Category Archives: Social Studies

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.”

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.

Speak truth to power: Declare your age

I turned 60 on July 4th.

There, I said it. Can I still write a blog about middle age?

No less an august authority than The Economist recently illuminated my dilemma in an article that argued for a new “age category”: What do we call this vital period between midlife and old age? I feel less affinity with a retiree of 75 than I do with a 40-year-old just entering middle age. Yet I am past those years of raising children, long commutes, holding an all-consuming job that could support a family and wearing stress like a badge for my achievements.

I still work. I exercise daily. I am engaged in life. I have good friends. At 60, I am not young anymore, but I am not old yet, either. What do I call this stage of life? Am I a “tweener”?

“Branding an age category might sound like a frivolous exercise,” says The Economist article, published two days after I tumbled out of middle age. “But life stages are primarily social constructs, and history shows that their emergence can trigger deep changes in attitude.”60 is classic

That explains why I have decided to be open about my age, despite the risks to my employability. I want to debunk the idea that women lose value as we grow older, which is true only in a society that prizes us primarily for reproduction. In fact, we have more time and far more perspective once we have made it through the child-rearing years.

Gloria Steinem’s famous rejoinder to an intended compliment on her 40th birthday, “You don’t look 40,” seems apropos: “This is what 40 looks like.”

For me, this is how 60 looks and feels:

  • wrinkled skin;
  • more need for sleep;
  • a lean body that craves yoga but can no longer sustain a runner’s 9-minute mile;
  • a determination to volunteer because I have less time to change the world (but still enough ego to believe I can make a difference);
  • more patience and self-acceptance;
  • more gratitude and humility;
  • and, thank goodness, still much to learn.

A woman can find freedom when she refuses to lie about her age, when she finds the gumption to declare her truth and share her story.

Wisdom from Bruce Willis

“Most of us have an inner age,” wrote the late author and gay-rights activist Robert Levithan in his book The New 60 (2012).

When I was in my mid-40s, working at a publishing company in downtown Minneapolis, I posted a quote in my cubicle from a Vanity Fair profile of Bruce Willis: “I see the lines on my face, but I don’t feel the weight on my shoulders. In my heart, I’m still 27,” he said.

MotownI could say I still feel young, that I take pride in keeping fit. I preen a bit when friends tell me I don’t look 60 and feel relieved when some commentator declares 60 as the new 40. What is all that, however, but a denial of the inevitable and a denigration of the gifts that come with age?

Ricka Kohnstamm calls these the wisdom years. “Age is totally an asset,” says Kohnstamm, who will turn 61 in August. A former partner with her husband, Josh, in Kohnstamm Communications, she recently earned a master’s degree in integrative health and well-being coaching.

“I bring a whole different set of experiences,” explains Kohnstamm, who is about to launch her own business, ALIGN Whole Health Coaching. “Many of us at 60 have experienced a lot: disappointments, joys, dreams that may not happen, transitions, deaths and losses.”

Over coffee, I tell Kohnstamm that I did not expect to feel so much uncertainty at 60. Her laughter breaks my fearful, reflective mood. “I want uncertainty!” she declares. “We have to learn to ride that wave.”

The secret? Keep learning

Loss can teach us lessons. Here is what the loss of youth is teaching me.

Being 60 means becoming acutely aware of time — in work, in relationships, in how I spend my days. I no longer have time to waste, and I use it wisely.

Being 60 means becoming more deliberate. I love to work and expect to hold some sort of part-time job for decades, but I likely am entering the final stage of my career. That makes me more careful than I was in my 20s and 30s, when I changed jobs too quickly, loving the energy of the chase, always seeking the next challenge and the thrill of something new.

Being 60 means accepting other people’s choices even when I think they’re wrong (a sentence that my husband will love to read).

Being 60 means breaking free of the façade. I look at women wearing layers of makeup and hobbling around on high heels, and I want to ask why they invest in their own subjugation. I dress up when circumstances warrant and relish the attention it grants me, but I don’t fool myself into believing that those appreciative glances define my worth. “Elegance attracted me,” says the protagonist in Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time (2016). “I liked the way it hid pain.”

Being 60 means becoming willing to share that pain, to risk being real, and that requires the courageous work of being vulnerable. “The majority of people, if they’re awake, have pretty complicated lives,” says Kohnstamm. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to pretend we didn’t?”