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Me and Dr. Midlife : How I Spent $2,100, Exposed My Inner Demons to Strangers, Charted the Pathway to Happiness and Changed My Life in a Week

September 08, 1991|KAREN STABINER | Karen Stabiner, a contributing editor to this magazine, is writing a book on Chiat/Day advertising agency for Summit Books.

WE ARE DAMAGED GOODS. THE NINE PEOPLE IN THIS ROOM HAVE WORKED VERY HARD all our adult lives to build careers, families or both, only to find that things haven't worked out exactly as we planned. Or, more to the frustrating point, they've worked out just the way we dreamed they would, when we were 20, or 30. We still don't feel fulfilled.

We suffer, in varying degrees, from midlife crisis, a lingering malaise specific to the portion of the population that has the time and money to acknowledge its symptoms. Our discontent is about to reach epidemic proportions, as baby boomers hit the midlife wall with a resounding demographic thud. Two and a half million people will turn 50 this year, but 3.9 million will turn 40--prime candidates for trading in an old life for a new, better one. The person who walked away from it all used to be a novelty item. Now the solitary exile stands to become part of a parade staged by people used to getting what they want--a generation, depending on how charitable you're feeling, that is either spoiled rotten or honor bound to reject the status quo.

Enter 57-year-old Frederic Hudson, the Don Quixote of midlife realignment, a graying, pale-eyed dreamer who retooled his own life almost 20 years ago. Anyone with the price of admission--$2,100 for a week's intensive workshop--can sign up for Hudson's bimonthly guided tour of the future: grueling 12-hour days that mix 1960s-vintage encounter-group tactics with 1980s time-management skills.

Even in the glutted annals of California self-help history--the epiphanies at Esalen, the catharsis of spending the weekend locked in a conference room with hundreds of fellow seekers, the therapies that outlast marriages--this seems a hefty dose of self-indulgence. But Hudson has a way to assuage guilt, an escape hatch only a narcissist could love: By saving your own life, you can help save society. As our biggest population bubble starts to float downstream, Hudson believes, the very future of American culture is at stake. Left to our own disgruntled devices, we will turn into a generation of inveterate complainers, our energies sapped, our passivity cinching this country's status as an also-ran. With a new "script," though, we can save ourselves and rejuvenate the culture.

Participants must, quite literally, leave the past behind and travel to La Casa de Maria retreat in Montecito, a bucolic 26-acre Roman Catholic enclave that is home to all manner of religious and secular workshops. There are no phones, no televisions, no radios, a pictured saint in every scrubbed room. It is a logistic clean slate upon which to write a new story. Which is why nine of us, and Hudson, are sitting in a circle, on what will prove to be excruciatingly uncomfortable chairs, sequestered indoors on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. We are here to do what all our friends claim they'd love to try: We are here to change our lives.

WE HAVE LITTLE IN COMMON BEYOND AGE, THE MEANS TO INDULGE OUR INTROSPECTIONS and the rather foolhardy, if fervently capitalistic, notion that we can buy a new life. Linda* and William* are in their late 30s, the parents of a 6-month-old daughter, an extremely religious Christian couple whose outgoing, easy manner masks a lot of tension. Linda is in a hurry to have another child and wants to cut her workload as an organizational consultant to several businesses. William is chafing in his job in the oil industry but needs the income it generates.

Nora* and Stephen*, an urbane San Francisco couple in their 40s, simply don't know what to do next: Nora has convinced herself that a career as a social worker is not as fulfilling as a career-and-family would be, but she is unable to conceive; Stephen left public relations after 15 years and built a house but doesn't want to live in it.

I'm a fairly standard flavor, the 41-year-old working wife and mother who doesn't have time to floss her teeth, the writer who, in times of stress, dreams of being a pastry chef.

There are three coaches, the trail bosses on this psychic wagon train: Hudson, a onetime divinity student and longtime social activist, a man with three grown children from his prior life and three children under 10 from his reborn period; Marvin Banasky, who five years ago walked away from a 20-year marriage and 14 years in the pneumatic-tool manufacturing business, and Laurie Potter, a beatifically serene woman in her mid-50s who is a walking advertisement for middle age. Joanna Candler and Emily Cleaves, self-described "Southern belles" in their mid-40s, have been friends since childhood. This is their second go-round at the workshop--Joanna is a single mother eager to restart her career, and Emily is flailing in the midst of a new marriage. They'll go through most of the exercises, as will the coaches, but they won't steal time from the tyros to report on everything they discover.

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