50 and jumping for joy: Happiness is a friend, even on Facebook

In the pursuit of happiness, group of women chooses to age — dangerously

Christy DeSmith / (Minneapolis) Star Tribune /

I have 438 friends. On Facebook, that is, which is how I happen to know the exact number. (I also have a handful of pals not yet on Facebook.) My Facebook friends include buddies of many years as well as people I’ve met briefly through work or dimly recall from high school. Friends, in other words, you might once have called “acquaintances.” They even include a few people of the sort formerly known as “total strangers.”

We’re all friends now, sort of. We click “like” on each others’ photos, share each others’ viral videos, post greetings on each others’ birthdays, extend condolences when a loved one dies, exchange opinions on current events, tell jokes and anecdotes. It’s usually fun, often funny and occasionally enlightening.

That’s why I disagree with the familiar complaint that Facebook wrecks in-person relationships by replacing them with impersonal and unfulfilling online interaction. As if machines themselves were communicating rather than real human beings doing the typing and clicking.

Mind you, I don’t dispute all criticisms of the site. It’s hard to argue against charges that Facebook is a time suck and a privacy risk, that people post too much about politics or their children, which many users aren’t the greatest spellers. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

But supplanting real-life relationships? Hardly.

When it comes to promoting friendship, Facebook could be the greatest invention since the bowling league.

“Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” the Atlantic Monthly wondered in May. Apparently it’s not, judging by the article’s failure to support the claim. But author Stephen Marche tries really hard to argue otherwise.

“We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are,” Marche writes. “We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.”

Marche summons statistics and research showing that Americans are lonely, that Facebook is huge, that both phenomena exist simultaneously. But there’s no evidence that one causes the other, no proof that if people are lonely it’s Facebook’s fault. Marche’s own sources point out that it’s equally likely that Facebook can serve as a handy tool for enhancing social life.

“So if social media let you organize a game of football among your friends, that’s healthy,” Marche interprets. “If you turn to social media instead of playing football, however, that’s unhealthy.”

But Facebook doesn’t just fill in for unavailable friends, it brings together new ones.

Thanks to social media, I know dozens of people I otherwise wouldn’t. People in other parts of the country and the world. A network of professional contacts. Former classmates, neighbors and coworkers I’d been out of touch with for years before Facebook. Now I can reach these people to arrange coffee dates, request restaurant recommendations, exchange career advice.

Facebook is where I met the woman who organized my writers’ group, and another set of local writers who collaborated on a series of speaking panels. When a former employer laid off hundreds of workers, Facebook offered a place to vent and share job leads.

It gets complicated, like making Thanksgiving arrangements for a family with a sprawling cast of ex-spouses and half-siblings. But ultimately Facebook, like the holiday, is worth it.

Facebook has no more destroyed friendship than the telephone did. Friendship has been around for a lot of years and simply isn’t that easy to wipe out, even for a 28-year-old billionaire computer whiz. When the next communication breakthrough comes along — holographic images? Chips embedded in our brains? — friends are likely to survive.

— Katy Read, Star Tribune

The hangar was a mess of tattoos, goatees, empty pizza boxes — and grandmothers wearing designer sunglasses.

This was not the usual Saturday morning crowd for Westside Skydivers, a small business based in Winsted, Minn., just 50 miles west of Minneapolis. Sure, the company’s crew of brawny employees was behaving as usual — hauling arm-loads of harnesses and parachutes, unzipping their jumpsuits to cool off and expose their strong chests.

It was the older, female customers who lent the element of surprise. As they lounged about the hangar in clusters of three or four, the women kept their voices low and their composure cool. Was anybody feeling spooked? “Oh no, not at all,” boasted Diane Adams, 52, a seasoned skydiver from Bloomington, Minn. “I’m a very adventurous person.”

As if this were a matchmaking affair, each of the 15 women paired off with a professional skydiver. She would be tethered to this person — usually a 20- or 30-something man with a black T-shirt and a swagger — for the duration of her 13,000 or 18,000-foot plunge, depending on her level of experience. “It’s cold up there,” warned one of the pros.

“Don’t worry, I’m 55,” cracked Mary Sue Palazzari, a three-time skydiver from Edina, Minn. “We’re warm at this age.”

From the ground, a spectator could stretch his or her neck to see the constellation of specks forming above. Flocks of birds were twice mistaken as skydivers by the women’s husbands and friends. Sure enough, a small army of red T-shirts eventually emerged to the foreground. The women’s bodies swerved and sailed, bobbed and incrementally descended until the inscription on their shirts came into focus: Aging But Dangerous.

Founded in 2009, Aging But Dangerous is a membership organization inspired by a simple observation. “We had friends who were just struggling with aging,” said co-founder C. Suzanne Bates, now 64 years old. “Everyone was closing in and isolating themselves.” For example, many of Bates’ friends were doing cosmetic surgery, yet no one cared to discuss the matter — not even to share tips with their friends. Instead they went about the charade of “asking about one another’s skin care regimens,” said Bates, rolling her eyes.

So Bates and her best friend Jean Ketcham, now 72, hatched an ambitious plan. They hoped to inspire 50-plus women to talk frankly about the issues they faced while growing older. They also wanted to enrich women’s lives with a little more fun. Aging But Dangerous, a membership organization for 50-plus women complete with a newsletter, a website and a host of unusual outings designed to foster community while catching some thrills.

Now 150 members strong, the group meets every month for a “swarm,” or a novel activity, often with an educational component. Aging But Dangerous has hosted wine tastings and fashion events. They’ve been known to take in orchestra concerts and baseball games. In addition to skydiving, the group’s most daring undertakings have included trips to the tattoo parlor and target practice at Bill’s Gun Shop and Range, not to mention the pre-colonoscopy party Bates now admits was a mistake — because it turned into a scene from the movie “Bridesmaids.”

The group specializes in things “you probably wouldn’t do on your own,” said Joyce Landgren, 66, an Aging But Dangerous member and first-time skydiver from Minneapolis. Landgren has wanted to try skydiving since she was 18, she explained. “But you get into work, you get into raising kids...”

“That’s what Aging But Dangerous is about,” said Bates, picking up where Landgren left off, “empowering women to do the things they always wanted to do.”