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.

Fitbit: best friend or flinty foe?

My husband considered it the perfect gift for an aging exercise enthusiast, a computerized wristwatch that counts my movements, nags and encourages me in equal measure, and even tracks my sleep. A close friend cautioned that the device only feeds my obsessive nature.

Both men are right. The Fitbit, which I received for my birthday July 4, is pushing me to reboot my already disciplined daily exercise habit. But when is enough, enough? The day I log 15,495 steps, I am exhausted by 8:30 p.m.

My Fitbit, meanwhile, urges me on (“Today is the day!”) and fuels my competitive spirit. The first time I pushed past my 10,000-steps goal for seven days straight, it exhorted me: “You crushed it!” I even earned a Helicopter Badge for climbing 500 floors.A259FEE7-4D22-4E10-AE24-46A2A7469A13

Four weeks into owning a Fitbit, I already consider it an essential part  of my routine. It guilts me when I leave it on the kitchen counter so I can fix supper after work. “Hello, Amy,” it flashes when I strap it back on, in a tone that sounds eerily like my mother when I stayed out too late as a teenage girl.

On July 19, a sad day when my boss died suddenly of a heart attack, the watch greeted me with a simple, “Hi, friend.” It has come to know me and anticipate my needs.

Advice from the pros

Fitbit Flex, the first version of the tracker to be worn on a wrist rather than clipped on a waistband, was released in May 2013, four years after the San Francisco-based company (founded as Healthy Metrics Research) launched its Fitbit Classic Clip. Clearly I am late to the party.  But my device is new to me, and I’m extolling its virtues with the all the zeal of the recently converted.

Peers over 60 use the Fitbit to track various health metrics such as weight, water consumption and sleep — which I perpetually shortchange — at an age when we no longer can take good health for granted.

  • “I’m conscious of my resting BPM and actually get concerned when it’s elevated,” says my childhood friend Janey, 61, a doctor’s daughter who has always been knowledgeable about her health.
  • “I wore out my first one so am on a newer version now,” says Diane, who is fit and trim at 61. “It has literally changed my exercise habits.”
  • Helene, 66, began wearing a Fitbit two years ago because her employer incentivized it. She now walks longer distances in the morning and over lunch, and she expects those habits to continue once she retires this fall.

Like Helene, I used to track steps with a pedometer app on my iPhone. Despite walking to work and moving around throughout the day, I sometimes had trouble making 10,000 steps (an arbitrary measure of daily fitness that originated with a Japanese pedometer company in the 1960s). No longer.

Now I consciously stride the hallways at work, and up and down the stairs at home, because I know I’m getting credit for the effort. “Fitbit accounts for all the steps in a day, not just when I’m exercise-walking,” Helene notes.

Metrics and measurement

Even productive habits can start to own us.

My friend Diane engages in Fitbit exercise challenges with her family, but she refuses to wear the device to bed. Janey likes the various Fitbit community groups — my own app suggests Vegetarian, Yoga and Cycling (how does it know?) — but she removes her Fitbit sometimes “just to see if I can have it off for a day.”

I have run and walked 15,130 steps today, for a total of 7.16 miles. I’ve burned 1,983 calories. What do I miss when I measure every movement, every moment?

As a calendar-driven person whose work already ties me to my iPhone, I want to lose track of time, to let myself just be — at an age when I have earned that freedom. Should I reframe the phrase “off the clock” to “off the Fitbit”?

“LOL,” says Janey. “It usually doesn’t work.”

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A better book club for busy women

Sometime during the initial rush of cold this past winter, I decided to start reading again. Not the daily newspaper that I still have delivered to my front door or the New York Times that I read on my iPhone — or, God forbid, the social media platforms to which I nominally contribute and feel obligated to follow — but books.

I wanted, again, to read the way my mother taught me, to read the way my father modeled, to read the way I used to before kids and a career consumed two full decades of my waking hours.Book stack

That is why, last November, I began to sit with a book every day:

  • Under an afghan,
  • In my favorite chair,
  • With a dog beside me.

I converted the blank inside cover of my journal to a list of books and authors read. Soon a pattern emerged that has since become a goal. With rare exception — usually when I am overworked and crave escape — I am reading outside of my white, middle-class, feminist experience.

“Books were my pass to personal freedom,” Oprah Winfrey has said. My intentional selection of books has become my passport to places I otherwise might not go, a chance to see the world through the eyes and experiences of different ages, ethnicities and nationalities.

A club without commitments

Inspired and eager to talk about books again, I wondered: What are other women reading? That led me back to the Annual Book Club, an idea I had tried twice before, years ago. The idea is to get the benefits of a book club without the monthly commitment — and the stress, for busy women, of turning pleasure reading into a competition or have-to chore.

Here is how the Annual Book Club works:

  • My friend Sara and I each picked a friend to co-host with us.
  • The four co-hosts each chose an additional book-loving friend, forming a group of eight people that combined old friends with “friends not yet met.”
  • We asked each woman to compile a list of up to five books. Why did she choose them? How would she convince us to read them? What did these books mean to her?
  • Each of us brought eight hard copies of our lists, leaving us with a year’s worth of literature and literate non-fiction.

We met at my house on a sunny Saturday afternoon — an English professor, a retired librarian, three marketing writers, an art director and me, a former journalist who still loves to write — and for three hours shared stories about our reading habits, our lives and our learnings in late middle age.Book Club

Unlike the aging stars in Book Club, a film that is drawing only middling reviews, we did not drink wine, or talk about sex, or ruminate over our frustrations with men. This was our time, as readers, as working women who make time for books, and we took our assignments seriously.

Recommended reading

Below are some titles I may never have encountered, in the words of the wise women who recommended them:

Rise to Greatness, by David Von Drehle: This book covers 1862. Each chapter reviews one month of that year. The Civil War raged, the government fell apart and was broke, Europe wanted to cash in on the cotton trade, and the two political parties didn’t agree on anything. If you think today’s politics are negatively charged and the country divided, this book will show you that politics has been this way before.

The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad: This book is a look at Afghanistan during and after the Taliban came into power. It tells the story of a man who sells books for three decades in difficult circumstances. It covers some of the istory of the country as well as depicts the culture of Afghanistan and the plight of Afghan women. The author lived with an Afghan family for six weeks. She wrote the book in literary form, but it is based on real events or what was told her by people who took part in those events.

The King Must Die, by Mary Renault: Called “one of the truly fine historical novels of modern times” by the New York Times, this is the first book I’ve found that really humanizes Greek mythology. It turns the story of Theseus, who slays the Minotaur at Knossos, Crete, into a fascinating novel about ancient Greece. Told from Theseus’ point of view, the book makes him real. Every turn in the story is engrossing, and it brings the myth to life.

A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City, by Drew Philp: At age 23, Drew Philp, a skinny white kid and recent college graduate, bought a derelict house in a burned out, bulldozed area of Detroit and became an urban homesteader. He spent six years restoring an uninhabitable Queen Anne house in an area with, initially, no city services such as running water and electricity, rampant crime, racial tension and class warfare. He had no prior skills. This is a personal story of a young man’s quest to create meaning and forge community in a place most had given up on.

Present over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simple, More Soulful Way of Living, by Shauna Neiquist: This book was born out of a crisis in the author’s life. She was so busy being a successful Christian author and speaker that she was missing her own life. The way she was living didn’t mesh with the values she espoused — spending unhurried time with family and friends, making a home for her family, valuing people for who they are, not what they accomplish. So she made a change. She started saying no. And to her surprise, the world did not end.

Patchinko, by Min Jin Lee: In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant — and that her lover is married — she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

And, from me, a final observation: I have noticed since last winter that reading brings out my truest self, a quiet, disciplined person who naturally prefers heartfelt conversation to a party. At 60 — my children grown, my parents dead, my workaholic ambition laid to rest — I am making peace with who I really am. Reading books both serves and inspires that process.

Cooking for funerals and other feminine arts

“You’re cooking a lot lately,” my husband said recently on one of the below-zero days that has defined our Minnesota winter. Actually, I have not been spending more time than usual in the kitchen. He is just reaping fewer of the rewards.

A plastic tub of banana muffins made with honey, oatmeal and mini-chocolate chips went to Mary, whose father died at 93. We delivered sweet potatoes with ginger and orange juice to Karen, after her third surgery for a detached retina appeared to be successful. (She had reminded me that “orange vegetables” are good for eyes.)Beef stew photo

Earlier we had brought her a calories-be-damned comfort meal of beef stew adapted from my mother’s ’60s-era recipe and soft spoonbread full of oil and cheese.

It is both a sign and a symptom of my sixty-something stage of life that homemade food is the essential gift to nourish friendship. Parents’ funerals have replaced weddings as the defining ritual of our age. Health has become less an assumption and a birthright than a blessing that can vanish in a flash.

My own mother died in September 2015. The spontaneous gifts of food from friends and colleagues meant so much that I noted them in my eulogy:

  • Rachel’s platters of fresh vegetables delivered the day she heard the news
  • Sarah’s homemade desserts for the funeral reception
  • Cathy’s fresh rolls and minestrone, still warm from her stove
  • Kate’s vegetable soup, which she urged me to freeze and then reheat on a day when we were overwhelmed with company.

When my father, a more conventional Christian, died last October, the women of the church served up a meal of tuna hot dish, fresh fruit and slabs of cake on paper plates. The United Methodist Men’s group that he attended for years was not in evidence.

Neither did any male friends bring gifts of food when my parents died. Cooking as a tasty and tangible sign of caring remains a feminine ritual among us aging feminists.

Kitchen confidential

I was a 34-year-old career woman who out-earned her husband and hadn’t yet decided whether to have a second child when Hillary Rodham Clinton made her infamous, on-camera remark about not having “stayed home to bake cookies and have teas.”

Clinton was an emerging hero to feminists of my age and ilk, middle-class white women whose mothers had forsaken any dream of paid careers to be homemakers and helpmates to their husbands. Today’s cultural commentators would call us “privileged,” and we were, but not for the reasons they might claim. We were the first generation of our race and class to have choices: about work, about reproduction, about marriage. About all of it.

Taken in that time, 1992, and in that context, Clinton’s “cookies” comment was more bold than condescending.Cookies

“Hillary was a revolutionary,” I told my younger son in 2016 when he caucused for Bernie Sanders. “You might not see it now, but for a woman then to be a lawyer and wear suits and keep her name and have only one child was remarkable.”

I am grateful, at 60, to recognize that “women’s rights” takes many forms and that feminism, at its core, means having the freedom and opportunity to be whomever you want to be. I practice some of the feminine domestic arts out of necessity. Preparing meals is cheaper and more healthful than eating out. Knitting is relaxing and can carry me through a multi-segment Ken Burns documentary. Cotton pants and blouses require ironing to look professional.

Cooking for others? That is a true gift of the heart and a legacy of yesteryear’s “church ladies” that I eagerly uphold. I keep the refrigerator and pantry stocked for my sons when they drop by. I relish cooking dinner during my brother’s annual Christmas visit. I am the first to volunteer to host potlucks for friends and neighbors.

“I’m just someone who likes cooking and for whom sharing food is a form of expression,” says no less an accomplished woman than Maya Angelou.

Who knew that the future of our democracy came down to baking cookies? Had Hillary recognized  the domestic arts as no threat to her independence, she may have softened her divisive qualities and sharp-edged reputation. We could have had a different president.

Chew on that.