At the Women's march

At the Women's march
All Lives Matter

Never Again

Never Again
We Won't Go Back

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Normal Grief or Major Depression?

Because many of us at grandparent-age have suffered the loss of someone we loved, a report in today's New York Times about the forthcoming revision of the American Psychiatric Association's "bible" for practitioners, its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), is worth mentioning here. Grieving people often show the same symptoms as clinically depressed people -- you can’t sleep or you’re sleeping too much, you’re eating too little or too much, you can’t concentrate on work or even a good book, you can’t enjoy the people and activities that you once did, and overall, you’re a mess. Some members of the American Psychiatric Association are now defining deep grief that lasts more than two weeks as major depression, but most of us who have mourned a loved one know that symptoms like these often last well beyond two weeks or even two months, or much longer.

So it’s startling to note that the DSM, which has up until now excluded grief from the diagnosis of depression, has now eliminated the bereavement exclusion and made deep grief lasting longer than two weeks an official diagnosis. This would imply that most bereaved people need medical help. Not all professional agree.

For example, Marc E. Agronin, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist, says, “grief is part of the human condition, not a psychiatric problem.” And Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and coauthor of "Saying Goodbye: How Families Can Find Renewal through Loss," has expressed concern that normal signs of grief may be wrongly diagnosed as major depression, and therefore medicalized and treated out of context. Jerome C. Wakefield, Ph.D. of New York University agrees, worrying that millions of people with normal symptoms of grief will be incorrectly diagnosed as having a mental disorder, given medication with possibly dangerous side effects, stigmatized for grieving more intensely, and pressured to quickly get over the loss of a loved one before they’re ready.

Psychiatrist M. Katherine Shear says that normal grief and major depression should not be confused. “It's typically not difficult to tell the two states apart," she told me. “Grief is a response to bereavement in which the sadness is always accompanied by a deep sense of yearning and longing for the person who died. The sadness is totally focused on that person.” This has been brought out in research that showed that when patients with complicated grief looked at photos of their loved ones, the parts of their brains associated with rewards or longing lighted up.

In a compromise responding to the division within the profession, DSM-V will have a footnote reminding doctors that any significant loss could cause depressive symptoms and should be carefully investigated. However, this means that people suffering a loss have to be careful they are not being over-treated.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


When my 24-year-old granddaughter, Maika, who has visited New York every year for the past 14 years, said that she had never been to the top of the Empire State Building, I promised to take her there. This is not something that New Yorkers generally do unless we’re entertaining out-of-town or out-of-country guests – the last time I went up there was twenty years ago when Salamsing, who had been my husband’s and my trekking guide in Nepal, had visited us.

I am so glad that Maika and I went. We chose September 11, partly because of its symbolic meaning and partly because it was a cool, crisp, clear evening when our views of New York City would be the best possible. Probably because of the sad anniversary the crowds were much lighter than usual and so we had very little waiting time. Also because of this memorable date we were able to see the Tribute in Light, the two columns of light created by 88 searchlights that rose up in the sky next to the Freedom Tower, still under construction at the September 11 Memorial site. The Tribute is produced every year for this one night to offer a surreal remembrance of the attacks and of those who had perished in the towers that once stood in its place.

Seeing this huge metropolis spread out below us – lights aglow in building after building, car traffic running smoothly, a picture of a city going about its business – provided a comforting sense of the way we recovered from those ghastly attacks. Although no one will never forget the horror of that day and its aftermath and all those innocents who died in that madness, the utter normality of the vista spread out before our eyes represented to me the strength and vitality of this post-attack cityscape.

Maika’s and my visit was remarkably easy to manage. I bought our tickets online and printed them out at home, went to the building’s entrance on Fifth Avenue, and were greeted at every juncture, from the front door to the elevator to every floor and every vantage point by smiling uniformed guards. Although I know that New Yorkers’ reputation for being unfriendly is undeserved, even I was impressed by the extent of how helpful so many of the guides were – giving us information about the buildings below, offering to take our pictures, and giving us snippets of local history.

And of course it meant so much to me to be sharing this experience with my granddaughter and seeing it through her eyes. One of the great joys of grandchildren is to give us a fresh view of the world around us.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


My friend Linda Markstein gave me permission to post this letter that she wrote to a number of her friends this past Friday. A couple of weeks earlier Linda had felt so very tired that she went to her doctor. She had received a clean bill of health from him in April, but after this last visit, after taking several tests, she learned that cancer had invaded her body, including her brain. She has been in and out of the hospital since then, wrote this letter, and asked in her most recent conversation with one of our friends which political blog she should follow. I am inspired by her courage, her sense of humor, and her power. I don’t know who all the people she mentions in this letter are – I don’t think it matters. The most important thing is the woman who wrote these words.I  hope that those of you who read this and find that it speaks to you leave comments, which I can then pass on to Linda. Here is her letter:
Hello, Everyone,

I had RAD 6 today and this morning I felt pinned to the mat.  Never so  tired in my life.  I felt an urgency to get as much memory preserved as  possible because I don't know how much will be left. So far memory seems okay but not sure how long I can write.  Fear I may  become locked in.  So I wanted to explain that I am going to record as  much as possible and get you to transcribe as you have offered.  I wanted to type everything myself first (of course:  world's fastest typist) but fear that is a luxury no longer affordabe, esp. since Lefty is weak, valient but weak.  The only realistic option is to try this new strategy.  I am going to record on, I think, an iPad.  Suzanna set it up and she'll monitor it, esp until I get used to it.  I have a crack tech team so I am hopeful.

Anyway I won't have as much time to be in contact with you and I wanted you to know that.  I have loved the messages from all over the world, esp ones involving fights about what may or may not have happened 50 or 60 years ago.  Teasing, outrageous charges.  I have many of my cousins supporting me in a disputed memory against another cousin involving whether the latter at 6 or 7 years old actually yelled out the window in Belleville, KS that my grandmother and her friend, Mrs. Welch were "god damned stupid old bitches" because they wouldn't buy him "one god damned stupid flower."  He, Billy Sherman, had his head out the back window  broadcasting this message.  Grandma pressed the electronic window  button -- and nearly decapitated Billy -- and never said another word about it.  Billy (now Bill and some sort of proper, extremely successful something or other) is trying to argue that it is the desperate ploy of a dying woman.  But everyone is on my side.  That's the power that brain damage and impending death, etc., etc. can bring.  I hold a lot of good cards right now and it is very difficult for Bill(y) to have any chance in this game.  Good bye, reputation as a pillar of haute SF society!  Ha ha ha

So anyway I am having a lot of fun.  But I don't have so much time and I have incredible weakness and, let us not be too oblique, a lot of brain damage.  So I have got a lot to do.
Yesterday I got the only good piece of advice from Brother Bill that I have ever received:  He said, "Linda, I think you should rest less and work harder."  He probably meant it as a joke -- but I chose to take his advice literally.  It is one of the few times I have not felt it necessary to simply respond, "Oh, shut up, Bill."  I just said, "I think you're right.  Thank you for sharing."

Very, very tough frightening morning because I felt pinned to the mat by exhaustion and I became worried about having enough energy left to do the stories, etc.  Didn't think I could make it to therapy, as if that were an option -- but suddenly got energy and managed just fine, well fine in the scheme of things.  That was heartening but this all was a huge wake-up call about the need to maximize time and use adapted strategies.

You must all continue to write to me constantly and send me data from the real world.  Teddy analyzes polls, breaks them down and explains them.  Love it..  Sangeeta reports from an economics conference in Mexico where she is working with someone who turned out to be Trotsky's great grand-daughter.  Dave writes about the horrors of modern parenting style, etc.  -- Esther sends a poem a day and a kind of a blog about her writing process.  So when I am not working, I can quickly get back into the world and not miss out.

Just quickly, my walking is much better and I could button some little tiny buttons today with almost no problem.  How great to be able to walk again without constantly looking for a supporting wall or handhold.  I wouldn't go out without someone because I might lurch on the street but I can walk pretty well.  Donald is impressed and probably a little jealous.  He still is not above giving me lots of pointers (from his wheelchair).

BTW, Donald and I have initiated a private time from 5 to 6.  No one can come over.  Travis and Melissa must go upstairs.  We must have our  sacred time together.  He's been wonderful.  We worked on my funeral (we like to do that sort of thing unlike most people).  He wants to recite the lytrics to Body and Soul (will be hard for him but, hey, give it a shot).  Decided to get Charles Davis to play Body and Soul and Night and Day, our theme songs.  Want a super, super high mass at St. Peter's followed by an incredible wild party on the river (Spirit Cruise) where everyone dances and drinks and kids get wild -- and everyone remembers it later as the most fun they ever had.  Do you think a permit could be gotten for a few fireworks?  How about a huge banner:  BLAST OFF, LINDA.  Since I will be cremated, no need to have the service immediately.  Maybe wait six or eight weeks so everyone can come.  Wouldn't it be a riot to send out SAVE THE DATE cards!

Well, you get the picture:  a huge opportunity to have some fun.  Don might not, probably would not, be able to take part in this (since he needs to be in bed by 8) but he would certainly not deny me my last cosmic laugh.

Mehitabel's Song (Don Marquis)

there'a a dance or two
in the old dame yet
beieve me you
there s a dance or two
before i m through
you get me pet
there s a dance or two
in the old dame yet

life s too dam funny
or me to explain
it s kicks or money
life s too dam funny
it s one day sunny
the next day rain
life s too dam funny
for me to explain

but toujours gai
is my motto kid
the devil s to pay
but toujours gai
and once in a way let s lift the lid
but toujours gai
is my motto kid

thank god i m a lady
and class will tell
you hear me sadie
thank god i m a lady
my past is shady
but wotthehell
thank god I m a lady
and class will tell

Work begins in earnest tomorrow.

P.S.  It has been announced that Armond Habiby (Anne's father, divorced some 45 years ago) is planning to fly in in a couple of weeks to see me.  I asked Anne if this is being seen as some sort of exit interview!)  He's a wonderful, completely unique person that I absolutely could not live with.  We were two strong pure elements that could not mix -- but we produced an absolutely unique, extraordinary human being.  Armond has such a dominating personality that this may be too much drama for me and I may just send him a letter.  His drama may be too much, too overwhelming.  But I am touched.  I just don't want to  lose control of the scene and become a secondary player in his big scene.  -- Still, it does add another note of outrageous drama.  Who else does this kind of thing?

but toujours gai, my friends


Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Thirty-five years ago, on March 14, 1977, The New York Times published an essay that I had written about my brother’s suicide. I received a flood of letters from readers telling me that my article had been helpful to them. Last week my daughter Dorri, in consoling a friend whose father had committed suicide, sent her my article and also posted it on her own blog. Since named the piece an Editor’s Pick and since it garnered more than 388 views on the website, it seems to be still relevant, and so I am posting it here, with hopes that it will bring comfort to those whose lives have been touched by a suicide of someone close to them.


On February 25 my brother took his own life.

In the morning he went to his safe-deposit box to withdraw his will and his life-insurance policies so that whoever would settle his affairs would be spared as much inconvenience as possible. In the afternoon he went to the barbershop for a haircut and a shave. The stroke he had suffered 12 years before, at the age of 44, had taken from him the use of his right hand. He was no longer able to shave himself as closely as he—ever-meticulous—liked to. On the way home he stopped to say goodbye to a friend. He told her he was going on a trip. To her question, “Where?” he smiled broadly and said, “It’s a secret.” Then he limped down the hall to his own apartment.

He took off and carefully folded the new clothes he had put on just as carefully only a short time before, sat on the edge of his bed, and with his still strong left hand pulled the trigger that sent a single bullet cleanly through his heart. The coroner told us later that he had died even before he fell back upon the bed.
My brother left notes—to his sons, to his mother, to his doctor, to friends, to me. They all held caring messages of gratitude for friendship and love given over the years. In a couple he left practical instructions. In none did he leave any explanation for his final, carefully executed act. He didn’t really have to.

The reasons are not hard to find. They tumble over each other. That clot that had stopped the flow of blood to his brain for mere minutes had changed his life.
He had been able to compensate to a great degree for his physical disabilities: the paralysis of his right arm and leg. But since he had never regained fluent speech or perceptive judgment, he had been unable to resume his work as a highly successful sales executive. Nor had he been able to find another job that both satisfied his need to achieve and was within his capability.

Furthermore, the insult to his brain had also affected his personality. Within two years of the stroke, his marriage of 22 years had ended. His friends found it hard to spend an evening with him and saw him less and less often. His only brother (to whom he had become close since his illness) died, and then his father, who had in recent years become his counselor, his confidant, his best friend.

Eventually, in the hope of recapturing some of his former professional success, he moved back to California, where he had been living and working until his stroke. Now a continent away from the east coast where his parents, his sons and I lived, he had neither friends nor family nearby. His connections with both his sons ebbed and flowed. While he and they mended their relationships, they remained separated by the miles. A fall in the garage while getting his car resulted in a broken hip, surgery, and a slow, painful recovery.

And then the final blow: The small business in which he had invested the entire amount of the insurance settlement he had received after his fall was thousands of dollars in debt. Not that much money in the business world, but a hopeless sum to my brother. His lawyer advised bankruptcy. He shook his head.

My brother looked at the years yawning in front of him and saw nothing but more pain, more loneliness, more thwarted hopes. For years he had maintained an air of unflagging good spirits so that he became the wonder of all who knew him.

Whatever pain or doubt he felt, he never showed. He had tried one venture after another to become self-supporting and avoid being a burden to his aging parents, to his sons, and to me, still the “kid sister.” Every balloon he had tried to inflate had burst in his face, until he could find only one solution. And so he shot himself.

Intellectually, I believe that every one of us has absolute power over our own lives. In my mind I believe that the decision to end one’s life can be a rational act of courage and dignity. And yet I am having great trouble accepting my brother’s decision.

I feel guilty, assailing myself with regrets. If I had been closer to him, if I had called him and seen him more often, if I had offered him more money, if I had made it easier for him to fail instead of advising him so strongly against his latest business venture, if I had intervened in his marital problems, maybe he would not have taken this final desperate step.

I feel angry that he could have done this to our mother, who had already suffered the loss of her only other son and of her husband. I resent his leaving me with the impossible task of easing her burden.

I feel anguished, imagining the depths of unhappiness never openly displayed that drove him to this last step.

The wise and compassionate rabbi who conducted the memorial service for my brother spoke privately to the family. He urged us not to torture ourselves with “if only’s.” He said, “I’m not saying this to wound you, but one thing you need o realize is that no matter how much he loved you, you were all peripheral to his life. If your relationships had been central to it, he would not have left you. None of you could have given him what he needed to make his life seem worth living.”

I am trying to give my brother the respect he deserves by accepting his decision the way he would have wanted me to, by heeding his last written words not to cry over him. I hope—for the sake of the life he lived so bravely up to the very end—that I will be able to.

This article was published in a slightly different form in The New York Times, March 14, 1977

©Sally Wendkos Olds

Thursday, July 19, 2012


I belong to a remarkable organization called The Transition Network, or TTN (, whose website describes it as a resource for women “50 and forward, whose changing life situations lead them to seek new connections, resources and opportunities.”  TTN has 14 chapters around the country, but at this point only three chapters have subgroups like the Caring Collaborative, which for many TTN members is the most vital service the organization offers. The CC’s motto is “Members Helping Members,” and its mission is described on its section of the TTN website:

Suppose you need to be picked up from the hospital after cataract surgery or a colonoscopy and your close friends and family members have such busy lives that you’re reluctant to ask any of them to do it. You can contact the Caring Collaborative coordinator to find a member who will be able to help you out, and you in your turn will be able to offer help at another time. This might include picking up a few groceries or a prescription for a sick member or becoming a “medical buddy” who will accompany a member on a doctor visit to be an extra pair of eyes and ears and to take notes while the patient is focusing on asking her questions and listening to the doctor.

I recently took part in this last function of the CC program in both roles, that of patient and that of “medical buddy.” When I needed to see a new retinal specialist to follow up my standard ophthalmologist appointment, a CC member came with me, asked a couple of questions I hadn’t thought of, and wrote down all the doctor’s explanations. (Fortunately, he reassured me that I didn’t need to do anything other than have regular check-ups.) When another member needed to see a much-in-demand orthopedic specialist, I did the same for her. Both of us appreciated having the “buddy’s” notes afterwards in reflecting on the doctors’ findings and recommendations.

Many people don’t think about asking someone to accompany them to a medical appointment, but I recommend the practice highly. If you have friends and families nearby who can help you out in this kind of situation, so much the better. If not, it’s quite likely that a neighbor or someone you may not know that well would be willing to help you out. And if you can’t find someone to go with you to the doctor’s office, you can do what I have sometimes done -- take along a tape recorder.

As we move on in life we need to be able to ask for help – and to be willing to give it. The CC’s motto can be morphed into “Neighbors Helping Neighbors,” “Friends Helping Friends,” or “All of Us Helping Each Other.”

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


As a feminist, the mother of three daughters, the grandmother of four granddaughters and one grandson, and a woman who read many issues of Seventeen Magazine during my teenage years, I have to commend the magazine for its just announced “Body Peace Treaty.” This eight-point pact promises to show real girls as they really are, rather than by the current policy followed by virtually all magazines targeting girls and women, of retouching photos in their pages to present images so unrealistic that no normal girl could expect ever to look like them.

Of course, Seventeen didn’t come up with this vow by itself. Much of the credit for the magazine’s “treaty” goes to the efforts of a 14-year-old girl, Julia Bluhm, who blogged about her dismay at hearing her friends complaining that they were fat as they compared themselves to the PhotoShopped pictures in the magazines they read. Then through, Julia launched a petition asking Seventeen to print one unaltered photo each month, so that its readers can see what real girls – including models – really look like. So far Julia’s petition has received more than 84,000 signatures, and this young teenager has been able to effect change in a major national magazine. For more about the magazine’s new policy, go to

Saturday, June 30, 2012


It was May of 1968 when I first set foot in Port Washington, New York, a Long Island town known for its good schools, its diverse population, and its convenient commuting. I had flown to New York for the weekend from St. Louis where I had left my three young daughters with a babysitter. David was already here working at his new job, and the two of us had spent two long, tiring days with real estate agents. We hadn’t seen any houses we could afford and would consider, I had to go back Sunday evening, and I was resigned to making another trip in.
            Sunday morning we picked up The New York Times and saw a small ad for a four-bedroom house within walking distance from the Long Island Rail Road station. The owner had placed the ad just that morning and we were the first to respond. Both David and I fell in love with this old colonial nestled in a cul-de-sac before we even set foot inside. When we went in we were even more entranced as we saw that the house was enveloped by the woods behind it, so that every window but one looked out upon greenery. In the back a pulley had been set up between a couple of trees so that the 11-year-old boy living there could swing from one great old oak to another. In the finished basement that had once been living quarters for the father-in-law of a previous owner we saw more evidence of the 11-year-old – a turtle in the claw-footed bathtub.
            The house didn’t have any of the three “musts” on my list: a kitchen large enough to eat in, a lavatory on the first floor, or a playroom for the children. No matter. Love overcomes “musts.” We made an offer on the house immediately. That evening the owner phoned us to say he had received a higher offer and if we wanted the house we would have to meet that. We did, and we moved in before the new school year.

My family lived in this dream house for more than forty years. We took all our meals in the dining room where we looked north at the riot of trees and never missed an eat-in kitchen. We fixed up a playroom down below the first floor (next to the bathroom with the turtle) which the girls hardly spent any time in. And we eventually put in a powder room off the kitchen. We filled the house with our colors and our art and each of us carved out our own special corners. Our extended family members and many dear friends came to visit and enjoy our home with us. These walls were witness to the happiest of times in our family -- and yes, the saddest of times. And always we knew we were living in a very special place.
            Our girls grew up and moved away, and David and I occasionally talked about moving to an apartment in Manhattan now that it was just the two of us, but somehow we still managed to fill our space. He set up an at-home office in one daughter’s former bedroom, we put up guests and exercised on machines in another, and I took over the closet in a third. Years earlier I had set up my office in the playroom space, where I could look out at the trees when I needed to take a daydreaming break. We had paid off the mortgage and saw no reason to leave. And neither of us wanted to clear out the attic or David’s workshop. When people asked whether we thought of moving, David said, “They’ll carry me out of here.” As it turned out, he walked out of the house for the last time himself, suffered a stroke, and died four days later without regaining  consciousness. And now that I was alone after almost 54 years of marriage, the house really was too big.
            And now I feel good knowing that the new family who bought the house has also fallen in love and will be raising their children here and loving the woods and the sunsets and the special sense of being in nature.  They have had their first guest, a gifted poet and photographer who wrote her own paean to this magical place, accessible at

Monday, June 18, 2012


Around Father’s Day this year I read so many sad stories about unhappy – or absent – relationships with fathers that I appreciate my own father and the father of my children even more. Both of them are gone now, but I’m enjoying the memories that have bubbled up in my mind. By today’s fathering standards, neither of them was as present in his children’s lives as much as we would think enough – but when they were there, their presence was great. My father, Samuel Wendkos, was a traveling salesman when I was a little girl and would be gone all week long. I remember his coming home on Friday evenings and before he would have dinner and I was ready to go to sleep, he would sit on my bed and tell me a story from one of the movies he would have seen during the week. Then on Saturday afternoons he would take me to the movie theater about half a mile from our house. For years he would laugh about the time I wanted to talk to one of the actors and ran up to the stage to try to reach the screen. He showed his love for me and for both my older brothers as long as he lived. He never asked to borrow money for himself, but when one of my brothers needed it, he went to a wealthy friend and incurred a debt that he had to work hard to repay. When my other brother was disabled and alone during his fifties, my father became his best friend, and he and my mother took my brother into their home. My daddy (and I called him that my whole life) died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 76, and my mother said, “He died the way he lived – he never caused a bit of trouble to anyone.” My husband, David Mark Olds, told me the first day we met that the reason his brief first marriage ended was that his first wife didn’t want children. We went on to have three daughters and when people would ask whether he was disappointed not to have sons, he looked at them as if they were crazy. Our weekends when the girls were young took us to parks, museums, zoos, kids’ plays, whatever he and I thought the girls would like, and he never said he didn't want to do anything that the girls might enjoy. He was the parent who drove our oldest daughter around to look at prospective colleges, who drove our second daughter to her weekly piano lessons throughout her junior high and high school years, and who went to innumerable interminable gymnastics meets to see our youngest daughter go through her paces. He also died suddenly, of a stroke at the age of 88, and as much as we all miss him, we know how lucky we are to have had him for as long as we did.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


While I was looking for something else I came upon a 2005 review of my book A BALCONY IN NEPAL: GLIMPSES OF A HIMALAYAN VILLAGE. My favorite line is "Written by an unlikely trekker -- a 70 year old grandmother..." Eli Bendersky, the reviewer, has given me permission to post the review, so here it is: "November 13th, 2005 at 11:31 pm When I strolled through a small bookshop in Pokhara (Nepal’s 2nd largest city) most of the books I ran into were (unsurprisingly) about mountaneering and treeking. But this was not what I was looking for. I was rather hoping to find a book that tells about the lives of Nepalis – especially the “real”, rural inhabitants of this beautiful country, and not the shop-keepers tourists usually run into. “A balcony in Nepal” is such a book. Written by an unlikely trekker – a 70 year old grandmother, it tells about the few months the author has spent in Badel – a small village in the east of Nepal, not far away from Mt. Everest. Mrs. Olds trekked a couple of times in Nepal with her husband and fell in love with the country, to which she came back several times, on a quest of “looking for herself”. The narrative is autobiographical, feeling like a journal carefully collected and edited. It is very readable and can be finished quickly. The author tells about the lives of people in a typical Nepali village, their day-to-day hardships, peculiar rituals and, most of all, their apparently illogical happiness and peace of mind. The book keeps coming back to the inevitable comparison of the rich life in the west versus the poor conditions people live in Nepal, and yet somehow they don’t look less happy for it. They look more happy, if a comparison must be made. Some point about appreciating what we have… All in all, a charming book. Not only does it tell a lot about the life of Nepalis, it also raises quite a few interesting philosophical points, so it’s an interesting read even for people not really interested in Nepal itself."

Saturday, June 9, 2012


This is exciting to me -- the book I wrote about an ancient way of life is now very much a 21st-century e-book, as well as a paperback edition. The e-book is much less expensive and can be ordered from,, and The life in Badel that we experienced and wrote about has already changed greatly. Buddi, our guide, now lives in Ohio with his wife and three children. His parents and uncle (our librarian) have moved to Kathmandu. Many of the young people we met have left the village to work in other countries. For a while some of the Maoist guerrillas were occupying the library building and extorting food from the villagers, but I think they have all gone now. Our last contribution to the village was money to build toilets, which I have heard are indeed being used and taken care of. Kumari, the young girl whose surgery my fellow trekker and I paid for to correct her cleft lip, has married. So has Laxmi, the young untouchable girl we coaxed into our library to hold a book for the first time in her life. And so life goes on.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Times Have Changed but Moms Are Still Being Bullied

When the first edition of my book The Complete Book of Breastfeeding was published in 1972, doctors, hospital nurses, and grandmothers were discouraging women from breastfeeding, saying things like “You’re not cut out to be a cow,” or “Your breasts are too small to have enough milk,” or – as one woman told her daughter, “Why can’t you be like everybody else and do the natural thing – give the baby a bottle?” And a prominent pediatrician told me that nursing a baby beyond one year was abnormal and could cause major psychological problems in the child (this, despite World Health Organization and UNICEF recommendations to nurse for two years or more and despite no evidence that extended nursing caused problems). The year 1971, when I was researching and writing the book, marked the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the history of this country. Fortunately, health care providers and society at large now recognize that breastfeeding provides the very best start in life, for both physiological and psychological reasons. But now some of the same forces that told women not to breastfeed have mobilized so strongly that they’re now telling her she has to – all day and all night. Women who either cannot breastfeed (a tiny minority), cannot organize their lives to do it (like working women whose jobs don’t offer opportunities to pump or require extensive travel), or just don’t want to (often because they don’t have enough information or enough support) are being pressured in the hospital, in the neighborhood, and in the media. Those who do nurse are told by some authority figures that they have to do it a certain way – every time the baby whimpers, all night long with the baby in bed with mom and dad, all day long as mom walks around carrying her baby in a sling, and for as many years as her child wants to stay at the breast. All these practices are fine – if that’s what the mom wants to do – but not if she’s made to feel that by not following this rulebook she’s a bad mom or an inadequate mom who will doom her child to an unhappy or unhealthy life. TIME Magazine jumped into the mommy rules and the mommy wars in a disgustingly sensational way that did a disservice to both the mother and the child – and to legions of nursing couples -- on its May 21 cover. As everyone in the parenting world now knows, this showed a provocative photo of a mother and a nursing preschooler in a pose that’s about the unlikeliest nursing position I can think of -- and I have seen plenty of mothers nursing older children. They don’t do it standing hands on hips, with both mom and child looking at the camera instead of each other. I can just see the photo shoot with both mom and child getting constant directives to make the most outrageous photo possible. Then the cover line with the photo posed the demeaning question “Are You Mom Enough?” The cover story went on to profile Dr. William Sears, the pediatrician who has written some 40 books, mostly promoting what he calls “attachment parenting,” the philosophy that babies thrive on almost constant nursing, body contact, and parental co-sleeping, and that babies deprived of some of these elements are likely to develop serious problems of maladjustment. The article only briefly alludes to the fact that there’s no evidence for such dire results from more typical loving parenting. Basically, the sentence I wrote in the first edition of my book (and have repeated in all revisions, including the 2010 4th edition), which has in fact been upheld by research, still holds: A child raised in a loving home can grow up to be healthy and psychologically secure no matter how she or he receives nourishment.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


What a delight! I was recently privileged to be invited to a pre-release screening of this delightful new movie from Great Britain featuring some of our favorite grandparent-aged actors: Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, and other luminaries of British film. They played their roles without vanity – with wrinkles and wattles in full view, which didn't take anything away from their good looks. The story is about a group of retired people with limited means, none of whom know each other (except for the one married couple), who respond to a brochure offering an inexpensive residence in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” When they get to Jaipur they find out that the brochure had been photo-shopped and the pictures of the hotel do not represent what it is today, but what Sonny, the ditzy and appealing young owner, envisions it to be someday. As he says, “In India everything will turn out okay in the end and if it is not okay, it is not the end.” (This reminded me of my husband’s and my mantra when we went to India and kept encountering one surprise after another, and not always welcome surprises: “T.I.I.” for “This Is India.”) Dev Patel (of “Slumdog Millionaire”), who plays Sonny, heads a strong Indian cast, including actors portraying his gorgeous mother and a young untouchable servant whose story is one of many moving narratives. The life stories of the Brits, which brought them to Jaipur, are absorbing, as are the changes that take place in them and in their relationships with each other and with India. If you want to see people living their lives fully in their 60s and 70s and want to feel good walking out of the theater, you’ll have your chance after this film opens nationwide on May 4.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


I have recently come across four charming picture books about grandmothers and grandfathers, and the only negative thing I have to say is that I no longer have grandchildren in the picture-book stage!

All four of these books are published by a small firm, FlashLight Press, and all are written and illustrated by different and equally talented author/artist teams. The stories are entertaining and even thought-provoking, the pictures are delightful, and I think they will bear the test of your having to read them over and over and over again. I haven’t been able to choose a favorite, so I’ll just describe them briefly so you can see which one fits your grandchild relationship – or which one makes the two of you (and maybe grandpa too) laugh the most.

"Silly Frilly Grandma Tillie" by Laurie A. Jacobs and Anne Jewett describes all the funny characters who show up whenever Grandma Tillie baby-sits – Tillie Vanilly with the bright pink hair who loves to tell jokes and dance the conga, Chef Silly Tillie who cooks giggly chili, and a host of other lovable grannies.

"Grandfather’s Wrinkles" by Kathryn England and Richard McFarland recounts Granddad’s answers to Lucy’s question: “Why doesn’t your skin fit you any more? It’s all crinkly.” Granddad then takes Lucy on a trip around his lined face as he tells her about each joyous event that caused a particular wrinkle – until he comes to the most special wrinkles of all.

"Grandpa for Sale" by Dotti Enderle, Vicki Sansum, and T. Kyle Gentry portrays wealthy Mrs. Larchmont’s efforts to buy Grandpa from the family antique store and granddaughter Lizzie’s dreams of all the fabulous things she could buy for Grandpa’s purchase price. Will she sell him? Of course not, but we don’t learn that until the last page.

"Getting to Know Ruben Plotnick" by Roz Rosenbluth and Maurie J. Manning is a touching story about children’s understanding of dementia. When David invites his friend Ruben home, he’s a little worried about how Ruben will react to David’s grandmother, who sometimes says and does odd things. But he needn’t have worried: Ruben shows what he’s made of, and all three people enjoy his visit.

I hope that FlashLight Press will bring out more books about grandparents – and more with boys as the main characters. It’s ironic – I had to edit so many of the books that I read to my own daughters to turn the main characters into girls, and now I wonder whether the tide has turned the other way so that it’s harder to find male heroes at this age level. In any case, anyone reading any of these books to a child can do a little verbal editing to make the gender fit the grandchild if you want.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Books That Impacted My Life

Recently, in connection with the 120th anniversary of the magnificent Port Washington (NY) Public Library, where I spent so many valuable hours and received so much good help, I was asked to name some of the books that have made a big difference in my life. Since I’m sure that my fellow grandmothers have read some of these – and if not, would like to read them - I’m copying here the choices I sent to the library.

"The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan and "The Second Sex" by Simone de Beauvoir. I read both of these books during the summer of 1963. I was a young mother with three small children and although I loved taking care of them, I knew that I wanted to pursue other avenues in my life, and both of these books inspired me and gave me confidence in myself. In 1997 I nominated Betty Friedan for the Career Achievement Award presented by the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and I was proud to present her with her well-deserved award.

Going back quite a few years before then, I have to say that Louisa May Alcott’s "Little Women" made a huge impression on me. I read that book five times, first when I was about ten years old and most recently in my mid-twenties, when I cried at the same parts of the book that I had always cried at. Like so many other readers I identified with Jo, the strongest of the sisters, the most independent, and – what was significant for me – the writer. I think I have to credit this book with first giving me the idea that I could choose writing as a profession.

More recently my life was influenced by Arlene Blum’s book, "Annapurna: A Woman’s Place," about the first American ascent of Annapurna and the first all-women’s summiting of the mountain. I have never climbed a mountain, but this book inspired me so much that I did end up doing high-altitude trekking in the Himalayas, fell in love with Nepal and her people, ended up going there seven times, helped my guide start a library in his village, did what was probably the single biggest thing I ever did to change someone else’s life – arranged for cleft lip surgery for a village child, and then wrote my own book, "A Balcony in Nepal: Glimpses of a Himalayan Village."

Saturday, February 11, 2012


For this Valentine's Day week my colleague Bob Brody has been featuring several posts from parents writing letters to their children about how their mother and father met. My post in which I wrote to my children and my five grandchildren, went online yesterday, Friday, Feb. 10. Just go to

Bob is also releasing the results of a survey he took asking parents how many had told their children about the parents' first meeting. You can get the survey findings at Valentine's Day, everybody!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


As mothers we try to keep our children safe and free from harm, and then when the next generation comes along we try to provide the same kind of protection to our grandchildren. We even want to shield them from some of life’s emotional blows. But at some point we are often made painfully aware that our love and our best efforts are not always enough. They get hurt physically and they get hurt emotionally. When we – and they – are lucky, they recover and use those difficult times to learn from and to grow.

But as was made clear to me anew by the publication of my daughter Dorri’s powerful and heartbreaking essay, “Defriending My Rapist,” published in The New York Times online on January 13 and in print on January 15, I was not only unable to protect her from a horrifying experience when she was only 13 – I never even knew about it until many years later. Sure that it was her fault that she had been attacked, and also sure that if she told her parents we would go to the school and demand that the boys involved be held responsible for their actions, and that she would then be bullied at school for having “told,” Dorri kept this secret for years.

We knew that Dorri was having a troubled adolescence, and we tried to help – by speaking to her guidance counselor in junior high, arranging for her to see therapists, providing positive family experiences. But until Dorri was 26 and had sought out a therapist herself, she never unburdened herself of the long-repressed secret that was causing so many problems in her life.

By going public with her story 37 years after the attack, both with her essay and her appearance on Dr. Drew’s television show, Dorri wants to tell young people (boys as well as girls) that if something like this should happen to them, they shouldn’t blame themselves, and they should go to an adult who can help them. It’s never the victim’s fault, no matter what she wears and what she does – it is always the attacker’s fault.

Dorri has received hundreds of responses to her essay and TV appearance, many of which came from other victims who also never told anyone -- boys and girls who are now adults. So many say that the incidents and shame nearly destroyed their lives, and many said that Dorri had inspired them to finally talk about these traumas.

I hope that my grandchildren never have to undergo anything like this – but that if they do, that they will be able to ask for – and to get – help.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Like many grandmothers of today, I raised my three daughters with the assistance of my dog-eared copy of “Baby and Child Care.” And then my children raised their children with revised editions of this enormously helpful work, which in its newest incarnation still starts out with those comforting, confidence-building words, “You know more than you think you do.”

Yesterday I was thrilled to be part of the book launch for this new edition of "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care." The book party was hosted by Mary Morgan, Dr. Spock’s wife for 25 years until his death in 1998 at the age of 94, and was attended by Robert Needlman, M.D., the pediatrician who has carried on Dr. Spock’s legacy by writing the 8th and the 9th editions, and other celebrants who either knew Ben Spock or honored his memory. The event at the venerable Greenwich Village CaffĂ© Vivaldi was an exciting mix of tributes to this outstanding man, songs and music from the beautiful Iranian singer Rana Farhan and her band featuring the poetry of the Persian poet Rumi, good food, and good feelings. I felt honored to be there.

One of the most exciting days of my life was the one back in 1973 when both Dr. Spock and I were interviewed on the TV show Midday New York. After the show, I wrote this great man the following letter:

“Dear Dr. Spock:
“I’m sure that you must be used to reactions such as you got from me last week when I met you at “Midday” – heartfelt gratitude from a mother whose hand you held and whose confidence you raised as I brought up my children. And I’m sure you know how many people admire, respect, and support you for your outspoken and deep involvement in the peace movement. (We didn’t talk about this at all, but I am one of those people.) But I don’t know how often you think of yourself as a sex symbol, so I thought you might enjoy hearing what 16-year-old Nancy said about you.
“As we were sitting at lunch, my friend Sue and I were talking about how excited we were about having actually met you in person after having relied on you in print for so many years, and how wonderful it was to have someone in our lives whom we continued to respect over the years and in such different contexts. Then we talked about your extreme youthfulness at 70 – and here’s where my nubile daughter piped up with: ‘If I were 18, I’d really want to go after him, but since I’m under-age now, I wouldn’t want to get him in trouble.’ All I can say is that I hope she continues to have such good taste!
“All best wishes, Sally”

Then a few weeks later I got another thrill when I received the following letter:

“Dear Sally:
“I rarely get such an appreciative, flattering letter as yours. I’d be a spoiled second childhood child if I did. Your daughter’s remark was particularly exciting.
“Affectionately, Ben”

I went on to interview Ben Spock a couple of times for different writing projects and found him warm and wise and generous with his time. I feel blessed to have these memories.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Was I surprised to see that my last entry in these pages was almost two months ago, when I was volunteering for the NYC Marathon! Well, let’s see – soon afterwards there was Thanksgiving, when I volunteered for the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund (WEAF), a program administered by the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), the wonderful organization for nonfiction freelance writers which I have been a member of for almost all my writing life.

This volunteer stint was also fun – since for the first time WEAF held a fund-raiser in the Broadway offices of the ASJA, which meant that all of us who were there on Thanksgiving morning (including grandchildren) had a perfect view of the incredible Macy’s parade. And we knew we were helping a good cause. Tax-deductible contributions to WEAF help established freelance writers who, because of advanced age, illness, disability, a natural disaster, or an extraordinary professional crisis are unable to work, and a writer need not be a member of ASJA to qualify for a grant. To contribute, to request help, and to find more information about the program, go to

And have a happy new year!