A Frenchwoman shops Montréal

One of my Parisienne friends was in Montréal for several weeks this past summer, all the better to chat, dine, walk... and shop.

You may remember Huguette, the vivacious, semi-retired, fashion-lover who favours offbeat colour combos such as the yellow/navy/mulberry skirt in the photo; her neutrals are grey and camel.

This visit, Huguette had a date with a man she sees at home, but who happened to be here at the same time. You would think she would have something in her suitcase, which was big enough to hold a tuba, but a date calls for a rethink, so we went to ça va de soi, where she bought a pale grey linen summer cardigan, the Patty.

She saw many other things she liked, such as this stretchy MaxMara viscose jersey pencil skirt, right, to wear at home as the temperature cools:

Just before she left, she bought a second, similar cardi in pastel Egyptian cotton (apricot). I wasn't sure that it offered much change from the grey, but she said mais oui, apricot is completely different.

Huguette is always hunting for comfortable, stylish shoes. She did not know the brand Beautifeel, and liked the Broadway open oxford:

She adds colour with a bag, and is a big fan of Fossil. She was drawn to the chevron of the Rachel satchel, left, but wanted to replace her big leather Fossil tote, which she was carrying. (The thing weighs as much as a jumbo watermelon; how does she do it?) So, the Maya large hobo, right, is another contender.

Between stops, I had a question. "Is it really true—because we are told ad infinitum— that French women have very small, perfectly-edited wardrobes?" "Total myth", she replied. "I did once have a friend like that, twenty-six things on the rail, only brown, grey and white. Everything went with everything else. The clothes were very expensive."

She said that French women, like any, have moods: one day, it's stripes, the next, an abstract floral. In the past they bought less, but today, she said, "H&M, Zara, all that kind of thing is on every corner; their closets explode, especially the young ones."

She refuses fast fashion because of disappointment with fabric. "I am having the same conversation with all my friends", she said. "We cannot believe how much good clothes cost now! And we have a very hard time finding quality. Even if we will pay for it, we can't find it."

She panned COS's fabric (for the price), but praised Uniqulo for cotton tees and lightweight down outerwear. In Paris, she often shops at a small boutique which receives ends of couture fabrics and fashions then into simple skirts or tops.

So French women do shop—and sometimes mightily. She said with a laugh that something about travel unleashes even more delight in finding new treasures. But her next trip is a cruise to Antarctica, where there won't be many boutiques!

Weinstein and his ilk

The whole Harvey Weinstein incident has rattled me. First, I am relieved that after decades of harassment the man was exposed and has been disinvited from various professional organizations (but not criminally charged as of this post). Second, I keep thinking, after decades? Why was this man (among others) able to operate this way, over and over?

Of course I know why, and therefore appreciated Sarah Polley's New York Times essay, "The Men You Meet Making Movies". She calls Weinstein "just one festering pustule in a diseased industry", and also says, "...while I've met quite a few humane, kind, sensitive male directors and producers...sadly they are the exception and not the rule."

I was harassed recently, at, of all places, my brother's wake. Late in the evening, I was talking to Phil, a longtime family friend; his wife, Peggy, stood several paces away, in conversation with someone else. He admired my long scarf, put his hands on the fabric, and slid one underneath: a definite grope. I froze, absolutely aghast at what had happened. He continued chatting amiably, though I had stopped speaking.

I stepped away, sought a niece, and asked her if he had a reputation for touching women. "Oh, Phil, she said dismissively, "Yeah, when he's drinking." Dismayed by her attitude, I next spoke to my sister-in-law, but did not mention the incident initially; I was going to work up to that.

She told me with deep feeling that Phil, who had made a fortune in real estate investment, had many ideas for marketing their farm, and was going to provide valuable assistance to her agent. Since my brother had died mired in financial problems, she saw Phil's help as a godsend.

In that moment, faced with her need, I could not bring it to her. As Polley says, "In your own time, on your own terms is a notion I cling to, when it comes to talking about experiences of powerlessness."

When I said to a friend, "And in a house full of grieving people!", she replied, "He knew he could get away with it precisely because of the situation. A certain kind of man who will take any opportunity, and it really does not matter who the target is."

