Category Archives: Social Studies

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 (“old”) that I am trying to embrace? Here’s why:

  • 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.

Minnesotans, older women define year-end giving

In this season of giving — and shopping and spending — year-end appeals stuff my mailbox and e-mail in-box from nonprofit organizations and political causes that are making a difference, that deserve my donation.

Their creative approaches both amuse and annoy me:

  • Governor Tim Walz’s dog, Scout, sent an appeal to “keep Minnesota blue,” which I took to be a program for clean water, but it turned out to be a fundraising campaign for the governor’s One Minnesota initiative. Since Scout is a rescue pup — a cause dear to my heart — I hung onto the e-mail for consideration. (Plus an earlier message from Walz’s finance director shamed me into seeing that I had contributed nothing in 2019.)
  • The one I will ignore, though the subject line grabbed me, is Jane Fonda’s appeal to support the re-election campaign of Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. Given that I had to Google who he was, I decided to keep my dollars local.
  • Prairie’s Edge Humane Society in Northfield, Minnesota, where I adopted my sons’ childhood dogs, Skip and Lucy, prepared a letter to Santa from a different animal every day for its “12 Days of Giving.” Because I appreciate the opportunity to donate supplies as well as money and am touched by the animals’ stories (including an obese dog named Root Beer abandoned last summer at age 7 and now nursed back to better health), I plan to give something.

This time of year, “we work harder to share stories that resonate with the majority of our donors,” says Mary McKeown, president and CEO of Keystone Community Services in St. Paul, whose food mobile helps address food insecurity at the University of St. Thomas, where I work, and Hamline University, where my sons earned their degrees.

Mary McKeown

Mary McKeown, Keystone Community Services

Days after I already had mailed a check, Keystone’s year-end appeal arrived at my home. The story that McKeown promised featured Jean, who “has worked hard and supported herself independently her whole life,” but who had to quit her job because of emphysema. (It could happen to any of us, right? Who isn’t living paycheck to paycheck?)

I drive Meals on Wheels and serve on a strategic planning task force for Keystone. That means more to me than Jean’s story because I see firsthand the good that this organization does.

“We’ve never bought donor lists,” says McKeown, who also happens to be my neighbor, increasing Keystone’s hyper-local appeal. “We’ve just been thoughtful about how to establish a year-round relationship with our supporters. So, when they’re making that choice, out of all the envelopes in front of them, they think: I know Keystone, and I know what they’re doing with my money.

Who gives, and why?

Minnesotans are the most generous people in the nation, donating more money and time than other Americans, according to a poll released in December by WalletHub, a personal finance website. And the “average donor,” McKeown says, is a 68-year-old woman less interested in “experiences,” as younger adults tend to be, than in giving money back to her community.Blog_MSP volunteering

As a female, 62-year-old, lifelong Minnesotan, I am thus a prime target. So, which of the many worthy appeals — from Move Minnesota, the Elizabeth Warren campaign, the Animal Humane Society, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation — will grab my attention, and my wallet?

This year I relied more on data than emotion, reviewing my checkbook for 2019 and listing every cause to which I had donated money throughout the year, from $10 a month recurring payments to one-time gifts of over $100. The patterns were eye-opening:

  • Female political candidates, including Warren, garnered the highest number of donations, though not always the greatest amounts.
  • “Green” is a value and a practice in my household, so in addition to regular, small donations to the Nature Conservancy and the Arbor Day Foundation — which inexplicably sent us trees to plant in early December — my husband and I gave our largest one-time gift to Environment Minnesota.
  • Public radio, public television and local food co-ops such as Seward — whose hiring practices demonstrate its commitment to diversity — get my membership dollars, but I am using their services, so those monthly contributions don’t really count as donations.
  • The women’s health organization to which I consistently give my time received no money until the “matching gift” plea showed up on Facebook and in my e-mail after Christmas.

Turns out, Minnesotans “love a deal,” McKeown says. A marketing director from Best Buy, one of the Twin Cities’ 17 Fortune 500 companies, serves on Keystone’s board. Originally from Atlanta, he tells McKeown that Best Buy markets differently in Minnesota to appeal to our bargain-hunting ways.

That’s why matching-gift appeals are so popular at the end of the year, she explains, even though it’s a heavy-spending season: “Someone who would give $100 may give $150 because they’re getting a match.”

Seventy-four percent of Minnesotans describe themselves as “somewhat” or “very religious.” That matters, too, especially in a state that is still primarily Christian. At a national conference in October, McKeown learned that year-end philanthropic appeals relate less to tax benefits — which are shrinking anyway — than to the tradition of being generous at Christmastime to your church.

The last three days of December are “the three busiest days for donations each year,” according to GiveMN, which promotes philanthropy in Minnesota. National data show that 12 percent of all gifts are made between December 29 and 31.

The handwritten list of where I donated money this year is less a budgetary tool than it is a list of values: from feminism and political engagement to environmental advocacy, animal rights, and supporting local shops and farmers. I am privileged, and it is a privilege to give.

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.”