Advice for Gray Daters: A lot more conversation, a little less action

Feb. 14, 2018

By Laura Stassi

It’s Valentine’s Day, so let’s talk about sex. I’ll go first, with a confession: Even though it’s already been a few years since my gray divorce,  I still feel clumsy and clueless about the social and moral aspects of sex for people 50 and older.

I suspect I’m not the only one. How else to explain online dating dudes who go by the names MrHuge and GratKissor (hah, more like BadSpeller) and Milfhunter65 — Milf as in “Mother I’d like to f**k.” Yes, these are actual user names of men 50 and older on the online dating sites Match, eHarmony, and Our Time. Then there’s my “favorite,” Makusqrt12, who says he’s looking for someone honest, hard-working, and freaky. Clearly, we’re soul mates. Not.

So what are the rules for sex and the single gray woman?

“I don’t believe in any kind of rulebook, or playbook,” the Rev. Debra Haffner tells me. “But I really believe you have to communicate before you have sex. I think hooking up, if I use today’s vernacular, rarely ends up in good sex – and even more rarely ends up in a real relationship.”

Haffner is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston. She may seem like an unlikely person for me to turn to for advice. But Haffner’s also a nationally acclaimed sexologist — someone who studies the science of human sexuality. She earned a master’s degree in public health from Yale decades before earning master’s and doctoral degrees from Union Theological Seminary in New York City and Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, respectively.

Her resume includes serving as president of the D.C.-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, and writing several books including the award-winning Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens. Think of Haffner as the baby boomer generation’s Dr. Ruth, or Pepper Schwartz without the publicity machine. (In fact, Haffner and Schwartz, a sexologist whose many projects include relationship expert for the Lifetime TV series Married at First Sight, have been close friends since meeting professionally in 1991.)

Haffner says it’s understandable that I may be confused about sex. “In this country, we generally teach sex education between eighth and tenth grade, with the expectation we’re giving people information for their lifetime.”

But bodies change, of course. “Very few people talk about the fact that most men will reach an age where they don’t have an erection that’s strong enough for intercourse without intervention,” she said. “We don’t talk to women about lubrication, and intercourse becoming painful.”

And when sex is defined only as intercourse, she says, then some people decide to give up instead of making accommodations for their aging bodies. “So people stop touching each other,” she said. “They stop kissing. They stop engaging in any physical intimacy because they have to give up a certain act.”

Also, being in a committed relationship doesn’t necessarily make a person more knowledgeable or skilled.

“I think what they are is efficient,” said Haffner, who’s been married for 35 years and has two grown children. “They know how to get their partner to orgasm, so they keep doing what they’ve been doing, and they move quickly.”

Haffner says she’s not going to judge if, let’s say hypothetically and figuratively, one wants to just get back on the horse. But she believes everyone – gay or straight, single or partnered, young and not so  – deserves a moral and ethical sexual relationship.

She defines this as:

 Enthusiastically consensual. “It’s not a matter of giving signals or coyly expecting things,” she said. “And no one should be having sex with someone you don’t really want to be having sex with at that moment.”

Non-exploitive. “People aren’t objects; they’re not using each other. There’s a shared understanding.”

Honest. Haffner says this includes asking and answering questions such as: Where are you in your life, and what are you looking for? If this works out, would you like a relationship, or are you just playing? Are you planning on moving anytime soon?  Do you have other partners? If we entered into a relationship, would it be monogamous?

Mutually pleasurable. Both partners are as committed to the other person’s pleasure as they are to their own. “How do you know what will please the other person? You ask,” Haffner says. “Sex is a matter of learning somebody. We’re all different; there’s no formula.”

Protected against sexually transmitted infections.

So how do two people develop a moral and ethical sexual relationship? With shared values and time but above all, with communication. When you’re 50 or older, “you have a life,” Haffner said. “You come with your loves, your commitments and your values, things that have broken your heart and the relationships that have worked and those that haven’t, and what you know about yourself.”

“So this idea that you’re going to find that soul mate whom you will instantly meld your life with – I don’t know how much it happens at 21, but I definitely don’t think that’s what’s happening at 50 and older,” she said. “What’s happening instead is a lot of talking.”

But it’s worth it, she assures me. “Those of us who are midlife and older should feel that we’re entitled to good sexual and romantic lives,” she said.

Amen to that.

Matchmaker Finds the Find, Catches the Catch

Ever heard the expression “all of the good ones are taken”? It’s not true, according to professional matchmaker Leora Hoffman. But the good men, she warns, usually go fast.

“When a good man is back on the market, people look for matches for him left and right,” she said. “The neighbor, the co-worker, the sister – society, for some reason, wants to reach out and match a man, but the same doesn’t happen to women. It’s so unfair.”

Leora said a lot of men get involved with someone new within three to six months after coming back on the market. There are exceptions, of course, including her second husband. He’d been widowed for several years and actively involved with online dating before he and Leora met through mutual friends. “So much of it is timing,” she said. “But I also believe in fate.”

You can read Leora’s Dating While Gray story here. Meantime, let’s look at the business of romance. Everything I knew about matchmaking and matchmakers, I learned from “Fiddler on the Roof.” So when a man I met at a speed-dating event (nice man, no spark, fun time) mentioned he had a friend who was a professional matchmaker, I gave him my email address and asked him to pass it on because I wanted to learn more. You know, for journalism.

Leora graciously agreed to meet and over Happy Hour drinks at the Ritz-Carlton in McLean, Virginia, she talked about Leora Hoffman Associates (LHA), her personal introduction and relationship service for singles in the D.C. metro area. She gave up a career in law 28 years ago to launch it.

“My goal is to find my clients long-term partners, whether I introduce them to two people or 20 people,” she said. “Less is more, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s not about dates. It’s about relationships.”

Most of Leora’s clients are baby boomers. She screens them to make sure they’re a good and safe fit for her network, and meets them to learn their life stories and find out what they’re looking for in a long-term partner.

“Everyone’s had a journey before they come to me,” she said. “I find out what a person’s particular path has been so I can figure out who will be a good partner for them. Some people are looking for the identical type they’re used to. Sometimes I recommend the exact opposite and lo and behold, it works.”

LHA has three membership levels. Clients at the basic level receive referrals to other people in the LHA network for one year, which can be spread over a two-year period. The other two membership levels may include matches outside the LHA network.

“I function like a search firm, really, but for someone’s personal life instead of his or her career,” Leora said. “I’m tied into several networks, and I also have people who give me leads on potential matches.”

Those at the highest LHA membership level receive services including a consultation with an image consultant and a personality assessment by a licensed psychologist.

Gray Dating can be challenging, Leora said, because people who’ve built lives and careers may not be willing to compromise. “Also, people may be very quick to eliminate potential partners without really giving them a chance,” she said. “We’ve been trained to make snap judgments on the job, and that can spill over into our personal lives. People can often be their own worst enemies by making a premature judgment about somebody with very little information. My role is to say ‘Hey, I don’t think you really know this person well enough.’ Or, ‘You’re incorrect about that.’ ”

When Leora evaluates candidates to match, she looks for common values and goals.  She called chemistry “the wildcard. And that’s really in nature. It’s not up to me.”

After she makes referrals, “I like to gauge the probabilities they’ll work out. On one end of the spectrum is pure longshot – and I have played the longshots and have actually been surprised. And on the other end is a really strong feeling about these two. If I have that strong feeling, I’ve never been disappointed. They click like that,” she said, snapping her fingers.

Leora said the matches she makes usually fall in the middle of that scale, but the first two people she ever matched “fell in love in 20 minutes and are still married today.”

For those who don’t experience that instant click, Leora advises going on at least two dates.

“Repeated exposure gives you more information and sometimes, that chemistry doesn’t come out right away, especially if someone’s introverted,” she said. “Everyone’s nervous and anxious at first.”

Leora advises her clients to be patient. “You don’t have to have a conclusion after the first date, after the second date, even the third date,” she said. “You just have to know if you want to spend more time with a person. And that will clear itself one way or the other, eventually.”

Speaking of patience,  Leora says people should trust their own instincts when it comes to sex. However, she believes jumping into bed too soon can derail a potential long-term relationship.  Forget about the so-called three-date rule. Leora thinks a three-month rule may be more prudent.

“Believe me, I had my fun, too, in my single days,” she said. “But I think people should date a few months before they become physically intimate so they know who they’re dealing with. Don’t sleep with someone unless you really think you’re about to embark on an exclusive relationship.”

“What romance really involves, in my experience, is a curiosity. You want to get to know someone, to understand them. There’s something’s drawing you in. The depth is what brings people together. It’s not if they play tennis or if they ski. It’s, you know, do they really ‘get’ each other?  Do they really admire and respect each other?”

“So a good match is where you’re strong in this area, I’m strong in that area; we balance each other, we support each other. We tease each other about those little foibles that each of us has. It’s good-natured, and it’s loving. That’s what a good relationship looks like.”

Gray Daters “are usually more evolved and mature,” Leora said. “You’re not looking for perfection, necessarily. You’re just looking for the right connection.”

For more information about Leora’s matchmaking business, go here.

For Leora’s Gray Dating story, go here.


Dating While Gray: This Time, He Danced

March 27, 2017

By Laura Stassi

Country song advice to the contrary, whenever Jack* was given the choice to sit it out or dance, he’d usually sit it out.

“I’m a horrible dancer,” said Jack, now 58. “But after I turned 50, my attitude was screw it, I don’t care. I don’t care what people think about me anymore.”

That attitude helped Jack, then a grocery store executive living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, connect with Francine, a real estate attorney living in Nashville, Tennessee. When they wound up together at a Florida bar that was playing live music, “Jack asked me to dance,” said Francine, now 67. “I love to dance! But I find many men are too intimidated to dance. So I recognized confidence and a fun side of Jack that was appealing.”

Laura L. Gingerich Photography

They dated for four years before throwing themselves a splashy wedding celebration in Cuba in January. It was Jack’s third marriage, and Francine’s fourth.

As I wrote here, Jack and Francine met at the start of the 2013 July Fourth holiday weekend in Panama City, Florida. That’s where Francine owns a condo and where The Professor, Jack’s best friend from his Alabama childhood, now lives. The Professor and Francine had met on the online dating site Plenty of Fish. They hadn’t hit it off romantically but had developed a friendship, and they got together whenever they were both in town. Jack had traveled to Florida to visit The Professor and play golf.

That Jack and Francine met at all seems so happenstance that romantics can only conclude it was meant to be. Jack adds to the aura when he tells me he came very close to not even going to Florida for the holiday because he knew the forecast was calling for rain. But he had the time off from work, and he didn’t want to stay in Baton Rouge.

That weekend, Jack went with The Professor to meet Francine and her friend for dinner. It wasn’t a set-up; by chance, Jack and Francine sat at the same end of the table. “I got lucky,” Jack said and laughs, as though he still can’t believe just how lucky he got. After dinner, the group went to a bar with live music. That’s when Jack, no longer sitting it out, asked Francine to dance.

The men and women wound up spending much of the weekend together because just as predicted, “It literally rained all freakin’ weekend,” Jack said. By the end of the holiday Jack and Francine were making plans to see each other, and they’ve been together ever since.

“Francine’s very energetic,” Jack said. “Very.  She’s waaaay more outgoing than I am,” he said, drawing out the word. “And not that I’m not outgoing, but she takes it to a level that most people only dream of.”

“She’s aged very well,” he adds drolly. “She gets around well, and she looks great,” noting that if he hadn’t known how old Francine was when he met her, he never would have guessed.

“Francine is just so straightforward with everything,” he said. “She’s unique to me in that there’s no hidden agenda with anything that she’s done. I mean, she just — it is what it is.  And I realized that pretty quickly, just in the way she lives her life. It’s who she is.”

Jack got married for the first time when he was 30; that marriage ended after four years. A few years later, he got married again, this time for 16 years. Neither marriage produced children.

After his second marriage ended, Jack, by then over 50, didn’t start dating right away. Instead, he spent several months “just taking it easy, kind of getting the lay of the land, if you will.” He wasn’t lonely because during the week, a longtime business colleague used Jack’s house as a geographic bachelor pad, “so there was always someone around,” Jack said. Plus, Jack had a cat.

Almost a year after his divorce, Jack signed up for a three-month membership on “It was OK,” he said. “I met several nice people. But I found online dating to be kind of like work.” When his membership expired, he didn’t renew it.

Jack also became active in his church, which had a singles program. About 15 people would meet up one night a week for a group outing, and they’d also get together every other weekend to perform service projects. The singles group basically was his social life. He even dated a woman in the group for several months before they split amicably.

Laura L. Gingerich Photography

After Jack and Francine met in July 2013, they were in a long-distance relationship for about a year. “Francine came to Baton Rouge some, but I mostly went to Nashville,” he said. “And over that period, I met everyone” — everyone meaning Francine’s more than two dozen children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well as James, Francine’s friend whose supposedly temporary stay at her house several years ago has turned into a permanent living arrangement.

“I’m going to say it surprised me, but I got along so well immediately with all of her kids,” Jack said. “And I got along so well with James. I’m an extremely laid-back, live-and-let-live person. Always have been. It’s hard to rile me up.”

In mid-2014, Jack took early retirement, sold his Louisiana home, and moved to Nashville and in to Francine’s house. I asked him if he had any hesitations giving up his established life.

“Of course there was a little bit of hesitation, making a move that big,” he said. Jack had been with the same company for 17 years, “and I loved what I did. I had a very good job.” But he never had been a big fan of Baton Rouge and had always planned on retiring early anyway. “I’m fairly frugal and have always had a decent job,” he said.

He thought he’d wind up in Mobile, Alabama, where he still has family. But Jack grew to love Nashville and of course, he loved Francine.

“From Day 1, I just felt very, very comfortable in her world, if you will, even though it was totally different from my world,” he said. “It was just different – but it certainly wasn’t bad.”

I asked Jack if he had any advice for other people his age, particularly men, who are looking for love after 50. “You know, I don’t know that I do, ” he said, “because I wasn’t like oh, my God, I have to run out and find somebody and I have to get married or, you know, this has to happen.”

But if friends were to press him for advice, Jack said, he’d probably tell them this: “Don’t push it; you know, just let-it-happen-if-it-happens kind of thing. Put yourself out there, if you want to, through online dating or church, or whatever it is. But don’t go into it promptly expecting that, ‘I’m going to find the love of my life here.’ ”

After all,  you never know when it’s going to happen, Jack said, and you never know where. “I’m still not a good dancer,” Jack said. “But I’ll dance.”

*Names have been changed.

Are you seeking, or have you found, love, romance or marriage at age 50 or older? Share your Dating While Gray experiences with Laura.

Dating While Gray: Three Marriage Strikes, But She’s Not Out

Feb. 13, 2017

By Laura Stassi

Francine,* 67,  has played many roles in her life, including stay-at-home mom, schoolteacher, part owner of a family business and now, real estate attorney with her own practice. But 17 years ago after getting divorced for a third time, Francine vowed that the one role she would never play again was wife.

“I just was done” with marriage, Francine said with a laugh. She’s laughing because she is energetic and fun-loving, and laughing comes easily for her. She’s also laughing because in late December, she walked down the aisle for a fourth time.

I interviewed Francine by phone about her Dating While Gray experiences while she took a break from work-related business at a construction site near Nashville, Tennessee. Her vibrant personality sparkled through the telephone connection.

Laura L. Gingerich Photography

The story of how Francine and her fourth husband met seems so happenstance that romantics can only conclude it was meant to be. Francine lived in Nashville; Jack, 58 and twice-divorced, lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They met over the 2013 Fourth of July weekend in Panama City, Florida. Francine owned a condo there; Jack was visiting his Alabama childhood best friend, a retired professor.

Francine and the professor had met through the free online dating site Plenty of Fish. They hadn’t hit it off romantically, but they had become pals and usually got together when they were both in Florida. That holiday weekend, Francine brought her friends to a restaurant for dinner, and the professor brought his. By chance, Francine and Jack sat at the same end of the table.

It wasn’t love at first sight, Francine said. But the men and women wound up spending much of the weekend together after the men’s golf plans got rained out, and by the end of the holiday Francine and Jack were making plans to spend time alone. They rendezvoused in New Orleans three weeks later and “from that point on, we spent practically every weekend together,” Francine said. “This was the most intense thing that I probably ever had experienced.”

By November 2013, they were planning a trip to Europe. “He had never been,” Francine said, “and traveling is a big thing for me. I wanted to see how we traveled together. I have a theory: You need to be on a trip with someone for more than a week, just the two of you, and see how 24 hours a day together is going to work out.”

It worked out. By mid-2014, Jack had sold his Louisiana home, taken early retirement, and moved in with Francine in Nashville. Francine and Jack decided to wed after Francine’s 6-year-old granddaughter innocently said she had overheard her dad telling her teenaged sister that boys and girls don’t sleep in the same bedroom unless they’re married, and that couldn’t be true because Jack slept with Francine in her bedroom, and they weren’t married.

“I realized I was probably not setting a real good example for the grandchildren,” Francine said wryly. She has almost two dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Jack is about nine years younger than Francine–not a significant age gap compared to the gap with other men she dated after her six-year third marriage ended. “I had lots of relationships,” she said, laughing. “And the men kept getting younger. Pretty quickly, I realized 50-year-old men don’t want 50-year-old women. It doesn’t matter what you look like, or how successful you are, or any qualities that you think might be attractive to someone over 50. They’re not interested.”

Francine met these young professional men through work. After starting her own title and escrow company in April 1999, she networked intensely with real estate agents and mortgage brokers to get business. “I took people out to dinner every night. I took someone to lunch every day. And my social life was kind of built around marketing, and wining and dining customers.”

Her first boyfriend post-third-divorce was a mortgage broker about 15 years her junior who had received an invitation to one of those networking dinners. They dated for nine months. Francine said her four children, all young adults, “were just horrified.”

“But I thought, he’s not married, and I’m not married. What’s wrong with it? And this was really my first time” on the dating scene, “and I was rebellious.”

Francine was a teenager with a baby on the way when she walked down the aisle for the first time with Rich, her high school sweetheart. But he had a college football scholarship, and his parents didn’t approve of the union.

“I was left with a 9-month old, no money,” Francine said. “I had to beg my conservative parents, especially my mother, to come back home to live.”

Francine focused on academics and earned a college degree a semester ahead of schedule, then started teaching. She had been harboring hopes that she and Rich would find their way back to each other. But after he called one night to tell her he had fallen in love with someone else and was getting married, “I rebounded,” Francine said. Husband No. 2, Ronny, was another longtime classmate who also had a brief previous marriage. Francine was 21 when they got married; three children quickly followed, and Francine became a stay-at-home mom.

“Ronny was extremely conservative and very tight-fisted,” Francine said. “We had no debt, but we had no fun either. I guess I wanted more in life than where I was.”

Francine started talking about going to law school, but Ronny wasn’t supportive. They separated after 13 years of marriage; Francine began night classes a month after the divorce was final. She said her kids learned independence and self-sufficiency, but they were starting to act out. Also, money was tight; the family business was in turmoil after the unexpected death of her father.

“I thought maybe if I settled down and had a stable home, it would be beneficial for my kids,” Francine said. So in 1991, three years after graduating from law school, she married husband No. 3, an attorney she had met at a work function. Trey was four years older and had a son from a previous marriage.

Francine said she and Trey had fun when they socialized with friends. But things started going sideways after she changed practice specialties and began staying late at work to overcome a steep learning curve. Trey “wasn’t too happy about that,” Francine said. “He wanted me to get home at a certain time and then sit on the couch beside him while he watched TV and drank.”

“If the kids were home, he was pleasant,” Francine said. “But if not, it was turmoil.” Worried he would become physically violent, Francine moved into a friend’s furnished condo with her youngest child, who was in high school, and got a divorce.

She vowed to never get married again, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want to date.  Francine didn’t intentionally target younger men but when they began showing interest while men her own age weren’t, she didn’t shy away.

“I thought, if I want to date somebody young, I’m doing the same thing that all these guys my age are doing. And if they can get by with it, then why can’t I? What’s wrong with it? I want to play by the same rules.”

Francine did set one rule for herself. Then again, rules are meant to be broken.

“I first said I wouldn’t date anybody younger than my oldest child,” Francine said. But after meeting a man who didn’t fit that description, “I changed it. I said, OK, I won’t date anybody younger than my youngest child.”

Then Francine had dinner one evening with a “cute-as-can-be CPA” she had known for a few years. When she sensed he wanted more than a work relationship, “I said, ‘how old are you, anyway?’ ” Francine recalled, laughing. “He was three months older than my oldest grandchild, so I changed my rule again. I said OK, I won’t date anybody younger than my oldest grandchild.”

Francine has remained friendly with many of her former boyfriends. One even attended her and Jack’s wedding celebration in Cuba over the New Year holiday.


Along with her large extended family, Francine also has a diverse circle of close friends. Seeking to ease Jack’s transition into her well-established and sometimes chaotic life,  Francine turned her guest house into a “man cave” for him. “I was worried he might feel a little overwhelmed in my world,” Francine said, noting that Jack doesn’t have kids. “He’s also a hunter, so he had a lot of deer heads he wanted to hang up.”

But turning the guesthouse over to Jack meant finding new digs for James, Francine’s friend whose “temporary” stay at her house seven years ago has turned into a permanent living arrangement.

“I agreed that Jack could bring his cat if I got to keep James,” Francine said, laughing yet again. So James, who happens to be gay, moved into a bedroom in the main house and now jokes that he, Francine and Jack are a “thruple.” One of Francine’s daughters calls them the modern-day Golden Girls.

“It works out really good the way it is,” Francine said. “We check in with each other every evening about 5 o’clock. Usually, we all three go out to dinner together. We don’t do much cooking.”  The two men enjoy watching Alabama football games together; Francine takes her friend to art openings and other events her husband is happy to skip.

I asked Francine what advice she has for people over 50 who are looking for romance, love and maybe even marriage.  “If you don’t put yourself out there, you’re never going to meet anybody,” Francine said. “And you’ve got to get out of your circle–the same circle that you’ve been in with the same people you’ve been with for years–if you expect to meet anybody else.”

“If you’re sitting at home,” she said, “you’re not going to meet anybody new.”

*Names have been changed.

Have you experienced love and romance, maybe even marriage, at age 50 or older? Share your Dating While Gray experiences by contacting Laura.     

Saying Goodbye to Summer

By Laura Stassi

Sept. 21, 2016

Summer used to be my least favorite time of year. Something about hot and humid weather mingling with seemingly unstructured time—whether it was mine or anyone else’s—left me feeling simultaneously lethargic and restless. But two recent accomplishments have caused me to re-evaluate summer’s status as my least favorite season.

Courtesy Sawmill Creek Resort, Huron, Ohio

Courtesy Sawmill Creek Resort, Huron, Ohio

First, I took up stand-up paddle boarding. I signed up for a lesson in June through Surf Reston after reading that the fast-growing sport known as SUP is a terrific way to strengthen core muscles and improve balance and stability. (Anyone who questions why this is important has clearly never been around a struggling elderly person.)

Placid Lake Anne, the oldest and smallest of Reston’s four man-made lakes, may not have offered a rigorous physical workout. But two hours of SUP here—and only one tumble— boosted my confidence enough to try SUP again a few weeks later on Lake Audubon, the largest Reston lake; and then for a third time on the third weekend in July when a family reunion took me to Sawmill Creek Resort on Lake Erie— ocean-esque in comparison to Reston’s tame little lakes and with power boats, kayakers and swimmers keeping me on my figurative, if not literal, toes. I dared not venture too far out from a little sliver of the resort shoreline of this 240-mile-long, 57-mile-wide Great Lake.

Whatever benefits SUP may have had for my core strength, balance and stability were secondary to what SUP did for my head. Any worries about looking goofy evaporated as shimmering water and rhythmic movements put me in a calm, focused and almost meditative state of mind. To quote legendary writer and producer Norman Lear’s vivid description of mindfulness, or “living in the moment,” SUP kept me happily in the hammock between Over and Next.  

Paddleboarding along Reston's Lake Audubon, June 25, 2016. Courtesy Surf Reston

Paddle boarding along Reston’s Lake Audubon, June 25, 2016. Courtesy Surf Reston

Which leads me to the second thing I accomplished this summer: I finished reading Wallace J. Nichols’ Blue Mind, a book with a subtitle so long it tells you everything you need to know about what’s between the covers. (The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do)

Nichols’ book basically confirmed what I had first discovered years ago in Emerald Isle, N.C., when slow runs along the beach on hot summer days had led to more than one “a-ha!” moment regarding a writing project or relationship puzzle.


Water activities need not be confined to summer, of course (though time is running out for Surf Reston SUP sessions). Still, when fall arrives on Thursday, I’ll say goodbye to my formerly least-favorite season with no hint of good riddance. For me, the Summer of ’16 provided a  different kind of coming-of-age story.


(Almost) Total Recall: A Survivor’s Key Testimony

April 25, 2016

By Laura Stassi

Traumatic experiences can affect people so profoundly that they may not be able to remember the details of what happened for hours, days, weeks or even years afterward—if ever.

Then there’s Steve. Under the most extreme emotional and physical duress imaginable, his uncanny sense of recall prevailed.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Calif.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Calif.

It happened a few days short of 35 years and one month ago, on the last weekend of March in 1981. Steve, then a junior at the University of California, Davis; and his girlfriend, Ellen, a UC Davis sophomore, were hiking at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. On Ridge Trail, they encountered a man with a gun.

The man ordered the couple repeatedly to “do what I say, and you won’t get hurt.”*

“Don’t listen to him, Steve,” Ellen said.

Steve alternated between pleading for his and Ellen’s lives and attempting to protect Ellen with his words.

“Be careful, Ell. He has a gun. Ellen, stay away from him. He has a gun.”

The gunman told Ellen he wanted to rape her.

“No, I’m not going to let you,” she said and then repeated to Steve, “Don’t listen to what he says.”

The flustered gunman shot the couple at close range and left them to die.

“It was clear from the beginning that Ellen would not submit to his demands and was willing to fight back,” Steve said. “I think her resistance made him angry.”

It “also made him panic,” Steve said, so the gunman’s aim was off. While Ellen was shot twice in the head and once in the right shoulder, the bullet meant to kill Steve landed in his neck.

Bleeding profusely, Steve managed to get up and check on Ellen; tragically, she was dead. He ran down the trail to summon help, soon encountering a father and son who had heard the gunshots and were coming to investigate. They helped Steve to a nearby observation deck, where he received first aid from a woman who happened to be a nursing assistant. First-responders arrived, and Steve was transported to a nearby hospital.

Despite the chaos of the moments and the emotional and physical horrors, Steve was able to remember enough details to identify the gunman. The first time was when the woman was helping him on the observation deck. Steve spotted the gunman, who was walking away from them at a distance.

“Lady, that’s the man that shot me!” Steve yelled, standing up and pointing. “Get out of here!”

Then, when Steve was in the hospital awaiting surgery, he provided information for police to create a facial composite. “The surgeon came in and said he wanted to get started,” Steve recalled. “The detective asked for a few more minutes. Before the surgeon could reply, I said, ‘He can have a few more minutes.’

“I figured I needed to tell that detective everything I knew before they put me under, in the event I didn’t make it,” Steve said.


After surgery, while Steve was still in the intensive care unit, detectives returned to ask for feedback on the composite. Unable to speak, “I could only motion to them to make revisions,” he said. “When they got the sketch right, I emphatically tapped their sketch as confirmation.”

Forensic evidence soon tied Steve and Ellen’s case to the so-called Trailside Killer and a terrifying, six-week cluster of rape and murder in 1980 at Mount Tamalpais State Park, near San Francisco in Marin County. (“We were aware of the Marin County attacks,” Steve said, and that’s why “Ellen’s mom suggested we go to Santa Cruz.”)

Steve was able to not only describe the gunman’s face and details like “crooked, yellow teeth,” but he also remembered what the gunman was wearing. And  Steve’s estimate of the gunman’s age—”about 50″—would prove to be spot-on.

“My detailed description gave investigators [in both locations] their best lead in months,” Steve said. Several weeks later, police arrested a former convict named David Carpenter and called Steve to see if he could identify Carpenter in a police lineup. Without hesitation, Steve pointed him out, even though Carpenter had grown a beard.

Steve also provided key testimony during two trials. Carpenter was found guilty of first-degree murder and the attempted rape of Ellen, and guilty of the attempted murder of Steve. Carpenter also was found guilty of first-degree murder and rape in the death of a co-worker he killed a few days after the attack on Ellen and Steve.

Ultimately, Carpenter was also convicted of five murders on the trails near San Francisco. And in 2010, DNA evidence tied him to a cold-case 1979 rape and murder of a woman who had gone for a run on another San Francisco-area trail. Carpenter is also a suspect in at least one other murder; now in his mid-80s, he is on death row in San Quentin State Prison.

Carpenter’s victims “were made to suffer and then murdered,” Steve said. “They were trapped in a hopeless situation, and I understand the fear and terror they experienced. Evidence indicates that they also resisted.”

Steve spent more than a week in the hospital recovering from his ordeal. He returned to school a few weeks later with his arm in a sling, obvious surgical scars, and a voice hardly above a whisper. “Most wounds healed in about a month,” he said. “Some wounds still linger. ”

However,  “I thought the sooner I was sitting back in class, the sooner my life would return to normal. Those of us who knew Ellen well also knew that she would want us to move on with our lives.” And while the attack “is part of my life,” Steve said, it “did not drive” it. “I wanted to finish college, start a career, and be in a relationship. I didn’t want to let myself down and let Carpenter take my livelihood.”

Steve has succeeded. He has had a long and fruitful career with PG&E and has been happily married to his wife, Anne, for almost 31 years. They have a young son who doesn’t know the details of what Steve experienced, but he does know why his dad has scars. “I wanted him to know what a gun will do to a person,” Steve said.

Steve insists that it is Ellen who is the true hero because she “ended these terrible actions,” he said. “Ellen Hansen’s courage and resistance saved my life.  She was extraordinary.”

“I was no hero, pleading for my life,” he said, “and I will always remember my knees shaking. But I have survived and was able to provide the testimony to help convict” Carpenter. And while some people might “see that as courageous,” Steve wrote, “I see it as my duty.”

After Steve and I reconnected several weeks ago and he shared this story, I asked if I could write about him because I  specialize in unearthing the extraordinary stories contained within seemingly ordinary lives. Ever the editor to my writer, Steve tweaked me. “To turn your phrase, I think I’m an extraordinary person who has succeeded in living an ordinary life,” he said. “I’ve tried to stay out of the limelight and enjoy my relative anonymity.”

And though he always considered himself spiritual but not particularly religious, he became Catholic about four years ago. “I can never fully explain my decision to do so, but it reflects a lifetime of experience,” he said.

“I do believe we are here by the grace of God.”


*I described Steve and Ellen’s encounter with David Carpenter using this court transcript.

(Almost) Total Recall

April 18, 2016

By Laura Stassi

I used to believe I had superior recollection of significant events in my life. But that was before the night I heard the gentle ping of my cellphone’s email notification several minutes after I had already laid the phone on the nightstand, switched off the table lamp, and pulled up the bed covers for sleep.

Unable to resist, I fumbled for the phone and squinted to read without my glasses.

“It is quite possible you are the first person I kissed.”



The one-line message was from Steve, a boy I knew best in junior high school in the early 1970s. I had fuzzy memories of how our lives had intersected back then, but we had friended each other on Facebook several years ago and had casually caught up. Steve was living in California, where he had moved during our sophomore year at West Springfield High School.

A few days before Steve had emailed me, a woman who had been two grades ahead of us at West Springfield had started a Facebook page for alumni. The page immediately was flooded with photos, tributes and shout-outs from men and women who had been classmates as well as neighbors and friends throughout childhood.

All of this social media activity undoubtedly was uncovering decades of dusty memories. But Steve? I didn’t remember kissing him—not a first time, not ever. I reached for my glasses and laughed as I typed my reply.

“Oh lordy, this email is cracking me up,” I wrote. “Are you sure it was me? When? I always thought the first person I kissed was redheaded Dave in eighth grade at a cast party, and I didn’t go around kissing a lot of boys. Do tell.”

“Cast party,” Steve responded, confirming my memory of a tame Spin the Bottle game after a junior high school stage production. When it had been my turn, Steve wrote, I spun the bottle and it stopped at a girl. So I got a do-over – this was the early ’70s, after all – and it had landed on him.

“Given our antagonistic relationship at the time, it was ironic,” Steve wrote.

“Refresh my memory about antagonistic,” I responded. I didn’t remember that, either.

“You and I worked on the WISP [Washington Irving School Paper] and had differing views of boys vs. girls sports,” Steve wrote. “We decided a basketball game was in order,” no doubt inspired by the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in September of that school year. “Think Pat & Mike without the rom-com ending, I suppose.”

wisp 001

Writing for the school paper. Organizing the basketball game. These were details about my 13-year-old self that I had long forgotten until Steve’s memories prompted my own. In an email conversation that continued over the next few days, Steve sparked additional recall. The name of that eighth-grade play (You Were Born on a Rotten Day). The host of the cast party (Stu). The girl who had served as the kissing game expert (Isa).  I became convinced that not only was I Steve’s first kiss but that Steve had also been mine, and that I had mistakenly believed all these years that Dave was first because I remembered clearly what happened at school after the party. Dave had painstakingly copied the lyrics to three songs onto sheets of loose-leaf notebook paper, then folded them into fat little squares that he pushed through my locker vent.

“That damn Dave and his love notes,” I wrote Steve. They had taken all the brain space I had for eighth-grade memories.

I began to wonder if perhaps it wasn’t that Steve’s sense of recall was sharp, but that mine was much duller than I had realized. I searched online for Dave to see what he remembered; alas, I couldn’t find him. But I did connect with Stu, who had hosted the cast party.

“I DO remember playing Spin the Bottle but don’t recall who I kissed,” Stu wrote. “Oh, that just sounds awful. Was it you?”

I also found Isa, who said she couldn’t recall the name of the play, who hosted the party or why she was even there, since she wasn’t an official member of the cast or crew. She did remember playing Spin the Bottle but had no memories of whom she kissed.

It was official, then: Steve’s recall was uncanny.

Steve  told me that he didn’t know why or how, but he’s always been able to recall “facts, dates and figures for tests” better than most. He also has an eye for detail, such as remembering what his now-wife was wearing (cowboy hat, purple tank top) when they met in 1979, about four years before they started dating.

There’s more. A little over 35 years ago, under the most horrifying, tragic and stressful of circumstances, Steve’s ability to remember details would prove to have a profound impact on a community that had been terrorized by a sick and brutal killer.

“I’ve kept any public comments about this case to court transcripts,” Steve told me, adding that in the past year alone, he’s turned down appeals from U.S. and British broadcasters to talk about what happened. “But with my friends, I have always been open,” he said. “I could not have survived otherwise.”

With Steve’s gracious permission, I’m sharing his extraordinary story.

Next: A Survivor’s Key Testimony 



13 Going On — 13

Emerald Isle, N.C. Photo by Laura Stassi

March 16, 2016

By Laura Stassi

In honor of Spring Break, I offer the following actual conversations between two 13-year-old girls vacationing together several summers ago:

“I’m not going to put on any suntan lotion.”

“Actually, you get a better tan if you use lotion.”

“You do?  Why?”

“Um, I don’t remember. This other girl told me that. I think it’s because – you know how bacon turns out better when it’s cooked slower?”


“My mom eats yogurt.”


“She mixes it with cereal and fruit.”

“Same! When I’m a mom, I’m not eating ‘mom food.’ I’m eating at McDonald’s every day.”



“I went through a metal stage.”

“Oh, really? What did you listen to?”

“I don’t know. Random songs from my brother’s iPod.”

“Was it scream-o?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because I listen to metal a lot.”


“Do you want to see the Sex and the City movie?”

“No. It has a wiener in it. My mom saw it on opening night.”

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Oct. 7, 2015

By Laura Stassi

We hadn’t noticed that a bird was building her nest in the transom window over the front door until after we signed a contract to sell the house. It hadn’t even been on the market—neighbors who had heard us mulling over downsizing had pointed us out to a zealous real estate agent with clients desperate to buy in our neighborhood.


Mother bird feeds her babies, five days before closing. Photo by MGJ

Construction of the nest was completed during the week we spent going in and out of the garage so that the oil-based paint on the front door could dry properly. We considered knocking the nest down until we climbed on a ladder set up inside the house and checked things out. We counted three eggs.

Internet research revealed that after the eggs hatched, it would be a few weeks before the baby birds would be ready to leave the nest for good. We calculated that this event would occur a day before our scheduled closing. During the rare moments we were home together and sitting quietly, we watched the mother bird come and go, bringing food for the babies who shrieked at her absence.

If there was another meaning to the birds’ presence beyond ironic metaphor, we didn’t have the emotional energy to ponder it.  We were exhausted from packing up or throwing out a decade’s worth of accumulations while crying and cursing and debating and bargaining over what to do next.

This was the fourth primary residence we had shared in almost 30 years of marriage. It would be the last. In those frantic weeks between signing the contract and going to closing, we agreed to split the profits, divide the belongings, and move on without each other.

A little more than two years later, as I pack up my rental apartment and prepare to move into a little house all my own, I think about the birds who had made their home where once upon a time,  I was part of a we. I discovered this poem by Emily Dickinson; I wish I had known of it then.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,/And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;/And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird/That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land/And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity/It asked a crumb of me. 



This ‘Writer, Not A Runner’ Is On The Road Again

July 26, 2015

By Laura Stassi

“I’m not a runner, but I’m running.” With this seven-word sentence that was published one day and 13 years ago, I launched Runners Log, a series of freelance articles for the Richmond Times-Dispatch about my experiences as a “writer, not a runner” embedding myself on a YMCA-sponsored team training to complete the 25th annual Richmond Marathon.

My new running buddy Kate and I walking to the start line of a Reston Runners 5K in June

My new running buddy Kate and I walking to the start line of a Reston Runners 5K in June

I’d joined the training team after attending an interest meeting, where runner extraordinaire and enthusiastic volunteer head coach Don Garber promised that if we were already able to run 3 miles without stopping and dedicated ourselves to following the six-month program, we’d be able to cross the finish line of the race — 26.2 miles! And I’d pitched the series to the Times-Dispatch to ensure I had extra motivation for following through. (The editors, in their skepticism, agreed to start publishing the series after I had stuck with the program for two months.)

Garber’s promise was realized, and then some. Not only did I finish the Richmond Marathon (in a not-bad-for-a-beginner 4:49), I ran the Marine Corps Marathon the following year, and the New York City Marathon the year after that. In the years that followed, I competed in numerous shorter races as well, with a personal best of just under 2 hours achieved at the very hilly Charlottesville Half-Marathon. This writer was also now a runner for life — or so I thought.

The unfortunate thing about this world is that good habits are so much easier to give up than bad ones, British playwright W. Somerset Maugham once said. As my longtime marriage started falling apart and I went back to work full time, I forgot that running had been my physical as well as mental salvation. I no longer logged 25 miles a week; now, I was lucky to get in 25 miles a month. That number dropped even lower in late July 2013, after I fractured my patella in a dog-walking incident.

I moved into a little apartment on my own while still wearing a knee-stabilizing brace. Broken heart, broken knee, shattered dreams and then more losses: my job, my dog, my dad.

It’s taken me awhile to get back on figurative and literal feet but in May, I joined a training program through the Reston Runners and completed a 5K race in June, then ran in another 5K two weeks later. I clocked in at just over 30 minutes for each race. Still, it’s another start. And the new job I began June 1 comes with an automatic, complimentary entry into October’s Army Ten Miler.

Back in 2002, I didn’t consider myself a runner. I still don’t; that dusty label “jogger” suits me better. But my new life will include an old habit. For my physical and emotional health, I’m on the road again.

Read my 2002 series in its entirety here.

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