Friday, June 28, 2019

No More Spanish, por favor!

I was in a state of dread watching the second Democratic debate last night, fearing that the candidates would feel obliged to follow in the steps of Beto O'Rourke and Cory Booker the night before, and break into Spanish.

On the first night, when those two stammered their few ungrammatical, mostly incomprehensible sentences in the language of Cervantes, I cringed. And then I got angry. Did Booker and O'Rourke really think that the Hispanic population would be so swept away by hearing them mumble a couple of sentences in Spanish that they would forget to examine the candidates' records and their policies? How much more patronizing can you get?

Julián Castro also said a few things in Spanish, but they came more naturally to him, by reason of his heritage. Nevertheless, I find the habit of larding speeches with foreign sentences in order to manipulate the emotions of a certain population silly at best--sort of like a male candidate attempting to capture the women's vote by dressing in drag.

Language is a powerful thing. When I hear on the news the voices of captive immigrant children crying mamá! papá! it brings tears to my eyes, because those are the names I called my parents as a child. I remember myself newly arrived in the U.S., and I imagine being separated from them. But when I hear Spanish badly used for political effect, I don't feel flattered or included. I feel insulted.

Still, this is a crucial moment in politics, and I am pragmatic enough to recognize that a candidate may have to resort to less than pristine tactics in order to win. So I suggest that, with the use of Spanish, brevity is best, as when Julián Castro wrapped up his remarks by promising that, on January 20, 2021, we will say adiós to Donald Trump.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

My Corsetiere

When I was around twelve years old, my brain was still firmly anchored in the clear waters of childhood, but the winds of puberty were blowing my body towards the foreign shores of womanhood. I had the mind and manner of a child in the body of a woman, which means that I looked odd at best, and slightly mentally retarded at worst. Braids and breasts, acne and hairy legs—that was me on the threshold of adolescence.

My mother, not sure what to do about this phenomenon that was unfolding in her midst, decided that what I needed was a girdle. But we were living in Quito at the time, and you couldn’t simply go to a store and buy a girdle. Everything had to be made by hand.

Fortunately, there lived in the old part of town, between a gilded baroque church and the market where Indian women squatted on the sidewalk, selling meat and vegetables, a corsetière. She was a middle-aged Jewish lady from somewhere in central Europe, one of the many who had fled the Nazis to South America. She looked formidable to me, with her gray hair in a bun, her sturdy lace-up shoes and that tightly corseted, moving-from-the-hips look that you never see in older women anymore.

She had me take off my skirt and, mumbling and clucking to herself in a language I didn’t understand, took my measurements. Several weeks later, the girdle was ready. It was a pink satin construction with bands of flesh-colored, rubbery fabric. It encased me from about three inches above the waist to mid-thigh, and when I tried it on I felt that I would never breathe, let alone walk again.

 “It’s too tight,” I complained.

“You wish to be beautiful, yes?” the corsetière asked me. I nodded. “Then you must suffer,” she said, tugging the girdle in place and winking at my mother.

From time immemorial, garments intended to compress the female form were stiffened with whalebone, or baleen, the strong, pliable strips of keratin in a whale’s mouth that filter krill out of the water. My corsetière, being modern, had foregone baleen in favor of two narrow, flat, flexible metal shafts that ran the length of the girdle, on either side of my abdomen. They were concealed by a strip of closely stitched pink fabric, so I didn’t know they were there, though I noticed that when I peeled off the garment it resisted folding and would spring back at me, like something alive.

I was disappointed in the girdle. The corsetière had not attached garters, since my mother thought I was too young for stockings, and without stockings to help keep it in place, it tended to ride up as I climbed the tree in our backyard, or ran up the stairs. Absent stockings, the girdle’s value as an emblem of adulthood was zero, since nobody could tell I was wearing it.

The girdle also made me very, very hot. Years later, in preparation for marriage, my future mother in law gave me Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, in which, along with instructions on table settings and “the art of tipping,” I read that a proper lady should change her girdle at least twice a day. By then it was the 1960s, and landfills across the land were overflowing with the discarded girdles of my generation, but remembering how much I’d sweated in that old girdle, I could see Amy V’s point.

Much to my relief, my first girdle did not last. Sitting in the backseat of our old Dodge one day, I bent to tie my shoelace and felt a sudden sharp stab into the soft flesh of my belly. I screamed.  My mother twisted around from the front seat “What? What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know. I think something bit me. Something big,” I said. Ecuador abounded in large, appalling-looking bugs, and I lived in fear of them.

My father pulled over to the side of the road and my mother got out. She unbuttoned the waistband of my skirt, pulled up my blouse, rolled down the top of my girdle and discovered the cause of the pain: one of the metal stays had broken, pierced the fabric casing, and stabbed me in the abdomen. On the way home, I had to stretch out on the back seat and lie still, because whenever I sat up the girdle would stab me all over again.

Later, my mother tried to mend the tear, but the stay kept poking through, and she finally relented and let me throw the girdle away. But in later years, whenever I underwent discomfort for the sake of looking good—burning my neck with a curling iron, say, or squeezing into too-tight jeans--I would recall the fateful words of my corsetière, “You wish to be beautiful, yes? Then you must suffer.”

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


I’m pretty much o.k. with looking my age, whatever that means. I don’t dye my hair or have bits of my anatomy surgically lifted, but I do try, whenever possible, to avoid decking myself out in the emblems of past eras, such as bubble hairdos, pillbox hats, and cadaverously pale lipstick.

In the mid-twentieth century, as we girls reached puberty we were given a series of objects that marked our progress towards womanhood: first pair of heels, first girdle, first razor, first strand of pearls. The pearls—real, cultured, or artificial-- were usually gifts from parents or grandparents, a single strand to encircle our youthful necks on special occasions.

My generation didn’t get much use out of our pearls. By the mid-sixties, “serious” jewelry had given way to ethnic and artisanal adornments. We wore chandelier-like earrings that hung down to our clavicles, paper mache bracelets, and bizarre beads and amulets in lieu of pearls.

I still have my pearls. They sleep in a box, wrapped like mummies in a lace doily crocheted by my father’s mother. Sometimes I take them out and look at them. Almost certainly man-made, the pearls are a mellow ivory color, and they have kept their looks over the decades, without peeling or losing their luster. They feel heavy in my hand and, on the rare occasions when I put them on, pleasantly cool on my skin.

I like pearls. They go with everything. They are almost alive, “breathing” air and moisture and changing color with the years and the wearer’s chemistry. The better kind of artificial pearls get their luster from a concoction of fish scales slathered on a glass sphere, so they react to their environment in much the same way as their oyster-made cousins.

In Colette’s novel, Chéri, the courtesan Léa wears her magnificent “rope” of rosy pearls to bed with her lover. If I lived on a desert island, I too would wear my little strand round the clock. But I live in Vermont, where, for good reason, the atmosphere is ultra casual. It’s hard to dress in fancy clothes when you’re trudging through snow drifts in winter and deep mud in spring. In the all-too-short summer, Vermonters are frantically growing veggies in their gardens, and can’t be bothered to dress up.

The Green Mountain State, however, is nothing if not accepting of quirks and fancies of all kinds. You can wear an organza shift with your rubber boots to town meeting and nobody will bat an eye, so why don’t I wear my pearls? Sheer vanity is why. I’m afraid that they might be one of those markers of bygone eras, like the teased hair of the sixties or the pillow-sized shoulder pads of the eighties, that will telegraph my elderly status before I’ve had a chance to impress my audience with how relatively non-elderly I am.

It’s vanity on the same spectrum as hair rinses and eyelid tweaks. But at least the people who undergo these procedures are exchanging something they don’t like (gray hair and droopy eyelids) for something that they like better. I, on the other hand, am denying myself something I enjoy in order to avoid looking like Queen Elizabeth.

Given what I’ve seen on TV in recent weeks, however, looking like the Queen, who wears her near-century with pride, would be infinitely preferable to looking like my fellow septuagenarian, the man with the orange face.

Senior prom, 1962

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Ten Thousand Steps

For years we have heard that taking ten thousand steps every day will make you healthier. And you don't need special clothing, footwear, or equipment. You can do your walking barefoot or in three-inch heels, in shorts or bespoke suits, up a mountain or in your kitchen. The principle has a pleasing Japanese-style simplicity about it, like those exquisite, barely-there flower arrangements. If I bring up Japan, it's because that is where the 10,000-step movement began.

It's a part of my "shadow self" that I can't seem to shake, the tendency to glom onto goals, regardless of their worth. Ten thousand steps--is there a number more absolute, majestic and compelling than that slender digit trailing four plump zeroes? Who could resist it? Not I.

But for a long time I couldn't find a pedometer (did I mention that you need a pedometer?) that counted steps accurately. Then recently I heard about a new generation of battery-powered gizmos that were supposed to do the job. I bought one, measured my stride as instructed, told it my height and weight, and clipped it to my waistband. Then I took Bisou for a walk.

I had no idea what I would find when I checked the count at bedtime. Would the day's harvest yield five hundred or five thousand steps? As it turned out, it was the latter. Not bad, for a baseline, but I was only halfway to my goal.

For the next couple of days I took Bisou for longer walks. In the evening, while watching TV, I set a kitchen timer for twenty-five minute periods, and each time it rang I got up and walked three times around the room. Every night the number on my pedometer grew. On Friday, it showed eight thousand steps.  On Saturday, I did it again.

On Sunday, I couldn't get out of bed.

On Monday, I was hobbling stiff-kneed around the kitchen when I heard a story on NPR that was sent to me personally by the universe. It turns out that the goal of 10,000 steps is not based on any kind of scientific evidence. It was promulgated in Japan decades ago by a pedometer manufacturer who wanted to sell more pedometers.

Now, a study of 17,000 women of a certain age shows that walking a mere 4,400 steps a day had a beneficial effect on the women's longevity. Some ambitious participants walked more, but after 7,500 steps there were no additional effects on longevity (possibly because their painful knees drove them to suicide).

Since hearing that story, I have abandoned my obsession with the 10,000 steps. I am not abandoning my pedometer, however, even though the numbers 4,400 or even 7,500 don’t have the same appeal. I have settled for a measly five thousand steps a day. My knees are already thanking me.

And when the next fitness craze hits, whether it be daily push-ups, jumping jacks, or handstands, I will strive to keep in mind the common sense views of my mother, who lived into her nineties without the aid of canes, walkers, joint replacements, or NSAIDs. She walked every day, making circuits inside the house when the weather was bad, but only for as long as she enjoyed it. 

She would have laughed at my pedometer. "Why do you need a little machine," I can hear her saying, "to tell you when you've had enough?"

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

My Fox Fantasy

This spring I've been running a fox restaurant in the backyard. I feed the birds, who drop the seeds that feed the squirrels, who are then eaten by my fox.  Given his dedication to hunting, I assume he's a male, working hard to feed his wife and children.

It is not easy to watch Nature doing its red-in-tooth-and-claw thing right outside my door. The squirrels, grown fat on a diet of oil-rich sunflower seeds and berry-studded suet, make a slow-moving prey for the fox, and a calorie-rich dinner for his family. In the space of three days last week I saw him kill two squirrels and, despite my mixed feelings about the squirrels, I felt sorry as I watched them perish in the fox's narrow jaws.

Until, that is, I saw him limping as he carried off the body. Then I felt sorry for the fox.

He's a good-looking red fox with a luxurious white-tipped tail and black-stockinged legs. What caused his lameness? Was he hit by a car, or bitten by a squirrel? Is his foot dislocated, infected, or what? Lame or not, he trots across our yard as gracefully as Fred Astaire.

I wish I could shoot him with a tranquilizing dart and take him to the vet, but my little dog, Bisou, harbors no such kind feelings. To her, the fox's presence in our yard is an outrage, and she barks explosively every time she sees him run past. She barks explosively even when the fox is not in the yard, putting her nose on the ground and sniffing until I drag her back inside. Yesterday I bent down to investigate a spot that she was glued to, and found two clumps of squirrel fur.

I think about the fox all the time. Looking out the window, I ignore the two kinds of finches, the three kinds of woodpeckers, and even the orioles that a month ago sent me into ecstasies. All I want to see is the fox.

To tell the truth, what I really want is to tame the fox. I want to offer him bits of Bisou's kibble so he'll slowly get used to me and come close enough to let me pet him. And after weeks of patience and perseverance, one day--maybe in the fall, when the leaves are turning and the evenings grow chilly--he will follow me into the house and curl up on the hearth.

This is of course utterly insane, and an inappropriate fantasy for a grown woman. But it's just one in my long list of wildlife fantasies, such as the one about the chipmunks that come to drink at my birdbath, so neat and trim that they look as if they've been drawn with a calligraphy pen. How, I wonder, does one tame a chipmunk? One frigid night in the garage I caught a glimpse of an ermine in its bright, white winter coat. As he vanished under the car I was already taking stock of my pantry to see what I could offer him (canned salmon? sardines?) to get him to stick around.

I've been this way for as long as I can remember, and I doubt that I'll ever change. The lonely only child surrounded by a tribe of ever-attentive adults still lives inside me, and craves the presence of a fellow creature who neither praises, corrects, nor instructs, and whose wordless companionship somehow allows me to be fully myself.

So what am I going to do about the fox? Even if by some miracle he were to follow me into the house, he would give Bisou and the cat Telemann, not to mention my spouse, heart attacks. Therefore, I've downgraded to a humbler fantasy, in which the fox and I sit together on the grass and quietly watch a beetle climb up a twig, while the scratchy song of the cicadas thrums in our ears. I can't think of a more perfect way to spend a summer afternoon.