Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

Archive for September 2010


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In moments of fancy I imagine Plato eating a roast beef sandwich — thick slices of rare roast beef with Miracle Whip and lettuce between two bakery-fresh slices of challah. I also imagine this would horrify any number of people, not the least of whom would be vegetarians or those purist chefs who believe Miracle Whip to be a chemical and thus a lesser spread than proper mayonnaise.

Then there’s a certain husband who believes the only suitable bread for sandwiches is some chewy concoction known as linseed rye, which he buys at a specialty bakery and which has the consistency of carpet underpadding.

But what has Plato got to do with this? As I remember from first-year university philosophy, Plato’s theory simplified meant, for example, that there was one perfect table. Every other table was merely a shadow of the perfect thing. Therefore, there must be one perfect roast beef sandwich existing somewhere in the ethos, because I never got served one. Never, in my many years of taking lunch to school.

I remember few school lunches because rarely was there an occasion to remember them. In high school, there was a small cafeteria in St. Mary’s High, for the approximately 400 Catholic teenagers — boys on one side of the school; girls on the other — living on the south side of Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River. (Catholic students on the north side went to St. Joseph’s.) Whatever was served in the cafeteria other than french fries and gravy has been lost in the mists of time. And maybe my mind was elsewhere, given that the cafeteria was one of the few chances for students to mingle with the opposite sex.

In elementary school, both in Calgary and Edmonton, I walked home for lunch. And yes, everyone’s mother was presumed to be at home during the day.

In junior high, there must have been someplace to eat lunch because going to Our Lady of Mount Carmel meant an Edmonton Transit bus ride to 109th Street and a four-block walk down 76th to the school. Lunch I don’t remember. Presumably, as to this day, we ate lunch in the gym.

Obviously, as far as school lunches are concerned I can’t really remember my mother ever making me lunch. She must have, although by the time I got to high school my mother’s idea of a school lunch usually meant something way too embarrassing for a teenager — something along the lines of a tossed salad, a subtle reminder of how much I weighed.

And my obsession with roast beef? Jackie Carpentier (now Jackie de Bruin – she married Rudy who was one year behind us in high school) used to bring roast beef sandwiches to school every Monday. I though her parents must be really rich, because what late 1950’s housewife would waste a perfectly good leftover roast on her kid’s school lunch?

In our house, roast beef was Sunday dinner and the leftovers appeared for dinner on Monday. By Tuesday, whatever was left became hash. My mother may never have been Julia Child in the kitchen, but none of us went hungry and there was always lots of food on the table. Yet, there was something about school lunches that defeated my mother. When I got old enough to wield a knife without danger of losing a finger, she resigned the job.

As I remember, peanut butter and strawberry jam was the easiest to get together in the morning, seeing that the peanut butter was already out on the counter for the breakfast obligatory slices of toast. But my heart was never in the process of making my own school lunch. Like most teenagers, the lure of French fries smothered in gravy (eew) was far more interesting than homemade stuff, as there was never a chance of getting a roast beef sandwich.

Every year, in September, well-meaning home economists draw up a list of suggestions for making kids’ school lunches more nutritious and more fun. I’ve never been convinced that children want surprises in their school lunches.

After writing a column 25 years ago on school lunches and how kids didn’t want surprises, the Grade 3 students of St. Sylvester School, taught by my one of my university roommates, Carney Wakaryk, invited me to come and have lunch with them. It occurs to me just now that every one of those children is likely now making school lunches for their own children.

I went to the school, they fed me lunch — a peanut butter and jam sandwich on white bread, three cookies, an orange, and some of that flavoured drink in a tetra pack — and they grilled me, including one question concerning my age, which resulted in one nine-year-old saying: “You’re older than my dad.” (Out of the mouth of babes.)

It occurred to me that a smart investor (which I am not, given the fact I didn’t invest in Trivial Pursuit at the beginning, when I was asked, and neither did I buy gold at $35 an ounce) would have cornered the market on some “truly wretched-looking stuff called fruit roll-ups which resembles translucent ironed plasticine, or that sickly sweet, flavoured water marketed in a paper box with a baby straw, I’d be rich,” I wrote.

All of this was occasioned by suggestions, printed in the Calgary Herald just before the first day of a new school year, on what kind of snacks kids should take to school in order to fend off scurvy or starvation. (Okay, so I made that last bit up.)

But mothers are still, all these long years later, at the mercy of well-meaning home economists and dieticians who suggest creative ways to make a mother’s life more complicated. Add in the seeming proliferation of food allergies (no joke) and the challenge of school lunches and snacks are magnified. The suggestion, 25 years ago, that an ideal snack for mid-morning recess break would be to coat a peeled banana in peanut butter thinned with orange juice, rolled in nuts and frozen won’t cut it today. You can’t take nuts or peanut butter in your lunch for fear of triggering an allergic reaction, but maybe that’s a good thing. I can’t imagine a nine-year-old pulling out this “snack” in front of his peers and enduring the snickers all around.

Lest you think I’m anti-good nutrition for children I offer the following: The Heart and Stroke Foundation has oodles of advice in pamphlet form concerned with healthy eating. I know this because I sit on the fund development board and am thrilled that all sorts of information is available if people just look for it (Try for a wealth of information on healthy eating and family recipes.)

Alternatively, log on to the Heart and Stroke Foundation Facebook page and click on the healthy lunches, which includes all sorts of alternatives for my ubiquitous peanut butter and jam sandwich which, given the prevalence of allergies these days, no kid can take to school anyway. (Please note that this blog won’t correctly print an ampersand, so I am forced to use the word “and.”)

And while you’re at it, do what my mother did: let them make their own lunches. That way, they’re never surprised.

NEXT: The final push: three weeks to go.


Written by Catherine Ford

September 17, 2010 at 9:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment

Whatever the date on the calendar, every adult knows that real life resumes when school starts. The first day of school is the second New Year’s Day of the year. And it’s likely more welcome for parents than the actual date of January 1.

September brings regular routine back and such routines are necessary when there are children around. There are lunches to pack and dinners to plan and bedtime negotiations to be dealt with. While I’ve managed to escape all of that in my adult life, even childless people move to the rhythm of every school year. Maybe it’s something that’s bred in the bone.

Calgary’s public and separate school students start school tomorrow, on September 2. The year-round schools went back to the books a month ago. Many of Calgary’s private schools started classes last week. But whatever school or program a student attends — and I’m old-fashioned enough to believe school shouldn’t start until the Tuesday after Labour Day — the entire city has a different rhythm come September.

Educational experts have deemed this question moot. Moot as in open to debate or discussion. Really, they don’t care if you’ve planned holidays right through to this coming long weekend, they and not you, decide.

And what administrators have decided in recent years is that schools are no longer “public” places. The latest wrinkle in school-as-prison involves making the kids wear lanyards with photo identification, the better to control who’s in the school and who doesn’t belong there. I’m old enough to shudder at the thought of having to produce “papers” to identify yourself, whether that’s to go to school or to buy something with a credit card at Shopper’s Drug Mart. The latter’s feeble explanation about “security” falls on my uncaring ears.

And no, thank you, I do not want to “buy” a bag if I’ve just spent a couple of hundred dollars on non-essential cosmetics. And spare me the supercilious explanation about how it’s all about the environment; it’s about saving the drug store a bundle in plastic bags while the corporation is allowed to feel smug about it’s “contribution” to the ecology of the planet. Frankly, if the planet is your concern, give me a bio-degradable paper bag for my purchases and spare me the lecture.

Speaking of which, I managed to drop a few hundred dollars at The Bay a couple of weeks ago, and being a good global citizen, this time I remembered to bring a bag because The Bay has also jumped on the “look what we’re doing for the planet” bandwagon. It was a re-useable Safeway bag, but apparently The Bay doesn’t care what kind of a bag, as long as you produce one or buy one.

If you think my nose gets out of joint when the clerk in Shopper’s tries to sell me a bag while willingly taking my money, imagine my reaction when the smarmy Bay clerk asked if I needed a bag while ringing up hundreds of dollars on my account. Need a bag? This snippy women has to stand on her tippy-toes to peer over the pile of bathroom towels (6 bath towels; 3 bath sheets; 8 hand towels; four facecloths; three bath mats and a toilet-seat cover) sitting on the counter and she wants to know if I need a bag? I brandished the one I brought and asked if she thought, in her infinite wisdom, that this pile of stuff — pointing at the towels I had spontaneously bought — would fit in this bag I was waving around? Maybe I was Merlin the Magician and I could wave my wand and everything would magically transport itself to the car?

But, again, I digress. This was supposed to be about schools and school lunches and nutrition and how we all get back into the usual rhythm of life in September, even those of us without school-age children or any reason to follow a schedule.

Instead, this is about some of the irritations in life that vanish during the summer when life is not as regimented. And “regimented” seems to be the best word to describe the parlous state of our schools, desperate to deflect crazies, nutbars, and students with mayhem, mischief or murder on their minds.

Security has become the password of our civilization, whether we are dealing with airlines or schools. When I was working full-time I resisted for as long as possible wearing an electronic card that would open the outside doors and, naturally, tell whoever kept the records what times I entered and what times I left. Exactly what is the difference, I asked nobody in particular, between that and punching a time clock? That is a form of personal humiliation meted out to hourly workers in factories who apparently can’t be trusted to put in a full day.

But those arguments are long lost. At least we have not, as yet, insisted every child be “fitted” with a microchip to identify them, in the same way we insert a microchip into our pets’ bodies.

Oh, that’s right — cell phones with GPS systems do about the same thing, although phones can be easily passed from one teen to another. Still, given the pervasiveness of cell phones these days, what kid needs to borrow one? They all seem to have their own, glued to their ears along with their iPods.

September brings new chances, I believe, and this is partly why I started this blog last September, although the prime reason was my looming “senior” birthday in early October and my seeming inability to walk 18 holes of our golf course without being fatigued. So, while I won’t be hitting the books this month, or teaching any classes, my rhythms change with the school season, too.

For the past couple of weeks our newspapers have been filled with back-to-school stories about everything from physical education to non-boring lunches: How to tempt your kids who take their lunches to school.

This, I have never understood: if there is a single group of people who do not like change, do not want to deal with it and resist it with all their little might, it’s children. Some of us never grow out of that. I’m one. Sometimes my husband asks why, when we go for lunch in Canmore, I insist on eating the same thing — to the point that the Sage Bistro server doesn’t even bother giving me a menu any more, just pours me a Grumpy Bear from the Canmore-based micro-brewery, Grizzly Paw, and waits patiently for Ted to decide which of the menu items he’ll try that day.

It’s not that I’m against change, per se, but when you find something you love, why switch to something else? Isn’t that the reason most of us get married?

And my favourite saying about time and change comes from Marcel Proust, whose taste of a madeleine cake dipped in tea causes him to relive his childhood: “Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them.”

So, forgive the rambling and the rant and next time, I’ll talk about school and food.

NEXT: All I ever wanted was a roast-beef sandwich.

Written by Catherine Ford

September 1, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized