Category Archives: Mom

Caffeine

I’m addicted.

I admit it.  I’m addicted to caffeine.

I find that I increasingly need caffeine.  It’s become an absolute necessity.  I drink 3 to 4 cups of coffee from about 8 a.m. till about 4 or 5 p.m. Why?  Because I like it.  And because it helps me stay awake when I need to be.

First, a little bit about my relationship to caffeine. 

I remember how my mother drank coffee all day long.  Once I asked her if I could taste it.  I figured that it had to be delicious or she wouldn’t drink so much of it.  So when she said I could taste it, I took a sip.  Yuck!  It tasted terrible.

I didn’t try coffee again until my first year of college, when I discovered that it was drinkable if I put enough milk and sugar in it.  I decided to try it when late-night studying began to take its toll.  I found I’d doze off in class the minute the professor turned off the lights and showed slides on a screen at the front of the classroom.  But I discovered that if I had some caffeine in my breakfast coffee, I could stay awake.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that consuming caffeine is a necessity.  Especially before sitting in a theater, when (as in college classrooms) the lights are dimmed and I need to stay conscious to enjoy a film, a play, a concert, a ballet performance, or an opera.  Although the pandemic has cramped my style, suspending my theater-going, for example, I’ve continued to rely on caffeine while I read or watch TV at home.

Now let’s look at some of the science behind caffeine.  I won’t bore you with the wonkiest stuff, but you probably want to know something about it.

I found this info in the March 2021 issue of Nutrition Action, a monthly newsletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), my go-to source for honest reporting on healthy food choices and the like.  Here’s a summary of the most useful info:

How does caffeine work?  It blocks adenosine receptors in the brain.  Huh?  What’s adenosine?

Adenosine is a natural sedative.  When it builds up, you feel drowsy.  But when caffeine blocks it, you don’t.

But watch out:  You can build up a tolerance to caffeine.  What happens is this:  The more caffeine you consume, the more adenosine receptors your brain makes.  So you need even more caffeine to block those extra receptors and keep you alert.

But how much is too much?  The FDA says that most adults can safely consume up to 400 milligrams a day.  This is roughly the amount in two large cups of coffee at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts.  But the amount of caffeine in your home-brewed coffee can vary.  And caffeine’s impact on people varies.

So you need to judge the impact it has on you.  If you’re having trouble sleeping, or too much coffee makes you feel jittery, you probably need to cut back on how much you imbibe, and pay attention to when you’re imbibing.

You can try to break up with coffee, as famed author Michael Pollan has.  He reports “sleeping like a teenager” and waking “feeling actually refreshed.”  But that experience may not work for everyone.

One study asked 66 young caffeine users–who were having trouble sleeping–to go “cold turkey.”  But during the a week with no caffeine, they spent no more time asleep and took no less time to fall asleep than before. 

Still, it’s probably wise to avoid caffeine right before bed.  Studies show that people generally take longer to fall asleep and get less deep sleep when they have caffeine right before bedtime.

Coffee consumption has shown some real benefits.  A lower risk of type 2 diabetes, for one thing.  Better exercise-performance for another.  (Although few studies have looked at the exercise-boosting effect in older adults, one study of 19 Brits aged 61 to 79 showed that they performed better in a battery of physical tests after they consumed caffeine.)  Finally, studies have shown that people who consume more caffeine have a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.

I get my caffeine in a variety of sources, including coffee, tea, and cola drinks. I also happily consume coffee candy (my favorite is Caffe Rio, available at Trader Joe’s) and coffee ice cream.  I also heartily recommend the cappuccino gelato at my local gelato shop.  But let’s face it:  a cup of coffee packs the most punch.

The recent advent of cold brew coffee allows coffee-drinkers to get their caffeine in a less acidic form.  According to one source, cold brew is over 67 percent less acidic than hot brewed coffee because the coffee grounds aren’t exposed to high temperatures.  Result:  cold brew appeals to some of us because it’s sweeter, smoother, and less bitter. (But don’t confuse it with iced coffee, which has the same acidity as regular hot coffee.  The ice can dilute it, however.)  I’ve tried cold brew and like it.  I keep a bottle of it in my fridge and frequently drink some.  But it’s much pricier than my home brew, at least for now.

New sources have popped up.  One may be bottled water.  In the bargain bin at a local supermarket, I once came across a bottle of Sparking Avitae, whose label states that it’s caffeine plus water and natural fruit flavors.  It claims to have “about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee,” thereby giving you “instant go with added fizz.” According to the manufacturer, it includes “natural caffeine derived from green coffee beans.”  I’m not sure this product is still available.  Possibly something like it is.  My original purchase is stashed in my fridge, but I’ve never tried it.

Even newer:  I recently spied an ad for a cosmetic product called “Eyes Open Caffeine and Peptide Eye Cream.”   Yes, eye cream.  This one claims to be “supercharged with caffeine,” adding that it can “reduce the appearance of puffiness and dark circles.”  Does it work?  Who knows?  I’d guess that it probably works just about as well as any other eye cream.  Dermatologists generally tell their patients not to expect very much from any of them, no matter their price or their claims. 

To sum up, I confess that I ally with Abbie Hoffman, the “Chicago 7” trial defendant.  When the prosecutor asked him whether he was addicted to any drug, Abbie said “Yes.”  Which one?  “Caffeine.”   [Please see Post #9 in my blog series, “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” published on 4/20/21, where I noted this amusing bit of testimony.]

My favorite coffee mug says it all:  Its vintage photo features a stylish woman in glamorous riding gear, holding the reins of her horse, saying “You can lead a horse to water…but I could use a triple expresso.”

And let’s not forget my sticky-note pad featuring a stylishly-coiffed woman, circa 1928, drinking what’s clearly a cup of coffee.  She boldly announces:  “Given enough coffee, I could rule the world.”  

Well, maybe coffee-drinkers like me should actually try to rule the world.  We might do a better job than most of those who’ve been in charge.

Okay.  I’m addicted.  And my path ahead is clear. 

I’ll continue to reap the benefits of caffeine while at the same time I steer away from any potentially harmful impact.

Maybe you’d like to join me on this path?

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!

 

 

My Life as a Shopper

I have a new outlook on shopping.  I’m no longer shopping the way I used to.

Why?

I’ll start at the beginning.  My long history of shopping began when I was very young.

My parents were both immersed in retailing.  My mother’s parents immigrated to Chicago from Eastern Europe and, soon after arriving, opened a clothing store on Milwaukee Avenue.  Their enterprise evolved into a modest chain of women’s apparel stores, and throughout her life my mother was intimately involved in the business.  She embedded in me the ethos that shopping for new things, especially clothes, was a good thing.  Under her influence, I gave away countless wearable items of clothing in favor of getting something new, preferably something sold in one of her family’s stores.  (I later regretted departing with some of the perfectly good items I could have continued to wear for many more years.)

Even though my father received a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois, and he enjoyed some aspects of his work as a pharmacist, he was himself attracted to retailing.  At a young age, he opened his own drugstore on the South Side of Chicago (I treasure a black-and-white photo of him standing in front of his store’s window).  After marrying my mother, he spent a number of years working in her family’s business, and in the late ‘40s the two of them opened a women’s clothing boutique on Rush Street, a short distance from Oak Street, in a soon-to-be-trendy shopping area.  Ahead of its time, the boutique quickly folded, but Daddy never lost his taste for retailing.

In view of this history, I was fated to become a “shopper.”  After Daddy died when I was 12, our family wasn’t able to spend big wads of money on anything, including clothes.  But my mother’s inclination to buy new clothes never really ceased.

Thanks to generous scholarship and fellowship awards, I made my way through college and grad school on a miniscule budget.  I saved money by spending almost nothing, savoring the 99-cent dinner at Harkness Commons almost every night during law school to save money.  And because I began my legal career with a $6,000 annual salary as a federal judge’s law clerk and, as a lawyer, never pursued a high-paying job (I preferred to work on behalf of the poor, for example), I got by without big-time shopping.

Marriage brought little change at first.  My darling new husband also came from a modest background and was not a big spender, even when our salaries began to move up a bit.

But things eventually changed.  Higher salaries and the arrival of new retail chain stores featuring bargain prices made buying stuff much more tempting.  I needed presentable clothes for my new full-time jobs.  Our daughters needed to be garbed in clothes like those the other kids wore.  Our living room chairs from Sears began to look shabby, propelling us toward somewhat better home décor.

A raft of other changes led me to spend more time shopping.  My boring law-firm jobs were more tolerable if I could escape during my lunch hour and browse at nearby stores.  The rise of outlet malls made bargain shopping easier than ever.  And travels to new cities and countries inspired buying small, easily packable items, like books and jewelry.

After I moved to San Francisco, having jettisoned possessions I’d lived with for years in my former home, I needed to acquire new ones.  So there I was, buying furniture and kitchen equipment for my sunny new apartment.

At the same time, our consumption-driven culture continued to push buying more and more, including the “fast-fashion” that emerged, offering stylish clothes at a temptingly low price.

But this emphasis on acquiring new stuff, even low-priced stuff, has finally lost its appeal.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t need it.

My overall goal is to simplify my life.  This means giving away a lot of things I don’t need, like stacks of books I’ll never read and charming bric-a-brac that’s sitting on a shelf collecting dust.  Like clothes that a disadvantaged person needs more than I do.

My new focus:  First, use what I already have.  Next, do not buy anything new unless I absolutely need it.

Choosing not to acquire new clothes—in essence, reusing what I already have, adopting the slogan “shop your closet”–is a perfect example of my new outlook.

I’ve previously written about confining one’s new purchases to “reunion-worthy” clothes.  [Please see my blog post of October 12, 2017, advising readers to choose their purchases carefully, making sure that any clothes they buy are flattering enough to wear at a school reunion.]

But that doesn’t go far enough.  New purchases should be necessary.

I find that I’m not alone in adopting this approach.

Many millennials have eschewed buying consumer goods, opting for new experiences instead of new material things.  I guess I agree with the millennials’ outlook on this subject.

Here’s other evidence of this approach.  An article in The Guardian in July 2019 shouted “’Don’t feed the monster!’ The people who have stopped buying new clothes.”  Writer Paula Cocozza noted the growing number of people who love clothes but resist buying new ones because of the lack of their sustainability:  Many consumers she interviewed were switching to second-hand shopping so they would not perpetuate this consumption and waste.

Second-hand shopping has even taken off online.  In September, the San Francisco Chronicle noted the “wave of new resale apps and marketplaces” adding to longtime resale giants like eBay.  At the same time, The New York Times, covering Fashion Week in Milan, wrote that there was “a lot of talk about sustainability over the last two weeks of collections, and about fashion’s role in the climate crisis.”  The Times added:  “the idea of creating clothes that last—that people want to buy and actually keep, keep wearing and never throw out, recycle or resell”—had become an important part of that subject.  It quoted Miuccia Prada, doyenne of the high-end clothing firm Prada:  “we need to do less.  There is too much fashion, too much clothes, too much of everything.”

Enter Tatiana Schlossberg and her new book, Inconspicuous consumption:  the environmental impact you don’t know you have (2019).  In the middle of an absorbing chapter titled Fashion, she notes that “There’s something appealing about being able to buy really cheap, fashionable clothing [..,] but it has given us a false sense of inexpensiveness.  It’s not only that the clothes are cheap; it’s that no one is paying for the long-term costs of the waste we create just from buying as much as we can afford….”

Some scholars have specifically focused on this issue, the “overabundance of fast fashion—readily available, inexpensively made new clothing,” because it has created “an environmental and social justice crisis.”  Christine Ekenga, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has co-authored a paper focused on the “global environmental injustice of fast fashion,” asserting that the fast-fashion supply chain has created a dilemma.  While consumers can buy more clothes for less, those who work in or live near textile-manufacturing bear a disproportionate burden of environmental health hazards.  Further, millions of tons of textile waste sit in landfills and other settings, hurting low-income countries that produce many of these clothes.  In the U.S., about 85 percent of the clothing Americans consume–nearly 80 pounds per American per year–is sent to landfills as solid waste.  [See “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion” in the journal Environmental Health.]

A high-profile public figure had an epiphany along the same lines that should influence all of us.  The late Doug Tompkins was one of the founders of The North Face and later moved on to help establish the apparel chain Esprit.  At the height of Esprit’s success, he sold his stake in the company for about $150 million and moved to Chile, where he embraced a whole new outlook on life and adopted an important new emphasis on ecology.  He bought up properties for conservation purposes, in this way “paying my rent for living on the planet.”  Most tellingly, he said, “I left that world of making stuff that nobody really needed because I realized that all of this needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the [environmental] crisis, the mother of all crises.”  [Sierra magazine, September/October 2019.]

Author Marie Kondo fits in here.  She has earned fame as a de-cluttering expert, helping people who feel overwhelmed with too much stuff to tidy up their homes.  Her focus is on reducing clutter that’s already there, so she doesn’t zero in on new purchases.  But I applaud her overall outlook.  As part of de-cluttering, she advises:  As you consider keeping or letting go of an item, hold it in your hands and ask:  “Does this item bring me joy?”  This concept of ensuring that an item brings you joy could apply to new purchases as well, so long as the item bringing you joy is also one you really need.

What should those of us enmeshed in our consumer culture do?  In The Wall Street Journal in July 2019, April Lane Benson, a “shopping-addiction-focused psychologist and the author of ‘To Buy or Not to Buy:  Why We Overshop and How to Stop’,” suggested that if a consumer is contemplating a purchase, she should ask herself six simple questions:  “Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it?”

Benson’s list of questions is a good one.  Answering them could go a long way toward helping someone avoid making a compulsive purchase.  But let’s remember:  Benson is talking about a shopper already in a store, considering whether to buy something she’s already selected in her search for something new.  How many shoppers will interrupt a shopping trip like that to answer Benson’s questions?

I suggest a much more ambitious scheme:  Simply resolve not to buy anything you don’t need!

My 11-year-old granddaughter has the right idea:  She’s a minimalist who has rejected any number of gifts from me, including some fetching new clothes, telling me she doesn’t need them.

When I reflect on my life as a shopper, I now understand why and how I became the shopper I did.  Perhaps, in light of my family history and the increasingly consumption-driven culture I’ve lived through, I didn’t really have an option.

But I have regrets:  I’ve wasted countless hours browsing in stores, looking through racks and poring over shelves for things to buy, much of which I didn’t need, then spending additional hours returning some of the things I had just purchased.

These are hours I could have spent far more wisely.  Pursuing my creative work, exercising more often and more vigorously, doing more to help those in need.

Readers:  Please don’t make the mistakes I have.  Adopt my new philosophy.  You’ll have many more hours in your life to pursue far more rewarding goals than acquiring consumer goods you don’t really need.

 

 

 

Hats Off to…Hats!

 

I grew up in the midst of a hat-wearing era.  If you watch movies from the 1950s, you’ll see what I mean.  In both newsreels and Hollywood films, almost all of the grown-ups–in almost every walk of life–are wearing hats.

Of course, grown-ups occasionally doffed their hats.  On a vacation, at a beach, in a theater.  But when it really counted, and they wanted to be taken seriously, they wore hats.

Although factory and construction workers wore other kinds of hats at their jobs, white-collar men tended to wear fedoras.  Footage of men attending baseball games makes clear that, even at casual events, most men were wearing felt fedoras

Women tended to opt for a variety of stylish hats, many of which look pretty silly today.  Just take a look at photos of Eleanor Roosevelt.  As the wife and later widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she’s frequently seen in headwear that was not only frilly but also far from flattering. (By contrast, photos of her younger self, sans hat, put her in a far more appealing light.)  Images of other women in frilly hats predominate in the photos of the time.

When did things begin to change?  Probably about the time that Senator John F. Kennedy became a popular media focus.  He was almost never photographed wearing a hat.   It wasn’t until his inauguration in January 1961, when he wore a top hat just like Ike’s, that he appeared in a formal grown-up’s hat.  (He notably doffed it when he gave his memorable speech.)

The popular TV series “Mad Men,” which appeared on TV from 2007 to 2015, illustrates this change.  When the series begins in March 1960, Don Draper wears a stylish fedora whenever he leaves the office.  But as the series moves through the ‘60s, he abandons his hat more and more.

The hat-wearing era clearly ended years ago.  Today a celebrity or fashion icon may occasionally be photographed in a trendy hat, but hats are no longer de rigueur.

I’ve never adopted the habit of wearing hats, with two major exceptions:  I wear warm fuzzy ones to cover my ears on chilly days, and I wear big-brimmed ones to shield my face from the sun.

But two years ago, the de Young Museum in San Francisco put together a brilliant exhibit highlighting the creation and wearing of women’s hats.  “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” focused on the creative artists who worked as milliners in Paris during Degas’s era, as well as on the era’s hats themselves.

The Wall Street Journal described the exhibit as “groundbreaking,” an exhibit that revealed “a compelling and until now less widely known side” of the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.

The exhibit brought together exquisite Degas paintings and exquisite French-made hats.  Paris, as the center of the fashion industry during Degas’s era, was also the center of the millinery world.  Around one thousand Parisian milliners created a rich and diverse array of hats.  Many of these milliners worked in a network of independent millinery shops that competed with the nearby grand department stores.

Hat-making, the display and sale of hats, and the wearing of hats in belle époque Paris—all of these fascinated the Impressionist painters who focused on urban life in the City of Light.  Degas had a particular affinity for millinery, and he would often return to the subject—featuring both the creators, who ranged from prestigious designers to the “errand girls” who delivered hats to their new owners, and the elite consumers of these hats.  This exhibit was the first to display all of his millinery paintings in one place.

The exhibit also included display cases filled with French-made hats from the period, noting that they were sculptural art objects in their own right.  This headwear came from museums that collect hats as part of their costume collections.  Museums like the Chicago History Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco contributed wonderful examples from this fabulous era of women’s decorative headwear.

When I saw this exhibit, I was thrilled by it.  It also became a powerful reminder of a childhood memory I’d nearly forgotten.  Standing in front of Degas’s paintings of milliners, I suddenly remembered going to a millinery shop in downtown Chicago with my mother when I was about 8 or 10.  Although my mother never had the financial assets to become an affluent consumer of fashion, she was acutely aware of fashion trends.  Within the bounds of my parents’ limited resources, Mom carved out a way to dress as stylishly as their funds allowed.

On this occasion, Mom must have felt financially secure enough to travel downtown and purchase a new hat styled just for her.  I was her lucky companion that day, creating a vivid memory of our shopping trip.

We found the millinery shop somewhere in a building on Randolph Street, a block or two west of the gigantic Marshall Field’s store on State Street.  We rode in an elevator to a floor above ground level and alighted to arrive at the cheerful shop, its big windows letting in a great deal of natural light.  Mom sat in a chair that faced a mirror while the milliner offered her several different styles to choose from.

Mom chose a white straw hat with blue flowers.  It was a delightful style that suited her perfectly.  Today I’d describe it as a cross between a cloche and a very small sunhat:  a straw cloche with a brim.  Not the kind of cloche that fits closely around the face, but one with a small brim that framed Mom’s face and set it off in a charming way.  Mom and the milliner conferred, possibly even turned to me to get my opinion, and made a final decision to select that hat, adding the lovely blue flowers in exactly the right place.

Mom clearly felt pretty when she wore that hat.  She went on to wear it many times, and whenever she did, I was always happy that I’d been with her on the day she chose it.  Even though Mom couldn’t purchase an elegant French-designed hat like those featured at art museums, she had her very own millinery-shop hat designed just for her.

She treasured that hat.  So did I.

 

 

Do you ever find yourself saying things your parents said?

Do you ever find yourself saying things your parents said?

Maybe your father used some phrases you’ve caught yourself saying.  Because my father died when I was 12, I can’t recall any pet phrases he used, so I have none to repeat.

But my mother, who died when I was decades older–that’s a different story.

At the outset, you should know that Mom was very smart.  She yearned to go to college and become a teacher, but after her father died, her family didn’t have enough money to send her and both of her brothers to college. I’m sure you can guess the outcome.

Mom had many pet phrases.  More and more, I hear myself repeating them.  But not all of them.

Here are some of Mom’s best, along with the context that surrounds them:

 

One of Mom’s favorites was “Before you know it.”  She usually said it when we’d talk about something we expected to happen in the future.  For example, when we talked about a young child going off to college someday, she’d frequently say, ”Before you know it….”  Or when, in the dead of winter, we talked about how far away summer seemed, she’d say, “Before you know it…”  Her instincts about how rapidly the future would arrive were usually right.  Now I often repeat that phrase myself.

When Mom conceded that something wasn’t just right, she’d often add, “Still and all.”  I can hear her saying it over and over again.  The dictionary defines the phrase as meaning “nevertheless” or “even so.”  Although you don’t hear many people use it, still and all it’s a great phrase.  Maybe more of us could use it.

When Mom liked to be very sure of something, she’d tell me that she wanted to “make doubly sure.”  I love that phrase and really must remember to use it whenever it fits.

 

Mom had definite views about gender and gender roles. They were typical of her era, so I give her a pass on some of them. But not all. These phrases frequently annoyed me, especially as I grew older and much more wary of gender stereotypes.

For example, I’ve written previously about how she admonished my sister and me to act “lady-like.”  I’m sure she thought that was the appropriate behavior for girl children.  But although the phrase didn’t bother me when I was younger, it later began to irritate me, especially when I had two daughters of my own, and the term “lady” assumed connotations I disagreed with.  But I don’t think Mom ever changed her thinking on that.

Her views on boys were distinctly different and bordered on stereotypical.

When a little kid acted up in her presence (and it was generally a boy), she’d refer to him as a “holy terror.”  She rarely referred to rambunctious girls that way.  But she might have.  (The prime example: My older sister, who later in life self-diagnosed as being a hyperactive child.  I know her behavior often created problems for my parents.)

Mom would frequently describe little boys she encountered as “all boy.”  I’m not really sure what she meant.  And as the mother of two daughters (as she was), her choice of words always struck me as rather strange.  Were girls ever “all girl?”  When?  Why?  And what made boys “all boy” to begin with?  I never challenged her on her use of this term and would just let it go.  But it still makes me wonder how she came up with it.

 

Let’s leave the gender issue for now and move on to the weather.

Living in Chicago, where we constantly faced extremes of heat and cold, most of us welcomed a warmer day that came along in late winter.  But Mom would often say, “It’s almost too warm.”  I guess she found the occasional warm day somewhat jarring in the middle of a cold spell.  But I was always delighted by that sort of change in the weather, and that phrase often made me laugh.

 

Now, on to the subject of time.

When we traveled, especially when we were driving somewhere in a car, Mom always relished “making good time.”  She meant that we were getting to our destination efficiently!  An admirable phrase, no?

But on other occasions she’d say, “Slow down.  We’ve got nothing but time.”  I generally disagreed with this point of view.  Always pursuing one goal or another, I’ve never felt I had “nothing but time.”  Quite the opposite.  And I’m afraid I still have the same outlook today.  But…maybe Mom was right, and I should slow down!

Slowing down might keep me from meeting some of my goals, but it would probably benefit my health.  I should keep in mind that one of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs begins this way:  “Slow down, you move too fast.  You got to make the morning last.”  Thanks, Paul Simon.  Mom definitely agreed with your thinking.

Speaking of “time,” Mom also liked to say that someone who wasn’t moving fast enough was “taking her sweet time.”  An example would be an employee in a retail store who helped customers in a poky fashion.  I sometimes think of that phrase when I see a pedestrian sauntering slowly across a busy intersection–sometimes looking at a cell phone instead of the traffic.  I’m often a pedestrian myself, and I resent careless drivers who barely let me cross an intersection safely before they make their turns.  (And I move fast.)  But when I’m driving, I find “saunterers” annoying.  They’re taking their sweet time!

I don’t think I ever encountered the “sweet time” phrase anywhere else…until I recently came across it in a short story, “Something to Remember Me By,” written by Nobel-prize-winning author Saul Bellow.  The narrator describes a character he’s watching this way:  “she simply took her sweet time about everything….”

That Mom and Saul Bellow used the same phrase doesn’t strike me as bizarre (as it might strike you) because the two of them were close in age, grew up in the same neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago (Humboldt Park, to be precise), and attended the same public high school.  Mom sometimes told me that she knew the Bellow family.  So when Bellow published Humboldt’s Gift (which I confess I’ve never read), I figured he chose the name Humboldt because of his origins in that neighborhood.  Maybe everyone who grew up there during that era also used the “sweet time” phrase.

 

Mom found certain things disturbing.  She and my father always followed politics, perhaps inspiring my lifelong interest in the political scene.  But Mom could get “all worked up” when things didn’t strike her the right way.  A devotee of daily newspapers and local TV news, she continued to follow politics into her 90s.  But she increasing got “all worked up” when she listened to officeholders orating on TV, stating policies she disagreed with.

Although I never used this phrase in the past, it resonates with me more and more. If I don’t hit the mute button fast enough and inadvertently hear the current occupant of the White House or his cohorts speaking on TV, I can easily get all worked up.

 

Other things that disturbed Mom made her feel “sick at heart.”  I haven’t used that phrase, but maybe I should.  It reflects the reality that disturbing events can make us feel deeply troubled, even affecting our physical well-being.

 

Switching topics:  When I would go shopping with Mom, usually on State Street in downtown Chicago (she always called that part of town “the Loop”), Mom’s admonitions came fast and furious.  A favorite was “Watch your purse!”  So from the time I was old enough to carry my own handbag, I would clutch it close to me.  The irony is that I never was a victim, but one day a thief opened Mom’s handbag on a CTA bus, and her wallet disappeared.  I remember collecting the wallet for Mom at the Woolworth’s store on State Street when it somehow turned up, money extracted.

In a way, this outcome wasn’t terribly surprising.  Despite her fear of thievery, Mom would carry the kind of handbag that could easily be opened.  Held over her arm the way the Queen of England invariably holds hers, it had the kind of clasp that could be flipped open in a millisecond.  I’ve always preferred shoulder bags with zipper closures that I can hold next to my body, making them difficult to pilfer.  Now I frequently wear crossbody bags that discourage thievery even more.

Another downtown phrase:  In the enormous women’s restroom on the 3rd floor (or was it the 4th?) of Marshall Field’s vast State Street Store, Mom would always say “Flush with your foot!”  I guess the toilets were the kind that featured a flushing mechanism one could operate that way.  Mom’s concern with bacteria was always front and center.

 

This concern related to household matters:  When I was older and my family and I had our own home, Mom would frequently visit us there.  She almost always made clear that she disapproved of my housekeeping (which admittedly has–throughout my lifetime–been abysmal).  Mom would offer to help, but as she got older, I wouldn’t let her do anything.  Accustomed to doing her own household chores with tremendous zeal, she would throw up her hands (figuratively), and after a while she’d tell me that she was “tired from sitting.”

Mom may have been onto something.  Research has shown that simply sitting is in fact unhealthy.  Mom’s instincts were right.

Mom also insisted that my daughters help me with household chores.  She would often tell them, “You can’t be lazy.”  This phrase relates to another literary reference:  In a story written by Nobel-prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer (published in a collection of stories titled The Power of Light), Singer sets the scene in an old-world home. He quotes an elder who explains his view of miracles:  “The truth is that miracles were rare in all times.  If too many miracles occurred, people would rely on them too much.  Free choice would cease.  The Powers on High want [people] to do things, make an effort, not to be lazy.”

So it seems that Mom was borrowing the wisdom of the elders when she told us not to be lazy.

Today, my older daughter and I repeat Mom’s phrase to her two daughters, my delightful granddaughters.  Like Cinderella’s stepsisters, they would prefer to lie abed and have someone else do things like laundry and straightening up.  Let’s face it, I’m very much of the same mind.  I do as little as possible to make my home neat and tidy.

But Mom’s phrase often comes back to haunt me, and I remind myself, as well as my granddaughters, that you can’t be lazy!

 

So…when you find yourself repeating phrases your parents liked to use, remember that a great many of them have stood the test of time and can be repeated today, as well as in their day, with the same positive effect.

Don’t be reluctant to use those phrases in your own conversation.  They may sometimes seem old-fashioned, no longer worth repeating because they’re out of date.

Still and all…they may say exactly what you want to say.

And before you know it, our kids will be doing the very same thing.

 

 

Munching on Meatloaf

Meatloaf, that old standby, has just acquired a new cachet.  Or has it?

A recent column by Frank Bruni in The New York Times focused on food snobs, in particular their ridicule of Donald Trump’s love of meatloaf.  Weeks earlier, Trump had “forced Chris Christie to follow his lead at a White House lunch and eat meatloaf, which the president praised as his favorite item on the menu.”

According to Bruni, a former restaurant critic, news coverage of the lunch “hinted that Trump wasn’t merely a bully but also a rube.  What grown-up could possibly be so fond of this retro, frumpy dish?”

Bruni’s answer:  “Um, me.  I serve meatloaf at dinner parties.  I devoted a whole cookbook to it.”

Allow me to join forces with Frank Bruni.  Putting aside my general negativity towards all things Trump, I have to admit I’m fond of meatloaf, too.

My recollections of eating meatloaf go back to the dining-room table in our West Rogers Park apartment in the 1950s.  My mother was never an enthusiastic cook.  She prepared meals for us with a minimal degree of joy, no doubt wishing she could spend her time on other pursuits.  It was simply expected of her, as the wife and mother in our mid-century American family, to come up with some sort of breakfast, lunch, and dinner nearly every day.

Breakfasts rarely featured much more than packaged cereal and milk.  I remember putting a dusting of sugar on corn flakes—something I haven’t done since childhood.  Did we add fresh fruit to our cereal?  Not very often.  We might have added raisins.   But fresh fruit, like the abundant blueberries and strawberries we can now purchase all year long, wasn’t available in Chicago grocery stores during our long cold ‘50s winters.  At least not in our income bracket.

Daddy occasionally made breakfast on the weekends.  I remember watching him standing in front of our ‘30s-style mint green enamel-covered stove, whipping up his specialty, onions and eggs, with aplomb.  But those highly-anticipated breakfasts were rare.

[I recently discovered that stoves like that one are still available.  They’re advertised online by a “retro décor lover’s dream resource” in Burbank, as well as on eBay, where an updated model is currently listed for $4,495.]

As for lunch, my public grade school compelled us to walk home for lunch every day.  Only a handful of sub-zero days broke that mold.  Our school had no cafeteria, or even a lunchroom, where kids could eat in frigid weather.  Only on alarmingly cold days were we permitted to bring a lunch from home and eat it in the school auditorium.  If we pleaded convincingly enough, our parents might let us buy greasy hamburgers at Miller’s School Store.

Most days I’d walk home, trudging the six long blocks from school to home and back within an hour. Mom would have lunch waiting for me on our breakfast-room table, mostly sandwiches and the occasional soup.  Mom rarely made her own soup.  She generally opened cans of Campbell’s “vegetable vegetarian,” eschewing canned soups that included any possibility of unknown meat.

Mom’s dinner specialties included iceberg-lettuce salads, cooked veggies and/or potatoes, and a protein of some kind.  Because of her upbringing, she invariably chose fish, poultry, or cuts of meats like ground beef, beef brisket, and lamb chops.

Which brings us to meatloaf.

I must have liked Mom’s meatloaf because I don’t have a single negative memory associated with it.  And when I got married and began preparing meals for my own family, I never hesitated to make meatloaf myself.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to prepare dinner every night.  I was immensely lucky to marry a man who actually enjoyed cooking.  Although I inherited my mother’s reluctance to spend much time in the kitchen, Herb relished preparing elaborate gourmet dishes á la Julia Child—in fact, he often used her cookbook—and proudly presenting them to our daughters and me whenever his schedule allowed.

But when I was the cook, meatloaf was one of my favorite choices.  I’d buy lean ground beef, add breadcrumbs, ketchup, and assorted herbs and spices, mix it all together with my bare hands, and heat the finished product until it was just right.  Aware by then of warnings about high-fat red meat, I’d carefully remove my loaf pan from the oven and scrupulously drain as much fat from the pan as I could.  The result?  A tasty and relatively low-fat dish.  My family loved it.

At some point I discovered the glories of leftover meatloaf.  Chilled in the fridge overnight, it made a toothsome sandwich the next day.  It was especially good on rye bread and loaded with ketchup.  Wrapped in a plastic baggie, it would go from home to wherever I traveled to work, and I had to use my most stalwart powers of self-discipline to wait till lunchtime to bite into its deliciousness.

Those days are sadly over.  I rarely prepare dinner for my family anymore, and my consumption of meat products has gone way down.  Most days, when I reflect on what I’ve eaten, I realize that, more often than not, I’ve unknowingly eaten a wholly vegetarian diet.

I haven’t eaten meatloaf in years.  But hearing about Trump’s penchant for it has awakened my tastebuds.  If I could just get my hands on a tasty low-fat version like the one I used to make, my long meatloaf-drought might finally be over.

The Pink Lady

When I was growing up, my mother’s cocktail of choice was a “pink lady.” Whenever our family went out for dinner (and those dinners-out didn’t happen often), she’d order a frothy and very rosy-hued “pink lady” while Daddy chose an “old-fashioned.”

My parents weren’t everyday drinkers. Au contraire. My mother would sometimes speak disparagingly of those who indulged overmuch in alcoholic beverages, referring to them as “shikkers.” Although Daddy may have had an occasional drink at home after a difficult day at work (probably bourbon or another kind of whiskey), Mom never did. She reserved her pursuit of alcohol for our occasional dinners-out.

One dinner spot we favored was the Fireside Restaurant in Lincolnwood, Illinois, not far from our apartment on the Far North Side of Chicago. (Ironically, the restaurant was itself destroyed by fire–reputedly by mob-related arson–a few years later.) Another place we patronized was Phil Smidt’s (which everyone pronounced like “Schmidt’s”), located just over the Indiana border.

Why did we travel to Indiana for dinner when good food was undoubtedly available to us much closer to home? And long before an interstate highway connected Chicago to Northern Indiana? I remember a prolonged and very slow trip on surface streets and maybe a small highway or two whenever we headed to Phil Smidt’s.

Perhaps we wound up there because the restaurant was a perennial favorite among the people my parents knew. Or perhaps because my father actually enjoyed driving. Yes, Daddy liked getting behind the wheel in those long-ago days before everyone had a car and the roads weren’t jam-packed with other drivers. Daddy got a kick out of driving us in every direction from our home on Sunday afternoons, when traffic was especially light. But I also remember his frustration with drivers who didn’t seem to know where they were going. He referred to them as “farmers,” implying that they were wide-eyed rural types unaccustomed to city driving.

Perhaps we headed to Indiana because my parents were overly enthusiastic about the fare offered at Phil Smidt’s. As I recall, the place was famous for fried perch and fried chicken. I usually opted for the fried chicken. (At the Fireside Restaurant, my first choice was French-fried shrimp. Dinners-out seemed to involve a lot of fried food back then, and oh, my poor arteries.)

If we were celebrating a special event, like my mother’s birthday or Mother’s Day, Mom would wear a corsage. I’ve never been especially fond of corsages, which were de rigueur during my high school prom-going days. Boys would bring their dates a corsage, and girls were expected to ooh and aah over them. But I always thought corsages were a highly artificial way to display fresh flowers, and I rejected them whenever I had a choice. I’m glad social norms have evolved to diminish the wearing of corsages like those women and girls formerly felt compelled to wear.

Mom, however, always seemed pleased to wear the corsage Daddy gave her. Her favorite flower was the gardenia, and its strong scent undoubtedly wafted its way toward her elegantly shaped nose whenever he pinned one on her dress.

The “pink lady” cocktail, which incorporates gin as its basic ingredient, first appeared early in the 20th century. Some speculate that its name was inspired by a 1911 Broadway musical whose name and whose star were both called “The Pink Lady.”   It may have become popular during Prohibition, when the gin available was so dreadful that people added flavors like grenadine to obscure its bad taste.

The cocktail evolved into a number of different varieties over the years. Mom’s frothy version, around since the 1920s, adds sweet cream to the usual recipe of gin, grenadine (which provides flavoring and the pink color), and egg white.

Apparently (and not surprisingly), the drink eventually acquired a “feminine” image, both because of its name and because its sweet and creamy content wasn’t viewed as “masculine” enough in the eyes of male critics. One bartender also speculated that the non-threatening appearance of the “pink lady” probably was a major reason why it appealed to women who had limited experience with alcohol.

No doubt Mom was one of those women.

The very name of the cocktail, the “pink lady,” fit Mom to a T. She was absolutely determined to be a “lady” in every way and to instill “lady-like” behavior in her two daughters. I was frequently admonished to repress my most rambunctious ways by being told I wasn’t being lady-like. And when I had two daughters of my own, decades later, despite my strong opposition she still repeated the same admonition. She found it hard to shift gears and approve of her granddaughters’ behaving in what she viewed as a non-lady-like way. Although her basic sweetness, like that of her favorite drink, predominated in our relationship, we did differ on issues like that one.

The appellation of “pink lady” fit Mom in another way as well. She was a redhead whose fair skin would easily flush, lending a pink hue to her appearance. Whenever she was agitated (sometimes because my sister or I provoked her)…or whenever she excitedly took pride in one of our accomplishments…and assuredly whenever she was out in the sun too long, she literally turned pink.

So here’s to you, Pink Lady. In my memory, you’ll always resemble the very pink and very sweet cocktail you preferred.