Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

Archive for January 2010

CHAPTER 32: IN PARADISE ON THE PACIFIC

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It’s not true that the entire population of Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary are on Maui at the moment — it just seems that way.

The Canadians are interspersed with the northern Americans, here from North Dakota, Nebraska, Alaska and Minnesota, all for the same reason: the chance to feel hot sun on winter-white bodies, to get some Vitamin D in its natural state, rather than pills from the pharmacy.

One of the distinct advantages of retirement is the mid-winter vacation away from ice and snow, someplace where dressing up means a shirt and shoes worn together.

Western Canadians go to Hawaii for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is not having to overnight in Toronto before hitting a Caribbean beach. That’s often the drawback of such vacations –— the tedious effort to actually get there. And given the paranoia of the moment in all of our airports, the less time spent being patted and fondled and questioned by po-faced martinets with the power to prevent one from actually getting in a plane, the better. And the thought of having to go through Toronto just to get to a sandy beach makes the Caribbean less than attractive.

Still, it was surprisingly not-inconvenient getting here. Expecting a long line up of disgruntled people at Calgary’s airport we arrived, as ordered, three hours before our flight only to find out that everything went smoothly and the inconvenience was minimal. I had the good sense to strip myself of all jewelry except my wedding ring and thus managed to pass through the metal detector without setting it off and thus occasion a secondary wanding or pat-down. Don’t you just love it when they ask for your permission to do so? What if you say no? And isn’t the signage at security comforting when it says that any person can refuse to go through the process, as long as he or she doesn’t actually want to board a plane

But our unencumbered process left us a good two hours after security to wait, our mood not improved by the dubious quality of an airport sandwich tightly wrapped in cellophane which proved an exercise in frustration just trying to open it. I suspect eating the wrapper would have been just as tasty with a lot fewer calories. That’s what’s so frustrating when you’re trying to make good choices about food – wasting money and calories on stuff that has little taste, its only advantage being availability.

And tops on the list of wasted calories surely must be airport food, at least what is available beyond the security barrier. It is exceeded in its tastelessness only by airline food which, given the current state of flying (the in-the-air equivalent of taking a cattle car) is nonexistent. Himself actually ordered a sandwich on the flight, turned over the outrageous price demanded from a captive audience and then realized it had no redeeming qualities, either.

We thought we’d lucked out when Air Canada announced a direct flight from Calgary to Maui, obviating the need to trudge our asses and our suitcases across the entire Vancouver airport to be questioned and prodded by U.S. Homeland Security (is George Orwell turning in his grave?) before being “allowed” to board a plane. Does anyone have an answer to the question of why it is necessary to hire people for these jobs who lack the ability to be even moderately pleasant? And am I the only person who finds the signage to be amazingly offensive? Why, for example, am I forbidden to, say, take a picture? Or talk on a cell phone, not that I’ve ever been tempted to do either. And the shoe thingy is getting tiresome, too. But it’s the attitude that every one of us is a potential terrorist that rankles.

The chance to eliminate one step of the process, only having to take a single fight and go through U.S. customs in Calgary was, we thought, a blessing, But nothing is that easy. I’m reminded of the old joke that if you want to hear God laugh, go ahead and make plans. Half-way across the Pacific, a mechanical problem cropped up necessitating a turnaround back to, you guessed it, Vancouver, where we cooled our heels , supplied with what could only be charitably called bar snacks and pop by Air Canada as another plane was rustled up to speed us on the way. The flight that should have landed at Kahului airport at 6:30 Hawaii time landed after midnight.

But who’s complaining? We were safely delivered to paradise, where we shed most of our clothing immediately, and the next day dropped $550 at Safeway, but as that included a six-pack of Tanqueray and a six-pack of wine, it didn’t seem too expensive. Okay so it was an expensive visit to the grocery store but that’s the only drawback — paradise comes with a price tag. And while I’m in the mood to complain when will our Canadian governments get with the times and allow liquor to be sold in grocery stores? At least in Quebec, one can drop into the local depanneur and pick up a nice red, along with milk and bread.

There are a lot of advantages to the Hawaiian islands not the least of which is water that’s safe to drink. Mexico may be interesting, but only an idiot would trust the water or the sidewalk food vendors. And for a good dose of guilt, any beach in Mexico that’s “open” to the locals — i.e. not fenced off — is also open to children, beggars, and hawkers of tawdry trinkets, frequently the same people.

For most of my life, the last place I ever wanted to be was on a beach in a bathing suit. Certainly the last thing I ever wanted to do was shop for a bathing suit, but since I’ve been on this campaign, I’ve bought both a brand-new suit and a daring “10-pounds-lighter” bottom for the Tommy Bahama bathing suit top I bought a couple of years ago, but have yet to have the guts to wear. (The ten pounds lighter advertisement is much like wearing a panty girdle for those of us old enough to remember such garments. And it works like a girdle too. I tried on a one-piece suit but discovered the makers had not allowed room for breasts, a distinct disadvantage.)

