Author Archives: Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

A community relations director in higher education and mother of two adult sons, Amy Gage spent the first 20 years of her career as a journalist and public speaker in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The issues addressed in her award-winning newspaper column, "On Balance: Issues That Affect Work and Home," remain relevant today. In "The Middle Stages," she continues the vital conversation about women's work and lives, with a focus on the challenges and contradictions of aging, the mixed blessings of forsaking family time for the more immediate rewards of a career, and how middle-aged women can continue to forge full lives even as their priorities and sensibilities change.

Is age a point of pride, or a fact to be denied?

I caught myself doing it again on a chilly evening in October, telling a group of young parents and first-time homeowners at a neighborhood block party that my husband and I are being careful to take Coronavirus precautions because we are “not young.”

During a Zoom call recently with students at the college where I work, I referenced “people my age” to distinguish myself from the students’ generation, but I didn’t say how old I really am. Similarly, in a conversation with my 30-something manager about whether in-person contact with college students is safe during COVID-19, I said, “You know, Josh, I’m not young anymore.”

Why can’t I state the obvious, to speak the very word that I am trying to embrace? I am old. Because my colleagues at work might see me as irrelevant. My young neighbors might deem me a person not worth befriending, no longer fun, with my aversion to swearing and dated love of high-waist jeans.

Just as it’s OK in our culture to describe someone as “thin” but never “fat” — even though both adjectives layer a none-of-my-business judgment onto someone else’s body — it is a compliment to say someone looks young but never old. To deny that I am old, at 63, is to imply that age is a deficit, an embarrassment, rather than an achievement that grants us wisdom and perspective. By using euphemisms to sidestep the truth, I am colluding with the stereotype I seek to shatter.

“Lots of old people don’t get wise, but you don’t get wise unless you age.”

Educator, author and scholar Joan Erikson

I want to claim the word “old,” just as some young women have “reclaimed” a pejorative that I consider so sexist and vile I refuse to reference it as anything other than “the C word.” My hairdresser, who is five years my junior, dismissed my reasoning with a tinge of anger the last time I had a haircut. “You’re not old,” she snapped. “My mother is old. She’s 91 and in a nursing home.”

Except I am old. Not elderly, as in physically decrepit or unable to manage my daily life. But at 63, I am hardly in midlife any longer. I use wordplay to describe this shapeless period bridging authentic middle age — the 40s and 50s — and the point at which I will retire from my career. I say that I’m in “upper middle age” or in “my early 60s.” I say that I am ”older,” borrowing the tentative nomenclature in an article about a scientific study of walkers in their 60s, 70s and 80s; the reporter called them “older people in good health.” Older than what, or whom?

Maybe “young-old” is the most accurate (and palatable) as I navigate this mystical, mysterious final third of my life, the one with the end I know is coming but cannot see.

Age is relative

I walk by a well-tended Little Free Library on a warm autumn day, and the book that calls to me is one of those little handbooks of sayings, the kind you keep at a lake cabin or in the bathroom. It’s called “Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese.”

I smile, of course, but do I believe the title’s true? Isn’t claiming that “age doesn’t matter” just another way of denigrating old age, of saying it is a reality and simple fact to be denied?

We dismiss age in our culture. We exchange disparaging birthday cards about growing older, like the one I saw recently of a drooping, half-naked granny wearing leather sex gear (how preposterous that an old woman would have a sex life). We women lie about our age, feeding a multi-billion-dollar “beauty” industry with face creams and makeup and hair dye and Botox injections — and taking it as the highest compliment when someone reassures us that we look good, “for your age.”

We deny that age will affect us. As an athletic person and daily exerciser, I have done so myself, until sore knees and slower bike rides and more need for sleep have told me otherwise.

During a get-out-the-vote phone bank before the election, I commented in the Zoom chat to my young colleagues that it would be interesting to discuss what conclusions we draw based on the prospective voter’s age, which we can see. “I usually look forward to talking with older women because I assume they’ll be kinder,” said one woman who’s maybe 30. “But I have talked to some feisty older ladies lately.”

I might have counted National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg as a “feisty older lady” until she poked fun at her age on “The Axe Files” podcast with political commentator David Axelrod. He noted that Totenberg, who’s 76, has been covering the U.S. Supreme Court longer than any current justice has been serving. “Thanks,” she said sarcastically. And then came the predictable: “I’ve been covering the court since I was 6.”

Right, LOL.

My extended family had a Zoom call recently to meet my 82-year-old uncle’s second wife. They like to golf and someone asked what her handicap is. “That’s like asking a woman her age,” one of my cousins said to a round of laughter. I wondered whether I — the humorless feminist — was the only one who felt the sting of shame behind the joke, the hard and hurtful implication that women lose value as they age.

Name it and claim it

My younger son sits in the kitchen of our family home, thumbing through a novel he has stopped by to give me. He reads a quote by Buddhist author Pema Chodron at the beginning of the book: “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?”

I expect him to ask me the question that Chodron posed. Instead he says: “Do you worry about death?” My son is 25, old enough to be framing some structure around his life but still young enough to see the vista of options spread out before him. He asks me if I fear death because he sees my lifespan as limited. In his eyes, through his experience, I am old.

I answer not reflectively as an older woman but instinctively as a mother, with a Mama Bear protectiveness that has been part of me since I gave birth. “No, I don’t worry about my death,” I tell my son. “I worry more about yours.” He looks surprised and oddly pleased, while I am momentarily caught in the memory of the color draining from my father’s face as we waited for my older brother’s funeral to begin barely three weeks after he had turned 33.

“Never regret. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.”

Writer Victoria Holt

I don’t fear death. I fear decline. I think of the woman a decade my senior who told me that she began to feel more physically vulnerable by age 70. I’m more afraid of falling than I used to be, less willing to risk a new activity like rollerblading or scooter riding for fear of being injured.

The righteousness, the declarations that age won’t slow you down, the rage against society’s youth-culture machine: Those all feel deliciously true, until you turn the corner and stare age squarely in the face. Until you recognize that time moves through a lifetime as it does through a vacation — starting slowly, stretching out in front of you as though it will last forever, then speeding up as the end draws near. And then you’re scared.

I’m never going to run an 8-minute mile again, and my waistline will never be what it was before my pregnancies. So how can I embrace who I am today? How can I love this wrinkled, wiser woman who nursed her mother to a dignified death, who raised two boys to be good men, who is trying to come to grips with the reality that her career is almost over and a decades-long sense of purpose will have to be replaced?

“During much of my life, I was anxious to be what someone else wanted me to be,” says poet Elizabeth Coatsworth in the Age Doesn’t Matter quotations collection. “Now I have given up that struggle. I am what I am.”

And what I am, vibrantly and gratefully, is old, with wisdom and a wealth of experiences that compensate for the swift and sometimes bittersweet passage of time.

Want to celebrate a friendship? Mail a card

I had a memorable birthday celebration on July 4, made no more special by the 10 people (only one of whom I know) who pressed three buttons to wish me a “Happy Birthday” on LinkedIn. Likewise, the 63 Facebook messages, many with the identical auto-filled and poorly punctuated “Happy Birthday Amy!”, were a nominally satisfying way to feel remembered by former coworkers and other folks I’m rarely in touch with anymore.

But that isn’t how my closest friends reached out to me. They sent birthday cards with personal, handwritten messages, the old-fashioned way, through the U.S. mail.

My friend Sarah stays in touch with cards.

“Well-behaved women rarely make history,” reads one, a quote from Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that women of my vintage sported on T-shirts and book bags when we were young. Another card, from a friend I have known since my mid-20s, pronounces us “friends for life” in a touching handwritten note. “If you have a garden & a library, you have everything you need,” reads a card from a friend who is as busy with work as I am and who suggests we continue our tradition of occasional Sunday morning teas and talks.

  • My birthday was special because each of my two grown sons gave me a book with a long, handwritten letter inside.
  • My birthday was special because my neighbor surprised us with a homemade cake and a socially distanced gathering in her backyard.
  • My birthday was special because my husband’s best friend swung by in his 1981 Corvette with a piece of lemon meringue pie (which I don’t like, but no matter) and sang an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” at the top of his lungs from the front sidewalk.

Friendship has become a commodity these days, a point of pride to be measured more in quantity than quality, with hundreds of people on social media calling themselves my “friends.” Except they’re not. They are well-meaning acquaintances — just as I am to them — who are good enough to “like” my family photos and raise a fist in camaraderie to my political posts. My friends are the women I called when my parents died. My friends are the people who help me stay sober. My friends are the ones I can pick up with, after weeks or months, and enjoy a long, freewheeling talk over breakfast or on a bike ride.

My friends send greeting cards, hand-selected to evoke laughter or a sense of well-being, because that process takes time and thought, just as a true friendship does.

This card from my brother accurately pokes fun at my multi-tasking nature.

A sidewalk sign outside a family-owned business in my neighborhood started me thinking about the thoughtfulness, artistry and relative permanence of greeting cards. “Anyone can send a Facebook post,” it read. “Be a friend. Buy a card.”

Avalon on Grand — one of those charming, well-curated gift shops that has nothing you need but a whole lot of everything you want — boasts “one of the largest selections of greeting cards” in the Twin Cities. It’s one of several stores where I shop for cards all year-round, choosing cards for friends and siblings (sometimes bursting out with laughter in the aisles), and then stashing them away for just the right occasion.

Cards can be standalone works of art.

The Greeting Card Association (who knew there was one?) traces the history of greeting cards back to the ancient Chinese and the early Egyptians. Wikipedia is another good resource for the card curious.

Europeans began exchanging Valentine’s cards as early as 1415. Twenty-five years after the 1775 founding of what is now the U.S. Postal Service, Valentines were becoming an affordable way to express love and affection throughout the fledgling United States. The “first known Christmas card” was published in London in 1843.

Unfortunately, the latest entry in the GCA’s “History of Greeting Cards” is 1943, which doesn’t signal optimism for the practice of card-giving, especially in our digital age. Dig deeper, however, and you’ll learn that Millennials are giving new life to an industry that was faltering with the advent of social media and e-greetings.

“Millennials are . . . seeking a feeling of nostalgia in card-giving,” says a National Public Radio story from Valentine’s Day 2019, just as they’re embracing vintage clothing stores and mid-century modern furniture — the plastic, minimalist ugly basement of my childhood.

Americans overall buy some 6.5 billion greeting cards a year, and women are 80 percent of those card carriers.

“Due to technical difficulties, your cake will be postponed to next year.”

An Amish card holder hangs on a wall by the front door of our home. It’s a vertical piece of maroon cloth strapped around a small clothes hanger; interwoven pieces of green, blue and black fabric decorate the three pockets that are the perfect size for greeting cards.

I don’t remember where we bought it, or when — likely 15 or 20 years ago, when the boys were small, and my mom would watch them over my birthday so my husband and I could bike the Root River Trail in southeastern Minnesota. We’d stay in Harmony, near an Amish enclave, and probably found the handcrafted holder in a coffeehouse or antique shop.

The cards I have saved and selected to place in those three pockets are keepsakes:

  • Smart-ass ones from my oldest sister (“What’s the difference between you and a senior citizen?”).
  • Cards with handwritten notes from my husband and sons.
  • An artsy thank-you card from a friend and spiritual guide that includes a quote from the late, great U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone (“Let there be no distance between the words you say and the life you live”), who raised his three children in Northfield only blocks from where my husband and I brought up our own sons.
  • An undated birthday card from my father with an affectionate note in his barely legible handwriting: “It’s getting hard to think of you as my little girl.”
Greetings from Helene and Connie

Most precious are the two cards I kept from my mother, one from 21 years ago when I was turning 42 and she was a robust 73. I had been sandbagged, apparently, by someone I loved and trusted, though the anger and shock have long since faded. Mom gave me a journal and a handwritten card: “I hope what you put in this little book will help your feelings to heal,” she wrote, with wisdom I surely failed to appreciate at the time. “Recapture the joys and delights you’ve had. Life goes by so fast. Be happy. Love, Mom.”

The other card I saved from her is dated July 4, 2012, four months after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The handwriting is shakier, the message simpler: “I’ll buy you lunch wherever you want to go.” Could she even still drive? But I can touch the card and see it, and I can feel my mother with me, in a way that an old social media post (“Your Memories on Facebook”) could never replicate.

Will COVID-19 democratize our view of work?

In the eight weeks since I have been working from home full time, the questions I ask myself — in the COVID diary that details the roiling emotions of living with a lurking, faceless menace — have ranged from Can I stand this? (boredom) . . . to Will I be furloughed for the summer? (fear) . . . to the current one: What is professionalism anymore, anyway?

What does it mean to be a team member, a productive human being, when the foundation of your work life is gone? When the human resources department judges you to be non-essential? When you have been banned from your workspace?

Still, I count myself lucky.

My brother, a marketing executive with an MBA from MIT, was furloughed only months before his older son begins college. My backyard neighbor, a public relations professional, lost his job — and his family’s health insurance — at 66. My younger son, who works behind the meat counter and in the sausage-making operation of Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis, has more job security than any professional I know. Yet, he seethes at being called essential. Even though he appreciates the federally funded $2-an-hour raise, he is cynical about the sidewalk chalk messages and other public displays of affection for nurses, bus drivers and grocery workers. “I was never considered essential before,” my son tells me.

(I recall, with some shame, how I’ve explained to friends whose kids have graduate degrees and corporate positions that my grown sons are a bartender and a grocery worker, respectively, that they’re hard workers but apparently lack my “career gene.”)

Another neighbor, age 63, who was let go from her position as a college bookstore manager, tells me she has lost her identity. She’d look for another job, but what would she find during a pandemic? (And what would she find at her age?)

I went through similar angst this spring as I waited to hear whether I would be furloughed for the summer. (I escaped, but no one’s safe at 62.) Work was all I could think about, even as it threatened to go away. The pragmatic — How will we manage financially? — intermingled with the existential, the philosophical: Who will I be without my job?

Be gentle with yourself and with everyone else around you. Everyone is experiencing this heightened anxiety, this uncertainty, all together.

Susan Jackson, news editor, LinkedIn

The confusion and uncertainty I felt when I began working from home is ever present. Here I sit, day after day, perched alone on a hard chair at a small wooden table nudged against a wall in my bedroom and reading room, less than a mile but a world away from my sunny, third-floor office overlooking Summit Avenue on a vibrant college campus.

  • What is it to be professional without the trappings of professionalism?
  • Will the coronavirus ultimately blur the class distinctions that smugly separate us at work?
  • When Randy, the janitor — the building engineer — is more essential than a college-educated, director-level, white-collar professional, where does that leave us careerists for whom work is both ego and identity?

With questions.

What does professionalism look like?

Laugh if you will, and my Millennial sons do, but when I started my first full-time job in 1982, I bought a blue suit, with a bow tie and an off-white blouse. My uniform today — two months into my COVID-imposed sentence of working from home — is old jeans, baggy yoga pants, running or walking shoes and athletic vests or sweatshirts. I haven’t worn earrings or makeup in weeks. My closet full of work clothes looks like costumes from another era, a time when “dressing for success” demonstrated loyalty and earnest intention. Will I ever dress that way again, in trim wool slacks and scarves and blazers and (only when I had to) modest heels?

Nowadays, advice for appearing professional borders on the ridiculous: Wear pants during a Zoom call. (Oh, and the obvious: Don’t day-drink.)

I wonder whether what I long have considered professionalism — dressing up, deference to authority, duty above everything — will change now that many of us are living and working in the same space, now that our personal lives are a stronger presence in our workdays. Yes, I am still working, and I’m grateful for that. But two months into officing from home — an arrangement that suits neither my personality nor my job as a community relations professional — I am seeing shifts in the role that work plays in my life, in what I value, in how I want to spend my time.

Cooking for my family, donating time and money to causes where I can, giving my son rides to work so he can avoid being enclosed on a public bus, staying physically active: These actions are now the cornerstones of my day, and what I wear or how I look has ceased to matter.

How can home feel like an office?

I started a Microsoft Word doc the first day I worked from home last March, and for the first couple of weeks I wrote down any little rule that came to me, from the obvious to the previously undiscovered.

Weeks later, in the face of record unemployment and furloughs among my friends, the self-help tips seem like a luxury not afforded to people equally:

  1. Get up and get dressed in the morning (easy for me, as an early riser).
  2. Call a colleague every day whom you otherwise might have run into on the job.
  3. Move your computer to a different room to combat Zoom fatigue when your calendar is overloaded with meetings. A new view can spark a better attitude.
  4. Recognize that almost no one sits at their desk for eight hours straight each day. Doing dishes or sweeping the floor or making a fresh pot of coffee are the home-based equivalent of wandering down the hall for inspiration.
  5. Don’t let “fear of firing” alter how you’ve always done your job.

Because I answer phone calls and texts and emails when they come in, which is often nights or weekends, I have never worked a standard weekday schedule. I remind myself that it’s OK to talk to a friend or take a walk or ride my bike midday. Microsoft Teams, with its colored buttons to indicate “available” (green) or “busy” (red) or “appear away” (yellow) need not tie me to a conventional schedule that doesn’t suit how my work works.

How can we value all employees?

I was raised by white, middle-class parents in an era of white, middle-class exceptionalism. Though I raised my own sons on the saying that “all work is honorable,” pointing out examples of postal workers or waitresses who did their jobs well, in truth I valued the professional class over any other. A career was freedom to me, a chance to support my family as my father had done, to have a life as different from my homemaker mother’s as society and my own ambitions would allow.

Now, the lingering coronavirus shows me anew the privilege inherent in that upbringing, in those beliefs. I had access to college and to interesting, well-paying jobs, just as I have access now to a decent income while working from a safe and well-appointed home.

COVID-19 “has become a disease of the vulnerable,” writes a critical care doctor in the New York Times. Minnesota has experienced more than 24,000 positive cases and topped 1,000 deaths, and yet the disease has not touched my family or circle of close friends. How is that possible?

  • I live in a modest, middle-class house with one other person that might squeeze in six people in a lower-income neighborhood.
  • I work for a university that responded to the virus swiftly, based on data, and reshaped its human resources policies to allow most of us to work from home.
  • I live among educated people who follow reputable news sources and who recognize the long-term gain of having their freedoms curtailed for now.
  • I have so many face masks that I keep one in my kitchen cupboard, one in my car, another in my purse, one in my bike bag.
  • I have employer-funded healthcare coverage.

Everyone wants answers: When will life return to normal? Will my career ever look or feel the same? Here’s what I know: Being professional doesn’t make me special. It makes me fortunate, born into circumstances I did not earn, with opportunities denied others because of race or class.

A dose of humility would do us good. It might also reconcile us to the radical uncertainty in which we are always living.

Dr. Mark Lilla, New York Times

Yes, I work hard. I always have. But the equality — and equity — for all workers that I claim to seek will happen only when folks like me do more than contribute money to good causes or deliver Meals on Wheels during a pandemic. It will begin when I ask my employer to reinstate my 5 percent COVID-19 pay cut toward the wages of an hourly employee and when I look my son the grocery worker in the eye and say: I’m proud.