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.

How the warming climate chills me as I grow old

Last summer, when I was pondering how to address the physical enormity and psychic reality of climate change, which terrifies me as I grow older, I came up with a catchy headline for this blog post: Paris is burning. Again.

It was late July. The Notre Dame Cathedral had been ablaze three months earlier, and another heat wave was scorching Europe, with Paris’ temperature hitting an all-time high. That felt safe to reflect on, because it was all so far away; it neatly sidestepped my sense of powerlessness and fear, my smug hope that my family would be safe from the most catastrophic effects of global warming because we live in the cold, land-locked Upper Midwest.Blog_big blue marble

Now, thanks to the youth of the world — can we elect Greta Thunberg president, even though she’s Swedish and only 16 years old? — the reality of climate change has washed up at my generation’s feet, just as Houston and other cities drown in rain.

For some time now I have been tossing newspaper clippings in a drawer, where I can access the scary warnings (“One-fourth of the world faces looming water crises”) without having them stare me in the face. The tendency of Americans to drive anywhere, everywhere — 88 percent of us own cars, while only 53 percent own bicycles — particularly concerns me in a state where vehicle emissions are a leading source of climate change:

Really, is that enough? To verbally shrug our shoulders and declare record-breaking heat, choked roadways and wetter, warmer winters to be beyond our control? As young activists reportedly chanted at global climate protests on September 20: “You had a future and so should we.” And then this: “We vote next.”

Where do the children play?

What moved me, finally, to coalesce my anxiety into some measure of coherent thought was not the climate protesters — as impressive and inspirational as they are — but the generation of young adults who are afraid to have children. My younger son, age 24, told me over lunch recently that he and his girlfriend would like to have kids — except they’re not sure they can. No, Nate said, reading my facial expression, infertility is not the issue. “The planet’s dying,” my son told me.Blog_children playing

In a TED Talk titled “How Climate Change Affects Your Mental Health,” scientist and storyteller Britt Wray, Ph.D. talks about the “fear, fatalism and hopelessness” that comes from immersing oneself in the realities of climate change. Those who have directly experienced a climate catastrophe (the Bahamians with Hurricane Dorian, for example) may deal with “shock, trauma, strained relationships, substance abuse, and the loss of personal identity and control,” Wray said.

For young people in prosperous nations like ours, climate change takes its toll on the surest sign of hope and optimism, the primary human desire to reproduce. “Having one less child in an industrialized nation can save about 59 tons of carbon dioxide per year,” according to Dr. Wray’s research. And so young adults aren’t weighing the decision about whether to have children against the cost to their careers, as I did, or even against whether they can afford it. Instead, they are looking at the cost to the planet; like my son, they are calculating whether the world is worth sharing with a vulnerable child.

Some young adults have declared a “birth strike,” said Wray, because “government won’t address this existential threat.”

I still grumble about the Thanksgiving a decade ago when Nate made me see The Road, a bleak and frightening film based on a Cormac McCarthy novel. Now, I recognize that he may seek out post-apocalyptic movies and books for reasons other than entertainment. Maybe this is the world he envisions for himself come middle age. Maybe this is the future that we self-centered, luxury-loving Baby Boomers refuse to see.

What is my responsibility?

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” climate activist Thunberg told world leaders at the United Nations on Monday (an essential story that the middle-aged editors who run the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune placed on page A4).

As the youngest candidate in the Democratic presidential field, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is using age to his advantage in his case against climate change: “The younger you are, the more you have on the line.”

How much are we willing to sacrifice to fight climate change? The Canadian commentator who posed that question is asking the wrong one. Few Americans today will willingly give up their creature comforts, or the prosperity that some take as their birthright. “All you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” Thunberg declared in her stern and sage warning. How dare we, indeed.

At 62, I look to the past for my solution. I strive to live as my Depression-era parents raised us. My father grew strawberries, raspberries, green beans and peas in his garden. My mother hung laundry out to dry. My family had one car until I was 9 years old, though we considered ourselves solidly middle-class. We opened windows and turned on fans to stay cool during the summer.

Pair of legs walking on a trail in nature towards the light

Their example stays with me:

  • After years of commuting, I arranged my life so I can walk to work and ride the bus to many of my appointments.
  • My husband and I bought our sons good bicycles as teenagers instead of cars.
  • Our house has no air-conditioning, and we don’t always flush the toilet.
  • We recycle or compost everything we can.
  • I pick up beer cans and plastic bottles on dog-walks in our neighborhood close to a college campus.

These aren’t sacrifices. This is how we live, and it is a calmer, healthier and more satisfying existence than driving in an air-conditioned vehicle from an air-conditioned house or, in the winter, refusing to walk outdoors. Personal behavior change has to power this movement to save our planet.

In order to change the world, you must first change yourself. That saying is painted on a building near my yoga studio in St. Paul. Yes, I still own a car (though it’s a Prius), I still eat some meat, I still accumulate more stuff than I need. But I tread lightly on the Earth, not just for me but for my sons.

“We need to be honest,” says Dr. Wray, “about what we owe one another.”

Dog bites woman: lessons learned

Getting injured tends to make me reflective because it forces me to sit still, which I don’t do well. Even at 62, I value movement and action — to a fault, I am finding as I grow older.

Suffering a dog bite at an off-leash dog park, a juicy and unexpected chomp to my bare left calf, has left me hobbled, bleeding, aching, afraid, exhausted and unable to sustain my usual pace. I sought medical attention, after initially resisting, and two days later succumbed to the first round of rabies shots.

Mia_2019

Mia, my beloved Animal Humane Society rescue, gets ready for our morning run.

Here is what I’ve learned from the ordeal:

1. Posting on social media can turn bad luck to good advice: “You should have called Animal Control immediately,” said my experienced older sister, also a dog lover. “They would have impounded and quarantined the dogs.”

Problem is, I was so rattled, calling the authorities did not occur to me. What now? “At this point, I would ask the police to visit the dog owner,” my sister told me a day later. “She needs to be deterred from coming back to the dog park.” Numerous others on Facebook agreed. One even speculated I could be awarded $5,000 to $10,000 per puncture wound through the woman’s homeowner’s insurance. Well, maybe.

2. Trusting people based on superficial qualities leads to speculative results. The first question I asked the woman who insisted her dog only “scratched” me was whether her animal’s shots were up to date. “Of course,” she said. She looked trustworthy. But what does that mean? Turn over that rock, and out slither some stereotypical assumptions.

“Diana,” likely not her real name, was articulate and well dressed. She drove a nice van. She seemed friendly, approaching me later in the park — along with that damn dog! — to see whether I was alright. Again, being rattled and bleeding and in pain, I did not think to say: “Call my cell phone, so I have your number.” Instead, I texted myself the number that she told me, and this apparently trustworthy, friendly looking woman lied.

3. “Tough it out” is an ineffective strategy with an animal bite. Among the advice on Facebook, which I ignored for three days:

  • “You need proof that this animal is vaccinated.”
  • “Get to a doctor with that wound stat.”
  • “I didn’t go to the doctor when a dog bit my finger and ended up having surgery for an infected finger bone. My primary-care doc said to always get antibiotics.”

Ego can drive these decisions, especially as we get older and want to prove that we’re still strong and healthy. I remember a woman 10 years my senior telling me that she feels more “vulnerable,” physically. Not me! I arrogantly believed I could heal on my own, if I kept the wound covered and kept up my usual pattern of walking 14,000 steps daily. Bad plan, as the nurse practitioner affirmed when she prescribed amoxicillin for my weeping wound.

4. Short-term physical pain is worth long-term peace of mind. Because “Diana” gave me the wrong phone number, because I failed to follow her to her van and photograph the license plate, I had no way to reach her. Therefore, I had no way of proving that her dog had current vaccinations.

A doctor said the risk of rabies was low, given that the apparently cared for dog was at a dog park, not some crazed animal foaming at the mouth, To Kill a Mockingbird–style, that leaped out of the bushes on a jogging path. The Department of Health said otherwise. The only way to ensure I would not get rabies was to get the dreaded rabies shots. “I think the DOH is butt covering,” I told my oldest sister, the pragmatic one. “Maybe so,” she replied, “but rabies is fatal if you get it.” A quick Google search proved that to be true.

And the shots? Not nearly as painful as folklore would have it — or apparently, as invasive as they used to be. When I heard that the initial injections were in the wound, I pictured a doctor plunging a needle straight into the bite site (which remains painful to the touch eight days post-trauma). In fact, the doctor inserted the needles horizontally in the skin next to the wound, on either side, and then energetically rubbed the bite site so it could absorb the serum. That was the worst, and it was over quickly.

Gabby_smallest

Gabby, our rescue puppy from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas

5. Keep the faith. “Here’s what I know,” wrote a former colleague on Facebook, a man who recently traveled across several states to buy a hunting dog. “There are many, many more bad dog owners than there are bad dogs.” Of course, he’s right.

One woman warned me about PTSD, predicting that I may never be able to return to dog parks. Another offered to connect me with a therapist who specializes in “dog-bite trauma.” I’m not afraid of dogs, which I have owned for most of my life. What I am wary of is lackadaisical dog owners — ones like my neighbor who lets his golden retrievers walk unleashed on city streets, reassuring passersby that the dogs are friendly.

I never intended to sue “Diana.” What I wanted was an apology, an acknowledgment of the pain I suffered and an offer to pay my medical bills. I wanted her to make things right, and she failed me. But I won’t give up on dogs, not today. Not ever. I need their love and loyalty in an increasingly hostile world.

A dog’s death helps put human loss into perspective

I have lost a loved one, a colleague, a boss and a dog in the last half of 2018. I am grieving my dog’s death most deeply of all — and not only because it was the most recent. I was present for the emotional, messy aftermath of the death and for the tending and burial of the body in a way that the funeral industry and sanitized social norms rarely allow us to be, any longer, for human beings.

Griffin, a miniature schnauzer, was only six and a half years old when he died after escaping the yard of the rural farmhouse outside of Mankato where my husband and I were staying for my stepmother’s funeral. Whether a vehicle struck him or he died of a stroke or heart attack, we will never know. His body was intact. David, my husband, had no blood on his hands after retrieving our pet from the cold, dark road. Aside from the eerie dead eye, unblinking and black as coal, Griffin looked afterward like he was asleep, tucked into his little “nest,” as we called his dog bed.

Lucy and Griffin

Lucy (left) and Griffin when he was still a puppy

Facing the particulars of our dog’s death is helping us grieve in a way that our “mourning-avoiding culture”— as the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado calls it — deems improper for human beings. If we are present for death at all, an undertaker quickly whisks away the body, leaving loved ones little time to absorb the blow. If the body is present at a memorial service, it typically is in a closed casket or made up beyond recognition like a perfect mannequin.

I convinced my husband to cover Griffin’s body with a T-shirt after we determined he was dead (“Wake up! Just wake up!” I was shouting inside my head as I felt the still-warm body for a pulse). I cited the covering as a sign of respect, but it really was for my own comfort. The next morning, nearly sleepless, I could not look at Griffin’s face again as he laid in the kitchen, still tucked inside his bed. I raised the covering in back to see the flank of his lifeless form. At the suggestion of my sister, a dog lover, we let our other dog, Mia, sniff the body to say goodbye. David and I both felt negligent and nauseous. We each cased the road for any sign of tire marks or fur, blood or bodily matter. Nothing there, no answers.

We brought Griffin home to St. Paul, and I watched as our older son helped bury the dog he loved in the backyard. My husband’s back heaved with sobs as he lowered Griffin into the grave. Gone too soon, this happy creature whom David adored, so much so that I jokingly referred to Griffin as “the grandchild.” My son told me later he had never seen his father cry.

“He cried when you were born,” I said.

‘I don’t know what to say’

I had an unsettling dream three weeks after Griffin died. He was with us again in the city, but he was running away. I saw him beneath a moving car, managing to keep pace between the tires. I knew he could not last long with his squat body and short legs. I knew he was gone for good. Was my subconscious trying to tell me that a car really had hit Griffin, that the premature death had been our fault?

Twice I have had the privilege of being present with loved ones close to their time of death. I returned to the bedroom of my mother’s memory care unit moments after she had gasped her final breath, her face composed again, at last, her confusion eased. Years earlier, I was the last person other than his partner to see my friend D.L. alive. I still recall the words I whispered and the way I stroked his head.

These memories are holy, but they are not the norm. News of the other three deaths this year came via phone calls. I was sad to hear of my stepmother’s passing at 91, but her death was neither shocking nor unexpected. The other two deaths stunned me — a 31-year-old colleague killed at his lake cabin while cutting down a tree, my boss felled at home by a heart attack five days later, only hours after we had texted about some work issue. Like Griffin’s demise, these deaths struck without notice. Two people who mattered to me were simply gone.

I am neither the widow nor a relative of either of these men. We were colleagues but not close friends. Maybe that’s the point: I feel this ambiguous loss —yes, I am reading the Pauline Boss book of the same name — but have few people with whom to share it.

A woman who used to office on my floor tried to buy a card after my boss died last July but couldn’t find one. “I don’t know what to say,” she told me with a sheepish shrug. Curious, I Googled “death of a boss” and came up with a blog post by a woman who makes teddy bears from the scraps of dead people’s clothing and an advice-driven column about how to cope until your dead boss is replaced. The Google search “death of a colleague” yielded a few more results, but even those focused primarily on how to remain productive.

“Few if any supportive rituals exist for people experiencing ambiguous loss,” Boss wrote in her acclaimed 1999 book. “Their experience remains unverified by the community around them, so that there is little validation of what they are experiencing and feeling.”

When our dog died, the teenager next door brought us homemade sugar cookies. My backyard neighbor placed a wreath of dried flowers on Griffin’s grave. Funny that outreach for a pet comes more naturally than outreach for a person — unless you post the news on Facebook, in which case a sad face or a generic “you are in my thoughts and prayers” seems to suffice these days for authentic communication.