Retirement Reboot – Part I

Let’s face it, forty years ago retirement pretty much meant the end of the road was near enough to see. You basically left the working world behind and settled in your recliner to await the arrival of the Grim Reaper. Sure, maybe you did some gardening and made up for all the golf you missed during your productive years, but by and large you worked at play.

In 1980, average life expectancy was only 70 for men, so guys, you didn’t have that much time left anyway. Grandma, whose life expectancy was 77, crocheted a few more blankets and baked a few more cookies, but no one expected her to contribute much. I don’t know who invented that whole Golden Years deal, but I’m convinced it was really a marketing ploy to shuffle us off to our recliners. Think I’m kidding? Read on.

The idea of paid retirement is a relatively modern concept. Conceived by Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck of Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, it was a sop he threw to the masses in an effort to hold off the Marxists. It worked. But along the way, Von Bismarck also established the precedent that government should pay people for growing old, and he set the world standard for the exact year when old age begins: 65. Which worked just fine back then because almost no one lived to that age.

Jump ahead to 1935, the height of the Great Depression in this country. Unemployment was at record levels and guess what? Older people who didn’t want to quit working were taking jobs from younger individuals with families to support. And so the Social Security Act of 1935 was born. Unlike Von Bismarck’s giveaway program, however, employees in the U.S. pay into the Social Security system during their working years and collect the benefits upon retirement.

Apparently the whole retirement gig took a little getting used to. After all, that first generation of retirees had grown up figuring they’d work until they were unfit to do so, just as their parents had. But suddenly they had time—a whole lot of time—on their hands. Fortunately, golf courses sprung up in record numbers, movie theaters began featuring afternoon matinees, and five o’clock dinners became the norm. Sounds boring, right? Just remember, it didn’t last that long.

The landscape of aging changed gradually; by 2003 male life expectancy reached 74 and females hit 80. Less than 15 years later, most of us know quite a few people in their nineties and at least a handful who’ve lived to a 100 or more. If life were a football game, at age 65 we’d hear a buzzer signaling the start of the fourth quarter—and a significant number of us will make it into overtime.

Barcalounger and Lazy Boy are still in business, and there are still golf courses aplenty to amuse us Baby Boomers. But what once looked pretty appealing for a five-year stint has now stretched to thirty and thirty-five years. Working at play gets old—in fact, based on recent research working at play probably makes us old.

Almost all of us Boomers agree that we’re younger than our parents were at our current ages. Better nutrition, medical advances, and education all play a role in that. In my mother’s day, the bad hip I had replaced last year would have made that recliner a good option. Today, I hike and walk three-plus miles daily, a fourth-quarter activity I expect to keep up for decades to come.

Which brings up another point: hardly a day goes by that we don’t see something about how to keep our minds sharp. Neuroscientists tell us that crossword puzzles (completed while sitting in our recliners) and computer games like those touted by Lumosity are not the ticket to maintaining brain function. What revs up our brains is learning new and challenging activities—the key words being new and challenging. Findings suggest that digital photography scores high, as do learning to play an instrument and dancing. Volunteering or public service of some kind also seems to help, mainly because we’re engaged with others in the wider world.

So what’s a retired Boomer to do for the next thirty or forty years? There are almost as many answers as there are of us, and that’s saying something. According to the National Institutes on Aging, the 85-and-over population is projected to increase 351 percent between 2010 and 2050. That increase is almost unimaginable, and it’s certainly uncharted waters as far as humanity is concerned. It also presents those of us in that category with a scary question: will our money run out before all the sand falls through the hourglass?

Many of us—my husband and I included—have decided we can’t afford and don’t want to quit working. But neither do we want to keep running on the same wheel we’ve been on for the last forty years. We’ve stepped off into a new world, one we knew nothing about five years ago (more about that next month). And as we look around at our peers, it seems obvious that the old notion of retirement as lots of golf and leisurely lunches no longer fits. It’s time for a retirement reboot.

Got Grit?

Raise your hand if you’ve seen Eddie the Eagle, the movie chronicling the story of Michael “Eddie” Edwards, the ski jumper who represented Great Britain in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. If you haven’t watched it, next time your spirits need a lift cue this one up. Eddie was the first British ski jumper to compete in the Olympics since 1929, and while the movie embellishes bits of his story, the creativity and determination it took for him to reach Calgary is still staggering. Perhaps even more staggering—especially to those who believe winning is everything—Eddie came in dead last in both the 70 and 90 meter jump competitions. And yet Eddie is clear that he considered himself a winner, regardless of how he placed in competition.

Eddie Edwards was one of the least talented and least likely individuals to make it to the Olympics in any sport, winter or summer. He never expected to make the podium in Calgary; for him it was all about setting a goal and achieving it. He persevered despite opposition from his father, British Olympic officials, and his teammates. What kept him climbing those stairs, flying off the ramp, and, frequently, crashing onto the snow? In a word: persistence, that critical combination of positive attitude and strong motivation. I’ve written about it before, in terms of academic performance, here: http://lbmendel.com/?p=289 .

We know intuitively that persistence—or perseverance—matters. If you don’t stick with something obviously you can’t succeed at it. But why does one student, soldier, athlete, or entrepreneur persevere when another doesn’t? That’s the question that psychologist and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Angela Duckworth has been researching for almost fifteen years. Duckworth’s research has shown that it’s not just perseverance that matters, but the combination of perseverance and passion for very long-term goals. She labels that combination “grit.”

In 2004, Duckworth began working with military psychologist Mike Matthews at West Point. Her assignment: trying to predict more accurately which entering cadets would stick and which would bail. At the time, one in five West Point cadets dropped out before graduation, many of them during their initial seven-week training program. As a group, the entering cadets were the best of the best; they ranked at the top of the admissions pool on the Whole Candidate Score, and they met every indicator for potential success. And yet, in significant numbers, they dropped out.

Matthews was looking for a better measure of potential success, and the Grit Scale developed by Angela Duckworth looked like it could be the answer. The questions that make up the Grit Scale focus equally on perseverance and passion, and it turned out that grit was a far better predictor of West Point success than the Whole Candidate Score. Even more interesting, there was no correlation between aptitude, or talent, as measured by the Whole Candidate Score, and how well cadets did on the Grit Scale. According to Duckworth’s research, what determines whether you stay or bail at West Point doesn’t depend on your SAT scores, your high school rank, your leadership experience, or your athletic ability. What matters, she writes, is grit.

Duckworth has interviewed hundreds of teachers, coaches, corporate CEOs, and others who are leaders in their fields in her work on grit. One of her most interesting ideas involves the concept of passion as it relates to perseverance and grit. The kind of passion that breeds success, according to Duckworth, is not intense emotion but consistency over time. Passion, she writes, is “a compass—that thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be.” Eddie the Eagle’s passion, his compass, was competing in the Olympics, and that’s what kept him climbing those stairs and flying off the ramp. His passion, in other words, guided and shaped his perseverance.

Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, is chock full of groundbreaking ideas and research. She believes that we can build grit in ourselves and others, and in the final chapters of the book she explores studies that aim to determine what kinds of activities might increase the grit quotient. There are no long-term studies with definitive answers yet, but, she writes, short-term studies show that “doing hard (versus easy) things teaches a person to do other hard things.”

Duckworth’s best advice about getting grittier? Adhere to the Hard Thing rule: Do one thing regularly that’s hard for you and work to improve at it. Maybe it’s playing the piano or writing or ski jumping—it doesn’t really matter. Odds are you won’t become Mozart or Margaret Atwood or Eddie the Eagle, but you may be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Watch Angela Duckworth’s TED talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance. Or visit her website: https://angeladuckworth.com/. And if you need further inspiration, here’s a trailer for Eddie the Eagle:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyzQjVUmIxk.

Winter’s Discipline

FullSizeRender(5)The snow crunches under my shoes and the poles squeak as I plant them one after the other. Each exhale produces a plume that drifts upward and disappears. The dog races madly through ribbons of light and shadow, occasionally stopping to sniff or leave his mark. In summer, the trails we travel are part of a public campground; in winter, the Forest Service grooms a series of loops for walking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing. Some days we have company, but today the forest and the blanket of snow that sparkles under the morning sun form our personal paradise.

It’s been a hard winter here in the Eastern Sierra. After five years of drought, of dying trees and dry stream beds, massive amounts of snow and rain have fallen since the beginning of the year. No one wants to call it too much of a good thing after the drought years, but it would definitely be better if it came in more measured doses. Our snow shovels and snow blowers—and our backs—have gotten a real workout.

Writer, teacher, and activist Parker Palmer, who lives in Wisconsin, writes: “Winter here is a demanding season—and not everyone appreciates the discipline.” That’s true in the Eastern Sierra as well. In January we received more than 200 inches of snow, an all-time record, and we’re set to break the record for February as well. Dealing with that kind of snowfall day in and day out does indeed take discipline. If more than six inches of snow has fallen overnight, the schedule for the day changes immediately. Snow removal goes to the top of the to-do list, and everything else gets shuffled around accordingly. The bigger the storm, the bigger the job, and we’ve had some doozies this season.

Those of us who live here do so because we love the mountains, the outdoors in general, and yes, the snow. We’re outside almost every day, unless we’re experiencing blizzard conditions and it’s too dangerous. Sometimes it’s as simple as walking, snowshoeing, or cross country skiing a few miles, usually with a dog or three since that, too, is part of the lifestyle. There are several hundred miles of groomed snowmobile trails through amazing terrain. Sledding, ice skating, fat biking on the snow, downhill skiing—you name it, people are outside doing it.

I’ve learned to accept and even appreciate winter’s discipline. I make the most of bluebird days and hunker down, preparations in place, when yet another “atmospheric river” of moisture slams into us. Outsiders who come to play in the snow often chafe at that discipline. “How can the road be closed?” they ask. Even better: “My car will be fine without chains.” Mother Nature teaches tough lessons.

On our snowy outings among the trees, the lists, the anxieties large and small, even time itself slips away, and there is only the trail, the dog, and me. When we finally head back, we’re both better off: Harley has burned up some of his abundant energy, and I’ve found clarity and balance again.

October Surprise

We inhabit an insignificant planet orbiting a small star in an unremarkable galaxy that’s gc-night-skypart of a vast universe. And, in case you missed the October surprise (no, not that one), our insignificance just increased. Astronomers studying images from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 have concluded that there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of two trillion galaxies in the universe—at least 10 times more than has been assumed for the past 20 years.

Two trillion galaxies. Carl Sagan once termed Earth a “pixel,” but based on this new information, that’s probably stretching it. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively low light pollution, on a clear night you can see the Milky Way spilling across the sky like twinkling diamonds scattered by a careless hand. It’s a sight at once humbling and awe-inspiring—yet what we see represents only the tiniest fraction of what’s out there.

There’s a whirlpool of negativity swirling around these days, but this news about our increased insignificance actually brightened my outlook, paradoxical as that may seem. How? By changing my perspective. Carl Sagan again:

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless              cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

“Momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.” That puts us in our place, doesn’t it? It brings to mind the old Hasidic saying: “Everyone must have two pockets so that he can reach into one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to be the words, ‘For my sake was the world created,’ and in the left, ‘I am dust and ashes.’” Holding those two very different ideas in tension is akin to standing on one foot while juggling three balls. All of us have days when we lose our balance or let a ball (or two) hit the ground. Our egos tug and pull, telling us how important, how unique we are individually and collectively. After all, the world was created for us. And yet, we are dust and ashes, here and then gone, not even a blip on the cosmic scale of things.

Back to those two trillion galaxies: In 2018 NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, which will allow scientists to explore galaxies they can’t study with the Hubble. Whatever they find, it’s likely to further diminish our standing in the cosmos. Or, to reframe, we’ll be part of something bigger still—a part that matters, regardless of our size relative to the rest of the universe. A closing quote from Carl Sagan, this one with echoes of that Hasidic proverb: “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us.”

Photo credit: Trevor Mendel – Night Sky in the Grand Canyon.

Hip-hop History

1453816741bg_300x415-hamiltonNot an empty seat in the house, and many of them were filled with kids—tweens and teens of both sexes. It could have been a screening of Marvel’s latest installment in the Captain America or X-Men series, but it wasn’t. It was “Hamilton,” Lin Manuel-Miranda’s story about the life of Alexander Hamilton set to hip-hop music.

Reviews by the dozens have been written about “Hamilton.” It’s been called a “game changer,” “vibrantly democratic,” audaciously ambitious,” and, my personal favorite, “a story about a revolution that is itself a revolution.” It’s all of those things and more. If you aren’t one of the two million people who’ve already viewed it, here’s a clip from a performance at the White House that gives you a taste of what it’s all about.

As this amazing production unfolded on the stage, it was not the theatergoer in me who was spellbound, but the history teacher. This, I thought, this could save history in the classroom, could help us find compelling new ways to tell the stories that form the foundation of who we are as a people, as a nation. The music itself obviously drew the kids in, but the story is told so well through the lyrics that they will remember more than the catchy tunes.

From a teacher’s standpoint, Miranda succeeds in doing what most of us struggle with: he breathes life into Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Burr and all the others who fought to free the colonies from the British, and then fought each other about how best to unite those colonies into a nation. Again, music opens the door, but what keeps the audience enthralled is Miranda’s ability to show us people—real people—with flaws and failings not unlike our own. Hamilton cheated on his beloved wife (creating the nation’s first sex scandal), threw a tantrum when Washington wouldn’t give him a combat assignment, and was so driven that he often neglected his family. Miranda gives us that Hamilton, as well as the young genius who envisioned the nation’s entire financial and economic system, and the father who became almost unhinged when his son died in a dual.

“Hamilton” is a story with everything—love, death, sex, war, greed, you name it—told in way that pulls you in and refuses to let go. It’s a historical tour de force that feels like it has arrived just in the nick of time because our knowledge about the American story has reached an all time low. A 2008 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which surveyed more than 2,500 adults, found that only half of those surveyed could name the three branches of government. In 2014, a report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that only 18 percent of eighth graders were proficient or above in U.S. History and only 23 percent in Civics.

This profound lack of knowledge about the basics of our history and government isn’t merely a deficit of memory about dates and dead people, it threatens the common frame of reference that makes us Americans and not merely a conglomeration of tribes sharing space on this continent. As John Dewey wrote in 1916: “Knowledge of the past is the key to understanding the present.” He goes on: “The lives of great men, of heroes and leaders, make concrete and vital historic episodes otherwise abstract and incomprehensible.” As the curtain came down on “Hamilton,” I pictured John Dewey cheering and whistling with everyone else, for surely the lives of great men were never more “concrete and vital” than on the stage that night.

Miranda’s story of “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father” is based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. Chernow’s book was made possible by the remarkable work of Harold C. Syrett and his team at Columbia University Press who, between 1961 and 1987, edited and published twenty-seven volumes of Hamilton’s personal and political papers. Yes, that’s twenty-seven volumes, many of them containing material never before mined for historical content and context. Chernow’s book is almost as compelling as Miranda’s musical version, which is saying a great deal.

A final thought. “Hamilton” ends with a number that asks a profoundly philosophical question about history itself. The song is called “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” and it draws on the fact that Alexander Hamilton was just forty-nine years old when Aaron Burr shot and killed him. Many of Hamilton’s contemporaries—Burr, Madison, Jefferson—disliked him intensely while he was alive, and after his death they ignored his considerable achievements and vilified his name. They told his story, in other words, and they left out the best parts. Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t gloss over the negatives about Hamilton, but he shines a spotlight on this remarkable man and in doing so, restores him to his rightful place in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers.

You can find the original cast recording of “Hamilton” here, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s story about how the musical evolved here. Look for Chernow’s Hamilton biography at your local library or on Amazon.

About Grandmothers

My paternal grandmother was not the warm and doting sort. I’m pretty sure my brother and I wore out our welcome about fifteen minutes after we arrived at her house. It wasn’t like we were hooligans, but she definitely ascribed to the old maxim that children should be seen and not heard. She wasn’t mean, she just didn’t really engage with us.

At holiday meals in her elegant dining room, my brother and I were swathed in plastic sheets to protect the chairs and the rug. My husband thought I was exaggerating about that until I showed him an old photo of Christmas dinner. Then there was the staircase issue. The sweeping stairs in the living room were reserved for company, and small children didn’t qualify. My grandmother promised us a nickel if we’d use the back stairs instead of the fancy ones. Mostly we did as she asked, but every so often we’d sneak up the front stairs, all the more appealing because we weren’t supposed to use them.

By contrast, my maternal grandmother was a soft, round woman who always had Cheerios for us, a treat not found in our pantry for some reason. Although we didn’t spend a lot of time with her, we knew she loved us and enjoyed having us in her home. She had raised nine children in that house, and it felt like a place where people were definitely more important than things.

My mother-in-law died when my sons were very small, so my mother was the only grandmother they ever knew. Nana played board games and Go Fish, read countless books, and went swimming in the lake with them. She baked their favorite cookies and piled up leaves for a bonfire at Thanksgiving. When my husband and I had travel plans, she came and stayed for a week or so at a time. Most of the house rules probably went unheeded, but no one was worse for the wear. My sons were adults by the time Nana died in 2009, but losing her was very difficult for them.

And now, as a friend said, I’ve joined the “grandmother club” myself. I hadn’t been jonesing for the role—I figured it would happen when our sons and daughter-in-laws were ready. Like most Millennials, they lead crazy busy lives, and timing children and careers is even trickier than it used to be. Since Ethan Abbott Mendel joined the family on May 26, I check for new photos first thing every morning, and our Skype sessions are definitely the highlight of the week. At odd moments I find myself thinking about things I hope to do with him—hike in Yosemite, sit around a campfire, ski down the mountain—and I’ve begun collecting books I can’t wait to read to him.

I want the world to be perfect for Ethan and the other grandchildren to come, but of course it won’t be. Whatever happens out there, I hope our house will always be an oasis of love and good times for all of them. Maybe that’s perfect enough.

Every Day a Pilgrimage

10501719_900672243280576_7950296448537074541_nA few white patches remain–snowy epaulets on the shoulders of the highest peaks–but here at eight thousand feet summer has arrived. At this time of year, the dog and I strike out every weekday on an hour-long walk; on weekends we go farther. My little four-square-mile town is surrounded by the Inyo National Forest, so our daily walks include plenty of time amid the tall firs and pines.

Walking is surely the most mundane of athletic activities—even running seems, well, more athletic than walking. Yet few activities share the long and sacred history of walking. Henry David Thoreau—a world-class walker, or, as he preferred, saunterer—claimed that he could not preserve his health and spirit unless he spent at least four hours a day “sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields.”

Thoreau attributed the etymology of saunterer to a phrase that supposedly dates from the Middle Ages—Saint-Terrer—and referred to those who were making a pilgrimage on foot to the Holy Land. Modern scholarship calls that connection into question, and the Oxford English Dictionary merely states that the verb saunter probably derives from the Middle English auntre, which means “to adventure.”

Since Harley and I have adventures aplenty in our daily saunters, I’ve come to think of them as pilgrimages. Our pilgrimages, however, are less about arriving at some holy place and more about seeing every place and every thing along our walk as holy. Last week two small does and a young buck crossed the path right in front of us. This morning a falcon rose lazily on a current of air while a pair of squirrels chased one another around and around the trunk of a Jeffrey pine. Wildflowers seem to bloom overnight and disappear almost as quickly. And sadly, each day we spot another tree that has succumbed to California’s prolonged drought.

Over time, I’ve composed a mantra for my walks, a group of words to help me remember the sacred nature of my surroundings:

            Your infinite complexity challenges my mind.

            Your beauty brings peace to my heart.

            In your vast expanses, my soul finds rest.

Somehow, no matter how troubled or frazzled I am when I step out the door, my soul does find rest as I saunter among the trees. Interestingly enough, there is scientific evidence to support my experience. Studies indicate that people who live near trees and parks have lower levels of cortisol in their saliva than do those who live primarily amid concrete. Another group of researchers in Scotland found that visiting a park or a tree-lined plaza, even in an urban setting, reduces stress and improves concentration. And in March, a new study showed that just looking at images of nature provided a cognitive boost. The mechanism of this reaction isn’t fully understood, but scientists believe that exposure to nature activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls certain rest functions.

Although the research is compelling, I have a hard time picturing a doctor saying to stressed-out patient, “Just go take a walk outside and you’ll feel better.” I have an even harder time picturing a positive response to such advice on the part of the patient. And yet, what if taking a walk outside among the trees works as well or better than any pill the doctor could prescribe? Maybe the simplest fix for our stressed-out, always-on culture is literally right in front of us.

An e-book of Thoreau’s lovely essay, Walking, is available FREE online here. For a more humorous look at adventures on foot, you can’t go wrong with Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. And of course, there’s my perennial favorite: John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, which is available as a FREE audiobook here or in a FREE digital version of the original you can read online here. Happy summer sauntering.


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“Not a Regular Lady”

In 1915, Constance Kopp of Wyckoff, New Jersey, became the country’s first female deputy sheriff. Author Amy Stewart says she stumbled upon Kopp’s story while researching her non-fiction bestseller The Drunken Botanist. To her amazement, Stewart discovered that nothing, absolutely nothing, had been written about this remarkable woman who “made headlines across the country and had a truly groundbreaking career.” Stewart resolved to change that.

The result—Stewart’s historical novel Girl Waits with Gun—begins with a bang, but not IMG_0886the kind that comes to mind given the title. It’s 1914 and thirty-five-year-old Constance Kopp and her two sisters are riding down the main street of Paterson, New Jersey in a horse-drawn wagon when they’re broadsided by a motor car. With the wagon in splinters around them, Constance and her sister Norma confront Henry Kaufman, the driver of the automobile, and demand damages for the repair of the wagon.

Instead of paying the fifty dollars in damages, the wealthy and powerful Kaufman initiated a year-long campaign of harassment and intimidation that eventually included bullets, kidnapping threats, and arson. Instead of backing down, Constance actively aided Sheriff Robert Heath in his investigation of Kaufman. And when Kaufman and his drunken henchman started taking pot shots at the farmhouse, she picked up the revolver the sheriff had taught her how to use and fired back. During the court case that eventually resulted from the incident, Kaufman claimed that Constance Kopp had forced him to give her samples of his handwriting. Kopp’s attorney asked how it was possible that “a lady like Miss Kopp” forced him, a grown man, to do something against his will. Kaufman replied, “She’s not a regular lady.” No indeed she was not.

The story of Constance Kopp and her sisters generated plenty of publicity in its day. The title of the book, Girl Waits with Gun, was an actual headline from a story that ran in the November 23, 1914 edition of the Philadelphia Sun. Author Stewart amassed hundreds of newspaper articles and pulled birth certificates and criminal case records as part of her research. She also used Ancestry.com to put the Kopp’s family history together. Stewart says she stuck with the facts where possible, but to really tell a story she had to fill in the gaps, which is why she wrote it as historical fiction.

According to Stewart, the story of Constance and her sisters grabbed her the minute she came across it. “With the Kopp sisters,” she comments, “I found everything a storyteller could ever want—an interesting time period, a very distinctive but not particularly well-known setting, and these larger than life characters who carried around deep, dark secrets from their past and went out into the world and defied everyone’s expectations of what a woman could do.”

As you start your search for summer reads, do yourself a favor and put Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun on your list. Not only is it a great read, the Kindle edition is $2.99 on Amazon. And if you’d like a second helping of Constance Kopp’s story, there’s a sequel slated for early September: Lady Cop Makes Trouble.

This post wraps up my series about amazing women you’ve never heard of, and I’m happy to report that one of them—Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin—is finally getting her due. In my February piece about her, I wrote that Payne-Gaposchkin’s doctoral advisor took credit for her groundbreaking discovery about the chemical composition of stars. In his new book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll writes: “Close Analysis of starlight revealed that stars are made of the same kinds of atoms as we find here on Earth, with Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin eventually proving that they are mostly hydrogen and helium.” Hooray–better late than never!

Still short on beach reads? My novel Yard Sale continues to be available on Amazon.

The Queen of Champagne

You won’t find her name on this list of 16 legendary women entrepreneurs , but she does rate a reference of sorts in the Oxford English Dictionary under the entry for the word widow: “the widow: champagne. From ‘Veuve Clicquot’, the name of a firm of wine merchants.” Except, of course, Veuve Clicquot is more than the name of a firm; it is, in fact, the name of the woman who built a small family wine brokerage business into an international empire.

Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin was born in the Champagne region of France in 1777. Although she and her husband François shared a passion for winemaking, Barbe-Nicole wasn’t involved in the business. A woman’s place was, after all, in the home in the eighteenth century. François, who fancied himself quite the entrepreneur, focused on the local product known as vin mousseaux or sparkling wine. For a brief period during the reigns of Louis XIV and his great-grandson Louis XV, the bubbly beverage had literally been the drink of kings. But by the time Barbe-Nicole’s husband decided to expand production and distribution, vin mousseaux was little more than an “extravagant curiosity, known only at the courts of Europe,” according Tilar Mazzeo’s book The Widow Clicquot.

When François died suddenly in 1804, the small venture funded by his father was struggling. Twenty-seven-year-old Barbe-Nicole, a widow and young mother with no business training, found herself at the helm of a shaky wine brokerage firm. She was not poor, a point in her favor, and since her husband had been an only child, there were no brothers to step in—another point in her favor. She was also intelligent and assertive, characteristics that must have been obvious to her father-in-law, because he agreed to keep backing the business.

Initially Barbe-Nicole’s timing proved to be as terrible as her husband’s. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, much of Europe was blockaded. The British and the Russians were by far the biggest consumers of champagne, but ships from France could reach neither. Cash flow became a serious problem—at one point Barbe-Nicole sold most of her jewelry to raise operating funds—yet she refused to give up. She not only continued to produce and bottle sparkling wine, she revolutionized the entire process when she perfected the technique known as remuage.

One of the biggest headaches in producing champagne was the painstaking process of removing the brown sediment that was the byproduct of secondary fermentation. Determined to find a solution to the problem, Barbe-Nicole had her kitchen table hauled down to the cellars and riddled with slanting holes just large enough to accommodate the necks of the bottles. Day after day she went down and gently turned and tapped the bottles, encouraging the sediment to settle in the necks. After six weeks, the corks popped out and so did the sediment, allowing Barbe-Nicole to accelerate production. It took decades for her competitors to figure out her secret; her fiercest rival, Jean-Rémy Moët, didn’t adopt remuage until 1932.

As the fortunes of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin continued to teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, it became clear that time was not on Napoleon’s side. Desperate to get bottles to market in Russia, Barbe-Nicole hatched a daring plan. As soon as active hostilities ceased—even if the blockade remained in place—she would load a ship with champagne and run the blockade to a Russian port. If her plan succeeded, she’d be months ahead of her competition and flush with cash. If the ship was seized or sunk, it would ruin the company.

You can probably guess the outcome, given the fact that bottles of bubbly bearing the Widow’s name (veuve is the French word for widow) and distinctive signature enjoy prominence on store shelves and wine lists of fine restaurants the world over. The first ship that reached Russia stoked its citizens’ long denied thirst for champagne. When Barbe-Nicole ran the blockade a second time, a near riot occurred as the ship was unloaded.

These two shipments, writes Tilar Mazzeo, made Barbe-Nicole “one of the most famous women in Europe and her wine one of the most highly prized commodities of the nineteenth century.” Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin also became one of the wealthiest women in the world. By the time she retired from day-to-day oversight of the company at age 64, it’s estimated she was worth in excess of $10 billion in today’s economy. She remained active and engaged in the firm bearing her name until she died at 89 in 1866.

A bit more: If you’re a champagne lover you’ve undoubtedly heard about Dom Pérignon, the Catholic monk who “discovered” how to put bubbles into wine. In fact, as Tilar Mazzeo states in her book, Dom Pérignon was tasked with getting rid of the bubbles that were “ruining the local wines.” The story about his invention of champagne was itself an invention. Concocted in the late nineteenth century, the account was eventually registered by the estates of Moët and Chandon as a trademark.

“Champagne,” according to Madame Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV, “is the only wine that leaves a woman more beautiful after drinking it.” I’m a big fan of champagne, so I like to think that’s true. I also believe that there are countless occasions, great and small, that should be celebrated with a glass of bubbly. Next time you raise a glass, salute La Grande Dame, the Widow Clicquot for her role in making the champagne industry what it is today.

An Unknown Star

I’ve just finished a series of books about three extraordinary women. They hail from different time periods, different parts of the world, and different fields. Despite that, they all have two things in common: they broke new ground in their careers, and their achievements—and their names—are largely unknown. Their stories resonate with me for different reasons, which I’ll also share. Beginning this month, I’ll acquaint you with these women one at a time in hopes you’ll find them as interesting as I do.

In 1912, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s school principal told her she was “prostituting her IMG_0886gifts” by aiming for a career in science. Fortunately, young Cecilia didn’t listen. Payne-Gaposchkin became an astronomer, an expert on the cataclysmic nuclear explosions of white dwarf stars known as novae (plural of nova). As important as that work remains, her greatest contribution to the field is something very different: she demonstrated that normal stars—everything from our own sun to the stars at the edge of the universe—are composed of hydrogen and helium, with hydrogen far and away the most abundant element.

Unfortunately for Payne-Gaposchkin, her conclusion about the composition of normal stars contradicted conventional thinking of her day. Two distinguished astronomers, Henry Norris Russell, director of the Princeton Observatory, and Harlow Shapley, her faculty advisor and director of the Harvard Observatory, convinced her to attribute her results to an anomaly, rather than sticking with what the data demonstrated. Four years later, Russell reached the same conclusion as Payne-Gaposchkin had by a different method, and while her name was briefly mentioned in connection with the discovery, Russell has historically received credit for it.

However disappointed Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin may have been with that series of events, she spent the next 50 years working at the Harvard Observatory. She was the first person to receive a doctoral degree in astronomy from Harvard. In 1956 she became the first female advanced to the rank of professor at Harvard, as well as the first female to chair a department. Fellow astronomer Virginia Trimble writes in her introduction to Payne-Gaposchkin’s memoir that her “scientific record is remarkable by any standard.” Longevity aside (she published papers from 1923 to 1979), she remains among the very few astronomers to solve a major problem in the field as part of a doctoral thesis.

As outstanding as Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s achievements are, what I find most fascinating about her is that she persisted in the face of challenges that would have defeated almost anyone else. As the only female in advanced physics at Cambridge, she was ridiculed by professors and students alike. At Harvard, she was repeatedly passed over for positions for which she was the most qualified candidate. And when Donald Menzel succeeded Shapley as director of the Harvard Observatory, he was so appalled by how little she was being paid that he immediately doubled her salary.

Toward the end of her career, Payne-Gaposchkin wrote that being a woman hadn’t impacted the intellectual side of her life. But she went on, “On the material side, being a woman has been a great disadvantage….It has been a case of survival, not of the fittest, but of the most doggedly persistent.”

As an educator, I’m very supportive of recent initiatives to recruit more women into the sciences. But reading Payne-Gaposchkin’s memoir made me wonder about the challenges these young women face. I consulted my daughter-in-law, an astrophysicist, to get her take on the issue. She delivered both good news and bad. She indicated that the situation has greatly improved from Payne-Gaposchkin’s time. “Outward sexism still happens,” she commented, “but it is not institutionalized.” As for the negative, “People like to say that the gender imbalance in science is generational, but if that were true it would have been wiped out a couple of decades ago.”

My daughter-in-law went on to talk about the fact that she and her female colleagues are reminded daily that “they need to be louder and more forceful if they are to be considered contributors in science.” Why does that approach dominate, she wondered, instead of one where we teach men to listen better? Like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, she is doggedly persistent, but it saddens and angers me that some things have changed so little.

Check the public library for Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s autobiography as it is absurdly expensive to purchase ($51.27 in paperback on Amazon). I can’t figure that one out, but it sure won’t help raise her visibility. Stay tuned for the next installment on remarkable women you’ve never heard of—this Frenchwoman was widowed at age 27 during the Napoleonic wars, and she became the most successful entrepreneur of her time.