Friday, August 7, 2015

Need Help with Your Bag?

Photo by Canadian Pacific.
"Ma'am, can I help you with your bag?"

I'm hearing this more and more lately from ever-so-helpful twentysomethings.

And each time I'm incredulous.

Really, do I look frail?

I often deny that Father Time has been messing with me.

However, this time, I really believe that young adults addressing me this way have a perception problem.  A short, small-framed woman can be physically strong in midlife.

I am not the little old lady who needs help from do gooders, and I've decided to re-educate the masses one misinformed person at a time by performing feats of strength (such as they are) as evidence.

I always use humor to put people at ease. I always start by politely expressing, "Thanks, but no thanks." 

I do fancy myself as a performance artist of sorts. I embrace the idea that I should overtly dramatize my approach to aging for others to witness. If I make a spectacle of myself, I can spark conversations about active aging.

Here's a highlight reel of some of the performance acts, which are designed to complicate people's perception of "little old ladies":

Mistakes on a Plane

Just last week, I flew from Wichita to Los Angeles.  For the first time in my life, I had young women ask me if I needed help lifting my carry on bag in or out of the overhead bins.

OK, If a man my age or a little younger asks me for help, I can assume that his assumption is that men should help women of any age with "heavy lifting."  I can be gracious about this--even though I know that I am stronger than many men.

However, now that a woman has offered to help me, I suspect it's not because she sees me as a damsel in distress. She perceives me as weak.

I politely declined with this statement: "Thank you for your offer, but I go to the gym and I can do 15 push ups and hold a plank for 4 minutes."  Then I flashed my biceps as evidence.  I heard gasps from a half dozen passengers.  I choose to believe those where gasps of admiration.

Bag This, Bag Boy

For the past seven years, I've had employees at my local grocery store ask me, "Would you like me to carry your bags to your car for you?"    Um, no.  In fact, in order to illustrate my physical prowess, I have dropped to the floor and done a dozen push ups.  Really. You can ask my kids. My teens die of embarrassment each time that I do that.

However, I did push ups for bag boys/girls at least a half dozen times to challenge their perception of midlife women.

As a way to compromise with my teens, I don't do push ups in the grocery store any more. (But I still flash my biceps.  Most recently, a very muscular soda delivery person asked me if he could get me a cart when he saw me reach for a case of 30 water bottles.  I laughed and replied, "No, thank you. I figure it's 'Use it or lose it,' so I'm using it."

I actually saw him the next week across town at another store making delivers there as well.  I showed him my biceps (again). He told me his name is Sam.  Maybe we can go lift weights together some time.

Being Moved by the Spirit...of Fitness

Because I move around a lot, my local church serves as my extended family to a large degree. I have a church friend named Bill who is constantly asking me to calm down and hold still.  He's about 15 years older than I am, and strives to be my older-and-wiser mentor.

Sorry, but my "slowing down" ain't gonna happen anytime soon.

Earlier this summer, he asked me to stop walking so fast up and down the halls.  He cautioned, "Karen, you are going to have a stroke!"   As it happens, our mutual friend Pennie was also in the halls, and she had just that week visited my home and watched me take my blood pressure several times over an hour.  Pennie knew that my blood pressure is actually chronically low (90/60).  I don't have that particular risk for stroke.

So I told Bill, "Not only do I have low blood pressure, I have pretty good fitness. Watch this!"  So I dropped and did 15 push ups right there in the church hallway.  Rest assured, I strategically set myself down so that my feet were pointed to a wall.  I quite modestly did push ups there after church services in front of a group of high priests.

Bill hasn't asked me to slow down since.

Don't Call The Men, Call Karen

On a related note, I have been known for chastising the women at church when they tell me to go get some men to move tables or chairs.  I tell them, "There's no need to wait; I can do it!"

Several months ago, a sister named Gail came to church early and asked me to go find a man to move a six foot table for her.  I told her that I could do it, but she went to go find "one of the brethren."

I sprinted to the gym, whipped open the storage area under the stage, rolled out the trolley and snapped up a table off the top of the stack. The bishop (the Mormon term for minister or pastor) then came over and held the other end. I barked at him to let me carry it alone while he held the door. He insisted on being gallant, so I caved and let him carry one end.

More recently, I moved three tables on and off the stage myself and I wan't even sore the next day. I had people scold me for doing this. However, if I focus on what I'm doing and flex my trans abdominal muscles the whole time, it's quite manageable (for now).

Hold Planks and Deliver

Earlier this summer I taught a two week course  in speed reading to a group of students entering high school this fall.   These seventeen year olds were telling me that they are better at sports than at reading. I challenged them to play against stereotype and start reading. To illustrate my point, I told them that I'm forging an identity as an athlete for the first time at midlife.

They didn't believe me, so I told them I could hold a plan for 4 minutes.  They still didn't believe me, so I dropped down between two rows of chairs and asked someone to run a stop watch app on his or her phone.  As the time went on and on and on, they kept accusing me of cheating some how.  They did not want to believe that I could out-plank them.

I threw the gauntlet down, and no one challenged to match or beat my time.  (Maybe they were just too self-conscious to do so, but I choose to believe that they were afraid of being bested by an "old lady" in front of their peers.)

Festivus Feats of Strength

During December of 2010, I attended a holiday Cousin Party.  I joined my two younger siblings, many of my cousins on my mom's side of the family and our parents. I am the oldest, but I am certainly not the most frail.

In order to command their awe and respect as their older-and-wiser relative, I dropped to the kitchen floor and did a dozen push ups.  My feat of strength was just weeks before I turned 49.   I asked my cousins and siblings if any could match or beat me. I didn't have any takers.

Showing my younger cousins how it's done.
Because the above photo was taken 4.5 years ago, here's an update:  Thanks to my physical therapist, my personal trainer and my regular attendance at the gym, my form is better. Also, I can three additional push ups now--a total of 15 per efforts.

My aim is to get so that I can do more with each birthday. And maybe I'll expand my performance art to include marathon dancing, distance running or competitive body building.

A Cautionary Tale

Don't ever say, "You are so fit for your age" because an older person just might outperform you.   

So, no, I don't need help with my bags.  The most profound comment I received from a younger person was this:

I went to a burger joint next to my local YMCA in order to get some protein before working out. When I told the thirtysomething woman behind the counter this, she remarked, "Oh, that's so cute. I should tell my mom that she can work out at her age like you do. How often do you go to the YMCA?"

When I told her that I sometimes do an hour of cardio in the morning and then an hour of stretching and weight training at night, this decades younger woman said to me, "Wow. I would be lucky if I could be as fit as you."

Now that sounds a lot better to me than, "Can I help you with your bag?"  

I hope that Mother Nature, Father Time, the Fates, my family responsibilities, and my work ethic allow me to travel in this direction for years to come. God bless all of us as we do our best to strive for health and fitness with the resources that we have.

My best to you on your own personal journey.


Older Adults Who Are Athletes


  1. I just want to advise that you be kind to those who ask to help you. Do not assume they think you are weak. Many elderly have health problems in lifting and do require assistance. Please do not discourage those who are kind by being to off-putting. Just tell them thanks but you work at being in excellent health and they can help the next elder.

    1. Agreed. I'm exaggerating here and representing only one view in what can be extremely complex and fluid social situations. Also, it's hard to convey here that I am smiling, laughing and going into a big comedy routine when this happens. I'm being funny / silly more than I'm being overtly aggressive. People laugh when I flash my guns. My trigger for writing this post was having a very, very, young, skinny, flaccid looking, not-so-strong, itty bitty girl offer to help. I'm seriously more muscular than she was. I work REALLY hard to portray strength and athleticism (as in 10 hours a week at the gym), so it's just wild to me to be treated as frail. And the older I get, the more likely "oh, you are frail" is going to confront me time after time after time. It's a real difficult adjustment to an entirely new dynamic for me.

  2. This was so great! How I wish I could have personally witnessed you in action at the grocery store and for Bill and his HPG gang. Too funny.

    1. No problem. (Well, it's a problem for my teens, but they'll get over it. Or they'll send me the therapy bills.)

  3. I got exactly what you were saying and laughed along with you. love this.

    1. I'll be playing the Palace all week. I just hope their carpet isn't too scratchy for doing my push ups and planks.

  4. Love your sense of humor. Wondering: is perhaps your height (you mentioned you're short) the reason for all this airplane gallantry? I'm telling you right now, I'm 5 ft 8 and I don't get many offers to assist!

    1. Hmmm. That might be playing a role. I'm 4 feet and 11 3/4 inches. Once I did a whole lotta yoga the week before an annual check up,and I hit 5 feet. Geez. It could be my short stature. Wow, I am interested to read that you (at 5' 8') don't get offers for storing your overhead luggage. Sexism? Ageism? Heightism? Fitnessism? Now I'm really confused.

  5. I'm not a slight person and I don't often get asked if I need help. But forget putting my carry-on in the overhead bin. I can't do it anymore. If no one asks me, I do the asking!

    1. I'm glad that you ask for what you need (and get that help). That's a great skill, Helene. I actually went into pre-term labor with my 2nd because I was moving furniture by myself. And I threw out my back in Nov 2014 carrying a box of Christmas books and videos up from the basement. I tend to get a little carried away, and I should probably exercise more caution before I do some real damage.

  6. Drop and give me 20! That's what you should say. Then you'll let them lift your bag. I'm betting many wouldn't be able to do it.

  7. Oh my gosh that's too funny. I never get asked if I need help but now I'm going to be paranoid about it if anyone does ask me. lol I think it's fab what great shape you are in. Keep doing those pushups and flexing those muscles. I need t go to the gym every so desperately now lol

    1. Doing this is a real cheat if I skip the gym. I can just work out at the store or at church. Get 'er done. All my best to you, Carolann.