Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

Archive for May 2010

CHAPTER 49: TOO MUCH CHOICE IS NO CHOICE

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In one of the many brilliant scenes in Kathryn Bigelow’s multiple Academy Award-winning movie, The Hurt Locker, Sergeant First Class William James — played by Jeremy Renner — stands bewildered in the middle of a supermarket cereal aisle. He’s flummoxed by the range of choices presented to him.

Within days he’s back in Iraq, defusing bombs. The comparison is not lost on the audience – it’s easier to take an improvised explosive device apart than it is to decide among a bewildering array of choices that daily civilian life offers.

Surely there could be no person who doesn’t know how that leader of a bomb disposal squad felt. Who hasn’t been faced with the kind of simple decisions that leave you standing in the middle of rows and rows of jars and cans and bottles, unable to make a choice? Maybe that’s one of the reasons I so dislike grocery shopping — too much stuff on the shelves, too many choices, too much bewilderment. So, I let Ted do the shopping. He doesn’t appear to be lost in the midst of plenty, as I am.

So much of life is about making choices, from what politician to support to what brand of detergent to use. The former is obviously more important than the latter. But after years of writing about politics and the men and women who choose to run for office, desperate to win a popularity contest at the polls, I’m convinced we spend more time deciding among Tide, Cheer and Sunlight than among Conservative, Liberal or New Democrat.

Worse, too often when given a choice between brains and beauty, we choose beauty. Given a choice between smart and educated and folksy and likeable, we choose the latter. Maybe it’s because we want our politicians to be the kind of men or women who would make great neighbours, rather than great leaders.

As Frank Swinnerton, an English novelist and essayist who died at age 98 in 1982 so aptly put it: “We would rather be in the company of somebody we like than in the company of the most superior of our acquaintance.” That may explain why so many talented, educated, well-spoken and brilliant men and women get nowhere in politics. Too often, we simply don’t like them. They’re too cerebral, or too snooty or too this or too that — what it comes down to is a matter of likeability, not qualifications.

Rather than make a choice at election time, too many of us elect not to choose and stay home. When the Tories recorded their 11th straight majority win in the 2008 Alberta election, 59 percent of the electorate stayed away from the polls. That 41 percent voter turnout was the worst in Alberta history.

Alberta has had only four different governments since it became a province in 1905: Liberal from 1905 to 1921; United Farmers from 1921 to 1935; Social Credit from 1935 to 1971 and Progressive Conservatives ever since.

The Tories survive in Alberta because only once has there been a credible alternative on the horizon. Leader of the Liberal Party, the late Laurence Decore, managed to toss away what had been predicted as a sure thing (a Liberal win in the province in the 1993 election) when within the first days of that election campaign he came out against a woman’s right to choose. The ever-wily Ralph Klein, then the new Conservative leader and premier, simply said abortion was a matter between a woman, her doctor, and god.) We may not like all the choices with which we are presented, but above all, we want the right to make our own choices.

Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes … and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.”

The real underlying message is that life is all about choices and the privilege we have of making them for ourselves. That so many of us choose not to make those choices is not, as in the noted “jam” experiment because there are too few or too many options. Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School conducted the experiment and has written about it in her brand-new book, The Art Of Choosing.

As it turns out, making choices isn’t all that easy, and we are influenced by factors we may be unaware of. It’s not science, says Iyengar, it’s art. And despite the Western belief that the more choices one has, the better one’s life, it turns out it ain’t necessarily so.

Iyebngar writes: “It is a common supposition in American society, that ‘the more choices the better’ — that the human ability to desire and manage choice is infinite. From classic economic theories of free enterprise, to mundane marketing practices which provide customers with entire aisles devoted to potato chips or soft drinks, to important life decisions in which people contemplate alternative career options or multiple investment opportunities, this belief pervades our economics, norms, and customs. Ice cream parlors compete to offer the most flavors; a major fast-food chain urges us to ‘have it your way.’”

So she set about to test the theory. Customers at an upscale store were offered a choice among six “gourmet” jams or 24 of the same brand of exotic jams, with the more favourite flavours — strawberry and raspberry — being left out. Over a series of experiments and days, it turns out that customers were more likely to buy when their choices were restricted.

So it comes as no surprise to read in the Globe and Mail business section, a quote from Duncan MacNaughton, chief merchandising officer at Wal-Mart in Mississauga (just outside Toronto.) He said: “Folks can get overwhelmed with too much variety. With too many choices, they actually don’t buy.”

The retailing giant had just pulled two of the five brands of peanut butter it offered off its shelves without losing a single sale. Reports Marina Strauss: “Retailers are now reducing the amount of choice in their shelves, after years of tempting customers with ever-expanding arrays of brands, hues, sizes and flavours, they’re racing to simplify their offerings.

“Reducing the number of products can help companies increase sales by as much as 40 percent while cutting costs by between 10 and 35 percent.”

So what does peanut butter and jam have to do with my campaign? (Other than being two of the three constituent parts of my favourite sandwich — the third being bread.)

Because if you’re on a self-improvement campaign, you need to take that kind of ruthless attitude to your closets.

If it doesn’t fit, give it away or throw it out. It’s not that I’ve been good in this department, but I’m getting better. I’ve managed to donate at least a dozen business suits to an organization that helps women get back into the work force with the proper clothes, but it took five years of retirement before I realized I was never going to need those “uniforms” again, regardless of their original price tags.

But the hardest chore was parting with all the expensive clothes I had put aside when my weight crept up yet-again. Even the words of advice that rang in my head — “so your reward for losing weight is a five-year-old dress?” — so sagely (and appropriately sarcastically) offered by a Weight Watchers’ leader still wasn’t enough to make me clean out the closet properly.

The “dressy” stuff is the hardest to get rid of.

I claim the right to a certain amount of sentiment – the ivory-coloured dress and coat with satin lapels and the turquoise raw silk suit with its matching hat and purse I’ll keep forever, although likely never wear again. Nobody discards the outfits in which they were married, right?

Only bridesmaids’ dresses are eminently disposable, although even the ugliest live on in pictures. The yellow net dress and bolero jacket I wore as one cousin’s bridesmaid is one of the more unfortunate of its kind, although as close to high fashion as was possible in 1958 in the wilds of Saskatchewan. By the time the bride’s only sister was married, the fashion had advanced to less-formidable amount of frothy cloth and that dress was a simple green peau-de-soie. As I was the only bridesmaid, my mother suggested she make the dress from her choice of fabric, a suggestion readily approved by her own cousin, the bride’s mother. The bride made only one request — so that the flowergirl would match, could my mother send a couple of yards of the fabric she chose to the flowergirl’s mother, so that the wedding party would be coordinated?

Mother complied. What she neglected to do was to tell the little girl’s mother — who had never seen peau de soie before — which side of the fabric was the “right’ side.

The flowegirl’s dress came out backwards, with the matte side out and the shiny side in. It was one if those “wedding” moments that live forever, and every time I look at that wedding photograph, I can’t help but smile. Of such things are fond memories made.

I’ve kept the white grecian-draped gown I wore to meet the Queen about 30 years ago and my collection of hats — likely never to be worn again —doesn’t take up any room in the closet, being stuffed into hat boxes on the top of the shelves. Who knows but tea parties may come back into style?

But all the fat clothes are gone — donated to a worthy cause. It’s like a ton of weight — pun intended — off my shoulders.

NEXT: Spring cleaning should include one’s memories.

Written by Catherine Ford

May 26, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 48: “IF YOU WISH TO HIDE YOUR CHARACTER, DO NOT PLAY GOLF.”

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The quotation above is attributed to Percy Boomer whose fame is not exactly in a league with Tiger Woods’.

In the world of golf, nobody’s fame rivals that of Tiger Woods who, more than any other athlete, vaulted his chosen sport almost single-handedly into the stratosphere. Hockey fans know Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky. Basketball fans know Steve Nash or Michael Jordon. For every sport, there’s at least one star idolized by the fans and with whom they identify. But Woods is in a category by himself.

Everybody knows Tiger, golf nut or not, fan or no. And, sadly and ironically, Tiger could have benefited from the lesson contained in Percy Boomer’s words. Golf, more than any other sport, is a game of character.

If Tiger had been the biggest star in any other professional sport — basketball, baseball, football, whatever — his indiscretions (certainly a mild word for what was really going on) would have been forgotten and forgiven as soon as he managed a few crocodile tears, a convincing apology and a few well-placed dollars. But because of golf’s peculiar status in the character sweepstakes, there are thousands of still-disappointed fans unlikely to forgive, and less likely to forget. Count me as one.

Golf isn’t like other games. Along with being one of the few truly egalitarian sports, in that anyone at any age can play it — good, bad or dreadful — golf doesn’t give you character, it reveals it. It is on the golf course that a person is tested, because it’s so easy to cheat.

When J.T. Hayes called a penalty on himself in 2008 during a PGA qualifying tournament, he was honouring the code of golf in which players police themselves. The code isn’t limited to the names we all know. A minor player, Brian Davis, in line to win his first tournament, called a penalty on himself and lost the match.

As Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive linesman, Doug Brown, wrote recently in the Winnipeg Free Press: “In a world of doing everything but slitting your competition’s throat to win, how refreshing that golf uncovers a man who really paid attention in gym class in the fifth grade when they teach you that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Percy Boomer knew all about character and what makes a good golfer. And he knew it long before golf became a game dominated by technology and long before golf courses were the manicured and manufactured parterres of upscale housing developments. Boomer, born in 1874, turned pro in 1896 and won a few tournaments. But his fame comes as a result of his 25-year teaching career before he died in 1949. He wrote one of the classic books, On Learning Golf, published in 1942 and still considered among the best.

I started this year-long campaign because I wanted to be able to walk 18 holes of a hilly golf course in the heat of summer without being exhausted or having to take a cart for the last nine. I thought the answer would be healthy eating and exercise. So spring is here and now I get to find out how close or far away from my goal I am.

(In my campaign to walk and golf, I don’t include Silvertip, the magnificent albeit expensive course carved into the side of a mountain outside Canmore and named after one of the region’s famous residents, the grizzly bear. It’s one of the courses where you must take a cart, although for curiosity’s sake I once wore a pedometer and logged 7.5 miles or12 kilometers — my pedometer doesn’t do metric — up and down the side of that mountain because of the 90-degree rule. The experience convinced me to try to improve my golf game before tackling that course again.)

As was said by the former U.S. president, Gerald Ford, whose klutziness caused me to believe we must be related, although we are not: “I know I am getting better at golf because I’m hitting fewer spectators.”

My favourite T-shirt says: Will Golf For Food. In order to get it, I had to talk its owner out of it, literally. I was abetted in this by his wife who said: “For God’s sake, Don, give the girl the shirt. You’ve got two of them.” Don’t you just love practical women? It’s one of my prized possessions.

If I could take two of the many stupid decisions in my life back, it wouldn’t take me long to decide which they would be: learning how to golf and learning shorthand. Both of those opportunities were offered to me by my father who strived at the former and thrived at the latter.

As a court reporter, long years before machinery took over the job, he could take shorthand faster than most people talk. It was a valuable talent — along with his tremendous vocabulary which stood him in good stead during Alberta’s many oil and gas hearings, when a skilled reporter was needed.

I still kick myself everytime I remember I told him I wasn’t interested in either golf or shorthand.

In a 40-year career in journalism, it’s not hard to figure how many times I’ve regretted not having the ability to take down more than the occasional quote verbatim, without having to resort to the reporters’ best friend, the tape recorder. (One of the painful penalties of not being able to take shorthand is having to listen to politicians and their ilk more than once in order to accurately record their various bits of bafflegab, braggadocio and bullshit.)

But the inability to take shorthand didn’t really impede my career. Not accepting Dad’s offer for golf lessons is another matter. I can remember as a teenager saying to a friend that golf “was a stupid game.” I have lived to regret, many times, telling Dad I wasn’t interested in learning how to golf.

Had I started then, when I was a kid, had I learned the “muscle memory” that Percy Boomer stressed in his teaching, I could have left the game for years and likely still be able to retrain my muscles to remember, much like riding a bicycle. But the memory was never implanted as a young child and the various boyfriends who came and went in my life, some of whom were golfers, never indicated much interest in the task of teaching me to golf, although a couple did try.

Marriage hasn’t proven much better in the golf sweepstakes: my first husband preferred tennis and promptly bought me a Prince racket and lessons, while the second has started buying me golf clubs, but adamantly refuses to have anything to do with the game.

Curiously enough, golf is much like dieting: If you eliminate the negative thinking, if you don’t get depressed because you messed up, if you concentrate on what’s positive, it will all work.

Slowly and surely, golf teaches you what works. Implanting the memory and the visualization of a single well-executed shot, keeps one coming back to the game.

The first time out this year, last week, was a pathetic exercise in flubbed shots, balls lost in water hazards, and my unerring ability to find the sand traps on every course.

But what I actually remember is the thrill of a 5-iron shot to the green over the water on a par 3. Those kinds of memories keep me going back.

Here’s the difference between golf and dieting: In golf, one of these days I’ll even keep score.

NEXT: Too many choices is no choice at all.

Written by Catherine Ford

May 20, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CHAPTER 47: WHO YOU BE CALLIN’ FRAIL?

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The last taboo is not making fun of disabled people – it’s making fun of old people. They can be cute, they can be irascible, they can be demanding. What they can’t be, is silly.

I can rail against the diminution of the person, visited upon the frail elderly by their paid minders and keepers. If there is any justice in this world those women (for they are usually women) who persist in talking to the aged in a simpering, soothing, patronizing voice should be forced to listen to themselves for about a million years. And they should have to do it while waiting to be taken off the toilet or waiting for their diapers to be changed. Being old isn’t for sissies.

And the only reason these care-givers of the frail and dependent elderly get away with the kind of treatment one usually dishes out to babies less than a year old is that those men and women being patronized can’t or won’t fight back.
Why don’t they complain, loudly and long, about the childish treatment? Because so many of them have no choice about where they live and with whom. They are the brittle elderly, the parents with dementia, the old people who cannot care for themselves and whose children are unable to care for them at home. Unable to afford and thus choose 24-hour live-in care, they are at the mercy of others.

Many are afraid to complain for fear of retaliation. They literally suffer in silence.

So there it is: you can patronize the elderly with impunity, but you can’t make fun of them,

I’m about to break that taboo. But here’s the caveat: I’m not making fun of the woman she is, but the women she represents – generations of women who predated feminism and were raised with the strictures and ties of what society expected of them. With few exceptions they became, in this order: dutiful daughter, obedient wife, uncomplaining mother, doting grandmother. Whatever they did strictly for themselves, to fulfill whatever aspirations they had in their hearts was done after all the chores were finished, the children fed, the husband catered to, and the house in order.

Of course there were the rebels, the women who didn’t follow the program. But those women paid for their independence by being regarded as freaks by society. Those “freaks” became the unsung heroines of the feminist movement. And when feminism liberated us from the expectations of others — or so we thought — women were free to kill the myths that still persisted

In reality, we didn’t manage to kill anything but ourselves.

Her name is Patricia Murray Wood and she was married on May Day in Palm Beach, Florida. We Canadians are more likely to recognize the name of her new husband — Edward Noonan Ney – than the bride’s, albeit she was a newspaper columnist and comes from a fine old American family. If the groom’s name strikes a chord it’s because Ney was the American ambassador to Canada from 1989 to 1992. Both husband and wife have had long and illustrious careers. Both have been widowed and divorced. I know when and where they married because I’m an inveterate reader of the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times and that section’s wedding announcements

Such announcements, obviously, are happy ones. They shine a light into the lives of ordinary people and the occasional celebrity. The actor Henry Winkler’s daughter, for example, was treated with the same journalistic care and style as two homeless people who were featured one week and the same rules apply to everyone, including the gay couples who have started appearing in the past few years

But there is one thing I fail to understand or appreciate when it comes to women who are either personally famous or old enough to know better: Why on earth would a 90-year-old woman, as The Times put it: “take her husband’s name” ? Because that’s how old the bride is — 90. The groom, the former ambassador, is 85.

I find it sad and silly a woman that age would think it necessary to change her name. I find it equally strange that any man that age would make such a request. So when I read it, I laughed out loud. I first thought it some joke. Then I mentally apologized and started to think about the kind of a world these two aging people were born into, a world of expectations and strict social structures. But having lived through a great deal of one century, I would have hoped that things might have changed for them.

Certainly, I cut young people a lot of slack. Feminism is supposed to be about choices, so when my nieces took their husbands’ last names, mirroring their mother who did the same almost 40 years ago, I celebrated their choice.

Personally, I’ve only ever had one last name, admittedly my father’s. But because I married late there never was an expectation that I would change my last name. Neither husband ever raised the question. I joke that the reason I didn’t was because both of my spouses had long and sort-of complicated last names that wouldn’t fit into, in newspaper parlance, “a one-column byline.”

Maybe I should blame The Times for holding to such strict guidelines than a 90-year-old bride is treated the same way as a 20-year-old. Certainly putting in the names and home towns of the presumably long-deceased parents borders on the bizarre.

I prefer to think it’s the last gasp of a generation who were raised to be frail, dependent and little more than arm candy for their husbands. Such women were always identified as somebody’s wife or mother, person dependent on a man or a child to give her not only a last name, but an identity.

Never has the Helen Reddy song, I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar, seemed so appropriate.

Change your name at 90? What was she thinking?

Frail and dependent is so last century.

So, sisters, it’s time. Time to ‘fess up and tell the truth. Who does the heavy lifting in your house? You do, right? Only we don’t tell our husbands. They think “heavy lifting” involves large chunks of concrete or their mother-in-law’s suitcase.

Guys don’t ever seem to stop and consider heavy lifting is something as simple as hoisting up a 40-pound toddler who’s too tired to walk any farther while carrying four or five plastic Safeway bags full of groceries (looped over your arms because said arms are now full of child) and doing so while taking public transportation.

I look at the small piano (a so-called “apartment” sized instrument) in our living room and remember my mother and I carrying it down the stairs in my parents’ house. When my brother complains (as he does, often) about once having to help me move out of a two-story townhouse in north-east Calgary into a downtown apartment, he focuses on said piano. Granted, it has cast-iron innards, making it the musical equivalent of a black hole. Having to carry it down half a flight of stairs and then lift it above the railing and do a 180-degree turn on the landing before carrying it down another half-flight has apparently scarred his memory for life. I certainly don’t remember my mother and I whining about how heavy it was, we just went about our business and moved it.

None of this would make any difference in women’s lives if we didn’t grow up believing in the myth of the frail and weak woman. And the older we get, the more the myth takes hold and traps us into a box of neediness, helplessness and dependence.

The myth of female frailty has a long and storied history and who knows how many women have encouraged it? Scarlett O’Hara, Margaret Mitchell’s irrepressible, self-centred heroine in Gone With The Wind was the typical soft Southern woman – with a backbone of steel. Long before Mitchell’s opus was published, Shakespeare lets us know how he feels about women in the first act of Hamlet: “Frailty, thy name is woman,” says the prince of Denmark.

As Colette Dowling writes in The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality¬ ¬— “It’s hard to overstate the influence of medicine on the myth of female frailty. Protecting pubertal girls from too much mental and physical activity became a major campaign among physicians if the nineteenth century. In a widely quoted 1879 medical textbook, Thomas Emmet advised that girls ‘spend the year before and two years after puberty at rest.’ Each menstrual period should be endured in ‘the recumbent position,’ until their systems could adjust to ‘the new order of life.’

“Another make medical writer advised adolescent girls to avoid exercise altogether. Sufficient strength could be gained in the kitchen, the washroom and the gardens — nature’s gymnasia for adolescent girls,’ as he so nimbly put it.”

The myth of frailty has benefited lazy and frightened women who must believe that to be strong just isn’t very attractive to men. “For centuries,” writs Dowling, “women have been shacked to a perception of themselves as weak and ineffectual. . . . I began to see that the frailty myth hadn’t did, it had only wedged its way a little further underground.”

Strong, fit and healthy at every age should be the goal for all of us.

NEXT: Finally, spring and golf.

Written by Catherine Ford

May 10, 2010 at 7:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized