Should We Raise or Lower the Bar?

“Believe me, there is no such thing as expecting too much.” Susan Cheever, American author

“It’s expectation that differentiates us from the dead.” Sheila Ballantyne, American author

“If you have too much expectation, you may come away disappointed.” Dalai Lama

What should we expect – in relationships, in life?

The word expect, from the Latin exspectare, to look out for, has a range of meanings.

On the lighter side, it can mean to think something will likely happen. For example, you will wake up in the morning, your car will start, you will get to work on time, your friend will show up for lunch when she said she would. Synonyms are hope, look forward to, anticipate, think, believe, imagine.

On the heavier side, it can mean looking for something from someone you think is rightfully due, or a requirement to fulfill an obligation. For example, I want you to do your share of chores around the house, we expect you to be here at work by 9 a.m. Synonyms are require, want, insist on, demand.

My late mother-in-law told me when she got older that she had given up having expectations. “That way I’m never disappointed and pleasantly surprised when something nice happens.” At the time, I thought this was sad, almost like admitting, “I’m not going to be getting much.” How can we not look forward to things, have desires? Has she just given up?

Recently, watching Season 7 of “The Good Wife,” I saw a similar exchange. The scene takes place in a bar where Alicia and her new law firm partner Lucca are discussing jobs and men. Lucca, a perky thirtysomething, says “I don’t have any expectations.”

Alicia looks at Lucca with her slightly weary, fiftysomething expression and says, “Really? That seems so sad.”

What does it mean to have no expectations? Buddhists advise letting go of the “wanting mind,” which they consider the source of much suffering. If we stop attaching ourselves to specific outcomes and try to flow with the unexpected, we can be closer to enlightenment, or at least calmer along the way.

On the other hand, some old and new age philosophers advise us to visualize what we want, to attract what we deserve. Expect everything and the universe will deliver. Think and Grow Rich, wrote Napoleon Hill in 1937, setting off a chain reaction of self-help, create-your-own reality books.

So, which is it?

Now that I am older myself, I think I see what my mother-in-law was saying. She didn’t mean she was letting go of all expectations. For example, she still hoped to wake up in the morning (although realized she might not) and looked forward to gatherings with friends and family. These are lighter expectations, reasonable hopes for a healthy person.

What she meant was that she was letting go of unrealistic expectations from people and the world. A devout Christian, she was big on forgiveness and acceptance. The world tested her many times – a mentally ill son, a granddaughter who died of alcoholism, children marrying and divorcing, coming and going.

Living in an old house, she often made requests for help that could seem like demands to family members who were busy working, living their own lives. Was she expecting too much? Perhaps at times. But we all knew she had been unconditionally generous with us (most of the time, anyway).

It has taken me a long time to even begin to understand this in my own life. To see that there is a difference between reasonable and unreasonable expectations and that they sometimes get mixed up. We are all sliding around inside the kaleidoscope, seeing the world and each other with shifting needs and perspectives.

For example, I hope when I go to a gathering that I meet someone interesting. When I start a new writing project, I look forward to learning and being appreciated. These are all possible and more often than not, they do happen. But if they don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I may feel a little disappointed but I don’t lose all hope.

I no longer expect that anyone I meet will become a lifelong friend or even like me. I don’t expect people to change fundamentally who they are or to see the world the way I do. A curious and somewhat naïve person, I have been quick to jump into friendships and slow to realize that others are often more discerning than I am and may not be available for friendship or even friendly complements on the job. They are too busy, too different, too indifferent – or they just have other priorities and that’s okay.

I hope when I post or send out an essay that I connect with at least a few people, make someone laugh or an editor want to publish my writing. But I don’t demand it, or expect fame and fortune. If that happens, as my mother-in-law said, it is a pleasant surprise.

Acts of generosity do happen and often at unexpected times. It pays to keep our minds and hearts open to that possibility with a sense of curiosity and adventure. The bar is fine where it is. No jumping or stooping required. Just keep moving forward.

Ageism or Ageless?

“I used to think old age was catching.” – Someone I Know

Reading two articles this morning on ageism got me thinking. Have I been ageist? Have I been on the receiving end of ageism?

As a kid, young adult, I didn’t seek out old people, but I didn’t avoid them either. I adored my Scottish grandparents. My grandfather was the life of many parties he threw, singing, playing the piano, banjo, ukulele. My grandmother was sometimes crabby and moody (menopause, my mother speculated), but she more than made up for it with generous piano lessons and lunch treats when my sister and I stopped in from our school just down the street.

My grandparents, Peggy and Jim Hutchison, visiting my husband and me in San Francisco. When I complained about being too cold all the time (even though we all came from Montreal), my grandmother gave me this Balenciaga cocoon coat off her back.
My grandparents, Peggy and Jim Hutchison, visiting my husband and me in San Francisco. When I complained about being too cold all the time (even though we all came from Montreal), my grandmother gave me this Balenciaga cocoon coat off her back.


It was a neighborhood where young and old walked around, said hello, gathered together in back yards, if in separate corners.

One of my girlfriend’s grandmother, French Canadian, worked as an undercover detective for Eaton’s Department store in downtown Montreal. She was plain clothed, but her special area was luxury fur coats. My friends and I were Nancy Drew fans, so we loved hearing this plump grandmother tell stories of how she apprehended suspects stuffing furs into bloomers and bags.

When my parents moved to a beach city in L.A., they rented the top floor of an old Spanish duplex on an alley, or “Place” as it was called. I often walked past an old lady who sat in her tiny patio on the alley. She waited for us kids so she could talk and carefully count out change. Would we please bring her back a roll of Reeds cinnamon candy? I must have told her I had taken piano lessons (left behind with my grandmother’s piano), because she gave me and old music book. Insisted I have it. Even though I didn’t take piano lessons again for 40 years, I held onto that tattered and yellowed book until recently.

Only one of my mother’s friends struck me as old, someone to avoid. She was conservative and rigid. Her husband left her. I dreaded her visits and felt guilty because she was nice to me – always wanted to know what I was doing, but somehow it felt like an intrusion, like an invasion from another planet inhabited by shriveled spirits.

I got along well with my in-laws, even after their son and I divorced. They were active and actively  involved grandparents to my two sons. I especially enjoyed an older friend of theirs, a widow pushing 80, who joined us every Christmas Eve for the traditional Swedish smorgasbord. She was fun to talk with, full of curiosity and humor. One Christmas she was not there. Where is Alice? I asked my mother-in-law. “Oh, she met a man in her square-dancing club and got married!”

Now that Alice, my mother-in-law and mother are all gone, I would give almost anything to have them back in my life, if only for an afternoon. And I wouldn’t care how slowly they walked or how they drove. (My mother-in-law drove with both feet on the gas pedal and my mother with both feet on the brakes, which she pushed down every 30 seconds.)

As for being seen as “too old,” I know it has affected me, but not as much as it has others.

I have always looked younger than my age and had friends (and boyfriends) of all ages, including a husband seven years younger.

I entered the work world in my late twenties, after six years as a housewife and part-time student. In the advertising world, I worked with those 10-20 years older and those 10 years younger.

I finished my degree in print journalism at 41 and worked with crusty old editors and fresh-from-college, still-living-with-parents young reporters. What counted was how hard we worked, not how old we were, although there were a couple of exceptions. One publisher who didn’t like me gave my editing job to an older man from the sales department. Another older publisher told me he didn’t like women over 42. Why that exact cut-off age, I never knew, but since I was 43, I suspected I was on borrowed time with him. Sure enough, when I asked him not to grope the younger reporters, he fired me and gave my job to a 28-year-old newly divorced woman with no experience (except living off men).

Then, later in my 40s, I fell into technical writing, as did many others tired of poverty wages or booted out of banking or teaching. Again, I worked with writers and engineers of all ages. It helped that my father and step-father were both engineers and my older son was in college studying to become a software engineer. We all learned together as desktop publishing and the Internet took off. Yes, I occasionally encountered arrogance from the engineers, both young and old. It wasn’t based so much on ageism or sexism as it was on elitism. One old engineer accused me of being “a schoolmarm with a red pencil.” But he didn’t say old schoolmarm.

If some of the young engineers thought I was too old, they didn’t show it to me directly. I once overheard a group of them calling my boss “an old fart” – and he was 15 years younger than I.

My Qualcomm manager (who had a hostile attitude toward the engineers) assured us writers and editors that all the engineers thought we were “old biddies” (even the guys).

There were some job interviews where I knew I wasn’t going to get the job. Game developers, for example, with blue hair and eyebrow rings. Thirty to forty-year-old fast tracking, multi taskers who were more intimidated than impressed with my experience, and unwilling to pay for it. Fortunately I was usually able to fit in somewhere, even if it took a few weeks. I realize not everyone, especially older, well-paid engineers, are as lucky. It is a real problem. Qualcomm is a progressive company, but relies on young engineers with work visas from Korea, China and India, paying them much less than they would American engineers.

I left Qualcomm to become a freelancer and encountered this ageist/Scrooge mentality with some clients. Why pay an experienced writer when we can hire: 1) a free intern, 2) a part-time family friend, or 3) a twit who likes to tweet.

My newspaper articles didn’t pay well either, but that has more do with the struggling nature of print journalism today than my age. For two years I edited the California Hemlock News (now Compassion & Choices), working with right-to-die activists in their 70s and 80s.

Now I’m floating around in the online world, ageless and weightless. Some of the kids I send marketing copy to have no idea how old I am. When I mentioned to one that I used to work on the same street as her company, she said, oh my father worked there 15 years ago and brought me in, take your daughter to work day. She was eight.Oddball

I’m exploring the blogosphere and literary journal world – bumping into many young writers, mommy and fashion bloggers, travelers, MFA students. Some are sounding off like they invented feminism or motherhood or sex or depression. A lot of discombobulated heads and ideas. Am I being ageist now? Perhaps. Maybe I would have benefitted from having these online friends when my kids were young, who knows. Maybe I’ll luck out and connect with a few like myself. By definition, we oddballs defy categories, including age.