Friday, April 27, 2018

Giving In to the Coloring Craze

Credit: Thinkstock
Why am I spending so much time doing something that may be a waste of time?

By Jill Smolowe for Next Avenue 

“So, be honest,” I say to my husband. “Is this stupid?”

I’ve just shown him my latest masterpiece, a mandala [an Indian symbol representing the universe] that swirls with a rich assortment of colors. After oohing and ahhing appropriately, he says, “No, it’s not stupid. I think it’s a pleasant way to pass time.”

“Nothing more?”

For my 61st birthday, my husband gave me an enormous cache of gel pens that initially made me cringe. Too much, I thought.

“Nothing more.”

This is what I dread. I am wasting time. “No aesthetic value?”

“No, but that’s not why you’re doing it.”

He reminds me that, having acted on my curiosity about the
adult coloring book craze sweeping the country, I find the activity relaxing, absorbing and an antidote to stress. He doesn’t understand my problem.

“You play Words With Friends. Why is this any different?”

Because it is, I insist. Fun apart, word games can help build vocabulary (dutifully I look up words I don’t recognize — then promptly forget them), ward against Alzheimer’s (maybe), keep my mind active.

They are, in a word, productive (sort of).

“Why do you have to accomplish something?” he presses. “Does coloring quiet your mind?” Yes.

“Is a half-hour of meditating wasting time?” No, not at all.

Being Here Now

Meditation helps me to focus. To immerse in the now. Which is what this coloring stuff does, too — to my surprise and delight. I haven’t had an outlet for my virtually non-existent art skills since elementary school. Painting, ceramics, needlework, none of it has attracted me. But this I really enjoy. The world recedes. Time flies by.

So why am I having trouble accepting that coloring mandalas with Magic Markers and gel pens is a legitimate way to spend my time? Sitting out on my porch, I become so absorbed in the challenge of finding new combinations of colors that at times I enter the complete immersion state known as flow — an experience that, until now, I’ve been able to achieve only when writing. That, in and of itself, suggests the exercise is worthwhile.

Yet I still can’t quite accept that it’s perfectly OK to spend time coloring. An hour here, two hours there. Never mind that it provides me with an excuse to dip into music I haven’t listened to in ages (Diane Krall, Van Morrison, Bob Marley). Surely there is more value to this than I realize.

Consulting a Color Expert

Seeking explanation, I invite Amy Wax to lunch. The author of Can’t Fail Color Schemes, Amy is a color consultant whose company, Your Color Source Studios, helps people select colors for the interiors and exteriors of their homes. When I tell her, a bit red-faced, about my new coloring habit, she lights up with pleasure.

“Coloring brings out our creative side,” she tells me. “There are no rules. It allows you to push limits.”

Though I like the sound of this, I remain skeptical. I’m just coloring inside of someone else’s lines, I say. I mean, it’s not really mine. Is it any more creative than, say, doing one of those paint-by-numbers pictures we used to do as kids?

“It is,” she says firmly. “Those pictures, they all look the same. These mandalas of yours, you made the choices. You’re creating this. No two are the same. That’s what makes it art.”

Art? Come on.

What Is Art?

“Art is a lofty term, but it’s appropriate,” she says. “You’re taking something two-dimensional and creating an illusion of three-dimensionality with the push and pull of the colors.” Think of it as collaborative, she says. Though someone else did the design, “It’s still yours.”

She points to my small assortment of completed pictures. “People are afraid of too much color. Once they take the baby step, they want to explore,” notes Wax.

Yup. With each successive mandala, I’ve incorporated more and bolder colors. Then, for my 61st birthday, my husband gave me an enormous cache of gel pens that initially made me cringe. Too much, I thought.

Not true, I quickly learned, as I began to experiment with the effects I could get from so many different shades and tones.

“I find it almost mathematical,” I say to Wax. “I feel instinctively that if I’m going to make all these colors work together, there has to be symmetry.”

