The Revenge of My Father

As my father got older, into his 80s, he was cold all the time. I remember being at our family cottage in Wisconsin and wanting to swim in the lake on a day that was warm but not hot. He stood on the pier, wearing a cardigan and long pants, and watched me enter the water. “Aren’t you cold?” he asked, and it seemed a silly question. It was summer, the sun was out, and the temperatures were maybe in the low 80s. How could he be cold?

All winter long, my father, who had been skinny all his life, wore long johns—inside the apartment he shared with my mother, and even with the thermostat set at 70. When my siblings and I visited, we would complain about how hot it was and ask if we could turn down the heat or open some windows, while we rolled our eyes at each other.

In my youthful arrogance, I must have thought my parents were coddling themselves. Maybe if they got out more or experienced the real cold outside, they would see that their apartment was too warm. I thought this, even though I knew my dad loved to walk, that he exercised every day even if it was just circling the interior of the retirement facility in winter.

And now I’m old, and I feel the cold more intensely, wrapping myself in my fleece robe once it gets dark. On a day when it’s 40 degrees outside, I’m wearing a parka, hat and gloves, while younger people are out in shorts and tank tops. I suspect they are sneering at my bundled-up outfit, while they’re running loose and free. And I look at them in amazement, as my dad once looked at me, and think, “What’s wrong with them? How can they not be cold?”

Not a Slave to Fashion

I remember clearly the first time I chose function over fashion. I was in my 50s, ready to go for a walk on a cold day, and I had a choice between a hat that was fashionable and less warm, and one that was warmer but made me look like an old lady. I went for warmth.

I never cared that much how I looked, although for most of my life I followed the current fashion trends. In high school and college, I dressed in mini-skirts and platform heels, and when the hippie era came along, I wore bell-bottom pants and peasant blouses. In my working years, my attire was pant suits and dress shoes.

But once I stopped working in an office and could stay home, I was only too happy to slip into comfortable slacks and loose shirts. From there it was down the slippery slope to pants with elastic waist bands—ideal for an aging body beginning to sag. I haven’t yet gone as far as my onetime elderly neighbor, who in warm weather wore muumuus—those loose dresses that hide a multitude of body issues—but I can see the attraction.

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Now I’m Part of History

Rocky Flats encirclement, 1983

I guess it’s inevitable that after living 70 years you become part of history, especially in this swiftly changing culture. Because I’ve lived more than 50 of those years in the same place—Boulder, Colorado—I’ve seen a lot of transformations. Yet I was still surprised a few years ago when the local oral history project wanted to interview me about the 1970s—the fabled time of anti-war protests, hippies, drugs and (apparently) wild sex. At the time Boulder proudly wore the slogan, “where the hip come to trip.”

Yet, it didn’t seem that long ago that I interviewed an older woman for the same history project, but, I realized, it was 40 years ago, and the Boulder native described life in the 1930s and 1940s in what was then a sleepy college town. I thought history belonged to my parents’ generation, who were born in the Depression years and lived through World War II. It hadn’t occurred to me that the 1970s, when I came of age, eventually would be considered an historic era, nor that I would ever get old enough to be an authority on that history.

But I kept getting reminders. Last year my 16-year-old nephew wanted to interview me for his “counterculture” class. I was happy to oblige, because I wanted to convey to him the turbulence of those times: the anti-war protests on campus; female staffers at the university striking for free child care; how men started wearing their hair long and women gave up girdles and high heels to wear long, loose skirts; and how marijuana was everywhere.

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My Story: OK, Boomer, Time to Step Up

There’s been a lot of discussion about “OK, Boomer,” which can be read as a cynical, condescending brush-off of older people and their views. A younger generation would like to blame us for all the ills of the world. Why didn’t we do something about climate change when there was still time to alter its course? And while younger people are struggling to pay off college debts and find affordable housing, the older generation ostensibly lives in comfort, having paid off mortgages a long time ago and carrying no college debt.

The truth, of course, is more complicated, as many seniors go into retirement with little savings and big medical bills. Also, when we were younger, many baby boomers were active politically: demonstrating against the war, starting environmental groups and recycling programs, joining civil rights protests and agitating for equal pay. It’s true that in the olden days we lived in a world of apparent abundance (cheap housing and fuel, for example) that we took for granted. We could have—and should have—done more to make this world a better place, but who knew things would turn out so badly?

I can understand young people’s resentments, yet I think the world, which grows more polarized each day, needs us elders. Not because we’re wiser than other generations, but because, by the time we reach old age, most of us have gotten rid of our egos. Those of us who are no longer in the work world don’t have to prove ourselves anymore or defend our reputations. At our age, when we’ve lost so much—friends, spouses, good health and/or careers—we know that human relationships are what’s left, what gives meaning to our lives. If we’ve gained any wisdom at all through our long lives, it’s how to be a decent human being.

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Stories of Resilience: Frank

A friend and I were touring a sculpture park when I first saw the elderly man walking slowly with a cane. As we approached, he made a joke about he’d let us pass him, because he probably couldn’t go as fast as we could.

I didn’t have time to get his name, so I’ll call him Frank, because that was my Czech grandfather’s name, and the man I met in the park told me, in the short conversation we had, that he was originally from Prague. He had the same twinkle in his eye as my grandfather, as if he wanted to share with everyone his happiness at being alive.

I’m guessing he was in his 90s, because he told us that he had grown up in a tumultuous time: war and invasions from neighboring countries (Germany and then Russia), and that he could hardly believe he was here, at his age, not just alive but out walking on this sunny winter day in Colorado.

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My Story: Learning a New Language

I’m not talking about trying to keep my mind sharp—and avoid dementia—by learning Chinese. I tried that once, and it didn’t work.

But every day, it seems, I encounter new words or phrases that are unfamiliar. I spent my life working as a writer and editor and thought I knew language better than most people. I know the difference between reign and rein, between palate and palette. But then I encountered “woke,” “meme,” “influencer” and other words that weren’t in my vocabulary.

Because these words have become omnipresent in this culture, I’ve learned what they mean, although I don’t understand how “woke” is different from someone becoming “awakened” to the injustices in our society. I have an idea what “meme” means, although I couldn’t give you a thorough definition, only an example: the phrase, “OK, Boomer,” has become a meme, and it’s not a nice thing to say about baby boomers.

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Stories of Resilience: David

David celebrated his 80th birthday by taking a 2-mile hike alone in the mountains and then hitched a ride back to his car. He had no trouble finding someone who would give him a lift. When he was in his 70s, he had decided to adopt an attitude of being open to everyone he encountered.  It was part of his Buddhist philosophy of believing in his fellow human beings’ basic goodness. When we hiked together, I was always surprised how oncoming hikers would smile broadly at us, because it rarely happened when I hiked alone. But some goodness emanated from David, and people responded in kind.

I met David in his late 70s, when he started a network of meditation study groups here in Boulder. He attended weekly spiritual lectures by well-known teachers but saw the need for more interaction among spiritual practitioners. When I look back at his life, I can see the pattern of wanting to help others and bring people together.

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My Story: Don’t Call Me Sweetie

In the space of one week, three store clerks called me “sweetie” or “sweetheart.” As in “What can I get you, sweetheart?” or, in the case of the young hair stylist, “How do you like your hair cut, sweetie?”

My initial reaction was ambivalent, but mostly horrified. “Sweetheart” is an affectionate term and one that, when I was younger, I enjoyed hearing from waitresses in rural towns while driving through Nebraska. But in hip Boulder, that’s not the norm. Was I emanating some kind of helpless vibe? Was it the broad-brimmed embroidered hat that perhaps seemed old-fashioned, that framed my face to look endearing (not an adjective most people would apply to me), especially now that I’m wearing glasses?

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We Need to Talk

What most of us have learned about aging is by watching our parents go through the process.  Yet our generation (most specifically, the baby boomers) faces different challenges than our parents. Just as we’re slowing down, the world is speeding up. Just as our brains are slower to learn new things, technology requires us to grasp new processes that are essential to our daily lives. While our aging bodies and minds might require more help, the world seems to be less caring than the one in which we grew up.

We’re in new territory, especially for the generation that, in our 20s, sang along to The Who’s “I hope I die before I get old.” My aim in starting Aging Journal is to share stories about what it feels like to grow old in a culture that doesn’t belong to us anymore and doesn’t especially want us around.

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