Ageism is rising — and toxic!

old, weathered…now what?

By Caitlin Kelly

A friend of ours, Tanzina Vega, who used to work with my husband at The New York Times, until last week hosted an NPR radio talk show every day, The Takeaway.

She, like me, is fascinated by/horrified by/wants to end ageism — the persistent myth that older people are useless (and, sometimes younger ones, too.)

She recently did a show on this, and here is the link. It’s 32:43 and worth every minute, especially the powerful reader comment at the very end.

And Tanzina is only in her mid-40s.

Here’s this story by Stacy Morrison.

An excerpt:

Ageism as it relates to women is very much an extension of sexism, an -ism women have been living with their whole lives. And recent research shows that ageism may be the more disruptive force. According to a survey conducted by co-working community The Riveter, 58% of women say their identities or physical attributes impact their experiences at work—and age was the top factor (25%), garnering many more votes than being female (17%).

And no wonder: “As soon as women show visible signs of aging, they are actually perceived as being less competent, having less value,” says executive coach and author Bonnie Marcus, author of Not Done Yet!

Social activist Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, captures the issue more succinctly: “Women are never the right age.” Applewhite points out that when women are young in the workplace, they are considered lightweights and are oversexualized; then when women reach prime childbearing years, they are diminished if they become mothers, earning less and being given fewer promotions or opportunities to thrive at work. “And then pretty soon after that,” Applewhite says, “when you’re starting to fall away from this grotesque, obscene obsession with extreme youth as being the ideal for women, you are now less attractive as a woman. So you then become less attractive as an employee, even though that is what disqualified you when you were younger and prettier.”

There is no punishment for age discrimination, although it’s illegal.

Some job ads insist on you revealing your year of college or university graduation — like I’m going to share that!? Blatant age discrimination right there…and who does anything about it?

No one!

I lost my last staff job at the age of 50, earning a decent (for journalism) $80,000 a year at a major New York newspaper. I applied for dozens of jobs immediately, almost all of them in communications roles at non-profits — given my global life experience and speaking three languages, I thought I might bring some good transferable skills.

Not a word in reply.

I’ve applied for a few staff roles in journalism in recent years, but it’s really a waste of my time. Everyone over the age of 40 is deemed doddering, useless and completely unable to function in a digital environment.

So when I was interviewed recently, for a podcast (link here) and for a story, I never mentioned my age.

It’s no one’s business!

People here have a good idea how old I am, and my close-up photos here on my Welcome and About pages are obviously not of someone younger than 40!

But I admit to being flattered when — as an 86-year-old neighbor told me last week — I don’t look my age either.

Beyond moral, ethical and legal reasons –oh, we need more?! — denying older workers access to (good) jobs with benefits and paid sick days and paid vacation (at best) means shoving more of them into decades of crappy, part-time work at low wages, even as their minds and bodies are ready for rest.

In the United States, unless you are married to someone with heavily subsidized health insurance, you can be paying a fortune for health insurance — until you reach 65 and get into Medicare, government-paid healthcare that still requires payment for all sorts of things!

One friend, a man in his late 50s with a partner who has faced multiple cancer surgeries, is paying $2,600 a month for theirs.

This is a massive and unfair cost burden, which is why there are increasing calls for the age of Medicare access to be lowered.

So here’s what life over 40 or 50 or 60 looks like, at worst, and especially for women:

— lower Social Security payments for women who stopped work to raise children and/or be a caregiver

— lower SS payments for women, who need it most because we live longer, because we stopped making money a decade or more before we planned to, when we should have been at the peak of our earning power

— no access to well-paid staff jobs with benefits

— no access, through a staff job, to a steady, reliable income

— intellectual stagnation

— boredom

— loneliness

— isolation

— depression

— poverty

I never had children — so I have no one (should I outlive my husband) to help me financially and physically in older age. I urge everyone, all the time, to make the most money available within their industry, and to save as much as possible, which does mean a lot of self-discipline and denial, for all but the wealthy.