Up to now, the excuse for not wearing the top was not having the right bottom for the suit. This year I brought the now-two-piece suit with me. We’re here in paradise until the end of February. Do I have the guts to debut it on the beach?

Maybe.

NEXT: Why wearing a bathing suit is a test of will power.

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Written by Catherine Ford

January 30, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 31: THE SLOW LIFE IS THE GOOD LIFE

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I eat too fast and that’s probably one of the reasons weight has been a problem for most of my adult life. All the experts say it takes your brain about 20 minutes to register the fact you’re actually eating. Personally I always thought this simple fact allowed one to eat twice as many doughnuts before the brain yelled stop. This was always a significant fact before age and hormones dictated that I stop stuffing my face with whatever food was at hand. I think I was about 10 years old when that happened. At least I was that young when a doctor told my mother to put me on a diet.

Food was always a tense subject in my family — how much and what. In my child’s memory, I can see my grandfather criticizing my mother (at the dinner table, I might add and within my hearing) over the amount of butter I was slathering on something or other. I could not have been more than four or five years old, but my mother’s angry response still resonates . As best as I can recreate the scene, she sharply told her father-in-law that Catherine could have as much as she wanted. And then she took a large dollop of butter and put it on my plate.

Of such experiences is the adult formed. At the time, I was the only child in the family, outnumbered by two parents, two grandparents and one unmarried uncle all living in the same house. So who had control over me was always a matter of power politics.

But that was 60 years ago and, as my sister would say, let it go, get over it.

My memories of childhood are not all fraught with such tension.

Childhood was mostly fun while it lasted. Well, almost always. There was the unfortunate incident at my friend Cheryl’s 12th birthday party when I managed to throw up the four or five hot dogs, a couple of bottles of Orange Crush and a giant slab of iced birthday cake that I had eaten – all over Cheryl’s mother and her oh-so-elegantly decorated guest bathroom. At least two effects were subsequently recorded: I was never invited back into Cheryl’s house, and my sense of mortification and humiliation was so profound that I can remember nothing else of that disastrous day. There was also a third effect: I didn’t throw up again until 50 years later.

If you think that’s an advantage, consider the not-so-dubious benefits of being able to vomit. At the very least, consider the hangovers one gets throughout one’s young adult life, when drinking too much seems to be a matter of pride. Such hangovers are – people told me – made much easier to endure if one can banish the previous night’s liquor consumption and then eat something greasy to settle the stomach. Alas, that was never an option. A psychologist would likely say that my childhood trauma was at fault. Even nausea-inducing moments — wild rides at the Calgary Stampede (one of which, when I was four years old, caused me to throw up all over my father, who had no one else eager and willing to come on the midway rides with him) and a wild night on an ocean cruise on a brand-new ship whose stabilizers somehow conked out — did not have any effect other than a couple of quick swallows.

But I digress, if only to explain the dubious advantages of eating too much too fast and much too much.

If age has taught me anything, it’s that fast food – whether from one of those ubiquitous McDonald’s or A & Ws or Wendy’s or home-cooked food prepared with care and then eaten too fast to appreciate it — is one route to destroying whatever mechanism exists inside everyone that tells the body when it has had enough fuel for the moment. Without that trigger, it’s easy to overeat — especially in the too many restaurants that equate happiness with quantity rather than quality.

So part of my year-long campaign is to retrain my body and my life to accept a slower pace, especially where food is concerned.

Enter my friend, dee Hobsbawn-Smith. And yes, she spells her first name without the capital letter. (This is a good way to discover who among us is so hidebound about rules that they refuse to honour her choice.) Curiously enough, I’ve never asked her why, assuming the quirky trait that caused the poet e.e. cummings to eschew capitalization, too.

She is a chef, a writer, a poet, a sensuous woman (as all good chefs must be) and is the president of Slow Food Calgary. To celebrate the coming of the new year, and just because it was mid-winter and a time to battle the blues, dee was the host for a Slow Food dinner at Calgary’s Cookbook Company. Her sous chef was her elder son, Darl.

Ted and I joined the crowd for a diner that featured a menu of locally sourced dishes paired with Canadian wines. Given the season, one might expect a menu consisting of root vegetables and beef, this being the middle of winter and fresh produce but a distant promise of spring. But slow doesn’t mean doing without, it means being conscious of what you are eating and where it came from, who grew it or raised it and how it was prepared. It means supporting local producers.

“Slow food” also means sustainability. It means the protection of genetic diversity, in an age when “food” is chosen for its ability to ripen on schedule, withstand mechanical harvesting and have a long shelf life in a store. Varieties that don’t meet such criteria don’t get planted by farmers that are under contract to large distributors. I remember being on a farm in southwestern Ontario, the “valley of the jolly green giant” where cucumbers were being harvested. Just outside the packing shed was a large bin, full of bright green cucumbers. I asked the farm manager why these cucumbers were sitting out to rot in the sun and the answer was simple: They were too big or too small. Each box had to contain a set number of cucumbers, no more and no less.

The rejects were free for the taking, and every time I’m forced to buy an expensive imported cucumber in a supermarket, I think of this experience.

People such as dee and her colleagues in the Slow Food movement are carrying the responsibility for the rest of us in helping to preserve locally produced goods. And their individual efforts to support local growers and farmers ensures that we will still have local farms in the future. Their logo is, appropriately enough, a snail. And there’s a “snail trail” to find local producers one can visit to discover the joy inherent in living locally.

The Slow Food movement started in 1986 and over the years it has gained thousands of members in hundreds of countries. It promotes, according to its literature: “the need for taste education as the best defense against poor quality and food adulteration. It is the main way to combat the incursion of fast food into our diets. It helps to safeguard local cuisines, traditional products, vegetable and animal species at risk of extinction. It supports a new model of agriculture, is less intensive and healthier, founded on the knowledge and knowhow of local communities. This is the only type of agriculture able to offer prospects for development in the poorest regions on our planet.”

But all propaganda aside, we were all there that night for a good meal, good company and wine to assist in both.

Because despite the rhetoric, the Slow Food movement is also all about the pleasures of eating and the sensuousness of taking food and what it represents seriously.

Three hours went by in a flash, accompanied by good conversation with our tablemates, and the meal’s provenances explained by dee, who also treated us to recitations of her poetry.

She talked about living slowly and laughing a lot, about “spending time with people you love,” doing what matters. It’s all about community, she said. And, dee added “ask who raised your meals . . . practice ethical eating.”

Really, think about it: Do you know who grew the beans you buy at Co-Op? Or who slaughtered the steak sealed on a Styrofoam plate in Safeway? Where did your food come from? And if you don’t know, why are you eating it?

The highlight of the meal was a dish I’ve never tried before – cassoulet. It seems silly to admit never having tried this famous French bean dish, but I wasn’t raised by a chef or even an adventurous cook. It was wonderful, an introduction to something new.

A cold night a warm crowd, fine wine and a slow and savoury dinner. It doesn’t get much better than this.

NEXT: Sun, sand, and drinks with umbrellas in them.

Written by Catherine Ford

January 26, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 30: RANDOMNESS, POETRY AND THE POWER OF LOVE

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His name was James Kavanaugh and he is responsible for my two wonderful marriages. He is also responsible for my learning to stop picking the wrong kind of man to love.

I believe in love at first sight, but before that happens in reality, you have to know what it is you are looking for. What will make you happy in the long run, not just for one night?

James Kavanaugh taught me that through his poetry. He died two weeks ago, at age 81, in Michigan. All of his life he was, as he wrote, a searcher. “We searchers are ambitious only for life itself, for everything beautiful it can provide. Most of all we love and want to be loved. We want to live in a relationship that will not impede our wandering, nor prevent our search, nor lock us in prison walls; that will take us for what little we have to give. We do not want to prove ourselves to another or compete for love.”

I was in my early 20s when I first met his poetry. Three of his books written between 1970 and 1973, are so well-read and well-worn that the only thing holding their bindings together is the box they are packaged in.

A former Catholic priest, Kavanaugh’s obituary was in the newspaper yesterday and whatever I had planned to write in this chapter suddenly isn’t very important. I was prepared to write about the Slow Food movement and its Calgary president dee Hobsbawn-Smith, curiously enough, herself a poet of power and persuasion. But that will come in the next chapter.

For today, in view of Kavanaugh’s death, it is more important to acknowledge the not-inconsiderable effect that one man’s poetry had on my life. I am sure I’m not alone. Poets have that kind of power and kids who think they don’t like poetry, don’t “get” poetry and believe it has no place in their lives, fail to appreciate their much-loved songs are merely poems set to music.

The meanings and emotions behind Kavanaugh’s poems didn’t have an immediate effect. It wasn’t as if there was a thunderbolt off the pages of his first book, There Are Men Too Gentle To Live Among Wolves. It took some time for his words to sink in. But when they did, I ditched the controlling, abusive boyfriend I thought I loved and set out to find the real thing.

What was the real thing? A man who was gentle. Here it is in Kavanaugh’s words:
“There are men too gentle for a savage world
Who dream instead of snow and children and Halloween
And wonder if the leaves will change their color soon.”

What was the real thing? A man who would be my friend. Kavanaugh wrote:
“Will you be my friend?
There are so many reasons why you never should
I’m sometimes sullen, often shy, acutely sensitive,
My fear erupts as anger, I find it hard to give . . .
Will you be my friend?
A friend
Who far beyond the feebleness of any vow or tie
Will touch the secret place where I am really I,
To know the pain of lips that plead and eyes that weep
Who will not run away when you find me in the street
Alone and lying mangled by my quota of defeats . . .

I’m not sure why as one ages one reads the obituaries every day. I know all the jokes, including the one that says you read the obits in the morning and if you’re not there, you can go about your day. But really, it’s not age that draws one to the obituaries, it is respect and maturity. Indeed, both are supposed to come hand in hand with age, but there are those whom such magic never touches.

I figure that’s why there are so many nasty, crabby and miserable old people. They have never quite managed to drag themselves out of the narcissism and self-regard of adolescence and still believe someone owes them a living and they’re not collecting on it. What is forgivable in the young is unacceptable in someone old enough to know better. To read the obituaries is to respect all of the stages of life, not just the happy ones.

Kavanaugh’s poetry spoke to me because it captured something fleeting and rare — real emotion. But psychologist Dr. Wayne Dyer, one of the first self-help authors and best known for his humanist Your Erroneous Zones, said it better than I ever could. Dyer described Kavanaugh as: “America’s poet laureate. His words and ideas touch my soul. I can think of no living person who can put into words what we have all felt so deeply in our inner selves.”

You may not believe in a life after death — certainly many religious people believe there must be more than this so-called mortal coil. But whether there is a heaven in your future or reincarnation or nothing at all, we acknowledge death and pay it respect because no life is not worth celebrating.

Kavanaugh’s work may not live across the generations of English literature, but more than Keats, more than Browning, indeed more than any of the English Romantic poets, Kavanaugh had a profound effect on my life.

Reading poetry and finding the emotions that poetry evokes is a lifelong pleasure. But where does randomness come in? It’s simple. As Leonard Mlodinow writes in The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives: “A lot of what happens to us — success in our careers, in our investments, and in our life decisions, both major and minor — is as much the result of random factors as the result of skill, preparedness and hard work.

“So the reality that we perceive is not a direct reflection of the people or circumstances that underlie it but is instead an image blurred by the randomizing effects of unforeseeable or fluctuating external forces. . . . Thus our past is not so easy to understand, nor is our future so easy to predict, and in both enterprises we benefit from looking beyond the superficial explanations.”

What would my life have been like if I had not, that particular autumn night, walked into Mazzini’s in the basement of the Devenish Centre and met the first man I would marry? He was a stranger among all the regulars at what had become our neighbourhood bar. Someone had told him he’d like the music and, on the spur of the moment had detoured on his way home. I heard him laugh and realized that anyone who could laugh like that, with such hearty joy, I had to meet. It was spontaneous, random and right. But I had done my homework — I knew the kind of man I could and should love and he was it.

James Kavanaugh’s poetry prepared me for that random meeting, prepared me to meet Les, who would become my friend, my lover and my husband.

Five years after being widowed, I went to a friend’s birthday party and met Ted, the man who would become my second husband. I knew immediately that chance had given me a mulligan – a do-over. Here was Les’s emotional, spiritual, intellectual and gentle mirror image. The two men are physically unlike each other, but in all the things that matter — all the things I treasure and respect — they are the same.

How lucky can one woman get?

So, yes, I mourn James Kavanaugh.

NEXT: Living the slow and easy life.

Written by Catherine Ford

January 18, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 29: IS AGE MORE THAN JUST A NUMBER?

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Coco Chanel, the French designer who first put women into menswear and promoted simplicity in expensive style, liberated modern women from the tyranny of restrictive clothing. Although the underpinnings of starched brassieres and girdles lingered into the 1960s, easy and relaxed clothing had made their mark. When Mary Quant made the miniskirt, the stocking and panties together — pantyhose — became a necessary and enabled us to toss out those hated and restrictive undergarments for good.

Although Chanel is reputed to have lied repeatedly about her age, lopping 10 years off when she felt like it, she is responsible for one of the great quotes about women and aging: “A woman has the age she deserves.”

It’s the kind of thought that warms this woman’s heart — that the women you care for are always younger in spirit and in looks while the ones you don’t care for never age well. That’s why living well is always the best revenge, because living well means looking well. And living well means eating well. Not junk food, not fast food, but real food.

And that’s especially important if you are, like me, a woman “of a certain age,” or as the French say, “une femme d’un certain age.”

The late William Safire, writing in the New York Times magazine in 1995, gave the etymology of the phrase, but, as was his habit, went further than just its beginnings. He quoted the psychotherapist, Lillian Rubin, whose 1979 book, Women Of A Certain Age: The Midlife Search for Self, in which Dr. Rubin posited midlife being from the ages from 35 to 54.

(Guess I missed the cutoff date by more than 10 years, but who’s counting?)

In response to Safire’s question, the author “was surprised to learn of the long English history of the phrase” which has come to be applied to spinsters. (Someone explain to me why “spinster” has such an ugly connotation, when “bachelor,” the male equivalent, is such a compliment?)

“The early use in English,” writes Safire, “seems to be about spinsterhood, but the French meaning has nothing to do with marriage.”

“In France,” writes Safire, the phrase “has erotically or sexually charged overtones.” He quotes Dr. Rubin: “It comes from a society where sexuality is freer, and more understood as an important part of human life.”

Well, that seems to be more interesting that just being some post-menopausal grandmother, isn’t it? Maybe the French are onto something — take the actress Jeanne Moreau’s quip: “Age does not protect you from love, but love to some extent protects you from age.”

There may be some irony in that this month (January 10) is the 39th anniversary of Coco Chanel’s death in 1971, that number being the metaphor for any age beyond young adulthood. Jack Benny, the late comedian and one of television’s pioneer sit-com stars, made 39 a standing joke. A friend once sent out invitations to the 11th celebration of his 39th birthday, making him, of course, 50 years old.

But this January also marks a significant birthday for my niece, Alexandra Ford, who still has a long way to go before she ever needs worry about being of a certain age, or ever needs to worry about her looks.

When we missed the pre-Christmas “baking day” this year, Alex suggested we bake her a January birthday cake. She turns 21 in 2010 — there’s a certain attractive symmetry to those numbers — but in reality, 21 doesn’t mean much these days. Still, Alex has persuaded her father that 21 is a significant enough number for her to be treated to a trip someplace warm, away from the ice and snow, free from parkas and snow boots, mittens and scarves.

The “age of majority” now is 18, unlike when I “became” an adult.

In 1965, turning 21 really meant something — legal drinking and all that. Because my birthday fell on a Friday, a working day, I didn’t make it home to my parents until Saturday.

My father, whose birthday fell on October 7, the day before mine, decided that he and I would celebrate our birthdays by visiting various Red Deer bars, now that I was “legal.” I remember walking with him into the Capri Hotel lounge, where Dad greeted the bartender by saying: “Tony, you know my older daughter, Catherine, right?” Tony nodded, said hello to me, and Dad then announced: “Well, this is the first time you can legally serve her.”

Tony visible blanched. Dad laughed uproariously. He knew, of course, that I was no stranger to the local establishments. By the luck of the draw I had looked older than my age from about 13, so not getting asked for proof of age in bars wasn’t so surprising.

I blame my late father for my many such failings of proper respect for authority and “the rules.” He bristled when told without an adequate explanation that he couldn’t do something or other. Bob Ford had a healthy and lively disrespect for self-appointed moralists, for the stolid and self-righteous, and for the priggish burghers of whatever town he was in. Me, too, Dad, me too.

(I also “blame” him for my ability to spell. My mother almost unfailingly spelled rye “rhy” and Quebec with a “k.” It is curious that those with a scientific bent of mind, including my mother (who was a whiz at algebra and logic) and my husband (whose undergraduate degree was a BSc in mathematics) have almost a stereotypically difficult time with spelling. Go ahead, ask Ted to spell “hamburger.” Don’t be surprised if it comes out with two “e”s or two “u”s.)

I was 17 years old and a cocky student at the University of Alberta when my father announced that when he was that age, he would regularly sneak into bars and beer parlours, regardless of the Methodist demeanor of his own father for whom liquor was the devil’s brew.

Trust me, I had no intentions of emulating him, but on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton one Saturday afternoon in spring, I walked into a restaurant and took a wrong turn at the bottom of the stairs. That right turn, into the lounge instead of into the restaurant, led me to order a Singapore Sling when asked what I wanted to drink. It was the only alcoholic drink I could think of at the time. I wasn’t old enough or brave enough to try my father’s Scotch, figuring it might have the same effect on me that inhaling one of his Buckingham cigarettes did — a near-fainting spell.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that a sickly sweet drink with a cherry and a chunk of pineapple on top must contain way too many calories. That’s when I started looking for liquor that wouldn’t “cost” me more than 100 calories a drink. As I grew older, I eventually switched to Scotch and water, but only after years of drinking rye and diet ginger ale. Just because you’re on a restricted calorie program is no reason you have to give up socializing or give up liquor.

But just because I looked older, didn’t mean I wanted to take too many chances with the law. Just in case, all through university I’d cadge some identification from an older friend (years before Alberta driver’s licenses came with a photograph of the bearer) and waltz off to whatever beer parlour or lounge was the venue for the evening. One of the treats of gender-specific drinking establishments was that the guys had to bring a girl with them in order to get into the Ladies and Escorts side of the beer parlour. If they didn’t want to be forced to drink with all the rubbies moaning into their draught beer, they had to be accompanied by women. It wasn’t until 1967 that Alberta allowed men and women unrestricted access to equality in beer drinking.

The only time I came close to being busted (and I had visions of being hauled off by a policeman) was in the Riviera Hotel beer parlour where all 10 of us young women living together off the University of Alberta campus had gone for the express purpose of “replenishing” our household’s stock of glasses, i.e. stealing some.

We figured we could each order two draught beer at a time and when the table was filled with empty glasses, slip a few (a dozen or so) into our purses with nobody noticing. The plan worked spectacularly, with only one glitch: while we were busy filling our giant purses with glasses, we were asked individually for identification. The bouncer began with the girl seated to my left and, miraculously, ended with the oldest of our group, Shirli, who was seated on my right. He missed me completely.

At the time, I was 19, the only one under 21, the only one under the legal drinking age. To this day I have no idea why the bouncer didn’t ask me to prove my age.

Now, I’m delighted if someone asks me to prove I’m a senior when I ask for a reduced price.

And the stolen beer glasses? The self-righteous landlady threw them all out when she discovered we had filled her kitchen cupboard with examples of our disreputable behavior: the drinking, not the stealing.

NEXT: It wasn’t the hare who won the race, it was the tortoise, or in this case, the snail.

Written by Catherine Ford

January 13, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 28: JANUARY, RESOLUTIONS AND HOW TO AVOID THE HYPE

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I never make New Year’s resolutions for a very simple reason: there are a hundred, nay a thousand women’s magazines who spend all their time and effort telling women how and where we fail. Why would I help them?

January is a month full of hype, advertisements and thinly disguised encouragements for you to fail. I say that because if everyone who made resolutions every new year actually succeeded, a billion-dollar diet and exercise industry would go broke. (In Canada, the Report On Business magazine estimates the weight-loss and fitness industry is worth $9 billion a year.) They all depend on your failure and they subtly encourage it. All of the hype — fuelling your hope — focuses on amazing results and instant achievements.

For example, I recently Googled weight watchers. At the time, the first hit was Herbal Magic Weight Loss. Down the sidebar was : How I lost 46 pounds; Lose 18 pounds in 4 days; Diet of the Year, NutriSystem – Official Site; and Weight Loss Watchers Info; Popular Weight Loss Facts and Quick Trim Diet.

Do not be fooled by these promises. Remember the first rule: All diets work while you are on them. I would have typed that sentence in capitals, but I didn’t want anyone to think I was yelling. Okay, so you need yelling at: ALL DIETS WORK WHILE YOU ARE ON THEM. But any “diet” will occupy only a miniscule part of your life. Most of them cannot be sustained for any longer than the length of time it takes you to lose the weight. And it will come right back on. Why? Because most of them are not changes in eating and cooking habits or lifestyle.

The only worthwhile New Year’s resolutions are those that resolve to make life better for everyone not just yourself. Yet most magazines catering to women readers encourage narcissism and self-centeredness. Not to dump on all women’s magazines, but most promote unrealistic ideals of beauty, as Rachel Hills, an Australian writer posted on her blog. Hills writes that women’s magazines were her “trusty guide” as a young woman, but today, “I find that laughable” she says, because the articles she had read faithfully aren’t written by experts, they’re written by writers, like her, with no special training or insight.

Hills offers four critiques of modern women’s magazines: their unrealistic ideals of beauty are “particularly damaging for teenagers, who are just coming into their sense of who they are, how they look and what is and isn’t attractive.” Women’s magazines “promote a shallow consumerist lifestyle,’ she writes, and “often treat their readers like they are stupid.” Maybe, though, that feeling is more a function of magazines “with some exceptions,” being largely uncritical.

One of those exceptions must be Canada’s premier women’s magazine, Chatelaine. It remains one of the few
mass-market magazines to treat women as if they have real lives, brains, education and a critical faculty.

Most, though, are shallow, undemanding, and never seem to fulfill the promise of their covers. That’s the reason I stopped reading them — I was always disappointed in the articles.

All around us this January are people who have resolved to lose weight and get fit by spring. Why puncture their good intentions? Yet many of us know that by the end of February, most of those resolutions will have fallen by the wayside. All those brand-new gym memberships will be forgotten and the only people who benefit from this are the fitness facilities which will keep your money without ever having to see you again.

This isn’t failure on our part, it’s more a lack of understanding how change happens. One of the best things I learned in management training was to appreciate the gap between intention and resolution. And there is always a gap: learn to appreciate the time lapse.

When people fail in their resolutions, it doesn’t always happen intentionally, but life has a habit of getting in the way. Real change comes slowly, but it comes if you are determined to make realistic goals.

If most magazines aimed at women are not telling us exactly where we come up short, they’re giving us advice on how to get, keep, titillate and seduce men. I can’t decide which is worse – the thinking that men are controlled by the “brain” in their pants rather than the one inside their heads, or that women must fit into a narrow level of acceptable beauty before they pass muster.

Then I remember the pathetically, embarrassingly lengthy list of men who have been betrayed by their own passions, desires and hubris. So much for the so-called titans of industry, politics and sports who are revered for their wisdom and abilities. Why is it that so many men believe they are irresistible to young women for reasons other than the blatantly obvious: their money, power, and position? And the attraction comes in that order, starting with the money.

Mothers around the world have said repeatedly it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. To which the smart young woman replies: I can make the money myself, so why would I choose a lover for any other reason than compatibility and mutual attraction? Why aspire to be the arm candy of an older man over the nice young man next door with whom I share so much? Or something like that, you can make up your own version of what the appropriate reply should be.

But women’s magazines don’t truckle with the boring details of everyday life and the trust and communication that are the foundations of a married life together. They sell the fantasy of a life without all those tacky details, like dirty laundry and sticky floors, sick kids and childhood terrors; aging parents and the never-ending responsibilities of being a grown-up. That’s what real life is all about – being a grown-up.

Women’s magazines too often address themselves only to the “girl” in all of us, that part of every woman — a necessary part and parcel of our beings — that keeps us young in spirit. I know that inside me there is a 16-year-old who occasionally wonders who the senior citizen looking back in the mirror could possibly be. We all need that, if only to remember being young and having all those possibilities ahead of us. But unless we grow up and, as St. Paul said “put away childish things” we will remain forever stunted in our enjoyment of every phase of life.

That’s really what’s so sad about the promises that magazines make to women – that in order to be valued we have to fit into some narrow parameters of beauty. We have to be, if the WAGs (wives and girlfriends) of athletes from golfers to hockey players are any indication, all the same in order to be thought of as beautiul. Is there some factory somewhere that turns out these impossibly tall, thin, blonde and bronzed beauties who seemingly are interchangeable?

Is it possible to fall genuinely in love with an older man, regardless of his bank account, rather that because of it? I know. I did it. And by the time I figured out exactly how much older than me he was (23 years) it was too late, I was in love. We had three years of laughter together before we married. A brain tumour took him a year later. He left me with two stepdaughters and an appreciation of the importance of celebrating the joy in every day. After five years of widowhood, I met Ted. I was ready for him and him for me. Sixteen years later, Ted still makes me laugh at least once each day.

Having spent so much of my adult life alone, I can understand why young women have affairs with married men. I also know that no “other woman” ever destroyed a marriage that wasn’t already in trouble. But what I really don’t understand is why men think they will never be found out, that they can lead a double or triple life, cheat on their wife and children, rob their family of time and presence that is rightfully theirs, and then whine when they’re found out.

If Tiger Woods’ wife, Elin Nordegren, did have at him with a 9-iron, I understand completely. What I don’t unerstand is the motivation of political wives who bear the public humiliation and don’t have a set of golf clubs to turn to.

NEXT: When turning 21 actually meant something,

Written by Catherine Ford

January 8, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 27: END OF A DECADE; START OF A BRAND-NEW YEAR

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Outside, a dusting of snow has fallen softly on the deck and the railings, coating the barren limbs of the quivering aspen and bending the heavy boughs of the spruce trees surrounding our place in the mountains. My long-suffering husband, who can identify mountains, trees and alpine wildflowers has just now launched into yet-another lesson on how to tell spruce from pine in response to my query about the trees surrounding the house.

Pines, he says in his best “I’m the doctor, you’re the patient” type of voice, have the long needles, spruce have short stubby ones and fir trees have softer needles, although I usually don’t have to worry about the last, because there are few in our river valley. This is the same man who will invite me outside in the spring to marvel at the first wood lily blooming at the back of the house, just by the fire pit. His copy of Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies by George W. Scoter and Halle Flygare became so dog-eared and torn a few years ago that I bought him a brand-new copy. Our walks around the Bow Valley are always interspersed with frequent stops to admire whatever foliage is in flower. Late every spring the wild roses bloom in profusion and the sight of them always reminds me of my late father, for whom this Alberta provincial flower was the height of beauty.

The only footsteps around the house are those of the wildlife in their winter coats; the only sounds are the occasional passing car or a couple of barks from the neighbours’ dogs, strangely silent in this snowy stillness.

We have friends who treasure their “cottage at the lake” and those who value their second hone down south, but it is the Rocky Mountains and the Bow River valley that calls to Ted and me. There is something reflective and quiet here, a place where the traffic of Calgary, the dirty, iced-up streets and the crowds are far enough away to be not only out of sight, but out of mind. Yet we are only one hour door to door, a place of tranquility that allows us to forget our so-called “real” life, if only momentarily.

But that real life has followed us here. This New Year’s the war in Afghanistan has hit too close to home – a young Calgary Herald reporter, Michelle Lang, has been killed by a roadside bomb that also took the lives of four Canadian soldiers. For years, as a member of PEN Canada, I read the messages that came across the e-mail that links so many of us, informing members of the deaths of reporters around the world in civil wars and coups and at the hands of brutal regimes. Strange that we all feel it would never happen to one of us. I know my former colleagues at the Herald are devastated at the news, much of it as a result of their youth and their belief in their own invincibility. When you are 20 or 30, death is a stranger who lurks in the midst of other people’s lives, those families we are sent to interview when they lose one of their own. We are, mostly, the uninvolved observers. We see the grief and the tears, but we rarely, until it hits us personally, see ourselves reflected in such emotions.

If a new year is a time of reflection and list-making, of taking the pulse of one’s achievements in the past year and one’s hopes for the one just starting, it is news such as Michelle’s too-young death at 34 that makes petty so many of our personal trials. But one of the most powerful messages of moments like this is the realization that each day, every moment, is a precious one, not to be wasted in narcissism, regret, stupidity or foolishness.

How many of us live our lives as if each day might be our last? We can’t, of course, because we would end up planning nothing, never setting goals and never hoping that whatever trials any day brings will pass.

But, for the moment, it is good to remember that there is never a bad time to tell someone you love him or her. I just tried that with Ted, who glanced up from today’s newspaper, with a surprised look on his face and replied: “I love you, too. What brought that on?” But he asked with a smile on his face. Strange how something so simple can feel so good. I’ll tell you a not-very-little secret: In times of death, a reaffirmation of life is what propels all of us. We all need to remind ourselves that we have successfully cheated the Grim Reaper for another moment, another hour, another day. And each night, just before turning off the bedside lamp, I turn to Ted and tell him I love him, a punctuation at the end of each day.

The passing of another year is also the passing of a decade, regardless of the numerically correct squad who insist this millennium did not start in 2000, but 2001. They are still writing letters to the editor making their point.

What they fail to appreciate is that the truth in this case is irrelevant. We want to celebrate the decade on dates that seem to us, the innumerate, as logical. Therefore, 2000 was the first year of the millennium and the first decade ends with 2009. For the past week, the media have been compiling lists of “best of this” and “best of that.”

Thinking back over the past 10 years, it seems the entire world has changed. Which of course, it has. September 11, 2001 altered our Western world profoundly. It introduced fear into our daily lives and it made air travel an exercise in suspicion, frustration and fear. It also meant that two moths later, in early November 2001, when I collapsed in my office and had enough sense to pick up the phone and gasp that I needed medical help immediately, it resulted in a phalanx of fire fighters, the entire security department of the Herald, and EMS crowding into my office with what can only be described as worried looks on all their faces. They weren’t thinking heart attack which would have been normal at any other time in any other year, but anthrax. I had “chosen” to have a heart attack at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday, just after the office mail had been delivered and within weeks of the news being broadcast of anthrax spores in mail being delivered in Washington, D.C. and several media outlets. The telephone operator had immediately thought of that, and called in the troops. So while I was ushered out of the building into an ambulance, the local television station up the street was my accompaniment. I did not make the evening news much to my relief. But that incident altered my life irrevocably. It meant a daily regime of pills and medications and eventually, an early retirement in 2004.

Much happier news of the decade was the birth of our granddaughter, Elishka, in 2000, a sister for Kosma; the weddings of all three of my sister and brother-in-law’s children —Jane Moffet and Kent Freeman in 2003; Eamon Moffet and Heather Reeves; Kelly Moffet and Joe Burima, both weddings in 2008. The decade also brought this perfect log home in 2003 and as a bonus, a lasting friendship with the builder and his family. My retirement in 2004 and Ted’s the following year meant a chance to travel for other than a vacation from work. My book, Against The Grain, was published by McClelland & Stewart in hardcover in 2005 and in paperback in 2006. It has been a decade mostly of personal joy.

As Judith Timson wrote in the Globe and Mail: “It’s our personal milestones – a birth or death, a relationship or marriage beginning, ending or holding steady, our health challenges, a new job – that have more resonance at the close of a decade than everything but a handful of major news events.”

Timson talks about not just seizing the day, “but squeezing all possible joy out of it. Not to mention staying in touch. That goes on your emotional resume, which is always more important than the other one that gets so much attention.”

But there has been sadness, too. This decade started for me with losing my best friend, not through death, but because of a nasty, irrelevant, pointless and eventually destructive strike at the paper. She was on one side, management on the other. I tried the middle, for my own reasons, but it cost me. Ten years later, she still can’t forgive me, and I still miss her. When my mother died in 2008, Chris was the first person outside my own family that I thought about because I know her mother, terminally ill when I tried to repair the relationship through a letter, had in all likelihood died long before mine. But I don’t know, and it grieves me still.

So if 9/11 changed the outside world, it is our personal lives that make more of a difference to the interior world.

NEXT: January, and the whole world wants in on the diet.

Written by Catherine Ford

January 1, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized