Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

Archive for November 2009


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Sometimes the saddest stories are buried in the “entertainment” section of the newspaper. I put the word in quotation marks because some of what passes for entertainment these days is cruel and invasive. It elevates the maudlin and sappy sentimentality to holy writ and it crucifies failure. It holds ordinary people — especially women — to an impossible standard of looks and behaviour, all the while moving the goalposts.

Erik Chopin of New York, winner of season three of television’s most popular reality show, The Biggest Loser, didn’t appear on this week’s broadcast supposedly featuring past contestants in an update on how they’re doing now.

Eric has gained back almost all of the 214 pounds he lost on the program. He’s not the only one. In a story in the Anchorage Daily News, writer Julia O’Malley chronicled how the second-place contestant in season three, Kai Hibbard Zwierstra, has also gained back most of the 118 pounds she lost.

O’Malley quotes Ellen Halverson, a psychiatrist, that the show “creates an artificial world where people make a full-time job out of losing weight in an environment created to support them. The show doesn’t address the root behaviours that lead people to overeat. Because of that, it may be hard for contestants to maintain their weight in the real world.”

No kidding.

Most reality shows are no more real than Cheez Whiz is real food or Tang is real orange juice. One of the worst is The Biggest Loser, a show that has captivated the American watching public. The show is dedicated to putting obscenely obese people, desperate enough to lay themselves open to ridicule, through months of isolation, living together on a “ranch” and enduring a boot-camp regime of weight loss and hours of daily, frantic exercise. Cameras follow them everywhere. They are trotted out for the television public to judge, to talk about and supposedly, to cheer on. The really sad part is the choice made by so many television watchers to sit on their chesterfields and watch the humiliation presumably without ever stopping to think what such public scrutiny must be doing to the contestants, or what all that sitting around is doing to their behinds. (The facile argument is that the contestants volunteer to put themselves through the regime, so whatever humiliation they endure is their choice.)

This isn’t a support group, this is a contest, make no mistake. There’s money involved for “the biggest loser” and a modicum of fame until the cameras stop rolling and the producers stop calling and then they’re back to whatever kind of life they had that led to their obesity.

Frankly, I’ve only been able to watch about 10 minutes of one program, although the ads are as invasive as the program. The sight of incredibly fat women weeping as they get booted off the program, presumably for being “bad” is the worst sort of bathos — the worst sort of trivialization — on all sides: the show, the contestants and, of course, the voyeurs watching.

Kai Zwierstra (she was Kai Hibbart and married after the show) told the Alaska newspaper that the show’s philosophy “to radically change diets and exercise patterns of obese people — seemed to have a hidden message about her character. It seemed to say that weakness made people fat. If they just had discipline, if they weren’t lazy, they could be thin.”

That’s just plain cruel.

Success isn’t losing half your body weight; success is being able to change. Victor Frankl, the late Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, put it best: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” You can change yourself. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fast. But it is possible.

None of us particularly likes change. Regular routines, predictable outcomes are usually what we’re after. But keep Albert Einstein’s definition of madness in mind: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If all we do is continue on the same path, eating the same food, the outcome is predictable.

But let me hear you cry: I Am Woman, watch me change.

I came into work at the London Free Press one afternoon with dark, red hair. As I had been a dishwater blonde at the previous day’s news meeting, there was some expressions of surprise from the other reporters, at that time, all male. By the end of the shift, nobody cared much what colour my hair was. And I stayed red until the fateful day, about seven years later, when on a trip back home to Alberta, my mother allowed that the colour was making me look “old.” I was about to celebrate my 30th birthday that fall, an age at which many women start to worry about such things.

That did it for the red hair. By that evening, I was blonde, thanks to Mother and a get-blonde kit. And not just my natural dishwater blonde, but a va-voom blonde, a “only your hairdresser knows” Clairol blonde, a blonde with attitude. It took about another 10 years for me to realize that doing my own hair was not doing my looks or my hair any good.

And so, dutifully, I found a stylist. This is not to assume that I like change. In the past 30 years I have had exactly three stylists and I’ve been with the current one for 16 years, only slightly less time than I have employed the same cleaning woman. (By way of comparison, I have been married to Ted for only 13 years and there isn’t a woman in the world who wouldn’t agree that it’s harder to replace a stylist or a cleaning woman than a husband. Unfortunately, such threats don’t work on Ted who merely laughs and goes back to reading the newspaper every time the subject is raised which is usually minutes after the indefatigable Brigitte muses about retiring.)

Why am I confident all of us can change? Because if you are female you are already equipped to handle profound change. For a goodly part of your teenage years and adult life, your body forces change upon you every month. At the end of that time, it announces change with menopause. In between those years are child-bearing and child-rearing — and that doesn’t even count the husband-caring part of the equation. If you can get through all of that, changing your eating habits, changing your attitude about exercise and fitness, and even changing friends who aren’t behind you should be easy.

Think of it as personal housecleaning — tossing out all those behaviours that won’t bring the result you really want.

NEXT: Ho-ho-ho, the eating season is upon us


Written by Catherine Ford

November 26, 2009 at 5:17 pm

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Those of us old enough to have been children before television or video or electronic amusement were entertained with nursery rhymes and fairy tales and, of course, Aesop’s fables. The latter always had a moral, not that a three-year-old was able to grasp the concept.

But even children easily learned about the tortoise and the hare, and the moral of sour grapes. What we also learned, but maybe didn’t really understand until we grew up was the concept of the viper in your bosom. Aesop, the slave, told the story of a farmer who kept a snake from freezing to death by warming him inside his coat. When the snake recovered, it bit and killed his benefactor. The moral is obvious.

What might not be so obvious is that your best friend — even your husband — can willingly or unwittingly sabotage all your efforts.

The blandishments always go something like this: It’s Thanksgiving, have just one little piece of pumpkin pie. With whipped cream. It’s a party — have one of these delicious puff pastries filled with cheese. Another slice of roast beef/turkey/meat loaf isn’t going to hurt you. You’re getting too thin anyway. Just one eggnog isn’t going to hurt. Oh, you just don’t like my cooking . . . and on and on it goes.

Most of these comments are made without rancour.

Who wants to believe her husband or her lover is willingly trying to sabotage her efforts? Who wants to face the choice of losing a friend or losing the weight?

The toughest part is to say no. And mean it. If your friends don’t get the message, get new friends. If your husband doesn’t get it, start asking yourself why someone who is supposed to be your most enthusiastic supporter, your biggest fan, doesn’t want you to succeed.

I’m no psychologist, but you need to find out if he’s jealous, worried that you’re getting in shape to leave him, angry that you’re not making all the fattening foods he loves, or just plain resentful and threatened. Now, you have a problem. If he doesn’t understand what you are trying to accomplish, ask yourself why not. A blunt conversation should work.

Sometimes the ones we love the most do us the most damage, although they don’t mean to. And sometimes the ones who do the most damage consider themselves friends.

There’s only one way to combat the saboteurs who are all around: Shut up. Say nothing. Resist the urge to be an evangelist about your new regime.

This has a couple of advantages: If you don’t carry on about your health and fitness plan you will be spared having to listen to others and most importantly, spared their advice. If they want to eat raw garlic or drink something called “pro-biotic” liquids, let them be. You don’t have to buy into anyone else’s eating habits, plans or make-over routine. Indeed for once in your life, this is all about you and nobody else.

I went to an elegant lunch yesterday with a charming guest speaker. Okay the guest speaker was me, but the food was perfect and nobody needed to know I was watching what I ate. Sometimes eating in public is the easiest of all, as comments made on what someone else eats or doesn’t being the height of bad manners.

In public, you’re in control.

Lunch was Alberta beef – the best in the world, notwithstanding Kobe or that sweet stuff from Argentina — and it was prepared no more than medium rare, at least mine was after I swapped the medium slice for a rarer piece.

Usually, when we go out to these things, the meal isn’t worth the calories it represents. It’s deep-fried mystery meat (usually chicken) and some mushy vegetables that have been sitting under a heat lamp, or stewing on a steam table for hours. That’s one of the reasons I usually hate “banquet” type meals — when you’re serving a crowd, you can’t serve meals a la minute, the restaurant term for a meal cooked when it is ordered. And yes, it’s usually expensive.

I remember a chef in Toronto explaining to me how he managed to produce a delicious, low-calorie, low-fat, low-sugar lunch for a diet group’s annual awards banquet. He looked at me, the inquiring reporter, as if I had lost my marbles and said, in one of those fabulous French accents something to the effect of “zut, alors!” (An expression comparable to a mild cuss word but considerably more elegant than “damn” or “hell.”)

He allowed that there was no way to produce anything edible within the restrictions he had been given by the organizers. He had smiled, nodded, agreed, and went ahead and cooked the way he wanted to — albeit without the usual butter and cream sauces, which would have been a dead giveaway.

No one but me — and him and the entire staff of the giant suburban Toronto hotel — was aware of the deception.

Needless to say that lunch was a success, both in terms of the awards given out (most pounds lost in a year; most “improved” member – I still don’t know what that one meant – and a host of other recognitions) that included just about everyone in the ballroom.

Everyone went home happy, completely unaware they had been fed “bad” food. I’ll guarantee none of the attendees gained an ounce from that lunch, mostly because the portions were so small, the vegetables so colourful, the presentation so lovely that no one thought they were being “robbed” of enough food. What the chefs achieved was the same as it they had loaded the plates with piles of food that had no taste. With a dab of butter here, a pinch of sugar there, they made a satisfying meal and none of the organizers (who would have been horrified their instructions were ignored) were the wiser.

That’s too bad, because the group could have used that kind of lesson, that it’s not the hint of butter or the addition of some sugar that makes anyone fat, it’s the amount.

Fooling the eye is as important as satisfying the gut.

Programs like Weight Watchers work because, like Alcoholics Anonymous, the group dynamic is important. Unfortunately, you can’t give up food completely, like you can give up liquor or drugs or whatever else you’re hooked on. Food is really no different; it’s just more socially acceptable – up to a point. Have one drink too many on a regular basis, and you’re labeled a lush, a sot or an alcoholic.

But overeat at Thanksgiving or Hanukah and then Christmas and New Year’s and nobody’s going to call you a fat pig. Unless, of course you’re a woman and you’re overweight and the whispers you know are going on, disguised as concern. Oh, she’s so pretty, some catty po-faced drab will say to her next-door neighbour. She has such a pretty face, if she’s only lose all that weight.

I remember a particularly vicious encounter with a woman who shall remain nameless. She was tall, blonde, gorgeous — beauty pageant material — and incredibly stupid, although she was the sort of person who had an answer for everything and everyone. (I savoured the stupid part, even if thinking it made me feel I might be guilty of a venial sin.)

Nonetheless, her husband was a friend of the family and one holiday gathering, when I was feeling particularly good about myself, someone in the crowd asked how much weight I had lost. Instead of deflecting the question, I told her. Binbo chimed in, all 110 pounds of her, to tell the assembled audience how she just battled her weight all the time. She thrust out her considerable embonpoint (better known as her boobs) placed one hand on her left hip and whined: “I just gain it all right here.” Right, lady, you just jut out that bony hip of yours and pretend anyone in this crowd believes you.

It was one of the only times in my life when the perfect retort came at the right time, instead of at 3 a.m. I looked at her and said. “I don’t think you have any right to boast about an occasional skirmish when some of us are waging a war.” Did she understand what I was talking about? I didn’t care, but I felt a certain malicious satisfaction at the deep scorn in my voice.

And, much to my personal chagrin and guilt — because there is some awful glee in her fate — in the ensuing 25-odd years she has not aged well. Her husband is gone, her life is booze, her once-dewy skin now that of a heavy drinker. Oh, she’s still thin, but the men who used to dance attendance on her have gone on to younger and prettier prey and the rest of us in the crowd are still married.

NEXT: I am woman, watch me change.

Written by Catherine Ford

November 21, 2009 at 4:16 pm

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Am I the only person who, as a kid, loved the taste of cod liver oil? And would willingly chew and swallow Aspirins without water? And just to be really disgusting, would eat Miracle Whip with a spoon?

I bet I’m not alone. Pica, it’s called. The compulsion, especially during pregnancy or childhood, to eat things that aren’t really food. Personally, I draw the line at dirt. To me, “eat dirt” has always been an insult. (This was before I grew up and learned more expressive insults, usually heard while riding public transit and often entailing the imaginative use of the “f” word in an assortment of parts of speech. The dangling participle is my favourite, followed by the past pluperfect subjunctive.)

Where was I? Strange eating habits. Doctors in Northern Peru removed almost a kilo of metal from a man’s stomach this past week, according to reports from CanWest News Service. It took surgeons almost two hours to remove nails, coins, scrap metal and a knife from the man’s stomach. He presented (that’s a doctor-type word meaning he came to medical attention) with a severe stomach ache. No kidding. No word on whether he set off metal detectors or had a magnetic personality. (Sorry, some puns just beg to be let out of their cage.)

The patient is now undergoing mental health tests. This doesn’t mean he’s crazy, although anyone swallowing a knife should be a candidate for a really close psychiatric examination. Maybe he swallowed the knife while engaged in a food frenzy usually only seen at conventions featuring “free” food. I got caught in the middle of one of those one year at a convention in Montreal and I escaped with my life and, if memory serves me correctly, about half a plate of dinner.

The hungrier conventioneers used their sheer bulk to push the more modest – i.e. the Canadians — out of the way of the food, despite assurances from the servers in both of Canada’s official languages that there was more than enough. Everyone could have unlimited refills and nobody needed to shove like they were at a United Nations food distribution centre somewhere in famine-starved Africa. Actually, all that was unspoken, but went through my mind watching the near-riot. The servers had gone to ground, leaving the crowd to its own resources, presumably to prepare themselves to rescue the survivors.

It would have been funny, a sort-of Animal House reality show if it hadn’t been so real and so horrifying. Unbridled greed — for food, sex, money, whatever — is never pretty to watch.

We think eating nails is bizarre, that overloading a plate with too much food because it’s there is impolite, but who are we to decide what is and what isn’t edible?

I don’t know about you, but when did people start putting ketchup on eggs? Eew. Why can’t I get plain white vinegar for French fries? Who was the first person to invent poutine? (For those of you who have never been to Quebec, poutine consists of fries, gravy and cheese curds. It’s as common a sight served by the sidewalk vendors of Montreal as the hot pretzel is in New York.)

Of course it’s fattening, it’s deep-fried potatoes with gravy and cheese. And French women do, indeed, get fat, despite the 2004 best-seller French Women Don’t Get Fat written by Mireille Guilano, who praised the way French women savour their food and don’t snack. So there was a certain amount of satisfaction in reading this past week that a recent survey showed 15 percent of French women are obese and another 26 percent are overweight.

Poutine is a French-Canadian fast-food treat. I can’t eat it. The thought makes me gag. As a child, I loathed liver. Today, I consider calf’s liver a delicacy, sautéed and piled high with onions. My sister and brother, both of whom were forced, as I was, to eat liver as children, still can’t abide the thought of a slice of cooked liver.

“The very thought of liver is still upsetting for most North Americans,” writes Margaret Visser in The Way We Are. “Converts to the recent gourmet revolution . . . find themselves coping not only with liver (which is the least offensive of innards to mainstream North Americans) but also with tripe, brains, hearts, trotters tails, tongues, sweetbreads and kidneys – every one of them the object, in various traditions, of loving culinary attention.”

The strangest of all, though, has to be clay.

I had never heard of anybody seriously eating dirt — clay, actually — until my husband, the retired doctor, talked about his three-year residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital from 1962 to1965. How does a Calgary-born and raised medical graduate from the University of Alberta choose a county hospital in the United States for training? Easy. In Canada, all of the hospitals are private, and patient flow, if you’re a resident, is at the whim and permission of the attending doctors. At a U.S. county hospital, the residents are “not at the mercy of private doctors,” says Ted and “the residents ran the show, with oversight.” For a young doctor, it was an intensive course in patient care.

What set him back on his heels, though, was the young, pregnant African-American woman who came to the hospital and while Ted was taking her history, he asked about her diet. She was from West Virginia, she said, and she ate dirt. Clay, she explained. Everybody did it. And it turns out that the particular clay she was eating was full of carbohydrates.

As Margaret Visser writes: “All that’s edible is not eaten. Unless human beings are desperate for food, this is for us a universal rule. Being accustomed to having enough to eat grants us the privilege of exerting choice, of being moral about food, of having ‘taste’.”

Personally, I’ve never been able to eat rabbit. Not that I reject the taste. Presumably, it tastes like chicken. But I have never been able to think about tasting rabbit, let alone eating it. Blame my reluctance on Roman Polanski’s 1965 movie, Repulsion, starring Catherine Deneuve as Carol, a young Belgian manicurist who lives with her sister in a flat in London. Repulsion is a psychological thriller and the audience watches as Carol descends into full-blown psychosis while the sister is away on vacation.

She doesn’t boil a bunny, as did Alex, the character portrayed by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, but in the background on the kitchen counter lies a skinned rabbit, slowly rotting, a gruesome metaphor for Carol’s life. Eat rabbit after watching that movie? Never.

What any of this has to do with losing weight and how and what we eat is simple: We are as encouraged to eat by culture and traditions as we are by sight, sound and smell. For so many of us, eating isn’t so much about nutrition as it is about comfort and desire. We eat to soothe ourselves, to bond with friends, to placate hurts and sometimes out of sheer spite.

No wonder food is fraught with meaning beyond being merely fuel for our bodies.

What we eat and how we eat it depends much on culture, tradition and social status. Nobody goes around killing squirrels in the cities of Canada even though they are readily available and a nuisance. In rural communities in the American south, squirrels are hunted for meat and are the main ingredient in Brunswick stew. Just this past January, the New York Times reported squirrel dishes appearing in restaurants in England. “With literally millions of squirrels rampaging throughout England, Scotland and Wales at any given time, squirrels need to be controlled by culls. This means that hunters, gamekeepers, trappers and the Forestry Commission (the British equivalent of forest rangers) provide a regular supply of the meat to British butchers, restaurants, pâté and pasty makers and so forth,” reported the Times.

According to Visser, squirrels “are tender, tasty and available — yet we rarely feel like killing them for dinner.” I’d happily shoot the ones in our backyard, if only it was legal in the city and if only my husband would buy me a .22 rifle. But I wouldn’t eat one. Why? Visser writes that they taste like rabbit.

One of the world’s favourite cookbooks, the Joy of Cooking, first published in 1931, lists recipes for squirrel, opossum, bear, raccoon, muskrat, woodchuck, peccary and beaver tail. But its recipe for Brunswick stew, traditionally made with squirrel, is made with chicken in the 1964 edition.

Customs change, fashion moves on, what we thought was attractive years ago no longer is acceptable. Whom do we please?

NEXT: The saboteurs are all around you.

Written by Catherine Ford

November 16, 2009 at 2:45 pm

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with 2 comments

There were 17 of us in the fitness class this November 11th morning and for so many of us, the Korean War and the Second World War were as real as remembering fathers, husbands and uncles. For those of the class whose families have not been not personally touched by the tragedy of war, all they have to do is turn on a television or read a newspaper. We are, this Remembrance Day, still at war.

All the sonorous words and platitudes about sacrifice and duty notwithstanding, it is a horrible fact that young men and women are still, in 2009, being blown to bits in far away countries. For our friends and neighbours who are American, their pain is more than double Canada’s, as they face a war on two fronts — Iraq and Afghanistan — and the sure and certain knowledge they are neither welcomed nor their sacrifice appreciated. And that’s just at home.

I was supposed to write today about the strange compulsion to nibble on stuff that isn’t really food, but today happens to be Remembrance Day, so the narcissistic focus is nowhere to be found right now. It would be inappropriate to spend today talking about my chosen sacrifices when they mean nothing in the face of real sacrifice and commitment.

Rather, the centre of attention must be on those who are no longer here and those for whom the pain doesn’t cease when the flags are folded, the drums are silenced and the bugles muted. No fancy words from politicians about remembering, no platitudes offered by generals safely in Ottawa can ever replace or ease the real pain of losing someone in such a senseless way.

But regardless of whether one individually agrees with the NATO mission in Afghanistan, or sees the so-called “war on terror” as nothing more than impotent saber-rattling, today is not the day to voice such thoughts.

Instead, it has been a day to think, to reflect, and to be silent. We did that this morning in a most unusual way. Our regular core fitness class on Wednesdays, from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., contained something extra and there are still tears in my eyes from it.

We did all the normal exercises, took our allotted time in savasana and then, just before 11 a.m., sat together in a circle with three small candles providing muted light, and chanted for peace. This normally would bring out the skeptical side of my nature, if not a full-blown attack of downright cynicism. But this wasn’t a normal day and this wasn’t a memorial service in the traditional sense. It was merely a group of disparate people gathered together by chance. Our purpose there wasn’t initially to be somber and reflective, but days like today have their own rhythm and meaning and that’s what took over.

We quietly chanted a Vedic mantra — om shanti om — a prayer for world peace 108 times, a number considered sacred in Hinduism and which Vedic mathematicians regarded, according to Shiva Rea, as “the number of the wholeness of existence.”

At 11 a.m., we fell silent for two minutes. I thought of all the people in my life who had been affected by war: my mother, Margaret Teresa Tunney, the Irish war bride; my Canadian father, Robert Evans Ford, the prisoner of war; my first husband, Leslie George Elhatton, wounded by a sniper in the battle for Monte Cassino, and my uncle, Thomas Fullerton Ford, the RCAF pilot who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for successfully bringing his battered Lancaster bomber back to the airfield, even as the rest of the crew bailed out over the English Channel.

Of them all, only Tom is still alive. And, like all the rest of them did, he prefers not to talk about any of it. His generation got on with the business of living. But I repeat their names as my own mantra, a reminder that I enjoy the privilege of having been loved by all of them.

It seems appropriate for those of us who are obsessed with our weight and food, with what to eat and how to cook the meals we take for granted, with how much to eat and where and when, that we spend one day of the year thinking how lucky we are in the real sense.

We are a generation that, until recently, never knew war. We enjoy an embarrassment of riches, overflowing pantries and piled-high supermarkets. All the bounty of our earth is stacked in Safeway’s and Sobey’s and the Co-Op. If one store doesn’t have some specialty we want, another one will. We eat when and what we choose. Our restaurants bring us the flavours of the world.

Few of us will ever experience privation and want and maybe just for today, we need to remember.

My father never talked much about the months he spent as a prisoner of war, having been shot down on November 4, 1944, less than one month after my birth. He put only glimpses of that time down on paper, and then in faint pencil, on scraps bound with a hunk of cardboard and a shoelace. His diary encompasses three weeks, from January 17 to February 10, 1945 — the forced march across the Oder River, ahead of the Russian push on the Eastern front.

It is not surprising that many of Dad’s comments were concerned with food, or rather the lack of food.

On January 21, 1945 they crossed the Oder River at 5 a.m. in the freezing cold. “It is feared that some of the more exhausted froze to death. Frostbite was quite prevalent . . . did receive half a cup of soup (mine personally consisted of only a wet potato) and as our bread ration had run out we were issued with a small bag of hard biscuits. (The same kind my dad used to feed our hunting dog to cure worms.) . . . We didn’t quite starve.”

On January 22, they were on the march again. “Very hungry and tired, men dropping out from fatigue . . . No sign of any bread.”

January 23: “The only topic is food . . . I will never waste food again.”

By the end of the month, Dad would write: “Men are existing on a lower scale than animals . . . All manner of wearing materials are being flogged for food. There are still cases of men’s rations being stolen by their comrades. Hanging is too good for this type of bastard.”

On February 5, the prisoners were herded into boxcars — 55 to each car designed to hold 12 horses or 30 men. Dad wrote: “Rations going down fast and not much left but sugar beets. On February 6, they “ate the last of the bread rations . . . we have one sugar beet left.” On February 7 he wrote: “All food gone. . . . I can practically count every one of my 208 bones.”

Dad would be liberated and returned to England on May 15, 1945. He would be reunited with his wife and daughter. My mother and I would be two of about 22,000 wives and 44,000 children who would be brought to Canada the following year by the government to join husbands and fathers.

And food never went to waste in our house.

NEXT: Eating clay and other strange customs.

Written by Catherine Ford

November 11, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment

Real boot camps are all about conformity, obedience and uniformity. Oh, and yelling. They shave your head and issue you really ugly clothes and army boots. And then they yell at you.

We’ve all seen the movies, from The Dirty Dozen to An Officer and A Gentleman and shouting is all part of the training. It makes for a good movie image to have some hulking goon screaming in a poor recruit’s face, humiliation being one of those macho army things.

Good thing I already knew that, because being yelled at on a sunny Saturday noon-hour — actually, being yelled at in any situation — does little to motivate me. Under ordinary circumstances, it sets my back teeth on edge at which point I become impossibly stubborn. I revert to a kind of childish sulk, during which the only word capable of passing my lips is “no,” which may explain why I’ve never been interested in joining the military.

(Dating a man in uniform is another story completely and involves the air force base that used to be just outside Penhold in Central Alberta and a good-looking blond pilot who proved to be my first blind date ever. He was also the last, not wanting to ruin such a pleasant experience by tempting fate. Then there was the tall, dark and handsome army captain in Calgary. But again, I digress, that being one of my foibles whenever I tell a story.)

So I never expected to be in boot camp — until last weekend. Those of you who do not live in the frozen north need to understand that November is not the best month to schedule any out-of-door activities that do not include skiing, skating, snow-shoeing, and steaming mugs of hot chocolate accompanied with warm boots, toque and mittens.

When the Calgary Herald Health Club advertised a boot camp in November, outside, I had images of jumping jacks performed in a blizzard, or push-ups in a snowdrift, but the gods of weird weather delivered a moderately benign Saturday with no snow and above zero temperatures.

That meant I had no excuse not to attend the so-called boot camp at St. Francis High School in northwest Calgary.

(Where is Calgary? my southern American friends ask. Given that Canada seems to exist as a large but unknown — and mostly frozen — land mass above the United States, I always try to make things easier. “Can you find Great Falls, Montana?” I will ask. They will nod. “Drive to Great Falls, turn north and keep driving until your tires freeze. That’s Calgary. If you want to find Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, keep driving farther north until your engine block freezes over.” My husband always rolls his eyes whenever I pull this on some unsuspecting listener. Nonetheless, it gets the whole northern climate thing out in the open.)

Calgary has weird weather — a warm chinook wind can blow in allowing shirtsleeves on New Year’s Day. By January 2 it can be -10 Celsius. The mean temperature in Calgary in November is -2C or about 35F, usually with a skiff of snow, even though there was so much snow earlier this fall that the ski resorts opened early. And just as a matter of curiosity, snow has actually fallen in every single month including July and August, although thankfully, not in the same year. But if we seem obsessed with the weather, it’s because that’s our Canadian nature. (Here’s the extremes: the lowest temperature ever recorded in Calgary during November was on Nov. 30, 1893, when the thermometer plunged to -35C or -31F and the highest was on Nov. 4, 1975 when the mercury read +22.8C or 73F. )

Just in case the weather did its snap-change trick, I found a long-sleeved tee shirt, a fleecy sweatshirt and a faded pair of stirrup pants. I neglected the hat, much to my chagrin when a brisk wind chased us around the field.

I had forgotten what schoolyards are like. They’re huge, they’re barren and they have goalposts. And if you don’t play football, you are condemned to run around them. I don’t do running well. Blame it on a lifetime of wearing high heels.

Stan Peake and his army of lithe, limber, loud-lunged and enthusiastic fitness trainers from Innovative Health Group turned on the stereo in one of the SUVs, and started yelling over the loud hard rock sounds of something called Wolfmother from Australia.

I am assured that Stan was not a drill sergeant in a previous life, but he might as well have been. Let’s say that Stan has an impressive fitness CV that includes such fun activities as hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim in one day; biking from Seattle to Portland; various half-marathon races and hiking the West Coast Trail. Stan is all about fitness, and has the educational mojo and degrees to back it up.

So when Stan yells, we listen. Personally, I’m adopting the old Royal Canadian Air Force Latin motto — per ardua ad astra — through adversity to the stars. And while I’m at it, I’m adding a little dose of the Roman poet Ovid: “prefer et obdura” his advice to “be patient and tough.” There’s another line after that — “dolor hic tibi proderit olim “ — which roughly translates to “some day this pain will be useful to you.”

So while I’m spending much of Saturday’s boot camp face down in the chilly and almost frozen grass because I still can’t do a push up to save my life, I’m thinking of obscure Latin phrases? Well, I was at a Catholic high school, and I’m old enough to have learned all the Latin phrases for the old Tridentine Mass (lasting from 1570 to 1962, Catholics not being ones to rush into change) and so old that I took Latin in high school simply to avoid taking biology. And boot camp involves pain. I try to tell myself it is good pain and I will benefit by it. I stopped short of offering it up for the souls of the departed, something the Ursuline teachers in our high school used to advise us to do when we didn’t like something.

But there’s Stan’s voice in my ear, and he’s still smiling at all of us, so maybe he’s a forgiving type. We range from the young to the old, with a smattering of men including one who remarked he should have read the paper which invited public participation after lunch, rather than before, laughingly insisting that he could have avoided boot camp — and the charley horse he was contending with — if he’d done so.

The killer was a fiendish exercise that involved sprawling on the ground and jumping back up. I did not do well, maybe because we all looked so silly that half of us were laughing which, naturally, is a cardiovascular exercise in itself. The half-killer was sprinting up a hill about six million times. I did not do well at this, either.

But what I did really well at was motivation and when Stan ended boot camp with what looked like a group hug and a loud yell of 1-2-3-Change! I drove home smiling.

Sunday morning I got on my treadmill for 45 minutes and did the same Monday morning.

After one month, I’ve lost a couple of pounds but, more importantly, I’m slowly getting into the exercise routine. I don’t have to like it, but I do have to do it.

NEXT: The husband talks about eating clay as I’m eating an apple.

Written by Catherine Ford

November 9, 2009 at 5:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

I didn’t realize I was addicted to cigarettes until I quit. Maybe all addictions are that deceptive — the object of fascination seems alluring, exciting and oh, so necessary. At the end, when I could go through three packs of Player’s Filter a day, I thought it was normal to wake up in the middle of the night for a cigarette. In bed.

If you believe in guardian angels, surely there are a phalanx of them watching over those of us who indulge in risk-taking behaviour. Most risk takers are young, invincible and immortal, so they believe, until one of them dies a horrible death on a mountaintop, in an automobile accident, on the rocks at the side of a lake or, burned alive. Or worse still, dies of alcohol or drug abuse.

Not once do we believe it will be one of us who will die. Decades ago, I drove my boyfriend’s Austin Healey — top down — through highway traffic at 100 miles an hour, hooting at the sheer thrill of the wind blowing through my hair. Today, I blanch at the thought. Worse, when I was old enough to know better, on a downtown street in Toronto, I chased the guy who had tried to make three lanes out of two and had scraped down the side of my car while passing me. (I figured he must have learned to drive in Spain or Portugal, where the occasional three-lane road will suddenly become two. But I digress.)

I went beyond road rage before that phrase ever became a cliché. I literally drove after him for blocks, into an underground parking garage, squealed to a stop, wrenched open my door, and stormed over to his car. I was screeching like a banshee through his windshield when the two men who were in the car with me scrambled out of my Pontiac and literally hauled me off this guy’s car and frog-marched me back to sanity.

I still remember the horrified look on the other driver’s face and my own lingering, simmering anger at what I had considered an assault. Theoretically, I should be grateful the other driver was not armed and dangerous. Actually, I’m grateful I wasn’t armed.

Such are the occasions of life that makes one understand the emotions that can overcome anyone and the temptations that sometimes make no sense. Passing a high school today, I wonder why so many young girls smoke. But I know the reasons — at the beginning, cigarettes can kill one’s appetite. Teens believe cigarettes will help them lose weight and with one-third of teenage girls expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies and their weight, smoking is more acceptable in their minds than being fat.

Yet studies show this belief is a myth. A McGill University research project followed 1,300 teenage girls for five years. It didn’t seem to matter if they smoked or didn’t, both smokers and non-smokers gained weight at the same rate. Smoking as a method of weight control is a lie. But I believed it myself, even as I was gaining weight — and smoking.

But myths die hard. And this one won’t. Besides, cigarettes give anyone who wants a candy or cookie, who wants to stuff her face with food, something else to do with her hands.

I don’t excuse my behaviour, the over-the-top reactions or the risk-taking. Not now, not at my age. But when kids do stupid things, they need to be cut some slack. And we should all understand addictive behaviour, because I don’t believe any of us can stand in righteous moral judgment over others. And the pursed lips on the street and the tsk-tsks that follow the obese wherever they go are society’s moral indignation at people who may very well be just as addicted as the smoker or drinker.

The more socially acceptable addictions — exercise, food, running, dieting, stamp collecting (okay, I made that one up) appear in the same pretty guise as drugs, booze, gambling or tobacco. Surely all addictions begin with the lure of the substance, regardless of its potential hold on the life of its victim.

It would be impossible these days to smoke as I did — everywhere. There were no restrictions at work, none in restaurants or bars, even hospitals. Airlines were only gradually bringing in no-smoking policies and I had never had to make the plus-three hours flight to Toronto in a non-smoking Air Canada plane. Maybe if I had I would have recognized the addiction earlier.

Did I know that tobacco was a killer? That smokers lead truncated lives? Of course I did, but like all addicts, I never believed it would be me. Even a family history of heart disease and high blood pressure wasn’t enough to force me to quit. The same history should have kept me thinner and fitter for most of my life. It didn’t do that, either.

What does addiction have to do with weight and fitness? Addictive personalities share common traits. A 1983 report in The New York Times quoted studies done by Dr. Lawrence J. Hatterer, from Cornell University, who wrote in The Pleasure Addicts that: “Addictive behaviour has invaded every aspect of American life today. We all feel the cloud of concern about becoming addictive — preoccupation with weight, smoking, drinking too much, or being caught in an excess of spending, acquiring, gambling, sex or work.”

The addict is always seen as a flawed being, controlled by some external force whether that be booze, drugs, food or exercise. The craving is to be treated as inherently unhealthy,

In her 2003 book, Appetites: Why Women Want, Caroline Knapp draws an immediate parallel between the world Renoir painted — his lush depictions of the nude female, glowing, suffused with light, skin so rich it almost begs to be stroked — and today. She writes about Renoir’s world as a place where: “a woman’s appetites are imagined as rich and lusty and powerful, the core of the female being celebrated and sensual, deeply attuned to pleasure.”

That Pierre Renoir was likely sexist and misogynistic in no way robs the viewer of an appreciation of the sheer soft and fleshy beauty of his work. Knapp compares that 19th century art world with the world in which she lived. Her world, she writes, is one of appetites also, but one where “we’re taught to do battle with our own desires from a tender age, and reinforcements are called in over time on virtually every front.”

So Appetites is about how our society regards women’s bodies and their desires and how their appetites relate to identity and value. Writes Knapp: “a notion that a woman’s hunger was somehow inappropriate, possibly even grotesque. I saw how quietly tyrannized women could be by food and weight.”

The imperatives, says Knapp, were obvious, “Size matters. Control of size (of portions of body, of desire itself) matters. Suppressing appetite is a valued ambition, even if it eclipses other ambitions, even if it makes you crazy. . . Other women might struggle with hunger, I could transcend it.”

And she did. She locked herself in a prison of anorexia. Knapp was 42 when she died, but not of starvation, of lung cancer. She conquered her fleshy demons and another one felled her.

It doesn’t seem fair that a woman who recognized what so many of us deal with every day and could write so well about it (she called cottage cheese “the food God developed specifically to torture women, to make them keen with yearning”) should die so young. Worse, still, is the realization that she died before Appetites was published.

It is ironic she would write at the very end of the book: “I no longer fear sliding back into the anorexic prison, but I am somewhat stunned and a little rueful at how arduous it all is, how long it can take a woman to achieve a degree of balance around appetites, to learn to feed herself and to understand and honor the body, and to hunger for things that are genuinely sustaining instead of hungering for decoys.”

I quite smoking — conquered one addiction — in 1991. I did it cold turkey and, like the recovering alcoholic, can remember my last hit: 3 p.m. April 20, 1991. Withdrawal was ugly — that’s how I realized I was addicted.

But food can’t be banished like tobacco.

NEXT: Off to “boot camp” hoping it doesn’t snow.

Written by Catherine Ford

November 5, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment

In Charles Dickens day, thin people were poor people. The rich were plump, hearty and healthy. To be fat was to be elite. Those who could afford to eat well, were well. The rest, especially the children, were scrawny, underfed, and susceptible to disease.

In the 1951 movie of A Christmas Carol, the Spirit of Christmas Present draws back his voluminous robes to show Ebenezer Scrooge two skinny, scared and ragged waifs huddled beneath. They were the picture of wretched need. “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,” the spirit warns.

While Dickens was indulging in a metaphor about the squalid conditions the poor lived under in Victorian London, his depiction of poor children, indeed, poor people in general was accurate. Only rich people could afford to be fat.

Today, the tables are turned. The poor are the fat ones. They are the class of people who cannot afford to be thin. Obviously, all obese people aren’t poor. But in societies in which thin matters, the rich have the means and the opportunity to be so.

Take a walk down Fifth Avenue in New York; Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles; the Champs Elysee in Paris – those women who matter to those cities are, for the most part, normal if not obscenely thin. It’s a cruel lesson in what money will really buy — the best of food, the best of service and if needs be, the best of help should one of the “ladies who lunch” actually eat lunch and gain weight. No discrimination is more pointed than that leveled at the fat woman in cities where such things matter. It only takes one snippy sales clerk announcing, in an aggrieved voice: “Oh, my dear, we have nothing in YOUR size.” I could cheerfully have shot her on the spot. Instead I remembered the scene in Pretty Woman when the hooker played by Julia Roberts cleans up and spends an obscene amount of money in other stores, only to return to the first shop carrying large bags filled with designer clothes. She says in a satisfied voice to the clerk who snubbed her and who works on commission: “Big mistake. Huge.”

The stigma – the modern version of the discrimination meted out to the poor and needy in Victorian England — is the same. To be fat, particularly in the United States, is to be thought of as Dickens’ twins were: ignorant and wanting. This, of course, matter little in the fast food courts in the malls of America, or the restaurants where it isn’t the quality of the meal that matters, but the sheer bulk. It’s not for nothing that “all you can eat” buffets are so popular. One would think the fear of public opprobrium would convince many people to get and stay thin.

Certainly, it was a curious kind of fear that moved me to lose 50 pounds when my sister announced she was getting married 38 years ago. I had about six months from the telephone call announcing her engagement to the July wedding. I think I stopped eating the same time I hung up the telephone. The fear was simple: I am Susan’s only sister, prime candidate for maid of honour status.

I’m not certain she ever believed why I lost all that weight, but the reason was simple: All I could see in my mind’s eye was her wedding photos with this glum maid of honour with a double chin smiling out of fat cheeks at generations yet to come. I couldn’t bear to face the pity down through the years, so I set about to lose as much weight as I could in six months. I succeeded spectacularly, so much so that when I arrived back in Red Deer from Toronto for the wedding, Mother had to quickly alter the bridesmaid’s dress she had made.

Terror and the wedding over, guess what happened? It started with a ham sandwich after which I happily ate my way back up and then some. Fear only goes so far.

That could explain why the percentage of obese people keeps rising, particularly in places where the average income is lower. “While the data shows an unequivocal gain in excess poundage throughout the country,” writes Neil Osterweil on the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic site, there is a “surprising inverse relationship between income and waistline. In other words, the more income grows, the lower obesity goes.”

Adam Drenowski director of the centre for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle ranks Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and West Virginia as those with the highest percentage of obesity. “Conversely, Connecticut and Massachusetts which are among the wealthiest states have among the lowest obesity rates.”

Data for Canada are limited. But a look at our poorest communities — First Nations and northern aboriginal settlements — would bear out the assumption that poor equals fat.

All of this is not overt. Nobody goes up to the obese in the mall and quotes Dickens. But the reality is that the same prejudice afforded smokers — they must be on a lower socio-economic level, have a sub-standard education and profession, not quite bright enough to quit – all of this is leveled at the fat, regardless If none of the above is true.

And having been a chain smoker for about 33 years before quitting 18 years ago, I know that one doesn’t have to be ignorant to be gullible, or desperate to be addicted.

It’s expensive to be thin. Buying fresh vegetables and fruit, meat and eggs costs a lot more than a Big Mac and a fries and once the groceries are paid for, there’s the cooking yet to be faced.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of grabbing a bite on the way home. Bu it’s not jus stopping for dinner instead of cooking that puts on the flabby pounds: It’s the money and, to a lesser extent, the time. Fast food is fat food. And fast food is cheap food. Sadly, fast food is delicious and seductive. Food experts talk about “mouth feel.” Real people just respond to the taste, designed to convince your brain that this kind of food is good. This isn’t news. Anyone with access to the Internet can read thousands of sites and probably million of words from experts around the world that will explain exactly why people get fat and what to do about it. There’s a mountain of information about cheap sugars and fats added to food to make them alluring.

One site proposes a “fan tax” on sports fans who buy what are called all-you-can-eat tickets. Football, basketball, hockey and stock car racing associations are promoting such tickets to games in the United States. Robert Schmuhl writes in PoiticsDaily that such specially priced tickets promise unlimited hot dogs, bratwurst, nachos with cheese, chips, popcorn and soft drinks for the fans in the stands. It is, writes Schmuhl, a “mushrooming and profitable sector in professional sports attendance.” It’s easy to laugh at such gluttony. “Instead of seeking a so-called “fat tax” on high-caloric fast food and sugary beverages, what about instituting a “fan tax at spectator contests where gluttony itself is becoming a spectator sport.”

Bread and circuses, indeed.

NEXT: Are all addictions – food, drugs, cigarettes, even exercise — the same?

Written by Catherine Ford

November 2, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized