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.

Why Old Women Make the Best Cooks

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020 and my office shut down, and everyone was scared to go outside, when a vaccine hadn’t been discovered yet and the retail shops and restaurants all had closed — with one diner and two coffeehouses in my neighborhood now permanently shuttered — I had no choice but to cook. I had to feed my family. I had to keep myself occupied, “busy” being my default way to cope.

Cooking became a way to exert control in a world that, overnight, morphed into a Twilight Zone episode. While other people drank more alcohol or gained 30 pounds or drove their pickups and SUVs faster, I knit scarves for friends and family members, discovered new streaming services. And cooked.

Red lentil soup from a Beth Dooley recipe in the “Taste” section of my local newspaper, a consistently reliable source of recipes. Sweet potato-apple stew from the New York Times cooking app (the most creative bottom line–builder a national news organization has discovered). Chicken wild rice soup from an amalgamation of recipes in a 20-year-old cookbook that parents at Greenvale Elementary School compiled and sold as a fundraiser when my younger son was there.

Now, as we face down the third or fourth variant in the third or fourth year of COVID-19, bars and restaurants are open again. Coffeehouses are crowded. And I am still cooking, this time because inflation has me earning less in real dollars than I have in years.

Although I have two dozen cookbooks, a recipe box with index cards from the 1980s, a drawer full of torn out recipes that I swear I’ll sort one day and that veritable New York Times cooking app, well worth the $40 annual fee, I turn most often to the white, three-ring notebook that I began assembling during those first weeks of the pandemic.

At 65, I am creating a newfangled version of an old-fashioned cookbook and finally teaching myself — trusting myself — to cook.

Cooking is an act of showing up in the world, of caring for ourselves and for others.

Beth Dooley, The Perennial Kitchen

My younger son has grown up to be body conscious, like I am — particular and intentional about what he eats. My older son, a weightlifter, seems perpetually pleased to be offered food. “Are you hungry?” has become my default greeting when he stops by.

Cooking and baking are gifts, meant to be shared. I keep homemade muffins on hand during the winter so I can thank the neighbor across the street when he clears our driveway with his snowblower. I dropped off a package of bars to the neighbor behind us as a small “thank you” for hosting a backyard gathering with homemade carrot cake, complete with sugared carrot shavings, to celebrate my 65th birthday on July 4. When I make beef stew in the crockpot with extra vegetables and more seitan than stew meat, I always package up a big serving for my younger son.

My neighbor Martha McCartney made my favorite carrot cake, complete with sugared carrot shavings, to help me celebrate turning 65.

My father was an attorney, and I remember my mother hosting dinner parties for his clients, “back when lawyers couldn’t advertise,” she liked to say. Beef stroganoff and duck with orange sauce were two favorite entrées. We kids would gather at the top of the stairs and sometimes sneak down for treats: bowls of salted mixed nuts, relish trays with olives and sliced radishes and tiny pickles, strawberry sauce made with berries from my father’s garden served over cheese blintzes from the Lincoln Del.

Those are happy memories, tinged with nostalgia and regret, from the years before my parents’ marriage fell apart in the early 1970s. My mother lost interest in being either a wife or a housewife and quit cooking, deeming it — incorrectly, I believe — as one of the societal norms oppressing women. I was a teenager then, living at home, and still wince at her embrace of Hamburger Helper, Jell-O with canned fruit cocktail and other convenience foods marketed as liberation, in keeping with the times.

The Betty Crocker Cookbook was first published in 1950 and has sold more than 75 million copies.

If you can read, you can cook, the saying goes. And that’s how I started:

  • Reading recipes, especially in the venerable Betty Crocker Cookbook.
  • Following directions on packages of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
  • Gingerly using spices, based on whether I liked their smell.

Eventually I became a mother, in my early 30s, and had to learn to cook for kids. I dubbed myself a “housewife cook” back in those busy, money-conscious years — fully invested in my career but anxious also to be a Mom. Relying on advice from the likes of Working Mother magazine, I hid shredded carrots in spaghetti for extra nutrition, engaged the boys at my elbow when I baked banana muffins so they would be invested in the outcome, made grilled cheese sandwiches in a specially coated pan so the bread would turn a perfect golden brown.

Being a housewife cook means making do with what’s on hand, experimenting with ingredients that might go together, never creating a dish the same way twice. It’s the “no-recipe recipes” now made famous by Sam Sifton in New York Times Cooking, encouraging people “to improvise in the kitchen” and be less bound to precisely written recipes.

Leave it to a man to monetize a practice that women have been engaging in for years. “My grandmother, like many of her generation, was famous for the pseudo-recipe, a little of this, maybe some of that,” explains my sister-in-law Nicole, herself an accomplished cook. “Even the handwritten cards are near impossible to use to replicate anything without trial and error.”

That’s why old women make the best cooks — and conversationalists. Time has taught us the value of being fearless.

Cook a recipe once and you’re playing a cover song. Cook it four or five times, though, and you’re playing a new arrangement.

Sam Sifton, New York Times

As an old woman now myself, I’ve learned that experimentation in the kitchen is often worth the risk, and way cheaper than eating in restaurants. You put apples in the steel cut oatmeal because you need to use them up or chopped kale in the wild rice soup to justify the butter and whole milk that render it creamy and delicious. Preparing an egg dish for Sunday brunch means reviewing a recipe and the contents of the fridge, and then vamping. No cottage cheese on hand? Try ricotta, and it works!

That’s why I am creating my three-ring-binder cookbook, with printed recipes in plastic sleeves, to capture the improvisations that have made recipes my own. Even so, I leave room to write notes for ongoing adjustments and adaptations, much like The Best of Byerly’s cookbook full of neat, penciled notations I found at a library sale. That the Byerly’s cookbook is now online is more convenient, but a digital version will never tell me that Parmesan Dijon Chicken is “easy” and “very good” or that the cayenne pepper in the Shrimp Creole should be cut back.

“I don’t consider cookbooks as static things,” said a reader recently in an online discussion in Carolyn Hax’s intelligent advice column in the Washington Post. “In my mind they are meant to be notated, spilled on, dog eared.”

Every cookbook I own tells a story of relationships that influence my cooking: who passed it on or gave it to me as a gift.

When I asked my siblings about their own use of recipes, my sister Debbie pointed me toward a piece in The Atlantic sharply critical of Sam Sifton’s “no-recipe recipes” trend. In “When Did Following Recipes Become a Personal Failure,” from April 2021, writer Laura Shapiro claims that Sifton’s call to “make the act of cooking fun” recreates the Happy Housewife stereotype that duped middle-class white women of my mother’s era.

Sure, I can call myself a “housewife” cook because I never was a housewife. But I can enjoy the creativity and selflessness of putting together meals in my kitchen not only because I want to eat good tasting, healthful food but because I want others to enjoy it, too. Nothing about that threatens the feminist or careerist mindsets that have defined me.

I like the efficiency of managing a kitchen. Cooking, grocery shopping, putting my hands in sudsy water make me feel safe, make my life feel ordered, help me stay on top of the chaos that COVID and rising crime rates and visible climate change induce. Cooking and sharing food connects me with generations of women — my stepmother, Dorothy, my Aunt Mary, my sister-in-law Peggy, all of them gone — who cooked for me and my family, who opened their kitchens in all their messy, miraculous, sometimes maddening glory. And who, in the process, showed me their humanity. And their heart.

The ABCs (and Ds) of Medicare: Back to the Basics

Why do so few people in Medicare brochures wear glasses? (Sometimes the men do.) Why do so many of us aging Americans view 65 — the age at which we qualify for government-sponsored healthcare (thank you, LBJ) — as a natural end to our full-time working years? Who could have predicted that learning the ABCs would be a task not only for toddlers but for those of us toddling toward retirement, too?

“Don’t let the alphabet confuse you,” a BlueCross BlueShield Minnesota rep told me last January during the first of my phone calls to learn more about Medicare. Back then, I thought understanding the multi-pronged program would be child’s play.

“Parts A and B are original Medicare,” he explained patiently, while I pictured him holding up colored wooden blocks. “Part C is an advantage plan. Part D is prescription drugs.”

D is for drugs, I told myself: I can remember that!

The ABCs of old age

Turns out, there’s so much more. I have learned that the weightiest decisions about Medicare — whether to enroll in a Medigap or an Advantage plan, when to enroll in Parts B and D without facing a lifetime penalty, which private insurer to use — can all be delayed since I plan to keep working full time, with employer-provided healthcare, after I turn 65 in July.

Still, my months of research have changed my perception of where I am in life. Wrinkles flank my mouth and crease the bridge between my eyes. My right hip hurts from over-exercise. I feel the beginning twinges of arthritis in my hands. Or am I finally just acknowledging the obvious?

“I’m officially old,” I texted my lifelong friend, who turns 65 in May, six weeks ahead of me. “Just enrolled in Medicare Part A.” (That’s the part that covers most hospitalization expenses and is free at 65, provided you’ve worked long enough to qualify.)

“If I didn’t tell you today, I LOVE YOU!” she replied, reassuring me that I am really only “young-old.” Age reveals the importance of family and friends, the relationships we nurture because we need one another as we feel our way forward, toward the inevitable end time.

Marketing Madness

An unmarked white envelope fell out of my newspaper the other morning, an ad to join AARP. Did all subscribers get these, or is generational marketing that sophisticated? My mailbox hasn’t been so stuffed with ads —invitations to Medicare 101 classes, appeals from insurance companies whose chief executives earn multiple millions of dollars a year — since I aged out of the desirable demographic of 18 to 54 years old.

The first piece of Medicare mail has proven the most useful. A tall, laminated, two-sided flyer from UCare, it looks and functions like a large bookmark and has sat atop the growing pile of brochures for months. One side declares in oversized, old people–friendly type what steps to take six, four and three months before you turn 65; the other side urges you toward the research you should do anyway if you plan to keep working past age 65 and are fully insured.

Three key points that months of research has taught me:

First: Other than Part A (the standard hospitalization coverage), Medicare, contrary to assumptions, is not free. Nor is it the Bernie Sanders vision of a single-payer, government-sponsored program. A former colleague of mine retired nine months before turning 65. Despite careful budgeting and the blessing of her financial advisor to walk away from a six-figure salary before she qualified for Medicare, she said the monthly cost of post-retirement healthcare coverage surprised her: “It’s expensive!”

Second: If you have healthcare through your employer, and plan to keep working past 65, determine whether the prescription drug coverage is “creditable,” meaning it at least equals Medicare Part D; that’s the only way to delay Part D enrollment without a penalty once you have turned 65. (Given that a trusted neighbor contradicted the advice from a BlueCross salesman, I have fact-checked this several times.)

Third: “Original Medicare” — Parts A and B — covers only 80 percent of your expenses. That means you have to figure out the distinction between a Medigap supplemental plan and the relatively new (since 1997) Advantage plans, which are cheaper, more bound to a network of providers and recently have been in the news for denying claims. Heavily marketed, they appeal to healthy, young-old people like me because of their emphasis on fitness programs and coverage for fashionable eyewear.

We ego-driven Baby Boomers don’t feature ourselves ever sliding into decrepitude or suffering the indignities that a more expensive Medigap plan would cover.

Medicare’s Promise and Potential

Just as I started saving for retirement at age 27 and have counseled my grown sons to do the same, I have spent months now researching how Medicare works and what health coverage I may need heading into these years when the uncertainty of life has never looked more certain.

Key to keeping the fear at bay has been talking to people who have crossed the bridge:

  • My politically conservative confidant who favors UCare because he won’t buy health insurance from a for-profit company like United HealthCare.
  • My friend who thinks Advantage plans are overrated and overmarketed; she uses a more expensive Medigap supplemental plan because it serves her wherever she travels, including overseas.
  • My buddy who swears that the free services of a broker — who, of course, is getting compensated by insurance companies — bring clarity to the head-spinning confusion of Medicare options. He laughed at my insistence on doing my own research (“that’s so like you, Amy”).

For those of us who have earned enough and had the discipline to save throughout our working years, Medicare opens a door to the final active stage of life. However much I may mock the glossy brochures — color photos of women walking in the woods, a laughing couple out on bikes, a man lingering in a bookstore, two women talking over coffee — I have to concede that the calmer life they portray looks good.

Nothing in the stack of marketing materials tells me how to decide when to leave full-time employment. How I’ll fill my time or discover a new identity. How my husband and I will belt-tighten once a tidy sum of money no longer drops into our checking account every other Friday.

Most of us know that retirement requires a baseline of financial planning; but emotional and spiritual planning are just as important.

Connie Zweig, Ph.D.

What I do know — and what one of my older sisters predicted — is that my view of work is shifting, almost without bidding, as I edge closer to the time when healthcare coverage no longer ties me to a demanding full-time job. Allowing others to control my schedule, always carrying the worries with me, rarely getting a full night’s sleep: It’s all less appealing and less physically possible as I age.

“How we retire, and how we imagine retirement, may be more important than when we retire,” says Connie Zweig, Ph.D. in her 2021 book The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul. “All this emphasis on working and doing . . . stresses that purpose comes through productivity and doesn’t appear to include more service-oriented doing or more contemplative, spiritual development,” she writes.

Maybe the Medicare brochures with all their bicycles and coffee breaks are marketing more than overpriced health insurance, after all. Maybe it’s time to listen, to see the end of work-as-identity as a new beginning. As a time when I finally will be free.

Take a Book, Share a Book: Make a world of difference

A transplant to the city after raising my sons in a small town, I measure the quality of my urban neighborhood in ways that a Zillow description likely would overlook. Shoveled sidewalks in the winter. Tended flower and vegetable gardens during the summer. Friendly people, of course, and Little Free Libraries.

The dinosaur decorations and reachable door handle make this box accessible for children.

The half-dozen free-book boxes that I encounter on my milelong walk to work speak to me of neighbors who not only like to read — a value instilled by both my parents — but who are generous and want to share ideas.

Owning and maintaining a Little Free Library is a rewarding hobby for parents who want to see others enjoy the books their children have outgrown or aging former English majors and empty nesters like me who have reached the point in life where our reading years are numbered. Why not pass along the many books I have collected over the years and ones that I will never read again?

In that spirit, here are rules — or tried-and-true suggestions — for launching your own public book box.

Rule 1: Make your book box official

“Little Free Library” has become a generic, all-inclusive term for any wooden or plastic box attached to a stand that holds giveaway books on a public sidewalk. In fact, just as we say Jell-O when referring to gelatin or Kleenex when we mean any brand of facial tissue, Little Free Library is a trademarked term, dating back to 2013. It also is a nonprofit organization and a brand that sports its own tagline: Take a Book. Share a Book.

I was put off, initially, by the expense of ordering a ready-made box or a build-your-own Little Free Library kit from the website; costs start at $260 for a box of unfinished wood and an additional $80 to $180 for the ground post. Instead my husband, a handy guy who likes to build things, constructed our book box out of salvaged lumber and a cottage window we were replacing in our house.

I didn’t realize that purchasing a structure from the Little Free Library organization would have netted a range of benefits — including access to a 13,000-person private Facebook group for Little Free Library Stewards and the option to buy deeply discounted books to keep the mix of offerings fresh and appealing. More important, the purchase would have enabled me to support a global organization, based in Hudson, Wisconsin, whose mission includes “championing diverse books,” “removing barriers to book access” and supplying stocked Little Free Library boxes to “high-need areas,” including Native communities.

Registering your homemade book box as a Little Free Library gives you a range of benefits and helps support literacy worldwide.

The board of directors models the diversity that the organization promotes and includes literacy experts, academics, and nonprofit and business leaders — book lovers, all.

Clearly, my $400 to $500 investment in official Little Free Library materials would have been money well spent. Turns out it wasn’t too late. After poking around the website, I figured out how to register my homemade box with the organization, which will put me on the Little Free Library map and get me a numbered “charter” sign for what I will soon, officially, be able to call my Little Free Library.

Soon to be an officially chartered Little Free Library, the book box that my husband built (painted to match our house) has become known in our neighborhood for its well-organized and diverse array of books.

Rule 2: Keep it up

I use metal bookends to keep the books upright in my library, and I straighten the books every day, sometimes rearranging them — a la the endcap displays at either end of grocery store aisles — to draw people’s attention to a good read that apparently has been overlooked. (Who wouldn’t benefit from Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, for example, especially if they’ve already read Traveling Mercies?)

Because my library looks tended and cared for and ripe for exploration, it has become a true library, a neighborhood resource, a place where people stop by not only to find a good read but to donate good books: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue and Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult were two recent contributions that I previously had enjoyed.

Messy shelves do not invite browsing.

I dog-walk through my neighborhood every morning, often deliberately coaxing my willful beasts down the blocks where I know Little Free Libraries stand. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have strolled past boxes that look appealing — their design mimics the architecture of the house or they’re painted a cheerful array of colors — only to find empty shelves, a disorganized mass of magazines or a shelf stocked two-deep with books so I can’t possibly see the contents while holding dog leashes.

So, I move on. Any library that is poorly stocked or is a public trash can for materials the owners otherwise would toss is not worth repeat visits.

Rule 3: Curate your selection

I have taken religious tracts (My Utmost for His Highest and Investing in God’s Business: The “How-to” of Smart Christian Giving) to book boxes at the Episcopal, Catholic and United Church of Christ churches in my neighborhood. I reluctantly recycled a Bible that was falling apart — holding off for a day to be sure it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the forced churchgoing of my childhood, where I was always bored and eventually came to wonder (and then resent) why both God and the ministers were male.

A neighbor once teased me about “censorship” after I posted on Facebook about recycling a Women’s Health magazine (“My Little Free Library, my rules”) showing an impossibly thin young woman and the headline: “Bikini Body Now.” It isn’t censorship, I shot back, it’s called curating — and, in fact, such discernment is essential to maintaining some measure of quality in the materials you showcase outside your home.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is little-free-lib_1.jpg
This donation got tossed into my recycling bin. I spent too many years struggling with media-driven rules about women’s bodies to inflict this on a neighborhood girl.

I’ve rejected and recycled waterlogged novels, books with the covers held together by rubber bands, advanced uncorrected proofs, a dated state bicycle map, a Lutheran hymnal, romance novels, cookbooks from the ’90s and academic texts. A Little Free Library cannot be a dumping ground, especially if you want your neighbors to see your box as worthy of the literature and thought-provoking nonfiction — like Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, novels by Russell Banks and Jane Smiley, The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl — that they have read and are paying forward.

A retired high school English teacher down the block makes that clear with this handwritten sign on her book box: Please respect the spirit of this Little Free Library and only put books in here that you have enjoyed and you believe someone else would, too. Do NOT put in books that you merely are trying to get rid of.

Rule 4: Commit to the investment

My younger son recently brought over a bag of books that he no longer wants; those are stacked in a corner of the living room, waiting for winter to pass and more walkers to be outside so we can refresh our book box selection. I recently brought home another copy of The Late Homecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang that I grabbed from a table of free books at the university where I work.

That now sits on a kitchen shelf my husband and I have devoted to books-in-waiting for the Little Free Library. Goodwill stores have proven to be a worthwhile place to shop for $2 hardcovers and paperbacks for a buck.

Literacy is literally everywhere: This unregistered book box (not officially a Little Free Library) is at my favorite dog park, Battle Creek, in the Twin Cities.

During the pandemic, people have been raiding some of the book boxes in my neighborhood — “Little Free Library Shenanigans” was a recent headline on Nextdoor.com — and likely trying to sell the books at used bookstores. The problem is pervasive enough that it merited a story on the Little Free Library website, where Half-Price Books has declared it will never knowingly buy books filched from a free library.

Once my charter membership is official, and I become a “steward” of the Little Free Library ethos of generosity, I can order book labels or a rubber stamp that says, “Always a Gift; Never for Sale.”

That speaks to the true purpose of a public library and to the trust — in our neighbors, in all of humankind — that we Little Free Library stewards aim to instill in our communities.