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I’m having a bad hair life. Not just a bad hair day … a whole lifetime!

I was born with stringy, straight, thin (and ever-thinning), blonde (well, at least I got something right!) hair. To perm or not to perm? Short or long? Cut or grow? Color, highlight or go natural? Wig or no wig?

Thank God for good hairdressers! And when you go to a salon, doesn’t the hair of the person doing your hair make a difference?

My new role model in life is Cindy Melchor, 53, of La Quinta.

Cindy received a high school equivalency degree at 16. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I didn’t want to go to school. I had been a model once for a neighbor who was in beauty school, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ It looked like something that would get me out of school.”

She attended beauty college at the age of 17, and has been doing hair ever since.

In July 2011, a small, cancerous lump was detected by mammography in one of Cindy’s breasts.

She had to face a real dilemma: She knew the treatment would rob her of her hair.

“I had had lots of clients over the years who had gone through breast cancer. Most of them had done just fine and recovered. I know people die from it, but that never entered my mind. In fact, when the doctor told me, I initially laughed about the absurdity of it.”

Exactly one year before Cindy’s diagnosis, her sister had also been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Cindy Melchor“She was the first one I told, and she just freaked out. But my clients had changed my perspective. I just thought, ‘OK, it’s breast cancer; it’s nothing. Lots of people have had it and turned out just fine.’

“I didn’t look at it as a death sentence. It was just a bump in the road. The only time I cried at all was when I told my daughter.”

Cindy began treatment, first with a lumpectomy, and then chemotherapy for four months. Radiation treatments followed for a couple of months after that.

“After my first treatment, my hair began to disappear. I lost everything—hair on my head, all over my body, my eyelashes and eyebrows. But none of that bothered me as much as having to wear a wig.”

Cindy was uncomfortable with the physical feeling of a wig, although she adds, “The shaved head didn’t bother me. To see yourself bald is really weird. At least I had a decent head!

“I walked around fine at home and around my family. But I wore the wig whenever I went out—even to get the paper. I just felt as if, out in public, everyone knew. When I see someone in the market, bald or wearing a head scarf, I always think, ‘Cancer.’

“For me, going out bald meant people would identify me by the disease, and that bothered me. That part didn’t bother my sister at all.”

Cindy had no discomfort talking about her condition with her clients. “I told everyone. I’ve never been secretive about it.

“Walking into the shop for the first time with the wig on was actually the hardest part of the whole experience. I never hid anything about what I was going through. My clients and co-workers all went through it with me, and that helped, but it made me the center of attention—and I just hate that.”

How long did she wear the wig, and when did her own hair return?

“To look like me, (it was) about six months after I completed chemo,” says Cindy. “I took the wig off when my hair was still very short and spiky. I look at pictures of me during that time, and it just doesn’t look like me. I actually took the wig off too soon.”

Cindy’s twin granddaughters were born just after she stopped wearing her wig, and she now has a third grandchild. “If money was no object, and I could do anything I want, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything other than spend more time with my daughter and grandchildren.”

Does Cindy have any advice for others who have to go through what she did?

“It’s such a personal thing,” she says. “For me, it was about not being the center of attention. You have to do whatever is comfortable. I realized my own vanity and my desire not to be the center of attention, but in the end, what was most important was that the cancer didn’t define me.”

If there is reincarnation, and we have to keep coming back until we’re perfect, I want to come back with Jennifer Aniston’s or Farrah Fawcett’s hair … or as Cindy Melchor.

Oh, and get regular mammograms—just do it!

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

There are some things we don’t readily share with friends and neighbors—like having paid one’s way through college by dancing around a pole. Or that romance with the golf pro. Or the nip/tuck during a “vacation” last summer.

Or that my grandmother once performed an abortion on herself using knitting needles.

With restrictions increasing on the rights granted by Roe v. Wade, women are being encouraged to talk about their experiences so that young women know what it was like—and what it could be like again.

It wasn’t until 1960 that “the pill” was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for contraceptive use. In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut struck down a state law that prohibited the use of contraceptives, because the law violated the “right to marital privacy.” Prior to that, even married women could not get doctors to prescribe contraception.

And if you were single? Forget about it.

June Pariano of La Quinta remembers well what those times were like.

“It was around 1969 in Racine, Wisc., and I was 23 or 24 years old.

“At that time, insurance did not pay for the pill, but broke as we were, I found the money and chose a doctor whose office was close to our apartment. When I went in and asked about a birth-control prescription, he gave me a sermon about how women were put on this earth to bear children, and it was ‘against nature.’ He finally agreed to give me a 6-month prescription and said he would not renew it.

“Six months later, I went to another doctor who asked me, ‘Don't you want to have children?’ I was so angry that I was being questioned about such a personal decision.

“I joined NOW (the National Organization for Women). We organized, wrote letters, drove to the state capital and fought like hell to get the politicians and the churches out of our bedrooms. Now it seems the politicians want to expand government to bedrooms again!”

Although abortions have always been a last resort for women (witness my grandmother), who have used everything from bleach douches to wire coat-hangers, it wasn’t until 1973 that the Supreme Court said the “right to privacy” protected a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy prior to “viability.” Before that, other options for American women were to go to another country, if they could afford to, or to seek out illegal abortionists—therefore risking their very lives to terminate unwanted pregnancies.

I did just that, in 1967, and would not wish the experience on anyone. It was sleazy, unprofessional and frightening—but not as frightening to me as continuing the pregnancy. I had given up a child for adoption when I was 17, and did not want to go through the daily agony of wondering whether I had done the right thing yet again.

I’ve never regretted that abortion, and react strongly to those who blithely say, “You can always give the baby up.” They’ve obviously never gone through it.

Dori Smith is a retired public-relations professional living in Palm Desert.

“In 1984, I helped my best friend’s daughter get a legal abortion when she was 18, and I realized how hard it is for any woman to even make the decision. She was so grateful. She went on to college, has two children and a great marriage, and even works with children now. She wouldn’t have been able to if we hadn’t helped her.

“Back in 1965, I got pregnant at 15 in my first sexual relationship, the one time we didn’t use any protection. I was so afraid. When I told him, he was scared. We didn’t know what to do.

“Abortion was illegal, so I asked him to find someone to do an illegal abortion. We never could find anyone. I finally told my mom after four months, and my parents gave permission to get married. I thought I was in love. What do you know at 15?

“We shouldn’t have been parents at that point in our lives. I was such a young mother; it was difficult for me to give my son as much as I could later with my daughter. I was so young and immature.”

Would Dori have made a different decision if she had been able? “Of course, it’s difficult to separate a living human being from what I wish I could have had as a choice back then. Because I was married, I couldn’t attend my senior prom, and I didn’t finish college until I was 32.

“I’m mentoring a young woman right now who’s 15. I think about myself dealing with those huge issues at that age. If my mom had just talked to me about sex and birth control. That’s what bothers me about those against abortion—they’re also against sex education. It’s as if they want us to be punished for having sex.”

Priscilla Scheldt Richardson of Cathedral City was married with two sons, 9 and 12, when she got pregnant in 1981 at the age of 38.

“Babies were being born with severe conditions to women my age. I’m so grateful I had a doctor who believed in my freedom to decide whether to continue a compromised pregnancy.

“He said there was no point to an amniocentesis unless I knew I would terminate the pregnancy if the fetus was damaged. Otherwise, he wouldn’t risk my health or the fetus with the test itself.

“My then husband and I talked carefully and decided what was most important was to protect the quality of life for our existing sons.

“As it turned out, the fetus was normal—and we went ahead with the pregnancy. My children know this story; they understand that was our thinking at the time, and they respect that.

“Some might call our decision selfish, but having that choice is so important to protect. Without that choice, our lives might have been entirely different.”

Women who have gone through these decisions are married, divorced, widowed. They teach your children, play tennis with you at the club, volunteer at local charities, participate in your organizations. They’re your friends and neighbors.

Share your stories.

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

What do you do with all the “stuff” that’s left after someone you love has died?

As someone currently mired in combing through my late husband’s disorganized-pack-rat accumulation three years after his death, I’m plagued by the question. So I decided to talk to some of the women I know who have been through it.

Esther Crayton, who will turn 79 on July 27 and lives in Palm Desert, is one of the many Coachella Valley widows who has faced that issue.

First married at 17 just before high school graduation, Esther had the first of two sons about a year later, and remained in that first marriage for “about seven or eight years—it’s hard now to remember the exact dates.”

Why the divorce? “He said we had to move to Mexico, and I decided I’d rather end the marriage.”

Subsequent to that divorce, her children’s father “took the kids to Mexico, kidnapped them.” Esther was finally reunited with her sons when her ex came across the border to work and was picked up on the warrant for his arrest following a traffic violation.

Esther had always wanted to be a nurse, so in her late 30s, after her sons had graduated, she enrolled at College of the Desert in what was then their 2-year R.N. program. She retired after more than 20 years as a delivery-room nurse at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs.

”I loved that sometimes I would be at the market, and someone would come up and say, ‘You were my nurse when I had my baby!’” she says.

Esther’s retirement came after she successfully helped bring a nurses’ union to the hospital. After several years of intense wrangling, the California Nurses Association representation was finally approved.

“We marched out in front of the hospital to get a union,” remembers Esther. “When I was working in an aerospace company way back when, having the union was one of the reasons we got good pay and benefits, and I wanted that for the nurses at Desert. The amount of money the hospital spent to fight the union would probably have more than paid for the increases we were asking for.”

Esther was also very involved in the women’s rights movement, and had a leadership role in the local chapter of the National Organization for Women for several years.

After the end of a second marriage, Esther was reunited with a man she had met many years earlier, while working at the aerospace company. “Sunny” was married at the time they met, and he decided to stay in his marriage until his children were grown. Later, he and Esther lived together, eventually becoming “registered domestic partners” until his death eight years ago.

Why the nickname “Sunny”?

“It was funny,” says Esther. “His first and middle name were the exact same as my second husband. One night, we were out, and the music playing was ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ I told him that from then on, he would be ‘Sunny,’ and he was.”

When Sunny died, “his kids came and took some things. The one thing I remember we fought over was a painting. Other than that, I didn’t keep much of his personal stuff. I was in a daze, so upset, and not really paying attention to what was happening. The big problem was selling the house—his kids wanted to cash out his share, and I couldn’t buy them out.” Esther had to move.

Today, Esther now says simply, “I miss him. He had always handled some things, and I wish I had taken more time to figure it all out.”

Another woman who had to deal with what to do with the “stuff” after a death is Marilyn Mitchell, also of Palm Desert. Marilyn was widowed after 38 years of marriage to Gordon “Whitey” Mitchell, a well-known writer and jazz musician. Marilyn has distinguished herself as a long-time leader and supporter of the Palm Springs Women’s Press Club.

“I got rid of the socks and underwear first,” said Marilyn. “I did keep a tuxedo that meant something in terms of memories, and some other clothing items that had meaning to us based on where we bought them, or where he had worn them.

“Whitey was very organized,” she says. “That made it much easier, so it didn’t take too long to go through and decide what to keep. After some time, I finally sold his beloved bass to Neil Diamond’s bass player. Whitey would have been so upset, because it wasn’t going to be playing jazz!”

I asked Marilyn if she had any words of wisdom to help me in what seems like an insurmountable task. “I asked myself: Who will really care about this years from now? I know someone who kept absolutely everything for over 25 years. For me, it was finally time to just let go and move on.”

Good advice from one of our neighbors. 

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Retirement here in the Coachella Valley is generally a time when you expect to kick back and just enjoy life.

But when my husband died about three years ago, I couldn’t retire. I needed to go back to work.

In spite of a J.D. law degree, several years of experience teaching seminar classes, and having set up and run a training department within a corporation, I did not meet the standards to teach in California. Whatever you may think about our education system, California’s teacher-qualification rules are strict and specific.

It was purely by chance that I saw a small notice announcing a meeting for a program that allows individuals to capitalize on their previous experience to qualify to stand in front of a classroom. It was being offered by the California State University at San Bernardino, at their Palm Desert campus.

It was at that meeting that I met Dennis Larney.

If you saw Dennis Larney on the street, he would seem like all of those other guys you see in the retirement areas of the valley: He’s of a certain age, maybe a former businessman, in pretty good shape. You might assume he plays golf or tennis, likes movies, maybe enjoys classical music or standards, is probably married, and is relatively comfortable. Yet Larney is not what you would expect at all—and he is representative of a whole group of locals who are not content to “just enjoy life,” but instead feel compelled to share what they have learned.

Larney had a successful career in finance, including 16 years at General Electric and a stint heading up commercial lending at Chase. He spent time in Eastern Europe training emerging capitalists, and in spite of degrees including an MBA, Larney found himself lacking the legal credentials teach. That spurred him to enroll in the teaching credential program sponsored by CSUSB.

Now 78, Larney, a Palm Desert resident, is coordinator of the Career and Technical Education program on the CSUSB-PD campus.

“We all know our own subjects, but we don’t know how to teach,” he says. “A program like this really helps you define yourself so you can give back to help a new generation.”

Thanks to Larney’s affable enthusiasm for the program, I was sold. And the kicker was that CSUSB waives tuition for students older than the age of 60!

I expected my fellow students to be mostly like Larney and me: of a certain age, retired, experienced in the “real world” and wanting to share their knowledge. However, I found real diversity in the program—from the classically trained actress to the community organizer to the retired judge to the psychologist to the former U.S. Navy admiral, with a mixture of ages, races and backgrounds.

Among my classmates:

• John, 54, La Quinta, began working at 13, Air Force Russian translator, management background, completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology, volunteers with a local nonprofit support services agency: “My passion is helping others. I’m thinking about the future and retirement, and hope to do something I can carry on with in later years, perhaps as either a teacher or counselor to those coming behind me.”

• Rupert, 66, Rancho Mirage, documentary film producer, previously with NBC: “I think teaching is one of the most constructive things that talented folks with a lot of experience have left to do.”

• Mel, 91, aerospace engineer, worked on the Saturn moon missions and space shuttle, former contractor to the armed forces, forensic engineer and expert witness: “I would like to finish my working life as a teacher in designing space-mission boosters and vehicles.”

• Marilyn, 62, Palm Desert, recently divorced, running her own business-consulting company, experienced in sales and marketing presentations around the country: “I’m not sure I’ll actually teach, but the credential gives me options as I move forward with a new focus on my life.”

• Arnie, 76, Indio, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who studied culinary arts at College of the Desert and does comedy acting when he can get cast: “I needed to learn how to do a lesson plan and present my package of up-selling skills in a professional way.”

• Tom, 63, Rancho Mirage, a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly, post-grad studies in real-estate development, an urban planner: “I realized how little I really knew and how much there was to learn to be a better teacher. Over the past several decades, I’ve come to realize the importance of the role of higher education in economic development. This credential has given me a foundation to build upon and a focus on future mentoring. My instructors and fellow students are both interesting and inspiring.”

I agree with Tom: The people with whom I’ve shared this program are interesting, inspiring, motivated and committed to doing more than just relaxing and “enjoying life.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) They’ve gone on to teach reading and math in lower grades; teach business, marketing or law to adult students; private tutoring; volunteering; and consulting with local businesses and school districts. They remind me that we don’t always know our neighbors.

I figure if we’re still here, there’s still something we are supposed to do—if we can just figure out what it is. Regardless of one’s age, or perhaps because of it, Dennis Larney and CSUSB are offering the opportunity to help people figure things out.

What are you doing the rest of YOUR life?

For more information, visit pdc.csusb.edu/majorsprograms/careerTechnicalEducation.html. Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

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