My parents’ rules still work — do yours?


bootcamp2015-small 2Posted in 2015: In which I discover that younger people are also interested in the process of aging, and give a speech to DARE 2014 conference called Life is Long: Find happiness now.


In a sense, my boot camp for old age really began last year. Last year I learned new things about myself as a result of preparing a speech for the DARE 2014 conference in London. This was a special event from me as for once, two of my worlds converged.

The slogan of DARE 2014 was “People skills for digital workers,” and apparently I was the one who coined it.  The audience works at programming, web design, content management, systems design, digital strategy and so forth. Likewise, my own daily work is in the digital sphere, where my age is totally irrelevant. At the same time, I was becoming fascinated by all the illogical, contradictory, bizarre attitudes to aging that surrounded me.

What interested a younger audience about aging

I found to my surprise that younger digital workers were also concerned about the process of growing older. Many told me that they found it helpful just to see their current worries in a long term perspective. I was living proof that life is long and careers have many surprising twists and turns and that 74, in my experience, was proving to be a sweet spot.

The folk at DARE know exactly what their audience wants and provide strong guidelines for the content and form of presentations. So the process of preparing our talks was rigorous, involving a set structure and several rehearsals with other speakers. This was heaps of fun, as well as a mighty hard challenge. I found that writing about my life story brought me some surprising new insights. (Funny, that.)

What I learned when I spoke about aging

  1. Your life story, past and future, is fluid. It is not cast in concrete.
  2. Your parents embed certain mantras in your head. If they’re good, you can refer to them forever. (In our family David said, “Be kind” and Celia said, “Go on, have an adventure!” Perfect.)
  3. We already know how to grow old happily, thanks to science, experience, and common sense. It’s a good idea to start being happy right this minute, regardless of circumstances and regardless of your age.

You can watch my 25-minute speech without a Tardis

Life is short: find happiness now

Studying happiness for no good reason


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(Republished from 2016) In which I enrol in a Massive Open Online Course on the Science of Happiness even though I am not unhappy.


OK, here’s one boot camp task that I haven’t peered into yet. It is rather weirdly worded: “Align happiness factors.”

Why did I write it that way, so prissy and non-committal? Why didn’t I write “Start being happy” or “Do 40 happiness exercises per week”?  Because I’m not unhappy. I’m generally satisfied with my life, which is (it turns out) a pretty good definition of happiness. (More about that later.)

Happiness as a topic not a goal

Very well then, we’ve established that I’m not unhappy. So if being happy isn’t a struggle for me, why include it in the boot camp? (Oh God, Smugilla is coming through loud and clear today.) I might as well set myself as a goal “carry on breathing” … although, come to think of it, to carry on breathing is … hey let’s not go there.

What’s more, I’ve always thought pursuing happiness was a daft idea. Chasing it? Running after it? Haven’t you got better things to do? What will you do if you catch it — trap it? Bottle it? Domesticate it? Anyway, isn’t happiness right under your nose?

Let’s be serious here

My reasoning was that old age may bring  new pain and sadness and confusion. How can a person continue to be “happy” when friends die, when we ourselves are terminally ill? What do we know about happiness, scientifically, that will make a difference when the chips are down? What habits of body and mind increase our chances of being happy late in life?

Think of the very old people you know. Some are funny. Some serene. Some contented. Some are grumpy. Some are desperately unhappy. And the difference in their outlook may be out of all proportion to their circumstances.

Just planning ahead here

So I figured, why not get my ducks in a row, well in advance of any bonus troubles? I’ve already read a pile of books on happiness, and they swim around my mind in a vortex, sucking me in to contradictions and inconsistencies. (Which I quite enjoy.).

Order, order! says the sergeant major. So I enrolled in a MOOC on the Science of Happiness, a Massive Open Online Course from the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre. That’ll sort me out, I thought.

By gum, now I’m gonna be happy happy happy. Bring it on.

 Image from “El Angel, el molino, el caracol del faro, estampas rurales y de cuentos, estampas de un Leon y una Leona, estampas del Faro;” (1921) by Mira, Gabriel. Public domain

The unexpected benefits of a bruised rib

This poor young lady is sure to be injured. Her corset is a rib-breaking machine. (Public domain image)

bootcamp2015-small 2Short read written in 2015. In which I discover the remarkable therapeutic features of a lightly bruised rib.


Last Saturday morning I leaned over my bath, aiming to wipe away some dust before turning on the tap. I was standing on a thin bathmat, bent almost double because the bath, being Japanese, is very deep—when thunk! One foot slipped backwards and my rib cage collided forcibly with the stainless steel rim of the bath.

I felt my rib cage bounce like a balloon. How clever! I said some rude words to the air and thank you to my bones, and proceeded with the bath ritual. Nothing had broken as far as I could tell.

However, the body still had some work to do. The downside is a bit of pain and a temporary absence from the gym. On the upside, this minor injury provides me with two timely benefits.

A mindfulness reminder

First, it’s a lesson in mindfulness. For sound engineering reasons one should never exert heavy angular pressure on a lightweight movable object (the bathmat), so I’ll never do that silly thing again, I hope.

A training tool for belly-breathing

Second, the pain has proved to be an ideal training tool for belly breathing, which I had found so difficult. I’ve become pretty good at breathing without moving my rib cage, believe me. Breathe wrong: pain. Breathe right: whoopee, no problem!

Got it. You can stop now.

So many friends! How did that happen?

A birthday party. Birthday girl is 70 years younger than 75. Image Mary Mapes Hodge, public domain

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Long read, written in 2015. In which I notice with astonishment that I have many friends, and compare them to a trampoline.


Back in February I abruptly decided to throw a party for my 75th birthday. I’d never had a biggish party at my place, because the layout was difficult—steep narrow stairs, one hard-to-find bathroom, and so forth. But suddenly the penny dropped.. With caterers, the layout would be manageable. With a new bathroom upstairs, traffic flow was simplified. With a new-old couch, visitors could overflow into in the study. I got a handrail for the staircase, and behold,  this party was a goer.

Whipping through my memory and contact list, I was amazed at how many people are closely involved in my life. It helps to belong to a big family, even though only two of my sisters could make it. I am still remembering people I should have and would have asked, given more time to think. But even with very short notice, friends and family filled my apartment nicely.

My friend Liz made an enormous heart-stompingly luscious double-chocolate cake, family blew up balloons, and like Hansel and Gretel I laid a trail of glitter on the footpath to my place. Caterers arrived in plenty of time, establishing a calm and competent atmosphere. Ready? Ready. Time to party!

What do you say at your 75th birthday party? At cake-cutting time I shared my thoughts about all these people in my life, and why I was surprised to find myself surrounded by them.

I was a late starter with friendship

I was at high school when I made a friend for the first time. Before that, I wasn’t lonely—I had five sisters, for goodness’ sake, and we comprised a ready-made, self-contained community, so who needed friends? People were friendly to me, but I wasn’t particularly interested in them. Family relationships and the contents of my own head seemed generally more exciting. I needed feeding from within and I still do.

In other words, I was born a happy introvert and only popped out of my own head occasionally to communicate with my family and cope with school. I talked, I listened sometimes, but people outside the family didn’t seem quite … real.

Then along came Elisabeth. Funny, witty, outrageous. Rule follower, rule breaker. Thoughtful, conscientious, and often silly. Also from a family of sisters. Someone who was most emphatically my very own personal friend.

That was the turning point. Very soon I discovered that I already did have other friends: I just hadn’t noticed them. Gosh, people were interesting—who knew?

I’m still happy to sit in a paddock all alone for months at a time writing a book. My own company is still a precious commodity and by now I love it far too much. I’d probably go mad in a marriage. But I looked around at my birthday party in surprise. Gee, so many friends? How did that happen? Somewhere along the way I must have got the knack.

Friends, meet my friends

Until you clap eyes on them, other people’s friends and relatives leave only a fuzzy impression.

My friends must get sick of me saying, “I’ve got to meet John…” “Kate’s at the Coberg Salsa Festival…” “Elke says to try less hard…” “Jan’s making us do a whole dance with our knees bent…” Sometimes they can’t help thinking very loudly, “Who’s Karl? Who’s Kate? Who’s Elke? Who’s Jan?”

This party was a chance to muster friends from different batches into a single room.

Members of my family. My business partner. Capital Choir friends. Dancing mates from Crows Feet Dance Collective. My writing buddy. Neighbourhood friends. Friends from Feldenkreis classes. Literary friends. Ukulaliens. And one-off friends who pop up out of nowhere.

“See,” I said, “John is a real person. Meet my sisters Lesley and Deirdre. Look, here are three of my solid gold children, Geoff, Kate and Diana. Say hello to Rebecca and Elsie and Celia.. Meet Felicia, Anne, Denise, John, Richard, Austin…” Strangers had a chance to put faces to some of the magic names.

You are my trampoline

Trampolining. Photo by Twins Watch 7/08 (co07) on Flickr cc-by-2.0

You, my lovely people, provide structure to my week and my year. I meet some of you at ukulele group on Mondays, others at choir on Tuesdays, others at Crows on Wednesday, and so forth. You keep me safe.

You know those fantastic modern trampolines enclosed in a safety net? I think of myself as bouncing up and down and up and down as high as I can, and I always land on the same place and I never fall off.

That’s only possible because of my people. These special people, my family and friends, keep me bouncing and they also keep me safe from hurting myself.

Without my people, I’m not sure whether I would even be me. I am amazed to think this thought, that our very identity may depend heavily on who is in our life. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe it’s true and unhealthy. Anyway, I’m turning that thought over in my  mind.

Please Friend me—no, don’t!

Someone asks to Friend you on Facebook… You sort of know them… Decisions, decisions…

A Facebook account broadcasts your apparent popularity. “431 friends” means no such thing. It means that 431 people including real life friends and relatives, plus acquaintances, plus random contacts of acquaintances who happen to be on Facebook have drifted into your orbit.

Please Friend me! Well, no — actually, I would much rather you liked or followed this blog or commented on one of the posts. Here am I writing away at my desk, spilling my heart out as part of a personal boot camp for old age, and wonder if anyone is interested. Hello, hello?

And seriously, I feel excited and lucky whenever someone makes a comment or likes a post or follows my blog . Like everyone, I need a bit of encouragement now and then, so thank you very much.

Letter to a frustrated poet


Note: This is adapted from a real letter, shared because some writers desperately want the impossible (their books in high street bookstores) and refuse to explore other outlets for their writing. Sabella is not the poet’s real name.

Dear Sabella

It was good to see you the other day after all these years. I’m glad to know you have such an excellent driver to help with transport, especially when you travelled for nearly two hours to call on me and <famous New Zealand poet> and<famous New Zealand poet>.

Thank you for lending me <title of poetry book> to read, and the CD — which as you say, is essential to get the full flavour of the poems. I enjoyed them both as insights into the way your mind is working and your talents as a poet and actor. What I appreciate is the passion behind the poems, even when I don’t grasp the meaning. Your reading brings out that passion and drama. My feeling is that these are performance poems, which don’t necessarily flower on the page. I am pleased you have been doing open mic performances: that’s where you get the most wonderful audience responses!

Sabella, I have decided not to write a review

  1. A review needs an outlet, and I don’t have a suitable one.
  2. With only eleven poems, the book is very short. A reviewer wants something substantial. Customers will not see the book as good value. Bookstores won’t see it as profitable. Theoretically the CD adds value, but people can’t glance through it like a book: they have to listen and they can’t do that in a shop.
  3. You wanted a review, I understand, so that Unity Books would agree to sell the book. Let me repeat, I am certain that a review would not make the slightest difference. Unity has outstanding staff who know what their customers will buy, regardless of reviews.
  4. Every author longs for reviews but the publishing scene has changed. I used to get a dozen or so reviews for my fiction and even my poetry collections. Now, I’m lucky if I get a couple. So I publish new poems on a blog, and am very happy with the readers who gather there. (

I suggest you send a review copy of Quake to Paula Green who runs the New Zealand Poetry Shelf blog. ( Paula is a knowledgeable and wise advocate for New Zealand poetry. Don’t ask her to return the book: that’s not polite.

Don’t be so proud — get online!

It’s really worthwhile learning how to read and write and broadcast poetry online — hundreds of poems are being published in blogs, on Facebook, on Instagram. All this is much, much, much easier than it was a few years ago, I promise. You get to meet other poets and readers, and to publish your own poems in a friendly atmosphere. SeniorNet in <your city> offers very popular computer classes for people 50 and over, and these classes are easy and fun.

This is my own philosophy as a writer

Sabella, my new slogan is write into life — write because you love it, because the act of writing is life-affirming and life-giving and healing and intellectually satisfying, write because you want to write!

Write. Don’t expect publishers to publish you or bookstores to promote you. Don’t expect fame and fortune. Don’t expect reviews. When you drop the sense of entitlement, you banish bitterness and frustration. And then everything beyond the joy of writing is a bonus — every round of applause at a reading, every message from a reader, every review, every invitation to a literary event, every smile of recognition is something you didn’t demand or even expect and is therefore twice as precious.

This reply is offered in sincerity and respect. I don’t ask of you anything that I don’t live by myself. I expect you are disappointed but you did ask the right person for advice.

I wish you well in every way.



Make two new friends every year and dodge the loneliness trap

Spartan girls with cithara. (Public domain image)

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Long read, written in 2015. In which I accidentally make three new friends and thereby diminish my chances of suffering from loneliness in old age.


One goal of my boot camp for old age is to make at least two new friends this year and every year. Now why would I set myself such a goal? I think you know.

Loneliness is a scourge of the old. Loneliness is a killer, and I’m not exaggerating. Some research findings:

  • Risk of early death caused by loneliness was double the impact caused by obesity.
  • Scientists tracked more than 2,000 people aged 50 and over and found that the loneliest were nearly twice as likely to die during the six-year study than the least lonely.
  • Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism, accidents, depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent with social isolation.

When you’re the last one standing

You probably know some very old people who have lost all their personal friends. Over the years, every friend has either moved away to Florida or the Gold Coast or Tauranga, or passed away. That’s a sad thing to see and an even sadder way to be.

So how can we avoid falling into the lonely trap? I didn’t set this goal because I am lonely. If anything, there are far too many wonderful people in my life for me to keep up with. But, you see, I’m just a spring chicken so far, and things change.

I assume that most people find it harder to make new friends as they get older, and I figure that making new friends—just like going to the gym—should become a solid habit, an expectation, an automatic behaviour. Then we’re more likely to stick with that habit to the very end.

When Mim, my grandmother, went to hospital for her final few weeks, she made friends left, right and centre. All the staff loved being with her because she was so interested in them, and of course such a fascinating person herself. So she died attended by new friends as well as old friends and family.

We can’t all be fascinating, but we can be interested in others.

A friend is a friend, no more, no less

By friend, I don’t mean a best buddy, necessarily. If when you think about a person, you pause, picture them and smile, that’s a friend.

The beauty of old friends is that they share memories and know each other inside out. They can reminisce together, see the shape of their lives whole, trust each other, communicate volumes with a single word or a raised eyebrow.

The beauty of new friends is that they do not share memories or know each other inside out. Every new friend is truly a wonder, for that very reason. There are brand new stories to hear and a chance to tell your own stories in a brand new way.

New friend mission for 2015: check!

This year I have exceeded my target without even trying. There’s Esther, new to our body corporate and a delightful ally in all matters financial and managerial. And Viv, who adorns, inspires and amuses our bumbling local group of Ukulaliens. And Jas, who provides spirited conversation over coffee every month or so.

Luckily, two of my three new friends are at least 20 years younger than me.

Big effort, no effort: both can win friends

Sometimes, you certainly do need to get out there, join a club, take the initiative. When I first came to live in Wellington, I religiously phoned one acquaintance every week to make a date for dinner or a movie or whatever: I had to push myself in their faces. It’s the same whenever you move to a new place. Then it’s not enough to say you’d like to join a book club: you have to get out there and find one or start one.

But I spy an anomaly. On the one hand, making two new friends every year is now my conscious, chosen, publicly documented goal. On the other hand, I forgot all about it until I revisited my boot camp list and realised this one was already done and dusted.

I have a hunch that this sneaky win was not a coincidence. Maybe the most successful friend-acquisition programmes are based on not-trying. Instead, to make friends, maybe we just need to keep our minds and eyes and doors open. Just do stuff and talk to people. Oops, you just made a friend!

32 pieces of advice for a 75-year-old


bootcamp2015-small 2Reposted from 2015. In which various kind people give me personal advice, much of it valuable, all of it appreciated, on how to live my life.


In August 2015 I went on a seven-day cruise of New Zealand’s southernmost fiords with two friends, 29 soon-to-be friends, and six friendly crew. (What, only six? Yes: they were all multi-skilled and worked day and night for our comfort and enlightenment.) This adventure with Real Journeys on the Milford Wanderer is such a rich experience that — so I discovered — half my friends had already taken it.

Preservation Inlet is the most remote fiord, and I felt the name was a good omen for anyone contemplating old age. I wish to be well preserved until I die. (After that, who cares?)

How does the Preservation Inlet cruise fit into the context of my boot camp for the bonus years? It’s not on the list of twelve challenges because it’s my long-standing policy to have an adventure every year, and I have no intention of stopping. That is not a challenge: it’s just fun. The oldest passenger was Jess, a vibrant 92-year-old full of fun and curiosity, who really listens and is fully engaged with the world. Another role model.

But the cruise was certainly a learning experience — we could hardly help becoming enlightened to some degree as we walked in many isolated places saturated in a startling human history. We learned from the experience, the passengers and of course from our guide Chris and the other crew members.

However, if information goes in one ear and out the other, that’s not exactly learning new stuff, is it?

 Lest I forget: a rapid review of tips

On our final evening I toured the common room asking everyone to restate any advice they had given me in the course of the trip. If they couldn’t remember, they gave me new tips regardless. Yay! Now I’m all set. Who could go wrong with advice like this?

Advice on cruising in rough sea and the southern fiords

  • Glenda: To reduce sea-sickness, put an ear plug in the ear opposite to your dominant hand (e.g. if you are right-handed, put an earplug in your left ear).
  • Donna: Lie down and close your eyes.
  • Peter 1: Choose your cabin carefully, away from snorers.
  • Alayne: Always wear sunscreen.
  • Ray: Petition Parliament for more pillows.

Tips for bush walking and kayaking

  • Brent: Use seal blubber as a sandfly repellant and don’t be a penguin.
  • Kate: Camp under eucalypts to deter mosquitoes. (Good luck with that one, Kate.)
  • Juliet: Make sure you fall in love with a man who you know will survive in the bush. (Quote from Jenny Bornholdt.)
  • Barbara: Record an unknown bird’s song and send it to the birdsong website.
  • Lyall: If pursued by horsemen or horsewomen intent upon doing harm, carry a supply of calthrops.
  • Martin: Have a good camera and learn how to use it.

Advice about nutrition

  • Janine: Order an iced cake at least one week in advance.
  • Older Tom: There is no rule that says you must drink all the wine in the bottle.
  • Clive: Don’t drink anti-freeze. Or if you do, drink my anti-freeze, made from Antarctic fish.
  • Graeme: Keep moving. Eat prunes.

Advice about advice

  • Don: Don’t seek too much advice at once.
  • Deborah: Don’t advise other people.

Old and mostly true (the tips, I mean)

  • Peter 2: Live life on the edge.
  • Hamish: Before you start your enterprise, appoint the scapegoat. (Joke… or am I it?)
  • Jim: Never put off something that you will later regret not doing.
  • Alison: Keep your knees together. (Too late.)
  • Janine: Be nice to your mother. (Too late, but I’ll pass it on.)
  • Peter 3: Be kind. (Never too late.)
  • Fay: Keep on smiling. It will take you everywhere.

Instantly usable tips

  • Heather: When threading a needle, fold the thread over the eye of the needle and slip the eye over the fold.
  • Lyall again: Use a needle threader.
  • Young Tom: What’s your novel’s title?  Write it to attract your target readers.

Wisdom from the youngest and oldest

  • Heather: Sometimes it’s the youngest or the oldest person in the room that you learn from.
  • Young Rachael: To pack small, use compression bags.
  • Geraldine (81): I am a senior citizen so I am entitled to give you advice. When you’re over 80 you need a sense of humour. So if you don’t have one, start working on it.
  • Young Rachael: Get ready for your shower the night before.
  • Jess (92): FINISH YOUR NOVEL! (I did! It’s called Fixing Mrs Philpott: notice a theme here?)

Image from Le Petit Nord, or, Annals of a Labrador Harbour (1920) by Anne Grenfell and Katie Spalding. Public domain.