Ageism or Ageless?

“I used to think old age was catching.” – Someone I Know

Reading two articles this morning on ageism got me thinking. Have I been ageist? Have I been on the receiving end of ageism?

As a kid, young adult, I didn’t seek out old people, but I didn’t avoid them either. I adored my Scottish grandparents. My grandfather was the life of many parties he threw, singing, playing the piano, banjo, ukulele. My grandmother was sometimes crabby and moody (menopause, my mother speculated), but she more than made up for it with generous piano lessons and lunch treats when my sister and I stopped in from our school just down the street.

My grandparents, Peggy and Jim Hutchison, visiting my husband and me in San Francisco. When I complained about being too cold all the time (even though we all came from Montreal), my grandmother gave me this Balenciaga cocoon coat off her back.
My grandparents, Peggy and Jim Hutchison, visiting my husband and me in San Francisco. When I complained about being too cold all the time (even though we all came from Montreal), my grandmother gave me this Balenciaga cocoon coat off her back.

 

It was a neighborhood where young and old walked around, said hello, gathered together in back yards, if in separate corners.

One of my girlfriend’s grandmother, French Canadian, worked as an undercover detective for Eaton’s Department store in downtown Montreal. She was plain clothed, but her special area was luxury fur coats. My friends and I were Nancy Drew fans, so we loved hearing this plump grandmother tell stories of how she apprehended suspects stuffing furs into bloomers and bags.

When my parents moved to a beach city in L.A., they rented the top floor of an old Spanish duplex on an alley, or “Place” as it was called. I often walked past an old lady who sat in her tiny patio on the alley. She waited for us kids so she could talk and carefully count out change. Would we please bring her back a roll of Reeds cinnamon candy? I must have told her I had taken piano lessons (left behind with my grandmother’s piano), because she gave me and old music book. Insisted I have it. Even though I didn’t take piano lessons again for 40 years, I held onto that tattered and yellowed book until recently.

Only one of my mother’s friends struck me as old, someone to avoid. She was conservative and rigid. Her husband left her. I dreaded her visits and felt guilty because she was nice to me – always wanted to know what I was doing, but somehow it felt like an intrusion, like an invasion from another planet inhabited by shriveled spirits.

I got along well with my in-laws, even after their son and I divorced. They were active and actively  involved grandparents to my two sons. I especially enjoyed an older friend of theirs, a widow pushing 80, who joined us every Christmas Eve for the traditional Swedish smorgasbord. She was fun to talk with, full of curiosity and humor. One Christmas she was not there. Where is Alice? I asked my mother-in-law. “Oh, she met a man in her square-dancing club and got married!”

Now that Alice, my mother-in-law and mother are all gone, I would give almost anything to have them back in my life, if only for an afternoon. And I wouldn’t care how slowly they walked or how they drove. (My mother-in-law drove with both feet on the gas pedal and my mother with both feet on the brakes, which she pushed down every 30 seconds.)

As for being seen as “too old,” I know it has affected me, but not as much as it has others.

I have always looked younger than my age and had friends (and boyfriends) of all ages, including a husband seven years younger.

I entered the work world in my late twenties, after six years as a housewife and part-time student. In the advertising world, I worked with those 10-20 years older and those 10 years younger.

I finished my degree in print journalism at 41 and worked with crusty old editors and fresh-from-college, still-living-with-parents young reporters. What counted was how hard we worked, not how old we were, although there were a couple of exceptions. One publisher who didn’t like me gave my editing job to an older man from the sales department. Another older publisher told me he didn’t like women over 42. Why that exact cut-off age, I never knew, but since I was 43, I suspected I was on borrowed time with him. Sure enough, when I asked him not to grope the younger reporters, he fired me and gave my job to a 28-year-old newly divorced woman with no experience (except living off men).

Then, later in my 40s, I fell into technical writing, as did many others tired of poverty wages or booted out of banking or teaching. Again, I worked with writers and engineers of all ages. It helped that my father and step-father were both engineers and my older son was in college studying to become a software engineer. We all learned together as desktop publishing and the Internet took off. Yes, I occasionally encountered arrogance from the engineers, both young and old. It wasn’t based so much on ageism or sexism as it was on elitism. One old engineer accused me of being “a schoolmarm with a red pencil.” But he didn’t say old schoolmarm.

If some of the young engineers thought I was too old, they didn’t show it to me directly. I once overheard a group of them calling my boss “an old fart” – and he was 15 years younger than I.

My Qualcomm manager (who had a hostile attitude toward the engineers) assured us writers and editors that all the engineers thought we were “old biddies” (even the guys).

There were some job interviews where I knew I wasn’t going to get the job. Game developers, for example, with blue hair and eyebrow rings. Thirty to forty-year-old fast tracking, multi taskers who were more intimidated than impressed with my experience, and unwilling to pay for it. Fortunately I was usually able to fit in somewhere, even if it took a few weeks. I realize not everyone, especially older, well-paid engineers, are as lucky. It is a real problem. Qualcomm is a progressive company, but relies on young engineers with work visas from Korea, China and India, paying them much less than they would American engineers.

I left Qualcomm to become a freelancer and encountered this ageist/Scrooge mentality with some clients. Why pay an experienced writer when we can hire: 1) a free intern, 2) a part-time family friend, or 3) a twit who likes to tweet.

My newspaper articles didn’t pay well either, but that has more do with the struggling nature of print journalism today than my age. For two years I edited the California Hemlock News (now Compassion & Choices), working with right-to-die activists in their 70s and 80s.

Now I’m floating around in the online world, ageless and weightless. Some of the kids I send marketing copy to have no idea how old I am. When I mentioned to one that I used to work on the same street as her company, she said, oh my father worked there 15 years ago and brought me in, take your daughter to work day. She was eight.Oddball

I’m exploring the blogosphere and literary journal world – bumping into many young writers, mommy and fashion bloggers, travelers, MFA students. Some are sounding off like they invented feminism or motherhood or sex or depression. A lot of discombobulated heads and ideas. Am I being ageist now? Perhaps. Maybe I would have benefitted from having these online friends when my kids were young, who knows. Maybe I’ll luck out and connect with a few like myself. By definition, we oddballs defy categories, including age.

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Success and Other Magic Formulas

“Success Kit. Your second chance in life just arrived.”

I was so excited when I saw this in my email. At last! Instructions on how to live.Success Kit It’s not too late! No more tedious decisions for me. The answers are all here in this handy kit.

Reading further, I see the sender is at moola.com. Oh, okay. That kind of success. Making money.

I hit Delete. Not that I’m against making money. I like being able to support a roof over my head, wheels and shoes on the ground, the occasional flight to distant destinations. I have figured out a way, by trial and error and about 25 jobs, how to make enough money using my wits and writing ability. I don’t need a magic formula, which usually involves the slippery, hard slope of a pyramid plus multi-level slave labor.

I like to think of my work as making a living and money is just a part of it. There is so much more, from enjoying the small moments to undertaking huge new challenges, taking care of myself and others, discovering each day where I need to do more, or less.

Bikini Body  Sometimes this is not easy. My work changes daily and thus so does my free time for my own writing and other interests. I have to be flexible and grab moments while I can. And sometimes I admit I am tired. Tired of thinking and planning. Thus the appeal of instant answers, available at the click of a mouse. Some examples:

The seven behaviors of successful people.

How to be happy in five easy steps.

How to meet the man/woman of your dreams, not nightmares.

The six foods you must eat to avoid having belly fat. Or is it the six foods you must avoid?

Write a bestseller in 21 days.

The Plan of a Lifetime. Lose 20 pounds, zap up your sex life and make Alzheimer’s a distant memory.

Look 20 years younger with this simple ingredient from your kitchen.

As for the life of the spirits:

Make your own wine and prevent heart disease.

Or (and I am not making this up):

Hire a Certified Soul Memory Discovery Facilitator.

Or sign up for online therapy – www.prettypaddedroom.com/

My mouse clicks don’t lead to easy answers. Maybe there’s a mental click if someone else’s success kit sparks an idea. But the brain and heart and gut must engage, chew, digest and even spit out if necessary. There are many, many chances in life, not just one or two. At some point, it’s okay to send these advice messages to the junk mail folder and rely on our own inner Inbox.Get RichLook Younger

 

1, 2, 3 … In or Out

In sorting through my files recently, I came across a chart I created on one of my jobs. It was a rating system to help me evaluate my job each day and then decide after a trial period, say a few weeks, whether I should stay or go.Exit

These were the games I played with myself while staring at grey cubicle or office walls, or at technical manuals that needed continual revising. Not that I hated the work. It could be satisfying, but frequently the corporate hierarchy found ways to quash and squash my enjoyment. And they didn’t hesitate to rate us. Just like we were first graders, they put us in boxes from one to five, never to climb out. (1 = incompetent and soon to be fired; 2 = lazy ass goof off; 3 = average; 4 = workaholic; 5 = unobtainable super star.)

So my way of making corporate life more interesting and to rebel a little was to rate them. Every day, on my chart, I would assign a value from one (the lowest) to ten (the highest) in several categories, including physical, emotional and intellectual. What was my comfort level in each of these areas? My ratings were:

1 = toxic waste dump

2 = graveyard

3 = dentist’s waiting room

4 = Dept. Motor Vehicles line

5 = walking down sidewalk

6 = sitting in restaurant alone

7 = dinner with friends

8 = reading a good book

9 = planning a trip to Hawaii

10 = beach on Maui

I don’t remember now the exact job where I started this or the outcome, but most likely it was not rated high up there with vacations. If there was any vacation, it was often a forced one.

One WayMost of my jobs lasted less than a year and ended in layoffs or in quick leaps out the door if the situation was really unbearable. One exception was my technical writing position at Xerox, which lasted six years. However, they moved and reorganized us four times while I was there, so it really was like four different jobs.

Except that the rating system never changed. Our personnel files followed us wherever we landed within the company. I’d walk in to meet a new manager and there he or she would be holding my file. She might as well have said, “Hello Number Three.”

Since I didn’t want to work 60 to 80 hours a week, I gave up any aspirations to climb the ladder to Box Number Four and just did the best job I could every day. Some bosses only saw a Number Three, but one or two exceptions saw beyond the labels and expressed appreciation. One such boss loved to take us on team building outings (sailing, baseball games, picnics with Pictionary) that were genuinely fun. Those days came closer to “lying on a beach.” And the days following, back in the cubicle, were less dreary too. That is, until another boss arrived, the lunatic from the dark, dark toxic depths of the underworld.

Glorious Mornings – and Those Less So

 

Morning GloryBy glorious morning, I don’t mean waking up and rising to a heavenly chorus. Oh, some mornings I do hear a chorus of cat cacophony, depending on how my cats feel. They can be moody and unpredictable, like human teenagers, sometimes wailing at 3 a.m. and other times sleeping all day.

No, I mean opening my eyes feeling reasonably good and well-rested, enjoying coffee and waking up slowly by writing in my journal, getting dressed, walking to yoga, smelling the fresh air. A comfortable routine, hovering between dallying and hurrying. A pleasant pace.

I don’t like to hurry, but I especially don’t like to hurry in the mornings. There were too many harried mornings I had to endure as a single mother, working full-time, getting my sons ready, hoping there would be no last-minute disaster, such as the fish aquarium knocked over or Charlie the hamster expiring (he was old, we didn’t knock over his cage).

We would head out the door, climb in the car (before the days of strapping them into car seats or I never would have made it!) and head up the hill to my sister-in-law’s house. She watched them before and after school. Then I would swing back around to the freeway and go to work near downtown San Diego.

One morning, feeling very satisfied, I arrived early at work. As I drove up, I heard voices from the back seat: “Where are we, mommy?” Their little blond heads appeared in my rear view mirror. I had forgotten to drop them off! Fortunately, my boss was understanding. She had two young sons of her own.

Then there was the boyfriend who had a habit of going outside on a leisurely Saturday or Sunday morning, even if we were on vacation, then rushing back in saying we were late – we had FIVE minutes to make this or that, the breakfast buffet, the taxi, etc. For the record, it does not take me long to get dressed or put on makeup. But to grab clothes and stuff before I can put in my contact lenses and to be barked out the door is not my idea of fun. The boyfriend didn’t last long.

My worst nightmares have always been the kind where I’m trying to do something in a hurry or I’ll be left behind. I still vividly remember one I had as a kid. My mom, dad, sister and I were going on vacation. My job was to open piles of cat food cans while my family waited in the car. I was told I had just a few minutes and if I didn’t finish in time, they were going to leave without me. I can still feel the panic and fear in my gut and throat as I moved my little hands as fast as I could around the clumsy can opener.

At some point during my full-time working years, I realized that if I got up an hour earlier, I could do all I wanted to do – eat, walk, write and still get to work early. My jobs in the hi-tech industry were often hectic, so this gave me a head start to calmer days. I could think, plan, get a few projects underway before distractions rushed in.

Morning Glory2Now, working at home, I still get up early. I love the dark quiet and then the sounds creeping in, a bird, a whoosh of a car, branches scratching against the window, sprinkler squeaking and spraying across the lawn. Then there is light around the edges of the curtains. A fed cat at my feet. Hot, rich coffee, the mug warm in my hands. My pen on the coffee table. Fresh blank pages waiting for first thoughts on a new day.

A glorious morning.