Yes, Ageism is Bad For Your Health

Yes, Ageism is Bad For Your Health

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from ZOOMER magazine, June 18, 2018

One of Facebook’s core values, according to its founder Mark Zuckerberg, is to promote “better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others.”

Not long ago, a group of psychologists from four American universities decided to test this lofty adage. They conducted the first-ever study of age stereotypes in social networks.

The psychologists looked for Facebook groups about older people — the kind of lily pads that seniors might land on as they surf social media. But the researchers were interested a particular kind of group: about older people, but not by older people. They found 84. These sites were created and managed by people mostly in their 20s. They presented a young person’s-eye-view of what it’s like to be old. A fairly jaundiced eye.

Three quarters of the individual posts “excoriated” older individuals. One quarter “infantilized” them. Nearly 40 per cent of the young posters thought older people should be banned from public activities like shopping.

Some thought older folks should just hurry up and die already. Of unnatural causes if necessary: “Anyone over the age of 69 should immediately face a firing squad.”

Lead researcher Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale, had readied herself for some vitriol on these sites. “But I didn’t expect it to be this bad.”

Facebook says it does not tolerate hate speech. “It is a serious violation of our terms to single out individuals based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or disease,” reads its Community Standards policy.

Levy noticed age wasn’t on the list. Ageism didn’t make the cut on a social platform used by two billion people. Even after the Yale study was published, Facebook didn’t bother to correct the oversight. Last time Levy checked, eight of the most offensive sites were still up and running.

So this was appalling but illuminating. The Internet is the great magnifier of the human id. Ugly truths waft out under cover of anonymity. This study revealed a few: Ageism is everywhere. And social media is a convenient platform for young people to denigrate older people. Some young people don’t like old people very much — or maybe they just don’t like the idea of growing old.

But there is a bomb in the results. Prejudice, Levy has found, tends to boomerang back on the prejudiced.

Studies show most people’s views of aging are a mix of positive and negative and neutral. But people who are too negative — or have assimilated more negative age stereotypes from their culture — pay for that bias on a physical level. Whether we think of aging is an opportunity for growth or a ticket to frailty and incompetence — our bodies register that impression and deliver it as a wish, return-to-sender.

In an irony worthy of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, ageism makes people age more quickly.

Levy has built a distinguished career proving it.

Her most famous study leveraged data collected in the mid-’70s from the town of Oxford Ohio. Residents over age 50 were asked yes-or-no questions about their thoughts on aging. For example: “As you get older, you are less useful,” or “As I get older, things are (better, worse, or the same) as I thought they would be.”

Twenty-three years later, Levy entered the picture. First she checked to see how many of those participants were still alive. Then she matched the mortality data with the survey answers. She made a startling discovery. The subjects with the most negative views of aging died, on average, 7.6 years sooner than those with the most positive views. Being ageist influenced lifespan more than gender. Or socioeconomic status. Or loneliness. Or exercise.

Because it was a correlational study, there was no obvious explanation for the huge effect. But Levy knew the number one killer of people over fifty is cardiovascular disease. She wondered: what if ageism stresses the heart? She decided to test that theory with a double-barreled technique that has become her trademark.

Levy is both an experimental social psychologist and an epidemiologist, which makes her uniquely qualified to see both the fine grain and the big picture of social science. She goes back and forth. “I like to observe things in a controlled setting, and then see if that applies in a real world setting over time.”

In her lab at Yale, Levy had a number of test subjects, all over 65, take math and verbal tests under tight time pressure. But before they did, the subjects were “primed” with either positive or negative aging stereotypes. Essentially, a rosy or gloomy view of aging was planted in the test-takers’ minds before the starting gun sounded.

The negative-stereotype primed group tightened right up. Their heart rate and blood pressure soared. The test — which involved talking about a stressful experience—was hairy for both groups. But the negative stereotypes stressed the participants out further, while the positive stereotypes calmed them down.

“So then we wondered how that might operate in the community over time,” Levy says.

The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, started in 1958, tracked health data of around 1500 volunteer subjects in total, aged 17 to 49, over the course of six decades. Handily, the researchers also asked those subjects what they thought about aging and older people.

It turned out, subjects who had bought into the negative stereotypes of aging suffered twice as many heart events — from mini-strokes to congestive heart failure  — as those who had absorbed more positive stereotypes. Levy had controlled for every factor she could think of, from diet to smoking to family-history to depression. The only difference was the subjects’ thoughts about aging.

“Young, healthy people who hold ageist attitudes may put themselves at risk of heart disease up to 40 years later,” Levy concluded in the study, published in Psychological Science in March of 2009.

Ageism is a utility knife of wicked versatility. It affects even things you wouldn’t expect to have a psychological dimension. Things such as balance, handwriting, memory. Even hearing loss.

In one study, Levy asked septuagenarian test subjects to think of words that described older people. Those who came up with words like “frail” more than words like “wise” saw their hearing degrade more quickly. Three years later, this group’s hearing was significantly worse than the group that had held more positive views of aging.

Just a few weeks ago, Levy, in collaboration with the scientific director of the National Institute on Aging, published perhaps her most audacious study yet — and her most personal. Levy had a beloved grandfather who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Could the course of that kind of affliction, too, be steered by our thoughts?

Levy had already produced one blockbuster study suggesting the answer is yes. In a 2016, she and colleagues compared the ageism scores from that Baltimore Longitudinal study to the autopsied brains of the study subjects who had died. The brains of subjects who had held the most negative age stereotypes bloomed with tangles of amyloid plaques, and showed significant hippocampal shrinkage.

In the new study, within a different data set of older subjects, Levy zeroed in on a particular type of dementia candidate. People who carry the ε4 variant on the APOE gene are more likely to develop early-onset Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The chance is around 50 percent.

““So half of this is environmental,” says Levy. “We thought the positive beliefs might be one of the environmental factors that explain why some people with APOE4 develop dementia and others do not.”

Around a quarter of the subjects carried APOE4—as revealed by genetic testing at the beginning of the study. All the subjects were dementia-free at that point. Levy compared the attitude data to the health outcomes. Turned out, the APOE4 carriers who held rosier views of aging were less than half as likely to show signs of dementia four years later.

So what is actually going on here? What might explain the dramatic physiological effects of something as ineffable as mere “thoughts”?

For one thing, our attitudes, conscious or not, drive our behavior. This was likely a factor in Levy’s studies of stereotypes and long-term heart-health. “If people hold more negative views of aging, they may be less likely to walk the extra block or engage in healthy behaviors as they get older,” Levy said. “Because they tend to think of poor health as inevitable later in life.”

But a more potent factor — in some ways the elephant in the room in all aging stereotype studies — is this: there’s often a disconnect between young people and their future selves.

“People under forty don’t think of themselves as eventually getting older,” says the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, whose pioneering work on age primes paved the way for Levy’s. That disconnect is a problem. It prevents young people from, for instance, developing habits that would profit their older selves down the line. (Like saving for retirement, as the behavioral economist Dan Ariely has shown.) Just thinking about growing old is heart-constrictingly stressful – if, that is, you expect older age to be a time of pain and loneliness and confinement, rather than a time of leisure and discount travel and free play with tow-headed grandkids.

Ageism, at root, is about fear.

Robert Butler, the psychiatrist who coined the term “ageism,” thought ageism and elder abuse stem from “deeply human concerns and fears about the vulnerability inherent in the later years of life.” The idea of shuffling inexorably toward the grave scares the hell out of us. So we hold the shufflers at a contemptible distance – even as we ourselves, bit by invisible bit, become them.

“One time I picked up my father at the airport,” recalls Langer, “and I said ‘Dad, how was the flight?’” He said, ‘It was fine but there were all these old people on the plane.’ My father was in his eighties. Ageism is rampant among older people.”

This curious, common phenomenon of prejudice against one’s own group makes ageism different from the other ‘ism’s that Facebook actually cares about, like sexism and racism. People don’t typically diss their own gender or race. If others diss our gender or race, well, we can develop antibodies against those attacks from an early age, and ward off those poisonous judgments. Age is different. To the young, “old people” can seem almost like a different species—crotchety and frail and out to lunch. Until one day the young actually are old, and find themselves undefended against the very stereotypes they so deeply absorbed. And they sink to their low estimation of themselves.

This is all bad news for those ageist 20-something Facebook posters. They don’t know what flight plan they just filed.

But here’s the rub. Levy believes it’s possible to change that flight plan.

In fact, almost all her studies can be flipped to reveal not the destructive effects of negative aging stereotypes but the healthful effects of positive ones. Her whole  body of work, in a way, is a call for a public-health campaign against ageism.

“We know that children as young as three or four have taken in those negative stereotypes of our culture, and we know that those stereotypes are reinforced in young adulthood and middle age,” she says. “So by the time individuals reach older age the stereotypes can be pretty engrained.

“But we also have research that suggests that thoughts are malleable. If you prompt them, most people can come up with positive images. Some of those strategies we can learn. People can be taught to question negative beliefs.

“Because we know this starts at a young age, the earlier the interventions happen, the better. For example, You can make curriculum changes” in schools. “There are programs where older individuals come into classrooms and become resources.”

Langer’s work carries a similar message.

Many of her age-priming studies are about tricking the old to remember what it was like to be young — the better to tap the youthfulness that is still in them. (In her famous  Counterclockwise study, from 1979, older subjects were dropped into an elaborate re-creation of the ‘50s and emerged, one week later, measurably more spry. It has inspired the re-design of some seniors facilities and the re-thinking of elder care.)

But the rest of them are about nudging the young to think about what it’ll be like to be old.

“Let me tell you something I wanted to do years ago but couldn’t get funding,” Langer says. “I wanted to create a building that simulated life at age 70. As you get older, your body changes. You feel temperatures more intensely. Your field of vision narrows. By having a 40-year-old live in such a place — and I don’t think it’d take more than about three weeks — they’d probably develop the skill to be able to overcome, or at least adapt to, these deficits.”

For the Internet hate-mongers, it would be a powerful intervention. It might just keep them alive.

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From the archives: Swimming the Salmon Home

From the archives: Swimming the Salmon Home

Featured Published Stories Archive

from the NEW YORK TIMES, Sept 26, 2003

Robin Barefield photo

ON an overcast afternoon, eight snorkel divers and two guides — all of us encased in snug, full-body wet suits — gathered under a logging bridge on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and waded into the fast-rushing Campbell River. We took a few moments to acclimatize in the shallows, hyperventilating a little as the glacier-born river flooded our suits.
The women had removed their earrings; trout passing through the river tend to strike at anything shiny, whatever flesh it may be attached to. After a bit of low comedy involving the cumbersome fins and the current, I pushed out into the main flow, looked down and swallowed my breath again. A few feet in front of me was a salmon the size of a dancer’s leg. Tail forked, flanks rust-red, it tracked laterally across the river, whip-cracking the muscle of its body. This tyee was probably five or six years old and at least 35 pounds. The size was to some extent an illusion; but even allowing for the double magnification of the water and the mask, it was one big fish. And it wasn’t alone. Looming out of the shadows now were others, kings and cohos and the odd straggling pink, each salmon churning upstream, a flash of biological imperative in my peripheral vision.
It’s a strange way to see a game fish: not on a dinner plate or at the end of a fishing line, but alive and free and in your face.
The annual salmon spawn really is one of those mysterious, natural spectacles worthy of the build up. Almost half a million Pacific salmon return to the Campbell each year from the ocean, inching back to their natal streams, to the precise football-size patch of riverbed where, for them, the whole plot began.
They come in succession: the humpbacked pinks, the silver-sided coho and eventually the fiercely hooked-nosed chum. But most impressive of all is the tyee, the coastal Indians’ word for chief, a title Chinook salmon earn when they hit 30 pounds. These are the fish that have given the Campbell a reputation for almost unmatched salmon fishing — at least until recently.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, loss of habitat, overfishing and, perhaps, climate change turned the slow depletion in Pacific salmon stocks into a crisis gravely, recalling what happened to the cod stocks of the East Coast. Strict fishing regulations were imposed on most salmon rivers in the Pacific Northwest and southern British Columbia.
Almost all salmon fishing in the Campbell, therefore, is now catch-and-release. But an alternative has grown in its place. If you can’t take salmon out of the river, nothing says you can’t climb in there with them.
The Pacific salmon in this stretch of the Campbell River would all be dead within a month. Unlike their Atlantic cousins, returning Pacific salmon die after just one reproductive season. Once they hit fresh water, the fuse is ignited. They stop eating; the only fuel available to them is their own bodies, which they quickly deplete. Battered by rocks and snacked on in passing by lazy seals, they’re soon marked with open wounds. Fungus grows in the wounds. And the once gleaming silver flanks begin to fuzz over with gray. The fish start to leave bits of themselves in the water, to mix with the milt and the roe. In few other places in nature do sex and death so explicitly commingle.
The number of coho in the river on this day last October was surprising; they don’t generally spawn in deep water. But because there had been so little rain, they weren’t moving into the tributaries, Catherine Temple, founder of Paradise Found Adventure Tours, explained about the near-drought conditions on this late-season day. Typically, rainwater in the river is a signal to the fish that it’s time to move out into the spawning beds.
Ms. Temple’s six-year-old company bills itself as the only one in North America that offers snorkeling-with-salmon tours. (And a search of the Internet seems to support that claim.) Which isn’t to say that individuals around here hadn’t thought of trying it earlier. The first probably was the Canadian outdoorsman and writer Roderick Haig-Brown, who in the 1950’s donned a mask and snorkel to observe the effects of a new dam on the behavior of the fish and, not incidentally, to see where they were hiding (he was a fisherman, first and foremost). In the 1970’s and 80’s, locals started getting into the act. Only the unusual clarity of the river makes this sport possible: on some days, in bright sunshine, fish can be seen finning 30 feet away.
On this day, the big pink run was largely over and the chum run had yet to begin. Next to the tyee, the chum are the most arresting fish in the Campbell, with their lantern jaws and guard-dog teeth, which nature starts to manufacture the moment the fish enters fresh water, a signal that it will soon be needing weaponry if it is to have a chance in the territorial skirmishes.
”The chum won’t move in till the chinook are gone because they’re in direct competition for the beds,” Ms. Temple said. ”And the coho didn’t come till the pinks were gone. Apparently they don’t like their smell.”
At one point, to better appreciate what the salmon were up against, I spun around and kicked back against the current, hard, until my legs burned. I still lost ground. But I noticed, for the first time, some salmon drifting downriver with me. And the Sisyphean nature of their task sank in: a spawning salmon cannot rest without backsliding at an alarming rate; and yet, it has to rest. So its labor becomes two strokes forward, a stroke and a half back, for days, weeks, months.

A guide, Jamie Turko, grew up on Vancouver Island. As a boy, he and his pals would float like torpedoes down the whole navigable length of the river, a 45-minute run. Back then, the fish were so plentiful they would routinely collide with him. Not so now. ”I’ve only had two bump into me so far this year,” he said.

Fish stocks have recovered somewhat in the last three years but are only about 60 percent of the levels they were a decade ago. And though the tyee are still big enough to set the eyes of most visiting fishermen spinning, they’re not nearly as big as they used to be. It was not uncommon, Mr. Turko said, to have 200-pound salmon 500 or 600 years ago. (The modern record is 122 pounds.) If you belonged to the local Tyee club in the early 1950’s, you would routinely bag fish in the 65-pound range; now the biggest are pushing 50. Because no limits were traditionally imposed on how large a fish you could take from the river — only how small — the biggest tyee were removed from the gene pool. Only in the last few years have maximum limits been imposed as well as minimums. But it’s too late: the really big fish are probably gone forever.

One way to approach snorkeling with the salmon of the Campbell is to think of it as a metaphor for an ancient relationship. People in these parts have relied on salmon as a food source for as long as there have been people in these parts. Salmon rivers determined settlement patterns. To the Indians of the region, salmon were and remain sacred. (The Haida people believed the Pacific salmon were actually a race of subterranean humans who took the form of fish when they rose out of the ground and into the oceans.) ”Much of their behavior remains cloaked in mystery still,” Mr. Haig-Brown wrote of the salmon in the Campbell. ”Where exactly in the ocean do they go, when they leave the streams where they were born? How do they find their way home? What is the immediate purpose of this schooling in the canyon pool at what must be almost the end of their journey?”

Floating down the river, elbow to elbow with others, like part of an advancing line of rugby players, the snorkel diver is struck by an inevitable question: Can this activity be good for the fish?

