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.

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.

The wisdom of, ‘Whatever’

My friend Connie, a retired executive, a Christian believer, a mother and grandmother, a considerate friend — a woman whose “lake cabin” is more elegant than any house I’ll ever own — is the last person I would expect to be dismissive or nonchalant.

But that is how I initially interpreted her answer when I asked how she had navigated the final year of her career, at an organization and in a job that were important to her. Whenever something bothered her, she said, when she felt slighted or overlooked, when she disagreed with a decision or a directive from her boss, she would shrug her shoulders and tell herself, Whatever.

The one-word toss-off — so unnatural to her, otherwise — gave Connie perspective, allowing her to see that she could not simultaneously step away and hang on, that she had given a year’s notice before retiring because she wanted to open the door for someone else. Someone different. Someone younger.

Whatever stays with me as I scan my sharp edges after 15 months of a frightening, constrictive pandemic. The principle applies not only to how I navigate the final years of my career but to aspects of life beyond work. Whatever is not: Fuck it! It’s not resentful or angry. It’s the Serenity Prayer, accepting all the slights and hurts, the aggravations and unexpected detours — “the things we cannot change.”

It is recognizing, as my husband says, that America already has too much contention, that I need not engage in every fight or always weigh in with my opinion. Sometimes, the silence can say more, at less cost.

Anger-infused wisdom

Twice in one day recently I had to stop myself from firing back angrily over email (both times with men, whom I rarely allow to gain the upper hand) when the responses to an innocuous request or an open dialogue came across as condescension or mansplaining. One colleague declared it was “not my first rodeo” after I asked him to take notes in a conference session I could not attend (a reasonable request, in my view, given my interest in the topic). Another man gibed that I had become a “convert to Hinduism” after I described the eight limbs of yoga in a conversation about yoga bans in public schools and pointed out to him that, however unwittingly, Alabama and other conservative southern states may grasp the holistic nature of the practice better than most Western fitness enthusiasts.

Both times I stepped back, literally walked away from the computer, and then flipped my irritation like a rock I had stumbled over in the woods. What was beneath it? What resentment would crawl out? “Whatever,” I said aloud, giving myself a pause to reconsider and later to examine how my sensitivities about other aspects of these relationships were fueling such a strong reaction.

Literary wisdom

Sometimes I wonder whether the book I happen to pick up is the one I am meant to be reading. Ideas and awakenings will grab me, ones that seem to be precisely what I need to hear at this time, in this place.

So it was with The Weekend by Charlotte Wood, an appealingly easy read, recommended by a friend, after nearly four months of textbooks in my spring semester graduate class. The story of three women in their early 70s mourning the death of a friend in their longtime foursome, the book described the softening judgments and hard realities of aging, showcasing a demographic often rendered invisible and inspiring this Boomer to highlight passages in multiple colors on her digital reader:

  • “Everybody hated old people now; it was acceptable, encouraged even, because of your paid-off mortgage and your free education and your ruination of the planet.”
  • “You had your ostensible life, going about the physical world, and then you had your other real, inner life — the realm of expression, where the important understandings, the real living, took place.”
  • “On these silent morning walks, her body was ageless, it had seen no degradation.”
  • “The moon appeared now and then between sweeping clouds, and in those moments of cold light, Wendy saw this: my life has not been what I believed it to be.”

I recommended The Weekend to my older sister, thanked my friend David for suggesting it, put it on my list for the next installation of my Annual Book Club — and then was caught short by a dismissive review on Goodreads: “the author was too bored of her own boring book to write an ending for any of the boring characters.” Whatever! The book spoke to me, and that’s what counts.

Animal wisdom

The older I get, the more I see how the wisdom of age is inspired by the wisdom of animals. It is my dogs fleeing to tight, confined spaces when an early-morning thunderstorm warns them to seek shelter. Or the cat, years ago, that pressed itself into the far corners of a closet until it could recover from a fight — the cat we rescued because the owners had declawed it but then left it outdoors to fend for itself.

Like those animals, I seek quiet as I grow older. More yoga, more reading, more breathwork, more stillness. I instinctively retreat from the strivings and drama of my youth — the aspirations at work, the loud, noisy parties, the exhilarating but exhausting relationships. Energy diminishes as we age, and I conserve mine for what matters most. For whatever appeals to me now.