At a usual party, I would have said, "Stop that!" in stentorian tones. And, so that everyone nearby could hear, "Harvey Weinstein clone, Phil?"

But I only glared and stepped away.

I also thought, It just never ends for women. Some say that those harassed by Weinstein "should just have left the room".  In a way, I'my grateful for my experience—less invasive than that of those who encountered Weinstein and certainly Bill Cosby— because I saw with instantaneous clarity what warps the agency we believe we have. The setting, for one, and assumptions about what is appropriate social behaviour.

The main difference between my encounter and a young actor's in Weinstein's suite is that there was no power differential, no promise that going along would bring a role. Phil was, however, as brazenly misogynistic as the creep on the bus who "accidentally" brushes too close.  There are levels;  none is acceptable.

Caught by surprise, I didn't think about alternatives. Why, I asked myself later, didn't I invite him outside and speak to him out of earshot? Even if he were hostile, he'd be on notice. (Even imagining what I wish I'd done, I would not have involved my family.)

Instead, my thoughts were, I can't do anything now, not with everyone shattered. I can't introduce more pain into this house.

I only hope when he tries it again, somebody takes him on. And I promised myself that I will do the same, because when a woman confronts a harasser, she is very likely acting not only for herself, but for any number of women (and sometimes men) who did not.

Transwomen in the women's spa

Over the summer, I had a lively e-mail exchange with a Toronto, Ontario friend, Rachel.

A spa we sometimes visit was embroiled in a dispute; a Toronto transgender woman tweeted that the when her partner called to arrange a surprise visit as a gift, the spa refused to to admit her. (Source: CBC News article, posted here.)

How the matter came up during the attempted booking is not stated. (I cannot help but imagine a Pythonesque moment, when John Cleese says: "Right, then: 2 p.m. on Wednesday. Now, your guest doesn't have a willy, does she?") 

At Body Blitz, a soak in a series of thermal pools at various temperatures is completed as a circuit, and may be done nude or in a swimsuit. The spa cited a no-male-genitals policy (which I do not see on the web site) and said that they "support the LGBT community and recognize that this is a sensitive issue. However, because Body Blitz is a single-sex facility with full-nudity, we are not like other facilities." 

Rachel asserts that a transwoman does not have the same status as a woman assigned female gender at birth, saying: "There is a small part of me that bristles at the idea that a trans woman can assume sisterhood with cisgender women and demand equality at Body Blitz, when for millennia women everywhere have suffered and struggled for the most basic of human rights and continue to do so."

And she most definitely does not want to see male genitals when she has booked into a female-only spa. She fears the sight may affect other patrons because of painful past incidents. 

My view is that if that woman has transitioned (with or without genital reconstruction surgery) and can produce proof of female identification, e.g., a driver's license, she ought to be admitted. Her transition—which is even without surgery, arduous—will not impede or dilute the fight for human rights for any population. 

You might wonder, Why does that woman still have male genitals? I don't know (and it is none of my business), but an increasing number of transwomen are refusing surgery. Jae Alexis Lee has posted a list of  reasons here.

The prospect of seeing male organs disturbs Rachel. (It seems that no matter what, her brain is flashing, Men in here!) I wonder whether—to help patrons like her to accept the physical diversity of this group—a woman who still had male genitalia would wear a swimsuit, which I grant sounds repressive, but may be a temporary middle road. In the last five years, I'd estimate that at least 80% of patrons wear suits, so she'd be in a majority.

Rachel says she would be upset to see such a woman nude, but sometimes times change faster than our comfort level. In Ontario, any resident can now refuse the binary designation for the province's identity documents, designating an X instead of M or F. This tempest in a salt pool is only the beginning.

Of course another solution is to open such facilities to a mixed clientele: male, female and X: everybody in the pool! I've spent plenty of time at hot springs where mixed nude bathing was the custom, but Rachel does not want that, either. I'd be sorry to see that all-women haven go, too; there's a kind of bonding. I'll never forget one woman of about fifty who sat at the edge of the frigid plunge pool for twenty minutes, weeping into the bodice of a cherry-red two-piece, then saying, "I can do this". In she went, and the whole room burst into cheers.

But for now we circle the issue of what is a woman. Maybe there are varieties of women. If we look at other species, some fish turn into another gender; parrotfish have sex organs of both sexes. We humans continue to learn about the range of chromosome complements, hormone balances and phenotypic variations, challenging our ideas about both sex and gender. 

Though I dip into essays about gender theory and feminism, I prefer to think about how we choose to relate to one another as we make our way through life. Even essays written fifteen years ago can sound dated. In 2009, Germaine Greer wrote in "The Whole Woman", "No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if (they) were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight."

I know several transwomen or their families who are not in agreement. And what of those women who were born with a uterus and ovaries, and no longer have them? Just try telling them they lost their real-woman status.

After being confronted by my own startled response in the past, thinking about it, meeting more transwomen, and speaking to friends who work with their communities, I have decided that if a person believes she is a woman, I will accept her as one. Otherwise, I would be one of the persons who relegate her to society's edges, and that is not a world I want to support. 

Where will this all end up? Will people look back in fifty or eighty years look back and find the matter quaint as ladies-and-escorts entrances at taverns?

I am grateful to my friend for her thoughtful e-mails. She may never be comfortable with that woman in the spa, but she is questioning her conditioning. 

We have those moments as we mature; yours may be about something else. I'd learn a great deal if you would like to tell us. 


The purple memorial

Thank you, kind readers, for your condolences. I am back from Oregon, where my brother's memorial was a warm, heartening event.

Time was, mourners wore black or navy, with no excessive detail. Dad, a lifelong bowtie man, had one long tie, strictly for funerals. In these more informal times, a family (or the decreased) may request specific attire. The day before I left, a niece contacted me to say friends and family were asked to wear purple, my brother's favourite colour. (The photo I posted shows him in one of his many purple shirts.)

I had heard of mourners being asked to wear brights, all white, or school colours. I knew someone  who requested that her women friends wear their most lavish hats. But other than Prince, I had not thought about purple as a commemorative gesture.

I unpacked the black dress and belted downtown to see what I could find. Sweaty and anxious, I thought, Couldn't he have loved camel?

Les Montréalaises are not offered much in purple this season; I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt. After two hours I came home empty-handed but remembered with relief that I had purple shoes. (Arche "Drick", below.)

I also have a silk ikat shawl shot through with purple. That would have to do; the shawl went over a heliotrope top and long black skirt from Muriel Dombret. I would have liked a mauve manicure, but there was no time.

St. Mary's was packed with purple. My sister-in-law chose a chic plum twinset with a hint of silver metallic. Her two daughters had purple pashminas, her sons and sons-in-law, ties. Grandchildren bloomed in purple flowered dresses, a sweet lavender shrug, a mulberry turtleneck. Friends wore jackets and dresses in every hue of purple, and, on a black suit, a man had pinned an elegant fresia boutonnière.

Our younger generation were entirely accepting of everyone's choice, but the purple flourishes made them smile on a day when smiles were hard to muster.

His purple speedo (which Denny sometimes wore to cook, his solution to the problem of stained clothes) was mentioned during the eulogy, probably a first for St. Mary's.

After the service, family and close friends gathered at the home for a barbeque. Everyone changed into jeans, but kept their purple on to bring Denny into the heart of the house, as always.

Have you been to such a memorial? When your family and friends gather to remember you, might your loved ones suggest what to wear? 

In anticipation of my inevitable ceremony: my favourite colour is... black. Gray will be fine.

Forty-five years

Stories! Any writer gorges on real-life stories, and I've had a banquet lately. Jeanne has allowed me to tell hers.

The moment I saw Jeanne this summer, I knew something was up. She was widowed two years ago. We met at the end of the first year, when she was mourning, and spoke at length about her husband Will, an ebullient, brilliant and deeply generous man. She was subdued, still hollowed-out from a harrowing last year.

By this summer, she was brimming with life. She had divested nearly everything she and Will owned, sold the big suburban house, found a pied-a-terre in Denver. She was a sought-after partner on the competitive bridge circuit, traveling to tournaments.

Jeanne has a son in Montréal, and another who lives with his family on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, a locale famous for its natural beauty, a sailor's paradise.

While visiting that son, she learned that her first husband, Stewart, whom she'd married at 21 and divorced seven years later, lived there too. At loose ends during the day ("only so much farmers' market I can take"), she decided to look him up, after forty-five years without contact. Stewart was divorced again, and had an adult daughter. At the first coffee meeting, their past bond floated up; they talked for three hours.

After several visits and introductions to one another's children, Jeanne and Stewart dined one evening at the town's one posh restaurant, and afterward, she did not return to her son's home. They resumed what was disrupted nearly a half-century ago.

What happened in the early '70s?  She had a brief affair; they were not at that point able to work through the crisis. "He was always my best friend", she said, "and I felt such guilt that I had hurt him—so I left." They moved apart rapidly, carried by swift currents into others' lives.

When she reconnected, the years seemed to fall away, but now both brought the broader perspectives granted by time, other loves, and the wisdom they lacked in their twenties. After caring for Will for years, Jeanne lives in the present. "Talk to me about Willie any time",  Stewart said, "I want to know him though you."

Her story reminded me of  Stan Rogers' love song to his wife Ariel, "Forty-Five Years", especially the lines,
You say you've been twice a wife and you're through with life
Ah, but honey, what the hell's it for?

Jeanne won't settle permanently in that oceanside town, but will visit soon—Stewart bought a queen-sized bed and is purging stacks of single-guy stuff. She is travelling extensively in the coming year; he will join her at Christmastime. Her children say, "Go for it, Mom."

To my delight, she bought a condo in Montréal for use during the summers; her son will live there the rest of the year. She hopes Stewart will visit; they were newlyweds here, so poor that a night out was a round trip on the métro. I can't wait to meet the man who makes my friend's eyes dance. "Isn't he handsome?" she asked, producing the wedding photo she carries in her wallet:

During her month here, they were in constant touch, connected this time like Venn circles, overlapping, but not fully eclipsing the other. Stewart has lived contentedly in his cabin for many years; Jeanne yearns to be out in the world, from Singapore to New York.

But her heart is home again, in an old, familiar port.

Uneven aging: On the road

When couples or friends travel, uneven aging shows up like a souvenir seller on a beach: an unwelcome intrusion you'll face at some point.

Sometimes the afflicted person, longing for adventure,  stimulation—or just her money's worth—signs on for more activity than she can handle. Other times, a companion plans an ambitious trip without considering the demands on stamina. When the less-fit of the pair (or group) hears the itinerary, she may not speak about her health issues, fearing she'd dampen the fun.

Rachel and her husband cruised to Spain, where they rented a car and drove to Italy and France. What should have been a long-awaited five-week celebration of Noah's retirement turned into misery before the first border was crossed. "Very suddenly, I saw that Noah could not cope with the land part", she said. "I had to do all the driving, which exhausted me. He became extremely anxious; I've never seen him so agitated. Every day, he wanted to know where would we eat. I had booked the hotels, but not restaurants. He kept asking, 'How far do I have to walk?' He wouldn't even carry a bag."

By the time they flew home from Nice, she was drained and resentful. Once back, she regained her compassion. Home life had disguised the extent of Noah's debilitating condition; he could not be open about something even he did not fully realize.

Their next trip, two years later, was cruise only, removing the sources of stress for both. She missed  their footloose flexibility, but Noah was a happy man once he could sleep in the same bed every night and get eggs over easy with turkey bacon for breakfast. Rachel, freed from trying to find acceptable restaurants in strange towns, was a blissful ship spa client.

That's a solution out of many travellers' budgets, but the principle is sound: better to travel less often, and spend on supports such as a private room, more cabs, the rental of assistive devices, or booking a personal tour guide.

There is a psychological side to travel, too. "Uneven aging" means one person is in better shape than the other, and for the less-fit person, that can be embarrassing. Her ego will roar like a wounded lion.

The description of the yoga tour I took to India in my late 50s said classes would be offered for all levels, but everyone else was an advanced yogini and craved challenge, so the teacher went with that. I was full of self-recrimination until I realized that it was not my fault. I told the teacher I'd do what I could, and spent some time during each four-hour class just resting on my mat. Some days, I cut class to walk the beach and enjoy a Kingfisher with lunch—yes! 

But I was lucky; the women on the tour were warm and made no judgment about my limitations. Besides, when we went to the night markets, they depended on me to find the best jewellery. My bruised ego was salved by their gratitude.

Marcelle had no such advantage on an archaeological tour to Turkey. She had long been a confident solo traveller, but on this tour, she thought she'd die of heatstroke trying to keep up. She could either stumble along, sweaty and miserable, or sit alone on a broiling bus; the AC was turned off while the others hiked the ruins. She knew no one else, and the group wasn't friendly. The tour leader curtly pointed out that the trip brochure said there would be extensive walking. "They were kind of like, 'What are you doing here?'", she said.

She threw in the Turkish towel after four sweltering days, and hired a driver to take her ahead to the last stop for a three-night stay in a charming boutique hotel. Though she paid quite a bit for that respite, it turned out to be the high point of the trip. She sent a photo of her dinner on the terrace and said, "Now I know the Turkey that suits me."

A traveller with health issues will need a backup plan should the original itinerary prove unworkable. The abler partner has to keep an eye out; even on an 'easy' trip, the less-vital partner may be dazzled by all on offer, and push too hard.

Another friend, C., will take a family trip to Sedona this winter. His preparation includes a 12-week strength, balance and mobility course at his local hospital. For those without local resources, a number of books and video programs are available on Amazon, from mat to water-based approaches. (Another plug here for the iBook "How to Watch TV and Get Fit", which builds strength at home in efficient three-minute sets.)

A list of tour companies which cater to varying levels of ability is here. Before selecting a tour (or planning a self-led trip), each person should speak openly about the realities of stamina and mobility but also about details such as the requirement for an elevator or the need for a regular nap. Then, choose what's realistic—never mind that you don't see every monument. You might also decide to scale the trip to meet those needs: a shorter flight or crossing fewer time zones can make or break the less-fit partner's experience.

As Rachel found, you have live with your partner or friend long after you've unpacked. "I plan for him to be comfortable on the trip", she said, "and that makes all the difference back home."

Udeman: My brother

My brother, and my only remaining member of my birth family, died last week, suddenly and peacefully, at 84.

I can't say quite why the shock was so profound, I suppose because we had chatted just days before, when he was in hospital for a respiratory problem no one thought was serious.

So, may I introduce you to Denny, a little too late. He was an avid outdoorsman— a licensed river guide and expert fly fisher—a natural athlete who'd win a club golf tournament even when it was the only game he'd played that year.

He was beloved by patients, who got house calls and his home number. The father of nine (two marriages), he possessed unruffled calm, no matter what commotion unruly kids or escaped horses brought. Home was a rambling farmhouse outside Springfield, Oregon, filled with children and usually one of their friends who perched at Denny and Jackie's between jobs or studies.

In his student days, he'd hitch-hike between our home in Northern Michigan and Notre Dame, in Northern Indiana, with a duffel bag and a sign that said, "It's Up to You." And oh, the girls were after him!  Because he was fifteen years older, I have little memory of his youth, but my sister said she had to fend off eager "girlfriends" who only wanted an introduction to her tall, dreamy brother.

He was the kind of person who parks where he likes and pays the ticket. He hated how HMOs constrained physicians' practices, and in protest suspended his surgical practice for a time. (He went back, that's what nine kids does to you.) I was about to call him anti-authoritarian, but more accurately, he was his own authority.

And he was a believer of old-school Irish Catholic persuasion. When I spoke to him last week, I told him that while in New York, I'd stop by St. Patrick's and light a candle for him; he liked that. "The candle" was a joke between us, because when he was 15 and my mother was in labour with me, he went to church to light a candle for my safe arrival. When he found out I was a girl, he returned and blew it out.

At St. Pat's I lit two, cutting Mom in on the deal. As I knelt in the vast cathedral, trying to retrieve the words of the liturgy, I remembered what he said to me about his prayers for our mother during her last weeks: "I prayed for her to get better; then I realized I was praying for the wrong thing, so I asked for her to have what she needed now."

I amended my prayer, invoking the same request. I don't know why, because we weren't worried. And the next day, he was gone in a breath.

I will return next week, after family time in Oregon.