The wager all eco-tour operators make is that whatever impact their visitors have on nature is more than offset by the impact nature makes on them, that a renewed respect for the chain of life and a diminished desire to interfere with natural processes is absorbed and passed on. It’s not clear if or how humans in the river affect salmon. There is some evidence that the fish can at least smell large mammals in the water and that they are sensitive to electromagnetic changes of the sort a human might generate.

”The main concern, however, is that the added stress of people’s floating down the river will cause the fish to die of exhaustion too soon, before they reach their spawning beds,” Ms. Temple said. ”But the fish don’t seem to be affected.”

Dave Ewart, manager of the Quinsam River Hatchery, which has been doing fish counts for more than 20 years, gives Ms. Temple the benefit of the doubt. ”I’m sure, just as with killer-whale watching, there will come a time when it’s just too much, that there will be a breaking point,” he said. ”But my experience is that when it rains and the river comes up and it’s time to spawn, nothing stops these fish. They’ll go wherever they have to go.”

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Eureka!

Eureka!

Featured Published Stories Archive

Flashes of insight can be personally transformative, creatively inspiring, or even spiritually transcendent. Is there a way to manufacture an “aha” moment,” or at least improve the odds of having one?

From PSYCHOLOGY TODAY (cover story), March 2015

Simon Lovell was 31 and a professional con man who had spun the gambling tricks he’d learned from his grandfather into a lucrative if bloody-minded business fleecing strangers. Without hesitation or remorse, he left his marks broken in hotels all over the world.

Nothing suggested that this day in 1988 would be any different. Lovell, in Europe, had spotted his victim in a bar, plied him with drinks, and drawn him into a “cross”—a classic con game in which the victim is made to believe he’s part of a foolproof get-rich scheme. The con went perfectly. “I took him for an extremely large amount of money,” Lovell said later.

Lovell hustled the drunken man out of the hotel room and left him in the hallway for security to deal with. But then something unexpected happened. The mark went to pieces. “I’d never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell recalled. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing.”

What followed was a moment Lovell would look back on as the hinge point of his life. “It was as if a light suddenly went on. I thought: This. Is. Really. Bad. For the first time, I actually felt sorry for someone.”

Lovell’s next move was hard even for him to believe. He returned the guy his money. Then he went back inside the hotel room, sat down, poured a drink, and declared himself done with this dodge. “There was an absolute epiphany that I just couldn’t do it anymore.” The next day he felt different. Lighter. “I had become,” he said, “a real human being again.” He never ran another con. Continue reading

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Chicken Suit for the Soul

Chicken Suit for the Soul

Essays Featured Published Stories Archive

from READER’S DIGEST, June 2014

chicken.suitIt promised to be the best job so far that summer—which wasn’t saying much. I’d been scanning the “casual labour” postings at the local employment office, vowing every visit to take something, anything. Already I had unpacked shipments of underpants, been pulled through an active sewer on a rolling sled with a bucket of caulk and a trowel, to seal cracks, and delivered flower arrangements in a car so small half the buds got crushed when you closed the hatchback. At 18, you take what you can get.

That’s why this particular gig looked so beguiling: “mascot.” To celebrate the grand opening of a new Edmonton location in the Red Rooster convenience store chain, the employer needed to catch the eye of passing motorists and was offering two days’ work to a self-starter who could bust a few dance moves on the corner.

I fit the suit. I got the job.

The outfit had clearly been washed fewer times than it had been worn. The oversize head—more chicken than rooster—was sculpted out of wire and foam and sat heavily on shoulderpads, which had been shined and flattened by sweat and compression. The moony eyes didn’t line up right with mine.

It was mid-July. Even the mosquitos were sluggish. A high-pressure system had settled on the city and forecasters were calling for record-breaking temperatures by Sunday. The suit had no ventilation. There was no relief unless you removed the head, which was only allowed during one of two 10-minute breaks, out of public view—lest any children (delicate creatures) be forever traumatized by the sight of decapitated fake fowl.

It didn’t take long for the welcome party to show up. Kids can smell the stress hormones in adult sweat even upwind, and soon half a dozen pre-teens were orbiting as I staked out a spot on the sidewalk and tried to get into character. “Hey, chicken!” one kid taunted. This was a part of town that might charitably be called “emerging.” These were tougher kids than I was used to. “Hey, chicken legs!”

My best defense was to concentrate on the job. I improvised a dance that involved standing on one leg and helicoptering the other leg and the opposite arm—er, wing—more or less in sync. It wasn’t particularly roosterly and it certainly wasn’t manly. Immediately, I could feel a change in the energy of the kids. They were homing in on a new frequency of vulnerability.

The first rock hit me in the back. I figured they were aiming for the head and I actually re-oriented to give them that bigger, softer target.

No cars slowed. A manager briefly emerged from the store, was hit by a blast of heat that lifted his toupee, then quickly darted back into his air-conditioned cave. During break time I closed the door of the store’s stock room, removed my head and hyperventilated.

That night at the supper table my dad said grace. “Lord, bless this food to our use and us to Thy service” — the same grace he had grown up with as a missionary’s son, said quietly to himself in wartime mess halls and still trotted out for his four kids, who were mostly just glad it was so short. Then he asked: “How’d it go?”

To everyone’s surprise—but mostly mine—I started to cry. I described the heat, the stench, the rocks, the sticky pavement under my chicken feet.

“And the worst part is,” I said, “I have to go out there tomorrow and do it all again.”

My father was quiet for a full 10 seconds. Then:

“No you don’t.”

This was unusual. Dad had always believed we kids should keep our commitments. The store had hired me in good faith to be a chicken (rooster) and it wasn’t cool if the chicken (rooster) didn’t show up.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I mean, you’re not putting on that suit tomorrow,” he said. “I am.”

Dad had wiry black eyebrows and, under them, the kindest eyes. He was 60 years old. “Look, we’re about the same size,” he said. “Who’s to know?”

We’re only lent to each other, the short-story writer Raymond Carver once said. We get to have moments, and all we can do is savour the best ones as they happen: here, now… gone. The part of me that relished imagining my father out there doing the Twist or the Bus Stop, maybe even kind of enjoying himself in the anonymity of the costume, was hard to deny. But there was no way I was letting him be the chicken. The fact that he was willing to be the chicken was enough. The gesture blew new strength into me.

The next day went well. Nothing was different, but everything was. At the end of it I deposited a cheque from Hormel Foods for $86, and felt like a king.

http://www.readersdigest.ca/magazine/ode-dad-three-memoirs

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From the archives: Fishing for Madeline

From the archives: Fishing for Madeline

Essays Featured Kids Published Stories Archive

sturgeon

From READER’S DIGEST, Dec. 2010 – Quinton Gordon photograph

Today was a big day, I’d reminded my daughter. Right after kindergarten we had a date. “Rick’s taking us fishing. He’ll teach us about fish.”

Madeline, who is five, looked unmoved.

“I already know everything about fish,” she said.

“You do?”

“Yup.”

“What do you know about fish?”

“They need to eat to stay strong, and they need to be wet to stay alive. They swim with their mouth open so they never get thirsty.”

It wasn’t a bad start.

“Rick” is Rick Hansen, the renowned wheelchair athlete who, outside of his charity work, happens to know everything — or close to everything — about one particular fish. Hansen is director of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society. And as he loomed into view through a misty rain, from the deck of his boat bobbing at the public wharf in Steveston, B.C., she recognized him as the “man in motion” guy in one of her kids’ books.

Madeline had never really been fishing. Oh, I’d taken her to the Father’s Day derby at nearby Rice Lake, where about a million little kids lily-dip their lines in hopes of snagging one of the timid little trout in there. But this was something else. White sturgeon are a species so big and old and storied that catching one is almost as much of a life-changing experience as tagging it and putting it back—even for adults. The sturgeon that swim in the Fraser today are evolutionarily unchanged from the ones that swam before the ice age before the last ice age. No joke: we were going fishing for dinosaurs.

His folded wheelchair tucked between the seats, face flush with the pleasure of being out of the office, Hansen throttled up and we nosed out of port. The wind, here in the estuary, carried the tang of sea salt. The working river was doing double-time – seiners schlepping their heavy nets, tugs towing barges of sawdust, a crane lowering a tankerload of cars from Asia onto the dock. None of this interested Madeline much. Look, there were two TVs on board! When it became sadly clear that neither was going to pick up Babar, she tuned in to Rick’s explanation. One screen mapped where we were. The other was a fishfinder. “In the old days you used to be able to say, well the fish just weren’t around,” Rick said. “Now you have to admit, we just weren’t smart enough to catch them.”

