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Category — ageism

Thank you, Emma

Emma Gatewood was the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (2,168 miles). If you read about her, the first thing you’ll read is that she was 67 at the time, and then, because she’s a woman, you will read about how many children and grandchildren she had.

But here’s the most startling thing about Emma Gatewood’s 1955 trek: She wore Converse sneakers and carried an army blanket, a raincoat, and a plastic shower curtain in a homemade denim bag slung over one shoulder. That’s how she hiked. Damn.

At this very moment, a year from now, I will be hiking the Oregon section of the PCT, all 460 miles of it, from the Siskiyou Summit north across the crest of the Cascades to the Columbia River. I hesitated with the verb tense in the previous sentence. I will be. I considered writing “I might be” or “I hope to be” or some other waffle-ly statement. But I want to declare this intention without wiggle room.

I made the declaration to myself yesterday as I trudged up our access road for my first practice hike, a five-miler over to and up Spencer Butte with a lightly loaded pack. I’ve hiked a lot, including some tough backcountry day hikes in the Kootenays of British Columbia and the red rock country of southern Utah. The operative word there is day hikes.

I have only once in my life hiked, camped and then hiked some more, and that was back before the invention of moveable type. On my various day hikes since that time, I’ve never carried more than one of those little Camelback hydration packs. Yesterday I hoisted on, cinched in, buckled up, etc. a serious through-hike backpack, one of several pieces of gram-shaving high-tech equipment I’ve been acquiring.

I plan to hike only the Oregon section – a third of Emma’s mileage – and I plan to outfit myself with ultra-light gear that will not include shower curtains.

Why the Oregon section? It’s my homage to the state I fell in love with at first sight, the state that’s been my home for pretty much all of my adult life, the state that continues to leave me breathless with its beauty (and generally the politics ain’t bad either). Also, hiking the entire PCT takes more than 5 months. The Oregon section… maybe 5 weeks. Note that one of my reasons is NOT “I couldn’t possibly hike the entire PCT.” Maybe I could. Maybe I couldn’t. After I complete the Oregon section, I’ll know better.

Why do this at all?

To see if I can.

Because of Emma Gatewood.

And because, as Gandhi famously said: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” And I want to see the end of ageism.

July 11, 2018   No Comments

Becoming inVISIBLE

A few nights ago I suffered through one of those seemingly interminable, low-level stress dreams that sometimes afflict me. This one was about losing my purse. I was standing at a counter picking up tickets for a performance of (you guessed it!) The Nutcracker. I placed my purse on the counter and momentarily forgot about it while involved in the ticket transaction. When I looked over, it was gone. Thus ensued a long, boring, stressful search for purse. After watching me hunt high and low, an employee told me he removed the purse from the counter and put it under a desk. Great, I said. Thanks.

But the employee did not want to give me back my purse until I “proved” it was mine. I had to detail for him, quite precisely, various items in the purse. I would tell him one thing—my key chain—and he’d then ask for another. My Snap Fitness entry card. My packet of g.u.m soft-piks. My ear buds (What brand? he asked. I didn’t know. He frowned.) My Swiss Army knife. What else? What else? This went on for a long time. Finally he let me have my purse. End of dream.

I thought about the dream a lot during the day. It could be just a generic stress dream. But the more I thought about how it felt to have to prove that what was mine was mine, the less generic and more meaningful the dream became.

The meaning? Here goes:

It seems to me that I am now at a point in my life when I shouldn’t be required (or forced) to “prove” my identity, or prove my own worth to others (like the guy in the dream). I have grown into who I am. I have spent a number of decades growing and learning and doing what I do. When I was younger, a bright young penny who knew so little, who understood so little, I was noticed, and the light shone down upon me. Now, knowing so much more, having done and lived and learned so much more, I join the ranks of the Invisible and the Overlooked, the ones — we “older” women — who have to prove we still have it. About whom it is assumed that we have settled into complacency, that we do not burn with creativity and passion, that we are not ignited by new ideas, that we are no longer vital and vibrant and alive.

Guess what, you overlookers, you nay-sayers who put up barriers, you sexist ageist assholes (and especially those who pretend they aren’t)? You couldn’t be more wrong.

And also: FUCK YOU.

December 6, 2017   4 Comments

Ageism. Again.

It’s time to rant again about ageism.

This time, however, it’s not about those offensive intersection crossing signs that feature stooped over, cane-holding old ladies or those offensive birthday cards like the one for 50 — yes, 50“remember that ill-advised sleeve tattoo you got during your misspent youth? Think how it looks to your doctor while you sit in his office complaining of incontinence” or those offensive ads targeting clueless, brain-fogged old people who cannot seem to manage the intricacies of a normal cellphone.

Nope, this is about how older people are sometimes complicit in the creation and maintenance of these stereotypes. (In fact, as I wrote in Counterclockwise several years ago, unlike just about every other group on the receiving end of an –ism, a disturbing majority of older people actually believe the damaging stereotypes about older people.)

This was a video clip that came across my morning updates yesterday, a CNN story about “beating loneliness after retirement.” The story is about these old guys who don’t know what to do with themselves after retirement. Fair enough. So they go bowling. Now I love bowling. Nothing against bowling. But here is how one of the guys described his decision to join in: “It was either this or sit on the couch all day and watch TV.”

Seriously? That’s the choice?

If you have the energy and strength to go bowling (and yay for that), then you have the energy and strength to be a mentor to a kid who needs an adult in his life. You have the energy and strength to volunteer at your local food bank. To hammer a few nails for Habitat for Humanity. To go play with dogs in animal shelters. To tutor adults who can’t read.

To be visible and useful and show that you are a caring, contributing part of the community in which you live. Otherwise, you actively contribute to the stereotype of older people as useless. In the way. Just taking up space. And resources.

End of rant. For now.

Oh, P.S. Can I just say/ shout/ proclaim on high:


May 24, 2017   1 Comment

Facing — DEFEATING — ageism

Among the countless things that anger (stun, depress, disgust, worry) me these days is institutionalized ageism. Yes, I said ageism. Not racism, sexism, homophobia. Well, of course racism, sexism, homophobia. But those -isms and –phobias are at least part of our national conversation. We have created policies around them. They are discussed in schools, in the media, on the lecture circuit. I am not saying we have conquered these forms of discrimination, just that we are aware of them and sometimes do the right thing. Although now less than before.

And then there’s ageism.

It is not just firmly embedded in our culture, it is mostly invisible — thanks to the imposed and self-imposed ghetttoization of the elderly (from nursing homes to retirement “communities”). And accepted virtually without question. Old people? Hell, yeah. They are frail, useless, boring, sexless. The street signs show us what we think: A silhouette of a stooped (oh that dowager’s hump) old lady grasping a cane. She can hardly place one foot ahead of another. Watch her struggle as she totters, oh-so-slowly, across the street.

Presumably we all have a soft spot in our hearts for our old people – grandpa, great aunt Tillie, old cousin Bill – but we lose patience with everyone else’s. The grandma at the grocery store. She’s looking through her cavernous handbag for coupons. She’s taking forever to count out the change from her purse. She’s holding up the line. Come on. The geezer in the car, the one whose gray head you can barely see above the top of the driver’s seat. He’s driving 22 in a 35 mph zone. He’s actually making a full stop at the stop sign and looking both ways before proceeding. Get off the road.

And maybe even, sometimes, we lose it with our own kin. Grandpa (Dad) pulls out the old photo album. Again. He launches into the story about…fill in the blank. Again. We roll our eyes and find the first excuse to leave the room.

Old and in the way.


I am about to go to my weekly volunteer stint at Food for Lane County’s Dining Room where we feed (restaurant-style not soup-kitchen style) 300 or so people every day. For some this will be the only meal they eat all day. Although there are a few younger volunteers, most who work these shifts are retirement-age and some are decades past retirement age. This place, like so many other volunteer-staffed social service agencies, could not exist without OLDER PEOPLE giving their time and energy.

Yes, I said ENERGY.

