Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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I really don’t look like my mother. Indeed, I look more like my father’s sister than the Irish side of the family. But I swear I see my mother in the mirror out of the corner of my eye.

Actually, that’s a good thing. Thinking I am her in so many gestures and even beliefs makes me treasure her memory more. For all of the difficulties that naturally arise between mother and daughter and all the selfish, whiny books such relationships have spawned, our mother has left a storehouse of wonderful memories for all three of her children.

I know my relationship with my mother was vastly different than my sister’s with the same woman. My sister lives, I believe, much freer of Mother’s influence and much freer of any need for validation from her. In a way, I envy that. I truly wish I didn’t care: didn’t care what Mother thought, didn’t care what anyone thought, other that my own inner compass. And now, I care too much what my sister thinks. Of all the women in the world, she is the most dear to me and what she thinks matters. Maybe that’s more a reflection of me than her — having grown up wanting to see myself reflected back in the eyes of my mother, here I am at 65 still needing validation.

“For all of us raised in the current style of Western family life, the relationship with mother birthed us physically and emotionally, gave us our first experiences with love and need, disappointment and hurt,” write Luise Eichenbaum and Susie Orbach in Between Women: Love Envy and Competition in Women’s Friendships.

That emotional relationship with our mother, its legacy, “is etched in the deepest recesses of our hearts. It is the guide and foundation for our future relationship. It sets up needs, ways of being, ways of loving, expectations and hopes.”

Then there’s the adage that counsels prospective husbands to look to their lover’s mother to see what the future holds. And while that advice is clearly meant as a warning, there’s much truth in the thought. William Shakespeare said it better, though in his third sonnet: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/ Calls back the lovely April of her prime.”

That mirror of our mother colours all of our relationships. Write Eichenbaum and Orbach: “The social context of the mother-daughter relationship is an important key to explaining not only the bittersweet nature of that relationship but its impact on adult women’s relationship. As we understand what could and could not happen for our mothers in their lifetime, as we understand what could and could not happen in our relationships with our mothers, we can begin to understand the forces operating in our current women-to-women relationships.”

I can already hear my mother’s snort of dismissal. Peggy Ford wasn’t much given to self-examination or reflection. For her, what was past is done and gone, what matters is only what’s in front of you in life. In a way, this too, is admirable. Maybe not exactly in the way that the 5th Century BCE philosopher Socrates believed —the unexamined life not being worth living — but the ability to lay the past to rest and move on. If my mother ever had regrets about the choices she made, they were rarely spoken.

I remember only two: her musing one day that she had wanted to be a doctor but there was no money in rural Ireland in the late 1930s for higher education, so she became a nurse instead and, much later, her chagrin that while she was the family “banker” and bill payer, her husband wouldn’t let her gamble on the real estate market.

There were many things to admire about Mother, but maybe the best was her absolute unflappability in a crisis. As my brother said at her funeral, she was the one person you’d want around in any crisis.

When my parents and our across-the-street neighbours went out one night in Edmonton to a formal ball and some deranged nutbar tried to commit suicide by throwing himself out of the window onto the sidewalk, the neighbor who was a surgeon and my mother, the wartime nurse, dashed outside to render medical assistance. She could have been in a hospital emergency ward rather than kneeling on a downtown sidewalk in a formal gown, blood everywhere, she was that cool.

Few diets ever focus on the mother-daughter relationship, ignoring the fact that how our mothers looked at food and their relationship with their own bodies and all the issues surrounding that is a psychological key to our own success.

In an recent issue of Women’s Health magazine, one of the cover “teasers” was the question: Will You Inherit Your Mother’s Body? The writer, Margaret Renkl, quotes Leann L, Birch, a professor of human development at Penn State University, who “has discovered that your mother’s attitude toward food has a powerful impact on the one you develop yourself.”

As for developing my mother’s body, the magazine offers the thought that you can’t “override a genetic disposition,” but you can fight like hell against it. I suspect, along with the writer, that in the end, nature wins against nurture.

After all, more than half a year, more than half-way through this campaign, I still don’t have a waist. Although I have managed — usually — to overcome the habit of wearing loose-fitting clothing, although I’m not quite at the point of tucking in each and every shirt

That, I know, I inherited from my mother who wasn’t ever fat, but dressed to disguise her impressive bosom which attracted way too much attention that she didn’t want.

I take heart from a silly and very funny book my sister received on her 60th birthday: Laugh Lines Are Beautiful and Other Age-Defying Truths, written by Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant. My favourite? “It’s stupid to hold in your stomach and your opinions for anyone.”

In second place: “It is possible to be too thin, too tan and too bitchy.”

But the most telling quote from the book is this one: “You’re only half as old as your mother was at your age.”

There are many reasons for this, including better childhood health and better available nutrition.

And adding to all that is he simple fact that come next year, the first Baby Boomers become senior citizens, turning 65. Grey power, indeed. From 2011 until 2029, millions of them will use their numerical power to rewrite what old age means.

I can’t wait.

NEXT: How I failed retirement


Written by Catherine Ford

June 29, 2010 at 9:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized


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If spring doesn’t arrive, do you still have to do spring cleaning?

Anyone knowing the mechanics of our household has just snorted at that sentence. The reason is simple: The indefatigable Brigitte does all that stuff for us, including the windows, and we are grateful for her presence once a week. When she occasionally talks about retirement, I have to lie down with a cold compress on my forehead, hoping this is just a passing fancy. I don’t, in fact, know what we’d do without her.

She’s been with me so long that she predates Ted who nervously laughs when I suggest should anything go amiss, he’d be easier to replace than her. And there isn’t a woman in the world who wouldn’t agree with me. Indeed, what every working woman needs is a wife. Husbands are a wonderful necessity, a blessing on cold-feet nights, a companion with whom to play bridge, share music, films and taste in art and, most importantly, a lover who needs no additional pampering or sweet talk. The best husbands also know instinctively whose turn it is to be the lover and whose turn it is to be loved.

But having a wife – that 1950s paragon of cooking. cleaning and homemaking; that deliverer of hot meals and cold drinks; the travel-planner, picnic organizer, shirt-ironer, laundry folder, volunteer worker, soother of fears and champion of dreams – that’s what we all need.

Instead, most women get to work full time outside the house and then go home and do all the above with little extra credit or comfort from their friends, peers and coworkers.

And while most women can keep it all together, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the level of neatness and cleanliness they demand of themselves, every year spring rolls around and despite having full days, that urge to toss the house takes over. Brigitte does our windows and blinds, but she can’t clean out the closets and cupboards.

I knew spring had finally arrived when Brenda, the woman who does my nails announced that she had spent the previous weekend at her widowed father’s condo, washing the walls and cleaning up a storm.

There is something atavistic about spring cleaning, some urge buried in history and some calling of tribe. Most springs I can resist, but on the days that the primal urge strikes, beware. I’ll start to look for something in the downstairs freezer and before sanity retunes, I’ve defrosted both freezers, cleaned the extra refrigerator, done four loads of extra laundry and collected enough items for the Women In Need Society in Calgary and the Victory Thrift Store in Canmore that I’ll have to rent a van to deliver everything.

Such are the callings of spring. And now that it has finally arrived i.e. there’s no snow in the forecast, I think I can resist the need to clean by sitting on the deck in the mountains and watching the poplar fluff drive ordinarily sane people into hay fever madness.

The entire half-acre is buried under a profusion of yellow dandelions and the parts of the ground that aren’t covered in these noxious rabbits of the vegetative world (they breed and spread like their animal counterparts) are covered in a carpet of truly vile Scotch thistle. That some books refer to this as the Canada thistle is nothing less than a case of misappropriation. Canada has beavers, moose and Mounties. The nasty stuff is all imported — Budweiser, barking-made right-wing loonies and the thistle. The thistle’s place is rightfully under a sodden layer of poisonous herbicide, about where one would put piss-thin American beer, right-wing loonies like Ann Coulter and all the other noxious imports.

Having just sprayed the weeds in the driveway with Killex, one would think that an application would send the thistle to its just rewards in weed heaven. Alas, there’s not enough killer herbicide for a half-acre and I’d like to keep the trees, the wild roses and clematis and the single, gorgeous wood lily that blooms in the backyard each summer. To do so means living with the thistle.

Yeh, yeh, the thistle has a glorious purple bloom and the dandelion has pretty yellow flowers that little girls make into daisy chains and bracelets, but I regard both with the suspicion born of knowing exactly what these weeds are capable of: they can overrun and kill and dry-drown any attempt to grow wildflowers or perennials in what is charitably referred to as dirt around the mountain house. “Dirt” in fact is a misnomer There is no dirt. We are situated between Heart Mountain and the Bow River and what passes for soil is rocky river bottom. The only vegetation that survives is stuff that is too stubborn and hardy to kill — aka dandelions and thistles.

I remain stunned each spring that the lilac bush planted seven years ago still manages to maintain a roothold.

Ideally, it would have been planted in the giant bag of soil purchased especially for it at the nursery along with the rooted lilac cutting. When I couldn’t get a spade into the ground, and sought young male help, I made the mistake of leaving briefly to drive into town for groceries while the planting was taking place. By the time I returned, the baby bush was in the ground. The bag of expensive potting ssoil that was intended to be put into the hole dug in the hard-as-rock ground, into which the lilac would be cradled like a newborn, was still sitting, unopened at the bottom of the stairs.

Clearly, my pleading to “plant the lilac in the dirt” lacked a certain clarity of instruction while maintaining an efficiency of words.

Yet is survives. And produces at least one fragrant mauve bloom each year. The lilac grows maybe an inch each year, but grow it does.

On the other hand, the wildflowers and perennials — all of which were planted in yet-more expensive nursery soil — have long since vanished under the onslaught of their hardier neighbours, something like what happens to a community when the grow-ops and bikers move in.

Escaping briefly to the mountains led me to foolishly believe I could escape the pressures of spring cleaning.

While nobody around me is beating rugs out of doors, or washing their decks, clearly Debra-Lynn Hook knows exactly what happens each year. She wrote in The Orange County Register: “I know when the snow melts and the first robins come to call, when the spring peepers begin to sing from their mud puddles and the laughter of children returns to the parks and playgrounds, something wonderful is about to happen. Spring cleaning.”

Hook wrote that in the middle of March. Around here in the middle of March, we were still buried under snow. The stupid city robins who make more of a mess on the back sidewalk than they achieve results in their nest-building haven’t returned by then. Nothing peeps above the ground. Being this much more northern than California means our spring cleaning urge doesn’t hit until May, although this year, thanks to a miserable stretch of rain, snow and cold, spring seemed to be permanently on hold.

“Your Spring is important to us. Please stay on the line for the first available harbinger of Spring.”

I believed myself immune to tribal, feminine urges. At least I thought I was until just moments ago, while looking at the keyboard of my laptop and noticing fingermarks and sundry stains from usage, I got up, fetched a damp cloth and the Fantastik, cleaned off the keyboard, the outside case of the laptop, the makeshift desk (upturned log and piece of tile) I’d set up on the deck, the outdoor table, a couple of the chairs, the outside thermometer and — just to prove I’m impervious to all the pressures of spring cleaning — wiped down the outside of the back door.

What Ted doesn’t realize (he’s sitting on the deck with me and his stirred-not-shaken, straight-up- with-olives martini) is that full pressure of spring has hit and tomorrow, out comes the pressure washer in order to clean the wintertime detritus from the outside of our log house.

As Hook writes: “Spring cleaning can’t wait. It is but a fleeting urge, caught in the crosshairs between the dark of winter and the mania of spring.”

It has something to do with the level of melatonin in ones body, the tribal rites of various cultures to clean the house from top to bottom before some momentous religious holiday, and the need to brush away and air out the last signs of winter.

Besides, I tell myself that spring cleaning is great exercise.

NEXT: Am I really turning into my mother ?

Written by Catherine Ford

June 14, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 4 comments

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


with 2 comments

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


with 2 comments

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


with one comment

I’m taking the advice of two “experts” on happiness: Gretchen Rubin and Edward de Bono.

Rubin’s year-long experiment in testing all the theories of happiness resulted in her 2009 best-seller, The Happiness Project. The much more famous Dr. de Bono, who created the theory of lateral thinking, published The Happiness Purpose in 1977. His is the intellectual yin to Rubin’s populist yang.

Both regard happiness as a reasonable outcome of anyone’s life. De Bono writes: “The foundation of happiness is recognized as the importance of self and the achievement of dignity.” He wanted a new religion, one that was not based on suffering, but “based on the belief that the legitimate purpose of life is happiness.”

Rubin is more prosaic, albeit much more attuned to the sound-bite nature of our current world. She advises, among other aphorisms: “Lighten up. Let it go. Do it now. There is only love.”

Why contemplate happiness? Simple.

Everyone who launches a self-improvement campaign comes to a low spot in her journey. Diet gurus call it a “plateau” — day after day, the same number on the same scale, seemingly regardless of what’s been eaten, what’s been drunk, what’s been tried. Depression sets in: Not, I hasten to add, the clinical variety, but just the blah feeling one gets when impatient for amazing results pronto.

That’s the kind of thinking that makes diet and exercise programs and plans a multi-billion-dollar industry. I know better. I know that nothing permanent comes without hard work and persistence. After all, I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, too. Given his notion that one needs 10,000 hours of practice in order to become proficient at something, at my age, I’ve had nearly a half-million hours of “practicing” weight control, since I turned 10 years old and some doctor told my mother to put me on a diet.

But, of course, gravity and age are working against me. Certainly, I could hire a personal trainer, as some of my friends have done. Of course I could write down every single bit of food and drink that passes my lips, as Weight Watchers advises — the reason their programs are so successful. But, I have to live like this for, oh I’d say about another 30-odd years and I have no intention of obsessing that long. Of course, I have all of those 30-odd years to be successful, but I’ve already set a time limit of one year for this “challenge for change.”

So, being blue that I don’t look younger and my body is not responding faster, I do what all intelligent people do — seek advice from reputable sources. Not for nothing do I have books in nearly every room in the house and hundreds of reference books in the downstairs office. They are, to me, a source of inspiration and delight. When my husband bought me the complete Oxford English Dictionary — all 20 volumes (it arrived in five separate boxes) — friends questioned why, in the age of the Internet and Google, he would waste money buying a dictionary, albeit the world’s foremost authority on words and their origins. But Ted knows his wife better than anyone, and the sheer idea of owning these books is a source of constant enjoyment for me.

Books also provide what my friend from the University of Calgary, Dr. David Taras, refers to as “unexpected consequences.” If you ask a specific question on a computer, you will likely get a specific answer. The beauty of the written word, in a book, is that unexpected consequence of flipping through the pages. One never knows what will catch one’s eye.

The other problem with computers isn’t the speed with which they deliver information to you, it’s the constant question of whether what the search engine is delivering is actually the truth. If it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, I know it’s true. As eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the editor of the New York Sun in 1897, asking if there really was a Santa Claus, because her father had told her “if you see it in The Sun, it’s so,” thereby evoking the world’s most famous and lasting newspaper editorial, some references are more believable than others

Especially in this age where anyone with a computer, a modem and an opinion — no matter how ill-formed, ill-informed or ignorant — can broadcast such to the world, those of us of a certain age are more likely to turn to sources other than the World Wide Web.

I turn to books, to music (Chopin’s sprightly polonaises), occasionally to a stiff shot of Scotch or two, although I bet any doctor reading this would be quick to point out to me that liquor is a depressant in and of itself. My reply to that pious and know-it-all advice isn’t printable, as it would include some of the English language’s more notable and sadly, most publicly abused, words.

Dodie Smith, the English writer most famous for her children’s classic, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, prescribes: “noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.” As is, I might add, the advent of spring, although the last (fingers crossed) winter storm is, at the moment, pelting us with snow, ice and winds. Somewhere out there tulips and daffodils are blooming.

Women of my age are the in-between generation — straddling the 1950s world of our housebound mothers and the unfettered world of our daughters and granddaughters. My mother had few if any choices of the role she would play; her granddaughters have all the choices in the world.

They can, in a sense, have it all. Maybe not all at the same time, but Peggy Ford’s four granddaughters can choose to get married, have babies, have a career or stay at home, or, indeed, do both either laterally or simultaneously.

For my mother, once she became pregnant with me, she had to quit work, even though as a nurse in London during the war, her skills were valuable. But not so valuable to allow a visibly pregnant women to continue to work. I don’t know if she wanted to quit or not, all I know is that she never complained to me.

So I was raised as a product of the white-bread 1950s and somewhere in the middle of my 20s, feminism happened and that comfortable but stifling world changed, mostly for the better.

Calgarian Verna Reid, after a career as a teacher, completed her doctoral thesis at age 75 in 2003. She writes eloquently in that work, entitled Women Between. While her thesis concerns four women artists who came to prominence in middle age, Reid also has words for all of us. She writes about the artists’ successes as being “achieved by coming to terms with the life processes of aging and with mortality.”

Art acts, writes Reid, both to “consolidate the sense of self and to bring into being new aspects of self. Old age, on the other hand attended as it is by the gradual deterioration of the body, brings with it a diminishing sense of self. One feels betrayed by one’s body and one’s world becomes smaller as one’s range of activity becomes more limited. The resultant loss of the sense of self is exacerbated by the rampant ageism in our society, an ageism that is especially virulent in the case of aging females.”

Reid quotes York University’s professor emerita, Shelagh Wilkinson, long an activist for women: “Old women who use their age to tap into sources of their own creativity remain vital and visible. They are like beacons showing us all new stories and new symbols to live by.”

Indeed, if anyone wants to know why I write this, the answer is contained in those sentences. Remaining vital and visible should be a goal for every woman, regardless of her age.

And helping me on that path (and Ted, too) is the amazing Helen Mikuska whose core fitness classes at the Yoga and Meditation Centre in Marda Loop are the perfect antidote for self-pity. The spring sessions started a couple of weeks ago, and we’ve signed up for the season. No one could possibly remain blue in one of her weekly classes, to which she brings enthusiasm, laughter and determination. It’s little wonder the same students return session after session.

And it’s little wonder that a session with Helen serves to banish anyone’s lingering case of “the blues.”

So despite being slow to make change a reality, every day I remind myself that just the act of smiling, of moving my lips upward serves to create an uplift of the soul.

NEXT: Banishing the “frailty myth.”

Written by Catherine Ford

April 29, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment

Obviously, there are apologies to be made to the fans of Samuel Taylor Coleridge who will recognize in the title of this chapter, a paraphrase of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner in which appears the phrase: “Water, water every where/ Nor any drop to drink.”

That sort of explains both the state of my refrigerators (doesn’t every modern house have at least two?) and the state of my mood at the moment.

The “grey-beard loon” of the poem, who recounts his dreadful days on the ocean — “Alone, alone, all, all alone/ Alone on a wide, wide sea!” — has no resemblance to my own greybeard, who has managed to stash 14 chocolate bars in the upstairs refrigerator and 14 in the downstairs one. The reason the 28 bars are split between the two fridges is because each of them is 400 grams in weight and won’t fit all together. (And yes, there are more in the cabin.)

There wasn’t always such a cornucopia of chocolate in the house, but when Ted thought maybe Wal-Mart was getting out of the business of dealing in Belgian chocolate he panicked and started to buy whatever he could find.

“Hoarder” is the word that comes to mind. I suggested once that perhaps in a previous life, Ted was Mormon and is still compelled to keep a year’s worth of food stashed in the room we refer to as “basement storage.”

(Explanations here must include the fact we live in an inner-city bungalow first built in 1921 on the original Canadian Pacific Railway lands and subsequently renovated into a back-split. This means there is an original basement, now is part of the office/laundry room level and an additional crawl space half a level below, just tall enough for one of us to crab-walk through to check the furnace and big enough for all the stuff people normally store in their basements.

Therefore — by way of a long explanation — the original basement only contains stuff we use occasionally, like suitcases, the Christmas decorations and Ted’s horde of foodstuffs.)

The thinking in the family is that “come the revolution,” they’re all heading over here to be assured of having enough food to eat. Except they really haven’t itemized the horde, as I have. At the moment, it includes 14 one-kilogram cans of vacuum-packed coffee bought at fire-sale prices; 25 cans of salmon (ditto the sale price); assorted cases of pop; three jars of tomato sauce, the last case of Stretch and Seal (out of about seven 12-roll cases bought at liquidation prices); the last three-kilogram box of Sunlight dishwasher detergent; three boxes of brown Sugar Twin sugar substitute; assorted cans of fruit, smoked oysters, a single large jar of sauerkraut (yuk), three different sizes of tomato juice in tins, a few cans of diced tomatoes and half a dozen cans of beef consommé.

There are also various other “essentials” — stuff we couldn’t find in Calgary when we were looking for them, such as two large cans of Old Bay seasoning brought by a friend from Arizona; four jars of colossal queen olives (for Ted’s martinis) from Edmonton, and three jars of special bourguignon sauce brought from Montreal. Oh, and a case of beer, four cases of wine — three from the Opimian Society; one the leftovers of various purchases (who buys one bottle of wine at a time) — and a case of bottled water.

The water was purchased after Toronto had a black-out that cut power to the city for days. Our friends were prepared with an emergency box (actually labeled by Marie as “for emergencies.”) Her family scoffed at her until the power went our and stayed out. The story caused me to buy the water, check to make sure the house had non-electric equipment (like a can opener) and stock up on batteries for the radio and flashlights.

So, yes, we are prepared for emergencies. You’ll notice I did not mention the chocolate in that list. That’s because chocolate doesn’t keep well in the heat, as Ted learned the only year he decided to buy me a chocolate Easter bunny and stored it in his car trunk, so it wouldn’t melt in that year’s unexpected April touch of summer. Apparently he did not understand the physics involved in tin cans and heat from the sun. When he retrieved it, the bunny had melted down into something that resembled a solid chocolate turtle and was about the same texture.

Ergo, the chocolate bars are stored in the refrigerator. (I suggested the freezer, but Ted pooh-poohed the idea.)

All of this may explain why Ted is moved to buy in bulk and why I prefer not to go grocery shopping with him.

On a trip to Wal-Mart on Macleod Trail, he rounded a corner of the aisle where I was looking for something or other, brandishing an entire 12-bar case and a cheek-wide grin. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said, when I started to laugh at his “find.” Naturally, I told everyone.

He returned from a weekend visit to the grandchildren on Denman Island, off the coast of Victoria with a suspiciously heavy overnight bag. Heavy, because while on the island with his younger daughter, Laura and her family, he had paid a visit to the Wal-Mart in Comox and took the opportunity to stock up.

These aren’t just any chocolate bars, but extra dark Belgian chocolate, each weighing nearly a pound. None of them are mine. They constitute my husband’s love of extra dark chocolate and surely must be among the best bargains available at just over $4 each. (Although I noticed the price has increased recently from $3.79. Still, they are a bargain.)

One would think all of this chocolate in the refrigerator would pose a too-close-for-comfort temptation for someone on a campaign like mine. Not a bit of it, which may explain my sour mood — a houseful of chocolate and nothing I like to eat. Alas, I don’t like dark chocolate, even when its health benefits are explained.

So Ted contents himself with a midnight snack of dark chocolate, getting all the benefits and not gaining any weight. Combine the chocolate with the red wine he loves, and Ted’s “bad” habits turn out to be good ones, at least according to my friends and colleagues at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Alberta, NWT and Nunavut. I say “colleagues” because for some bizarre reason, they’ve invited me to be on one of their boards. They talk about “flavonoids” and “good” cholesterol as opposed to “bad” cholesterol and all the health benefits of eating dark chocolate.

Mention Ted’s chocolate bars and whammo, information up the yin-yang. Flavonoids, in red wine and dark chocolate, are not a strong breath mints, but antioxidants which “protect the body from free radicals which can cause damage leading to heart disease.” (I didn’t want to ask about free radicals in case I was buried under another flurry of paper.)

And red wine? Talk about the “French paradox,” according to researchers who noted “there was a 40 percent lower mortality from ischemic heart disease among people in France despite the high amount of saturated fats in their diet.”

Here comes the best part: Moderate consumption of red wine and dark chocolate increases good cholesterol and blood flow, lowers blood pressure and reduces the effect of bad cholesterol.

I’m in, I nod my head enthusiastically. I should have stopped reading right at that point, before I got to the sentence that announced that such benefits were not found from white chocolate, milk chocolate or dark chocolate consumed with milk. And then I read that the Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends a maximum of one to two servings of alcohol per day. I guess drinking half a bottle of red wine (Ted drinking the other half) is not considered copacetic.

The bars Ted buys are, I discovered through a blog called Filberts and Chocolates: “artisan chocolate from Belgium. They are made in the small Belgian town of Aarschot, made exclusively for WaterBridge. It can be debated, and is, that Belgian chocolate is among the best in the world, but the proof is in the tasting. With their large size comes a small price, surprisingly, about $4.”

Another Web site talks about dark chocolate and how one’s palate has be matured to come to appreciate dark chocolate. “You will soon realize that it is full of subtle distinctions similar to wine . . . Cocoa is harvested, fermented and blended, just as grapes are. Like fine wine, good chocolate has terroir . . . Give it a try; chances are you actually never tasted real chocolate before.”

Maybe I need to take another taste of Ted’s chocolate. (When he isn’t looking, of course.) Maybe I have an adolescent’s palate, unused to the fine taste of extra-dark chocolate. And just to be really helpful, the writers also include some hints on how to “work off” the 180 calories in three pieces or 100 grams of the chocolate.

Here are some of the more amusing ones: To burn off 180 calories: Sit quietly in church, meditate or watch a movie for 165 minutes. Take a shower, be an usher in church, or sew by hand, for 83 minutes. Scrub the floor on your hands and knees for 44 minutes. Try lawn bowling or being a stagehand in a theatre for 55 minutes. If time is a concern, you’ll burn off the chocolate calories by skiing downhill for 28 minutes, belly dancing for 37 minutes or playing handball for 14 minutes.

No calories burned for looking at the treadmill on which I should be walking at the moment.

NEXT: Back to reality with Helen and her fiendish lunges.

Written by Catherine Ford

April 22, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized