The voice of Baby Boomers from a woman's perspective

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Iris rocks!

iris4The name Iris Apfel has been mentioned in previous blogs and if I were allowed only one word to describe the ninety-three-year-old style icon it would be inspiring. Apfel is the subject of a recent documentary as part of the Hot Docs series being shown at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto. Apfel describes herself as a geriatric starlet. The documentary about her late-life celebrity status was made by filmmaker Albert Maysles who died recently at the age of eighty-eight.

Apfel's Park Avenue apartment (inherited from her mother) resembles a Paris flea market.

Apfel’s jumbled Park Avenue apartment (inherited from her mother) resembles a Paris flea market and is chock-a-block with her humorous tchotchkes.

Iris Apfel’s parents were originally in the fabric business and after marrying, Iris gained a reputation as a talented interior decorator with an unusual flair for one-of-a-kind objects picked up during her twice-a-year trips overseas on buying excursions. Apfel’s husband Carl, and love of her life recently celebrated his one hundredth birthday and the couple have been married for nearly seventy years. Watching them interact on the film was like witnessing a comedy tag team. They’re constantly feeding and responding to the other’s one-liners.

In her younger days, Apfel liked to shop at Loehmann’s discount designer emporium in Queen’s New York where she was given a valuable piece of advice by Mrs. Loehmann. “She used to sit on a raised chair watching all the customers in the store like a tennis fan looking back and forth, back and forth” she said. “One day she called me over and told me that I’ll never be considered pretty but I had a great sense of style which was more important.”

Never boring, even with a cane after recently breaking her hip.

Never boring, even with a cane after recently breaking her hip.

Apfel disdains natural beauty as perishable and rejects cosmetic surgery, “The young face doesn’t match the old hands“.  She expands on this by suggesting that plain-looking women generally have to work harder for recognition by making themselves better conversationalists and generally more interesting people. She feels these qualities are not perishable and serve women better than beauty in the long-term.

The theatre was full of women with a few men sprinkled in and we watched the entire documentary with a smile on our faces and left feeling happy. Apfel is incredibly smart and articulate which is no doubt the result of her enduring and passionate interest in and ongoing involvement in fashion and colour. She’s a regular guest speaker at retail and social events. She also lectures at fashion and design educational institutions, taking lucky, naïve young students on field trips to fabric and design houses offering a perspective very different from regular curriculum.

The ninety-three-year-old supermodel (the one on the left. . .)

The ninety-three-year-old supermodel (the one on the left. . .) in Vogue ad for Kate Spade.

Apfel’s personal style has resulted in frequent coverage in Vogue and she was recently selected to model in Kate Spade’s print advertising. Her clothes are exotic, colourful and, at risk of understating it, wild. She piles on the accessories, both expensive high-end designer pieces and inexpensive flea-market finds. Her haircut is short, hip and stylish. And the entire presentation is always punctuated with her signature round bug-eye glasses.

Watching Apfel on-screen for nearly ninety minutes was sheer delight. Although she is often frustrated by the lack of energy inherent with her age, her spirit, intelligence and joie-de-vivre are an inspiration. I left the theatre feeling uplifted and inspired to take a freerer approach in my own fashion choices. I was also reminded of the importance of staying involved in what we love to do as a means of living a happy, fulfilled life for as long as we’re “still vertical”.

P.S. The Bloor Cinema is on the north side of Bloor Street just east of Bathurst Street in Toronto. I mistakenly went to the cinema in the Manulife Centre at Bloor and Bay Street (a common mistake according to the ticket takers there). Fortunately I was fifteen minutes early which gave me enough time to hop the subway at Bay Street and take the four-minute ride to Bathurst Street. This brings home again the benefits of underground subways with no waiting on the street corner for a slow bus held up in traffic (in case any Toronto politicians read this blog). An energetic bag lady yelling in the subway station about how women will never achieve equal pay was just some bonus entertainment in a great day. I even had enough time left over to get a cup of tea to take into the theatre with me. Life is sweet.

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Hooked on Timmie’s crack tea

tims tea2The six-hour drive to visit my parents always starts with a fuel stop at Tim Horton’s about five minutes from my home. There, I fill up with an extra-large steeped tea and that lasts me for about three hours of the trip. I have to wait about thirty minutes for it to cool enough that I can drink it and by then I’m sailing past Pickering on the 401. I keep sticking my finger in the hole in the lid until it reaches an acceptably drinkable temperature. Then, the sipping begins, usually accompanied by tiny bites of a President’s Choice bakery chocolate chip oatmeal cookie, also stretched out to last as long as possible. On short city errand days, I sometimes have them plop one ice-cube into my tea so I can drink it before the sun goes down.

Now Timmie is offering a new and improved version of their steeped tea. It’s whole leaf orange pekoe tea that “gently steeps Tim Horton’s own unique blend of orange pekoe tea leaves for consistently full-flavored results“. And I must admit the new version is smoother and less “bark-ie tasting” than their earlier blend. The downside, however, is that I can hardly get into my car without wanting some. As a non-coffee drinker I was thrilled to finally become part of that cultish group of haunted addicts who go around clutching a Tim Horton’s cup, only mine is filled with steeped tea. Plunking a tea bag into a cup of water never results in the same flavour experience as steeping.

Addiction is not a pretty thing.

Addiction is not a pretty thing.

When they were trying to break into the U.S. marketplace in New York City, the President of Tim Horton said that if they could get coffee-drinking customers for three purchases, they would be hooked. That statement only confirmed my suspicions that there is definitely some special, secret additive in their coffee and tea that makes it addictive. Is it extra caffeine or a couple of discreet, untraceable particles of crack? Whatever it is, I’m hooked and at $1.91 for a measly cup of tea, I know I’m filling my suppliers’ pockets with cash and my bladder with disposable liquid gold. But, the way I see it; it’s a win/win. Pass the cookies please.

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Better than British fans is something to be proud of?

Shauna Hunt confronts Canadian soccer fans.

Television reporter Shauna Hunt harassed by Canadian soccer fans.

When I first heard about the fate of the young men who made disrespectful and obscene comments to on-air CITY TV reporter Shauna Hunt who was covering a Toronto FC soccer match, my initial reaction was ambivalence. I thought that Shawn Simoes was treated a bit harshly by Hydro One when he was fired from his $107,000.00 per year job. Could they not have just given him an unpaid leave for a few months and hope he learned his lesson? In their defence, the young men cited British soccer fans as being even more disgusting.

Then, as more opinions on the issue came to light I realized I was reacting like a typical woman who has witnessed this kind of behaviour from men for most of my life. The frequency and openness of these displays does not make them acceptable, tolerable or excusable. Would his mother really have been amused? Would she have been proud of her son? I doubt it.

In Baltimore, she was called Mother-of-the-year. In my opinion, this is good parenting.

In Baltimore, she was called Mother-of-the-year.  In my opinion, this is good parenting.

I loved the reaction of the mother of a sixteen-year-old boy in Baltimore who watched her son on the television news looting and vandalizing stores during the recent riots. That mother immediately got herself downtown, confronted her son and physically dragged him off by his hoodie, all the time yelling at him that she hadn’t raised him to do such terrible things, and employing rather colourful language made it quite clear that his behaviour was totally unacceptable. I expect he’s still smarting from her reaction and will think twice before doing something like that again. Sometimes it takes something as dramatic as watching your offspring make asses of themselves in full public view on television before parents are convinced their own are not as perfect as they believe.

Sharon Cady, Kate Wheeler and Christine Bentley from Sirius Radio's What She Said.

Sharon Cady, Kate Wheeler and Christine Bentley from Sirius Radio’s What She Said.

Listening to veteran women media hosts Christine Bentley and Kate Wheeler on Sirius radio this week relating their own personal stories of similar incidents going back decades, it became clear that Shauna Hunt was not an isolated case. It seems many street reports require several “takes” to eliminate the background idiots jockeying for their few seconds of fame. Kate Wheeler described reporting once from a high school, with full permission of the school staff, when she had the c-word flung at her from several fifteen-year-old girls. Wheeler was so disgusted she later showed the video to the parents of the girls, only one of whom apologized and none of the girls apologized—a sad testament to parenting by some people. I had not realized how prevalent this kind of harassment was, particularly for women in the media.

Now, I’m absolutely convinced Hydro One did the right thing by firing Shawn Simoes. His performance was a form of bullying and personal assault that showed a complete disregard for common decency and respect for other people. I know I wouldn’t want someone like that working for my company, perhaps wearing a golf shirt out in public with my firm’s logo on it. Hunt was simply trying to do her job. What would Simoes’ reaction have been if Hunt had turned up at his cubicle at Hydro One, called him a f#$@!$% dick and yelled for all his coworkers to hear that he liked getting it in his a#@$%$#&? He would have been justifiably offended and would have demanded recourse, appealed to his union for support, perhaps even taken legal action.

Abusive behaviours should no longer be tolerated anywhere, not just in the workplace.

Abusive behaviours should not be tolerated anywhere, not just in the workplace.

I personally know of women who endure daily psychological or physical/sexual abuse on the job and fear that raising a flag punishes the victim and they’d lose their job. The Jian Ghomeshi issue is a perfect case in point. Many women silently leave their jobs every single day to escape the abuse and no one comes to their defence. Simoes’ actions were indefensible and he deserved to be fired.

Sadly, women are so accustomed to these verbal assaults that we need to be reminded that they should not be tolerated. We’ve become desensitized and hope that by ignoring them they’ll go away. Hopefully this incident will increase awareness of the extent of the problem. It has absolutely nothing to do with humour. Bullies need to be called out, identified for exactly what they are and made accountable. Only then will we start to change the psychology that permits this kind of abuse. So I am no longer ambivalent.



Don’t look to me for sympathy

When Boomers were growing up in the fifties and sixties, Canadians were recognized as being among the highest money savers in the world. We were frugal, practical people who regularly deposited a bit of money into our savings account or purchased Canada Savings Bonds for emergencies and retirement. It’s no coincidence that the sixties is also when that ubiquitous and self-destructive little piece of plastic known as the credit card was introduced for widespread use. Now, Canadians are among the highest debtors in the world, spending approximately $1.63 for every $1.00 earned.

A young couple from Mississauga was featured on the front page of the Report on Business section of The Globe and Mail the other day in a feature entitled “What to do when your mortgage rules you”. The husband and wife both work in the financial services industry and are faced with a financial dilemma, which is rather ironic. They’re expecting a baby soon and are so mortgage-poor that they don’t  know how they’re going to afford to live when the wife is on mat-leave as they’ll be short about $1,000.00 each month. Naturally, we should sympathize with a young couple struggling to start a family and own a house in today’s hot real estate market.

It's far too easy to give up your life and become enslaved to mortgage payments.

It’s far too easy to give up your life and become enslaved to mortgage payments.

As I read the profile of the couple and their struggles, my feelings turned from empathy to shock and ultimately anger at what I consider to be their absolute stupidity. Here’s a synopsis of their situation:

  • His annual income – $73,000.00
  • Her annual income – $55,000.00
  • Purchase price of their home in 2011 – $747,000.00
  • Current mortgage liability – $661,000.00
  • Current home value – $925,000.00
  • Debts on line-of-credit, to family members and credit cards – $80,000.00

The tragedy of this situation is that they represent a huge number of people in the same boat. And that boat is called “Living Beyond Their Means”. We’ve all experienced financial constraints over the years (it wasn’t that long ago I couldn’t afford groceries) but when someone sinks their own ship I have trouble sympathizing.  The featured couple’s home is 3500 square feet with four bedrooms and five bathrooms. They were hoping it would be a multi-generational home consistent with their cultural background and they were disappointed they hadn’t been able to afford a back yard pool.  Then, they unexpectedly got pregnant. And the bank will give them no further credit. Boo hoo!

The Globe’s financial writer, Rob Carrick analysed their situation but didn’t offer what I consider to be good “tough love” advice. He suggested that with some juggling and refinancing they could consolidate their debts into their mortgage. The husband’s father would also be contributing $500.00 a month of his pension toward the costs of living in the house. I’m not a financial wizard and I’ve certainly made my share of financial mistakes over the years, but you don’t have to be an expert to figure this one out. It’s the old story of champagne tastes and beer pocketbook. For the first time in our history Canadians are in a credit crunch. We’ve borrowed too much money to maintain a high standard of living and do not have the ability to pay off our debt much less save for emergencies and retirement. Easy credit has become our nemesis.

Whoa baby! Credit card debt is far too easy to rack up and painfully difficult to pay off.

Whoa baby! Credit card debt is far too easy to rack up and painfully difficult to pay off.

