I’ve had more than my share of fashion faux pas. I’m the one who went to the bathroom before my court appearance and came back and pled the case for my client with my suit skirt tucked up into my panty hose.
At my own engagement party, my future mother-in-law’s friend wore the same dress as I did. When someone recently admired my shoes and asked me whose they were, I answered, “mine, who else’s would they be?” I often can’t seem to get out of my gym clothes to shower until late afternoon, and now that I own loungewear from Mariwear, I am hard pressed to get dressed at all.
I don’t claim to be a fashion expert — I’m just your typical midlife woman who likes to be comfortable and look somewhat put together — when it matters. I like what I like, and I know what pisses me off. And so, it seems, do other women over 50. I asked my contemporaries what they hated about fashion, and boy, did they let loose. Check this out. Did I miss something?
1. We hate catalogues that have 26-year-old Skinny Minnies modeling clothes geared for the 50 and over woman. Have you seen the recent Spanx catalogue?
2. We hate low-cut jeans. We do not need to show our plumber’s crack when we sit to eat our frozen yogurt and watch Breaking Bad.
3. We could write a book on underwear — how much we hate it. We hate that we can’t seem to find good, reasonably priced underwear. We don’t want thongs, we don’t want to be picking at our oversized tuchases. We want to be covering both cheeks, thank you. We don’t want tight elastics so that our fat hangs over, we don’t want Granny panties, we do want something sexy, and we don’t want to pay $32 for a single pair (a la Hanky Panky).
4. We hate that there is no gray hair dye that helps you go from anything to natural gray. WTF? They can put a man on the moon, but not make a gray hair dye?
5. We hate that unless you are really, really tall, pants always need to be shortened and we have to pay extra for hemming.
6. We hate handbags that are heavy even when nothing is in them.
7. We hate that “they” lie about needing to dry clean everything.
8. We hate heavy earrings that do not come with earlobe supporters and cause our aging earlobes to sag.
9. We hate our friends when they ask us how much a recent purchase cost, as in, “That’s a pretty blouse, how much did you pay for it?”
10. We hate when we show up to a party in the same dress as another lady and they don’t laugh it off — but make a federal case of it.
11. We hate “fat” mirrors and bad lighting that emphasize even the smallest of thigh dimples.
12. We hate trying on skinny jeans in small dressing rooms — attempting to get the jeans over the muffin top while simultaneously having a hot flash.
13. We hate that there is no such thing as size any more.
14. We hate that there is no such thing as customer service any more.
15. We hate that we can never please our moms, no matter what we are wearing.
16. We hate that we are never happy with what our daughters are wearing.
17. We hate that fashion seems like it is only for tall, skinny women.
18. We hate that high fashion is often not comfortable or wearable.
19. We hate that fashion is too focused on youthful body types and not celebrating our beautiful, aging, fit bodies.
20. We hate bra shopping. We always have.
21. We hate sleeveless dresses — don’t they know we care about our “bat wings?”22. We hate “See Through” purses (actually, we hate “see through” anything.)
23. We hate harem pants.
24. We hate neon anything.
25. We hate cheap fabrics (especially with expensive price tags.)
26. We hate anything that could be worn by a stripper (see #27 below)
27. We hate thigh-high boots.
28. We hate that the “new” fad is almost exactly the same as the clothes we had been saving for the past 10 years, hoping they would come back into style — except the “new” look is just different enough to make you look like you’re wearing 10-year-old clothes.
29. We hate really old ladies in ultra-high heels who look like they are about to fall and break a hip.
30. We hate that fashion is a luxury for the 1%.
31. We hate that hammer pants will never come back into vogue. NB: I hate that I had no idea what hammer pants were until I looked them up on the Web (and I agree with #23, now that I’ve looked.)
32. We hate swimwear designers who don’t get that if they are selling a “D” cup top (hard enough to find), that it does not need padding, but it does require support. We hate that we have to go up an extra size when buying swimwear.
33. We hate camisoles with “built in” bras that have no support and don’t fit anyone with a bigger breast than a size B.
34. We hate that you can’t find a Diane von Furstenberg dress at Bendels in New York City that’s over a size 10. Do they not know that the average woman is a size 12 or 14?
35. We hate that it is really difficult to find a dress that hides our midlife knees.
36. We hate that we are always at war with mother nature, trying to cover what is happening to our bodies naturally.
37. We hate that we can never keep up — we always seem to be about two years behind the latest fashion trend.
38. We hate when we find clothes in our closets with the tags still intact.
39. We hate group dressing rooms. We hate them a lot. We hate them with a passion.
40. We hate “friends” who tell you that you look fantastic when you know very well you have gained 10 pounds, haven’t done your hair, and you have no makeup on.
41. We hate those stupid little belts and ribbons they include with dresses.
42. We hate those tight skirts that almost no one over 50 can wear.
43. We hate shoes with the bondage look.
44. We hate ballet slipper shoes with stupid little bows on top.
45. We hate dresses that are tight around the hips and sag at the boobs.
46. We hate (and love) all the absolutely, really beautiful shoes that give no consideration to comfort.
47. We hate that “they” seem to be skimping on fabric.
48. We hate yoga pants that show your camel toe.
49. We hate lipstick on our teeth.
50. We hate that no matter how many clothes hang in our closet, we seem to have nothing to wear. And that has been true for decades.
— Ronna Benjamin
About the time Ronna Benjamin turned 50, she had an epiphany. After 28 years , she realized she couldn’t stand being a real estate attorney for even one more minute (can you imagine?). She jumped into the world of writing as her “encore” career and never looked back. Ronna teamed up with Better After 50 founder Felice Shapiro, and soon became a partner, managing editor and weekly humor columnist for BA50. She writes about the things BA50s are concerned about: adult children, aging parents, illness, anxiety and insomnia, to name a few. She is a native Bostonian and loves to spend time with her wonderful husband and three adult children. She also loves to cook, sail, ski, run and bike, and she is always on the look out for the next great diet.
Joel Schwartzberg’s second book, Small Things Considered: Moments From Manliness to Manilow, is now available from Wyatt-McKenzie Publishing. An award-winning humorist, essayist and screenwriter, Schwartzberg has published work in Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, The Star Ledger, Babble.com and “in the flimsy pages” of regional parenting magazines around the country. In 2009, he published his first book, The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad.
Groucho Marx quipped, “A man is only as old as the woman he feels.” I suspect this is why my older brother married a woman 16 years his junior. I still haven’t made up my mind on whether I should admire or resent him for that. There are simply days when I would like to feel a bit younger.
I thought about this matter a week ago while getting a haircut. I have an unspoken agreement with the stylist who cuts my hair: the day my hair thins out enough to consider a comb-over, she’ll shave my head bald to spare me the embarrassment.
It was there that I also learned that I’d missed another benchmark of growing old: the eyebrow trim. Seriously, at 45 years of age, I got an eyebrow trim. I didn’t ask for it, didn’t consider it, but I guess I needed it. And suddenly I felt my old rocking chair call to me like the morning’s first cup of coffee.
As a younger man, I recall seeing the “old guys” who desperately needed eyebrow trims. I thought of myself having the wit of Groucho Marx as my years advanced but certainly not his bushy eyebrows. I’d come to accept that running 20 miles a week no longer kept my waistline in check, but having hair growth move from my scalp to destinations it had never been before was not on my bucket-list.
It’s not just the hair migration that serves as a yardstick of aging, but also visits to the doctor. A 50-year-old coworker of mine tells the story of going to the doctor for a terrible head cold. The doctor insisted on a blood work-up, and he conceded. But when the doctor also recommended a colonoscopy, the line was drawn. Apparently when you get to a certain age, a head cold also means a butt cold in the medical community. Doctors give out colonoscopies to 50-year-olds the way drive-through bank tellers distribute candy to children.
Even the unassuming checkout stands of the local grocery are subject to the laws of aging. My brother Jeff went to the store to buy a few groceries for his family. Nothing much, just enough to keep within the Express Lane limit. After the young man at the register rang him up, he gave my brother the total amount due and then added, “And I applied your senior discount, sir.” Jeff was about to protest when he suddenly caught himself and asked, “How much is that discount, son?” Upon learning the amount, he kept his protest to himself. “Five bucks is five bucks,” he concluded. It would seem that, the older we get, the more we do become our fathers.
Similarly, a lifelong friend of the family tells the story of his amusement in getting an AARP application in the mail the week before he turned 50. His wife gave him a good ribbing for that. But she found it far less amusing when she received her application in the mail when she turned 40. He enjoyed a good laugh over it until she gave him that “look.” Women, it seems, don’t acknowledge their age, and we men make it a point to never act ours.
My brother Mike, who turned 50 last year, is clearly doing his best to stay young in appearance. He claims his success is attributed to exercise, weight lifting and eating loads of fiber. He went into great detail about his regimental diet of oat bran, flax seed, omega-3 fatty acids, yogurt and bacterial cultures, and the resulting low cholesterol. It’s quite possible he’s going to live to be 100… but, under those circumstances, who would really want to?
And on that note, I’m going out to the backyard for a cigar. There are those like my brother Mike who would certainly frown on such behavior, but I’m a believer that it’s the life in your years that count, not the reverse. And though I seem destined to wind up with the eyebrows of Groucho Marx, I’m thinking that I just may live as long — but more importantly as full a life — as George Burns.
— Doug Clough
Doug Clough writes a column for the Ida County Courier in Ida Grove, Iowa, called “From our backyard…” His work has appeared in Farm News, The Iowan and Boating World, and he served as a travel scout for Midwest Living. “I am a father of a salad bowl family (aka ‘blended’), a customer service manager, the possession of my Labradoodle and — in a former life — an English teacher. Someone has to enjoy that mix; it may as well be me,” he says.
Okay, it was me. No one usually wants to admit it, and Lord knows I really shouldn’t be writing about this here but I promised to testify about things not easily shared.
I was in the subway station the other day about an hour after I had consumed a bowl of chili. The beans in the broth were not quite cooked and I wound up tossing about half of them out. Not enough time it seems to allay the damage.
Yes, I was having problems with gas.
Walking into the subway station I found myself unable to control the blast that was churning away and thought I’d let it escape delicately.
There was nothing delicate about it.
I realized this as soon as I felt the burning sensation. Others realized it within seconds. Two older women got the brunt of my indiscretion. Their eyes teared and hands immediately went to their nose and mouth.
“Agghh,” one woman exclaimed, “that is disgusting.”
As most women will do, her companion immediately piped up, “Well, it wasn’t me.”
No one was accusing her. Least of all myself.
Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for others in the station, the blast expanded so the culprit couldn’t easily be found. The station took on a thick air, which I was comfortable with but surely no one else was. The two women went around and around about the person who could have done such a thing. Suffice it to say that they thought this was a deliberate act of terrorism (and under other circumstances I might have agreed).
I did find it interesting that one woman kept defending herself (it wasn’t me), even though her friend had not accused her of anything. I find women, more times than not, take on the scapegoat role even if they haven’t been charged outright. “I’m sorry.” “Don’t think I did that.” “It wasn’t me.”
No, it wasn’t you — it was me. I could have announced my indiscretion and asked for your forgiveness, but I didn’t think I’d make it out of there alive. Even with the explanation of the chili, I really don’t think people were willing to listen. They were having a hard enough time breathing.
So what can I tell you?
I’m sorry. I haven’t eaten a bowl of chili since and was just grateful I wasn’t in one of the packed cars on the subway, but had the roominess of the station. You see — there are things to be grateful for if you just look at them the right way! And to the two ladies who were behind me? I’m dreadfully sorry. I’ll pay for any dry cleaning bills or wrinkle cream you had to buy as a result of my indiscretion.
Now that the air has been cleared, let’s move on.
— Lisa Rehfuss
bub-ble (bub/-l) n. a hollow globe of water or other liquid blown out with air or gas
It’s no wonder my granddaughter loves bubbles so much. Imagine building a hollow globe of liquid soap, and then releasing it into a beautiful summer day to dance but for a few moments on the whispering edges of a warm, sunny breeze. To wonder at its rainbow reflection on a surface so thin and fragile that it’s viewed only for a brief moment.
Oh sure, there’s the occasional bubble that lives far beyond expectations. The one that floats past the tree over the fence into the neighbor’s yard, then it’s slammed by a rogue breeze into a blue flannel shirt on old lady Griffins’ clothesline. You hail it as new World Record holder as you dance with triumph.
This small miracle I have come to take for granted is not lost on her. She dances and laughs with each and every one. Each new bubble is a new friend. Each new bubble has a different character.
Some bubbles are fat and heavy and sit down quick. “They don’t like to dance,” she giggles. “They lose their breath too quick!”
Some bubbles pop as soon as they’re given the breath of life. “Boomers,” she calls them.
Most bubbles linger for a while, dance a bit, blend in with the others and then they’re gone — kind of like most our lives.
But a few bubbles become legends, set to song. She runs into the house and in a sing-song high-pitched soliloquy (some parts only audible to the dog), breathlessly recounts their plight. She starts each story, and here I’m not 100 percent sure but the dog thinks so, with “Guess what?” Then dancing from one foot to the other, she acts out the story of ”Floaty the Runaway Bubble.”
“I blowed softly for like a real long time.” Pant, pant puff (she always talks like she’s just finished the 100-yard dash). “And then, and then I thought it was going to explode. But it didn’t! It started to go up, and then it went down! And then almost clunked me on the head! And then it just flew over me!” Pant, puff, pant, pant, puff. “Then it almost landed in Charlotte’s pool! Then Scratchy chased it and almost caught it, but then it went up (it’s here you should try to imagine some sort of ballet move that looks like it might hurt because she’s in that position) and just missed Daddy’s basketball hoop, and then, guess what?” (By this time the dog’s howling). “It popped. It just popped and disappeared!”
I watched as my granddaughter danced her story — a story that couldn’t be accurately told without interpretive arm and leg movements. Her constantly moving limbs match her hazel brown eyes that move to even the slightest distraction as she pirouettes around the room. Her black bubble-stained T-shirt could easily be confused for a young girl who managed to flee the clutches of an octopus attack. And her dirty sticky bare feet speak of bubbles that didn’t get away.
And then, as quickly as her story started, guess what? She’s gone! Some invisible rope tied around her waist had yanked her back outside. Slam goes the screen door. “Watch out! Oooh, oooh get up there! Move over! Higher!” sings my granddaughter from the back porch as she directs another batch of newly found friends.
I sit back in my leather recliner and half-heartedly turn my attention back to my wide-screen TV, all 105 channels of it, all available for my personal pleasure 24 hours a day, seven days a week in high definition. And I sit there, envious of the total love my granddaughter has for a sphere that in its simplest form is made from liquid.
Why can’t I love something that much? Oh I love my kids, most of them. And my grandchildren, all of them. But why can’t I obtain the simplest form of pleasure the way she does?
Is it because with age we can’t have love without desire? If I were going to blow a bubble I would think about making it bigger than my granddaughter did to impress her. It would have to go higher and farther and last longer. The desire to blow a better bubble has made it a competition, but only to you, not the child. She still celebrates every bubble.
Or has our understanding of love changed with time? We love our spouses. We look across at them in all their ready-for-bed glory and remember a time not so long ago. Then we go look in the mirror and thank them for staying on. We still love them, but some of the shine is gone.
It’s sad to think I’ll never love something ever again as simple and purely as my granddaughter loves those bubbles.
That kind of innocent love is rewarded to the very young. Remember to celebrate it with them. Color, blow bubbles, take walks, watch cartoons.
That love she has for bubbles is only one tenth of the love she has for you.
— Bob Niles
Bob Niles, who answers to Robert, Bobby, Dad, Grandpa, Unit No.2 (his Dad could never remember all the children’s names) honey and super hero, is new to writing but not to storytelling. “I like to make people laugh and to think, with a secret desire make them dance and send me untraceable $100 bills in the mail,” says the happily married, retired father and grandpa from Richmond in British Columbia, Canada.
Much has been written over the years on how to graciously accept a compliment. We teach our daughters to simply say “Thank you,” instead of automatically becoming self-deprecating (“This old thing? I’ve had it for years”) or coy (“Do you really?”) when someone says “I love your dress.” Personally, I’m still waiting for the day when it’s okay to reply, “You’re right. I look hot in this dress.” But God forbid we should appear vain or conceited, so we smile and voice some oversight (“But I look better with makeup”), suggesting we left the house that morning hoping, but unsure, that we looked suitable for public viewing.
Over the years (57, if you’re counting), I’ve concluded that many of us are marginally adept at receiving compliments, but woefully abysmal at giving them. We pepper our compliments with qualifiers (“for your age“) or wide-eyed, pseudo-innocence (“Gee, I could never do what you’re doing.”) The kind of statements that you’re taught to respond to with “Thank you,” while your brain is silently replying, “Bite me.”
Assuming you’re not a total male douche and still think “You know what would look good on you, baby? Me” is an acceptable compliment to any female, of any age, ever, or you’re a woman who thinks another woman, barely half-dozen years older than you, loves to be told she “looks just like your mother” (in which case you’re both so lost, I can’t help you), I’m offering up the 10 worst compliments I’ve ever personally received, in hopes of providing a glimpse into what we’re really thinking when we say “Thank you.”
1. “You look fabulous for your age.” What does that mean?? I look great because I don’t look 57? Is 57 a bad thing to look like? If I told you I was 47, would I still look fabulous, or would you be thinking “She’s only 47?? Damn, she looks 10 years older.” And when was the last time you told a 24-year-old that she looked fabulous for her age?
2. “Not many women your age can wear their hair that short.” There’s that pesky qualifier again. “Your age.” STOP THAT. So now I’m left wondering if you’re saying I shouldn’t either? This is the stepsister compliment to “My husband would never let me cut my hair that short.” What is this, 1956?? Who says “My husband wouldn’t let me…” anymore? I just smile and reply, “Yes, thankfully my hubs has a thing for human Chihuahuas.”
3. (After telling a co-worker I was starting a new diet) “You don’t need to diet. Your husband likes voluptuous women. My hubs likes thin women. But you’re lucky because you don’t have to worry about it.” Ouch. There’s so much wrong with this one, I hardly know where to start. Since you not-so-subtly stated that I’m fortunate because my husband prefers fat women, we’re just going to end our Facebook friendship right now, before this escalates into a public, online brawl, WITH CAPS.
4. “You’re 57? Congratulations.” Huh? Turning 57 is not an achievement or something we get some kind of middle-age trophy for. It just happens. All by itself. Seriously, I never put it on my Life Goals story board, so no congratulations are necessary. If you wouldn’t say it to a 30-year-old, don’t say it to a 50-year-old.
5. “Of course you can still wear a bikini. You’ve earned it. You deserve to flaunt whatever body you’ve got.” “Whatever body I’ve got??” Swell. Now I’m not going to the beach unless I’m wearing a burka. In black. At night.
6. “Older women look better a little heavier.” While this may be true, I’ve yet to meet any woman who likes to be referred to as either “older” or “heavier,” particularly in the same sentence. A double-don’t. (And for the love of God, never substitute “mature” for “older.” You’re likely to be shoved out of the car. While it’s moving.)
7. “I love your white hair. But aren’t you afraid it makes you look older?” No, actually, because that’s what I was going for. 57 seemed so, well…young, so I was going for 70. But thank you for letting me clarify that.
8. “You look great. Where do you get your work done?” Say whut?? This is the equivalent to “When are you due?” to a woman who is not pregnant. The latter suggests she’s either packing around an extra human or she’s simply fat, and the former suggests she couldn’t possibly look that good without a little surgical intervention. Either way, you better hope she’s not your Secret Santa at next year’s office Christmas party.
9. “Great dress. I admire you for still going sleeveless.” That’s okay. It’s a public service. When I raise my arms, the local meteorologist can tell the wind direction and speed by the flapping of my underarms like wind socks on a barn. You’re welcome. Now excuse me while I go get a sweater.
10. (By a saleswoman.) “You’d look great in this dress. And we have a full selection of Spanx on the second floor.” Gee thanks, but since you basically just stated that I’ll have to stuff myself into a toothpaste tube to wear the dress, I think I’ll pass.
So ladies, if we meet on the street, let’s just say “You look fabulous, dahling,” “Oh, so do you,” and leave it at that. And men, if you’re compelled to comment on a woman’s looks, a simple “You’re pretty” (or some similar, straightforward variation thereof) will be less likely to result in her feeling compared to your mother and/or accidentally (oops) spilling her drink in your lap.
Until we meet again. Did I mention you look hot in that dress?
— Vikki Claflin
Oregon writer Vikki Claflin writes the popular humor blog, Laugh Lines. Two recent pieces have been published in Life Well Blogged: Parenting Gag Reels — Hilarious Writes and Wrongs: Take 26.
For nearly three decades, my loyal, intelligent and, let’s face it, masochistic readers have said that I stink. This time, they’re right.
That’s because, in a display of gluttony that did not, unfortunately, take my breath away, I participated in a garlic-eating contest.
This pungent event was the highlight of the Long Island Garlic Festival, which was held recently at Garden of Eve Organic Farm and Market in Riverhead, N.Y.
As about 100 people crammed into a tent to get a whiff of the competition, which should have put the smell of fear in them but instead produced an air redolent with excitement, I stood at a long table with seven other contestants, all of whom could sniff victory and, more important from a dollars-and-scents perspective, the $100 grand prize.
“Did you practice?” asked Vanessa Hagerbaumer, an event planner who was the MC for the contest.
“No,” I said. “I figured nobody would want to come near me. Then again, if I started training this morning, I might have won by default.”
“That would have been a good strategy,” said Vanessa, who introduced the contestants and explained the rules: We would have two minutes to chew and swallow as many cloves of garlic as we could stomach. We could drink water to wash down what we ate. No spitting out or regurgitating garlic during the competition. A clove in the mouth as time ran out would be counted. Garden of Eve would not be responsible if we repulsed loved ones when we got home.
“Ready?” Vanessa said.
The crowd was breathless.
For the last time that day, so was I.
I popped a clove of garlic in my mouth and started chomping. I decided not to waste time by peeling off the husk, part of which got stuck in my teeth. The rest, along with the masticated clove, went down my gullet.
A split second later, I felt like a fire extinguisher had been set off in my mouth. The intense sensation blasted out my nose, eyes and ears. Undeterred, I ate another clove. Then another.
The onlookers, who probably could have used gas masks, were going wild.
Suddenly, it was over. I had inhaled 13 cloves of garlic.
I didn’t even come close to winning. That honor went to defending champion Mark Lucas, a high school art teacher and drama director who gobbled 22 cloves. His secret: “I used the palm of my hand to smash them on the table, then I just swallowed them.”
“I bet your students will pay attention to you tomorrow,” I said.
“If they don’t go home sick,” Mark replied.
His victory last year was not without consequence.
“I went to a party afterward,” Mark said. “A pregnant woman got nauseous, so I had to leave.”
A similar fate awaited me when I got home.
“Whew!” my wife, Sue, exclaimed when I walked in the door. “I could smell you coming.”
She had anticipated my odoriferous condition and bought a lemon, which I sliced and sucked on.
“Any better?” I asked, exhaling toward Sue.
“No!” she cried. “It’s coming out your pores.”
I chewed on some mint from Sue’s garden.
“You still leave a backdraft when you walk by,” she said, fanning her nose with her hand.
Finally, I tried a tomato.
“Tomato juice is used on dogs when they get sprayed by skunks,” I noted.
“Even a skunk would smell better than you do,” said Sue.
The tomato didn’t do the trick, either. What might have helped was $100 worth of breath mints, but since I didn’t win, I couldn’t afford them.
My only consolation was that I got an “I Love Garlic” T-shirt. It was the only thing about me that didn’t stink.
— Jerry Zezima
Jerry Zezima, who served on the faculty at the 2010 EBWW, writes a humor column for the Stamford Advocate that is nationally syndicated through the McClatchy-Tribune News Service and regularly appears in Newsday and the Huffington Post. He’s written two books, The Empty Nest Chronicles and Leave it to Boomer. He has won four humor-writing awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and was named EBWW’s Humor Writer of the Month in March 2012. He’s currently a semi-finalist in the 2013 Robert Benchley Society Humor Writing Competition.
It’s not that I carry a grudge against vegetables, it’s just that the few times I tried veganism (more to save a pig or cow than anything else), I felt hungry all the time. Maybe I didn’t do it right.
Here’s the thing: I’m not a “foodie.” I don’t live to eat, I eat to live. I’m not highly motivated in the kitchen. But if I had someone like Mollie Katzen, author of the 1975 best-selling Moosewood Cookbook, to cater my meals, I’d tackle them with the all the gusto of a grizzly bear.
Better yet, if scientists developed a once-a-day pill you could eat instead of food, I’d be all over that like white on rice. Beige on butter beans. Green on tea.
This morning, I listened to a radio interview with Mollie about her latest cookbook, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation. Hearing her speak about vegetarianism transported me back to December 1978, when I moved from Toledo, Ohio, to Big Sur, Calif., for Esalen Institute’s work-study program.
My work-scholar assignment during the first month was “lodgekeeper,” which included the preparation each evening of a salad for the staff, the work scholars and the “seminarians,” those seekers who came for the seminars, the hot baths and, (in their dreams), lots of sex!
Since the head honcho of the kitchen believed that using a Cuisinart would be spiritually cruel to the vegetables, and since Esalen had no difficulty attracting willing hands to do its sacred manual labor, I got to chop, dice, slice and shred for 150 people every night.
I paid Esalen $325 per month for the privilege of standing on my feet for 32 hours per week in the hot, crowded kitchen where I washed and prepared mounds of organic veggies picked that day from Esalen’s fruitful garden.
At lunch and dinner, I took my position behind the serving line, offering up to the hungry seekers a choice of entrees, either a vegetarian delight or a controversial something-with-a-face.
“Lasagna or pork chop?” I asked Jackie, a long-term member of Esalen’s famed massage crew, who had the scrawny look of a committed vegetarian.
“Lasagna,” she said, narrowing her eyes in contempt as if I had personally gone out and killed the pig.
“Okay, fine,” I said and scooped up what I thought was a rather generous portion, slapped it onto a plate and handed it over to her, expecting a polite “thank you.” I heard a snort as she skirted away.
This was the first time I became aware that food, other than by its absence, could be a problem, an “issue.” Midwestern cuisine was, well, not really cuisine but hearty, heavy, sometimes-gummy fare, which we were damn glad to have. “Pleases” and “thank yous” all around for chipped beef in a glue-like white sauce served over toast (which I later found out the Army dubbed “sh-t-on-a-shingle”), limp, pale iceberg lettuce and my mom’s 24-hour salad of fruit cocktail and cottage cheese mixed up with Kraft’s salad dressing and a dollop of Hellman’s mayonnaise, but just a little because it was expensive. Refrigerate that mess for 24 hours, and you were on your way to Lutheran heaven.
And we mustn’t forget “lutefisk,” a Swedish Lutheran Christmas delicacy of codfish soaked in lye and served in an oozy white cream sauce. Makes gefilte fish seem like a gourmet treat.
In spite of an atmosphere of personal freedom and an abundance of tasty comestibles, what seemed to rule the day at Esalen was food fascism. The vegetarians looked at us carnivores in disgust. They, in turn, were divided into not-quite-armed camps: The dairy and the non-dairy, each regarding the other as poor relations in need of salvation.
Pale and scrappy though they were, however, the vegetarians were always first across the finish line for seconds at the dessert table. You did not want to get in the way of their sharp pointy elbows.
My yearlong stay only hardened my commitment to food agnosticism. I now walk a fine line, eating turkey when it suits me, vegetables when I can summon up the courage to prepare them, fruit for dessert.
I do believe that veganism could cure many ills of our planet, but Mollie hasn’t yet answered my pleas to come and cook for me.
Until she does, I’m afraid thousands of vegetables will lie fallow and forlorn in the fields — little lepers begging to be my friends.
So many vegetables, so little time.
— Rosie Sorenson
Rosie Sorenson is the author of Humor Me! Short Amusing Takes on George Clooney, Fruit Fly Sex, the NSA, Halle Berry, Compassionate Rats and Other Wacky Topics. She won honorable mention in the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition in 2007. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Pittsburgh-Tribune Review and other publications.