To the Young People on the Trail

When you see me and my friend coming up the narrow mountain trail, most of you put on your masks. If I ask, sometimes telling you that my friend has asthma, you willingly oblige or cover your face with your T-shirt, or even step off the trail to let us by. And then there’s the few who are totally oblivious.

I appreciate that most of you are more than willing to show respect to us, two women in our 70s. But I wonder if you’re asking each other: If she’s so worried, why is she on the trail? Why doesn’t she stay home and do what seniors are supposed to do: play cards, watch TV, knit, bake cookies, talk to your grandchildren on the phone or cuddle with your cat? I know there’s some resentment because my 18-year-old nephew confirmed that he knows teens who run on the trails, three or four abreast, without masks, carrying the defiant attitude that older people shouldn’t be out.

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History Repeats Itself

It feels like 1968 all over again: a divisive president calling for law and order, mayhem in the streets, a divided society and distrust of the police, who we referred to as “pigs” back in the ’60s and ’70s—and for good reason.

In 1968, I remember watching with my father the Democratic convention. on TV. It was held in Chicago, where the police force viciously attacked mostly peaceful demonstrators in the streets outside the downtown convention hall, about 25 miles south of where we lived. While I watched with increasing horror as the police clubbed protesters, my dad was on the opposite political side, shouting “Get ‘em,” and “knock ’em down.”

There was a generational divide then that I don’t think exists now: between parents baffled and disgusted by their teen and young adult children who were letting their hair grow long, smoking pot, engaging in sex before marriage, burning the flag and rebelling against a country that our fathers fought for in World War II.

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Who Lives? Who Dies?

At a time when our resources, especially medical, are being stretched thin, everyone from politicians to health care workers have raised the issue of who lives and who dies in this pandemic. It’s a choice doctors and nurses are having to make every day in hospitals that are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients and where ventilators and other medical resources are scarce. Some politicians have even suggested that the cost of a few elderly people dying is less than halting our whole economy. Younger people have referred to the pandemic as the “boomer remover.”

Although shocking, it raises the question: is a young person’s life more valuable than an older person’s? In strictly biological terms, the answer is yes, because younger people are able to perpetuate our species; they can have children and raise families and are able to contribute to the economy. Those of us who are retired, even if we volunteer, are taking more than we’re giving: living off the fruit of our life-long labors.

And yet there’s a cultural value to the accrued wisdom of older people. In more traditional societies, it was the elders who carried with them the vast knowledge of survival: where to find food and shelter and how to keep peace and when to make war. In the animal kingdom,  elephant herds are often led by the older matriarch, the one that knows, for example, where to find watering holes when the land is dry.

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