It appalls me that young people feel they should have a car and a condo with granite countertops as soon as they get a job. Whatever happened to three girls sharing a one-bedroom apartment until you could afford to rent your own bachelor apartment? I did that. Then, when I finally got that longed-for one-room bachelor rental apartment of my own on Vaughan Road (a gem, you can be sure) with an ancient unused milk box in the hallway beside the door, a claw-foot tub with no shower and no countertop at all, never mind granite in the miniscule kitchen, I was so proud that it was all mine, finally. There were no laundry facilities in the building so once a week I walked my green garbage bag full of laundry in a bundle buggy down to St. Clair Avenue where there was a laundromat.

A few years ago I was living in a brand-new townhouse in Thornhill that  had been within my means when I purchased it but things changed when I became self-employed earning considerably less income. So I put it up for sale at a small profit, took the accrued funds and bought a lovely little fixer-upper townhouse built in the seventies in Mississauga for half the price. If I were the couple in The Globe and Mail profile that’s what I’d do. They’d net out $184,000.00 after they pay off their debts. Bite the bullet. Lower your expectations. Live within your means and live happily ever after. I’ll have more to say on this.

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A Train in Winter is not an easy read

train2The Toronto Star described A Train in Winter by British author Caroline Moorehead as a “hard-to-put-down book”. It was also hard to pick up; I had it sitting on my bookshelf for almost a year before I was able to steel myself to read it. The story is non-fiction. The first half of the book describes the lives of women in Paris and other parts of France who became early members of the resistance organization contributing their individual skills to sabotaging their German occupiers during the Second World War. Many of the women were Communists who formed part of a network of printers distributing underground anti-German news about the progress of the war and updates on the political situation. Eventually more than two hundred women are arrested, imprisoned and eventually transported to German concentration camps including Auschwitz, Ravensbruk and Birkenau.

The second half of the book deals with the horrors of their captivity for more than two years and is not for the faint-of-heart. What makes this story different from so many other accounts of the Holocaust is that the prisoners were ordinary French women and only one or two were (secretly) Jewish. They were considered political prisoners because of their Communist affiliations and crimes against their German occupiers. Many of their infractions were unbelievably benign but they suffered the same fate as far more serious offenders.

A Train in Winter focuses on the importance of the bonds between the French women which was a strong factor in their overall chances of survival. Despite the difficulty in reading about their years in the concentration camps, I was compelled to keep going because I knew that ultimately some of the women would survive and in some way that represented a kind of “happy ending”. Of the original group of two hundred and thirty French women who were arrested, imprisoned and then deported, only forty-nine survived. And they did not necessarily enjoy a happy ending. With an assortment of physical and psychological problems, life after liberation was not at all what they envisioned. The post-war political situation in France under General Charles DeGaulle was not as they hoped or expected. Many of the German war criminals and their collaborators were not given the punishment they deserved as everyone just wanted to get on with life and forget the horrors.

In the words of one of the women, Madeleine Doiret (Mado), “The life we wanted to find again when we used to say, ’if I return’ was to have been large, majestic, full of colour. . .  the life we resumed proved so tasteless, shabby, trivial, thieving, that our hopes were mutilated, our best intentions destroyed?” The extent of the collaboration of French citizens and police against their own people is shameful and shocking. Doiret finally accepted the situation and no longer referred to her experiences, saying “Looking at me, one would think that I’m alive . . . I’m not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it.” And until publication of this book, the world did forget about them and the inhumanity they experienced. The beauty of the story lies in the strength of these particular women and the remarkable strength of female friendships.


Co-op programs give students a leg-up

An editorial in The Globe and Mail on Saturday, May 8, 2015 by David McKay, President and CEO of Royal Bank of Canada got me thinking about the challenges faced by young people looking for work. Entitled “For students and employers, co-op education is a bridge to a wider world“, McKay presents a strong case for the co-op education he acquired at the University of Waterloo in the early 1980s.

The staggered scheduling of classroom and practical experience benefits both job seekers and employers.

The staggered scheduling of classroom and practical experience benefits both job seekers and employers.

Although it’s been several years since I hired students while working for one of Canada’s top employers (EllisDon Corporation), it seems things haven’t changed all that much. Although I’m not in a position to speak on their behalf now, I clearly remember the factors we took into consideration when hiring students who were predominantly from engineering programs. Interestingly, top marks were not a determining factor in the recruiting process, although excellent marks definitely helped. Employers are looking for individuals who have a combination of that something special—strong interpersonal skills, a high energy level and a knack for creative thinking and problem solving.

Co-op programs also offer employers a number of benefits not available in the traditional semester system. For example, the ability to hire students to start a work term in September or January is extremely valuable. Construction is a year-round business with new projects frequently breaking ground in the fall and winter. The ability to place students for work terms during these off-times not only helps employers, it gives students a leg-up by reducing the number of young people competing for jobs in April and May by spreading hiring throughout the year.

Coop work placements provide valuable practical on-the-job experience, much like an apprenticeship.

Co-op work placements provide valuable practical on-the-job experience, much like an apprenticeship.

When I worked for EllisDon, we recruited from a wide range of colleges and universities but University of Waterloo, Fanshawe College and George Brown College students were particularly valued for their relevant experience in the field. Instead of spending summers working at McDonald’s or cutting lawns (also important and not to be underestimated experience), the Waterloo students most often had already been on a construction site and understood the demands and expectations. According to David McKay, “Co-ops also enable students who don’t have the cultural and family ties that sometimes lead to the first job.” In my own experience, young people who grew up on farms, worked from a young age in family businesses or were the children of immigrants were often short-listed as they clearly understood the concept of a strong work ethic. They knew that it was important to be on the job site very early in the morning and were prepared to work late into the evening when a concrete pour was scheduled. Any student who understands these requirements is valued and their marketability is upped. The real world of business does not punch a clock.

Many careers offer coop opportunities.

Co-op opportunities are available in a wide variety of professions.

Co-op programs are offered in many professions beyond construction, such as accounting and midwifery. Whatever field a student chooses, I’m a confirmed fan of co-op education and its associated work placements. Not only do they improve a student’s job opportunities, but they are a valuable way for employers to gradually integrate young people into their businesses. And it provides students with the opportunity to assess their temporary work placements as a potential career path. It worked very well for David McKay. Not all education happens in the classroom.



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I am the sum of my shortcomings

Selma Hyek - so much like me.

Selma Hayek – so much like me.

Selma Hayek and I are a lot alike. Well, maybe not a lot, but we do have a couple of things in common. In a recent interview with Oprah, Hayek confessed that she never exercises and she eats pork. Combined with her other lifestyle choices, she’s not doing too badly despite a few bad habits. Me too. I also never exercise; I eat pork, and I spend far too much time sitting on my gluteus maximus reading and writing. And I’m not grossly overweight (although a ten-pound weight loss would make me the happiest person on the planet); I have no significant health issues and I can eat Black Jack Cherry ice-cream without major consequences.

Sometimes I think we worry too much about maximizing a healthy lifestyle. Every day there’s something new in the media to scare me about what I should or should not be eating. Today it was about probiotics and how I’m doomed if I’m not gobbling down massive quantities of good bacteria several times a day. How on earth did the Eskimos ever live for centuries on a diet consisting solely of seal meat and blubber? Somehow they managed to survive without ever eating a single fruit or vegetable in their entire lives. It was only when western or European-style diets were introduced to them that they became sick and developed diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

Go Team!

Go Team!

My lifestyle choices are based on my intense dislike of competitive sports (despite winning overall first place one year for girls in our elementary school field day—I still have the trophy), an enduring sweet tooth and a healthy dose of common sense. I probably watch too much television in the evening although I efficiently combine it with perusing my multitudinous magazine subscriptions, painting my nails, pumicing my feet or Googling how to get the most out of life. I’m not as conscientious about walking my dog as I should be but she’s only three pounds and in hot weather it’s too much for both of us.

I'm in for the long-haul and doin' it my way.

I’m in for the long-haul and doin’ it my way.

In an earlier blog entitled “Have you found your passion?” I outlined all my failed efforts at every type of sport and hobby known to humankind. When people ask me what I “do” with myself now that I’m retired, I simply inform them that I’m a lazy slug who would sooner be reading or writing than doing anything else I can think of. Like the early Eskimos, it seems to be working for me. My genetic makeup points to hopefully living to be a reasonably old age in comparatively good health despite my lifestyle shortcomings. In fact, I think life now is not so much about what I do but is more about what I am and that’s one happy old boomer who’s never bored and regards every day as a gift. And for that I say, “thank you”.


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