The Dining Room shift is two hours of constant movement. A number of us wait tables, taking (and remembering) orders, bringing plates of food balanced up our forearms, and glasses of milk and mugs of coffee on laden trays. One volunteer constantly circulates with a big dessert tray. Another constantly circulates bussing and cleaning tables. In the back, people are scrapping huge pots and pans, chopping bushels of apples, working the steamy dish pit. This is not easy work. I clock two miles on a shift and often work up a sweat.

My co-workers – many in their 70s, some in their 80s and at least one in his 90s – work just as hard.

Because, my friends: This is what OLD really looks like.

I want to replace the image of the “don’t hit this frail old lady” street signs with empowering images of the older people in our midst. I want our heads, individually and societally, to be brimming with images of vibrant, engaged older people, funny, feisty, perceptive, talented, passionate, compassionate older people. Older people who not only have experience but still seek it. I want to be that kind of older person.

The photo is of a 3000-year-old olive tree (in Crete). Which is doing just fine. And bears olives every year.

April 12, 2017   3 Comments

Lessons learned from a 3000-year-old olive tree

ancient olive treeIn Vouvres, a village in the mountains of western Crete, there stands an olive tree that is verifiably 3000 years old. When this tree was a sapling, the Iron Age had just begun. The tree is magnificently gnarled, a twisting, turning, ropey, veiny, sinewy work of art that manages to seem both fluid and solid at the same time. Its circumference measures 41 feet. Branches, so many branches, some old and thick, some young and slender, all healthy, all dusty green with leaves, all bearing olives, grow from its massive trunk.

I stood before this tree last week. I couldn’t get enough of it. I walked around and around it. I photographed it from all sides. I peered inside its dark, hollow core. I touched it. I (embarrassingly) spoke to it.

Not out loud.

Okay, sort of out loud.

I asked it to reveal its secrets. How do you survive for three millennia? How do you persevere through all that has come your way? How do you stay so strong, so healthy, so magnificent?

And this is what the Monumental Olive Tree of Vouvres (its official name) told me (not out loud):

**Situate yourself in a place that suits you and grow your roots deep.

**Bend when you have to.

**Be useful

**Give back not just to those who care for and tend you, but to all.

**Keep pushing out new branches. Always push out new branches. Never stop growing.

**And remember the true beauty of age, the complexity and richness, the layering of experience upon experience, the strength and power that comes from that.

“And lady,” the tree said to me, “it’s time to quit talking to trees. Take a hike in the hills. The sun is shining. The bougainvillea is blooming. The air smells like thyme and basil and lavender. Go.”

And so I did.

November 2, 2016   5 Comments

Old and NOT in the way

filo lady Among the many differences between life in Europe and life in the U.S., one of the most consistently startling to me is how many old people you see…everywhere: behind counters in the shops, rolling out dough in bakeries, strolling on the streets, waiting for buses, shopping in grocery stores, socializing in cafes, sitting on benches and reading the newspaper, enjoying concerts. In other words, they are a visible part of their community. A normal part of everyday life. This woman, In Rethymnon (Crete) and her husband own a phyllo bakery. They are in their 80s.

man w girlThis man sells produce from his farm at the Minoos Market (Chania, Crete) every Saturday. His granddaughter — or it could be his great granddaughter — comes to help. When I bought tomatoes from him, he guided her to make the correct change for me.


old lady

This 90-year-old woman, a resident of Elos, in the mountains of western Crete, is sitting out on a sunny day enjoying the festivities of the town’s annual chestnut festival. In between the rousing music and traditional dancing (she taps her feet and nods her head), she chats with family and passersby. When I asked if I could take her picture, she laughed and patted my arm.

FullSizeRender(1)These guys are sitting on  sunny bench outside the Agora, Chania’s central marketplace. I sat and watched them for almost half an hour as they chatted, laughed, argued, called out to friends who passed by and generally looked like they were enjoying the morning and each others’ company. And — a big and here — being out in the community, feeling part of the vibrant life of this small city.

I think  of the difference between the lives these older people live and the ones lived in the US by the elderly (and not even old old, but just retirees in their 60s and 70s). The healthy post-retirement Americans, many of them, are opting to live in gated communities among their own kind, in secluded enclaves, no longer a vital part of their families or of a multi-generational culture. Our healthy older people go to retirement “villages” that are not villages at all. Our unhealthy elderly are warehoused in nursing homes.

We will never defeat ageism if we don’t live together, if older people do not publicly and actively participate in their communities, if young people don’t see and know and interact everyday with older people.






October 26, 2016   7 Comments

Old. Yeah. So what?

IdaThe world – well, 3.5 billion of us, at least — just spent 17 days watching highly trained, super-disciplined, extraordinary physical specimens show us what a human body can do. Those Olympic performances were both inspirational and aspirational, weren’t they? I don’t mean that watching Simone Biles inspired me to want to be Simon Biles, to do what she does. Ha. I mean that marveling at her performances might inspire me (us) to push ourselves, to embrace (or at least entertain) the notion that we can move forward in bold and astonishing ways. We might aspire to the attitude behind her performance, the fierce determination that we are not defined or limited by our past. Her story inspires us more than her (unattainable) physical prowess.

Now that we have celebrated the Olympics, and now that we’re sated with images of hard-bodies who’ve devoted most of their young lives to athletic performance, how about celebrating much older people (much older people) who have attained equally lofty heights of physical achievement. Consider those profiled in a recent special edition of New York Times’ “Well” blog.

Here’s a story about Anna Sofia Botha, 74, the coach of the South African runner who broke the long-standing 400-meter world record. The news media flocked to her (after all, a WHITE HAIRED LADY!!!), clamoring for interviews. Surprised, she replied: “The whole coaching scenario is an everyday way of life for me.” Gotta love it.

Or how about this story profiling a 100-year-old runner. Says Ida Keeling, who started running at 67, “Time marches on, but I keep going.”

Or read about Tao Porchon-Lynch, 97, a competitive ballroom dancer (she started at 80) and a yoga teacher, who says, “I haven’t finished learning.”

When we see Olympic athletes compete, we don’t dismiss their performances as “the exception that proves the rule” – the rule being that almost none of us look like they do and can do what they do. Instead, we enjoy their achievement and are motivated by it. Maybe we can work on adopting that same attitude about these older “outliers.”

These women (and many others — you’d be surprised how many others) are outside the norm, just like the Olympic athletes. Let’s not dismiss them as exceptions that prove the (well entrenched) “rule” about older people, the rule that states that old means frail, feeble and fragile; that old people live constricted, restricted sad little lives. How about, just as we admire those Olympians and are inspired by their stories, we enjoy the stories of world-class (older) women and embrace the attitude behind their achievements? How about that?

August 24, 2016   1 Comment

Mary Berry is scrummy

AA Mary-BerryWhaaaat? You’ve never heard of Mary Berry?

Mary Berry is a household word and a national treasure – in the U.K. She is a culinary superstar, the author of 75– yes, I said 75 – cookbooks, and the co-star of one of my most favorite TV shows EVER, “The Great British Bake Off” (now in season 7).

Two years ago, she launched a new solo show on BBC, “Mary Berry Cooks.” Last year she launched another BBC show, “Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourites.”

She is both quick-witted and thoughtful, funny, smart and gracious with a bearing that manages to be both regal and down-home domestic. And – just icing on the Victoria sponge cake – she’s a looker.

I mention all this and bring Mary Berry to your attention not just because The Great British Bake Off is the best show ever and you ought to see how the Brits do “reality TV” – with intelligence and humor and, gee, kindness. (Yes, even in competition….no “You’re fired” or “You’re chopped.”) I bring Mary Berry to your attention because she is 81.

And NO ONE MAKES A BIG DEAL ABOUT IT. There’s no: Wow she has so much energy for her age. Look what she is accomplishing at her age. I wonder how she does it at her age.

Because age is not the point. Because she is who she is. Because she transcends age and, in doing so, compels us to confront and eschew our own ageism.

I love Mary Berry. Mary Berry is scrummy.

July 26, 2016   3 Comments

Old redefined

simpsonWhat is “old”?

