportive because he knew how I felt physically and emotionally about my breasts.

For me, having breast reduction surgery was life changing.  It made me get in better shape and hey, it’s a lot easier to swing a golf club these days!  Plastic surgery is definitely not for everyone but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

I Never Thought My Life Would Turn Out Like This

out of controlAt almost 60, I woke up and realized my survival depended on an ability to make a big change…..

I had a great life, my husband had a career with a nice salary.  I raised the children, washed clothes, ironed, cooked, gardened, gossiped and pursued some enjoyable hobbies (plants and words).  I loved the security and safety.  Then my husband decided to go into business for himself, and although we had savings and a robust IRA I felt as though my safety was gone.

I love my husband so I was surprised to discover that having him home disrupted everything for me.  He was supposed to go to work and the home was mine because there are roles and rules to life.   Once when he tried to help out with the laundry I lashed out as though I found him in bed with a hooker.  I didn’t want him doing the laundry; I wanted him working.  Clearly, I had no idea his career change would cause severe safety and security issues for me.  My husband’s new choices sparked a fear I couldn’t fix.  I didn’t realize how large a problem I had uncovered, and the problem was not my husband.

We invested in real estate right before everything crashed.  I watched as suddenly the entire country was 50% off!  Between that and the stock market crashing, our money disappeared.  We took a loan on our home to keep our investments going but only ended with a heavily mortgaged home, no investments, and few prospects at our age to make a living. I embodied the adage “we attract what we fear the most.”

My husband cooked for a hobby, so we started making pizza out of our home, which morphed into catering.  It is hard work and I didn’t want to do it.  I would think,  “Who will trust us enough to hire us?”  “We are too old to do this.”  My fears were epic, I would lie in bed at night wondering how long it would be before the roof caved in.  I imagined having to move out of my home into a third floor apartment. It was impossible to stop the destructive thoughts because in my convoluted mind I deserved the pain because I had let the financial mess occur.  Only foolish people would have let so much money slip away. I would beg the universe for a “do over”.  Please no more life lessons!  I just wanted to make the investments over with present knowledge and then have lunch with my friends.

These thoughts did not bring peace, just sadness and confusion.  We weren’t foolish; we used our money to make an investment that didn’t work out.

Our reality was starting a business with no money with all problems new businesses have.  When the cook top in our kitchen went out we borrowed a camp stove to cook on.  Ever try to make pasta on a camp stove in your kitchen?  Then one day RC Willie called and said someone had bought us a new cooktop.  I was amazed and thrilled at the generosity, but sad I was someone to be pitied.  When our air conditioner went out we lived with the cold for the winter, but when summer’s miserable heat arrived our Bishop helped us get it fixed.  We were on the receiving end of one blessing after another.  Sadly, I didn’t want help; I wanted to be able to take care of myself.  My bouts of destructive thinking simply produced misery.

Our catering business wasn’t going to be a success unless I was “all in”.   But what I needed to do for the business was well outside my comfort zone.  Bookkeeping, networking, advertising, regulations, fees and finding business were overwhelming.  How would I ever learn it all, much less do it?  I cried a lot, mostly out of frustration, partly out of hopelessness and usually for the life I wanted that just did not exist.

I could sometimes hear a faint voice reminding me I was just trying to make a living; I wasn’t driving anyone to chemo. I still couldn’t see the blessings in front of me, only what I had lost, or actually never really had, but certainly expected.

Now my eyes are opening and I see many women with the same patterns in their lives.  Self-awareness is replacing self-doubt and pity and I decided not to give up.

I know I can do hard things!

Women wake up every day with a life they don’t recognize or certainly didn’t want.  Divorce, elder care, childcare, death, you name it.  Life can turn on a dime.  But we can do hard things!!

So who says to themselves “I never thought life would turn out like this”?

Almost everyone.


Figuring Out What Makes You Happy

Finding what you loveFrank McCourt published his first book, “Angela’s Ashes”, when he was 66 years old.  The following year he received The Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Critics Circle Award.