Because if you can’t get a job, where is your money going to come from?

Boundaries matter

By Caitlin Kelly

For some people, including me, setting and keeping tight boundaries around our time, energy, bodies, and psyche presents a real challenge.

I grew up in a bossy, often angry family that rarely, if ever, asked: “How do you feel?”

It wasn’t deemed relevant. Or I guess they assumed I’d speak up, which I rarely did.

I left my mother’s care at 14 when she was suffering from mental illness and not doing a great job with it. The stress was too much for me.

So I did set a boundary and a major one, early. But every time I hear the Cat Stevens song, Father and Son, it wrings my heart — the father pleading, “Stay, stay” and the son replying “I have to go.”

Sometimes you just do.

But it also matters when it comes to work.

Americans – with the worst/cheapest/nastiest labor policies possible — are used to working like dogs, not taking vacations or sick days, working in “at will” states where you can be legally fired for no reason at all.

So setting boundaries is just very difficult in a culture that expects us to be on and eagerly available pretty much all the time.

Last week, I walked away from a writing assignment worth $1,250 with a new-to-me editor at a major website.

I’m not thrilled about this. I have done this three times in my career, when the stress outweighed the income.

That’s a significant loss of income for us and was only possible because we have savings.

It’s not a habit of mine to bail on work!

But nor is it a habit to work with editors or others who are unpleasant or disrespectful.

I could have stayed.

I could have kept working on this story.

These days, decades into my career, I make my mental health the priority.

Setting and keeping a boundary can mean changing the dynamics of a relationship, or ending it entirely.

It comes at a cost, and has consequences, sometimes those we don’t expect or can’t foresee.

But who counts more?

Saying goodbye to a beloved MD

By Caitlin Kelly

She is closing her practice at my suburban small hospital and headed back to the West Coast, from where she was lured to run multiple programs here.

I’m devastated.

She’s my breast surgeon and, as anyone who’s faced that cancer knows, there are few physician relationships as intimate and frightening.

From the minute we met, I liked her a lot.

My first words (surprise!) were: “No disrespect, but please don’t ever bullshit me.” And I brought my husband Jose to most appointments with me as well.

She’s a bit younger than I am, and such a badass!

Her fashion sense is something else — Frye boots, pleated skirts, sometimes a pastel shift.

And she always wears funky socks in the OR with her scrubs.

The day of my surgery, July 6, 2018 (a lumpectomy), she arrived with her team, one of whom was a Glamazon with fabulous braids and manicure. Damn!

She reminded me she was wearing her lucky monkey socks — and even a monkey band-aid on her shin.

I know, I know, some patients would never ever want to be joked with pre-op. But she knew me enough to know that a good laugh was the best medicine for me then.

I never doubted that her sense of humor could in any way diminish her skills.

As someone who jokes a lot, I know that only a truly confident woman feels safe enough to be that publicly playful.

Our relationship hs been an unusual one in that we would also have quick personal conversations at every meeting and I got to know her a bit. She read and much admired my writing.

Imagine a physician as a friend.

Now she’s moving on and I am truly bereft.

But so lucky and grateful to have had what truly has been her medical care.

Feeling blah? Many of us are

By Caitlin Kelly

This recent New York Times piece summed it up well:

the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.

In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless.

Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

Maybe like some of you, I’ve been a bit shocked — before reading this story — at how little I have felt the normal drive to work and work and work.

It isn’t just about income, as Grant says:

The pandemic was a big loss. To transcend languishing, try starting with small wins, like the tiny triumph of figuring out a whodunit or the rush of playing a seven-letter word. One of the clearest paths to flow is a just-manageable difficulty: a challenge that stretches your skills and heightens your resolve. That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you — an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step toward rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you’ve missed during all these months.

We are privileged to not have the burdens of massive debt or kids or grand-kids or parents to support. We have savings. A recent lucrative and easy assignment out of the blue paid enough, (rare but lovely!) I could coast for even a few months.

And so I have been.

I’ve been focused instead on some work in our apartment, with managing a sudden and unexpected arrival of my late mother’s belongings and art from British Columbia, with trying to sell a book proposal seven agents have already rejected, (and managing my battered ego as I try to decide whether to just give up or not), and with slowly healing a sprained wrist and knee from a bad fall March 12.

Plus a lot of medical tests and for now, I’m fine.

My small win?

I’ve become addicted to the NYT Spelling Bee, an online daily challenge making words using some or all of that day’s seven letters. Some days are a lot easier than others — a recent one had 66 words! Whew.

Jose and I recently joined a new gym and it’s huge and spotless and welcoming and I am re-starting my routines, with a set of quite challenging weight exercises set for me by a trainer.

BUT….Here’s a really interesting different POV from artist and author Austin Kleon, arguing we’re dormant instead:

I feel very lucky to be married to a gardener, because gardening gives us rich metaphors for creative work that we don’t get from our business-focused productivity-obsessed culture. (I dedicated the last chapter of Keep Going, “Plant Your Garden,” to seasons and cyclical time.)

Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova posted a lovely meditation on a passage from Olivia Laing’s essay about Derek Jarman from her book, Funny Weather:

Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades.

Gardeners not only develop a different sense of time, they develop the ancient wisdom of knowing when to do things:

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…

a collection of Google Image Search results for dormant plants

It seems to me that the reason that so many of us feel like we’re languishing is that we are trying to flourish in terrible conditions. It is spring outside — or the “unlocking” season — but it is still “Winter in America,” and, as any gardener knows, if you try to wake a plant out of dormancy too soon, it will wither, and maybe die.

Are you languishing?

Dormant?

Maybe….thriving?

Making peace with your body

Luckily, this 20 year-old anorak still fits

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story — now almost two years old — by one of my favorite fellow full-time freelance writers, AC Shilton, about how she finally came to terms with her body:

Six months ago, [in the summer of 2018,] my husband, Chris, and I bought a 46-acre farm in northeast Tennessee. Though we’re equal partners in it, the farm was my idea, and I’m the primary manager.

The impetus to buy the farm grew out of a career and identity crisis I was having. I was feeling increasingly insecure about the stability of my chosen profession—journalism. I’ve ducked and woven my way through a freelance writing career, bringing home just enough money to drive an 18-year-old truck and (sometimes) have health insurance. At the same time, I’d completely burned out on endurance sports, which I’d been doing throughout my teens and twenties. Training felt like a chore, and I was seeking a new way to use my body that didn’t require thousands of dollars in gear and entry fees.

I have another full time freelance friend in Tennessee — a state I have yet to visit — who’s also struggling with body issues at the moment.

But AC is in her late 30s and my other friend in her late 20s.

I am decades older and, past menopause, when your metabolism slows so far down it basically says fuck you.

I am worn out battling my body.

Injuries, weight gain, metabolic issues.

It feels overwhelming.

I gained 20 pounds in the year 2003 when my late mother (who survived it) was found to have a huge brain tumor (I went to Vancouver for her surgery) and I was traveling the United States researching my first book. The last thing I had time, energy or money for was fussing about calories or diligently working out to burn them off.

I gained another 25 pounds over the ensuing nine years before my left hip was replaced, and felt terrible shame at the appalling number on the scale — even though that’s about three added pounds every 12 months.

I am not someone who eats fast food or junk food or huge portions or cheesecake and cookies and ice cream and candy and drinks a lot of liquor or never works out. Dammit!

I do eat some carbs and I have dessert maybe two or three times a week. I drink alcohol maybe twice a week, a small glass of wine.

So this has been a matter of intense shame and frustration for me.

I started intermittent fasting (eat normally for 8 hours and fast for 16) daily since November 1, 2020.

I have lost five pounds.

On one hand, I am thrilled — as this is the first time in 20 years I have LOST weight at all, and not gained even more.

On the other hand, I want to scream with frustration when a friend my age loses a pound a week doing the same things.

OH NO — CARBS!!!!!!!

I have two friends who are my weight loss role models, a man who shed 30 pounds in year of IF (if my progress continues, I will lose half of that) and a woman who shed 40 pounds in two years.

I don’t need it to happen fast.

But it’s hard to stay motivated and every single person I speak to — my GP, an exercise specialist, two nutritionists — offers something different. Each, of course, costs money.

I was never someone with “body issues” — I went from a size 10 to a 12 when I left Toronto at the age of 30 and moved to Montreal. It proved much more stressful than I had imagined.

And I’ve always been athletic: skiing, skating, cycling, walking, golf, swimming, etc. But arthritis is a problem and my crappy knees have impeded me from some activities I love — like playing softball with my team of 20 years. So my anger is compounded by loneliness, as almost all my exercise activities now are done alone.

I do know walking is GREAT exercise…I don’t enjoy doing it alone.

My late mother and I…maybe 20 years ago?

In my mid 30s I took up saber fencing and was nationally ranked in it for four years. I loved it.

I miss the teamwork.

I miss having a coach — ours was a two-time recent Olympian.

I’ve since been a size 12, but not in recent years. I do hope to get back to it. I have no wish to be a size 10 or 8. I doubt my body can even do it.

I am not asking for any advice here.

Please do not give me any diet advice!

The rest, as always, is all up to me.

Who are you turning to?

Jose, 2020, photographing the judging of the Pulitzer Prizes, Columbia University, New York

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m really lucky.

In a pandemic dragging into its second year, and with no real end in sight, I’ve still been able to turn to trusted friends, some opf whom are still in great shape, some not so much, to share our thoughts and fears.

One is a delighted first-time grandmother. One struggles with a lot of physical pain. One is single and lives alone and is just very lonely. One recently sold her home and moved into Manhattan, savoring city life.

My husband — we met 21 years ago next month at a midtown Manhattan French bistro for our first date — has been amazing. But I realize he’s not a Swiss Army knife, capable of meeting my every emotional and intellectual need.

I fear we’re going to burn ourselves out if we try to “soldier on” alone.

I fear we’ll burn out our spouses and partners who are by now also feeling claustrophobic and, in a very snowy cold winter, are also succumbing to cabin fever — no cafes or gyms or libraries or restaurants or pals’ homes to flee to.

I had a two-hour conversation last night, so gratefully, with a friend in California who is a long-time pro in the book publishing industry. The latest agent for my book proposal, of course, fell through, and she was both tough and loving in what she suggested should be my next steps.

Tough and loving is pretty much my MO as well.

Who are you turning to these days for comfort and joy?

Who’s turning to you?

A personal update

By Caitlin Kelly

Like many of you, I’m pooped!

We’re coming up on a year of the pandemic and I can’t see getting access to a vaccination for months — even as Jose and I newly qualify.

I’ve been trying for months to find an agent who wants to represent my book proposal. I’m extremely frustrated at how slow this process is and how it feels like begging for attention — it is — even after having already sold and published two books with major publishers.

The fantasy is that agents are cool, smart, helpful.

Some are.

Some are just…really rude. Like the one I was referred to a few years ago, at a fancy New York City agency. I described the book I hoped to produce and he warned me not to be…shrill. For Christ’s sake.

Then the one this year, also referred by a friend, who hadn’t even bothered to look at my work or realize I had already published twice before.

The lack of respect is appalling, fed by the thousands and thousands of people desperate for a book deal. It’s not pretty.

There are a few ways to find an agent. If you have friends who write in your genre, and are generous, several will offer you a referral to theirs, who may or may not want your book or not be a fit. Or you go find books similar to yours and see who the agent was the author thanked and try them. Or…cold pitch strangers.

None of which is quick or easy or fun.

I’ve also been facing a battery of medical tests to determine why my blood has excess iron. Turns out I have a genetic mutation that causes it but still have to have an MRI of my liver to make sure there isn’t another reason as well. The solution to the former is 16th century — blood-letting!

And I have been trying and trying and trying to lose weight, starting with intermittent fasting November 1. I see my GP Feb. 23 and will see what progress, if any, this has made for my health.

Add to this pile ‘o stress the loss or fading of several friendships.

I know COVID has affected many people, if not their health, their attention span or ability to spare time for others. But it’s hard to go through this much stuff all at once without people to talk to, so I’ve been over-burdening my husband. I very rarely cry, but it’s been a time of tears here recently.

Sheer frustration!

And none of this, objectively, is terrible.

No one but me cares if I sell this damn book

Only my GP cares if I lose weight.

The liver issue won’t require surgery.

And we are very lucky to have work and savings and no one else dependent on us, as so many are.

I really really miss travel!

But I’m cooked.

Only after writing it all down, getting it out of my head, did I realize that trying to manage three damn difficult things at the same time — each of which is slow as hell and anxiety-producing and the successful outcome of which is, to some degree, beyond my control — is so tiring.

Yes, I’m impatient!

I work my ass off and I’m generally used to succeeding,

I loathe failing.

Like everyone, I hate medical surprises; I had no clue my liver was weird. No symptoms. This all showed up thanks to a routine blood test.

I really hate grovelling to find an agent — meeting repeated rejection — watching everyone crow on social media about their book, movie and TV deals.

Sorry if this is all too tedious or whiny,

But it’s where things are right now.

How are you doing?!

The body’s endless issues

By Caitlin Kelly

Oh, the joys of the human body!

I started 16/8 intermittent fasting November 1, and am sloooooowly seeing a difference.

I won’t get on a scale until my GP appointment Feb. 27 so I’m working hard — three 45-minute gym sessions a week (cardio and free weights) and hoping to add ice skating or walking or swimming the other day or two. The pool, at our broke and badly-run YMCA, now needs repairs it can’t afford.

But, of course, I got a recent surprise at my oncologist check-up, where they take blood every time — excess iron in my blood, necessitating more tests. I’m hoping it’s “just” a genetic mutation, which occurs in people with my Irish heritage, and which — so utterly bizarrely — might mean regularly getting blood taken out of me.

I’m trying to process how utterly 16th century this feels!

Apparently, the body can’t shed/excrete iron in any other way, which is so odd. How it got there is what we have to examine. I’m sort of hoping this is the reason although — uggggh — the thought of regularly getting a big-ass needle in my arm is not appealing.

Thanks to my DCIS (early stage breast cancer), I already have to take 5mg of Tamoxifen daily for five years; it suppresses estrogen and, initially, the hot flashes were pretty intense, but they’ve calmed down (now 2 years in.)

High blood pressure pills.

A statin for cholesterol.

Generally, I feel great — lots of energy and stamina. I sleep like a champ, at least 8-10 hours a night and I never hesitate to take a “toes-up” as my husband calls them, aka a nap or just a quiet time lying down and staring at the sky.

We eat healthily, most of the time! My weaknesses are cheese, chips and (sue me) sweets. So it’s a constant battle to be “good” and reduce calories, but not feel hangry and annoyed all the time.

I recently hired a nutritionist whose advice was….lengthy!

I need to eat more protein, so am working on that — but excess iron also means eating less red meat. I need to drink a lot of water (already probably drinking 3 cans of soda water, plus tea and coffee.)

The actual fasting, meaning I now can only consume calories between 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m, has gotten easier. Some mornings are easy, but some mean I’m counting the minutes til I can eat!

My father is still super healthy at 91, lucid and living alone.

My late mother had a lot of health issues, some of them terrible luck (multiple cancers), some self-imposed (COPD from smoking, other issues from alcoholism) so I worry about my genetic loading.

In the past, I went to a therapist, but haven’t for a while — I actually worry about her! I know the pandemic has really burned out many mental health workers, so unless it’s some emergency, I figure others need her a lot more right now.

With our small town a Covid hotspot, and super-contagious variants now raging, we are being super careful. I know eight people who have had the disease, luckily all mild (except for 2 people) and none lethal.

It’s a real challenge — even as healthy as Jose and I are — to manage all of this. He uses insulin for T2 diabetes, so we pay a lot of money for comprehensive health insurance. It’s not a place to economize.

I pray for a few more decades of good health.

You never know.

Home for the holidays?

By Caitlin Kelly

Not for me!

I haven’t been back to my native Canada since summer 2019, when I was reporting a major story and attended a northern Ontario conference.

My father lives alone in rural Ontario; at 91 he has to be very careful about exposure to the virus, even though he’s in pretty good health. If I tried to go up, I’d face a two-week quarantine, so I’ve chosen not to.

The pandemic has killed almost 250,000 Americans and infected millions worldwide.

In the U.S. Thanksgiving is a huge event for many people, the one holiday that gets people to travel far and wide to celebrate with family or friends.

This year?

It’s just too dangerous!

We’ll be at home, just the two of us, but that’s been our norm for many years, as Jose’s family all live very long drives away from us and his closest sister heads further south to visit her own adult children.

Yet many Americans — as usual — insist they’ll host as many people as they like and the virus is a hoax and all those morgue trucks full of COVID corpses are…some sort of illusion.

How about you?

Do you have Thanksgiving plans?

What about Hannukah or Eid or Kwanzaa or Christmas?

Why EQ beats IQ

Are you someone eager to start a fire — to destroy?

Or to comfort?

By Caitlin Kelly

I found this story interesting — a list of 19 things emotionally intelligent people do.

Here are some of the ones that really resonate for me:

2. They pause.

Emotionally intelligent people realize that emotions are fleeting, and that often making impulsive decisions leads to regrets. Therefore, they try to pause and think before speaking or acting—especially when they find themselves in an emotionally charged moment.

In short, their goal is to never make a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion.

Boy, does this one ring true!

How many of us can easily destroy a friendship, relationship, marriage or job with something snapped or shouted in anger?

Even if it doesn’t end it, it can cause serious damage.

The key word for me here is temporary — if you’re consistently miserable, time for a change.

7. They’re authentic.

Those with high emotional intelligence realize authenticity doesn’t mean sharing everything about yourself, to everyone, all of the time.

Rather, they endeavor to always say what they mean, mean what they say, and stick to their values and principles above all.

I think about this a lot with my social media presence, here and on Twitter, where I spend (too) much of my time in these lonely, isolated stay-at-home pandemic days.

As I said to a friend, a very senior level journalist, I may be playful and revealing on social media — but never careless. Whatever I decide to reveal publicly, it’s actually who I really am and expressing how I truly feel and I do that know anyone, anywhere can see it — including future clients.

15. They help others.

One of the best ways to inspire someone is to help them.

By extending a supportive hand, emotionally intelligent people help others to become the best version of themselves.

I’m no Pollyanna, but one of the things I do consistently — like every day or at least every week — is try to help others.

Recently, I introduced a writer in Nashville to one in London, to help her work on a high-level, potentially career-making story. A student whose class I addressed a few weeks ago has become a fairly regular email correspondent.

I work as a journalist, a challenging business that demands decent intellectual ability (not nearly as much as you’d hope) and, ideally, real emotional intelligence — as one of the 19 keys is empathy.

We recently caught up with a friend who’s won a lot of journalism awards and really is a fantastic writer and reporter. While writers love to brag about how much they earn or what awards they’ve won — we so rarely talk about how we do our reporting.

How we get total strangers to trust us with their stories.

Only empathy gets us there, she agreed.

I have no kids and my only niece and nephew are twins born in May 2020 to the brother who refuses to have any relationship with me — for 13 years.

He’s 40 and someone who’s spent his lifetime, since winning major awards in his teens, preening in front of everyone that he is super smart.

I find him one of the least emotionally intelligent people I’ve ever met, and not just because he dislikes me.

Because he places all his value on being a tedious “intellectual”, determined to out-argue everyone on every topic.

Intelligence isn’t something you beat people to death with.

That’s insecurity.