Madeline sat on my lap. I could feel the warmth of her right through the yellow rubber rain pants. It was kind of blissful. To busy parents of little kids, life too often seems like a string of teachable moments squandered. By the time we realize what we should have said to help decode their wonder and give it a name, the door has slammed shut. But a day spent fishing for sturgeon is one long master-class in pretty much everything that’s important to know. The teaching goes both ways. Adults make fishing complicated, but a kid’s appreciation of it—as of most things—is big-picture simple. Today we would learn not how different a prehistoric fish is from a five-year-old girl, but how similar.

“What do you think sturgeon like to eat?” I’d queried on the drive south through Vancouver. “Worms,” Madeline said, definitively. Turned out she was right: many a novice fisherman casually dangling an earthwormed hook into the Fraser has had a near heart attack when a sturgeon the size of a dancer’s leg takes that bait. But there are things a sturgeon likes even more. Fred Helmer, a veteran BC fishing guide who was along with us, had prepared four rods—including one for Madeline and one for me. And now as we dropped anchor in Rick’s secret favorite spot near the Alex Fraser Bridge, he cast the hooks in and they sank without bubbles. On the menu today was choice pink-salmon parts and —the special of the day — a syrupy clump of skein roe that Fred called “magic bait.” These are protein-rich eggs harvested from a mama pink salmon just preparing to spawn: superpremium catnip.

Fred held his hands a foot or so apart. “How big is the fish you’re going to catch?” Madeline shook her head. He went wider. “This big?” Madeline knew exactly how big. In her kid logic, a successful fishing outing is one in which you land a fish that would fit your clothes. Madeline’s sturgeon, by that reasoning, was going to be 109 centimetres long– three foot seven. Mine would be 175 centimetres—five foot nine.

What’s cool about sturgeon fishing, though, is that it’s not about size. Every fish has equal merit. Nobody would be taking a sturgeon home for dinner tonight. Earlier this century they were fished almost to extinction—twice—and while their numbers recover, the white sturgeon of the Lower Fraser are protected. But this is more than a catch-and-release enterprise: it’s catch-and-tag-and-release. Sturgeon fisherman are tracking the population: where they’re going, how they’re growing, how many of them are out there — and data on the juveniles is just as valuable as data on the old soldiers. To fish for sturgeon is to be an adjunct scientist. Everyone who catches a sturgeon becomes part of the conservation effort, and in this sense a five-year-old’s contribution is as valuable as any biologist’s.

 

An hour of fishing under the bridge yielded but one tiny sculpin, which Madeline took great joy in setting free. But now the tide had turned. The rising sea was pushing boats upriver, giving the Fraser the appearance that it was running backwards. We were entering a dreamscape where the normal laws of physics were suspended.

The scent of that gorgeous bait was carrying on the current. For the fish, the wind had just picked up outside a bakery.

Madeline’s rod-tip twitched, subtly. Rick took the rod gently, reefed up hard on it, once, then handed it to me. A fish was on.

 

It felt big. Or at least mad. I struggled to keep too much line from peeling off the reel. “So, Rick has a couple of rules,” Fred said. “You cannot let go of the rod no matter what. If you do go over the side, hang on to the rod and we will come and get you.”

For some long minutes the tug-of-war continued. Then out of the brackish depths of the Fraser it came, Madeline’s sturgeon, tigerish stripes on its back visible first, then the sharklike head and the flicking tail defining the two ends, establishing its size. I had been trying to stay strong for Madeline—the great stoic hunter little girls expect their dads to be—but my arms were blasted. I was shaking and frankly not too far from tears.

“What’s the most humane thing to do with this fella?” I croaked as we brought him alongside.

“Just keep him in the water, relaxed,” Rick said. “We have to set up.”

The fish was still. “Is he dead?” Madeline asked.

“No, Sweetie. He’s had better days. But he’ll be fine.”

Fred guided Madeline’s sturgeon into a hammock-like sling in the water, which Rick then winched up into the boat. Madeline put on gloves. She came up to her fish. It seemed less like a fish than some kind of farm animal with body armour. Something in a medieval petting zoo. We watched the gills opening and closing, flashes of crimson beneath. Was it suffering?

“Sturgeon aren’t like some other fish, where after five minutes out of the water they’re done,” Rick said. “They are incredibly hardy.”

“Back in the day when you could catch and keep sturgeon, my dad would store them on the lawn, for three or four days, with the sprinkler on them – and then go sell them in Chinatown,” Fred said.

“Here’s the mouth—see how leathery it is? Look how it comes out – like a vacuum hose. And these things on its nose are chemical sensors for detecting prey.”

Rick turned in his chair. “They have the ability to locate food that’s way more sophisticated than ours, using vibrations,” he said. Madeline, who sometimes has trouble locating the snacks in her backpack, stroked her sturgeon, its sandpapery skin, incredibly gently.

 

I picked her up and held her, lengthwise, over top of her sturgeon. It was her size. A measurement confirmed it – within a centimeter. It was probably a few years older. Fred produced an instrument, like the little retail-store gun that scans the barcode tags, and passed it over the fish. BEEP! A microchip under the fish’s skin sent a signal, and a number popped up in the scanner viewscreen.

The fish had been caught once before – on November 22, 2006. Since that day, we would learn, the fish had grown nine centimeters in length but only one in girth – taller but not much fatter. Like Madeline herself. I had a flashback to St. Paul’s hospital, our daughter emerging grey-pink and slimy and a doctor moving her under a warm light and producing a tape measure. Madeline stuck out beyond the last mark, off the charts. “Our child cannot be measured by science!”)

“You can check on your fish once a year,” Rick told Madeline. Thousands of BC schoolkids, from grade two to grade seven, are monitoring the sturgeon stocks by following the stories of individual fish like this one.

As Madeline’s fish rested in the sling, a second sturgeon was brought aboard. This time the scan was beepless. So: a new capture. This fish had never been above water. Fred loaded a little glass tag the size of a grain of rice into what looked like a hypodermic needle.

“I’ll try not to get this needle in my hand—that has happened before,” Fred said. “Now, Madeline, we put the tag right under the surface of his skin, so when the fish grows the tag can move around in his body.”

We tipped both fish toward the river and they slipped in, headfirst. I thought, romantically, that Madeline’s fish might look back at her before swimming away, but it didn’t. Madeline asked to be picked up. She was dead weight. I had the notion that she was drained of energy in sympathy with her exhausted fish.  (Or, less likely, in sympathy with her exhausted dad.) Probably it was just a perfect storm of a couple of late nights, fresh air and a glucose crash from the nut bars.

But clearly, this was all almost too much for her to process. She didn’t have the language for it.

I wondered what new fears we had introduced on this trip. The idea of a whole teeming subsurface world: monsters under the bed. Her fish had been brought up gasping into the air. It looked bad, but it really wasn’t, we insisted. Did she buy it? (You could see her searching for the right analogy and later she found it. “How would you like to be holded under water?”) A million mind-blowing factoids swirled: Dinosaurs are real. Dads are weaker than they let on. And the people we read about in books might one day step out of those books and take us fishing.

She had been a motormouth on the car ride over. From the back seat issued strong opinions on how Beethoven lived in China, how things were better in the days when dads like me weren’t underfoot and moms played with kids and gave them treats. (Also: could she have a horse?) But now she was silent. I looked down at her in my arms. She was asleep.

 

You can guess how the rest of the story goes. Kid logic prevailed. The sun broke through. Soon after my own fishing rod twitched with a bite. After a monumental struggle that ensured I’d be sleeping with a heating pad for days, I brought this last fish in. Madeline was awake now, saucer-eyed, trying to get close without getting in the way. Fred’s hand got raked by the pointy scutes and was trailing blood as he scanned it.

This fish was monstrous. It measured 93 centimetres around, its belly probably full of pink salmon. It was between sixty and eighty years old – the age of grandpas and grandmas. Now it was going back. With great luck it will still be here a generation from now, and maybe Madeline will catch it again with her own five-year-old son or daughter on a fine fall day like this one.

But there was one thing that didn’t square. Madeline’s fish was Madeline-sized. Mine was supposed to be my dad-sized: that was what she’d ordered. We measured it. From its nose to the tip of its tail it was around 215 centimetres. Madeline leaned close.

“That’s you?” she said.

I shook my head. “It’s taller.”

Then it clicked.

“That’s you on my shoulders.”

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