A few years ago I found myself wondering what I wanted to do with my life. Yes, I was nearing 50 and, similar to a woman in her 20’s who’d recently graduated from college, I wondered what the future held in store for me.  I never thought I’d be at the same crossroads I visited thirty years ago.  But there I was, holding my yearning in one hand and my self-doubt in the other.

What was a girl to do?

Depending on how you look at it, this time in your life can either be an exciting or an unhappy one.  The power to feel the thrill and challenge awaiting you is within your control.

I was always envious of people who knew at an early age exactly what they wanted to do.   I had floundered between jobs from publishing to real estate to healthcare, always trying to “find” myself.  I managed my work life the way I thought I was supposed to, working nine-to-five jobs that, in the end, ended up being unfulfilling but earned a steady paycheck.

Was this all there was?

Julia Child launched her first cooking show at the age of 51.  F. Murray Abraham received his first good role and won an Academy Award for his work in “Amadeus” at age 47.

Someone recently asked me, “What would your 20 year old self say to you about making yourself happy?”  Surprisingly I didn’t miss a beat.  The answer was already on the tip of my tongue. “Writing!”

There it was.  I said it out loud.  I suddenly felt a release of emotions I’d kept hidden for years.  Why is it that we ignore that little voice that says exactly what we need to hear?

So I decided to rely on my ability to write, and chose to focus on issues that mattered to me most.  Then I jumped full steam ahead and voraciously read everything I could get my hands on about how to create a blog, the use of social media in blogging, and how to reach a targeted audience.

A month or two later I was hired by a reputable health website to write articles and answer questions for my Multiple Sclerosis peers. Then I was hired by another website, and then another.

At age 65, Colonel Sanders (Kentucky Fried Chicken) took his money from his Social Security check and began to open franchises.  Less than 10 years later he sold the franchise to a corporation for 2 million dollars.

I am sticking with my dream of writing – shaping it, molding it and making it my own.  I am committed to doing it as my life’s work.  It demands a deep respect for the written word, and a dedication and commitment to an audience.

I love every minute of it.

Writing has also been rewarding because it’s allowed me to meet others who are like-minded, generous of heart and ready to offer constructive criticism and high praise.

Rodney Dangerfield was a last-minute replacement on the The Ed Sullivan Show, and became the surprise hit of the show.  He was 46 years old

I am a big fan of Don Miguel Ruiz who wrote in his book “The Four Agreements” about being “impeccable with your word”:

“Your word is the power that you have to create…

Through your word you express your creative power.  It is through your word that you manifest everything…

What you dream, what you feel, and what you really are, will all be manifested through the word.” 

What is your inner voice trying to tell you?  Listen closely; it’s waiting to guide you.  Open your heart and soul and listen to the truths of that voice.  Follow your passions. You never know.  Someday I may be writing about you!


Cleaning The Pool After A Bilateral Mastectomy

cleaning the poolTonight I back-washed and vacuumed our built-in pool all by myself.

I know, it may not sound like that big of a deal to all of you, but let me tell you, vacuuming a pool after a bilateral mastectomy is no small feat.  To vacuum a pool you need to use your chest muscles to push the vacuum all the way down into the bottom of the pool against the pressure of the water, and it’s way harder than you’d think under normal circumstances, let alone after a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.

Let me just say: Ouch.

So, I feel like I’ve accomplished a huge task today.  In case you haven’t read my previous two posts about it, when I was going through my chemotherapy, which started in April of 2010, I just suddenly decided one day that I wanted to put in a built-in swimming pool in our backyard.

Yeah.  Weird, I’d never really wanted one before, but all of a sudden I was surer than anything I’ve ever been before that I wanted and needed to get a built-in pool that summer.

I had some theories about why we should do it.  I figured it would be a lot of fun for the kids and would keep them interested in hanging around at our house with their friends as they got older.  I had some theoretical ideas about having a lot of pool parties out there and inviting people over to barbecue and swim and sun by the pool.

I also attribute some of it to the chemo and what it was doing to my brain. I’ve never really been one to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a whim like that, but something about going through all that chemo seemed to inspire me to throw caution to the wind.

So, we spent the entire next year putting in a pool (if you read the posts you’ll see why it took a whole year, it was quite a crazy saga) and finally in 2011 we had a lovely built-in pool in the backyard after many months of back and forth phone calls, letters, arguments and discussions with the pool installation company (who had forgotten to get a permit during one of the most critical stages of the installation process!).

And for the first couple of summers the kids spent a lot of time in it, and it was wonderful.  But then by the 3rd year, as they got a little older, they spent less and less time in it and for a while the pool was just sitting out there in its cool, pristine beauty with no one actually going in it.  And I felt kind of bad about it.

And then last summer I decided to start having bi-weekly “Friday is BFF’s Hangin’ by the Pool Days” with my girlfriends and let me tell you, I have so much fun with that pool, now! I’ve been blocking out my Friday afternoons and refuse to book any client meetings after 12:00 noon on Friday’s, for (most of) the rest of the summer.

It is so relaxing to sit by the side of a pool with your closest friends who could care less how you look these days in a bathing suit; drinking wine, eating cheese and crackers and talking trash.  Hello, Summer!

Tomorrow is my first “Friday is BFF’s Hangin’ by the Pool Day” of the year.  I’m all stocked up with snacks and a couple of bottles of Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio. If you’re in the area, come on over!

Hope you all have something fun planned for your weekend!

Claudia blogs at 

The Best Thing About Being A Syndicated Cartoonist

At 53, cartoonist Isabella Bannerman is at the height of her creative powers, and her peers in the cartooning world agree. She just won this year’s Reuben award for “Best Newspaper Comic Strip” from the National Cartoonists Society.

Bannerman is one of the six female cartoonists making up King Feature’s popular “Six Chix” strip, which is syndicated to 100 newspapers worldwide (and is also available online.) Bannerman has contributed the Monday cartoon (and as well as many Sunday strips) to the feature since it began in 1999.

To be considered for the Reuben, Bannerman had to submit a dozen cartoons published in 2013, which were then evaluated by a jury made up of other artists. Her favorite of the batch? This cartoon about texting:


“I was concerned about the danger of texting while driving,“ Bannerman says. “Texting and walking is a lot less scary than texting while driving, so it seemed better for a cartoon.  Everyone is familiar with “The Road Not Taken.” I liked the way the words of the poem fit with the sight gag.”

Another winning cartoon was this critique of a current bestseller.


“I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In—and just reading it made me tired!” says Bannerman. “Sandberg wants women to do more. Speak up more! Sit at the table! Lean in when we do sit at the table!  She’s clearly a super-high-energy person—after all, the woman is a former aerobics instructor. While I have no problem with her message, for a less energetic person, all that pushing and leaning sounded exhausting. I decided to reference that old hair spray ad—’She conked out but her hair held up!’  Even as a kid, I found that ad weird and funny.”

Still another cartoon pokes fun at an aspect of contemporary life many of us will recognize:


“I’m old enough to remember when yoga didn’t require a lot of equipment,” Bannerman says.  “Maybe, at most, a beach towel. So when I recently found myself in a crowded yoga class that involved hauling a small household’s worth of equipment to my spot, I found it funny.”

Bannerman was 38 when “Six Chix” began. Now she’s 53.  How has her work changed?  “I’m doing fewer gags about little kids and more gags about living with teenagers,” she says. “And more strips about aches and pains, going to the doctor, and trying to live in a healthier way. But her outlook has also changed. “These days I also do more editorializing about larger issues, like pollution and climate change,” she says. “When your kids are young you’re completely absorbed in the minutiae of their world. Now that my kids are older, I’m able to look around and take a broader perspective.”

The best thing about being a syndicated cartoonist? “I never take for granted that I have an outlet to express my thoughts and my feelings,” says Bannerman. “I love having the freedom to say whatever I want.” And an audience, including her fellow cartoonists, who can’t wait to see what she has to say.

Roz Warren’s ( work appears in The New York Times and The Funny Times. Connect with her on

This article first appeared in

Are You An Ambitious Woman?

Are you an ambitious womanFlannery O’Connor: “Success means being heard and don’t stand there and tell me that you are indifferent to being heard.”

Ask a woman if she’s ambitious and she’ll look at you as if you just asked whether she sticks pins in puppies for fun. Ask a woman if she’s competitive and she’ll look at you as if you suggested that she’s a hooker.

“Me? Ambitious? Well, I want to succeed in my vocation, of course, but I wouldn’t use the word ‘ambitious.’ I just want to get what I deserve, if that’s okay. As for competitive, no way. I hate being measured against somebody else.”

Women rarely admit our ambitions out loud not only because we fear failure — a fear we share with our male counterparts — but because wanting to succeed might make us seem less feminine.

That’s the tricky part.

Wanting an audience, wanting success, wanting to win — isn’t that what scary women want? We don’t like those women, right?


Isn’t it true that when women talk about wanting to win, to succeed, to be the best in their fields, to be at the top of the list, it can be unsettling? Doesn’t it sound — as is only ever said about women — too “pushy”?

And isn’t that why women often phrase dangerous statements as questions?

It’s time for that to stop.

Listen to Flannery O’Connor who, in a letter to a young woman who wants to write, insists on the importance of striving for success:

“Success means being heard and don’t stand there and tell me that you are indifferent to being heard. You may write for the joy of it, but the act of writing is not complete in itself. It has to end in its audience.”

Facing an audience whose evaluations will depend on merit rather than sincerity or emotional effort, girls are often encouraged to retreat. They are permitted to demur and back away from their goals. So they bite their nails, they diet themselves into near invisibility, they cry behind closed doors.

What a waste.

When asked to explain exactly why they are reluctant to describe themselves as ambitious, my female students reply that if they seem too eager to get the “A” or to be elected to run some university office, they might lose friends. They will be regarded as ruthless. “I don’t want to claw my way to the top,” a sophomore told me. “I don’t want to seem arrogant,” said another. “I’m no better than anybody else” said a third. These are all dynamic, smart, and diligent students, none of whom wants to be called a “winner” in public because she thinks it might hurt somebody’s feelings.

Let’s face it: Women have had restricted access, historically, to positions not only of privilege and power, but of possibility. One of my favorite passages by the essayist and novelist Virginia Woolf concerns the way she was barred from entering even the libraries at the great universities of England around the turn of the (last) century. As Woolf describes it in “A Room of One’s Own,” she’s walking along the paths at “Oxbridge” university when she’s yelled at by the guard at the gate. Not surprisingly, she begins considering the nature of exclusion. Here is one of the century’s greatest authors (not authoresses; if she’s an authoress then I’m a professoress or a doctorella) and she’s not allowed to go into a university library because the male students and scholars cannot bear to be disturbed by a woman — and they find women essentially disturbing.

Woolf, initially, thinks “how unpleasant it is to be locked out.” But it then occurs to her “how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.”

To be denied access to a system is bad but it is nevertheless infinitely preferable to being immovably fixed and irrevocably locked into the system. Feminism — you knew I’d end up using the “f” word somewhere in this post, didn’t you? — is about choosing your own path, about writing your own script. About seeing all the possibilities.

Many girls are still instructed to imagine themselves only in mid-level careers because if they aim higher, they might not reach their goal. So what? The misery of failure is most often a story circulated by those in power to keep others out of it.

What can you do? Recognize that you have options and pass those along. You can laugh about it, you can learn how to do it yourself, and you can change it. You clear away the dust and clouds and what you have is something spectacular: freedom.

Freedom is scary; to stand or fall on your talents, intelligence, and energy is to take a risk. Grasping for success, you risk failure.

But why not focus on the brilliant first possibility — the possibility of coming first?

Somebody has to do it.

Why not you?

How A Famous Musician We All Know Got His Start

how a famous musician got his startA Grandson of slaves, a boy was born in a poor neighborhood of New Orleans known as the “Back of Town.”

His father abandoned the family when the child was an infant, his mother became a prostitute and the boy and his sister had to live with their grandmother. Early in life he proved to be gifted for music and with three other kids he sang in the streets of New Orleans. His first gains were the coins that were thrown to them.

A Jewish family, Karnofsky, who had immigrated from Lithuania to the USA had pity for the 7-year-old boy and brought him into their home. Initially given ‘work’ in the house, to feed this hungry child. There he remained and slept in this Jewish families home where, for the first time in his life he was treated with kindness and tenderness.

When he went to bed, Mrs. Karnovsky sang him a Russian Lullaby that he would sing with her.

Later, he learned to sing and play several Russian and Jewish songs. Over time, this boy became the adopted son of this family. The Karnofskys gave him money to buy his first trumpet; aswell the custom in the Jewish families. They sincerely admired his musical talent. Later, when he became professional musician and composer, he used these Jewish melodies in compositions, such as St. James Infirmary and Go Down Moses.

The little black boy grew up and wrote a book about this Jewish family who had adopted him in 1907. In memory of this family and until the end of his life, he wore a star of David and said that in this family he had learned “how to live real life and determination.”

This little boy was called Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong proudly spoke fluent Yiddish




Post-Mother’s Day Memo: Don’t Forget Women Who Can’t Have Kids

466695887I know it’s late but I’m still recovering. (And no, this isn’t a rant against Mother’s Day. I salute Moms. Hooray for flowers, manicures, homemade cards. I bought my mother earrings with blue lapis to match her eyes. I hope to borrow them, soon.)

But for me, Mother’s Day is the hardest date on the calendar: I can’t have children and will never be a biological mother. Bad genes, bad luck and a huge cancer scare a while back left me without a womb and a few other body parts.

But at least I have no cancer; I dodged the big one — twice. After my surgery, friends danced around the fertility issue, but I shut them down with this effective retort: “I’m lucky to be alive.” Looking back, I think they were just projecting their own anxieties about their biological clocks. I, on the other hand, was fine.

And I continued to feel fine for a while. I looked at condos. Got back in the pool. Went back to work. Everyone marveled at how quickly I’d bounced back. Then Mother’s Day came, and I fell apart. Bam. I couldn’t even buy my mother a card that first year. It was ugly.

The following year, as Mother’s Day approached, I didn’t do much better. My family went out for a celebratory brunch; I stayed home. I said it was too painful to be out with all those happy moms and families. I took my mother out to dinner later that week.

I confided to a friend about my struggle. He listened, comforted me and then did something extraordinary. The Sunday after Mother’s Day he lifted the chalice at his church, and spoke these words to the congregation:

“I light this second candle for all the special women for whom Mother’s Day last Sunday brought pain and anguish. For those women who are infertile or medically unable to conceive a biological child.”

He went on to talk about women who had suffered miscarriages or were estranged from their children by divorce or misunderstandings. He ended the blessing this way: “May our prayers and concerns be with all of you, this day.”

He got it. He heard me. I wasn’t alone.

Over the years, I’ve made peace with my loss: I dote on my niece and I’m honorary aunt to many of my friends’ kids. At one point, I considered adopting a child and raising her on my own. But I decided that wasn’t the right path for me. And hey, I’m pretty lucky: I have a job people envy and a full life.

Still, all these years later, when Mother’s Day approaches, those old feelings bubble up; I’m pretty sure they always will. So every year, I reach inside my special box and re-read my friend’s kind words. They got me through those first tough years, and still do.

So on Mother’s Day, celebrate to the hilt. And the week after, check in on a friend who might have struggled that day. After all, we’re all special women.

Karen Shiffman is an executive producer at WBUR.  This post was first published on

She Did It: First-Time Novelist At 53

el palm frontJust before I turned 53, I decided to give myself a special birthday present—I was determined to get my first novel published. I’d written “The El” in a creative frenzy in 2005, taking time off to bring the book I’d been wanting to write for years to light. Well, “The El” took me six months to write and six years to see published! But I finally did it.

The novel is set in 1936 Brooklyn and chronicles two seasons in the lives of a loud, lusty Italian-American clan, loosely based upon my own. At times, I felt I was channeling the spirit of my grandmother, who inspired the female heroine “Rosanna.”

In the end, I created a family saga with a colorful array of characters who weather joy, loss and desire, and experience simple delights in the midst of the Depression. In “The El,” the ordinary becomes extraordinary. It is a place of unconditional and unrequited love, where the unimaginable is indeed possible, and the whims of a violent alcoholic threaten to destroy the idyllic applecart of the entire family’s existence.

Everyone who read my book loved it. Then came time to send it out to publishers. Without an agent, very few would even look at the manuscript. Without a track record, I couldn’t get an agent. Finally, one editor from Dutton rescued it from the slush pile and tried to convince his colleagues to get onboard, but he was overruled. Years passed.

Some publishers commented that readers didn’t care about things that happened 50 years in the past. But I knew otherwise. I knew that the past keeps reinventing itself; we keep making the same mistakes and the same tiny triumphs. They define who we are.

Undaunted, I was determined to find a home for “The El.” I kept sending it around and it kept getting rejected. I continued writing, helping others bring their own projects to fruition as a freelance journalist. But in the back of my mind was my project, my baby, sitting dormant on my computer. I didn’t give up.

Then I took on a new client. I happily proofread and copy-edited ebooks for a quirky publisher with an eclectic stable of authors. At my husband’s urging, I asked Vincent Corbo, the owner, if he might consider publishing my novel. Knowing my writing firsthand, Vinnie’s response was a resounding: “Hell, yes.”

And just like that, “The El” found a home. Vinnie held my hand as I gently let go of my characters, my literary family, and prepared to release them into cyberspace. His designer produced the perfect cover: a sepia masterpiece of elevated train tracks and antique buildings. So, five days before my 53rd birthday, I became a first-time novelist. And I haven’t looked back since.

Delighted, I’ve made appearances at bookstores, shared spicier passages at a literary event called “Between the Sheets,” did an interview for the public access show “Italian American Writers” and read at the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard where a pivotal chapter takes place. I even set up “The El’s” own Facebook page, complete with mouthwatering recipes from its pages.

Even if I don’t sell more than 100 copies, it doesn’t matter. Through perseverance—and a little bit of luck—I still did it.


Learning Piano At Midlife

learning the piano at midlifeTwelve years ago, a casual elevator conversation with my neighbor led me to consider the absurd notion of learning classical piano at the age of 45. Like me, she had opted out from a full time executive career to focus on raising her two children, but unlike me, she had discovered a new challenge.

I grabbed the railing behind me to help stifle my envy and its inevitable sarcasm as she excitedly described her progress on a Mozart sonata. It had been a long time since I felt that kind of thrill. “Would you have any interest in lessons?” she asked. “My teacher comes to the building every Tuesday for the lesson, maybe you would like her phone number?” I had never considered taking up the piano, but when she asked, I was intrigued. My childhood pianistic endeavors had lasted two months, and as my mother had predicted, I had come to regret abandoning those lessons. I thought of the piano my husband and I had purchased the year before, now sitting silent in our living room upstairs. It was a Yamaha digital, and with the headphone jack, it was feasible to practice early in the morning or late at night without disturbing my family or neighbors. “Sure, give me her number,” I said as the elevator door opened.

I’m now 57 years old and if anything, I’m working harder now than I did in my business career. The Yamaha was replaced long ago with an acoustic upright, which was later replaced by a Steinway grand, a celebratory gift for my fiftieth birthday. My family’s move to an apartment downtown, inconveniently timed with my teacher becoming a mother, led me to my current teacher, a serious musician dedicated to teaching adults only. Her students range from complete beginners to conservatory level musicians, adults who reclaimed their childhood piano study, and myself, a former record executive, who, by putting rock & roll aside, fell in love with music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

I have amazed myself by learning and then performing compositions from Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. I’ve learned scales, the circle of 5ths, chords and inversions. But my type “A” competitive record executive personality pushed for even greater challenges. I wanted to memorize a piece of music. As a child, I struggled with memorization of the simplest of poems; a mere 5-line stanza terrified me. I can’t retain jokes or lines from movies, television shows or books. C’mon, wasn’t it enough that I was attempting to learn to play piano at this late stage in life? What more did I have to prove? But truthfully, I envied fellow piano students who had accomplished this feat.

In particular, I recall a young woman who was close to completing her degree at a Manhattan conservatory, performing a difficult composition from the Russian composer Shostakovich. She began at the lowest register of the keyboard, and in what seemed an instant, she had risen off the bench, and her hands, fast as a Japanese bullet train, had moved to the highest register.

That’s a level of piano playing I have little hope of reaching in my lifetime, but since that performance I had been dogged with the idea of memorizing. That young woman had been so profoundly engrossed in her playing. I wanted to feel that too.

One day last spring, under my breath, hoping she wouldn’t hear me, I whispered to my teacher that perhaps I could try to memorize something. “Of course you should, Robin,” she replied, implying with her tone that of course I could, and suggested I start with a piece I had already mastered—“From Foreign Lands and People,” a short, two page composition from Schumann.

In his excellent memoir, Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, an accomplished amateur pianist himself, shares stories about his own difficulties with memorizing music. In particular, he writes, “Ronan (head of keyboards at London’s Guildhall School of Music) tries to reassure me, telling me I probably don’t have a problem with memorizing, just an anxiety about forgetting.” Aha! Thank you, it’s precisely this anxiety I wanted to conquer.

It took me most of the summer to memorize the two pages. The work was so tedious and frustrating, that on several occasions I was reduced to balling up my fists and banging on the keys like a child, leaving me to wonder why I ever thought I could accomplish something I couldn’t do when my brain was young.

Luckily for me, my teacher never doubted that I could.

The first time I attempted the entire piece from memory, I went blank. But I refused to give up; I’d already spent my entire summer on this challenge. I opened the music, played through and started over. When my brain froze at certain measures, I repeated the process until I finally made it through without the music. To finish off, my teacher insisted I close my eyes and play. This was tough, like closing your eyes and walking a straight line, but eventually came a stunning reward.

By closing my eyes, I shut the world and its myriad distractions out, and for those three minutes, it was just Schumann and I.

I wasn’t rising out of my chair, but for me, I was flying.


Your First Marathon After 40: 5 Things You Need To Know

2014 trackConsidering your first marathon after 40? Here are 5 things you need to know.

1. Your first marathon won’t, as you probably know, be your fastest. Your first marathon is the one to finish. And you’re going to learn a lot not only in the training but also in the marathon itself.

2. Your first marathon will also be your hardest – most likely. No matter what their age – old or young – runners experience more setbacks in the first years of training than later. With time, you learn the effects of stresses on your body and you learn how to work around them.

3. If you like the marathon distance, you have a lot to look forward to.

mastering running cathy utzschneiderFirst, you can look forward to faster times. Your best marathon times may likely be 5 to 10 years after that – no matter if you’re in your forties, fifties or even sixties. The improvement from your first to your second marathon, weather and course depending, can be huge. As just one example among many, one runner of mine, now 57, ran her first marathon at 56 in 3:42. She ran her second, an easier course but a marathon nonetheless, in 3:27.

As long as you continue to train intelligently, you’ll become more focused, your body more prepared. I’ve had numerous runners begin training in their 40s and 50s only to run their best marathons 6 to 8 years later.

Here’s a diagram below that may help. It’s from my doctoral dissertation in which I compared performances of runners depending on when they started running. It shows that no matter when you start running, after ten years, your times can catch up with those with similar training and equivalent talent.

Screenshot 2014-04-17 13.15.48


Second, if you have found training for your first marathon tough, you’ll probably find training for subsequent marathons easier. You’ll have friends who live “the marathon lifestyle” or at least “the running lifestyle”. You’ll get better at planning and used to long runs. “A 15 miler used to feel like an impossible run when I trained for my first marathon,” is something I hear a lot. In short, training for a marathon once or twice a year will become almost a habit – something visceral as well as fun (most of the time).

4. Having coached hundreds of marathoners and conducted 20 years of research on runners over 40, I am convinced that the discipline of running a marathon translates to more discipline in all areas of life. Here is one diagram that illustrates that the discipline of running encouraged more discipline in runners (the “respondents”) in terms of being able to focus, face fears, manage their time, set priorities, and handle stress, and hardships.

Screenshot 2014-04-17 13.16.40

5. Get a coach (in addition to running partners) if you’re serious about getting faster – a coach who not only understands running and masters running in particular, but also understands you: your motivation, life circumstances, and goals. You’ll save energy, improve your speed, avoid injury, and, yes – spend a bit more money. It’s worth it, given all the time you invest in running. And you’ll appreciate the rewards!



She Did It/Boston March 2014 Event Photos

By all accounts, our second SHE DID IT/Boston event at Babson College on March 24, 2014 was a huge success:  a sold out crowd, some incredible workshop leaders, and many, many motivated women. The energy resulting from women learning and getting to know one another was palpable.  We hope you enjoy these pictures taken by our fabulous event photographer, Leise Jones, as much as we do!   And a final huge “thank you” to our premium sponsors: Babson College, Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate and Leise Jones Photography and our incredible speaker.  We hope to see you all next year!

Photography by Leise Jones.

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Why We Love The Singing Nun

Move over Sally Field – we’ve got a new Singing Nun who’s a real spitfire.

If you haven’t seen the video of the Singing Nun in Italy on “The Voice of Italy,” you really must join the 36 million who have.  “Glee”fully,  I watched on youtube the 25 year old Sister Christina’s performance of Alicia Keys, “No One.” As the song unfolded I was swept along with the audience’s excitement as she drew us up and up, into her charismatic crescendo, and never let us down.

At first I thought having a nun perform on The Voice of Italy was a gimmicky move. I mean really, what could be more outrageous than hearing a nun, in full conventional nun garb, singing Alicia Keys on popular TV on the Vatican’s home turf.  It seems almost irreverent.

But in reality, the Catholic church is getting way more relevant and approachable these days, as seen in the popularity of the new Pope Francis.  Even the Vatican’s Minister of Culture applauded her efforts by quoting the scriptures when asked about her performance saying, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others (1 Peter 4:10).”  Sister Christina went viral with her performance and her hash tag #suorcristina set the twittersphere on fire.

“I have a gift and I am giving it to you,” Sister Cristina said, according to the English captions on YouTube (to get the captions, click on the ‘cc’ icon on the bottom right). “Shouldn’t things be this way?”

So why do we love the Singing Nun? Why does this singing nun strike a chord in so many of us?

She’s doing the unexpected and frankly it feels taboo for a nun to be singing on an extremely commercial program such as The Voice. A nun on The Voice is a juxtaposition that is just not supposed to happen and that in and of itself feels outrageous and gets us revved up.  What makes this performance outrageously delightful is the glaring contrast of the glam aura of the The Voice, which is diametrically opposed to the asceticism of a nun’s life.  The contrast of commercial and spiritual merge seamlessly in Sister Christina’s performance.

We also love the nun because we love discovering superstars.  Sister Christina blows away the religious barriers and stereotypes with just one powerful song. The Voice has created a fantastic venue for discovering new raw talent. Over the years of watching The Voice, we’ve heard profiles of small town hard luck kids and watched them come on the stage, defying their past, and creating a brighter future for themselves in front of our eyes.

So now we watch in awe as the Singing Nun finds her unique voice and takes over the stage with passion and soul and we begin to stand up and cheer with the audience as we realize that she is not only good, she is a gift to us all. Her joyous fresh spirit, and her soulful voice win us over.

And it makes us believe that anything is possible. Even in the guise of the most humble of all, a nun, we hear what people are capable of.

Make no mistake; Sister Christina is on the job so to speak.  When asked what the Vatican thought of her audition. “I really don’t know, I am waiting for Pope Francis to call me on the phone. He always says we should go out and evangelize, telling us God doesn’t take anything away from us, but will give us more. I am here for this.”

A Singing Nun rockin’ out on The Voice — it appears there is no Hollywood style trickery here.  Sister Christina is a reminder that there is power within each of us and given the right opportunity, the right stage, we too can find our own voice.