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Excerpts from Enlarging Our Comfort Zones

The beginning of Enlarging Our Comfort Zones (Willow Press, 2016)


How do we learn to enlarge our comfort zones instead of lapsing into a life of habit? How do we negotiate the awkward stage of trying something new and learn to operate there?


This book is the story of ten years of a challenging, surprising, and deeply satisfying career that gave me the repeated opportunity to create an expanded comfort zone. It starts with a life falling apart around the age of 40, and describes the happy discoveries this allowed.


The period included an initiation into tantra, a spontaneous “spiritual experience,” an intensive workshop about patterns learned in my family of origin, and then initiatives to help end the Cold War with the USSR. Along the way, we meet strong women, a teacher of sexual enhancement, the founder of an influential and powerful workshop, a multi-millionaire entrepreneur, and a pioneer of “citizen diplomacy.”


As a former director of the William James Center for Adult Development, I gradually learned to find the “gold” in all this, without being overwhelmed by the bulk of the ore. Lots of people fall into divorces, or lose parents, or suffer reversals in their careers, or have road accidents. The question is, what do we do next?

This is the beginning of an early chapter called “Wake-Up Calls,” in Enlarging Our Comfort Zones (Willow Press, 2016):


In 1981 my parents invited their children who were living nearby to a Thanksgiving feast in the house to which they had retired, in Santa Rosa, just north of the San Francisco Bay Area. Three of the kids drove up together.


Everything seemed normal. My mother was in the kitchen in a house much more modern than the Dutch-colonial-style place in which we had been raised in the Northeast. “Can you help by grinding the cranberry sauce?” Mom asked me. I knew that her recipe involved combining the tart red spheres with a navel orange (rind and all) plus walnuts and sherry. “Okay, where’s the meat grinder?” I was set up with the ingredients, a big bowl, and an old zinc-plated grinder with its S-curved handle. My sister Kani was helping with the turkey, and the youngest sibling, Barbara, was cooking vegetables. Dad was helping to set the table. Then he stepped into the kitchen and surprised me with an urgent request.


“Could you go outside with me and help round up the sheep?” At first I was puzzled. We were among streets full of houses in the California town where the botanist Luther Burbank had settled. In the salubrious climate, there were many plants growing in gardens, but no livestock in town. Where were the sheep? “Please help me,” said Dad, “we have to get the sheep to the railway station.” Santa Rosa may have had an old railway station, but trains no longer came through. And in any case, why were we suddenly responsible for a herd of sheep?


Perhaps Dad was setting up one of his jokes. “If I went outside,” I cautiously replied, “would I see the sheep?” “Of course,” said Dad, “and if we don’t herd them quickly, they may get away.” Then he added the line that tipped me off. “It’s strange,” he said, “that Minnesota has moved so close that it’s just over the hill.” He waved toward a California slope that we called “golden” in the late autumn (and visitors from the East just regarded as clad with burnt stubble).


My Dad had grown up in southern Minnesota, on a farm where his father did keep sheep. Suddenly his words made sense, but the sense they made was that either we’d slipped into The Wizard of Oz or he’d become delusional.


I assured him that any sheep would be taken care of and that we could meanwhile sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. More than his death years later, this was the moment when, for me, the floor fell away. I took the other members of the family aside and told them what had happened. The table talk was somewhat subdued, but it usually consisted initially of little more than murmurs of appreciation for the roasted “bird” and the other special foods, with perhaps some allusion to the Pilgrims.


Later, after we had heard a tentative medical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Syndrome, my mother retrospectively claimed that she had discerned some earlier signs, but the exact nature of the dementia remained unclear: only an autopsy, we were told, would provide certainty.


But the symptoms grew more and more pronounced. While Dad remained good-natured for the most part, he became “forgetful,” making careful lists of what he needed to do, then signs to remind him of the existence of the lists and where to find them. Forgetting the signs he had posted, he would wander off and go to sleep, during the day, on the front lawns of strangers, and when brought home by police who learned the address from his wallet, he would deny the house was his, and even say about the worried woman on the porch, “she’s not my wife.”


While my mother was left to deal with her long-time partner, we kids also felt abandoned, as by a death. Dad was no longer there to go to for advice, or even to complain about. The face looked like his, and the voice sounded like his, but he was living in a different mental world. Did he feel bewildered or did things seem normal to him?


With the couple living alone, Mom had to deal with all of his bizarre and sometimes frightening behavior, including his climb up a ladder onto the flat roof to check the condition of the tar. How do you safely get down a man weighing much more than you who, at times, would lose his balance even inside the house and have to lean against a wall?


My sister Kani and I decided to give Mom a little rest, so we volunteered to stay with Dad while she went off to Yosemite with another woman from her real estate office. After my stint of just 16 hours I was ready for a vacation. (A contemporary book for caregivers was called The 36 Hour Day.) During my stay with Dad in Santa Rosa, the phone rang and while I was distracted, he made his way outside. I didn’t notice until he was turning the corner at the far end of the block, heading toward a busy road. Running after him, I caught up and walked beside him as if joining his expedition, and then tried to turn him around so we could go back to the house.


When he struggled against my arm around his waist, a car stopped abruptly across the road and a trembling and brave woman about my age emerged with a baseball bat. I realized that she thought I was mugging a helpless old man, and so I called out just a few words, “my father, Alzheimer’s.” Similarly terse, she simply said, “my mother,” lowered the bat, and returned to her vehicle.

Available from:


The beginning of Enlarging Our Comfort Zones (Willow Press, 2016)


How do we learn to enlarge our comfort zones instead of lapsing into a life of habit? How do we negotiate the awkward stage of trying something new and learn to operate there?


Happiness is threatened by not only by collapse, but also by what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation,” a phrase that describes the fading of pleasure as we get used to having got what we thought we wanted. I had the luck to become a book creation coach, working with authors who wanted to write their own books, but who sought a little help up the learning curve. This practice put me in touch with many creative people, especially on the West Coast.


 One of the happiest moments in this career came when I wandered into an unfamiliar bookstore and browsed the table with a sign, “recommended by our staff.” There were about sixty books. Spotting known covers, I realized that a quarter of them were by my clients.


A Basket of Scenes from a Life is a series of brief articles based on many amazing and remarkable people whom I’ve met over the years. The collection is published almost entirely on Huffington Post and can be found online here.

These articles are a companion to my recently published book Enlarging Our Comfort Zones. I don’t plan to print this collection, so offer the articles here for your enjoyment.

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