Category Archives: cold weather

I Shouda Ran

I just came across some great news for joggers.  Researchers have found that strenuous exercise like jogging does NOT boost the risk of arthritis in one’s knees.  A recent study enlisted nearly 1,200 middle-aged and older people at high risk for knee arthritis.  Result?  After 10 years, those who did strenuous activities like jogging and cycling were no more likely to be diagnosed with arthritis than those who did none. (See the July/August 2020 issue of Nutrition Action, noting a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.)

And according to a writer in The Washington Post, most data show that running actually helps keep knee joints lubricated.  (See the report by John Briley on August 6, 2020.)

Hmmm…

So…maybe I shoulda ran?

What?

I’ll explain.

When my daughters were small, my husband and I often relied on PBS kids’ programming to keep us from going bananas whenever we were home with them for more than a few hours.

I’m still indebted to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” for offering wonderfully positive content that expanded our daughters’ minds.

I can still remember many of Fred Rogers’s episodes and his delightful music.  The recent films (e.g., “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) that highlight his music and the many layers of his unfailing kindness are moving tributes to everything he did.  (I obliquely noted Rogers’s important role in our family when I briefly mentioned him in my 2011 novel, Jealous Mistress.)

Similarly, I can’t forget countless “Sesame Street” sketches and songs we watched over and over again. In addition to stalwarts like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird, I loved less-prominent Muppet characters like Don Music, who’d take out his creative frustrations by crashing his head on his piano keyboard.

One “Sesame Street” sketch I vividly recall focused on words than rhymed with “an.”

The setting is a rundown alley in a big city.  Tall buildings loom in the distance.  As the sketch begins, two Muppets garbed as gangsters breathlessly arrive at this spot.  The savvier gangster tells his partner Lefty that “We got the ‘Golden AN’.”

The word “AN” is clearly written in bold upper-case letters on a metal object he’s holding.  Explaining their “plan,” he points to a “tan van” and says, “This is the plan. You see that van? You take the Golden An to the tan van.  You give it to Dan, who will give it to Fran.”  He adds:  “Everything I’m telling you about the plan rhymes with AN.”  He takes off, leaving Lefty alone.

Lefty, who’s pretty much of a dolt, repeats the plan out loud a couple of times while a Muppet cop is watching and listening.  The cop approaches, identifies himself as “Stan…the man,” and tells Lefty he’s going to get “10 days in the can for stealing the Golden An.”

Lefty then chides himself:  “I shoulda ran.”

This carefully crafted sketch was clearly intended to teach little kids about words that rhyme with “an,” although much of it seemed aimed at parents and other adults watching along with the kids.  How many little ones knew the meaning of “the can”?  The bad grammar in the sketch (“I shoulda ran”) was forgivable because kids watching “Sesame Street” didn’t really notice it, and the whole thing was so darned funny.

But what has stayed with me over the decades is the final line:  I shoulda ran.

When I was growing up, I always liked running fast, and I rode my fat-tire Schwinn bike all over my neighborhood.  So I wasn’t indolent.  But as I grew older and entered public high school in Chicago, I encountered the blatantly sexist approach to sports.  Aside from synchronized swimming, my school offered no team sports for girls.  So although I would have loved to be on a track team, that simply wasn’t possible.  Girls couldn’t participate in gymnastics, track, basketball, baseball, tennis, or any of the other teams open to boys our age.

We were also actively discouraged from undertaking any sort of strenuous physical activity.  It was somewhat ironic that I applied to be, and became, the sports editor of my high school yearbook because I was completely shut out of the team sports that I covered in that yearbook .  And I foolishly gave up my coveted spot in the drama group to do it—what a mistake!

I had a somewhat different experience during my single semester in school in Los Angeles, where I spent the first half of 8th grade.  Although sexism was equally pervasive there, girls at least had a greater opportunity to benefit from physical activity.  Because of the beautiful weather, we played volleyball outdoors every day, and I actually learned not to be afraid of the ball!  I was prepared, when we returned to Chicago (reluctantly on my part), to enjoy a similar level of activity during my four years of high school.  But that would not happen.   The girls’ P.E. classes were a joke, a pathetic attempt at encouraging us to move our bodies.  And things didn’t begin to change until 1972, when Title IX was enacted into law.

Over the years, I continued to ride a bike wherever I lived and whenever weather permitted. I took up brisk walking and yoga as well.  And I sometimes thought about running.

Jogging– less intensive running–took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Why didn’t I begin to jog?

There was a bunch of reasons.  First, I was afraid of damaging my knees.  I’ve always loved aerobic dancing, the kind popularized by Jacki Sorensen.  I’d jump along with the music in my favorite Jacki tape, and I began to notice that jumping was possibly beginning to wear away the cartilage in my knee joints because occasional pain resulted. So I kept dancing, but I stopped jumping.  I figured that running would place even further stress on my knees.

And then there was Jim Fixx.

I didn’t know a lot about Jim Fixx.  He became a media celebrity when he published his best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running, in 1977, and his claims about the health benefits of jogging suddenly showed up on the news.  But in 1977, I had a brand-new baby and a toddler, along with a challenging part-time job, and I couldn’t focus on starting something new like jogging.  By the time I was getting ready to launch into it, I heard the news that Fixx had died of a heart attack while jogging.  He was 52.

Fixx’s death shook me up.  I didn’t know at the time that he may have had a genetic predisposition to heart trouble and he had lived a stressful and unhealthy life as an overweight heavy smoker before he began running at age 36.   All that I knew was that this exemplar of health through running had died, while jogging, at age 52.

Chicago weather also stood in my way.  Happily ensconced in an area that allowed our family to ride our bikes along Lake Michigan and quiet residential streets, and where I could take long and pleasant walks with my husband, I was reasonably active outdoors during the six months of the year when good weather prevailed.  But during the harsh winters, confined indoors, I had less success.  I played my Jacki tapes, I tried using a stationary bike (it never fit me comfortably), and I sampled a local gym.  But I didn’t pursue strenuous exercise.

Now, learning about the recent evidence I’ve noted–that, if I’d jogged, my knees might have been OK after all–I regret that choice.  My current climate allows me to be outside almost every day, and I take advantage of it by briskly walking about 30 minutes daily, much of it uphill.  So that’s my workout now, and it’s a pretty good one.

But I probably would have loved running all those years.

It’s a bit late to start now, but I can’t help thinking:  I shoulda ran.

Is It Time to Resurrect the “Housedress”?

The HBO miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” which appeared earlier this year, focused on life in America in the early 1940s.  Adapted from the 2005 novel by Philip Roth, the storyline was terrifying, highlighting the possibility that a fascist anti-Semitic regime could assume control over politics in our country.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott, describing HBO’s adaptation as “mostly faithful” to the novel, observed that the world it portrayed looked familiar, yet different, to us today.  He noted in particular “the clothes” worn by the people inhabiting that world, as well as the cars, the cigarettes, and what he called “the household arrangements,” evoking a period “encrusted with…nostalgia.”

The series was, in my view, a stunning depiction of that era, along with a chilling prediction of what might have happened.  Thankfully, Roth’s fictional prediction never came true, and I hope it never will.

One thing I took away from the series was how authentically it created the images from that time.  I was born years later than both Philip Roth and his character, the 8-year-old Philip.  But I can recall images from the 1950s, and I’ve seen countless films dating from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as TV shows like “I Love Lucy.”

A couple of things in the series stand out.  First, people got their news from newspapers and the radio.  The leading characters appear in a number of scenes reading the daily newspapers that influenced their view of the world.  They also listened attentively to the radio for news and other information.  The radio broadcaster Walter Winchell even plays an important part in the story.

The other thing that stands out is the clothing worn by the characters in “Plot.”  Especially the women characters.  These women tended to have two types of wardrobes.  One represented the clothing they wore at home, where they generally focused on housecleaning, cooking, and tending to their children.  The other represented what they would wear when they left home, entering the outside world for a variety of reasons.

The wardrobe worn at home looked extremely familiar.  My mother clung to that wardrobe for decades.  She, like the women in “Plot,” wore housedresses at home.  These were cotton dresses, usually in a floral or other subdued print, that were either buttoned or wrapped around the body in some fashion.  In an era before pants became acceptable for women (Katharine Hepburn being a notable exception), women wore dresses or skirts, even to do housework at home.

Only when they left home, to go to somewhere like an office or a bank, did they garb themselves in other clothes.  In this wardrobe, they tended to wear stylish dresses made with non-cotton fabrics, or skirt suits with blouses, along with hats and white gloves. Working women employed in office-type settings (there were a few, like the character brilliantly played by Winona Ryder in “Plot”) wore these clothes to work every day. (Women employed in other settings of course wore clothes appropriate to their workplaces.)

Now, with most of us staying home for the most part, I wonder:  Is it time to resurrect the housedress?

Here are some reasons why it might be:

  1. Warmer weather is approaching, or may have already arrived, depending on where you live.
  2. Relying on heavy clothing like sweatshirts and sweatpants, which many of us have been relying on during our self-isolation at home, will become impractical because that clothing will be uncomfortably hot.
  3. Pajamas and nightgowns aren’t a good idea for all-day wear.  We should save them for bedtime, when we need to separate our daytime experience from the need to get some sleep.
  4. The housedress offers an inviting choice for women who want to stay comfortably at home, wearing cool cotton (or cotton-blend) dresses that allow them to move as comfortably as they do in sweat clothes, all day long.

I concede that comfortable shorts and t-shirts might fit the bill, for men as well as women.  But I suggest that women consider an alternative.  They may want to give housedresses a try.

Ideally, a woman will be able to choose from a wide range of cheerful fabric designs and colors.  If she can track down one that appeals to her, she just might be convinced by its comfort and then tempted to wear more of them.

I’ve already adopted my own version of the housedress.  I rummaged through one of my closets and found a few items I haven’t worn in years.  I’ve always called them “robes,” although they’ve also been called housecoats or other names.  My mother for some reason liked to call them “dusters.”  My husband’s aunt liked to wear what she called “snap coats.”

But in the big picture, we’re really talking about the same thing.  Cotton robes/dresses in a variety of designs and prints. Today they’re usually fastened with snaps.  Easy in, easy out.

And most of them have pockets!  (As I’ve written before, all women’s clothes should have pockets.)  [Please see my blog post “Pockets!” https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2018/01/ ]

I plucked a couple of these out of my closet, some with the brand name Models Coats.  I had never even worn one of them.  (A tag was still attached, featuring the silly slogan, “If it’s not Models Coat…it’s not!”)  But I’ll wear it now.

By the way, I’ve checked “Models Coats” on the internet, and an amazing variety of “housedresses,” or whatever you choose to call them—Models Coats and other brands–is offered online.  So it appears that some women have been purchasing them all along.

Now here’s a bit of cultural history:  My mother kept her 1950s-style housedresses well into the 1990s.  I know that because I discovered them in her closet when we visited her Chicago apartment one cold winter day in the ‘90s.  Mom lived in a 1920s-era apartment building, filled with radiators that ensured overheated air in her apartment.  [Please see my blog post “Coal:  A Personal History,” discussing the overheated air that coal-based radiators chugged out:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/coal-a-personal-history/ ]

My daughters and I had worn clothing appropriate for a cold winter day in Chicago.  But as we sat in Mom’s overheated living room, we began to peel off our sweaters and other warm duds.  (My husband didn’t do any peeling.  He was too smart to have dressed as warmly as we had.)

It finally occurred to me that Mom might have saved her housedresses from long ago.  Maybe she even continued to wear them.  So I searched her closet and found three of them.  My daughters and I promptly changed, and we immediately felt much better.  But when we caught sight of ourselves, we laughed ourselves silly.  We looked a lot like the model in a Wendy’s TV commercial we called “Russian fashion show.”

In our favorite Wendy’s commercial, dating from 1990, Russian music plays in the background while a hefty woman dressed in a military uniform announces the fashion show in a heavy Russian accent.  The “model” comes down the runway wearing “day wear,” “evening wear,” and “beachwear.”  What’s hilariously funny is that she wears the same drab dress, along with a matching babushka, in each setting.  For “evening wear,” the only change is that she waves a flashlight around.  And for “beachwear,” she’s clutching a beach ball.

Wendy’s used clever commercials like this one to promote their slogan:  “Having no choice is no fun,” clearly implying that Wendy’s offered choices its fast-food competitors didn’t.  I don’t know whether these commercials helped Wendy’s bottom line, but they certainly afforded our family many, many laughs.

[If you need some laughs right now, you can find these commercials on YouTube.  Just enter words like “Wendy’s TV commercials” and “Russian fashion show.”]

Mom’s housedresses weren’t as drab as the dress worn by the model in our favorite commercial.   They tended to feature brightly colored prints.  Admittedly, they weren’t examples of trend-setting fashion.  But they certainly were cool and comfortable

In our current crisis, we need to be creative and come up with new solutions to new problems.  For those women seeking something comfortable to wear, something different from what they’ve been wearing, colorful housedresses just might be the right choice.

Join the ranks of the scarf-wearers

I’ve been wearing scarves all my life.  In a dusty photo album filled with black-and-white snapshots, there I am at age 8, all dressed up in my winter best, going somewhere on a cold Thanksgiving Day wearing a silk scarf that wasn’t nearly warm enough.  (Please see “Coal: A Personal History,” published in this blog on January 24, 2020.)

My mother probably set the tone for my sister and me.  We adopted what we viewed as the fashionable wearing of head scarves followed by such notables as Queen Elizabeth II (who wears her Liberty silk scarves to this day, especially during her jaunts in chilly Scotland) and the very stylish Audrey Hepburn. (Please see “Audrey Hepburn and Me,” published in this blog on August 14, 2013.)

The result:  A vast collection of scarves of every description, from humble cotton squares that look like a tablecloth in an Italian restaurant (note: these were made in France!), to lovely hand-painted silk in charming pastel colors, to Hermès lookalikes purchased from vendors in New York City’s Chinatown before the authorities cracked down on illicit counterfeit-selling.

And I wear them.  Especially since I moved to breezy San Francisco, where I never leave my home without a light jacket (or cardigan sweater), a scarf in a handy pocket (and women’s clothes should all have pockets; please see “Pockets!”, published in this blog on January 25, 2018), and a sunhat to protect my skin from the California sun (even when it’s hiding behind a cloud or two).  The only exceptions:  When there’s a torrential downpour or when we’re having unusually hot weather and only the sunhat is a must.

Now I learn that my huge array of scarves may, if used properly, protect me and others from the current scourge of COVID-19.  The State of California Department of Public Health has issued guidelines stating that wearing face coverings, including scarves, may help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.  The CDC and Bay Area public health officials have given similar advice.

Following this guidance, I began wearing scarves as face coverings several days ago, and I can now pick and choose among those I like best, so long as they are substantial enough to do the job.

Of course, I don’t want to scare anyone. After all, a black scarf worn on one’s face can be intimidating.  I certainly don’t want to enter a corner grocery store looking like a miscreant about to pull a hold-up.  So I’m opting for bright colors and cheerful designs.

We’re instructed to wash one’s scarf in hot water after each wearing.  So silk is pretty much out.  Instead I’m inclined to wear cotton or cotton blends, large enough and foldable enough to cover my nose and mouth.

So before I take off for my daily stroll, my search for just the right scarf has propelled me to select one among a wide range of choices.  Shall I choose the black-and-white cotton checkered number?  How about the Vera design featuring bright green peas emerging from their pods on a bright white background?  Or shall I select one of the scarves I bought at the Museo del Prado in Madrid in 1993, eschewing the tempting jewelry reproductions offered in the gift shop in favor of the less expensive and far more practical scarves with an admittedly unique design? (I bought two, each in a different color-combination.)

I’ve worn all of these already,  and tomorrow I’ll begin dipping into my collection to find still others.

I have to confess that I’m not particularly adept at tying my scarves as tightly as I probably should.  But whenever I encounter another pedestrian on my route (and there aren’t many), we steer clear of each other, and I use my (gloved) hand to press the scarf very close to my face.  That should do it, protection-wise.

One more thing I must remember before I wrap myself in one of my scarves:  Forget about lipstick.  Absolutely no one is going to see my lips, and any lip color would probably rub off on my scarf.  Forgeddaboutit.

Please note:  By writing about my scarf-wearing, I do not mean to trivialize the seriousness of the current crisis.  I’m simply hopeful that wearing these bright scarves–and telling you about them–will help to soften the blow the virus has already dealt so many of us.

Please join me as a scarf-wearer and, with luck, we’ll all stay safe and well   Fingers crossed!

 

 

Coal: A Personal History

It’s January, and much of the country is confronting freezing temperatures, snow, and ice.  I live in San Francisco now, but I vividly remember what life is like in cold-weather climates.

When I was growing up on the North Side of Chicago, my winter garb followed this pattern:

Skirt and blouse, socks (usually short enough to leave my legs largely bare), a woolen coat, and a silk scarf for my head.  Under my coat, I might have added a cardigan sweater.  But during the freezing cold days of winter (nearly every day during a normal Chicago winter), I was always COLD—when I was outside, that is.

My parents were caring and loving, but they followed the norms of most middle-class parents in Chicago during that era.  No one questioned this attire.  I recall shivering whenever our family ventured outside for a special event during the winter.  I especially remember the excitement of going downtown to see the first showing of Disney’s “Cinderella.”  Daddy parked our Chevy at an outdoor parking lot blocks from the theater on State Street, and we bravely faced the winter winds as we made our way there on foot.  I remember being COLD.

School days were somewhat different.  On bitter cold days, girls were allowed to cover our legs, but only if we hung our Levi’s in our lockers when we arrived at school.  We may have added mufflers around our heads and necks to create just a little more warmth as we walked blocks and blocks to school in the morning, back home for lunch, then returning to school for the afternoon.

Looking back, I can’t help wondering why it never occurred to our parents to clothe us more warmly.  Weren’t they aware of the warmer winter clothing worn elsewhere?  One reason that we didn’t adopt warmer winter garb–like thermal underwear, or down jackets, or ski parkas–may have been a lack of awareness that they existed.  Or the answer may have been even simplerthe abundance of coal.

Inside, we were never cold.  Why?  Because heating with coal was ubiquitous.  It heated our apartment buildings, our houses, our schools, our stores, our movie theaters, our libraries, our public buildings, and almost everywhere else.  Radiators heated by coal hissed all winter long.  The result?  Overheated air.

Despite the bleak winter outside, inside I was never cold.  On the contrary, I was probably much too warm in the overheated spaces we inhabited.

Until I was 12, we lived in an apartment with lots of windows.  In winter the radiators were always blazing hot, so hot that we never felt the cold air outside.  The window glass would be covered in condensed moisture, a product of the intensely heated air, and I remember drawing funny faces on the glass that annoyed my scrupulous-housekeeper mother.

Where did all that heat come from?  I never questioned its ultimate source.

I later learned that it was extracted from deep beneath the earth.  But what happened to it above ground was no secret.  More than once, I watched trucks pull up outside my apartment building to deliver large quantities of coal.  The driver would set up a chute that sent the coal directly into the basement, where all those lumps of coal must have been shoveled into a big furnace.

Coal was the primary source of heat back then, and the environment suffered as a result.  After the coal was burned in the furnace, its ashes would be shoveled into bags.  Many of the ashes found their way into the environment.  They were, for example, used on pavements and streets to cope with snow and ice.

The residue from burning coal also led to other harmful results.  Every chimney spewed thick sooty smoke all winter, sending into the air the toxic particles that we all inhaled.

Coal was plentiful, cheap, and reliable.  And few people were able to choose alternatives like fireplaces and wood-burning furnaces (which presented their own problems).

Eventually, cleaner and more easily distributed forms of heating fuel displaced coal.  Residential use dropped, and according to one source, today it amounts to less than one percent of heating fuel.

But coal still plays a big part in our lives.  As Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia (which is currently suffering the consequences of climate change), wrote earlier this month in TIME magazine, the issue of “climate action” has been “hijacked by a toxic, climate-denying alliance of right-wing politics and media…, as well as vested business interests, especially in the coal industry.”  He added:  “Above all, we have to urgently stop burning coal and other fossil fuels.”

In her book Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have, Tatiana Schlossberg points out that we still get about one-third of our electricity from coal.  So “streaming your online video may be coal-powered.”  Using as her source a 2014 EPA publication, she notes that coal ash remains one of the largest industrial solid-waste streams in the country, largely under-regulated, ending up polluting groundwater, streams, lakes, and rivers across the country.

“As crazy as this might sound,” Schlossberg writes, watching your favorite episode of “The Office” might come at the expense of clean water for someone else.  She’s concerned that even though we know we need electricity to power our computers, we don’t realize that going online itself uses electricity, which often comes from fossil fuels.

Illinois is finally dealing with at least one result of its longtime dependence on coal.   Environmental groups like Earthjustice celebrated a big win in Illinois in 2019 when they helped win passage of milestone legislation strengthening rules for cleaning up the state’s coal-ash dumps.  In a special report, Earthjustice noted that coal ash, the toxic residue of burning coal, has been dumped nationwide into more than 1,000 unlined ponds and landfills, where it leaches into waterways and drinking water.

Illinois in particular has been severely impacted by coal ash.  It is belatedly overhauling its legacy of toxic coal waste and the resulting widespread pollution in groundwater near its 24 coal-ash dumpsites.  The new legislation funds coal-ash cleanup programs and requires polluters to set aside funds to ensure that they, not taxpayers, pay for closure and cleanup of coal-ash dumps.

Earthjustice rightfully trumpets its victory, which will now protect Illinois residents and its waters from future toxic pollution by coal ash.  But what about the legacy of the past, and what about the legacy of toxic coal particles that entered the air decades ago?

As an adult, I wonder about the huge quantities of coal dust I must have inhaled during every six-month-long Chicago winter that I lived through as a child.  I appear to have so far escaped adverse health consequences, but that could change at any time.

And I wonder about others in my generation.  How many of us have suffered or will suffer serious health problems as a result of drinking polluted water and inhaling toxic coal-dust particles?

I suspect that many in my generation have been unwilling victims of our decades-long dependence on coal.