Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

Archive for February 2010

CHAPTER 37: MORE TO MAUI THAN FOOD AND DRINK BUT WHO CARES?

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The first time Ted and I came to Maui together we went out for dinner at 9 p.m. That was the first and the last time we confused Maui with Europe. The only kitchen open at that hour in Kihei was a Chinese restaurant where the food was mediocre at best, but at least it was food.

That was 16 years ago and we have returned to Maui every year but one, content to meet the familiar. So when I heard the phrase “the exquisite pleasure of the familiar,” it resonated with me.

Each morning, starting before dawn at about 6:10 a.m., I head out the door in my bright pink t-shirt, equally pink sneakers and swim shorts. The pink is not making a statement. Rather while walking through The Bay at Market Mall one day, I spotted a Sale sign in the shoe department and discovered a hot pink pair of Saucony sneakers, sitting there all by themselves and just the right size. The price was $8, which is about $100 less than the cheapest pair of sneakers I’ve ever bought.

Karma, I decided. They matched the dragon boat races t-shirt I had somehow come to own and curiously only wear in Maui. So the shoes and the shirt are reserved for the beach around Ma’aleaa Bay. I am always nonplussed by so many other beach walkers who, like me, find such pleasure in the familiar. They must, else why would the same people be out at the same time in the same clothes?

Each year the same faces return to join locals such as Bob Jones, a retired advertising manager of The Maui News and who knows, I swear, every person on the island; Cindy the lithe runner who works at the Fairmont Hotel in Wailea and Carol with her ink-black lab Makapo and her two foster children, A.J. and Johnny. It always takes the longest that first day, when people recognize the pink shirt and shoes and stop to talk and we remind each otter what our names are. If Bob is with you, your circle of acquaintances expands exponentially as he clearly loves people. His “BlackBerry” is a small notebook in his shirt pocket and his “business card” says he is “a master in the art of living, draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation.”

He generously arranges for the Maui News to be delivered to us each morning and lets us try to repay him with a dinner for him and his wife, Becky, and leaves such treats as avocados from his son’s tree on our front step.

That is the kind of pleasure of the familiar that is seductive, to know that everyone on the beach at that hour is a potential friend even if only for a few weeks. It’s the same at the resort — the same yearly friends gather around the barbecue pit and at the pool. It’s little wonder we don’t wander far.

Until I heard the phrase I had merely put our comfortable and boring habits down to our own personalities. Then, while listening to Richard Russo’s 2007 novel, The Bridge of Sighs, I heard the “exquisite pleasure of the familiar.”

I fill my iPod with audiobooks along with a couple of our favorite CDs because the reception on the beach of Hawaii National Public Radio is iffy at best and, depending on the state of the tides or the curve of the beach, nonexistent. Over the years, because I’m eclectic in my choices, I’ve listened to some dreadful trash. But occasionally something resonates, and when the voice talked about familiar pleasures I finally realized why Ted and I are so set in our ways

One could blame our ages, but that’s not the whole truth. We like the familiar, not that we are adverse to surprises or to adventure, but those are different pleasures.

And while there’s lots to do on Maui, we choose not to: not to drive to the top of Haleakala at sunrise, not to drive to Hana, not to snorkel or windsurf or wander around Lahaina.

Well, I can hear you asking, what exactly do you do? Pretty much nothing is the answer, if getting a year’s worth of Vitamin D the natural way, or reading all those trashy novels no one has time for at home and, of course, the ritual art of eating and drinking and the guilty pleasure of the afternoon nap.

It’s impossible to go hungry on Maui if one has the money to eat in restaurants or buy supplies at the myriad of local stores. I am told that the Costco outlet right next to Kahului airport on Maui is the highest-performing outlet in the chain, a claim easily believed if a single visit is any proof. If anyone thinks the south Calgary Costco is busy, crammed with too many people and too much stuff, try a trip to the one on Maui where, this being the United States, you can also buy liquor, one of the more civilized aspects of life in America. If we were here for the entire winter, it might make sense — to me — to shop at Costco where everything comes in extra-large or extra bulky, including the people it seems. Why those who are here for only two weeks would be moved to shop at Costco and then have to leave half the amount of the stuff they buy behind them escapes me. If you only use half the giant box of detergent for example, haven’t you paid double for the amount you do use? But all that is moot, as one trip to Costco a number of years ago convinced me that life was too short for that kind of shopping, bargains or no bargains.

So we shop for groceries at Safeway — curse the too-icy air conditioning — and marvel at the cost of everything. (Maui ain’t cheap and a pineapple costs more here than in Calgary, but the flavour is incomparable — that kind of ripe sweetness one doesn’t find at home.) As for liquor, you have to love a store that not only has two aisles of wine and spirits and a separate section (with the butter and cheese) for cold beer. Being Canadians we can only dream of a Safeway in Calgary selling not only liquor in with the food but offering a 10 per cent discount for buying a six-pack of liquor or wine — cardboard carrier case provided.

While it’s almost impossible to go hungry on Maui it is possible to be badly fed and badly treated. What most guidebooks don’t tell you is how easy the latter two are — bad food and bad service. Luckily the two usually don’t go together.

We normal confine ourselves to Kihei restaurants although we have in previous years eaten upcountry at the celebrated Hali’imale General Store, and at restaurants in Lahaina, a town not unlike Banff — being loved to death. Like Banff Avenue, Lahaina’s Front Street is always chock-a-block with aimless tourists and features such standard tourist fare as t-shirt stores and overpriced gift items in garish colours that look just right under Hawaii’s hot sun but merely garish in Calgary’s cold northern light.

I must admit to a certain chagrin, though, when the tourist in me didn’t immediately buy a t-shirt in one of those Lahaina shops that proclaimed: Will Trade Husband For Chocolate. Even Ted laughed. Alas, I didn’t buy it and haven’t seen it in the years since. Instead, I talked one of the men at the barbecue one night out of his t-shirt that said: Will Golf For Food. Actually, it was his wife who convinced him by saying he had two of the same shirt and he could certainly give me one. She fixed him with one of those familiar wifely looks and he acquiesced.

When not haunting the barbecue pit, we are usually assured of a good meal at Stella Blues, Buzz’s Wharf or Antonio’s, all in Kihei, or Tommy Bahama’s in Wailea known as the high-rent district. How “high rent?” Consider in Andrew Doughty’s book, Maui Revealed, he writes in his list of Best Of: “Best Example of What Should Be a Misplaced Decimal Point . . . But Isn’t — $250 to use a cabana chair for one day at the Grand Wailea.”

There is literally something for everyone on Maui, including a good laugh for those able to appreciate irony.

NEXT: Home, chilled out (literally) and off again soon.

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Written by Catherine Ford

February 25, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 36: IS THIS REALLY WORTH EATING?

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I had one of those really weird dreams the other night, in which I was standing on a bathroom scale and it read 127 pounds. Surprisingly, I didn’t laugh myself awake.

I mention this because I can’t remember ever weighing 127 pounds. Obviously at some point I must have, considering that I started life – in the same hospital in England in which my mother had been a nurse — clocking in at just over four pounds and a month early. At some point, however fleeting, I passed through that number. Why 127 pounds in my dream, I have no idea, and as I don’t ascribe much sense to the so-called “meaning” of dreams, the why will remain a mystery,

The point of mentioning the dream was not the exact number on the scale but the fact that here in Hawaii, I have no access to a bathroom scale, short of popping into the medical clinic on South Kihei Road, for which I would probably be charged an exorbitant amount as a “consultation” fee. Clearly, this is “weighing” on my mind as we spend five weeks in paradise — aka Maui.

The reason for my worry is simple: five weeks of a mid-winter vacation should not necessarily mean five weeks of excess, but the temptation is always there. Not wretched excess, but all those extra calories that seem to come with depressing regularity.

It’s not as if I’m stuffing myself with all the wrong kinds of food, but there have been a few too many two-beer lunches, a few too many orders of fish and chips, or burgers and fries, and a few too few green salads and grilled, skinless, boneless— and tasteless — chicken breasts.

On the plus side, there has also been the daily four-mile slog (about 6.5 ks) through sometimes too-soft beach sand, supposedly “earning” me an average of 620 extra calories to “spend” each day. Thanks to wearing a pedometer on my pre-dawn walks on the beach, I know all these numbers. The good news is easily out-manoeuvered by a distressing habit of snacking on taco chips and willingly and happily downing a tall gin and tonic (albeit diet tonic) each day after lounging around the pool all morning.

Then there’s the obligatory (because I say so) sunset cocktail hour, watching the sun drop into the ocean off the point of West Maui Mountain accompanied by the equally obligatory blowing of the conch shell (by my sister) to signal the end of another day. And what is a cocktail hour at sunset without a cocktail? (Mine are usually limited to the calorie-friendly Scotch and water.) Only occasionally do I fall prey to one of those “girlie” drinks — Sex In The City’s favourite Cosmopolitan. Thankfully, the sugar-laden blended drinks that come with a tiny paper umbrella don’t interest me: no mai-tais, no pina coladas, not even a Blue Hawaiian.

Yet the nagging persists. Am I gaining weight along with the tan? Am I undoing all of my hard work over the past five months? (Hard work may be an over-statement, but I feel better characterizing it as such.)

Five weeks without the crutch of a bathroom scale to keep me in line? Ted tells me not to worry, my own brain tells me not to worry, but there is that nagging feeling that nearly every woman who has spent way too much time obsessing about her weight knows — the awful thought that one day you’ll wake up and be a million pounds heavier. Any wonder I had a dream about standing on a scale?

This is clearly exacerbated by the guilty knowledge to which I now admit — having scarfed down an entire pint of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ice cream without pausing to take a breath. It was wonderful. (Then I did it again two weeks later with a tub of coffee ice cream. Is there no reason when one is on vacation?)

Then there are the Maui Caramacs — drat Rob and Wendy Armstrong who brought over an open box last night before they left for their Calgary home. The good news: there were only three Caramacs left in the box. The bad news: even though I tossed them in the freezer immediately, they did not survive the night. Alas, those suckers are really, really good frozen solid. The empty box now sits as mute evidence in the garbage, leaving only taco chips and fiery salsa from Amigo’s (whose plate of chicken enchiladas with rice and refried beans I’ve greedily consumed twice during this vacation.)

But none of the above – with possibly the exception of the ice cream — made me feel guilty. Why? Because I so enjoyed the enchiladas, for example. And that’s the kind of choices I’m willing to make, no matter the program on which I’ve embarked.

What does make me guilty is eating food that’s not worth the calories consumed — meals that are badly made or served with a surliness that the waiter or waitress doesn’t even try to disguise.

That’s the downside of paradise — you’re just another tourist, so why should you be treated as if you’re going to be back next week? Getting good food with good service in any vacation spot is often a crap shoot. It has nothing to do with the cost or reputation of the restaurant.

Amigos is a small hole-in-the-wall establishment with a half-dozen tables covered with plastic tablecloths. It opened a few years ago serving its Mexican cuisine on paper plates with plastic knives and forks. It has expanded to three locations on Maui, has graduated to real plates and cutlery, has a beer license and still serves the same humble but delicious (it could be spicier) Mexican standards. Its charming owner has a face that lights up when greeting customers. All of this combined makes for a happy experience.

Contrast that with another hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Coconut’s Fish Cafe. Certainly it has a more elaborate decor than Amigos, its tables being miniature surfboards. It opened in April of last year, and its menu boasts that “most all the food is very lo-cal or close to fat free.” On the menu, owner Mike Phillips employs lots of exclamation points to emphasize his commitment to God, all veterans and the environment. He also uses those same exclamation points for the fish and chips which are, “NOT GREASY! Lightly Battered Fried in 100 % Canola Oil!”

More than a few people praised its fish and have raved about the food. So we tried it and won’t go back. Why? Its touted reputation did not pan out in the food itself, although anyone can have a single bad experience in a restaurant. But here’s the clincher – the fish and chips I ordered was too-highly battered and deep-fried to death. It “needed” the tartar sauce to give it flavour. Bad day? Could just be that. But, here’s the kicker — when the owner stopped by our table and asked how everything was, I asked if he just worked there or was he the owner? The latter, he replied proudly. “Then,” I said, “I’ll be honest with you: The fish was really dry.”

His response wasn’t an apology, wasn’t an invitation to come back on another day, wasn’t to refund my portion of the bill. None of the above. He said, with a dismissive tone in his voice: “Well, that’s your opinion.” And he walked off. What do you think the chances of us returning are?

In the 2008 fourth edition of his excellent guidebook, Maui Revealed — published by Wizard Publications — Andrew Doughty writes: “By their very nature restaurant reviews are the most subjective part of any guidebook . . . All it takes is one person to wreck what is usually a good meal.”

For years, I refused to go back to one of Maui’s most celebrated restaurants, The Waterfront, after a disastrous experience with crappy food, a snotty waiter and a “turned” bottle of wine that I had to insist — insist, mind you — be replaced. In other words, the trifecta of bad restaurant experiences. Add to that, it had been our guests’ wedding anniversary and you have more than enough to boycott a restaurant. After all, its not like there aren’t more restaurants than enough to feed every tourist without anyone having to repeat.

But this trip we returned to The Waterfront. Food better; waiter better; wine better; table better. But the truth? It’s not nearly as good as its reputation and its prices would have one believe. One bad experience has been erased, but not replaced with any desire to return.

NEXT: There’s more to Maui than food and drink – of course.

Written by Catherine Ford

February 21, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 35: GETTING THE CARAMEL INTO THE CHOCOLATE IS EASY

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The Caramilk chocolate bar commercials are inventive and funny — the new ones featuring modern dancers dressed in flowing chocolate- and caramel-coloured robes.

But there’s no secret to how “they” get the caramel into the chocolate and every cook knows it. There’s a particular kind of fondant that when made, cools into a moldable solid. Only when it is removed from the air, that is, when it is dipped in chocolate, does it liquefy. It’s the not-so-secret “secret” of the Caramilk bar and such candies as that tooth-grindingly sweet concoction of a cherry suspended in liquid with a chocolate casing . You could probably make a Caramilk bar yourself, with the aid of the Joy of Cooking recipe, although that isn’t nearly as much fun as the speculation about how it is done.

Chocolate being one of the four main food groups — the other three being all fruit except bananas, Scotch whisky and toasted sesame seed bagels — it behooves we chocoholics to pay attention to the distinctions in flavour, mouth feel, lingering notes of sweetness and the depth of “chocolateness” in the various commercial varieties. To do so obviously requires lots of test-tasting, strictly for the purposes of research.

After years of practice, like having a favorite Scotch, I have ranked the Caramik bar second in quality and favouriteness to the distinctly Canadian chocolate bar known as Coffee Crisp, first marketed in 1938. What makes the Caramilk worth a silver medal is all that runny, yummy caramel. It’s like manna. Still, my first love is Coffee Crisp, maybe because its flavour makes me remember fondly my Saskatchewan cousins, Christina, Michael and Catherine Price who lived on a farm at the edge of Deslisle with their parents, Jim and Katy (yes, another Catherine — there are five in my extended family).

I first encountered a Coffee Crisp bar (price 10 cents) in the small town which is 40 kilometres southwest of Saskatoon at the intersection of Highways 7 and 45. Even on a good day there was precious little for teenagers to do in a town that even today has less than 1,000 residents.

Being a teenager living next to a small town must have been torture when one couldn’t curl or skate, this being long before anyone thought of or could afford year-round winter activities. These were also the days before regimented plans for children’s every activity. Short of a pick-up softball game or a game of tennis on the cracked and weed-filled surface of the town’s only tennis court, walking the main street was the height of activity in the summer months.

There was a local hotel and, thus, a tavern, but it offered no possibilities for teens when the drinking age was 21. And there were stores on both sides of main street, enough to keep the town alive. And in one of those stores I discovered Coffee Crisp, introduced by Christina. She and I would walk back to her house happily munching. Why it was Christina, at least six years older than me and not her sister Catherine who was much closer in age — only two years older than I was — was simple. Both Michael and Catherine had juvenile diabetes and such treats were forbidden them.

(As an aside, if anyone questions what kind of strides have been made in the treatment of childhood diseases, consider that people with childhood-onset diabetes today live much easier—and longer lives. Michael died many years ago at 50 and Catherine died about five years ago at age 62.)

It can’t have been easy for both of them to watch their sister and me eat whatever we wanted whenever we wanted to.

Deslisle is no longer the dry and dusty town I remember, even though it had already achieved some sort of recognition when I first went to visit my cousins, being the home town of the hockey-playing Bentley brothers, Max, Doug and Reg, although Reg would not enjoy the fame or longevity his two younger brothers did. Still, while all three were playing for the Chicago Black Hawks the brothers made hockey history on New Year’s Day, 1943 when Reg scored his only NHL goal, assisted by both of his brothers, still a unique event. The brothers were, says my sports-loving husband “small, sleek and fast,” and then added “and shifty.” Ted proceeded to rattle off the top of his head their call-up to the Black Hawks and their famous line with Bill Mosienko, called “the pony line” by sports writers.

(My theory — which Ted pooh-poohed — is that the sobriquet came because Bill’s last name was pronounced ‘mosey-enko’ and “mosey” was what cowboys did riding the range on their ponies. Well, it sounded logical to me, but I’m not privy to the kind of thinking that gives everything a nickname, that habit having not quite died out in modern journalism.)

Whatever, the Bentley brothers (the entire family consisted of 13 children, six boy and seven girls, Max and Doug being the youngest) remain Delisle’s most famous home-town heroes, with the two being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.

Deslisle also had its moment in Hollywood history when Paperback Hero, starring Keir Dullea was filmed there in 1973.

But in the late 1950s it was, and I am being charitable here, little more than a dry crossroads not worth stopping on one’s way through the province, and a crushing bore to a teenager.

The unique taste of a Coffee Crisp bar always brings back memories of the Prices and how Aunt Katy would bake bread and then slather it, still warm from the oven with homemade jam for us kids as we sat at the kitchen table playing cards.

It’s not quite the same kind of memories that were evoked in Marcel Proust when he was eating a madeleine, but those kind of memories are powerful. Proust wrote: “Taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring… remain poised a long time… and bear… in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.” It was from a taste of a piece of madeleine that all the volumes of his monumental novel, “a la recherche du temps perdu” known in English as In Search of Lost Time evolved.

I guess the bronze medal (the Olympics being much on my mind and on my television these days, albeit little of the coverage features we Canadians) in the world of candyland has to go to the combination of caramel, chocolate and pecans known as Turtles.

If you wanted to be in my mother’s good graces, you appeared at Christmastime bearing a box of Turtles, (Their competition, Almondillos, with the chunky shape of an armadillo, never made any headway in the Ford household.)

One year, in an attempt to keep the box of Turtles away from her two greedy daughters, Clint not having been born yet, she hid the box in the warming drawer of the oven, secure in the knowledge than neither Susan nor I (ages 5 and 11 respectively) would be cooking anything in the oven. What she hadn’t courted on was Dad who never to my knowledge ever cooked a meal other than barbecuing steak, taking it in his head to turn the oven on to 350 degrees for some inexplicable reason. Mother screeched when she discovered this and ran to rescue her box of chocolates. When she opened the toasty-warm pink box, she was sure her Turtles had melted into a shapeless lump of nuts and chocolate. Instead she found only some warm ruffled paper cups each of which had once cradled a single Turtle. We knew she would eventually discover that Susan and I had found her hiding pace and systematically over the next day or so had “liberated” all the chocolates. Instead of being angry, she collapsed in helpless laughter holding the two halves of the now-empty box.

Even all these years later, Turtles are still a once-a-year fixture in Susan’s house at Christmas and it’s our now-52-year-old brother who scarfs the majority.

Chocolates and candy were always a luxury in our house, regarded as an unnecessary expense by our mother except on special occasions, given that our father’s sweet tooth was almost non-existent

As kids, we waited each year for the appearance of the gumdrop tree with the rest of the Christmas decorations. It was nothing more elaborate that two pieces of plastic in the shape of a bare, many-branched tree. On each point, Mother would impale a single gumdrop until it was completely covered. It must have cost no more than $1 plus a bag of gumdrops each year, but it gave us a million dollars worth of pleasure, especially when Susan and I would filch a gumdrop or two, believing as only children can, that Mother would never notice the increasing number of bare limbs on the “tree.”

I don’t think I’ve had a gumdrop or a Turtle in years. But it didn’t take much – liker Proust’s mouthful of cake — to bring back memories when I met the Caramac, Maui’s equivalent to the Turtle, made of the same caramel and chocolate and instead of pecans, macadamia nuts.

Susan’s enthusiasm for Maui’s Caramacs doesn’t quite reach the level of mine (she and her husband, Harry, are here on Maui, too) but those little mouthfuls are way too tasty to be left out in public. So, when a friend brought over a box, I immediately buried it in the refrigerator freezer. Turns out they taste even better when frozen solid.

I’m doomed.

NEXT: Too much food; too much liquor; no scales in sight.

Written by Catherine Ford

February 16, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 34: MILES OF SAND AND THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS OF STEPS

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One day in paradise is pretty much the same as any other, but each day on the beach is decidedly different.

The sea seems to change its make-up from day to day, varying its look from gentle breakers rolling over the submerged lava rock and coral to a pounding surf that can strip the sand from the beach in a day, although storms of that intensity are rare. And, of course the sand always returns, carried back by the same force of nature that carries it away.

Very few tourists ever take to heart the advice to never turn your back on the sea and even fewer know that more drownings occur on the Hawaiian Islands than anywhere else in the United States.

Only once have I ever looked at the Pacific Ocean with trepidation and that was in the months following the Boxing Day tsunami that killed more than 200,000 in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. After watching the news coverage of that 2004 disaster, I remember the first morning on the beach here in Maui looking out to the horizon and wondering ever so slightly, what to do if the ocean suddenly drew back, like a huge watery intake of breath, preceding a killer tidal wave.

I don’t remember if I came to any solution, but it was probably fatalistic, as the choice on this stretch of the beach, where there are no buildings within a minute’s mad dash is between a natural marsh — the Keali Pond, home to several kinds of native birds — and a two-lane highway, neither of which would be much use in escaping a tsunami.

None of that ever kept me away from any ocean, indeed any body of water. Curiously enough for someone who is so powerfully attracted to water, I can’t explain why I live inland, where there are few lakes that aren’t man-made and only two rivers, the Bow and the Elbow, which join forces in Calgary. The America painter, Robert Henri, put it best: “Why do we love the sea? It is because it has some potent power to make us think things we like to think.”

That’s what makes a long morning walk on the beach seem less like exercise and more like contemplation or meditation.

Fear of the sea is the furthest thing on my mind when each day arrives clear and calm with just a few puffy clouds. To the Hawaiians, this is winter and when the temperature dips to 69F, the locals haul out their hoodies and fleeces while the rest of us are so grateful for the warm sun and the knowledge that nothing needs to be shoveled, that we laugh when the television weather reporter talks about the serious cold front. I remember one year watching the news when a television reporter — wearing long pants and a sweater — interviewed two bathing-suit clad people on Waikiki Beach asking them what they thought about the unseasonable cold weather. The look they gave the reporter was priceless, but maybe it was only the Canadians who could truly appreciate their cryptic response. She couldn’t stop laughing and he said only three words: “We’re from Winnipeg.”

Cold, after all, is relative. And cold in the valley between Maui’s two mountains, the volcanic Haleakala at more than 10,000 feet and the smaller and less-poetically named West Maui Mountain at more than 5,000 feet is sometimes just a matter of altitude. Those tourists who trek to the top of Haleakela to watch the sunrise are warned to bring something warm to wear. Of course, to people who live with the Rocky Mountains as their backdrop, the Maui mountains are little more than big hills. But their presence as the central spine of the island leads to Maui’s nickname, the Valley Isle. According to the excellent, no-nonsense guidebook, Maui Revealed by Andrew Doughty, eventually the land bridge that acts as the island’s waist between the two halves of Maui will vanish, worn away by erosion leaving at first two islands and eventually the islands themselves will erode away. The volcanic action that made the Hawaiian Islands will also be their destruction as, writes Doughty: “ the weight of the islands ensured their doom. Lava flows on top of other lava and the union of these flows is always weak. The lava also contains countless air pockets and is crisscrossed with hollow lava tubes, making it inherently unstable.”

Luckily none of us will be alive when the end comes a few million years from now. “Maui’s volcano, Haleakala,” writes Doughty, “awakened from its long sleep and is in its final eruptive stage. It probably last erupted around 1790 and will continue with sporadic eruptions for a (geologically) short time before drifting into eternal sleep.”

Even just going for a walk each morning presents a different aspect to the confluence of mountain and ocean and particularly here in Ma’alaea Bay, the whales are a constant, albeit mostly unseen companion.

The more than 1,000 humpback whales don’t come for the sun and sand, unlike we land mammals. They come to what is their breeding grounds and nursery and if you’re lucky, you can see them with their calves. While they spend most of their time out of sight of people, Maui is, writes Doughty, “the undisputed whale-watching capital of Hawaii. The shallow water between islands here is the whales’ preferred breeding area. Few industries in Hawaii bring as much shameless phony advertising as whale watching. Computers allow fake scenes with relative ease,” and all those pictures which seem to show whales breaching right next to the boats that take tourists out into the ocean are shameless lies. Federal law forbids the boats from coming closer than 100 yards from the whales and, says Doughty, the fine for “violating a whale’s personal space is obscene.”

One doesn’t need to pay for a boat trip, all one has to do is have a decent set of binoculars and a place to sit on the beach. The whales perform — while not exactly on cue — every day. Naturally, they don’t think they’re there to entertain us, they’re merely tending to their nursery.

The first morning we were here, just as the sun was clearing the top of Haleakela and I was walking alone on a deserted stretch of beach, I was stopped in my tracks by a sound I have only ever heard before on tape — the unmusical but nonetheless thrilling song of a male humpback somewhere between me and the horizon.

Exercise doesn’t get more fulfilling.

Walking the beach each day — an average of six and a half kilometers or four miles — more than fulfills the “requirement” to walk 10,000 steps each day.

As the National Post put it, in a 2002 article about a study of obesity in Canada: “Instead of dwelling on the negative thoughts about food and weight, the program allows participants to meet a positive target. Taking 10,000 steps a day is the equivalent of walking about eight kilometres and burns between 2,000 and 3,500 extra calories a week.”

I had tried this experiment, diarized it, wrote about it, and promptly forgot about it. I blamed winter and the Christmas season for abandoning the program. It simply became too difficult to meet the target in a winter city.

First, though I got smug. Here’s a diary entry: “The first day’s tally: 13,517 steps and 7.6 miles. Check pedometer, can’t have walked that far in one day. Only other time managed that distance was golfing Silvertip and running up and down the side of the mountain, due to 90-degree cart rule and really bad golf game.”

In outlining my own personal experiment, I wrote in the Calgary Herald: “I know how Helen Fielding’s title character feels, with her diarized obsession with weight, cigarettes, calories consumed and ‘alcohol units.’ Instead, feeling like Bridget Jones’ much-older sister, I record steps, water intake, exercise and mileage.

“I’ve been wearing a pedometer everywhere, except in bed, and my diary records a depressing inability to consistently walk those 10,000 steps, even when most days include a 45-minute cardio workout on a treadmill.

“Another compulsive Bridget -Jones moment: Find myself pacing the bedroom in nightgown to reach goal of 10,000 steps. Give self lecture on stupid compulsiveness and stop, only to discover I’ve reached 10,019 steps; 5.6 miles and a sloshy total of six, count ’em, 591-ml bottles of water. Up at 2:40 a.m. to, you guessed it, go to bathroom.

“Day What Feels Like 100: What began as spontaneous experiment has become compulsion and challenge. Today record highest steps of all — 14,115 and 8.0 miles. Admit to myself, although not to diary, that the only reason for the extra steps is having lost my watch and retracing my steps through four floors of downtown department store. Bless the cosmetics clerk — she has found watch.”

I lasted a month and then the Christmas party season started in earnest. But the pedometer stayed and I‘ve been wearing it each morning as I walk the beach as briskly as possible. Soft sand is the problem, although after a few days my legs no longer feel as if they are nailed to my hips.

The pedometer shows I’m certainly getting in more than 10,000 steps each day. Indeed, I’m logging an average of 13,000 steps on the beach before breakfast every morning. And, because I am still somewhat compulsive I’ve actually recorded each day’s mileage, for a total so far of 117 kilometers or 72 miles.

NEXT: I meet the Maui Caramac and am doomed.

Written by Catherine Ford

February 10, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 33: DOES THIS BATHING SUIT MAKE MY BUTT LOOK FAT?

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A red Delicious apple. That’s about the colour of my midriff this morning. Not especially pretty, but not yet the boiled look of a bad sunburn. It’s been so many years since my middle was exposed to the sun that the surprise is not that it’s rosy red, but that I haven’t started peeling in long flakes.

That much I remember from childhood — the way sunburned skin can be peeled off in long chunks, like the skin of an apple. The worst was the disastrous day I fell asleep lying on my back on the beach at Gull Lake (which has no gulls and no shade) and woke up three hours later. I think I lost the first layer of skin just by standing up. The second layer went when my mother saw me and I tried to explain. As soon as I spoke, yet-another layer of skin peeled from my face. For a week after that, smiling was an exercise in pain management. My face cracked and peeled and if I had only known it then, the lines made by the flaking sunburn were an approximation of what I would look like 50 years later.

Somewhere in my collection of photo albums is a series of pictures on the beach at Grand Bend on Lake Huron in Ontario. There are three of us —me, my roommate in London, Jane, and my friend Marilyn Hehr, who started work as a reporter at a small paper outside Chicago the same week I started work as a reporter at the London Free Press, both of us from the Calgary Herald.

We were spending a week in a rented cottage at the lake and looking back at the pictures we took, I simply don’t understand what the problem was with me and bathing suits. Jane (who married soon after the two of us moved together to Toronto and whose last name has vanished from my memory) is a tall blonde in a yellow bikini squinting into the sun. Every time I look at that picture the song “she wore an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka dot bikini” runs through my mind, although Jane’s bikini was missing the polka dots. Marilyn is a short and tousled-hair blonde, obviously comfortable in her one-piece suit. I say obviously because that’s how she looked, comfortable in her own skin. Of that week, there exists a single picture of me standing in the sand in a blue and green maillot. Looking at it dispassionately, the 23-year-old looks pretty good, even with a god-awful elaborate hairdo better suited to the city than the beach.

But what the picture doesn’t show is how uncomfortable that young woman was, standing in the sand and drinking a glass of lemonade, trying to pretend she was having a good time, acutely aware of how dismal was her inner body image. And I can’t even blame Barbie, having been raised long before Mattel created the now-ubiquitous doll. Personally, I don’t think Barbie is as much a threat to feminism as my feminist friends do. I believe she’s popular because, unlike the dolls of my childhood, Barbie fits comfortably in a little girl’s fist.

Of course, if scaled into real life proportions, she would be 5 feet, 9 inches tall and measure 36-18-33. Based on this, medial researchers at University Central Hospital in Helsinki have decided Barbie would not have enough body fat to menstruate. According to research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland and published in Forever Barbie by M.R. Lord, she would lack the requisite 17 to 22 percent of body fat required to menstruate. But little girls are blissfully ignorant of such stats.

The reason I am slightly sunburned today has nothing to do with sleeping on the beach, pretending I’m Barbie, or living any kind of fantasy. It has everything to do with the fact that the middle part of my body — breasts to hips — hasn’t been exposed to sunlight for about the past 25 years.

The last time was a solo trip through Portugal and Spain and when it became obvious that no European woman was getting much use out of the top of her bathing suit, I asked myself why was I wearing mine? Of course, being a middle-class, bourgeois North American, doffing one’s bathing suit top doesn’t come naturally. So, if anyone spoke to me in English while was lying half-naked at the seaside, I’d pretend not to understand and would alternately make some comment in French or Italian or just as likely, in German. (Blonde hair, zaftig body and all that.)

I’d passed for German in Italy, largely because, and I quote the maitre d’ who insisted on speaking to me in that language until I responded in English: “Well, you’re obviously not Italian,” he said, gesturing at my hair, and “you’re too well-dressed to be an American, so you must be German.”

Do I speak any number of foreign languages? Of course not, despite my friend Eva’s attempts to drill her elegant French into my head to replace my high-school lessons. My secret weapon is a collection of language books, all entitled Just Enough. Just Enough French, Just Enough Italian or Spanish or, one I’ve never had to use, Just Enough Serbo-Croat. The brilliance of these books is that with the right attitude, you can be presumed to be a local. Well, local if your hair is the right colour.

And then, there’s the problem of the colloquial language, a difficulty I encountered when trying to find a hotel in Milan and when I pulled to the side of the road, to ask a couple of pedestrians where the Jolly Hotel was, they answered me in voluble Italian accompanied with the expansive hand signals most Italians use. I understood one word: semaforo and the gestures. Turn right at the next set of traffic lights. Worked like a charm, a tad better than the time I answered some handsome man’s query about whether I was married with my, er, impeccable Italian. He fell about himself laughing and then gently explained that what I had actually said was that I was looking for a husband, not that I was single. Such are the joys and pitfalls of single travel.

But it has been a long number of years since those days and certainly an even longer time since I felt confident enough to wear a two-piece suit. That was, until yesterday, when I ventured out to the pool here at the resort on Ma’alaea Bay in the black and white Tommy Bahama top and the recently purchased bottom. It felt bizarre. I felt more naked than I had on the beach in Marbella, Spain. Then I remembered my mother’s advice long years ago, when I was still insisting that a beach holiday didn’t interest me in the slightest. Go to Hawaii, Mother insisted. There are all shapes and sizes on the beach in Hawaii, and you’ll not feel out of place. You won’t be the fattest or the thinnest; the youngest or the oldest, she added. And get over yourself, she said with a particular Irish mother tone, nobody cares what you look like.

She was right, as mothers often are. So for years, Hawaii has been my beach destination of choice, first Waikiki and then Kauai and now, Maui. I did try Mexico once, but it was dispiriting and disheartening and the presence of so many dirty, barefoot children tugging at my shirt and begging for money just made me guilty and then angry, so angry that I rudely brushed off one persistent young boy.

But just coming to the Hawaiian Islands doesn’t make one feel more comfortable in a bathing suit.

I’m reminded of a couple of passages in Anita Brookner’s novel, The Next Big Thing. In a letter to Julius, the novel’s protagonist his cousin Fanny writes: “I had thought that my looks would last me all my life and this is perhaps a illusion from which women suffer until they look in the glass one day and see that some sort of fading has taken place as if a veil had obscured the original brightness that no amount of added gloss will restore.”

Women should be above that sort of thinking, especially with more than 30 years of feminism under our belt. Why does it matter? Who indeed cares whether some woman does or does not wear a two-piece (and a modest one at that) to the pool?

Further on in The Next Big Thing, Julius’ ex-wife says to him: “There comes a time in a woman’s life when she no longer wants to make an effort, wants to let her hair go, wear comfortable shoes, stop trying to attract men. And yet there’s a sadness to this. You lose a future. I’ve noticed this in women who give up. Men seem to go on for longer. You see quite old men looking at younger women as if they still had something to offer. The men, I mean.”

NEXT: Miles of sand and thousands of steps in and out of the surf.

Written by Catherine Ford

February 5, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized