Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

Archive for March 2010

CHAPTER 42: COMING TO THE DEFENCE OF THE BIG MAC — SORT OF

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What says “home” to a soldier?

To an American serving overseas, a Big Mac might come to mind. Or a Whopper from Burger King. To a Canadian soldier, a double-double, with a maple-glazed doughnut. From Tim Hortons, naturally.

Every culture has simple items that represent home and they are often not the government-produced images.

There are at least a million words written about the “dangers” of an American fast-food hamburgers laden with salt, fat and calories, especially when accompanied by the fries. Every home economist and nutrition expert will denounce our fast-food culture and point to the consumption of burgers, fries and sugary pop as one of the main reasons for obesity in children. The devil himself couldn’t come in for more opprobrium on this front. Rarely does anyone outside of the company’s incessant advertising praise a Big Mac , for example, for what it represents.

So, I guess the responsibility falls to me. Instead of writing today about the mountain of paper and research I’ve accumulated in this campaign, the books and all the newspaper clippings that have eaten the desk in my home office, I’m reminding myself that like it or loathe it, a fast food hamburger can mean so much more than a quick, filling (and fattening) meal.

When I first met a Big Mac it wasn’t in North America, it wasn’t beef, and it was incredibly expensive by local standards.

It was at a McDonald’s in Shanghai. The sandwich was a hot and spicy chicken burger, and eating at a McDonald’s in China is expensive for the Chinese, or it was at the time. According to the Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia, edited by China scholar James L. Watson: “eating at McDonald’s is still a big treat for low-income people.” Today, of course, much has changed. Globalization affects all of us, but the most profound effect surely must be the encroachment of Western culture into Eastern enclaves.

The book was published in 1997 and I was in China in 2001, but even nine years ago, fast-food Western style was new. When Golden Arches East was published, “a dinner at McDonald’s for a family of three normally cost one-sixth of a worker’s monthly salary. The price is definitely not considered a bargain and is not the reason why Beijing consumers come . . . . the McDonald’s experience has less to do with food than it does with a chance to explore American culture or to give their children a special treat.”

Why a chicken burger? Simple. In a country where KFC is McDonald’s biggest rival, pushing chicken instead of beef makes sense.

Even I have to admit that for a consumer of Western food, for someone who lives immersed in Western culture, having to go half-way around the world to eat under the golden arches seems bizarre.

But I’ve always been an A and W customer and luckily, I married a guy whose idea of fast food is also A and W. Until we were in China, and a meeting was scheduled for an incredibly clean and bright McDonald’s, we had both managed to avoid Big Macs and that ubiquitous clown, Ronald McDonald. (Was I the only kid who found clowns scary?)

I bring this up to lay my credentials on the line because I’m about to defend the fast-food culture of the United States. Why would someone on a campaign to get fit and healthy have anything to do with Big Macs or Whoppers any other of the pantheon of what one colleague used to refer to as the “squat and gobble” food court culture? None of them are “real food,” not in my lexicon. But so what?

What McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s deliver is not just food, but a culture. You don’t have to like it to appreciate that the sight of those familiar golden arches, the sight of anything that spells “home” means something to a man or women starved for any experience that communicates all the things that “home” means. I would never freely choose to eat at one of the aforementioned establishments, but I understand what they represent. One doesn’t necessarily get to choose the icons that represent her culture, and one doesn’t have to like them when they become ubiquitous. But everyone has to recognize the power they wield.

When the closing ceremonies for the Vancouver Winter Olympics were resoundingly panned by many Canadians who thought the giant floating beavers and hockey players; moose and Mounties were just too silly for words, who believed the commentary banal and the spokesmen “too American” for “real” Canadians, they were dead wrong. Neil Young, William Shatner, Catherine O’Hara, Avril Lavigne, Michael Buble and Michael J. Fox, who alone received a thunderous welcome from the crowd, may have made their fame and fortune south of the border, but the last I looked, they were all born Canadian. And to have them send-up all those Canadian icons was a brilliant move.

What all of that represented, to us, was home. The non-Canadians watching knew that what they were seeing was “Canadian.” Yes, we invented Pablum and insulin and the telephone. Hockey is our game, more than lacrosse ever was. Most of the famous American comedians are disguised Canadians. But stick a telephone on a television screen and what the rest of the world sees is not a Canadian icon. Put a Mountie there, and everyone understands. Putting a Mountie in a canoe would just reinforce the stereotype.

And that’s what such symbols do: they remind us of home.

This is a long and exhausting introduction to the question of why I’m defending what a Big Mac represents. But it is important that someone come to the defence of what is seen as defenceless. Just this past week, both the Calgary Herald and the National Post ran stories on the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and head of the NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, ordering that American fast-food franchises operating at Kandahar Airfield be closed. No more Pizza Hut, Burger King, Subway or TGIFriday.

The rationale, reports the newspapers, is that “this is a war zone — not an amusement park.” And apparently, it has much to do with perception. Western fast-food outlets apparently just don’t send the right message to the civilian population.

A posting on the International Security Assistance Force blog suggests that providing such luxuries to the fighting troops takes up precious room that could be used to transport ammunition, food and water.

Let me be one voice for the fourth essential item missing from that list, after ammunition, food and water: a sense of peace and security; a feeling that home isn’t so far away; a momentary escape from the ugly business of war. Because all of this is what familiar icons provide.

When the late Ann Landers, whose syndicated advice column reached millions of readers for almost 50 years, suggested that Americans write to servicemen (and in later years, servicewomen) she wasn’t suggesting they needed amusement. She knew, through the thousands of letters she received from her readers around the world, that being in a war far away from home was a lonely and soul-sucking job.

And if an ice cream cone or a fried mozzarella stick or a slice of pizza can ease the hard slog in a hostile territory, that’s a long way from making Kandahar Airfield an “amusement park.”

Meanwhile, there are reportedly no plans to close the Canadian-operated Tim Hortons. Indeed, a Defence Department spokeswoman was quoted as saying: “Kandahar Airfield Tim Hortons is an initiative to support our men and women in uniform for serving in Afghanistan.” How simple; how appropriate.

Ann Landers would be proud. And the Canadian government deserves a round of applause for recognizing what something as down to earth as a Tim Hortons means to our soldiers a long way from home.

NEXT: Exactly how much research can one collect?

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Written by Catherine Ford

March 30, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 41: HALF-WAY TO THE FINISH LINE; STILL IN THE RACE

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Six months ago I set myself a challenge and invited anyone interested to follow along as I spent a single year of my life making changes. Not dramatic changes, but simple ones that would, I believe, result in a healthier, happier and more fit person. I would, I promised myself, be able to walk 18 holes of golf on a hilly course in the heat of summer and not feel wrung out. Not really an ambitious goal, but a determined one.

It would be the first act of the first year of a new era — the year I became an “official” senior citizen. Or, in the words of the girls — now women — with whom I graduated from St. Mary’s (Girls) High School in Edmonton in 1961, the year I became “wise.” Each May, there’s a reunion and last year, finally, the youngest in the class — Elaine Sereda, Jennifer Ehly and I — all turned “wise,” turned 65. (And for those who are counting, next year is our 50th anniversary.) None of us look the same, but it is amazing how many of us still see the high-school girl inside one another. We’ve been through love, marriage, children, heartache, divorce, death and disease — in various combinations — as has every person who reaches 65 and gets the seniors’ discount.

Last September, I wrote: “My goals are simple: To spend the next year, until October, 2010, trying to reconcile the 65-year-old body with the 18-year-old who still looks out through my eyes, amazed at what she sees. When did my skin forget where it belonged? Who owns that turkey neck? Where did that cellulite come from? And, most importantly, why on earth does any of this matter?”

All of us women know the answer to that last question. It matters because as we age, our lives show on our faces. There’s not much you can disguise at our age. Coco Chanel hit it on the head when she said: “Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve.”

I deserve a face that reflects a healthy body and a healthier attitude. I can’t do much about my aunt’s unfortunate chin, my grandfather’s droopy eyelids and the thin lips I inherited from my mother, but all of that matters little next to the joy of living well. That should be reflected in everyone’s face without the aid of plastic surgery. Actually, living well should be reflected in everyone’s face, regardless of plastic surgery.

So, half-way through the year, I’m pleased with myself. I haven’t made any drastic changes, but I have been walking regularly and being aware of what I’m eating. I think it shows. I certain feel better. I’ve lost 10 pounds and just over an inch off bust and hips and three inches off my waist. Not really much of a difference since December, but a world of difference in how I feel and, from friends’ comments, how I look. Maybe it’s just that I’m happy in my own skin.

All sorts of women writers have addressed the aging and beauty question, some more successfully than others.

It’s especially hard on women who either traded or relied on their looks when they were young. It’s also harder for women of my generation, who were raised in a pre-feminist era and endured a sea change in their expectations, opportunities and outlooks. An obviously angry Erica Jong (surely the first American woman author to write about raw sex in a humorous way) says in her 1994 best-selling memoir, Fear of Fifty: “The women of my generation are reaching fifty in a state of perplexity and rage. None of the things we counted on has come to pass. The ground keeps shifting under our feet. Any psychologist or psychoanalyst will tell you that the hardest thing to deal with is inconsistency. And we have known a degree of inconsistency in our personal lives that would make anyone schizophrenic.”

Jong wrote those words on the occasion of her 50th birthday, in 1992. She turns 67 on March 26. Maybe now she’s not so ticked off at life. (I doubt it.)

Still, it is in footsteps such as hers that we walk. We may not like her writing, her anger, or her openness about life and sex, but she has asked of herself all the questions women today have to ask. And maybe what she and other writers of her age have accomplished as they forged careers was another genuine success outside of their art: They showed all of the young women following how much they can take for granted, how much they may take as their right: contraception, abortion and the right to choose, professional careers, money and power, and the right to choose family and motherhood without fear of criticism or condemnation.

But, more importantly, as the poet Maya Angelou put it: “A woman who is convinced that she deserves to accept only the best challenges herself to give the best. Then she is living phenomenally.”

My personal campaign is not a recipe for quick fixes. I’ve been there, done that. I’ve tried all of the quick fixes, the fad diets, the deprivation; all of the pills and potions and so-called “diet” drinks. All of them work. But it is impossible to stay on such regimes for a lifetime, regardless of how long or short that lifetime may be. Our bodies are finely calibrated machines: fuel in, energy out. Take on too much fuel, it gets stored. And if you’re female, likely on your hips. I know, I know, it isn’t fair.

So I set modest goals. “My goals are not outrageous. I do not expect to be 30 or 40 again . . . merely to be as healthy and fit as possible as I enter a new phase of my life. I won’t be alone: men and women my age now expect to remain vigorous and useful long past the traditional retirement age. Indeed, we are expected to stay vital.

“Cultural conditioning plays a huge role in the way society looks at women. It’s not surprising, writes Dianne Hales in Just Like A Woman: How Gender Science is Redefining What Makes Us Female, that after long years of cultural bias — women being dubbed the “weaker” sex — that so many women are sedentary.

“Yet, she says, ‘no medication, no therapy, no diet, no quick fix can do more for the body of a woman than exercise. Regular workouts, whether they involve walking, jogging, swimming, cycling or weight training, lower a woman’s risk of heart disease, reduce the likelihood of cancer, strengthen her bones, improve circulation, help control weight and enhance mood.’ ”

Six months ago, I wrote: “Those of us women who get to age 65 can expect to live for at least another 20 years. Thanks for the extended lifespan, but I’d like to do it in a size 10 dress, as opposed to sweat pants or skirts with elasticized waists.”

One of the particular joys of our recent Caribbean cruise was the black and white, empire-line dress I wore to dinner one night. Size 10. As the late comedienne Totie Fields once said, referencing her considerable girth and using her ebullient self-deprecating humour: “Look, size 10, Italian knit.” I don’t remember if she was doing her shtick on the Sunday night Ed Sullivan show, but considering we only got two channels on television at that time, it’s a good guess that was the program.

Mother and I would fall all over ourselves laughing whenever she appeared, appreciating her wit, her wisdom and her wise-cracking style. Fields was a refreshing change from the factory-produced marionette-like blondes who were little more than stage furniture on most of the male-dominated shows. She died way too young, in 1978, at age 51. She never got the chance to be a wise woman.

Why was Field so funny and disarming when she talked about her “size 10 Italian knit” suit? Because at less than five feet tall and almost 200 pounds, it was inconceivable that she’d ever fit into that small a dress. But rather than bemoan her size, Totie Fields made it the butt of her own jokes, and by loving herself completely (that came through in her act) she allowed her audience to suspend disbelief and laugh with her, too.

For years afterwards, if Mother was feeling good about some dress, she’d twirl around and say to me: “Size 10 Italian knit.”

So it should come as no surprise that the size 10 silk blend dress I was wearing at dinner will always be an important symbol, an Italian knit in my mind.

What does all this signify? That there has been some sort of psychological barrier that has been broken through for me in the past few months. When I bought a size 8 knit at the St. John’s store in Wailea, I had to look twice at the label and almost refused to try it on until my sister insisted. Size 8 (a size 10 in Canada) seems so small in my mind that it would be too embarrassing to try it on and not be able to zip it up. It would be the disastrous yellow chiffon dress I wrote about earlier, the one that never fit but hung in my closet for what seemed like . . . forever.

And with the urging that I try on the dress came a graphic depiction of something I had never realized before: I’m not the giant, the ogre, the fat lady. Susan took me by the shoulders, stood me in front of a full-length mirror, gave me one of those firm shakes designed to rattle some sense into one’s head (most reminiscent of our mother) and then stood behind me. “Look,” she said, peering at the two of us reflected back. “Look at yourself. You’re not a big person.”

And the woman I love the most, my sister, my friend, shook some sense into my head.

NEXT: The growing pile of paper; the expanding file of advice.

Written by Catherine Ford

March 24, 2010 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 40: A CARIBBEAN CRUISE IS NOT A VOYAGE BUT AN EXPERIENCE

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I’m now back to wearing socks and long-sleeved shirts and making my own bed. Of course, I don’t have to tip myself at the end of the week with what is euphemistically referred to as “customary gratuities,” placed in small white envelopes printed in English, Spanish, French, Italian and German, so there are some upsides to leaving a large ship behind and sleeping in one’s own bed.

It isn’t the tipping for good service that burns me, it’s the practice of mandatory tipping that seems a bit cheesy. After paying thousands of dollars (in American currency, although given the current exchange rate, that has proven not to be a huge difference) for the privilege of a cruise vacation, I am expected — nay, demanded — to subsidize the salaries of Royal Caribbean’s employees. But that ship has sailed — forgive the metaphor — a few generations ago. Tipping is now an accepted part of being waited on by other people.

So, regardless of whether the service was good, surly, or indifferent; regardless of whether some exceptional request was performed; regardless of whether one has developed a relationship with an employee of the ship’s company or have never laid eyes on the person who cleans your stateroom every day — everybody gets the same base (as in foundation, not as in amoral or ignoble) top-up of whatever salary he or she receives from the employer.

Then, of course, you are “invited” or urged “at your discretion” to hand over more. To their credit, the ship’s crew/hotel staff are unfailingly polite, usually friendly and only occasionally bored with having to smile at every passing face. Still, you couldn’t pay me enough, even with gratuities promised at the end of every week, to do their jobs.

The late Globe and Mail columnist, Richard Needham, an irascible curmudgeon and flirt (he seemed to like the company of any woman over the age of majority and under the age of senility) once wrote: “There are four classes of travel — first, second, third, and with children.”

The staff has to deal with all four, while the passengers have a choice. There are activities for children of all ages, special programs and areas on the ship and even a quiet, adult pool set aside for those of us who like children, but not all day, every day.

Cruising on a ship the size of the Liberty of the Seas is not dissimilar to checking into the Four Seasons Yorkville Hotel in Toronto or the Fairmont Palliser in Calgary and then having the hotel weigh anchor and float off on a voyage, carrying with it its entire staff, all of its guests, a week’s worth of entertainment and shopping, and all of the food and other comestibles needed for a cruise on the ocean.

Personally, the idea of checking into a hotel and having it take you places amuses me. That’s why I like cruising and have done it before. It is also an escape from the tedious business of having to find a designated driver. But all things being equal, it is a bizarre experience. Not that it can’t be a wonderful experience if you are on the right ship with the right mix of people and the right attitude.

But it can also be a horror show played out with thousand of one’s newest BFFs. When the Liberty of the Seas had to cancel its scheduled stop at Grand Cayman because the whitecaps were too large to safely tender the passengers ashore, everyone who had scheduled a shore excursion there – like Ted’s daughter and her husband who had his heart set on swimming with the sting rays — had to find something else to do for the day. That meant that everywhere on the ship was crowded, especially the swimming pools.

I’m blaming F. Scott Fitzgerald for my expectation that going on vacation should not have to mean dealing with hordes of people. Actually, I’m blaming his creation, The Great Gatsby, and the era in which sea voyages flourished. No one could imagine Jay Gatsby standing in line at a buffet table and then schlepping his piled-high plate (no trays in sight) back to a shared table.

But then Fitzgerald and his 1925 creation could not have imagined a ship like the Liberty of the Seas. (It’s the second-largest in the world, exceeded in size, capacity and kitsch only by its sister ship, the Oasis of the Seas. The bad-taste component cannot possibly be described in less than the length of an Atlantic Monthly essay. Google the ships’ names and take a look at the pictures. If the dictionaries had photographs instead of words, these would be used to describe this kind of inoffensive vulgarity.)

But it isn’t the size of this cruise ship or its curiously middle-class pretentiousness that’s in question, not really. After all, in 1912, the Titanic carried more than 2,000 passengers and crew on its doomed voyage while the much larger Liberty carries 5,730.

No, Fitzgerald could not have contemplated how ships are no longer the means to get to the south of France, but an end in themselves.

Fitzgerald’s characters went on voyages to destinations where they encountered people of like mind and social status and where the serving staff knew how to mix a perfect martini.

The Jazz Age author would not have recognized modern sea travel. Sailing (now there’s a misnomer) on today’s high seas, he would have to write today that money, not class, rules all travel. But, then, Fitzgerald already knew that money could buy just about everything but that elusive quality identified in the 1950s as U and non-U. (A British university professor coined the term to identify the differences between the upper and middle classes and their usage of language.)

We went on a cruise that was an end in itself. Different and more democratic. There’s no longer such separations as first- and second-class, at least there are no chains across stairways keeping the steerage passengers away from the high-paying customers. But lest we believe that a true classless society exists anywhere, consider that as in life, money matters.

Today’s Jay Gatsby, should he choose not to eat lunch in the main dining room, would still have to schlep his own plate from the myriad of buffet stations, but he would have access to one of the “specialty” restaurants that serve only dinner, but are open at lunchtime, reserved for passengers who are in suites. Access is controlled by the gold colour of the room card. Then, too, he likely could have had whatever he wished delivered to his suite and set up on his own table.

But true democracy is seen in all the public areas of today’s cruise ships, with a single exception. If you don’t like crowds, don’t like to lie on a lounge in the sun with equally sunscreen-slicked strangers an inch from either elbow, stay away from the swimming pools and the solarium and the decks. A ship with the capacity of 4,000 passengers is going to be crowded when the sun is shining on the Caribbean Sea and there’s nowhere to go.

The one exception to shipboard democracy? Despite large printed signs around all of the pools “prohibiting” the saving of deck chairs or lounges, there was rampant disregard. This comes from a mind-set, I presume, that believes rules apply to everyone else but the person flouting them. As a result I spent one entire morning next to six lounge chairs, each holding a towel and a book or some personal item. They were six of at least 20 around the pool that sat unoccupied for the entire time while other passengers searched in vain for an empty spot.

And what a mix of passengers there was. Because the only qualification for such a trip is the money to pay for it, there was a polyglot assortment of nationalities, personalities, manners, cultures and attitudes. The best item to pack for this kind of a vacation is a sense of humour. Sharing a breakfast table one morning with a couple whose grasp of elementary table manners did not extend to the concept of chewing with one’s mouth closed, was an exercise in trying not to stare, like one does when encountering a train wreck.

The week passed too quickly and too expensively. How? Simple: Royal Caribbean is precise about its “rules” and one of them is a ban on personal liquor. (While on a tour of Mayan ruins near Belize, one wit remarked that the ever-efficient staff and their x-ray machine had confiscated his still-sealed bottle of Mountain Dew “just in case” it wasn’t pop, but contraband liquor.) As a result, while the drinks in the various bars were reasonable in cost — $8 martinis, for example — they were still an added expense and came with a hefty 15 percent gratuity automatically added on. And, of course, wine at dinner was additional.

As the best food on the ship came not in the dining room or the cafes, but in the so-called “specialty” restaurants where the cover charge was an additional $20 to $25 per person, it didn’t take long to rack up a hefty bill.

It also didn’t take long to gain three pounds, despite my walking the deck and trying not to stuff my face at every opportunity. As for Ted? Not a pound. What is it with men and their metabolism?

NEXT: Half-way through this campaign and what’s been accomplished?

Written by Catherine Ford

March 18, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 39: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MIDNIGHT BUFFET?

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Maybe it’s just this particular cruise line, Royal Caribbean. Maybe attitudes have changed for the better since the last time Ted and I took a cruise, about 10 years ago.

Whatever the reason, the midnight buffet — former staple fixture of the cruise industry — has vanished. Not that there is a dearth of food available 24 hours a day. And despite a certain focus on health and fitness, there are enough overweight people on this ship to justify all the media hype about the percentage of Americans who weigh too much and move too little.

Tempering that, though, is the presence of large numbers of young people, most of them lithe, alive and downright beautiful, as young people around the world tend to be when seen through the eyes of a senior citizen. It’s a treat to be surrounded by so many students on spring break.

It adds a certain liveliness to the days and no one can be grumpy when surrounded by such potential. In the martini bar one night, on one of the two designated “formal” dinner nights, a group of at least 10 single women decked out in fancy and sometimes skimpy dresses made the entire lounge look special. And because suits and ties – or tuxedos — were expected of the men for dinner, there was the odd and somehow touching sight of a young man with a full Mohawk haircut, classily suited out with white shirt and colourful tie. He sported a single sign of his reluctance to adopt the straitjacket of “proper” businessman attire — the long chain attached to a belt loop from the right pants pocket, an affectation usually only seen accompanying Harley Davidson leathers.

We’re on this seven-day cruise out of Miami at the request of Ted’s elder daughter, Kerry, and her husband, Rick Smith, who asked if we would help them celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary by coming with them. Such are the privileges and pleasures of retirement that we didn’t feel one bit of guilt saying yes and coming back from Hawaii only to leave again the following week.

Of course there’s that pesky business of trying to lose weight and get fit while stuffing one’s face with food. I did manage to lose the five pounds I gained in Hawaii, just in time to get to Miami and start eating again.

We’re spending a week cruising with the second-largest cruise company on a giant ship, the Liberty of the Seas, with 15 decks above the water line and a capacity of around 4,000 passengers and half as many crew, including 130 working couples. To say it’s a behemoth is an understatement, a floating self-contained hotel and resort. The dining room itself is three stories high. The fitness centre is the size of our house in Calgary.

Actually, there is no reason to gain weight on a cruise, but it takes enormous will power to avoid many of the temptations that cruises offer. Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who first conquered Everest purportedly said: “It is there, so I must eat it.” Add to that the curiously American insistence that quantity beats out quality. (I make this decision based on long years of watching Americans’ approach to food, best described as the more, the better. Or, more succinctly, I paid for it and I’m going to eat as much as I can manage, as often as physically possible.)

This attitude may explain why, when there is an unlimited supply of “free” food, some of us eat like pigs. But there’s one thing worse than being a hog, and that’s being a wastrel, and there’s too much of that happening on a cruise. Why, for example, would anyone with one ounce of brains fill their plate to overflowing and leave much of it uneaten and relegated to the garbage? Even more curious is to do this when there’s no limit to the number of times you refill your plate, or the amount of food you can order at dinner.

But then I remember the food frenzy I found myself in the middle of, years ago at a joint U.S.-Canada convention in Montreal, where the exasperated staff at a buffet restaurant, in both official languages, tried to calm the stampede by yelling that there was no need to push and shove, there was enough food for everyone. They failed miserably and eventually just stood back as the hungry hordes cleared the tables in a flash. After that experience, in a spirit of self-preservation, I usually stand back until the first wave of gastronomes charge the laden buffet tables.

But reticence not being my strong suit, I needed more than just a distaste for pushy crowds in order to stay on an even keel — pun intended — for this week.

The best diet in the world is to read about other people’s gastrointestinal problems. It puts the thought of eating right out of anyone’s mind and leads to meals of saltine crackers and chicken broth.

Yeh, right. Like we’re on this cruise and eating is not all part of the experience. Still, to keep things in perspective I spend one afternoon last week reading page after page of complaints from unhappy customers of Royal Caribbean, who operate the three largest cruise ships in the world. (We’re on the second-largest.) As the Web site states: “But as in so many other things, size isn’t all that matters. While many cruise fans return time and time again to Royal Caribbean, others don’t have a good experience. And as the complaints in this section show, the line is not always eager to set things right.”

Of course, the psychology of reading about other people’s bad experiences doesn’t necessarily carry through to real life. Enter the magic of Google searches. In less than a second, the Web delivered 340,000 responses to a query about gaining weight on a cruise.

And, as I write this, I am sitting on a sunny balcony off our stateroom on Deck 10 with a list of hints gleaned from a computer search, including five simple rules for avoiding weight gain, written by Kathleen Zelman on Web MD.

Here they are, the five vacation tips:

“Plan ahead to fit in fitness.” As Zelman writes, “Consider places where you can take walks or hikes, ride bikes do water sports or use the hotel tennis courts or gym.” Welcome to nirvana — there is nothing a cruise ship doesn’t offer, including a marked running track around Deck 12, most of it free for the asking and the doing. The ship also posts distance markers — 4.5 laps is a mile; 3 laps is a kilometer. But it’s tough to get one’s heart rate up just by walking briskly around a flat track, even if, like me, you’re doing it for a full hour. So to offset the effects of eating and drinking, I’m trying to take the stairs at every opportunity.

I’m also trying my best to avoid over-eating and, because Royal Caribbean will not allow personal liquor to be brought on board, clearly to boost the business in the myriad of bars and lounges, there has not been too much over-indulging. (Ted may disagree with that statement after last night’s two-bottle-of-wine dinner.)

“Be prepared,” writes Zelman. No surprises here. “When you travel . . . be prepared with healthy food so you won’t have to eat whatever is available.” Naturally on a cruise ship dealing with thousands of people, every kind of food is offered, not all of it necessarily worth eating. And it seems rather tacky to travel with a Zip-Lock bag and stuff it full of fruits and vegetables, even if all of it is free.

“Avoid dining-out disasters.” This is probably the biggest temptation on a cruise. But Zelman quotes a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association: “It is easy to control calories if you stay away from fried, crispy or creamy foods; hold extras such as cheese and mayo, top salads with low-fat dressings, drink water instead of sodas – simple things that can shave calories and make room for the special treats.”

I smiled when I first read that, simply because deprivation is not much fun, especially when eating and drinking is so much a part of a vacation.

“Indulge in moderation,” writes Zelman. “Have one scoop of ice cream instead of the sundae, or split that decadent dessert with a dining companion,”

And the last tip? “Pare down portions.” My theory on this? If you can’t see at least some of the rim of your dinner plate, you’ve taken too much food.

My special trick? I’ve brought along a dress that just barely fits. If I gain weight, I can’t wear it.

NEXT: The joys and pains of a cruise vacation.

Written by Catherine Ford

March 11, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 38: FACING THE FORTUNE TELLER IN THE BATHROOM

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At least it isn’t -30C. And we got home in time to watch the Winter Olympics gold medal hockey game and the closing ceremonies — hokey and sometimes charming – but at least they were live on CTV, rather than tape delayed and chopped up, as they were on NBC. And the house is still standing. So, all things being equal, coming home from Maui was not all bad, if occasionally a cause for some serious sulking.

The following morning I stepped on the bathroom scale for the first time in five weeks. I immediately lay down with a cold cloth on my forehead and contemplated the inequalities of men and women. Why does this matter? Why do three numbers mean so much?

If I didn’t love him, I’d have flattened Ted right where he stood, tanned and grinning and comically flexing his muscles. Did Ted gain any weight after five weeks on Maui? Who are you kidding? Himself snacked on such calorie-laden stuff like cheese, taco chips and fiery salsa, and that fatty, gristly part of the turkey which usually gets thrown out, the euphemistically named “turkey tail.” For some bizarre and unknown reason, they are available for purchase in Hawaii, primly wrapped on a Styrofoam tray and sealed with plastic wrap.

If, like Ted, the man in your life asks each Thanksgiving why there is no tail on this year’s fresh turkey (there’s a more descriptive but rude expression for this part of the bird’s anatomy) you can reference supermarkets in Hawaii. Why only in Hawaii, I don’t know. I also don’t know if it really is a marketable delicacy in other countries, have never really looked at raw packaged poultry bits in Europe, Asia or the Caribbean.

Each year Ted gets to snack on turkey tails after I’ve roasted them in the oven and subsequently poured off enough fat from the pan to grease down the entire Japanese national team of sumo wrestlers. I guess there’s no accounting for acquired taste. Personally, I’d just as soon chew on a roasted kitchen sponge.

Of course he did not gain weight. I did. Five pounds of the ten I lost while on this campaign. But most of it will be gone by the end of the week. And the advantage of those five weeks became obvious last night.

On our way to a reception for The Walrus magazine held at Theatre Calgary prior to a performance of Beyond Eden, we had to walk up four flights of stairs. Ted was puffing. I, on the other hand, having just come off five weeks of walking four miles a day managed without even breathing hard. That makes up for the weight gain, because part of this campaign (and I believe the most important part) is to become fit enough to walk the 18 holes of any golf course, in the heat of summer, without flagging or courting angina. So four flights of stairs was a snap and proof to me at least, that my campaign is on track.

Being back home means being back on the treadmill and all of you who live at sea level can’t appreciate the effect of altitude on exercise.

In order to get my heart rate into the target zone for 20 minutes as recommended by the Cardiac Wellness Institute, I needed to walk briskly at sea level on a fairly flat beach for about four miles. Here in Calgary, where we are almost 3,500 feet (1,048 metres) above sea level, with my treadmill set at a 2.5 incline and 3.8 miles per hour, I’m done in 45 minutes. I couldn’t walk fast enough at sea level to raise my heart rate above a high of 120 (starting at 76 to 80) but that’s no problem at home, where the challenge is to keep the rate reasonable.

This, obviously, is no scientific measurement, but an example of how much kinder sea level is to heart patients than altitude. The effects of altitude are also the reasons for my commitment to getting fit in time for this year’s golf season. I am determined to walk our hilly courses (the ones that don’t insist golfers take a cart) during the summer without becoming exhausted.

Obviously, it would be more entertaining and provide me with some brisk fresh air to walk outside rather than in my basement on a treadmill. But in the winter, it’s dark, it’s cold, sometimes it’s snowing and for sure, the sidewalks are treacherous. I find it passing curious that the City of Calgary will issue any of us householders a ticket if our sidewalks aren’t cleared within 24 hours of a snowfall, but the city is allowed to pile icy mountains of dirty snow wherever it pleases, including around bus stops and intersections and that bane of so many homeowners — right across your front driveway.

We have a paved back alley which becomes a luge track all winter and negotiating the icy ruts and aiming the car correctly in what turns out to be a V-turn into the garage should be worth at least a medal in perseverance, if not a special award for passing a camel through the eye of the needle without knocking its metaphorical head off.

But the mid-winter thaw is here, fooling the trees into thinking it’s spring, the foliage not realizing Mother Nature is only kidding. We humans bask in the welcome sun and hunker down to wait for the expected — and usually delivered — massive snowstorm of the month. (On March 17, 1998, 32 centimetres of snow — more than a foot, for those of you who are metrically challenged — fell at Calgary International, but more than 45 centimetres (a foot and a half) fell on parts of the city, beginning the night before. Personally, I believe most of it fell on our property.

Our neighbour, with a four-wheel drive, had to drive Ted to work while my brother and I dug my car out from the back garage. Why was Clint around that morning and not at home? Simple: The three of us had been to a reception the evening before and Clint’s wife phoned him at our place to tell him not to even try to get his car up their hill. He stayed the night. He paid for it by moving a mountain of snow the following morning.

Strangely enough, the worst snowstorm in more than a century didn’t put a damper on the St. Patrick’s Day partying. We’ve had snow in June and August and shirtsleeve temperatures on New Year’s Day.

But so as not to tempt the gods of winter too much, we head off this weekend for parts south and east, instead of south and west.

NEXT: Beware the dreaded, groaning midnight buffet.

Written by Catherine Ford

March 4, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized