Category Archives: The Wall Street Journal

Declare Your Independence: Those high heels are killers

Following a tradition I began several years ago, I’m once again encouraging women to declare their independence this July 4th and abandon wearing high-heeled shoes. 

I’ve revised this post in light of changes that have taken place during the past year.

My newly revised post follows:

I’ve long maintained that high heels are killers.  I never used that term literally, of course.  I merely viewed high-heeled shoes as distinctly uncomfortable and an outrageous concession to the dictates of fashion that can lead to both pain and permanent damage to a woman’s body. 

A few years ago, however, high heels proved to be actual killers.  The Associated Press reported that two women, ages 18 and 23, were killed in Riverside, California, as they struggled in high heels to get away from a train.  With their car stuck on the tracks, the women attempted to flee as the train approached.  A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly.” 

During the past year, one dominated by the global pandemic, many women and men adopted different ways to clothe themselves.  Sweatpants and other comfortable clothing became popular.  [Please see my post, “Two Words,” published July 15, 2020, focusing on wearing pants with elastic waists.]

In particular, many women abandoned the wearing of high heels.  Staying close to home, wearing comfortable clothes, they saw no need to push their feet into high heels.  Venues requiring professional clothes or footwear almost disappeared, and few women chose to seek out venues requiring any sort of fancy clothes or footwear.  

As the pandemic has loosened its grip, at least in many parts of the country, some women have been tempted to return to their previous choice of footwear.  The prospect of a renaissance in high-heeled shoe-wearing has been noted in publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.   In a recent story in the Times, one woman “flicked the dust off her…high-heeled lavender pumps” that she’d put away for months and got ready to wear them to a birthday gathering.  According to the Times, some are seeking “the joy of dressing up…itching…to step up their style game in towering heels.”

Okay.  I get it.  “Dressing up” may be your thing after more than a year of relying on sweatpants.  But “towering heels”?  They may look beautiful, they may be alluring….

BUT don’t do it!  Please take my advice and don’t return to wearing the kind of shoes that will hobble you once again..

Like the unfortunate young women in Riverside, I was sucked into wearing high heels when I was a teenager.  It was de rigueur for girls at my high school to seek out the trendy shoe stores on State Street in downtown Chicago and purchase whichever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford.  On my first visit, I was entranced by the three-inch-heeled numbers that pushed my toes into a too-narrow space and revealed them in what I thought was a highly provocative position.  If feet can have cleavage, those shoes gave me cleavage.

Never mind that my feet were encased in a vise-like grip.  Never mind that I walked unsteadily on the stilts beneath my soles.  And never mind that my whole body was pitched forward in an ungainly manner as I propelled myself around the store.  I liked the way my legs looked in those shoes, and I had just enough baby-sitting money to pay for them.  Now I could stride with pride to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear like all the other girls’.

That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I’d made.  When the event was over, I found myself stranded in a distant location with no ride home, and I started walking to the nearest bus stop.  After a few steps, it was clear that my shoes were killers.  I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the pain became so great that I removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.

After that painful lesson, I abandoned three-inch high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing lower ones.   Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively, but I nevertheless managed to secure ample male attention. 

Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully and happily fended off the back pain, foot pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters often suffer in spades.

Until the pandemic changed our lives, I observed a trend toward higher and higher heels, and I found it troubling.  I was baffled by women, especially young women, who bought into the mindset that they had to follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy” by wearing extremely high heels.  

When I’d watch TV, I’d see too many women wearing stilettos that forced them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago.  I couldn’t help noticing the women on late-night TV shows who were otherwise smartly attired and often very smart (in the other sense of the word), yet wore ridiculously high heels that forced them to greet their hosts with that same ungainly walk.  Some appeared to be almost on the verge of toppling over. 

On one of the last in-person Oscar Awards telecasts (before they became virtual), women tottered to the stage in ultra-high heels, often accompanied by escorts who kindly held onto them to prevent their embarrassing descent into the orchestra pit.

So…what about the women, like me, who adopted lower-heeled shoes instead?  I think we’ve been much smarter and much less likely to fall on our faces.

Foot-care professionals have soundly supported my view.   According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, a heel that’s more than 2 or 3 inches makes comfort just about impossible.  Why?  Because a 3-inch heel creates seven times more stress than a 1-inch heel.

A couple of years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle questioned Dr. Amol Saxena, a podiatrist and foot and ankle surgeon who practiced in Palo Alto (and assisted Nike’s running team).  He explained that after 1.5 inches, the pressure increases on the ball of the foot and can lead to “ball-of-the-foot numbness.”  (Yikes!)  He did not endorse wearing 3-inch heels and pointed out that celebrities wear them for only a short time, not all day.  To ensure a truly comfortable shoe, he added, no one should go above a 1.5-inch heel.  If you insist on wearing higher heels, you should limit how much time you spend in them.

Before the pandemic, some encouraging changes were afoot.  Nordstrom, one of America’s major shoe-sellers, began to promote lower-heeled styles along with higher-heeled numbers.  I was encouraged because Nordstrom is a bellwether in the fashion world, and its choices can influence shoe-seekers.  At the same time, I wondered whether Nordstrom was reflecting what its shoppers had already told the stores’ decision-makers.  The almighty power of the purse—how shoppers were choosing to spend their money–probably played a big role.

But the pandemic may have completely changed the dynamics of shoe-purchasing.  Once we faced the reality of the pandemic, and it then stuck around for months, sales of high heels languished, “teetering on the edge of extinction,” according to the Times

Today, with the pandemic a somewhat less frightening presence in our lives, there are undoubtedly women who will decide to resurrect the high heels already in their closets.  They, and others, may be inspired to buy new ones, dramatically changing the statistics—and their well-being.

I hope these women don’t act in haste.  Beyond the issue of comfort, let’s remember that high heels present a far more serious problem.  As the deaths in Riverside demonstrate, women who wear high heels can be putting their lives at risk.  When they need to flee a dangerous situation, high heels can handicap their ability to escape.

How many needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?

The Fourth of July is fast approaching.  As we celebrate the holiday this year, I once again urge the women of America to declare their independence from high-heeled shoes. 

If you’re currently thinking about returning to painful footwear, think again.  You’d be wiser to reconsider.

I encourage you to bravely gather any high heels you’ve clung to during the pandemic and throw those shoes away.  At the very least, please keep them out of sight in the back of your closet.  And don’t even think about buying new ones.  Shod yourself instead in shoes that allow you to walk in comfort—and if need be, to run.

Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.

[Earlier versions of this commentary appeared on Susan Just Writes and the San Francisco Chronicle.]

Two Words

Do you remember this scene in the 1967 film “The Graduate”?

New college graduate Benjamin encounters a friend of his father’s at a party.  The friend pulls him aside and says, “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.  Plastics.”

That advice may have helped college grads in ‘67, but the world we face today is very different.

In light of the raging global pandemic, and the stress it’s placed on all of us, I now have two words for you.  Elastic waists.

Many of us have recently begun wearing clothes with elastic waists.

On June 26, The Wall Street Journal noted:  “The Covid 15 Have Made Our Clothes Too Tight.”  Reporter Suzanne Kapner clearly outlined the problem.  “People spent the spring sheltering at home in sweatpants, perfecting banana-bread recipes and indulging in pandemic-induced stress-eating.”  And while most of us have escaped Covid-19, we haven’t escaped the “Covid 15”—the weight-gain pushing Americans into “roomier wardrobes.”

Hence the widespread adoption of elastic waists.

Many shoppers have jumped on the scale, been horrified, and concluded that they needed to buy new clothes to fit their new shapes.  One woman, unable to zip up her pants, got on her scale.  “Holy moly,” she told Kapner, “I gained 11 pounds in three weeks.”

Kapner cited more evidence:  First, Google-searches for “elastic waist” have spiked. Further, body-measuring apps have reported a jump in people choosing looser fits to accommodate their new profiles.  As the CEO of one such app observed, people are “sizing up” because they’ve gained weight.  Less active and more confined, they’re “eating more, either out of stress or boredom.”

In light of this phenomenon, some retailers are increasing orders of clothes in bigger sizes.  They’re also painfully aware of something else:  the rise in returns because of size-changes.  Returns have probably doubled in the past three months, according to a software company that processes returns for over 200 brands. And when customers order a clothing item (in their former size), and it needs to be exchanged for a larger size, those retailers who offer free shipping and free returns find that all of these additional returns are eating into their profits.

This move into larger sizes and elastic waists doesn’t surprise me.  I long ago adopted wearing pants with elastic waists.  Not all of my pants, to be sure.  But many of them.

It probably started when I was pregnant with my first child.  As my abdominal area began to expand, I searched my closet and came across some skirts and pants with elastic waistbands.  I discovered that I could wear these throughout my pregnancy, adding extra elastic as needed.  I bought some maternity clothes as well, but the pants with those stretchy elastic waistbands allowed me to avoid buying a lot of new items.

Over the years, I’ve continued to wear elastic-waist pants, enjoying the comfort they afford.  (Yes, I also wear pants and jeans with stitched-down waistbands that fit me.)

I can understand why there’s a new emphasis on buying elastic waists in lieu of bigger sizes.  A bigger size might be OK for right now, but you probably hope to return to your former size sometime.  Elastic waists are exactly what they claim to be:  elastic.  That means they can expand, but they can also contract.

Both women and men can benefit from wearing elastic waists, at least until they’ve shed the additional pounds they’ve recently acquired.

Many women have traditionally turned to elastic waists because they don’t have the typical “hourglass” shape women are expected to sport.  They have what’s been called an “apple” shape, with a somewhat larger waist measurement than most women have.  In the past, they might have purchased clothes with a tight waistband and then had a tailor make the waistband bigger.

But right now, tailoring clothes is almost impossible. Who’s leaving the safety of home simply to find a tailor to alter a waistband?  The pandemic has put such tailoring out of reach for most of us.  And if an elastic waist makes it unnecessary, it’s saving you the trouble and expense of seeking out a tailor.

Men with expanding waists have also benefited from elastic waists.  The popularity of sweatpants and other casual wear with elastic waists for men are proof of that.

I recognize the role stress is playing in our lives right now, and it’s pretty obvious that we can attribute some weight-gain to the increased level of stress.  So, to avoid buying more and more elastic waists and/or bigger sizes, we need to reduce stress as much as we can.

The advice we’ve all heard for a long time still holds, and it probably applies now more than ever.  At the risk of sounding preachy, I’m adding a few new tips to the tried-and-true list.  (Feel free to skip it if you think you’ve heard it all before.)

  • Be more physically active. Please remember:  You don’t need to go to a gym or even do vigorous workouts at home.  Simply taking a fairly fast-paced stroll in your neighborhood is good enough.
  • Avoid fixating on TV news, especially the bad stuff.
  • Watch distracting TV programing instead (this includes reliably funny films like “Some Like It Hot” and “What’s Up, Doc?” if you can find them).
  • Play music that makes you happy.
  • Connect with friends and family by phone, email, or text (or by writing actual letters).
  • Give meditation a try, just in case it may help you.
  • Try to follow a diet focused on fresh fruit, veggies, high-fiber carbs, and lean protein.
  • Curl up with a good book. (Forgive me for plugging my three novels,* but each one is a fast read and can take you to a different time and place, a definitely helpful distraction.)

Although I admit that I’m still wearing the elastic waists I already own, I’ve so far been able to avoid the “Covid 15” that might require buying new ones.  What’s helped me?

First, briskly walking in my neighborhood for 30 minutes every day.  Second, resisting the lure of chocolate as much I can.  Instead, I’ve been relying on heaps of fruits, veggies, popcorn, pretzels, and sugarless gum.  (My chief indulgences are peanut butter and fig bars.)  It’s as simple as that.

Maybe you can avoid it, too.  Good luck!

 

*A Quicker Blood, Jealous Mistress, and Red Diana are all available as paperbacks and e-books on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

No More Sweethearts?

The demise of the ever-popular Sweethearts, Valentine’s Day heart-shaped candy that featured messages like “BE MINE” and “TRUE LOVE,” has surprised almost everyone.

The company that has been selling them to the public since 1902, Necco, went out of business last year.  As a result, the perennial conversation hearts are no longer rolling off conveyor belts.

According to The Wall Street Journal, some fans of the candy hearts have resorted to the black market to buy up the last few batches they could get their hands on.  Even some teenagers are reportedly bummed to see them go.

Please don’t count me among these fans.  I always found Necco hearts sickeningly sweet and almost chalky whenever I bit into one.  Instead, I’ve unashamedly preferred candy hearts made of chocolate.  Any kind of chocolate.

But the news about Necco hearts has reminded me of a treasured family story.  Growing up in a modest home in East Cleveland, my husband Herb exhibited his smarts very early in life. The smarts that later propelled him from East Cleveland to a scholarship at Harvard College, a Ph.D. at Berkeley, and the life of a math professor at several leading universities.

Herb would tell me that when he was a little boy, he liked being pulled around in his red-painted wooden wagon by a neighborhood kid who was happy to do it in return for Necco wafers. Doling out the pastel-colored wafers like shiny pennies, Herb happily rode around the neighborhood in his wagon as it was pulled by the other kid.

If your first reaction is dismay that a young boy may have exploited his neighbor by giving him candy wafers in return for a cool ride in his wooden wagon, please step back for a moment.  The situation was really a win-win for both boys, probably an agreement reached at arms’ length.  Herb got his joyful wagon ride while his neighbor got a joyful bunch of candy wafers in return.

When Necco’s financial troubles led it to close its factory last summer, another candy company bought Sweehearts, Necco wafers, and some other brands.  The new company, Spangler, couldn’t ramp up production of the hearts in time for this Valentine’s Day, but it may produce them next year.

I can wait.  But if you want to tell me that I “LOOK GOOD” and that you “LOVE ME,” please don’t wait for production of Sweethearts to begin again.  Just go ahead and tell me.  Those messages are still as welcome as ever.

 

 

 

Let’s keep going as long as we can

One thing everyone can agree on:  Every single day, we’re all getting older.

But we don’t have to let that indisputable fact stop us from doing what we want to do.

I just came across a spectacular example of a 96-year-old scientist who keeps on going and going and going….

By sheer coincidence, he’s a man who’s worked for decades in the field of battery speed and capacity.  And he’s very much more than good enough to serve as an astounding example of enduring optimism and hard work.

A Wall Street Journal story in August profiled John Goodenough, who helped invent the lithium-ion battery that’s used to recharge cell phones and a host of other electronic products.  By introducing lithium cobalt oxide to the inner workings of batteries in 1980, he made batteries not only more powerful but also more portable.

At age 96, he now wants to kill off his own creation by removing the cobalt that allowed his battery to charge faster and last longer.  In April 2018, he and three co-authors published research that may lead to a new battery that’s liquid-free and cobalt-free.

Initial research shows that the new battery could potentially double the energy density of the lithium-ion battery.  That would mean that an electric car, for example, could drive twice as far on one charge.

“My mission is to try to see if I can transform the battery world before I die,” Dr. Goodenough says.  He added that he has no plans to retire.  “When I’m no longer able to drive and I’m forced to go into a nursing home, then I suppose I will be retiring.”

Goodenough works in an untidy office at the University of Texas in Austin, where he’s a professor of engineering.  He begins work between 8 and 8:30 a.m., leaves around 6 p.m., and works from home throughout the weekend.

He hand-writes his research and doesn’t own a cell phone, rejecting the mobile technology that his batteries made possible.  His car is a 10-year-old Honda that he hopes will last as long as he does.

His motivation is to help electric cars wean society off its dependence on the combustion engine, like the one in his Honda.

“He is driven by scientific curiosity, and he really wants to do something for society with the science he does,” says one of his colleagues, another engineering professor at UT, Arumugam Manthiram.

Isn’t it heartening to come across someone like John Goodenough, a remarkable human being who refuses to quit?

His story energizes me.  Although I’m considerably younger than Goodenough, it encourages me to pursue my passions no matter how old I get.

Does his story energize you, too?

 

[This blog post is somewhat shorter than usual because I’m currently in the midst of publishing my third novel, RED DIANA.  I’m hoping it will be available soon at bookstores everywhere and on Amazon.com.]

 

The Summer of Love and Other Random Thoughts

  1.  The CEO pay ratio is now 271-to-1.

 According to the Economic Policy Institute’s annual report on executive compensation, released on July 20, chief executives of America’s 350 largest companies made an average of $15.6 million in 2016, or 271 times more than what the typical worker made last year.

The number was slightly lower than it was in 2015, when the average pay was $16.3 million, and the ratio was 286-to-1.   And it was even lower than the highest ratio calculated, 376-to-1 in 2000.

But before we pop any champagne corks because of the slightly lower number, let’s recall that in 1989, after eight years of Ronald Reagan in the White House, the ratio was 59-to-1, and in 1965, in the midst of the Vietnam War and civil rights turmoil, it was 20-to-1.

Let’s reflect on those numbers for a moment.  Just think about how distorted these ratios are and what they say about our country.

Did somebody say “income inequality”?

[This report appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 21, 2017.]

 

  1. Smiling

 I’ve written in this blog, at least once before, about the positive results of smiling.  [Please see “If You’re Getting Older, You May Be Getting Nicer,” published on May 30, 2014.]

But I can’t resist adding one more item about smiling.  In a story in The Wall Street Journal in June, a cardiologist named Dr. John Day wrote about a woman, aged 107, whom he met in the small city of Bapan, China.  Bapan is known as “Longevity Village” because so many of its people are centenarians (one for every 100 who live there; the average in the U.S. is one in 5,780).

Day asked the 107-year-old woman how she reached her advanced age.  Noting that she was always smiling, he asked if she smiled even through the hard times in her life.  She replied, “Those are the times in which smiling is most important, don’t you agree?”

Day added the results of a study published in Psychological Science in 2010.  It showed that baseball players who smiled in their playing-card photographs lived seven years longer, on average, than those who looked stern.

So, he wrote, “The next time you’re standing in front of a mirror, grin at yourself.  Then make that a habit.”

[Dr. Day’s article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on June 24-25, 2017.]

 

  1. The Summer of Love

This summer, San Francisco is awash in celebrations of the “Summer of Love,” the name attached to the city’s summer of 1967.   Fifty years later, the SF Symphony, the SF Jazz Center, a bunch of local theaters, even the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, have all presented their own take on it.

Most notably, “The Summer of Love Experience,” an exhibit at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, is a vivid display of the music, artwork, and fashions that popped up in San Francisco that summer.

As a happy denizen of San Francisco for the past 12 years, I showed up at the de Young to see the exhibit for myself.

My favorite part of the exhibit was the sometimes outrageous fashions artfully displayed on an array of mannequins.  Not surprisingly, they included a healthy representation of denim.  Some items were even donated by the Levi’s archives in San Francisco.  [Please see the reference to Levi’s in my post, “They’re My Blue Jeans and I’ll Wear Them If I Want To,” published in May.]

Other fashions featured colorful beads, crochet, appliqué, and embroidery, often on silk, velvet, leather, and suede.  Maybe it was my favorite part of the exhibit because I’ve donated clothing from the same era to the Chicago History Museum, although my own clothing choices back then were considerably different.

Other highlights in the exhibit were perfectly preserved psychedelic posters featuring rock groups like The Grateful Dead, The Doors, and Moby Grape, along with record album covers and many photographs taken in San Francisco during the summer of 1967.  Joan Baez made an appearance as well, notably with her two sisters in a prominently displayed anti-Vietnam War poster.  Rock and roll music of the time is the constant background music for the entire exhibit.

In 1967, I may have been vaguely aware of San Francisco’s Summer of Love, but I was totally removed from it.  I’d just graduated from law school, and back in Chicago, I was immersed in studying for the Illinois bar exam.  I’d also begun to show up in the chambers of Judge Julius J. Hoffman, the federal district judge for whom I’d be a law clerk for the next two years.  [Judge Hoffman will be the subject of a future post or two.]

So although the whole country was hearing news stories about the antics of the thousands of hippies who flocked to Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, my focus was on my life in Chicago, with minimal interest in what was happening 2000 miles away.  For that reason, much of the exhibit at the de Young was brand-new to me.

The curators of the exhibit clearly chose to emphasize the creativity of the art, fashion, and music of the time.  At the same time, the exhibit largely ignores the downside of the Summer of Love—the widespread use of drugs, the unpleasant changes that took place in the quiet neighborhood around Haight-Ashbury, the problems created by the hordes of young people who filled Golden Gate Park.

But I was glad I saw it–twice.

You may decide to come to San Francisco to see this exhibit for yourself.

If you do, please don’t forget:  “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”