Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Safety First Encore


A recent encounter at a Costco parking lot reminded me of a post I wrote way back in 2010 about the apparent disappearance of the survival instinct in our advanced civilization.  What took millions of years of selective breeding and then further training of subsequent generations on how to prevail over the earth's natural environment - deserts, oceans and jungles, seems to have melted away, along with the polar ice cap, when faced with the ubiquitous urban terrain of a big box asphalt parking lot!

To be clear.....instead of flowery, I almost backed up over a small boy who was running behind my MOVING VEHICLE with a CARDBOARD BOX ON HIS HEAD!!!!

To be fair, he was chasing after his father, who, being a man, wasn't looking behind him for the kid, but was preoccupied with checking for his car keys.  I realize I am asking for trouble, casting this gender biased aspersion, but it was, after all, a dad who, once upon a recent time, thought it was a good idea to perch his toddler on the edge of the alligator pit at the zoo, with the obvious (to a mother) consequences.

After I regained my composure, I finished pulling out of my spot and drove all the way around to their location where they were packing up their haul, to speak to them about the narrow escape which neither of them had even noticed.  My fingers were wrapped around the steering wheel.  I had no interest in scolding.   I pleasantly addressed the child and said something along the lines of how it wasn't a great idea to run around behind moving cars with a cardboard box on your head if you want to live long enough to park your indifferent old man in a senior facility and never bother to visit!

I think they got my point.  So, in today's spirit of recycling, renewing and, for me, rescuing, I offer this regurgitated commentary:

When I was a schoolgirl, branding was not as rampant as it is today.

Of course, I am referring to the concept of burning the identification of a product or logo into the limited real estate of a developing brain, not the permanent scarring of bodily flesh, as was popular in previous centuries.

However, one brand does remain forever impressed on my consciousness. It is the image of a smiling young elephant holding a flag in his trunk. Wait a minute! That might be Dumbo, a Disney elephant, whose pathetic story did scar me, emotionally, for life.

Lose the flag.

Yes, that’s the Elmer I remember, warning us all to look both ways and not to run out between parked cars. A little research on Google confirms that, much to my surprise, Elmer is still at it. He has received a ‘makeover’ to keep him contemporary (ie. he is somewhat chubbier now, in keeping with the obesity epidemic in young children, I guess) and you can check him out on his spiffy website: http://elmer.ca/home.php
 full of interactive games, printable colouring pages and the usual admonitions, although the emphasis has shifted dramatically from street safety to how much and how often to apply sunscreen after putting aside the gameboys before venturing outside to play.  From this site, you might draw the conclusion that dying from overexposure has surpassed auto accidents as the major cause of childhood fatalities in our day.

 Interestingly, it seems necessary to explain that the actual word ‘accident’ means ‘unintentional injuries’ in case you didn’t already know. There it is, defined clearly on one of the pages, just in case you grew up in recent times, when common thinking has been that there are no such things as ‘accidents’.

In his day, (and mine) Elmer was incredibly successful, rescuing thousands of incipient boomers from calamitous collisions. These days, judging from the way people obliviously prance around in parking lots, it is abundantly clear that Elmer’s days, as a media darling, are long over.

Take, for example, pedestrian behavior in my Costco parking lot. Whereas Elmer encouraged us to take responsibility for our own skins, today’s uninformed shoppers, blithely pushing their carts full of giant sized groceries and tiny children into my back-up lights, have given up that personal onus entirely. They march confidently along, ignoring all backward vehicular movement, content to place their lives in my hands. Lucky for them, I can still see out the back window and even refer to my rearview mirror on occasion. But word is out that my generation, the biggest bulge in the aging demographic (‘twas ever thus) will soon out-age everyone else. So they’d better heed Elmer and learn to be a lot more careful.

If I keep shrinking, like my relatives have before me, I soon won’t notice them at all. And they will barely glimpse my head peeking over the dashboard. They will be fair game.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
 Look both ways.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sleeping Through the Night

I recently had the pleasure of greeting a brand new person into the world.  She is the lovely new grand-daughter of close friends and although she is only a week old, she is already exceeding the expectations of her adoring public by reaching that anxiously anticipated benchmark of baby development .... sleeping through the night!

Well, maybe not through YOUR night, but certainly through what I can accumulate in consecutive hours of shut-eye.  

She seems able to do all the things a baby is supposed to do during a busy day....feed, eliminate, gaze intelligently into any pair of eyes hovering a few feet from her sweet face, roll her tiny head around on her fragile neck while everyone gasps in amazement at her athleticism.  Occasionally she fusses a bit, when all is not perfect, but then her attendants hasten to ease any discomfort and she soon coos with contentment.  By the time the evening rolls around, she is ready to snuggle into her bassinet and visit dreamland for at least six hours..... IN A ROW! 

I wish I could do the same.

It's a vicious circle....I begin (or is it end?) by waking up way too early in the morning.  Actually, it's really still night, unless you have the schedule of an early morning TV host.  My eyes pop open at about 4 am. and I am raring to go....but where can one go at that hour?  I reach over for my iPad to check if anything has happened since the last time I checked...about 3 hours ago, and discover that at 2 am, one of my friends has played a new word in our never-ending game of WordsWithFriends.  I check my email and there's a note from another friend, who can't sleep either, sending me some jokes.  My cousin is already up and at 'em....she likes to flip me the latest bunch of silly pictures of weird animals mixed in with tributes to various Holocaust heroes when she wakes up before dawn.  I dutifully respond to my sleep-deprived network, read up on the new online editions of newspapers and magazines and count the minutes till it seems reasonable to stir.  

By the time the rest of my world gets moving, I am the most well-informed person in my universe.

I suppose I could just get out of bed and DO something....bake muffins or give myself a facial, like Martha does.   I could go for a walk, but who knows who I might run into at that hour?  
Or I could even exercise....no, I couldn't! 

I am full of energy until after lunch, when I crave a little shluff.  I find Andrea Mitchell a useful soporific and before you know it, I've passed out.  After dinner, with nothing exciting to do, I often lie down to watch the evening rundown on MSNBC and nod off almost immediately, in spite of Rachel's haranguing.  My husband will try to revive me in time for Jon Stewart, but by then, I'm unconscious.  

I simply have to get in my few hours of sleepy time before awakening at around 1 am. for my first watch of the long night.

Monday, July 22, 2013

I Enjoyed Being a Girl -4

Far From the Hovering Crowd
Interpersonal Relationships

Girls had many girlfriends, way back then.  There were friends from school, friends from club groups, friends from summer camp, part-time jobs and for some, friends from religious school.  Some intersected, others had to be kept in a delicate arm’s length balance from each other.  With half the population preserved for marriage but ineligible for friendship, girls had only each other to cling to for companionship.  Relationships with boys were described in hunting metaphors....there was 'the chase', you 'captured someone's attention', 'laid a trap', arrows were 'shot through the heart'...you threw out a line and 'reeled him in'...(sorry, that's more of a fishing analogy, but you get the idea).  

"A man chases a girl, until she catches him!" was a lyric to a popular song.  

When I was teaching English, the standard plot descriptions for literature, routinely dished out to the students, were...."Man vs. Man"...Man vs. Nature" ...and the ever-popular..."Man vs. Himself".  Had anyone ever considered "Man vs. Woman" things could have been a lot more interesting!  

But, except for Jane Austen, there weren't many plots about girls.

Besides peer relationships, there were the relatives.  With some exceptions (there are always exceptions) many of us were blessed with huge extended families: aunties and uncles, cousins and, of course, doting grandparents, all focused on each other, celebrating triumphs and, even better, breakdowns, on the path that was their little lives.  

We felt part of a hovering crowd. There was a lot riding on us.  In the days before iPads and Reality TV, our triumphs and failtures were often the main source of entertainment for these people.

Now, not so much. Many families disintegrated in the wave of no-fault divorces that washed over us after the 'me generation' 70's, with parents turning their attentions to their own 'needs', leaving their kids to fend for themselves, emotionally.  Other families became more widely scattered, too busy to involve themselves with relatives, except at public celebrations, like weddings and funerals.  They even openly admitted that they didn’t always like, let alone love, each other, no matter what.  Way back when I was a girl (should I be stroking my beard at this point?) the only way to express intolerance of one’s kin was strictly behind their backs, in a whisper. …to another member of the clan, who might concur, but only in private.  

Now, people 'unfriend' their parents, siblings and children with the stroke of a key.  
There are way too many opportunities for 'anti-social networking' these days.  

From what I see around me, both in what is commonly referred to as ‘real life’ but even more regularly referred to on TV as ‘reality’, many young women no longer take as much comfort in such supportive arms.  Except for the Kardashians, Nia Vardalos and assorted Gypsies on what is ludicrously called 'The Learning Network', few girls have strong familial networks to ‘snoopervise’ their activities. They must turn to friends, who become few and farther between, not to mention way too busy at work or self-involved to be of much help.  If and when friends do marry and proceed to breed, their over-involvement with their ‘young’ leaves them little time and no energy to maintain meaningful ties with old girlfriends.  

T'wasn’t ever thus!  T'was it?

So, our culture now provides media anti-heroines, like Hannah Horvath, ultimately friendless and disconnected from family, cast adrift on make-believe limited resources, struggling to find self-sufficiency and true love, without any ethics….work or otherwise, squandering her talents on casual hook-ups and navel-gazing meanderings. 

And they call this show a comedy, by the way.  

Is this the dream-come-true we envisioned for girls, those many decades ago?

Friday, July 19, 2013

I Enjoyed Being a Girl - 3

Girls at Work

When I finished University in Toronto the late 60’s, there were very few acceptable careers open for women.  It still took a real outlier to squeeze through the quota system, with its restrictions against women and Jews, to get into any of the professional faculties.  

Interning meant one thing.  It was the year a prospective ‘catch’ spent after medical school, working at a downtown hospital.  The concept of interning at a business for free, for a few years, on your parents’ dime, so you could put something on your resume, like Hannah and her buddies, on the HBO 'critically acclaimed' series, "Girls", had not yet been instituted as a way to exploit perfectly capable, legitimate employees.  

(By the way, I’m relieved to see this worm is turning….there are now serious discussions about the value of free interning to the actual intern….it seems there isn’t much.  Quelle surprise!…as we used to say in French class).

My girlfriends and I had held part-time and summer jobs for real money since our early teens.  Although one of my friends did, menially, shove shoes into boxes at a factory one summer for a minimum wage, in general, our work was meaningful and often even educational…. 
We led children’s club groups after school and on weekends at the ‘Y’, worked as counselors at summer camps, did office work at insurance companies and banks.  One girlfriend held an after-school job at the local bakery and put on a few pounds sampling the merchandise!  But that was allowed, in those days.  (Twiggy had yet to be discovered so starving oneself was not yet in fashion.  There was exactly one anorexic at my high school, but we didn’t call it that, then.  She was just ‘skinny’. …like those starving children in poor, far-off lands held over our heads and leftover vegetables).

The important thing I want to emphasize is that for all these various jobs, WE WERE PAID!  ….sometimes, the minimum wage, but sometimes a bit more.  We had to save up for University!  For travel!  To move out of our parents’ houses into our own apartments, which was not as easy as it sounds, since, as I’ve already explained, way back then, practically the only way you could get an exit visa from your childhood bedroom was to get married.

Employers accepted that people, even young people, weren't likely to come to work, day after day, for nothing, like they do today.  There were even things like 'on the job training'.  We would never have thought it made sense to work for hours and hours for no remuneration.  Or to pay for countless post-graduate courses to become 'certified' for skills that we could easily pick up while earning money.

So we girls graduated....as teachers, social workers, speech pathologists, dental hygienists, dieticians, psychologists, and one or two doctors and lawyers.  Very few of us had student loans to pay off.  They hadn't been offered until my final year and anyways, as I mentioned before, we had earned money towards tuition or our parents had forked over the $420 a year necessary to attend university.  This was not that onerous an amount, either, even in 'old tyme money'.  If you left high school with an average of 80%, you were awarded an year's free tuition as an Ontario scholar.  In certain faculties, if you maintained an 'A' average, tuition was on the house!  (The concept of the university as a profit-generating machine had not yet been discovered).  

And we went to work.  Immediately.  Even with 'just a B.A.', there were lots of jobs...in every field.  As possibly the least enthusiastic graduate of the College of Education, I attended a job fair where I was harassed with offers from every board of education in the province until I finally chose the school my friend was teaching at, so I could get a ride to work.  

Everyone has her priorities.  Mine was a ride!

An aspiring actor friend of mine was dragged off the sidewalk in front of the same job fair and recruited on the spot!  He'd just been walking by.  But he did have a B.A. in geography and a willingness to attend a quickie teacher's certification course in July, so he fit the job description.  And he turned out to be a terrific teacher, too.  Directed the best pre-teen production of "Guys and Dolls" ever seen in these parts.

The following year, I was invited to teach in a different school by one of my practice-teaching mentors and I happily switched schools and boards without a care about whether I was sacrificing my seniority.  

Jobs were everywhere.  None of my friends was unemployed.  People were getting married, setting up apartments, buying houses, having kids, for goodness sakes!  
All in their twenties.  

And now young girls shlep around in perpetual adolescence, 'interning' so they can put something on their resumes, hooking up with no emotional investment and wondering whether they'll ever save up enough money for a downpayment on a 400 sq. ft. cubbyhole in a downtown condo tower where they can hole up with a cat for company.  

While it's true, they can be anything they want to be, the problem is, can they get a job and earn a salary while being it?

So instead of Rona Jaffe, it's Sheryl Sandberg they're reading.  
The author may be different, but the fantasy goal is the same....
"The Best of Everything".

Is this what we struggled for?  What the hell happened?

For theories you might want to read a piece in today's NYT, "Love in the Time of Hookups" by Ross Douthat, which tackles these issues and attempts to offer perspective on recent efforts to analyze these new cultural realities:  


Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Enjoyed Being a Girl - 2

Girls at Play
Giving the Milk Away for Free

My girlfriends and I struggled through decades of discrimination, so that future generations of young women could be free of the narrow, oppressive attitudes that prevailed during our formative years.  We were often in the front lines of every battle.  The changes we fought for rarely benefited us, personally, but our younger sisters and eventually, our daughters, enjoyed the results, like paid maternity leave, improved admission opportunities to professional faculties, fairer hiring practices and more equitable pay.  

And, of course, the miracle of “partners” who helped out!  Male and/or female.

While I didn’t found any feminist magazines, go underground at the Playboy club or wear outrageous hats, like some of my role models, as a teacher for 25 years, I did stand in front of about 200 teens a year, subtly and not-so-subtly, endeavoring to steer their cultural attitudes in more egalitarian directions, in spite of the mandated, often irrelevant curricular material. 

So when I watch a TV series like ‘Girls’, it is with some dismay that I note that Lena’s characters have not exactly ‘Come a Long Way, Baby’, at least, not on the path upon which we pioneers set forth, long before they were born. 

Unfortunately, it seems the world they navigate is not much better for them than the one I floundered through …just in different ways.

For example, the goal, in those pre-liberation days, was not 'self-actualization', freedom from unplanned pregnancy or the possibility of heading up a Fortune 500 company.  It was marriage, and to that end, we were discouraged from giving any 'free samples' to any prospective partners.  

I recall this oft repeated admonition: 

"Why should they buy the cow, when they can get the milk for free?"  

Should you begin to analyze this offensive homily, in our PC climate, you could find yourself agog, wondering things like....
who are 'they'?
who, exactly, is the cow?  
why a cow?
what is the milk?  
how much does it cost? 
why should the cow sell the milk instead of giving it away for free?
what can a cow do with money?   
does the cow ever get to enjoy any forbidden milk?  etc. etc.

When I asked for my husband's reaction to this statement....
"Can you believe this sort of thing was what we were indoctrinated with when we were young?"....
he calmly lowered his iPhone and replied,
"Sure, I can.  I was the one trying to get the free milk!"

Back then, if a young woman had not yet managed to earn the degree commonly referred to as her ‘MRS.’ by graduation (a goal now pushed ahead, if even considered, at least 15 to 20 years for Hannah and her posse) an extra year in the College of Education or the School of Social Work was deemed appropriate.  A nurturing, ‘social-servicey’ job like teaching, nursing or dental hygiene was considered acceptable….’something to fall back on’ when the inevitable 2.5 kids went off to school in a few years.  You’d get your summers off or make your own hours.  

If you couldn’t find a man to support you right away, you were still expected to earn money while you awaited deliverance from singledom.  You lived with your parents since there were few acceptable alternatives other than running off to Israel.  Single young women could read about other single young women enjoying life in, say, New York, in steamy novels like Rona Jaffe’s “The Best of Everything”, but they certainly couldn’t emulate their daring escapades in dull old Toronto. 

No parent in his or her right mind (they came in pairs in those days) would support a daughter, either financially or emotionally,  while she 'found herself', living in a downtown hovel, traipsing around at late-night clubs and having indiscriminate sex with questionable prospects, like the young ladies in Bushwick.  When one of my associates expressed an interest in 'moving out', her mother immediately redecorated her bedroom so she would feel obligated to stay.  Another friend had the courage to 'move in' with her boyfriend after university, and was written off by her family.  It's still too painful to remember the young woman who fell in love outside her race, whose parents 'sat shiva' for her.  

Even if and when these women eventually married, the disgraces were difficult, if not impossible, to forgive and forget.

Admittedly, there was some sex.  Cars and their back seats were available for furtive gropings. (I hasten to say I read about this in the Romance magazines popular at the time...I cannot personally attest to this pastime.... for lack of opportunity).  Birth control pills had yet to be marketed, so, if you were single, you weren’t likely to need a place to have sleep-over sex, which, as everyone knew, led inevitably to pregnancy and back alley abortionists.

Popular films from those years, which scarred us for life: 

“Love with the Proper Stranger”, one of my faves, in which Natalie Wood makes a terrible mistake on a vacation and succumbs to a 'one-night stand' with Steve McQueen, a free-wheeling, irresponsible...(ie. not a 'good catch'), albeit, cute musician (oy!..or whatever is the equivalent in her traditional Italian family) and spends the rest of the movie alternating between searching for an abortionist and trying to seduce Steve into marrying her....

or “A Summer Place”, another stern warning about the wages of sin, where teen idols Troy and Sandra, in spite of shrieking parental guidelines,  'go all the way' at the first opportunity, with the predictable dire consequences.  

Even “Gidget” had a heavy moral discussion about the difference between ‘good girls’ and ‘nice girls’.  (If you had told Sandra Dee that 'hooking up' was on the horizon, she'd have collapsed in shock into her crinolines....all 85 pounds of her!).  

Pregnant girls, or, as they were referred to…girls ‘in trouble’, were shunted off to prenatal institutions, hidden from polite society until they could slink back, almost always alone, having placed their babies (who they were not even allowed to see for more than a moment) up for adoption.  With no social or family acceptance, let alone financial support from your friendly social service safety net, they had little alternative.  

“Out of Wedlock” was a stigma, not a lifestyle choice. 

Today, I have several youngish colleagues who have made the conscious decision to conceive, carry and mother children without the personal involvement of the sperm donors, but with the total participation and approval of their families and friends.  'Mr. Right', as he used to be known, has not made a timely appearance, so 'Mr. Right-Now' has taken his place.  

These women probably think I’m making all this 'herstorical' stuff up.  

They enjoy a certain amount of freedom from censure hitherto unknown.  Before, a married teacher had to resign as soon as she began ‘to show’ lest her students suspect she may have had sex (even married sex!).   Nowadays, my 'single-parent-by-choice' staff-mates feel quite comfortable carrying on in their jobs till the week before their due dates. 

Their students give them  baby showers!  
What would Dear Abby think?

Speaking of quaint sociological customs, in the 50's and early 60's, since actual sex (as opposed to simulated) was off the table, so to speak, at least until the engagement ring was on the appropriate digit and the shul/church was booked, the mandatory premarital visit to the gynecologist, to make sure that everything was relatively functional, offered the opportunity to ‘prepare’ the bride for the wedding night.  I'm not exactly sure what it entailed, but I had a few friends who absolutely refused this service.  Some had even rejected the use of tampons, on the grounds that they would compromise their virginity….a concept that was entirely foreign and perhaps, even bizarre, to women born even just a few years later.

Hannah's visit to her gynecologist was for an entirely different, more contemporary condition that sometimes results from very 'casual sex', a term that had no meaning 50 years ago.

Monday, July 15, 2013

I Enjoyed Being a Girl - 1

The Devolution of ‘Girlhood’ 
from Gidget to Hannah Horvath

By the time I was 16, I was well-immersed in the new teen culture that had developed, in all its glory, by the 1950's.  I yakked all night on my Princess phone and collected 'Seventeen' magazines, envied Sandra Dee her freedom to ride the surf in Malibu with Moondoggie and wished I could be a cheerleader like my friend, Randi.  I had a couple of girlfriends whose mothers had started assembling their trousseaux, selecting silver and china patterns, storing them in large, carved wooden chests, that resembled coffins, at the foot of their beds.  

These were called "Hope Chests" and I did not have one.  Or any....

The social media of that era...chick flicks, novels and, of course, gossip, narrowed the possibilities for female empowerment by pronouncing that girls were either 'good' or 'nice'.  'Good girls' saw themselves as precious commodities who traded themselves for the best outcome, a large engagement ring and betrothal to a 'lovely boy' whose family status and/or professional path would determine their destiny.  

'Nice girls', on the other hand, had no thought of their future, lost their minds and 'went all the way', got 'knocked up' or 'ruined'.  Unmarried sex always led to disaster. 

Whenever I think I've dreamed up this entire peculiar scenario, I just revisit one of those great 60's film classics like, "Where the Boys Are," for a reality check.  In it, poor, sweet Yvette Mimieux tries to kill herself after she realizes that she's traded her virginity to a 'Yalie' to no avail, while Dolores Hart survives the battle of the sexes with George Hamilton, an admittedly weak opponent, but consider his role as a rich, very entitled boy named 'Ryder' (if you need a brick house to fall on you) who wears a suit to the beach and pilots his own yacht up and down the Intercoastal Waterway, symbolically speaking, so the temptation to yield is great, especially since 'Merritt' (I'm not making that up, either) has been practically expelled from college for questioning the value of virtue in her Sex Ed. class.  

She is a woman, torn!  

The struggle was so traumatic, that it drove Dolores into a nunnery within a couple of years!

Speaking of the dire consequences of even thinking about sex, try sitting through that 1962 classic, "Rome Adventure," wherein  Suzanne Pleshette plays a young teacher, NAMED PRUDENCE, who is asked to resign from a tony private girls' school for lending a student a book, not exactly on the curriculum.  ("Marjorie Morningstar", mayhaps?  No, it's a potboiler called, "Lovers Must Learn" but it doesn't tell us.... from whom?).  She heads off to Italy, alone, to the horror of her parents, to see if romance is all it's cracked up to be. 

We all know Italy is a much better place to look for love than New England.  

On a holiday with Troy Donahue, who just happens to be staying at the same 'villa', and in spite of many golden opportunities in tiny pensiones, with no separate rooms, she manages to stay pure for an entire road trip through Tuscany, holding out for marriage. She must wait till he tires of his older, more promiscuous mistress, played by no less a woman of the world than Angie Dickinson.

Of course, virtue being its own reward, he does.  

(In fact, Suzanne managed to marry Troy in real life, later that year, but since it only lasted a few months, she might have been well-advised to try him out first!)

Helen Gurley Brown had not yet let us in on the news that "good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere", so I didn’t see the stirrings of the sexual revolution around me, yet, but every once in a while, I’d read something seditious or meet someone rebellious who would get me wondering, in anticipation of the soon-to-be standard, “Is that all there is?”

Then, at 17, I read ‘The Feminine Mystique’.  My eyes popped open.  Perhaps there could be an alternative to the scenario stretching out before me: a few years of primping myself out to   aspiring dentists and accountants, holding back sexual favors for a frat pin and then, if I played my cards right, an engagement ring, wedding at the shul and a lifetime of catering to a spoiled prince…It might not be so inevitable after all!  

So, I became a feminist.  And so did many of my friends.

And, as they say…”Woman plans, God laughs” (but that is a story for another time).

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Chinese Food 2: Dim Sum..."to touch your heart"

 I have no recollection of anyone eating Dim Sum when I was growing up.  Do you?

It seems to me that this lunchtime ritual began in Toronto sometime in the 70's or 80's, but since I'm not a food historian, I'll have to leave that sort of research to the pot sticklers among you.  The important thing is that it did begin and only improved in the early 90's when the Hong Kong emigrés, to whom I referred in my previous entry, shipped their children and their chefs to our town for safekeeping.
For a while, Toronto was Dim Sum heaven!

Eventually, a lot of those chefs returned to Hong Kong, but the popularity of Dim Sum grew.  How to keep up with the demand?  I personally believe there are hundreds of indentured drones quietly and competently pleating rice dough around assorted fillings in sweatshops all around the city to supply the numerous  restaurants now offering this 'patchkaray'.

In fact, a friend discovered such a place just around the corner from my very own house.  In a nameless storefront, in a nondescript strip mall, a covey of ancient women of Asian persuasion, huddle around a long table churning out dumplings by hand, all day.  There is nothing else in the room except a couple of huge white freezer chests filled with bags of frozen nuggets which you can purchase, in volume, for a pittance.  You never know what you're going to get, since there are no signs or labels on anything and no one speaks any English.  This leads me to believe that the stock is mainly 'to the trade'.  No one is ever seen going in or out....but I bet a big truck backs up late at night and loads up and makes its deliveries by morning.

But I digress, as usual.

In the 70's, a friend of ours had a father who invested in a Chinese establishment and we were all introduced to this lovely way to spend an mid-day hour or two steeped in Jasmine tea and constant anxiety, wondering when the next little cart would wobble by our table already, and whether or not it would be laden with delectable dumplings or dreaded, rubbery duck feet.  Since those days, we've tried it all and have determined our favourites, both dishes and restaurants, that specialize in Dim Sum.

Our regular go-to place is in suburban Scarborough.  Are you surprised?  As is typical in this part of Toronto, politically incorrectly referred to as 'Asiancourt', due to the preponderance of Chinese residents, the restaurant is one of the anchor businesses in a large Asian-themed shopping mall.

On weekdays, we are pretty much able to get a table immediately, but have come to realize that some specialties are only available after noon or on crowded weekends.  If we arrive too early, we die of hunger waiting for the carts to come rolling out of the kitchen, so we've wised up and place orders for specific dishes with one of the employees in the black jackets.  Not the pink jackets....those are worn by the lovely hostesses who efficiently wrangle the crowds and keep everything moving.  These two young women have been working there forever and never, ever, seem to get a day off.  The older women who push the carts around the huge banquet hall have gotten to know us and make sure we get our favorites.  The also make grimaces and shake their heads knowingly when they have something they know we won't like, like gelatinous extremities, and glide right past us.  Knowing they are looking out for us helps reduce the stress and worry that we might miss something should we relax our vigilant surveillance over the exit doors from the kitchen.

On weekends, we hustle out of the house by 11 am. at the latest, to avoid the long lineups that are inevitable by noon.  The extended Chinese families who fill the dining room require huge tables to accommodate the many generations that share the meal together.  Babies are toted to the tables in carriers and grandparents are shuttled in on assorted walkers or leaning on canes.  Men sit at tables casually reading newspapers while women chat with each other and children play on their Gameboys till the food rolls by.  As in most cultures, teenagers are conspicuously absent.

The adventurous among us might try something exotic-looking while the 'play-it-safer's stick to our Har Gow and Shu Mai, served in bamboo steamer baskets.  Items come in multiples of three or four so it's important that you dine with co-operative companions who are willing to share the leftover portions with the proper deference to age and appetite!

My personal favorites are the delicate seafood and watercress dumplings freshly made at the steam table by a team of skilled 'poachers'.  These are 'special order', as are many other goodies, but no one will tell you about this....you have to figure it out for yourself and fill out the little paper lying on your table and flag down the correct staffer among the countless busboys, waiters, supervisors, managers and troubleshooters.

My husband, although stuffed to his gills, cannot be persuaded to call for the bill until his beloved Char Siu Bao makes an appearance.   It never comes.  We wait and wait....he mopes.  He finally makes a special order.  Just when it arrives, the cart bearing stacks of steaming baskets rolls by.
"Char Siu" sings the cart lady.  He is in Dim Sum heaven.

Our friend, Larry, the host at that infamous New Year's banquet, introduced us to these delicate and delicious noodles which are only served on the weekends at "our" place.  He calls them 'Ah Chit Chow Mein', or something to that effect.  No one ever understands what he means but he persists,  attempting to describe these simple, thin lightly fried egg noodles tossed in soy sauce, garnished with bean sprouts and shaved scallions and a dusting of sesame seeds.  I think I detect a sliver of fried egg, too.  Often, he has to explain this to several people before someone realizes what he's requesting.  "Oh!  Ah Chit Chow Mein!"  and the language barrier disappears with mutual relief.  It's well worth the effort.

Interesting thing about Dim Sum:
Although you may be tempted to over-order so you can take some home for later, they don't warm up well at all.  Fried goodies get rubbery and the dumplings just don't recapture their freshness when reheated.  Even so.....

Sign in bathroom stall in Ladies' Room of the adjacent mall.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Chinese Food 1: First is Best

"What is it about the Asians
That fascinates Caucasians?"

lyric from "Message from a Nightingale", The Drowsy Chaperone

During the tense years running up to the "Red Chinese" takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, a wave of rather prosperous Asian immigrants flocked to our shores and nested in Toronto and Vancouver, "just in case".  I had the pleasure of teaching many of their children, some of whom were often left to fend for themselves while their parents flew back and forth across the Pacific, maintaining a perch in each camp, to mix a metaphor.  Back then, there was a genuine concern that prosperity, enterprise and even fine dining would be eradicated at the 'handover'.  It seemed like a logical theory, given the austerity suffered on the mainland during the previous decades.

(Who knew that, instead, 'consumption' would become the new mantra (do the Chinese have mantras?) and we would all soon be eating out of the rice bowls of the revolutionaries? But enough politics).

Back to the menu for today: Chinese cuisine.  Toronto has always enjoyed an excellent roster of Chinese restaurants.  Back in my childhood, we devoured what was later described to me by an esteemed Asian Maitre d' as 'railway food', cuisine favoured by the many exploited Chinese immigrant workers who built the railways that gave Gordon Lightfoot inspiration for his moving ditty, "Canadian Railway Trilogy". Delicacies like chow mein, barbecued ribs and sweet and sour anything, deep fried in batter and drenched in a gooey, sweet red sauce, were available in almost every neighbourhood, not just way downtown at Spadina and Dundas, Toronto's very own Chinatown.  Many Jewish families would often dine together regularly at a local spot.  For example, every Sunday night, lines of starving Forest Hillers formed outside China House or the House of Chan, two establishments which faced off from each other across Eglinton Avenue.  (In spite of their lengthy popularity, they are falling under the shovel of developers, even as I write).  On very special occasions, like the day you came home from summer camp, you might trek all the way downtown to Lichee Gardens to celebrate your return to civilization. (Civilization, to Jews, meant Chinese food, of course).

So I heard.

Not my family!.....we were too poor (or cheap) to go out to dinner much in those days.  My father was a musician and, between the daylong rehearsals and live evening TV broadcasts, the poor guy had to dine out almost every night with his bandmates at assorted steak houses downtown, so he was never interested in anything but a home cooked meal on the occasional night off.  My mother rarely had the initiative or even the cash to take us anywhere....and besides, in those olden days, we only had one car, so how were we to escape our suburban tract in the hinterlands of North York?

Fortunately, there was still 'takeout', so while my friends gave me reviews of such delicacies as honey garlic ribs and shrimps in lobster sauce, I had to content myself with watching for the delivery guy from the Cantonese Terrace, ripping open the heavy brown paper bag and battling for my share of cooled off egg rolls, beef chow mein, sweet and sour chicken balls with pineapple, steamed rice and the occasional won ton, all tasting predominantly of the small paper containers they came in.   Same menu, every time.  After dinner, we'd all break open our tasteless fortune cookies, read the puzzling contents and toss both into the garbage.

As with many other things about life, I suspected I was missing out on something significant.

Imagine my delight when, as a young bride, we were invited by my husband's agent, a Chinese food aficionado, to literally, round out his table at a banquet in honour of the Chinese New Year at Toronto's renowned "Sai Woo", in the heart of Chinatown.  A dozen assorted actors, actresses (they were differentiated in those days) and writers...and me, settled like a Caucasian island in the China Sea around a huge circular table.  In the centre of this table was a Lazy Susan to facilitate the distribution of the various dishes to the surrounding vultures. After a few multi-lingual welcomes and a fundraising pitch for a senior's home, the first dish was paraded in, with great reverence and ceremony.  It was a lobster extravaganza, and, as it spun around the centre of the table, each guest took a tiny amount.  The rationale was 'to save room', as the meal was rumoured to be composed of many courses.

My inclinations were, however, somewhat different.

"Lobster!"  I thought.  "What could be better than this?"  I took a generous helping and then, when  Susan spun around again to offer seconds, and the rest of the party shook their heads with regret, I graciously offered to clean the platter so it could be removed for the next course.
Platters piled high with shrimp prepared several ways followed and, again, portions were meted out delicately, followed by another round of comments expressing restraint.  Once again, I pitched in and, not wanting to insult the chefs, polished of what was left by the experts.

I was starting to lose my appetite.

To make a deliciously long story short, each subsequent course, although delightful and nutritious, seemed to be less unusual and, frankly, more economical, proceeding downwards from mundane chicken and pork to ubiquitous noodles and rice.  I was only able to snack on these dishes, while my table mates grabbed what they could, since, as I previously noted, they had 'saved themselves'.  They were ravenous.  I didn't like the way they were looking at me, remembering, I suppose, that I was stuffed with lobster and shrimp.

From this experience, I learned, early on, that when you see something you like, you shouldn't wait for something better to come along.  Sometimes, things don't improve with age.

Except me and you, of course......

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Right to Bare Arms

It seems to me that the older I get, the less adaptable I have become to what is

deemed fashionable. With increasing age, not to mention lack of exercise and

any sign of metabolism, I have lost that thing called 'tone'. Replacing it is
superfluous poundage and the tendency to 'hang loose' in potentially
conspicuous places, so there is a reluctance to rejoice in the recent reemergence
of the upper arms as a fashion focal point thanks to Michelle Obama
and all the female hosts on MSNBC.

It was not always thus.

As I insinuate my voluptuous body into my Definitely Not My Daughter’s Jeans,
and search, in vain, for anything in an elbow length, I pine for the good old days,
when I took my tiny torso and shapely upper arms for granted and thoughtlessly
hid them away under shirtsleeves, shoulder pads and crinolines.
As children, my sister and I were often dressed alike, (see above and please
ignore the footwear). In summer, we were often dolled up in white pinafores with
bows perched, like butterflies, upon our bare shoulders. We were only 14
months and an inch apart with platinum blonde curls and adorable dimples (well,
she had the dimple, right in the middle of her chin, like Kirk Douglas….and my
father…now that I think of it). We were, naturally, mistaken for twins. In
matching plaid skirts or identical mauve chiffon flower girl gowns with puffed
sleeves painstakingly trimmed by my mother in ribbons and lace, you could 'eat
us up', as the saying went. We even got ‘hired out’ to march at the weddings of
total strangers, we were so adorable.

Way back when I was an adolescent schoolgirl, the height of style was the cotton shirtwaist
dress, with its full, gathered skirt, tightly belted waistline, perky collar and
masculine shirtsleeves. Arm coverings, buttoned at the wrist or casually rolled up
past the elbows and fastened in place with a tab, were an integral part of the
overall 'shirt' effect. I started out in the morning, all 100 pounds of me, crisp and
starched, with both my crinoline and hair, fluffed and teased, ready to take on the
world. By the end of the un-air-conditioned school day, my gingham was as
droopy as my curls, but I was secure in the knowledge that although my elbows
and wrists may have been exposed for all to see, my square shoulders and damp
armpits had remained a mystery.

Later on, the mini-skirt appeared on this side of the ocean, and in the late 60’s
attention, formerly focused on the torso, migrated to the thighs. I was just the
right age to take advantage of its risqué appeal. The original mini, of which I
possessed several versions bought right on King’s Road in Chelsea on my
London honeymoon, had none of the seductive, body-clinging tendencies of
today’s ‘bandage’ version. My authentic Mary Quant mini dresses fell
perpendicularly from the underarms to the crotch in what would come to be
called an “A-Line”, reminiscent of body-concealing maternity toppers. (My sister
wore these duds into her 9th month and no one was the wiser). My chubby thighs
may have been exposed for all to admire, but my slim, shapely 110- pound torso
disappeared under yards of boldly patterned, flouncy fabric.

Occasionally, in those daring days, there was an acknowledgement of the body
beneath the garment, particularly after the designer, Rudi Gernreich, exposed the
top half of the female form in a scandalous series of “monokinis”, (although to be
strictly accurate, there was always a pair of suspender-like straps, purely
decorative, on either side of the actual focus of attention). I was not a total slave
to fashion, so I did not supplement my own wardrobe with a monokini. To
everyone’s relief!

In my mid- 20’s, I succumbed to a brief fashion flirtation with transparency.
Barbra Streisand, a personal idol of my bevy, made an instant impression when
her tush ‘peek-a-booed’ at the Oscars and I took up the challenge. I wore a
strange, but lovely, pale grey unlined chiffon blouse with two transparent breast
pockets to a friend’s wedding, where I attracted as much attention as the bride.

All of it unwanted.

In my still-slim 30’s, or the planet’s 80’s, power dressing, began in a very big
way. This was typified by the shift towards humungous artificial shoulder
enhancements in everything from parkas to pajamas. Not since the good old
days in the 18C, when women strapped panniers around their waists, was the
female form so horizontally exaggerated. Plump, foamy pillows were ‘velcro-ed’
beneath the shoulders of every garment, so that women instantly achieved the
appearance of linebackers. Breasts and arms disappeared behind the curtains
of superfluous material created by this ‘broadening of the broads’, so to speak.

Men went into mourning.

It became necessary to re-proportion the major body part hovering over it all, so
upon the head, long, wavy pre-Raphaelite manes of expensively ‘permed’ hair
were devised to cascade down over the epaulettes. This necessitated a constant
head tossing if you wanted to see where you were going. There followed,
logically, the invention of the ‘scrunchie’, an elasticized hair accessory which
could capably encircle this mane and pull it back from the face when feeding.
Family pictures of me from this era show a tiny face peeking out from behind
massive curls perched atop a wide, shelf-like tee shirt or sweater. Sadly, no
visible signs of the still somewhat svelte 118-pound body, beneath the oversized

Yes, that was when I had straight shoulders and slender, shapely upper arms, all
god-given without the slightest effort of rigorous exercise or magic potions, to
enhance their loveliness. I had a perpendicular spinal column (with no little hump
where it meets the neck), and a tummy so concave that my pelvic bones
protruded more my breasts.

But you’d never know it if you had seen me clothed, which is, of course, how
you would have seen me.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Life Deductible

“Living the Good Long Life” by Martha Stewart

 Back with a vengeance comes Martha Stewart, the “Nemesis of the Nineties", to maximize her cultural influence and bottom line for the edification and expense of our generation. This, her latest of 77 books she claims to have written and published with Random House, is an encyclopedic tome about “living well is the best revenge”. In it, she ‘transitions,’ as they like to call it, from ‘Aspirational Lifestyle Queen’ to ‘Caregiver Extraordinaire’ for the aging demographic she has served (and milked) for over 25 years.

 I’ve got to hand it to her….Martha is always one step ahead of everybody else. Well me, at any rate. While my parents were aging precipitously, did I bother to make time between chauffeuring them to countless medical appointments and tests, shopping for their groceries, picking up their prescriptions, interviewing caregivers, checking out retirement homes, visiting long-term care facilities and, inevitably, planning funerals and shivas - to found and fund a Center for Living at my local Mt. Sinai Hospital? Did I even consider addressing the Senate Committee on Aging, like Martha did? (Do we even have one of those committees here, in Canada, or are those geriatrics in our Senate part of the problem, not the solution? Admittedly, either Senate is the logical place to start any discussion on the decrepitude and expense of supporting an aging generation).

 No, I didn’t. Not even once. I did think, however intermittently, about writing humorously about this stage of life, maybe for my blog, which I hadn’t written in for months because of the way life had of interfering with such worthier activities. I suppose I only have myself to blame if, when I wake up at the ungodly hour of 4am, I don’t just hop out of bed and give myself a facial and do an hour of yoga with my trainer, like Martha does. No, lazy moi, all I can bring myself to do is reach out for my iPad and play an athletic round of WordsWithFriends with my buddies, who can’t sleep anymore, either. And then stare off into space. (If you want to know how to waste what little time you have left, read MY book. When I get around to writing it!)

 Not so, Martha. Martha has lots of time to do everything and she encourages you to follow her lead in this all-inclusive ‘Death-Style’ guidebook for boomers. In order to do so with the utmost efficiency, which is necessary, since time is definitely running out, you might want to consider employing a staff of, well let’s just call it, in Martha’s own words, “a small army” of helpers. If you are wondering where she finds the time to write a book of this depth and dimension while attending to all her many chores (managing her many estates…or even finding time to visit them, starring on her daily television shows…are they still on? her frequent promotional and guest appearances, grooming her herds of Friesian horses, showing her beloved Chows at Westminster, icing cakes and creating paint colors, weaving broadloom, pruning her orchards, and kibitzing with the countless great and the near-great suitors besieging her on Match.com) the answer is simple.

 She doesn’t. Her army does it for her and she puts her name on the cover, the ‘Brand’ she has so assiduously developed and nurtured for over 30 years (with a little time off for bad behavior).

 Martha’s graciously acknowledged inspiration is her powerhouse of a mother, a woman often referred to as ‘Big Martha’, who is duly credited as the honoree in whose name the “Martha Stewart Center for Living” was established by “little Martha”(?) at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. I can’t help but think, “It’s a good thing” that the daughter is named for the mother, in this case, or there might have been a crisis of conscience over the billing! There is a faint hope that by ‘doing good’ and ‘giving back’, as rich people like to, with their leftover money, she will forever erase the taint on her ‘good’ name by helping to fund a center for the study and care of the newest disease sweeping the nation…. aging.

In Martha’s world, old people can be successful, productive and pretty healthy well into their 90’s, like her own mother, or could be if they’d only take her advice! She comments that most of her relatives lived long, healthy, useful lives, never complaining, (as if they’d dare!), and that she certainly expects to do the same. The idea that good luck or even good genes might be a factor is not really considered….Martha seems to believe in that good old American recipe for success: hard work and self-determination, and regular appointments with your colorist!

Anything less and you deserve what you get. Anything less is your own fault. All well and good, I suppose, but tell that to my friends with cancer, heart disease, worn out hips, Alzheimer’s or MS. They won’t be consulting her bible to research which wrinkle fillers to try, anytime soon. Documentation is a big part of Martha’s plan. How else to keep track of such a full life? (Her lists and charts sometimes remind me of the ones Jay Gatsby formulated as his life plan, and we all know how well that turned out for him!) The best part of this book, however, is not her self-satisfied musings of a life well lived (if you don’t look too closely at the trail of personal destruction left behind), but the excellent resources culled together by the many expert advisors (and co-authors?) in medicine, gerontology, social work and nutrition.

 Maybe I’m being a little harsh. The book is actually an excellent compendium of ‘what to do until the undertaker comes’ kinds of things, most of them constructive, logical and life affirming, especially for those with the wherewithal to provide a comfortable dénouement for themselves. Advice from leading experts in every field remotely connected to an aging life, as it is lived by the healthy and wealthy, abounds. We are spared those familiar, all too horrifying conversations about what to do when catastrophic illness strikes at the family savings (if there are any) or when you suspect a loved one might be losing his mind in bits and pieces, never to be whole again. This book of advice is not for the terminally ill or (cringe) lower classes, but rather for those who can afford to buy it and stash it on their library shelf beside the dusty Funk and Wagnell’s Family Health Encyclopaedia for occasional consultation.

 For the rest, there is always ‘Google’.

 Afterthought: Martha is now making the Media Circuit/Circus rebranding her image as a lonely single woman seeking love in all the wrong places. Match.com? I have to wonder if she owns it? Surely, with her resources, she could afford to hire a full-time Shadchen (matchmaker) on her staff. I could volunteer. Why would she (or her staff) want to sift through the thousands of mis-Matches lurking out there in cyberspace when she has so many other better things to do? And all this recent publicity about ‘sexting’ and ‘threesomes’? Is she so loathe to give up the post-menopausal spotlight to Paula Deen? 

This smells of desperation to me.