‘Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me?’

I have hummed the Paul McCartney tune numerous times since my birthday in July, the ditty describing a funny, fantastical, faraway place that young people think they will never reach. Until they get there.

When I get older, losing my hair” has become real at 64, except I am losing it in places I had never imagined, both visible (the legs and eyebrows) and unseen. My thumbs ache every morning as I wiggle them back to action on my daily dog walk. My calves and toes cramp after a long day on my feet, especially an arthritic second toe.

So far, unlike some friends, I have escaped any surgical side effects of growing old.

  • The woman who hired and trained me to be a fitness instructor when I turned 40 just got knee replacement surgery, after years of downhill skiing and step aerobics.
  • My best friend recently fell 7 feet from a ladder while doing yardwork, and the surgeon who replaced her shattered hip commented on the evidence of osteoporosis.

These women are my peers, age 64 or thereabouts. We are the “young-old,” a term variously defined as the entire 60s, ages 65 to 69, and the period of life after paid work and parenting. Ask any of us, however, and we will tell you we don’t feel old — emotionally, intellectually or even physically, on most days.

We see images of healthful aging, the trim, wrinkled people with gray hair and no eyeglasses in Medicare ads, for example. But no one describes what aging will feel like or who we will become. “The stories of our complexity, our wisdom, and our joy are not often told,” writes cultural anthropologist and clinical psychologist Mary Pipher in her latest book, Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age.

If you only complain about old age, you descend into an embittered stereotype. Better to embrace than to deny, to focus on this stage of life as being not better or worse, but different. “Remember the first rule of the wilderness: don’t panic,” writes Pipher, who seeks solace and spiritual growth in nature.

Pipher has been criticized for writing in the plural “we,” making pronouncements on behalf of all aging women, whatever their cultural background or economic circumstances. Still, her well-researched guidebook is a helpful starting point, and her emphasis on maintaining emotional stability — “Let’s aim to become more curious and less worried and more self-aware and less reactive” — is spot-on.

Here is what “when I’m 64” looks and feels like for me, a woman who is white and well off, athletic and adaptive, and who has benefited from having health insurance throughout her life.

How aging looks

Photographs reveal what I don’t notice in the bathroom mirror, the creped skin on my neck, the parentheses of wrinkles that flank my mouth, the indentations beneath my eyes, which look bald without makeup.

“Maybe you should turn the light on in the bathroom,” joked a friend when I described the younger version of me who stares back while I brush my hair or floss my teeth. Extra light wouldn’t matter. Eyebrows raised, face alert, I see what I want to see, the person I think I am, a woman still vibrant and full of life. My face relaxes more in photos, and I look old.

During a long lunch recently with the friend who had made the bathroom joke, I noticed that her face, 13 months younger, is aging in the same ways as mine. I observe that fact calmly as we sip our steaming teas, without the cringing or harsh judgment I heap upon myself. I see her beauty as clearly as when we met in our mid-20s, tempered now by wisdom and experience.

At CorePower, a young person’s yoga studio, I take classes during the workday or on early weekend mornings when I am more likely to be among people my own age. Raised in a competitive era that valued women for their looks, I measure my body against those of my classmates: Your waistline will never be what it is. Your thighs are still trim, though dimpled with age. Why not emulate the body positivity of the older men who bare their sagging breasts and ample bellies without shame?

Next step: Switch on the bathroom light and look myself squarely in the eye while I acknowledge that, indeed, I’m 64.

How aging feels

Anyone who knows me well will cite work, my career, as foundational in my life, a pursuit that has defined and consumed me for almost 40 years.

I took pride in supporting my family while my husband was primary parent to our children, even as I recognized in later years what that role cost me. I have valued the intellectual stimulation of work, always pitching ideas, seeking more responsibility, pushing myself to start graduate school as my mother was dying.

Now, my parents are gone, my children are grown, and I’ve got more time than ever to be a Boomer workaholic. Except my head and heart aren’t in it anymore. Deeper into my 60s, work simply matters less. I no longer feel like my career defines me.

Instead, I am expanding my cooking skills and learning to knit again. I volunteer my time and talents, took up weightlifting during the pandemic and walk, bike or jog every day. I am intentional about maintaining friendships and family relationships.

At 64, I find myself less able to multitask, more prone to caffeine interfering with my sleep and, with retirement on the horizon, less willing to deal with drama and work-related stress. I am starting to yearn for a life less driven by my Outlook calendar and to-do lists. I wonder some days whether I make a difference anymore.

This newfound need for balance sneaked up on me, as surely and subtly as the wrinkles between my eyebrows. “It’s all about change,” intoned the narrator of an AARP online driving seminar that my husband and I took to lower our insurance rates. “Older people slow down.” Physical fragility increases and mental acuity decreases between ages 60 and 64, the seminar taught us (as if we didn’t know).

“You wake up in the morning and something always hurts,” my late father used to say. Humility becomes an unexpected source of strength.

How aging can render you irrelevant

I insist on stating my age to colleagues at the university where I work, almost daring someone to judge me lesser for it. At a time when our society is rightly focusing on the marginalized among us, I consider it something of a calling, even as a privileged white person, to remind people that ageism is a reality, too.

A “climate survey” sponsored by Human Resources provided 12 categories — a dozen boxes we could check — to define our identities and provide more accurate data. The categories ranged from geographic (Minneapolis or St. Paul campus) to options that help delineate sexual orientation, ethnicity and gender. No category asked about age, and yet it is a dominant factor in my evolving perspective about work, life, love, meaning, spirituality and my commitment to social causes.

“I felt my maturing as a journey inward and the beginning of a new kind of freedom,” writes Isabel Allende in her memoir, The Sum of Our Days. How is being heterosexual or working on the St. Paul campus any more relevant than being 64?

You don’t realize, or at least I didn’t, that eventually you will slide into a stereotype. A Boomer, a butt of jokes. I serve on several community councils, often with much younger people, which I think of as mutually beneficial but particularly good for me. Until I hit the predictable wall of resentments against my generation.

During a field trip recently to document neglect in a vital commercial section of our city, one 30-ish man decried the lack of support for telecommuting among the Baby Boomers at his law firm. I told him that after 14 years of a brutally long commute, I vowed never again to work at a job that required me to drive rather than walk or use mass transit or that lacked the flexibility to work from home. He didn’t respond. My experience failed to fit his age-related assumptions.

But I was the one who stayed silent when the conversation turned to the missteps that a young colleague of ours is making on social media, where he represents the organization. I suggested communications coaching, assuming they would seek my advice given my decades in the field. “I think the coaching would have to be from someone closer to his age,” said the young woman in our trio, describing how older women had tried to “mother” her at work.

Irrelevance is more painful than visible wrinkles or aching knees, and we combat it only through vocal protest and courageous action. So, stand up! Speak out! Just organize the activity before 9 p.m. or I’ll be sleeping.

Amid COVID restrictions, and resistance, you have options

Lately I have been thinking about choice, not in the reproductive rights sense — but choice amid the constraints and restrictions of COVID. Choice at a time when so many options and activities seem to have been stripped away. Choice at a time of dangerous division.

“Across the country, anti-vaccine and anti-mask demonstrations are taking scary and violent turns,” reads an Associated Press article from August 22. Anger has become the predominant emotion about COVID, and politics determines how you react or respond.

This photo by John Lamparski accompanies an article in The Atlantic about the Delta variant and the FDA’s recent approval of the Pfizer vaccine.

I feel increasingly at odds with people who brush off this persistent virus as they would a bout with the flu. How many more deaths do we need as evidence? Why can’t my fellow Americans heed the science and then fall in line?

That assumes we’re all watching / hearing / reading / scrolling the same news sources, as we did when I was a kid. Walter Cronkite broke the news of a president’s assassination in 1963. WCCO-AM, the “Good Neighbor” station, was where the Twin Cities turned for weather reports and winter school closings.

Nowadays, “people will choose what’s best for them as they define it,” said a recent report about nudge theory on the BBC. But people also “are followers when faced with complex choices. They may need a nudge.”

Paint a white line on a subway platform and riders are more likely to stay away from the tracks, the BBC said. Use a cowboy for a “mask up” sign outside a restaurant in Wyoming, and patrons may be more apt to protect themselves, according to an NPR “Planet Money” report in July about the recently revised edition of Nudge, a behavioral science book that has gained wide appeal in business and government since its first publication in 2008.

How do you nudge me to wear a mask if I’m not a horse-riding cowboy? My employer, a private university, has made it easy. As of August 23, before all the students arrive on campus, everyone — of whatever political persuasion or vaccination status — will wear a mask indoors.

That’s not a nudge, it’s an order. My employer has removed all ambiguity, taken away any choice about how I protect myself and others in the face of a vital public health risk. And I am grateful for that.

Since the only power I have is over my own actions — to “control what I can control,” in the words of a former manager — I am locating where I have choice. Rather than feel victimized in the face of what I consider the absurdity and short-sightedness of refusing to get vaccinated and wear a mask, instead I am choosing to protect myself every way I can.

I am making choices that, at age 64, I deem safest for my own health and that of my 70-year-old husband — and our grown sons, one of whom recently endured a nasty case of breakthrough COVID four months after getting the Pfizer vaccine.

Consider these scenarios and how you might have confronted or ignored them:

  • A man on a city bus was wearing his mask along his chin line. He was Black. I am white. I didn’t want to come off as too . . . instructive or know-it-all or condescending or proprietary. After a moment of contemplation, health won out. I leaned forward and asked him — politely — please to cover his nose and mouth.
  • One of the four students who reports to me at work is a political conservative from an anti-vaxxer family. HIPPA laws forbid me from asking students to disclose health information. So, I wrote my four student workers earlier in August, described my own vaccination history and said this: You have the choice not to disclose your vaccination status. I have the choice to protect my health. If you choose not to disclose, or if you seek a university exemption for the vaccine, we will hold our meetings over Zoom.”
  • Two electricians entered my kitchen the other morning and introduced themselves. Neither had on a mask. I asked if they were vaccinated, as our general contractor for this remodeling project had promised all subcontractors would be. The electricians, two young white men, said they were not. Trying not to display my disdain too overtly (their job entails entering people’s homes!), I told them they would have to mask up inside our house. Then I strapped on a mask, too, in solidarity.
Photo by visuals on Unsplash

I saved the best for last. Because this example involved not confrontation or silent condemnation or self-righteous judgment, or any of those aggressive traits I have tried to moderate with age. This exchange centered on curiosity.

I met a sometime friend, a woman I had not seen since before COVID, for a cup of coffee and a walk this past Sunday. She got out of the car unmasked and seemed to hesitate about wearing one. Keeping my voice neutral, I asked if she was vaccinated. And then instead of recoiling or sneering when she said no, I simply asked a question.

So, Becky, how do you feel about vaccines? The specifics of her answer are less important than the conversation that ensued, the give-and-take, the attempt at, if not agreement, then mutual understanding.

I thought of my talk with Becky later that afternoon as I was listening to a podcast by New York Times reporter Ezra Klein.

He was interviewing journalist Anna Sale, whose book, Let’s Talk About Hard Things, is drawn from her podcast “Death, Sex & Money.” (You know, the hardest things.) She talks with people about touchy topics by listening with intention, asking open-ended questions, demonstrating how curiosity can lead us away from the divisiveness that currently derails any attempt at discourse in our society.

“When you commit to having that [hard] conversation with a spirit of: ‘I want to learn more. Help me understand. Tell me what that was like for you. That’s interesting, I wouldn’t respond that way,’ then you come away seeing that other person in a deeper way,” said Sale, “and also feeling seen.”

I can change how I respond to people who see the COVID threat differently than I do. I can stay away from them. I can mask up and limit my exposure. I can try to learn more about their fears and their beliefs.

The day I pulled out of a three-hour shift at my employer’s booth inside the Education Building at the Minnesota State Fair, where no masks or proof of vaccination were being required, I told a friend, “I’m feeling like a COVID crab.”

Then I recognized a more empowering, self-affirming reality: No, I am exercising choice in the face of the most challenging public health crisis of my lifetime.

Once gun violence hits close to home, what comes next?

I flew to Chicago early on a recent Thursday morning but rode the train home the next day. I needed the space, the spotty WiFi, the long, lonely stretch of eight hours on the Amtrak Empire Builder to steady myself after the whirlwind of the past week.

The shocking news came initially via voicemail and text message and, later, in person amid sobs of disbelief. Then there was the rearranging of schedules, the packing and the journey, the reunion with familiar faces, and finally the funeral of a young woman I have known since her toddler days.

Numbers best describe this memorial service, in a funeral home filled with the sweet smell of flowers and the bittersweet concoction of tears and laughter that always accompanies death.

  • 37, the age of the gunshot victim struck in the back by a bullet intended for someone else on a street in Chicago, during the early evening of Juneteenth.
  • 5, the number of people who asked me in the immediate aftermath whether the violence occurred on the city’s largely Black south side. (For the record, it did not.)
  • 125, the number of minutes the victim’s mother — my oldest friend — had to walk past or sit directly in front of the open casket that held her only daughter.
  • 50, the estimate by my friend’s older brother of how many people traveled to the funeral from New York City, where the victim began her career in the food-and-beverage industry, lauding her in tributes as a caring and generous friend and manager, a vibrant woman who had other people’s backs. Other friends came from the victim’s hometown of Mankato, Minnesota; from her time in college in Rhode Island; and from her three years in Chicago. “It was very clear that this community lost a shining light,” her uncle said, “a term many used to describe [the victim’s] impact on their lives.”
  • 2, the number of times the young widower stood at the podium during the service, visibly stunned, audibly grieving, and described how a bullet had shattered his life, too.

I quit counting the number of sniffles, air gulps, flowing tears and outright sobs by Millennial-age adults too young to be memorializing one of their own.

As we were walking down the street, we heard 3 gunshots. Nichole collapsed into me while grabbing her back, screaming in pain.

The victim’s husband, describing the tragedy on a GoFundMe page

‘I don’t know what to say” was the most common attempt at condolence that my friend heard in the days following her daughter’s murder. For me, a wordsmith, words ceased to matter. My husband and I drove to Janey’s house in a torrential rainstorm, four hours after hearing the news. I didn’t give a thought to how I would greet her. Instinct took over, and I hugged my friend tightly — wordlessly — till she let go.

  • 52, the number of shootings in Chicago over the course of that stormy Father’s Day weekend in June.
  • 15, the number of friends and family members my friend texted the day after the funeral to say an arrest had been made, the detectives had done their work, the omnipresent video cameras in our daily lives, for once, had served their purpose.
  • 5, the number of charges — one count of first-degree murder of my friend’s daughter, four counts of attempted first-degree murder for shooting into a car of visitors from Milwaukee — against the young man who has been arrested as a suspect.
  • 1, the number of times that random, unintended but horribly consequential gun violence previously had pierced my circle of friends and colleagues. My safe middle-class bubble. “This violence is close to home now,” a friend wrote on Facebook. The day we heard the news, the Star Tribune carried a banner headline: “Rising Gun Crimes Defy Answers.” The story described the May 22 death of Charlie Johnson in downtown Minneapolis, a graduating senior at the University of St. Thomas, where I work. Shot in the back, like my friend’s daughter; caught in gang violence, like my friend’s daughter; white and middle-class, like my friend’s daughter, with a promising life ahead.
  • 5, the number of letter writers who decried the easy sale and exchange of guns in our society and “the culture of poverty that produces the despair that fuels violence.”

Prosecutors charged Angel Ayala, 22, with shooting a tourist and murdering a passerby during last weekend’s Puerto Rican Day festivities.

CWB Chicago, June 26, 2021

After a suburban cop shot and killed Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man and school cafeteria supervisor, during a traffic stop in 2016 only miles from my home, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I wanted to comprehend the particular anguish and protectiveness that Black parents feel for their Black sons, a fear and an urgency that I don’t have to experience — even though my older son, the tall blond one, the rebel who sees the underbelly of American society for what it is, was arrested protesting Castile’s murder. Several years later, an officer from the same police force pulled over my son for speeding along the same road. No guns were drawn this time. In fact, the cops apologized for having to impound his car.

Reading isn’t action. It doesn’t change anything. I understand that. But as a college-educated woman reared to revere books, and employed in higher education for the past 20 years, reading is my starting point.

Three days after the funeral, safely home from a city I have vowed never to visit again, I dog-walked by Next Chapter Booksellers, my neighborhood bookshop in St. Paul, and saw historian Carol Anderson’s latest book in the window: The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. I came home and ordered it online, for same-day pickup.

Then I read my friend’s keenly felt message of hope, in a text exchange that has been ongoing since she broke the news to me of her daughter’s death.

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash

“This has nothing to do with politics, religion or anything else but a senseless murder,” my friend Janey said. “My platform now is grief. I’m going to get the word out about gun violence. I’m not sure how, but it is being clarified in my mind today.

“I’m not angry,” she went on, with an eloquence anchored by a mother’s unconditional love. “Nichole’s murder will not go unnoticed. This violence has to stop. Any murder of a son, daughter, mother, father or grandparent has to be honored and noticed by people.”

We notice you, Nichole. We grieve the loss of you. Rest in peace; because the people who loved you — who invested in you, who cared and care about you — will never rest until the streets of our cities are safer for everyone, and until everyone in America, of every color, has a home, an education. And a chance.