Gero-Punk Report: I am not a sandwich.

Whew, what a week! But I am glad to report that my close-in people and I made it through and are only temporarily worse for the wear.

I woke up early today, earlier than I’d usually be up on a Saturday. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I am usually awake early almost every day of the week but on weekend mornings I often am not up and about right away, I give myself the gift of a more languid unfolding of the day’s start.  But on this particular Saturday morning I had a phone date scheduled for 8 o’clock a.m. with Rick. He is a really busy guy, the busiest I know, despite the fact that he claims to be “practicing for retirement.” And I am not what you would call an un-busy gal, so finding a time to connect on the phone  — he lives in Boulder, Colorado and I’m here in Portland  — can be challenging. We are connected frequently via email, but sometimes we really need to be voice-to-voice, especially when we are brainstorming ideas for or working out the details of our various collaborative projects. This past Wednesday Rick and I had a phone conference with the (new) managing editor for our book Aging: Concepts and controversies, as it is time to begin work on the 8th edition of the book, so this morning’s conversation was mostly about what this work looks like, who will do what and when.

But we talk about other stuff, too, because in addition to being my colleague, Rick is my mentor and has been for some time. As such, he has intimate knowledge about the “professional” realm of my life and has supported my development (in so many amazing ways) as an educational gerontologist and gero-punk.  Many of the cool opportunities that have come my way in the past decade are because Rick, from whom I have learned much about professional generosity and true collegiality, chose me to be a part of what he calls his “legacy planning”: there are projects such as the book I mentioned that he started years ago and wants to see carried forward beyond him into the future, thus he invited a younger colleague – me — to become his co-author; and there are new projects that he wants to create collaboratively rather than alone because in so doing he learns new things (such as about emerging teaching technologies, hybrid pedagogies, and ways to use social media for community building and collaboration).

Another sweet dimension to our relationship has emerged in the past few years – friendship – though I actually only realized that this was the case this morning. Rick has met my daughter, I have met his wife. I know of his children, he knows of the rest of my family – mommy, brother, my daughter’s father. Periodically we ask after each others’ close-in people, wonder how they are doing.  As well, we have offered to each other access to knowledge about deeply personal aspects of our lives.  This past December, when I was emotionally unmoored due to an unexpected crisis, I let Rick know what was happening in my life – not just in the “professional” domain, but life-wide. I trusted him and invited him to behold me in all my complexity and messiness and uncertainty. And he did behold me, with compassion and kindness, and offered me a gift—he shared something deeply important about who he is that I had not previously known through our interactions primarily as colleagues and mentor/mentee. In this mutual exchange of intimate information I think we began to become friends.

But I don’t think that I had really ever thought this thought until today, after our phone conversation.  After speaking for about 40 minutes, Rick mentioned that we needed to begin to wrap up the call as he needed to move on to his next activity—a walk around the lake near where he lives. The activity I had in mind for myself post phone date was a walk around the ponds near where I live.

It was when I was on my walk, remembering with delight that Rick was on his walk as well – though in a different state and time-zone – that I realized that we have become friends. Two friends full of ideas ambling along at the same time but in different places, far away and close at the same time.

At the beginning of our phone date today Rick asked how I was and I told him about how the second half of my week had gone since our previous phone conversation this past Wednesday. On Thursday, Isobel was home from school sick with a bad head cold and my mom had the intestinal flu and was vomiting, so I was in full-on family care giving mode (and preparing at the same time to teach my afternoon class!). To make matters worse, I couldn’t effectively work from home because our internet router had died (on Wednesday) and a new one won’t be arriving for 3-5 days, so the work I can do right now is significantly impacted. I made a joke to Rick about being a sandwich but as I have further reflected upon the sandwich metaphor for family care giving  — during my walk, after I reflected on my friendship with Rick — I realized that this metaphor doesn’t ring true for me, not at all.  You’ve probably heard the “sandwich generation” reference many times before as it is almost a meme (It has been around for over thirty years as a metaphoric shorthand for midlife persons – usually women – who are caught in between caring for children and caring for older family members. That is, they are “sandwiched” on either side by family members who rely on them for care.).

I think I get what the “sandwich” metaphor is trying to capture, and I know it is a powerful heuristic that many mid-life family caregivers resonate with.  And I certainly feel my share of stress as I face the complex challenges that are emerging at this point in my travels through the life course – parenting a young adult, being parented by an older adult, being a grown-up daughter (who is still growing up!), being a friend to Isobel’s father and my former spouse, nurturing my intimate relationships, figuring out how to make ends-meet when the monthly cash-flow only suffices for three weeks, navigating workplace politics, taking care of myself body/mind/spirit and claiming the time and space for my own creative work (not to mention being a citizen of the world working toward peace, freedom and flourishing for all).

But I am not a sandwich, not even a really great egg and avocado on sprouted grain bread sandwich, nor do I feel sandwiched between my 17 year old daughter and my 67 year old mother.  In fact, there aren’t any food or other metaphors that really adequately capture my inside experiences at this point in my travels through my life course. Don’t get me wrong, I love using metaphors as potent shorthand ways to indirectly talk about complex experiences. But sometimes even the keenest, cleverest metaphor isn’t quite up to the job.

So let me take a more direct and simple approach to describing how I feel at the almost-end of another week of life-adventures (There was a bunch of other stuff that happened that I didn’t even mention!):

I am happy I got to begin my day speaking with Rick on the phone: I am excited about our projects! I am glad we are friends!

I had an interesting time walking in the park because in addition to thinking some new thoughts I got to see: a broken robin’s egg – brilliant blue shell shards scattered on the ground; blue heron flying low and slow above the stream; and nutria partially hidden under a bridge.

I am relieved that Isobel is feeling better and so is my mommy (though I fear she’ll over do it now that she is feeling better!) and that I have yet to catch either of the bugs they were felled by.

I just ate a really good egg and avocado sandwich — thankful for simple and tasty nourishment.

Once I finish writing this little essay I’m going to go to my mommy’s place to poach her internet (since ours is still down) so I can get this dispatch out to all of you who might want to read it – so I am thankful that I can see her and get a bit of assistance, that I can write this and that this might be read.

Then I’m going to finish working on another writing project on cross-generational friendships, a project about which I feel excited and nervous.

And perhaps I will take a little nap, because I am tired from the week and it just wouldn’t be Saturday without a little nap.

And I feel grateful, so grateful, for my messy, complicated, uncertain life.

About Jenny Sasser, Ph.D.

I am a freelance educational gerontologist, writer, community activist and facilitator. I am former Chair of the Department of Human Sciences and Director of Gerontology at Marylhurst University. I joined the faculty as an adjunct member of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program in 1997 and since that time, I've been involved in designing many on-campus and web-based courses and programs for adult learners, including in Gerontology. As an undergraduate I attended Willamette University, graduating Cum Laude in Psychology and Music; my interdisciplinary graduate studies at University of Oregon and Oregon State University focused on the Human Sciences, with specialization areas in adult development and aging, women’s studies, and critical social theory and alternative research methodologies. My dissertation became part of a book published in 1996 and co-authored with Dr. Janet Lee--Blood Stories: Menarche and the Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary US Society. Over the past twenty (or more!) years I have been involved in inquiry in the areas of creativity in later life; older women's embodiment; sexuality and aging; critical Gerontological theory; transformational adult learning practices; and inter-generational friendships and cross-generational collaborative inquiry. I am co-author, with Dr. Harry R. Moody of Aging: Concepts and Controversies (now in its 10th edition!) and first author, also with Moody, of the recently published Gerontology: The Basics, as well as author/co-author of several book chapters, articles and essays. I am on the Portland Community College Gerontology Program faculty.
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