Queen’s Students Share Myths About Ageing

Recently my daughter Alexandra, who is a graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, came across this Twitter thread where a professor from Queen’s is sharing some work by upper-year undergrads on myths about aging.

I’ve linked to the thread here and also to the individual infographics below. The individual links will allow you to zoom in to actually read what the students’ wrote. Just thought this might be of interest to our ‘Boomerality’ readers! 

Whole thread

Frailty is not inevitable

Myth: Older adults are not crucial members of society

Myth: Older adults should skip exercising to avoid injury

Myth: Aging means being more isolated and alone

When You Were Growing Up, Who Controlled the Money in Your Household? Garmus in Conversation with bell hooks

Last week I talked about Chemistry Lessons, the wonderful novel by best-selling author, Bonnie Garmus. I noted just a few of the challenges that the protagonist, Elizabeth Zott, faced as a woman scientist in a male-dominated 1950s-early-1960s world.

This weekend I just finished reading another excellent book, part memoir and part social commentary, by bell hooks, who wrote extensively on issues of race, gender, class and culture and how they intersect with each other. This now classic book is called: Where We Stand: Class Matters. Sadly, hooks died prematurely less than a year ago, on December 15th, 2021.

In the opening pages of her book, hooks writes: “Nowadays it is fashionable to talk about race or gender; the uncool subject is class.” (p. vii.) But as she notes, we cannot talk about ending racism or sexism without also talking about class. She asserts that the commonly held belief that America is a classless society is a myth, as is the notion that if the poor just worked harder they would be able to get ahead and live a life of comfort and affluence. The same myth is believed by countless Canadians too.

There is much to commend in this little book and I urge you to read it if you can. What strikes me, especially in light of Garmus’ novel about Elizabeth Zott, are the challenges faced by bell hooks’ real life 1950s-1960s mother. Like Zott, she was confronted by the limitations of poverty and misogyny. Unlike Zott, the fact that she was black meant that she also suffered from the debilitating oppression of racism.

Her description of her mother’s relationship to her father, especially in terms of how money was handled in their home, reminded me of my own mother’s situation. As in the case of hooks’ family, my father controlled the purse strings. My mother was given a weekly allowance on which she was expected to run the household. Like hooks’ mother, my mother never knew how much my father earned. Unlike hooks’ mother, she could go back to my father and ask for more if she found that what he was giving her was not enough to meet expenses. (One of my aunts was not so fortunate. Her husband never allowed her to do this. She was even expected to pay the phone and hydro bills from what her husband gave her for grocery money! He then reduced what he gave her once she began to receive the meager Old Age Security Pension, in much the same way as hooks’ father reduced the amount he gave his wife to run the household once she went out to clean houses.)

While my mother, as a white woman married to a middle-class professional, did not face the kinds of extreme challenges that hooks’ mother faced as a poor working-class black woman in the south, she did find it demeaning and humiliating to always have to go back and ask my father for more money. He was always generous, but that’s not the point. She was working hard to maintain a home and look after my brother and me. Moreover, she had given up a job she had worked at for seventeen years before she married my Dad and, while it was not the kind of work she would like to have done (her family had no money to send her to art college), she could feel proud of what she earned (which was more than my Dad made when she married him), an income that also gave her a sense of self-respect.

Garmus’ protagonist Elizabeth Zott found a way out of poverty, which makes her story both unique and novel worthy, the stuff of fantasy, which we all love. But for the vast majority of poor women, the so-called American “rags to riches” dream is just that: a dream. Until we find a way to eradicate the predatory systems of classism, racism and sexism that pervade our society, most poor women (especially women of colour) and their children will remained mired in poverty.

Bonnie Garmus’ “Chemistry Lessons” is One of the Most Delightful and Insightful Novels of the Year

A few weeks ago I talked about Chemistry Lessons, a wonderful novel by best-selling author, Bonnie Garmus.  The protagonist, Elizabeth Zott, was telling her partner that there was no way that she would ever change her name if she married him, even though it was unlikely they would ever marry. Zott saw marriage as antiquated and an instrument of female oppression. Still, they had a close, loving relationship and a real synchronicity that would likely have carried them right through to old age, if it had not been for the unpredictability of life.

So it is that Zott finds herself a single mother to a delightful, precocious little girl in early 1960s California when it was frowned upon to have a child without the benefit of marriage. On top of this, Zott is a brilliant chemist who struggles to be taken seriously among scientists in what was very much a man’s world.

Through a series of coincidences she finds herself the star of a very popular cooking show, Supper at Six. But not only does she teach women across North America how to cook meals that are both nutritious and tasty, she gives them chemistry lessons as well. More than this, she teaches them to believe in themselves and never to regard themselves as just average.

If you are an early wave Boomer or the child of someone born in the mid-1930s to mid-1940s, you need to read this book. It will give you insights into the cultural challenges faced by your mother, which continued to plague Boomer women as well. This novel will also make you laugh and cry. The characters are dazzling, especially the adorable and clever little dog “Sixty-Six”, who knows well over five hundred words! Enjoy!

Baby Boomers Less Likely to Attend Remembrance Day Services

I recently read an article which stated that, while more Baby Boomers than Millennials will wear a poppy on their lapel, the reality is that more Millennials are likely to actually attend a Remembrance Day service than Baby Boomers. This surprised me because Baby Boomers are the children of those who fought and were often injured during World War II. My own father was wounded at the Battle of Ortona in Italy. Many of us also had grandparents who served in the First World War.

When I was a child November 11th was actually an official holiday. We did not go to school that day because we were meant to attend our local cenotaph for a Remembrance Day service. By the time my own children started attending school, November 11th was no longer a school holiday, although banks, post offices and government offices were generally closed in Canada, as they continue to be today. Wisely, I believe, schools now hold Remembrance Day services on the 11th and the children spend the week leading up to Remembrance Day learning why this is an important national day of remembering. I used to enjoy attending these school services and found them very meaningful. I also try to hold a Remembrance Day service at my church every year.

What about you, my Boomer friend? Are you wearing a poppy this week? And will you attend a Remembrance Day service this year?

Memories of Boomer Hallowe’en Celebrations — Hallowe’en May Actually Have Been Good for our Health!

Do you still dress up for Hallowe’en? Do you hand out candy at your front door and put a jack-o-lantern in your front window?

It’s interesting to note that there are a number of studies that show how Hallowe’en can actually help us. According to the Greater Good Science Center, “the psychology of Halloween is not about promoting fear and violence, but rather it’s about learning to control those things.” Neil Gaiman writes in his novel Coraline: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Jeremy Adam Smith says that Halloween movies from the past “can help us face our worst fears.” And Elizabeth Svoboda says “there might be a good reason for our obsession with the dark side — it can help us guard against it.” Do check out the Greater Good Science Center for some very interesting articles that support the practice of Hallowe’en.

Well how is Hallowe’en celebrated where you live? In my small town there are a few places that have ghosts and goblins hanging from their front porches or tied to their trees. Sometimes you can see huge cobwebs draped across their windows, inflatable witches on broomsticks, or strings of small orange pumpkin lights adorning people’s homes. Mostly, however, Hallowe’en gets celebrated in school with parties and dress-up parades.

If what the writers for the Greater Good Science Center assert is true, it is a shame that Hallowe’en is not as big a thing as it was when I was a kid growing up in the sixties. Back then we all went out in our homemade costumes, carrying large pillowcases so that we could get as many (large, not bite-size) treats as we possibly could from neighbours whom we all knew well.

I often remember being invited in to people’s homes to show off our costumes. One man in our neighbourhood even asked my friend Janice and me to sing a Beatles’ song. We were dressed like John and Paul, carrying guitars made out of yardsticks and cardboard. I think we sang “I want to hold your hand.”

We often stayed out until 9 p.m., and parents only accompanied the youngest of children. Those were the days when there were no razor blades in apples, no poison put in candy, and no one thought about peanut free candy for kids with allergies. (I only buy the peanut-free candy now, which I believe is a good thing.) Since we Baby Boomers celebrated Hallowe’en years ago, it has changed a lot. We have to be more careful and exercise more caution than previous generations. Sadly, we know how quickly Hallowe’en and other holiday celebrations can turn tragic, as in the case of the over 130 young people who were crushed to death at such an event in Seoul this past weekend. We remember their families and loved ones in our prayers.

What are your memories of Hallowe’en? Why not share a memory with a grandchild or other young person? Talk about the things they may find scary. It may help them to face their fears and promote healthy self-esteem.

Happy Hallowe’en!

A Lovely Spiritual Journey You Can Take from Your Armchair

The Galápagos Islands

A Spiritual Journey by Brian D. McLaren (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2019)

          Today I want to tell you about a book I have recently read: a lovely non-fiction book by a favourite spiritual writer, Brian D. McLaren. I have read a number of Brian McLaren’s books over the years. While we were born around the same time, and hence are both second-wave Baby Boomers, our early experiences of religion were largely dissimilar. He grew up in an ultra-conservative Christian home, where he experienced religion as “pressure”. Although I did witness this kind of Christianity as a youth when I joined my best friend’s Evangelical Youth Group, I had the moderating influence of my home denomination, the more liberal United Church of Canada, which has had its problems too! I also had a father who was faithful but not afraid to question his religious faith. My  friend left the church for good when she moved away from home for precisely the same reason McLaren gives for leaving his home church: “It was just too high pressure!” That was exactly the way McLaren described his early religious life:

“Pressure. Pressure to avoid being punished — or punishable if not by adults, by the Supreme Adult. Pressure to be morally perfect and doctrinally right in the eyes of God and the religious authority figures who represent him (a fitting pronoun in that context). Pressure to be different and set apart from ‘sinners’ and the world, and especially the liberals. Pressure to evangelize and convert everyone I can so they will go to heaven with us. Pressure to be vigilant against science and ‘secular’ education because they dare to challenge our inerrant Bible. Pressure to be grateful for the amazing grace that saved a wretch like me (and would damn everybody else). Pressure to keep my inner being under strict vigilance and control because I could at any moment slip into desire, which could mean slipping into sin. Pressure not to question because questioning could lead to doubt and doubt could lead to heresy and heresy could lead to hell. Literally.” (pp. 186-187)

Clearly, location matters. As McLaren writes at the outset of his book, theology and spirituality are influenced by where you do them. (p. xi). As he notes, most of western theology has been done indoors, not from the perspective of Creation. It’s also been written largely by white, heterosexual men in highly controlled settings and not in the wilderness of the great outdoors. This is one of the reasons McLaren chose to make a second trip to the Galápagos  Islands. Invited by his friend, theologian Tony Jones, to write a book on the islands that would be part travel guide and part spiritual reflection, McLaren chose to feed the “wild” side of his theology and head for the Galápagos. He could not have found a more beautiful – or more remote  venue – in which to undertake his spiritual adventure. Consisting of five large volcanic islands and many smaller ones, the islands are located about six hundred nautical miles off the coast of Ecuador. Known for their large number of endemic species, the Galápagos Islands are famous also because it was here that Charles Darwin spent a significant time studying the wildlife. His research was to contribute to his later formulation of the theory of evolution.

The first seven or eight chapters are full of interesting pictures of the various species of birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians that make their home in the Galápagos. These chapters read like one of Rick Steves’ travelogues. I smiled as I read about the white sand of the beach that derived from thousands of years of parrotfish poop! I marvelled at McLaren’s description of the large black marine iguanas, remembering many years ago holding one of their cousins in my hand while on a visit to Mexico as a young person. The large tortoises, that can live for 120 years (to die at 70 is to die young!), the colourful flamingos, puffer birds, and variety of finches that Darwin had also observed,  all formed part of the colourful and fascinating wildlife. As McLaren writes,  “…for eight days in the Galapagos islands, I swam in everything I loved about God. It was genuinely ecstatic.” (p. 188)

But it is in the second half of the book, chapters 9 to 14, that we discover the real treasures that this little book holds. Here he delves into Darwin’s theory of evolution based on natural selection. He notes that Darwin said that it was not the smartest or the strongest who survived, but rather those who were “most adaptable to change.” (p. 144). There is a message in here for those of us who love the Church and want to see her survive, namely, that we have to be willing to adapt and change if we are to continue. This means being willing to expunge those bits of our tradition which continue to oppress peoples and destroy the planet. It means recognizing and acknowledging that our Christian faith has drifted far away from the teachings of Jesus, and instead of loving our neighbour, it has often caused untold harm and destruction. Today, as McLaren notes, we still carry the colonial legacy of racism and slavery, with its subjugation of native peoples (which even Darwin found appalling back in the early 1800s), the brutal annihilation of many species, and wanton killing of wildlife like the merciless killing of pelicans by the local fisherfolk because their feces was so acidic it burned the paint off their boats! (p. 234)

Reflecting on the legacy of colonial, imperial Christianity, McLaren admits that it is now painfully difficult to talk about God. (p.178) Like Darwin, he questions his faith. Like Darwin, he questions the whole notion of anthropocentrism. (p. 153). Like Darwin – and St. Francis of Assisi before him — he invites us to remember that the rocks, the trees, the lakes, the birds, reptiles, fish, insects and mammals are all part of the created family. They are, as the Indigenous peoples have always believed, our kin. What’s more: they have been around far longer than us. “For 245 million years , there were zero people around, but lots and lots of reptiles.” (p. 210). It seems God was happy to spend 99% of God’s time without human beings on the earth. If, for example, we were to look at a diagram of the evolutionary tree, humans represent only “the tip of one small branch of a very huge, verdant tree, and all created things are our grandparents, cousins, and siblings.” (p. 214) As he further writes, “the addition of humans to the [family] tree has been a net loss for the rest of creation, so far at least.” (p. 215)

McLaren lays the blame for the destruction in the Galápagos and many other parts of the world squarely at the feet of Euro-centric, Christian colonialism and exploitive international capitalism. He invites us to question biblical literalism and to re-think our Christian understanding of God. The only response, he argues, is that of love — love of all peoples and all Creation. The task of Christianity – and indeed all religions – Is “to become more fully human, fully alive, fully members of the planetary neighbourhood we share with all creatures, all our relations.“ (p. 269)

How Smart is Your Smart Phone?

The other day I could not help but overhear two Boomer women telling a salesclerk (also a Boomer) that it will be a long time before either of them gives in to using a smart phone. “I don’t want people phoning me all the time,” they chimed. The salesclerk interjected, “Ah, but folks could email or text you.” These Boomer customers were not impressed. They were not interested in receiving emails from people and even less interested in getting text messages.

My husband, who is a late wave Boomer, carries a cell phone for emergency purposes only — and because our children and I would not stop nagging him about it! He purchased data in May, only because a trip home to Scotland for his father’s funeral meant that he would need to be able to access the Arrive Can App in order to re-enter Canada.

When all the family is at home and around the dinner table, Richard and the kids (now young adults) even have contests to see who can find the answer to a question on some issue or historical event, Richard using our hard cover encyclopaedia and the kids using their cell phones. Interestingly, Richard wins a lot of the time, as long as the event in question does not precede 2001, the year my Dad died. The encyclopaedia were his final gift to our children, but in fact are used much more by Richard and me. (Note, too, the presence of cell phones at the dinner table. That is something we would never have been permitted to use as Boomer children, even if such technology had existed then.)

I recently read an article that highlighted the fact that every generation adapts to technology differently. Usually Baby Boomers are thought of as Technology Immigrants, since they were in their late twenties to mid-forties when they started using a PC, whereas those in Generations Y and Z are Technology Natives since they never knew a world without computers and cell phones. They grew up with the internet. My youngest son, who is Generation Z, does virtually everything on his smart phone. When a senior in high school, he even wrote a two-hundred page screenplay entirely on his cell phone.

But while there are definitely some technology hold outs in the Boomer and older adult demographic, I have to say how impressed I am generally by my Boomer — and especially by friends in their late eighties — who often send me text messages or message me on Facebook. And in the Church I notice that it’s not just the young who use their cell phones to read scripture in worship or at weddings or funerals, but more and more of my Boomer friends and colleagues rely on their smart phones for this purpose. Even Richard and I will sometimes FaceTime our son and daughter-in-law in Kuwait using our smart phone — although they always have to remind us not to hold the phone up to our ear when we do so! (I guess our smart phone is only as smart as we are!)

How smart is your smart phone? How comfortable are you with modern technology? And what do you see as it’s pros and cons? I would love to hear from you!

Whether to Change Your Surname Upon Marriage or Not

There is a scene in a delightful novel I am currently reading in which the protagonist is arguing with her colleague/boyfriend about whether women should change their surnames upon marriage. The book is called Lessons in Chemistry and is written by the talented Bonnie Garmus. Two chemists, the famous, brilliant Calvin Evans, and the equally brilliant but terribly overlooked and under-valued Elizabeth Zott, are having a heated discussion. The year is 1952, a time when the parents of Baby Boomers were making decisions about careers, marriage and children, a time when women did not become chemists! Calvin has just asked Elizabeth to marry him, but much to his chagrin, she declines, primarily because she does not want to take his surname and all that this implies.

Back in the 1950s most women adopted their husbands’ surname when they married. This was not even questioned in our culture, even though there were many places in the world —Italy, Spain, and much of Asia — where this was not the practice. Whether to take one’s partner’s name upon marriage became more of an issue in the late 1960s and 1970s when the oldest Boomers were entering into marriage.

My cousin and several friends chose to keep their own surname, albeit a name they inherited from the male side of their family. Most of my gay friends have also kept their own names upon marriage. Many of my colleagues chose to hyphenate their surname with their spouse’s. I also have one male colleague who took his wife’s surname, dropping his own altogether, and I know many men who use both their wife’s surname along with their own. I seriously entertained this idea when Richard (Macgregor) and I married. This would have meant that my surname (Macdonald. — NO relation to Canada’s first Prime Minister) would have become Macdonald-Macgregor. Quite a mouthful! Given that we spent our first year of marriage in Scotland and I was serving in a fairly traditional Presbyterian kirk in Edinburgh, there was no way anyone in this ancient town was going to call me anything other than Mrs. Macgregor! (The Scots at that time had not adopted our North American habit of using first names). I felt like a character out of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit! Was my task in life to bake rabbit pie?

Interestingly, before I met Richard I vowed that I would never marry someone with a name like mine, which was constantly misspelled. I would get MC donald instead of MAC donald or folks would make the d in donald a capital. But this problem did not go away when I adopted Richard’s surname, since his surname has the same challenges: Macgregor, NOT MacGregor and not McGregor.

While I have not regretted my decision to take Richards’s surname 37 years ago, I acknowledge that this tradition is highly problematic. Let’s be honest. The practice of taking one’s husband’s surname was birthed in a deeply patriarchal culture where the bride was considered to become the property of her husband’s family. That said, I have never felt like I was anyone’s personal property. Indeed, I have been able to find fulfillment in my chosen vocation both as a married woman and as a professional.

What has your experience been? Did you adopt your partner’s surname or would you do so if you were to marry now? What do you think are the pros and cons? I would love to hear from you!

Now back to reading Garmus’s novel!

John Borrows, Indigenous Baby Boomer and Professor of Indigenous Law

 John Borrows, Professor of Indigenous Law and Baby Boomer of the Chippewas

Today I highlight the contributions of Indigenous Law Professor John Borrows, who is also part of the second wave of Canadian Baby Boomers. Borrows grew up on the Cape Croker reserve on picturesque  Georgian Bay. Anishinaabe-Ojibway, he is a member of the Chippewas of the Nawash First Nation. Descended from several chiefs, he credits his mother with giving him a love of Indigenous stories and for teaching him the laws of their people. The latter led him to major in Law, earning  his PhD in Law from Osgoode Hall, Toronto.  Later he went on to create and teach some of the earliest courses of study in Indigenous Law in Canada and around the world. He has taught at the University of Toronto, Princeton, New South Wales, Waikato, UBC, and Victoria, where he currently teaches.

Borrows says Indigenous Law means “living well in the world”. It is “not just given or handed down”. Rather it is “decision making in action”. Drawing from the rugged and hauntingly beautiful landscape of his native Georgian shores, Borrows notes that Indigenous Law “flows from the rocks, the waves, the rivers and all creation”. Its sources draw on both the spiritual and natural worlds, as well as the teachings and values of the Ancestors, emphasising the principles of kindness, responsibility, nurturing and caring for others. Unlike English Common Law, which is written and focusses on the individual and retribution for individual wrongs, Indigenous Law is oral in nature, community centred, focussed on restoration and aims to restore balance to the community.

I wonder. Is it possible for two legal systems to co-exist in a single territory? Might each borrow from the other and better respond to changing social dynamics? Where have you seen this happen?

Boomers Raised to be Good Citizens, Not Disciples of Jesus

Nearly 50 years ago, John Westerhoff published a book on Christian education which sold millions and was translated into no fewer than six different languages. In it Westerhoff posed a question that is even more urgent in 2022 than it was then: Will our children have faith?

In 1976, when Westerhoff published his book, the youngest Baby Boomers were twelve. It is generally agreed that Boomers were the last generation to fill  United Church of Canada Sunday School classrooms and youth groups on a regular weekly basis. Does this make them more religious, more spiritual, or more faithful to the teachings of the Church? Not really. Those who have studied the United Church of Canada in depth have found that the desire to see our children raised in the church had less to do with the saving of souls and much more to do with creating people who would become good, hardworking, law-abiding citizens of Canada. Thus, when many of these Boomers were confirmed, they did what most young people do when they graduate from high school. They left. Their education complete, they were ready to embark on the path of responsible citizenship. Some of course stayed or, over the years, found their way back to church. But many did not. We taught them how to be good citizens, but we failed to give them a faith they could live for, a faith that would sustain them not only in the good times but also through the hard times.

We also failed to connect their own story with the story of Jesus Christ, so that with each generation the story grows dimmer and dimmer. And not surprisingly, so has our faith. As probably our greatest Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes, “A church that no longer asks about its theological foundations [ – about its founding story — ] will be absorbed, sooner or later, in the general secular mélange. It’s only a matter of time.”

Sadly, it seems that this is where we find ourselves today.