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“rowing north” against ageism, sexism, and misogyny

Mary Pipher is a psychologist who specializes in women—adolescents in her first bestseller, Reviving Ophelia, and now those entering old age, in Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age. Published this January, it too became a bestseller, not only because Pipher is a gifted clinician and storyteller but because her message, like mine, resonates deeply with what our readers know: age confers voice, self-knowledge, contentment. We like being older. . “Contrary to cultural stereotypes,” writes Pipher, “most women become increasingly happy after age 55, with their peak of happiness at the very end of life.”

That’s despite having to contend with the misogyny, ageism, and sexism that reduce us to sexless, voiceless, shapeless, and useless caricatures of our richly textured selves. “Old women in America suffer a social disease. For us, ageism may be an even more serious challenge than aging,” Pipher writes (emphasis mine). Misogyny is dislike, contempt, or ingrained prejudice against women. Pair it with ageism, which we are just beginning to confront, and the full truth is immensely painful. But we have choices, and ever-louder voices.

“What women mean when they say, ‘I’m not old,’ is ‘I won’t accept the ideas the culture has about me,’” Pipher writes. If we have courage and will, we have agency. In Pipher’s words, “Because our current cultural stories about how we should behave are useless, we have great freedom to throw off our chains and resist definition by the broader culture.”  How do we do it?  Pipher proposes three main steps:

  1. “First, we can take responsibility for educating other people about both the negative stereotypes and the reality of our lives. We can resolve not to criticize ourselves or other women or make negative remarks about aging or appearance …”
  2. “We can be advocates for women of all ages, working to create the institutions and policies we require to live healthy, social, and productive lives throughout the life span.” This can take all kinds of forms, from writing letters and lobbying to protesting and “grab[bing] the attention of the press” by using music, art, and theater.
  3. “Finally, we can converse with people of all ages …. Younger and older women working together is a great way to facilitate mutual respect, empathy, and understanding.” The goal is political change that will benefit the women that follow in our footsteps.

It’s no surprise my call to women, set out in this New York Times opinion piece, covers very similar ground:

  1. Tap into what we know: growing older enriches us.
  2. Learn to look more generously at each other, and ourselves.
  3. Reject old-vs.-young ways of thinking.
  4. Come together at all ages and talk about this stuff.

Let’s not delude ourselves: this is the work of a lifetime. We need to embark on it with others, and across generations. But none of this stigma is “natural,” and none of it is fixed. A movement to end ageism is underway around the world, and—again, unsurprisingly—women are leading it.

We have a choice: we can keep digging the hole deeper, or we can throw away the damn shovel. We can move, if we have the will and the desire and the vision, from competing to collaborating. We can turn it from a conversation about scarcity and loss to one about empowerment and equity. And we can take that change out into the world. The women’s movement taught us to claim our power; a pro-aging movement will teach us to hold onto it.

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Five things I learned on my book tour.

Five weeks, eleven cities, fourteen book talks, nine media appearances, twenty-one regular talks, Phew. I got so tired it felt as though gravity was messing with me, or as if  I’d been inexpertly inflated. Also exhilarating: a nationwide network of pro-aging activists came out to support me and spread the word—thank you thank you thank you. Also educational;  I learned a lot.

  • How to pronounce Buttigieg: Buddha + tszuj (as in “jujj,” as in “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”). Source: NPR’s age beat reporter Ina Jaffe, and she ought to know.
  • African-Americans are two to three times likelier than whites to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “The disparities are explained by its association with poverty,” said USC’s Karen D. Lincoln, much of whose work focuses on educating African Americans about the disease.
  • The best way to answer “how old are you?”  Say, “I was born in 1952” (if you’re my age). The questioner spazzes because they can’t do the math. You’ve answered forthrightly. And without a number with
  • without a number to peg assumptions to, the questioner is left to reflect on how much you’ve seen and done, free of any ageist connotations. 
  • Another problem with “agelessness”: I’m no fan of the word because of its inherent age denial. A woman at a reading in Seattle added, “I think saying you’re ageless is like saying you’re colorblind.” Boom. Because if you “don’t see race,” you don’t see racism.
  • The anti-ageism movement is talking tactics. Ten years ago I spent most of my time explaining what ageism is and why it matters. Now all kinds of people—from librarians in Denver to Age-Friendly organizers in San Francisco to architects in Pittsburgh—are asking how to make their efforts explicitly anti-ageist. We pro-agers transitioning from talking to doing—and that’s exciting.
Rabble-rousing at UC Berkeley — what better place?

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good words for the observant — and for everyone else

The blurb that my friend and ally, Sister Imelda, sent to the U.S. Ursuline nuns at the request of one of their Sisters in elected leadership.

THIS CHAIR ROCKS:  A MANIFESTO AGAINST AGEISM

We’ve all been there:

  • Shocked, unhappy at the growing expanse of gray hair — or maybe just the growing expanse!
  • The dissatisfaction with hair that is getting thinner, the chin that is becoming a double chin
  • The embarrassment that it is not always so easy to open that sealed jar of olives
  • The embarrassment that it takes a little longer to get up that last flight of stairs

Ashton Applewhite sets all these experiences around aging in perspective, showing how almost universally we respond to these physical changes as negative. She calls it “age shame”, seeded and nurtured through the false, negative myths of aging that we have absorbed all our lives. We have never assessed these suppositions about age; we have just believed them and have been taken in by them hook, line and sinker! Believing all these negative myths about aging is a profound prejudice against our future selves and is profoundly harmful to our well-being

When God looked at Creation on the seventh day, God said, “It is good, very good.”  God did not say, “The first forty years or so of human life are very good, but after that it is pretty much downhill”.  This Chair Rocks releases – without ever using a religious context – the Gospel News that God ‘s creation of us is “good, very good”, not just for the first half of life but throughout the lifespan., Read it and it will turn your ideas of aging on their head! This is the good news that we should be preaching today in our works of mercy through word and example!

Imelda

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best response ever

On March 5th, the day my manifesto was published by Celadon Books, I landed a full 50 minutes on NPR’s On Point, an episode titled, “Too Old, Out of Touch? Too Young, Inexperienced? Ageism in America?”

I received a bunch of wonderful responses, of which my favorite by far was this one from Sharon Morrissey:

I am 2 months shy of 75 years of age. This week I am embarking on an intensive six week hot yoga teacher training in Canada. I live in VA. I challenge my thinking all the time; am I too old to wear this? Will people be repulsed by a septuagenarian teaching yoga? Am I just whistling in the dark? Or, perhaps I am simply alive & brave. I heard your interview on “On Point” & am enraptured. Thanks. I will train & teach & leave my age out of the equation. And if this is age denial, namaste.

This is why I do what I do.

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The manifesto goes on sale in Britain today!

How’s that for jazzy! Reviews in many UK publications, including the Spectator and the Irish Times are in the works, and I’ll be coming to London to promote the Melville House edition on May 20th. Stay tuned!

Beef up in the meanwhile by ordering the book online from your local bookshop via the Hive (pick it up or get it delivered straight to you); or order it from Waterstones, Foyles, or Blackwells. Let the American invasion begin!

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It’s publication day!

Today’s the day: my book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, goes is on sale everywhere. Please pick up a copy at your local bookstore or order it in any format here.

the cover of the gorgeous new hardcover edition

One of the best gifts of 2019 was being on a panel where anytime someone said the word “journey,” everyone had to take a shot. With that in mind, let me say it has been quite a journey, starting in 2013 with many, many months of WotB (“WOT-bee,” for Working on the Book, my shorthand for why I couldn’t come out and play) at the kitchen table ; on to the publisher that had an option turning it down because they were “concerned that no one else is writing about this;” on to the decision to Self-Publish Together to Change the World (a thousand thanks to all who made up that original “together” and helped put the book on the map exactly three years ago); and on to finding the right editor, Jamie Raab, who bought the manifesto in 2018 for the inaugural list of her new company, a new Macmillan imprint called Celadon Books; and on to March 5, 2019 –publication day! She has high hopes, and so do I.

I’m heading out today on a multi-city book tour; details here. Read the book, find me on the road, join the movement to dismantle ageism and make the world a better place in which to grow old—which is a better world for every one of us.

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Here we go again with “too old to be president”

It didn’t take long after Bernie Sanders announced his presidential candidacy for the anti-geezer knives to come out. Stephen Colbert had a field day, mocking Sanders as an “old white guy” and  calling him “Gray Guevara.” “Will age be an issue in the 2020 race?” asked New Yorkmagazine’s Intelligencer column on the same day, February 19th.  The headline of Mike Allen’s Axios newsletter read “Bernie Sanders and the age problem.”

The “age problem” is ageism.

In the absence of evidence that the older person is not competent or a younger contender more so, calls for new blood are always ageist. After the midterm elections, ageism paired with sexism powered calls for Nancy Pelosi to yield her position as Speaker of the House. It’s hard to imagine an inexperienced legislator handling the build-the-wall shutdown with equal skill and equanimity. Only in an ageist world is experience a liability.

The issue is the candidate’s ideology, not their age

Older voters are widely blamed for bringing us Trump and Brexit, yet class, race and gender all predict voting behavior far more accurately than age does. Older people are widely stereotyped as more conservative, yet no one discredits that myth as effectively as Sanders does. Much hand-wringing centers around the notion that an older candidate will depress activism and turnout among millennials. Yet in 2016 more youngers voted for Sanders than for Trump and Clinton combined – by a large margin.

The issue is the candidate’s health, not their age.

Actuarial tables tell us that the average 80-year-old faces a 36% risk of dying within six years and a 16% risk of being diagnosed with some form of dementia by age 84. That tells us very little about what lies ahead for any given individual. Eighty-year-old senators are healthier than the average octogenarian; many exhibit astonishing intellectual powers and physical stamina. Nor is Bernie Sanders the average 78-year-old. Clearly he should undergo a physical exam by nonpartisan authorities and make the relevant results public, as should all presidential candidates. Clearly Sanders’ running mate should also be in good physical condition. But generalizations about the capacities of older people are no more defensible than racial or gender stereotypes. Period.

The issue is the culture the candidate inhabits,  not their age

Sanders would turn 80 during his first term in office, and in an ageist world, being an octogenarian is a liability. When he announced his candidacy, the senator placed age alongside gender, race, and sexual orientation as a criterion for diversity, calling for “a nondiscriminatory society that evaluates people based on their abilities, on what they stand for.” Isn’t that the world we all wish to inhabit?  It means making ageism as unacceptable as every other form of prejudice, and collaborating across generations and across oppressions to bring that more equitable world about.

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My book tour is coming together!

What have I been up to? Working on a book tour. Last year I sold the rights to my book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, to Celadon Books, a new Macmillan imprint, which will be bringing it out on their inaugural list on March 4th and sending me on tour. Very exciting! I’ll be coming to DC, Denver, Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area, Pittsburgh, Princeton NJ, San Diego, and Los Angeles, with a few more cities are still in the works. Here’s the schedule-to-date.

I’ll be posting about individual events as they get closer, of course, but feel free to mark your calendars and start spreading the word. What I could really use help with is local media. Not pointing out that “You should be on ‘Fresh Air'” (although of course I should, but Terry Gross has yet to get the memo), but personally contacting any local TV/radio/print journalists you know and putting in a good work about the book and the mission. If they’re interested, let me know (ashton [at] thischairrocks [dot] com) and I’ll follow up instantly and very gratefully.