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aging

Lately I’ve been thinking about age and what we make of it, and now we operate with it, through it, despite it. Specifically, I’ve been noticing how people make assumptions of others based on the number of years behind their belt. According to gerontologist Robert Neil Butler, who coined the term in the 1960’s, ageism is “a combination of three connected elements: prejudicial attitudes towards older people, discriminatory practices against older people, and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people.” Since then the concept has grown into stereotyping and prejudicial attitudes towards any group based on age.

Several months ago my beloved grandfather passed away, and I want to add “at a ripe old age of 91,” but that would just illustrate my point. After a serious case of the shingles, he declined rapidly and died within two months of the onset of the disease. The medical staff attending him, though very considerate and sympathetic, gently (and then not-so-gently) advocated for us to let him go. He had lived a full life and nobody could have asked for more from a man who spent the first 70 years in Russia, fought and survived a world war, and lived on to have children, grand children and great-grand children of his own. My mother was at odds with this idea of letting her father pass quietly, without a fight. She asserted that surely if he was able, he would have wanted to continue living, if he could speak coherently, he would have told us Yes! Keep trying with me! Don’t give up!

For the doctors caring for him, grandpa’s age played the crucial role. The assumption was that he had lived enough. It was a “ripe old age” that most men are not lucky enough to attain. And since he’d reached it, somehow that meant that he should be OK with not living any longer. This line of reasoning started to look odd if you applied it going backwards in time. So if it’s appropriate not to fight for the life of a 91 year old, what about a 90 year old? An 85 year old? An 80 year old? Why do we, healthy, youngish people get to decide when an elderly person has “lived enough?” But the opposite reaction, that of assuming grandpa wanted to continue living at all cost, was perhaps also misdirected. Mama might have been superimposing her preferences on him. A person in their mid-50’s would want to live, so naturally a person in their early 90’s should feel the same…

Ageism is equally maddening and confusing when applied to children. When I took my 10-year old daughter to a gourd weaving class designated for adults, the well-meaning teacher, herself in her 70’s, chuckled and with an exasperated sort of resignation exclaimed, “Well, this’ll be a hoot!” Lo and behold, two hours into the class my daughter proved to be the most attentive, dexterous and successful gourd weaver in the group. The teacher judged her unfairly, which was all the more surprising because at her age, she should have been familiar with the sting of age discrimination.

Children really have it tough. They are always maturing, and adult caregivers and educators never seem to keep up. Talking down to a child as if they were three when they’re ten is akin to talking down to an elderly person as if, by default, they were senile. Both are completely unacceptable, but it seems that the former happens even more often than the latter, and definitely with no consequences for the offending adult. Not only are children treated with less respect than they deserve, they also have fewer rights. They cannot go out and purchase what they want – they do not have buying power. They’re always forced to ask their parents for any of their needs, and forced to justify it. Also, they cannot get places. While we-the-adults can just hop in the car and go wherever we please, children have to plan well in advance, coordinate their drivers, beg, explain, negotiate.

You would think ageism affects only the very young and the very old. Not true. As a 30 something, I come into contact with it regularly as a result of where I work (mostly with older people) and where I serve (mostly with significantly older people). Even when I am with my husband’s friends (who are also 20-30 years older than I am), I feel like I am a little girl at an adults’ gathering. I can be delightful, I can be a fun addition to the ensemble, a welcomed decoration on what would have been quite a dreary table otherwise, but surely when the adults start talking serious, I cannot have any input. At this point it is no longer clear whether the “elders” are emitting a sense of being older, or I have already internalized a sense of being “younger” and therefore frivolous and irrelevant.

And, of course, there is age discrimination on the job: older professionals struggle with finding a new job because younger ones are less likely to have strokes and heart attacks and be a liability, and also because they can be paid less and are assumed to be more adept at grasping new technologies and being “team players.”

Truth is, you can’t get away from it. We as a society cannot ban ageism because, at its root, it is a way for us to classify people, to make general assumptions without which we cannot operate (unless we are ready to get to know each individual personally, fully, before we make any judgement about him or her). But still, it helps to be aware of the snap judgments you make about people, and to hold them in check. It’s what you’d want others to do for you, isn’t it?

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obvodnyi

Early memories of grandpa. Walking through the forest, dusk, sunlight filtering through the pines, setting ablaze the dust particles and gnats, golden hour bliss. We stop at a pull-up bar installed high between two trunks, grandpa hops up, I stand watching and dreaming. Legs at a 90 degree angle, he huffs out with each pull, “20, 21, 22…” Down on the ground again, arms up, shaking lose the wrists, and down to the ground with a satisfied exhale. Grins at me and we continue walking home.

Phone ringing at the grandparents’ place on Obvodnyi Canal, the dimly lit hallway with the linoleum squares and those slippers, sitting leg over leg in sweats, intently squeezing the receiver to his ear and speaking loudly in a lecturer’s booming, authoritative voice to his invisible interlocutor. The radio on during news hour, grandpa relaxed on the couch, listening to the latest. Or watching the news each night at 9pm sharp.

After bath time, me all cuddled up and steamy and pink, grandma toweling me down and calling grandpa for the special assignment of carrying me to bed.

Another memory. Us in our new apartment, talking about maps. “Can you draw the map of Africa from memory?” Of course not…”But I think I can. Let’s see now…” and he begins. Humming an unidentifiable war song under his breath, he traces the lines carefully, his pens, his somewhat wrinkly hands and those bulging veins we loved to press down and see fill up again. He is done and triumphant, his carefully drawn out map of Africa, including all of the land-locked countries, with names of all the capitals, just for kicks. “Geography was always my favorite subject in school.” He says, beaming. I am blinking, astounded. “Let’s talk more about maps,” he proposes.

Grandpa holding me under the belly and letting me float gently on the ebbs and flows of the Gulf of Finland. Explaining about breathing and holding your breath, me mastering underwater swimming first, excited. Him hoisting me up into the gnarly fir by the edge of the beach, sun setting, me climbing higher and higher, him below asking me if I see Finland across the water.

Playing chess on the smooth formal dining table in the Big Room. Him patiently guiding me, “Now are you sure that’s how you want to move? Because if you do this…I will do this. You see?” Now I can see. “And then you have to wonder – what are you going to do next? You have to think several moves ahead, and always think about the other player – why did they go here? What is their secret plan?”

Much later – sitting in their make-shift guest room in the basement of our first apartment in America. Teaching him English, enthused by the opportunity to be the one leading. Him – a great and dedicated student. Many smiles and laughs shared. A thousand and one charades acted out, many poems listened to and recited, war stories shared (his), and piano music played (mine). In the end, the conversations, trying to understand, all grown up and talking about the more important things. Grandpa still my grandpa, but also an individual, a human being with foibles, fears, hopes, aspirations.

Thirty three years of memories will surely not fit onto this page. But if this is a tribute to our friendship, our alliance and mutual respect, then this is not a tribute to something that has ended. Though it breaks my heart to know that thirty three years is all the memory-making I get with my one and only grandfather, I know the relationship will continue. For love is a gift that keeps on giving. And giving into the deep dark of evening.

Well we took the fam, or the fam took us, and headed up to Big Bear Lake for the Independence Day weekend. To make this simple(r), here’s a list of

Characters:

I…………………………… Yar
Daughter…………………. Little Miss V
Son ………………………. Mr. Fatty Pants
Mom………………………. Mamma
Dad ………………………. Dad
Sister ……………………. The Lizard
Brother ………………….. Lyosha
Grandma ………………… G-ma
Grandpa …………………. G-pa
Sister’s fiancé ………….. Seanster
Husband …………………. SIH (Stayed In Houston)

So most of us headed up in two cars from San Diego,and the Lizard and Seanster met us there, since they were coming from home and had a much longer drive. This was the first time that we had the fam in this combination (as in, everyone living on this continent minus Hubby ) in one enclosed spot for more than several hours, and it was…educational. To say the least.

Highlights of the trip:
Cruising around Big Bear Lake in a rented platoon. The weather was superb, albeit quite breezy, especially in the middle of the lake, the sun was shining, the air was fresh and crisp as mountain air should be. We rented a platoon that comfortably fit all 10 of us and enjoyed the morning cruising around the lake, looking at dream properties, taking pictures of beloved family folk, and Lyosha and I even went swimming, very briefly, in the lake.

The beautiful San Bernardino Mountain Range on the way to Big Bear...and me.

PushUps for GrownUps

PushUps for GrownUps (Silliest Picture Prize)

Cruising on Big Bear Lake - Lyosha and I

I really wanted to swim in the lake more than just the few minutes, but the platoon kept on drifting away from us and the water was a tad chilly (17 C) to remain in there comfortably for more than two minutes. Lyosha and I jumped in twice each, and then it was time to get moving, get defrosted, warmed up and on with our day.

The thing about spending any amount of time together makes you realized is that at one point, you were one cohesive unit. You were so familiar with each others’ ways that basically in a family you didn’t even notice that each person had their own “ways”, their own quirks and preferences. But since the family has grown, the Lizard and I moved out, spending less time with the parents and Lyosha and the g-parents…and we obtained our own quirks that are different. Lizard got a lot from her Seanster. Now they have many inside jokes and preferences for doing things, from washing dishes with extra soap, to frying their meat on the rare side.

The grandparents have also…grown. Which means that they too have their own way of doing things and are painfully inflexible. Nobody would want to cause them discomfort, and it’s perfectly respectable that at their mature age of 85, they should have the comfort of being surrounded by familiar things or at least of following familiar rituals: dinner preparations, taking medications, bedtime routines…the list goes on.

And I of course have gotten married and had two kids. Which changes things. Mainly though it changes me. I have become more flexible and patient, hopefully, yet I get more irritated, on the inside, and I feel harder somehow, more weathered, as married life has not been easy. On the flip side, I feel a tremendous need to just chill, and find that every squabble is needless and every cause for worry is unworthy of the stress it brings. On this trip I was trying to remind people to just relax. Seeing everything in a new perspective, I realize that ultimately, what matters is feeling joyful and relaxed and sharing good times with dear ones. Period.

Fabulous ladies - me and Little Miss V

The REAL Big Bear

The REAL Big Bear

Now we’re back in Sunny San Diego, I am on a continued mission to find real chillage, heading up to speak my poetry at the Open Mic hosted by Radiance , a group of christian artists of all caliber that the Lizard and I were part of years ago, when we lived here….

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