I’ve come to realize that old is whatever age you are not yet. When I was in second grade, I could not imagine ever being as old as Teresa DiNapoli, my 17-year-old babysitter, who wore eye make-up (quite a lot, in fact) and went on dates and sneaked out to the backyard to smoke Parliaments while I watched cartoons. And then, all of a sudden, I was 17 (alas, both mascara-less and dateless – but I did sneak cigarettes). And 17 was no longer old.

In college, I thought 30 was old. I mean really old. Settled, boring, embarrassingly unhip. And then I was 30. And I wasn’t boring (I thought). But oh those 40 year olds – how ossified they were. And, of course 60 was absolutely ancient and absolutely unimaginable. Sixty-five was when, weathered and beaten down, creaky, crabby (or, alternately, sweet and grandmotherly) you spent your days complaining about ailments, tending violets and baking cookies.

Yeah, yeah, Bernie mounted the most energetic campaign possibly in the history of campaigning at age 74. And Grandma Moses didn’t start painting seriously until she was 78. And sure, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is rocking it on the bench at 83. But whenever we hear about active, engaged, interesting people who are 70 or 80 or older, they are presented as the exceptions that prove the rule. The rule, as we all know, is that old people are creaky, crabby creatures who totter around (if they’re lucky), eat mushy food and hold up the line at the grocery store by writing checks. Checks.

Regardless of the millions of role models out there who disprove the “old and in the way” mentality of the not-quite-as-old, regardless of our own experiences through life which prove that what we thought was old turns out not to be (when we ourselves get to that age), the stereotypes persist.

That’s why I loved loved loved this video in which the young come face to face with their ageism and emerge much wiser. It is very much worth a look. So please do.

July 13, 2016   3 Comments

We are the change

Street sign ELDERLEY PEOPLE CROSSING ( against white background )

Ironic – sad, disappointing, anger-inducing – that at the same time we see a vibrant, tireless, full-throttle 74-year-old criss-crossing the country and invigorating voters young and old, at the same time we see millions more people living healthy, engaged and meaningful lives into their 70s, 80s and beyond, we have made so little progress in confronting and defeating ageism. Harmful, negative (and erroneous) stereotypes of older people remain deeply embedded in our culture — and especially in our language.

Ever hear of (or practice) “elderspeak”? It is a sweetly belittling form of address (simple sentences delivered louder and slower than normal conversation) that is, essentially, babytalk directed to mature adults. How are we (why “we”?) doing today, dear? Elderspeak is patronizing, condescending and based on insulting and misguided stereotypes about aging, and the cognitive and communicative abilities of older people.

Or how about these insults masquerading as compliments?

Gee, you don’t look your age!
As a columnist for HuffPost writes: What did you expect a 50/60/70-year-old to look like? A crypt-keeper? We know the intention behind the comment is harmless, but it’s actually not a compliment. It’s just reinforcing the belief that old is automatically unattractive/decrepit/not sexy.

Wow, you still do that?
(“That” meaning: working, performing, hiking…) “Still” is one of those words that reeks of ageism. She’s 60 and still running marathons! She’s 70 and practicing law! The word “still” is a qualifier here and expresses the belief that the activity is unnatural for someone of that age. Because, of course, someone of that age should be sitting on a porch rocker and knitting.

Boy, you’re sharp as a tack!
Um. Thanks? I guess you expected the person in question to be dull and unfocused, forgetful and fuzzy-brained, maybe demented because she is, you know, old?

Awww, they’re so cute!
Said when viewing an older couple walking down the street holding hands. Bunnies are cute. Kittens playing with balls of yarn are cute. A couple who continues to enjoy each other’s company after 50 years isn’t “cute.” It’s a miracle.

The thing is, we can’t hope to battle ageism as a culture until we cure ourselves of our own negative attitudes, until we stop telling ourselves that old means sickly, useless, sexless and boring, until we stop thinking of active, engaged, vital, curious, interesting older people as exceptions., Those of us moving with passion and energy into our 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond are not the exceptions that prove the rule. We are changing the rule. We are the change.

March 30, 2016   No Comments