“The mathematical part is what makes it succeed,” she explains. “You’re creating a world of balance.” Up the road, she suggests, I might want to experiment with asymmetry.

Hmmm. Hadn’t considered that.

“Look, playing with colors is whimsical,” she says. “It’s freedom to express yourself. It’s a tool to enhance visual awareness.”

All good, I allow. But in the end, jeez, I’m just coloring in a coloring book.

Wax laughs. “I feel the term ‘coloring book’ is holding you back. A coloring book is, by definition, juvenile. What you are doing here is not juvenile.”

The Precious Present

I pull out the three (yes, three!) books that I’ve purchased. Only one owns up to being an “adult coloring book.” The other two bill themselves respectively as “color art” and “color pad therapy.” Perhaps anticipating resistant types like myself, one of the two showcases a higher purpose in its subtitle: “anti-stress coloring pages.”

Recently, I read that some psychologists recommend coloring as therapeutic for grief, as well.

“It’s inspiring creative parts of you that have been dormant,” Wax says. “You’re getting something from this, which is why you keep going back to it.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But. I’m still a 61-year-old woman sitting on my porch coloring pictures with a proliferating assortment of markers and gel pens.

My 22-year-old daughter, blessed from birth with artistic ability, rolls her eyes when I share my doubts. “I can’t believe you think that way,” she says. Supportive of my new hobby, she has no patience for my reservations. “You enjoy it. That should be enough. Just keep coloring. Don’t ruin it for yourself.”

She’s right, of course.

But in case I didn’t internalize her wise admonition, a few days later I come across this from spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle in his 2005 bestseller, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. “You are present when what you are doing is not primarily a means to an end (money, prestige, winning) but fulfilling in itself.”

Even I can appreciate that being present in the moment is a beautiful thing.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Lewis MacAdams: Always Searching for the Impossible

“If it’s not impossible, I’m not interested.”

It’s a phrase that Lewis MacAdams, poet, journalist, filmmaker and activist has become known for over the years. Often repeated by friends and fans, it’s made its way on to tee-shirts and is now forever etched in the base of a seven-foot sandstone sculpture of him overlooking the Los Angeles River - his muse and mission for more than 40 years.  
Lewis’ relationship with the LA River dates back to 1985 when an impromptu stroll along its banks led to a vision: that the concrete entombed waterway could once again become a flourishing oasis for wild life and recreation.
“Essentially, I asked the river for permission to speak for it in the human realm and the river didn’t say no,” Lewis explained.
Since then, Friends of the River, an organization he co-founded, has made significant strides toward returning the river back to a more natural state. “Friends” organized river clean-ups days, community events and has advocated for improved water quality, development of surrounding green spaces and increased neighborhood access.
“An unexpected pleasure has come to me knowing just how many people have responded over the years,” Lewis said. In 2017 Friends of the River mobilized 10,000 volunteers to help remove 100 tons of trash.

Lewis’ inclination to tackle the seemingly “impossible,” however, did not start with his mission to revitalize the 48 miles of winding concrete, but has been a guiding principle since childhood, as the son of Civil Rights activists growing up in a sleepy town in west Texas.
Along the way he’s penned dozens of books of poetry, co-directed the documentary What Happened to Kerouac? and has been a contributing writer for Rolling Stone, the LA Times, and Men’s Journal. He is also the acclaimed author of The Birth of Cool: Beat, Bebop and the American Avant Garde. He is currently 200 pages into a memoir project, Poetry and Politics, which he’s working on with historian Michael Block.
At Kingsley Manor Retirement Community, a community that attracts many artists, intellectuals and like-minded lovers of the “impossible,” he’s found many kindred spirits, including a few fellow river enthusiasts, who share his desire to connect regularly with the thriving metropolis all around.

His favorite spot, naturally, is Kingsley’s rooftop deck which he visits on a daily basis to take in its expansive view of the city. From the Hollywood sign to the Library Tower downtown to the Pacific just on the horizon, it’s a vista which, like the river, reveals itself slightly differently every day: magnificent, impossible and ever-inspiring.

Friday, April 20, 2018

How I Finally Found the Right Volunteer Experience

Giving back isn’t always as simple as it sounds, but it's worth it

By Jill Smolowe for Next Avenue

Credit: Getty ImagesMan using computer keyboard, close up

In 2011, social entrepreneur Nancy Lublin had an aha moment: Millennials don’t dial into help lines when they’re in crisis because they hate speaking on the phone. Two years later, Lublin launched the Crisis Text Line, a 24/7 crisis-intervention hotline that enables people to reach out for free help via text messaging — a communication comfort zone for people in their teens and 20s. Plainly, it was an idea whose time had come: In just three years, the hotline’s crisis counselors have exchanged 28 million messages with texters nationwide.

When I first read about the Crisis Text Line, I was instantly interested. Its focus on helping young people in a moment of distress promised to make good use of skills I’d developed as a grief and divorce coach. Couple that with my ongoing search for a satisfying volunteer experience, and it seemed like a slam dunk…

…until I thought about the texting thing. That conjured visions of me tapping out typo after typo with my too-big thumbs on the too-small buttons on my cell phone (a device with which I hardly have a love relationship). I took a pass.

Try, Try Again

As I continued to look for a volunteer opportunity, I was surprised to discover that it’s not so easy to find an outlet that tidily matches the skills and passion you have to offer with the needs of an organization.

One friend told me that she knocked on non-profit doors for years trying to find an outlet for her environmental interests, only to come up empty-handed. Another friend who wanted to do advocacy work for homeless dogs found that the free offer of her time was not enough to get her phone calls returned.

Over the next eight weeks, trainers armed me with a canny array of skills for guiding people through a moment of crisis.

Some of my own efforts proved discouraging. A group that works with grieving children put me through a day-long training, only to notify me that my services wouldn’t be needed at an upcoming weekend-long event. A mentorship writing program that pairs high school girls with professional writers put me on a wait list. Given that I don’t have two heads, do have good manners, and offer a professional track record in both the writing and grief-work fields, I suspected that I was an older candidate than either organization was seeking.

Age proved a non-issue when I signed up for a tutoring program. My fourth-grader and I hit it off from the get-go. But he was a bright 10-year-old boy who didn’t actually need tutoring. Each Wednesday we’d tear through his (boring!) assignments, then play games. Mostly, he kicked my butt at chess. Often our time together felt more like babysitting than “giving back.” (And, ahem, my math skills were not always terribly useful to him.)

A New Approach

Around the time his school year was winding down, my daughter returned from college, absent her cell phone, which mistakenly had gone home with another student. Given my daughter’s 24/7 texting habits, I assumed that retrieving her phone would be a priority. To my surprise, she was actually enjoying the time untethered to a phone. To my greater surprise, that freedom hadn’t cut her off from exchanging texts with her friends.

“I do it on the computer,” she told me.

Subtext: Duh.

Valhalla! Texting via computer would mean a full-size keyboard, a big monitor and none of that annoying thumbs-only stuff that, for me, produces more typos than real words.

Quickly I found my way to and clicked the “Apply Now” button for volunteers. After clearing the assorted hurdles (including a criminal background check and references from two people) and making a yearlong commitment to handle calls four hours a week, I was assigned to an online training pod.

Becoming a Volunteer

Over the next eight weeks, trainers armed me with a canny array of skills for guiding people through a moment of crisis. The focus was on helping people shift from the heat of despair or upset to a place of cool and calm. The list of potential issues we could expect to encounter was formidable, among them suicide, self-harm, sexual abuse, LGBT bullying, eating disorders and homelessness.

No matter what the crisis, the Crisis Text Line approach was clear: you’re not here to solve people’s problems. Rather, you’re here to listen to them, to validate their pain, to remind them of their strengths, then to work with them collaboratively to identify a goal that will help them to keep moving in a positive direction when the texting conversation (convo, in crisis counseling lingo) ends.

In a nutshell, the text line was offering training for a skill that I hadn’t realized could be taught or enhanced: empathy. Armed with a particular style of questioning and response, it was possible to guide texters away from feelings of extreme distress. The hotline’s data backed that up: while some 70 percent of callers open conversations with dire statements (“I’ve lost the will to live,” “Suicidal feelings,” “I’m overwhelmed and want to die”), only 1 percent require intervention to halt a suicide attempt.

Six months later as I near the 100-convo mark, texters who write, “I’m trying not to cut myself,” no longer throw me. (Tip: Try drawing on your skin with a red marker, then tracing the lines with an ice cube. It “bleeds.”) I’ve yet to encounter any of the one-percenters (roughly 10 texters a day) at imminent risk of taking their lives. But I’ve shared the joy of other counselors who, in collaboration with a supervisor, have mounted successful rescues by tapping into local resources.

A Satisfying Experience

The Crisis Text Line platform is mindful of how intense these conversations can be for volunteers. Though everything is done online and I work from home, supervisors are always available to guide. And there is a chat room counselors can turn to for instant advice from other on-duty counselors while handling a difficult conversation.

In another chat room, counselors can take a breather. There, the messages are always supportive and lively. Given that 77 percent of the hotline’s 2,800 active counselors are between the ages of 18 and 35, favored discussion topics run toward cats, holiday plans and grad school applications.

For the 117 crisis counselors who are over age 55, such dialogue offers a delightful window on Millennial interests and preoccupations. The actual crisis conversations provide a sobering window on the stresses young people face today. “Volunteers over age 55 make exceptional crisis counselors,” Lublin said via email. “Through lived experience, they are (not surprisingly!) committed, highly empathetic and strong active listeners.”

As I pass the halfway mark of my first year as a volunteer (at year one, I get a text line sweatshirt. Woohoo!), I feel that it was well worth the hunt to find a volunteer experience that engages my heart, mind and skills. If you, too, are seeking a satisfying volunteer activity, please trust there are people and causes out there that need your time and experience. Just be forewarned: it may take some trial and error to find what you’re looking for.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Parkinson’s Won’t Keep Kingsley Manor Stand-Up Comedian Down

“Did you hear the one about the man who robbed the bank in a wheel chair? He made an easy escape because the security guard jumped up to hold the door open for him.”

From anecdotes about bank robbers who slide past bank security in their wheelchairs to observations on by-stander’s reactions when one takes an unexpected fall, comedian and Kingsley Manor Retirement Community resident Mark Siegel has an unusual, and possibly unique, source for much of his stand-up routine: his Parkinson’s disease.

“I figured if I’m going to get on the stage people are going to wonder why I’m talking soft and slurring my words,” Mark said. “I decided I’d talk about the Parkinson’s at the beginning and see where it goes. I think I got a good response.” Siegel has been living with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that often affects speech and movement, for the past 18 years. But Mark doesn’t let a disease get in the way of good “shtick.”

After a long career as a communication officer for a labor union, he decided to pursue his childhood dream: comedy. One night after watching a friend perform at an open mic, Mark had a revelation.

“It’s not that hard,” he said. “There’s little risk involved other than a little humiliation.” He signed up for a class and eventually testing out his material at open mic nights. So far he’s played to crowds at The Comedy Store, Flappers and, of course, Kingsley Manor. He has been performing for about a year and a half.

“He gets some pretty good laughs,” said Kingsley Manor’s Life Enrichment Director Viktoria Selmser. “He’s not afraid to put himself out there.”

He chose Kingsley partly for its great location. He loves having ready access to all that the city has to offer, including the local comedy clubs.

Mark appreciates the personalized and respectful care he receives for his Parkinson’s at Kingsley. “There’s a balance between privacy and having somebody there to help you. Kingsley gives me exactly what I need.”

But the thing that’s surprised him most are the relationships that he’s developed at Kingsley. “Of my closest friends, one’s a dancer, one is a poet and another is in publishing. They give me the extra push to do something positive and creative,” he explained.

Mark finds having friends and neighbors with common interests helps keep him engaged with his pursuits. “It gives you the extra push to do something,” he explained.

He encourages others with Parkinson’s to figure out a way to explore those things that interest them.

In addition to participating in regular dance and exercise classes offered at Kingsley, Mark runs a political discussion group and is very involved in the Parkinson’s Community LA, an organization which raises money for home care, exercise programs and transportation services for individuals living with Parkinson’s.

And just in case you were wondering … “After the robber escaped from the bank, a police helicopter spotted his wheelchair abandoned in an empty lot. He figured he could elude police by switching wheelchairs,” Mark quipped.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

One Surprising Way Older Adults Can Get Healthier

Credit: Adobe Stock 

You know about the obvious things. Now try this. 
By Dr. Ann Hwang for Next Avenue

Whether or not we actually do the right things to improve our health, many of us probably assume we know what they are. Walk more. Quit smoking. Eat healthier.

It’s a familiar list, and a good one. As a primary care doctor, I spend plenty of time counseling people to do exactly these things. But here’s another, less familiar thing I think you should consider: get engaged in your community. 

The Benefits of Connection 

Civic engagement may not be on the top of everyone’s to-do list, but it probably should be. There is intriguing evidence to suggest that people who are engaged in their communities — through activities like participating in local organizations or volunteering — could also have better health. 

For example, older adults who volunteer are less likely to have high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease; they face a lower risk of cognitive impairment and they might even delay death.

Additionally, forming social connections might be particularly helpful in combatting social isolation and loneliness, a growing problem especially among older adults. People who are socially isolated may have increased risk for premature death and some have estimated that the negative impact of social isolation and loneliness could be a greater public health threat than obesity.

Living alone’ having a mobility or sensory impairment; going through a major life transition (like losing a spouse) or being a caregiver for someone with a severe impairment are common scenarios facing older adults. They are also risk factors for isolation.

Yet despite the potential benefits, the average American is becoming less and less engaged. Participation in clubs and civic organizations has fallen by more than half over the last 25 years and polls suggest growing distrust and pessimism about our political system.
Stories of Hopeful Change

In our work at the Center for Consumer Engagement in Health Innovation, we’ve seen the possibility and promise of change. We support advocates and leaders — particularly people who have significant health care needs or come from low-income communities — who are actively engaged in working to make the health system more responsive and person-centered.

People like Lezrette Hutchinson, a working mother of three who experienced homelessness after a fire and had significant health challenges after a diagnosis of sarcoidosis, a serious inflammatory condition. Hutchinson got treatment, but she didn’t stop there. She formed a recreational support group for people 50+ and joined the patient advisory board of her health system, saying “we wanted doctors to listen to us.”

Now, despite her ongoing illness, she feels the power of having a larger purpose. Hutchinson says: “I became an activist so I could let new people know it was going to be OK.”

Or Kathy Paul, a 69-year-old woman who advocates for better health care policies for older adults with the Massachusetts Senior Action Council. When her husband died, it was a turning point in her life.

She explains, “With more time on your hands, what do you do? Just sit in the house, stare at the walls and complain, or get out and do something about it? What our group likes to say is, ‘We don’t just take it, we take charge!’” 

Everybody Wins 

As the National Academy of Medicine recently summarized, actively engaging consumers as partners in health care is a win-win proposition, for all of us and for the health system. Health care leaders and policymakers interested in improving health would do well to focus on building more opportunities for engagement for consumers and the communities they serve. 

So if you’d like to improve your health, consider looking for ways to become active in your community. Get involved with a local community organization, drive someone to the polls, join a committee at your place of worship. Find a way to get engaged. Help yourself and help others at the same time.

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