Who Wears the Pants?

It’s strange what triggers memories. A couple of days ago I was putting on my gym clothes and pondering whether I needed to add an extra layer before going out in the cold. Thinking about the bare skin of my calves—the area between the bottom of my gym pants and the top of my socks and sneakers—I remembered how when I was growing up, girls were not allowed to wear pants to school. Even on the coldest days, we wore skirts with either knee high socks or tights.

            I don’t know why it was considered scandalous, disrespectful, and unsuitable for girls and women to wear pants. By the 1960s, it was not usual for women to wear pants at home or while involved in some physical activities. When I was in elementary school in Dallas, on phys ed. days, or on days when we wanted to play on some of the outside equipment during recess, we wore shorts under our skirts. It was uncomfortable and strange, but we accepted it—because that’s what girls did. Girls wore knee-length dresses, which were considered lady-like, but then preserved their modesty by wearing pants underneath. Crazy, right?

            By the time I went to junior high—still in a dress or skirt–we had awful gym suits to wear in our phys ed. classes. My seventh grade gym suit for my Dallas school was a one–piece white cotton bloomer sort of thing. The top part was like a short-sleeved shirt that snapped down the front, and then there were shorts attached to the top. It was baggy in all the wrong places, and just plain uuuuggglly! We wore white “tennis shoes” with it. It didn’t really matter what we wore because we didn’t actually do much of anything in my Dallas classes. We were just expected to be young ladies.

            In my Haverford Junior High School gym classes, we were expected to actually vault, play lacrosse, and do all sort of other physical activities I’d never ever seen, much less attempted to master (or in my case, just survive). We still wore ugly gym suits, but ostensibly they were a bit more stylish and comfortable. They were also one piece, but made to look more like shorts and t-shirts. (This was considered a big improvement.) The top part was red-striped, and the shorts were solid red. They were made of a kind of stretchy jersey fabric.

            One day when I was in ninth grade, an announcement was made that there would be a special day when girls—perhaps just the ninth grade girls, I don’t remember now—could wear PANTS TO SCHOOL!  Of course, we would not be permitted to wear jeans, only “nice” pants. So I went home and went through my clothing. I guess I didn’t have any “nice pants.” I ended-up wearing a too big pair of black pants that belonged to my older sister simply because there was no way I was going to show up to school that day in a skirt or dress. I was determined to wear pants that day, even if I had to keep pulling them up all day.

            By the time I got to high school the next year, we could pretty much wear anything. It became the style to wear jeans that were long and dragged on the ground so they got raggedy at the bottom. We also wore our hair long and rarely bothered with make-up. But guess what? I was a good student no matter what I wore, and I’m still a woman, although perhaps I’m not, and never was, “a lady.”  I can live with that.

            What a person wears can sometimes indicate a lot about him or her. Fashion is one thing. Fashion can be silly, but it can also be fun—but not if it’s coercive. Throughout the ages, both women and men have been told what they could, couldn’t, or had to wear. I understand uniforms and dress codes—you want to know someone is actually a doctor, electric company employee, or police officer before they touch your body or enter your home. I understand that when schools have dress codes (to some extent) or uniforms it often means getting ready in the morning is much easier for everyone and students perhaps are not distracted.

            What I don’t understand is that all over the world, women (and it usually women, gays, lesbians, or trans people who are affected) are told that they “asked” to be rape, assaulted, or killed because of the way they dressed. Really? Because I think if a man can’t control himself if he sees a woman in a skimpy outfit, then he’s the one with a major problem. I don’t think the world ended when the girls in my high school started wearing pants. I’ve edited an Encyclopedia of Rape and my Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast will be out sometime in the next few months, so perhaps I see fashion and fashion-related issues in a different way from many people.

            I’m not against fashion or dressing up. Although I work from home and normally wear sweats or sometimes even my pajama pants (like now), or my exercise clothes when I go to the gym, it doesn’t mean I don’t dress up.  I like seeing what celebrities wore at the Oscars, although if I missed it, I wouldn’t really care. When my older daughter gets married this summer, I plan to wear a fabulous dress (still to be found). However, that is my choice. If other people don’t dress up, I won’t be offended. I don’t think my daughter will care either. As mother of one of the brides, I want to look great. (And when I look back at the wedding photos, I don’t want to be saying to myself, “What were you thinking?!”) I also want to be comfortable though, and I want to be able to dance without a wardrobe malfunction.  So I won’t be wearing pants to my daughter’s wedding, but I also won’t be wearing the fashion essentials of the past: a corset, girdle, or a hat. I certainly won’t be wearing an ugly gym suit. That’s for sure.





The Sweetness of New Beginnings



I spent part of the past weekend baking challahs for Rosh Hashanah. Here in the United States, Monday was Labor Day, and many people here consider Labor Day weekend the unofficial end of summer. We’ll be having a small family dinner on Wednesday night, and a big extended family and friends’ meal on Saturday night at our house. In addition to the traditional staples–challahs, apples, and honey–we’ll have pumpkin-yellow split soup, brisket, noodle kugel, and many more luscious dishes–including apple cake, baklava, and maybe something chocolate, too, for dessert. Because chocolate is always appropriate and sometimes necessary. We might even have a kitchen disaster for extra excitement. There will be a variety of dishes to satisfy both meat eaters (did I mention a turkey breast, too, in case someone eats meat, but not beef?) and vegetarians (who needs brisket and turkey breast when there is good bread, soup, kugel, and vegetables?), and sufficient quantity (see above) to satisfy my own fears that there might not be enough food for everyone to feel totally stuffed and ready to vomit by the end of the meal. There also has to be enough food to send everyone home with leftovers. Yup, I’m not religious, but culturally, I’m the stereotypical Jewish momma, at least when it comes to holiday meals.


Challahs cooling on the counter

Challahs cooling on the counter


We had an extra freezer in our basement that broke at the beginning of the summer. I told my husband there was no real necessity to replace it because we don’t really use it that much. Then a couple of weeks ago, I told him in a panic that I needed a freezer to store all the challahs I bake for Rosh Hashanah. True story.


It seemed odd at first to be baking and preparing for the holiday on a warm summer afternoon when its seems more of a cool weather fall holiday to me. You might think I could adjust the menu for warmer weather, but then you don’t know my family. We don’t just have food traditions–we worship them.


But as I’ve been thinking about the end of summer and the start of fall schedules, the timing of the holiday seems perfect. Here in the United States, most schools have just recently started their fall terms or will soon do so. For my family, it is a fall of new beginnings. Our older daughter started graduate school last week. Our younger daughter just started her first grownup job as a high school English teacher. Since her Dad teaches math in the same school, this job is extra special to them both. It’s a one-semester position, which means they will cherish their temporary carpool and colleague status all the more.


During this past weekend, my mother was in the hospital. It appears to be nothing too serious, but her hospitalization is a reminder that she is 91-years-old, and it makes me reflect at this new year on the fleetingness of life and the need to live it to the fullest.  (Add resolution to avoid clichés in future writing.) As we dip our apples in the honey this year, I will look at the faces of my family members and friends, and I will consider all the wonderful things in my life and all that makes it sweet—from family and cats to books, TV shows, movies, theatre, and reading the morning newspaper while drinking that first morning cup of coffee. To seeing a beautiful sunrise and feeling satisfied at the end of the day that I accomplished the work I set out to do. To finishing a killer workout at the gym and appreciating that I can still do it. To hearing laughter and to crying tears of joy.


As much as I love good food, I love sharing it with family and friends even more. I need to remember to make time for them. I will remind myself to meet my deadlines (oops!), but to remember to play and laugh, too.  I will cherish my family, friends, and my pets. I am thankful for all of you who take the time to read my blog posts. I wish all of you a sweet, healthy, and happy New Year. Don’t forget the honey.


Maps of Life

Cropped section of original image of three anc...

Cropped section of original image of three ancient maps, public domain Scanned by WMF intern Mike Hoffman, uploaded by Bastique, and cropped by Editor at Large (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear. More precious, though, are the unpublished maps we make ourselves, of our city, our place, our daily world, our life; those maps of our private world we use every day; here I was happy, in that place I left my coat behind after a party, that is where I met my love; I cried there once, I was heartsore; but felt better round the corner once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth, things of that sort, our personal memories, that make the private tapestry of our lives.”

Alexander McCall Smith, Love Over Scotland

Recently the son of some friends did very well in his school’s Geography Bee. It made me think about the whole subject of geography—not really something I’ve thought much about. I’ve only had one formal geography course in my life, and it wasn’t even a full year’s course. This world geography class was part of the 7th grade curriculum at Haverford Junior High School, but I didn’t enter that classroom until March, after we had moved from Dallas to Pennsylvania. As I recall, the teacher was a no-nonsense man with a crew cut and glasses. On one of my first days there he announced that the homework assignment was to read a new chapter in the textbook. I went home and read the chapter—because I always did my homework. But, as we all know there’s reading, and then there’s careful, in-depth reading. I was surprised by the “pop quiz” the next day, but my classmates had already learned to expect one with each new reading assignment. “Oh yeah,” they told me, “He always gives a pop quiz after he gives a reading assignment.”  From then on, I was prepared, but I don’t think any of the facts and figures I learned during that course remains in my brain. I wonder how much of what I learned then even applies to world now?

I seem to remember lectures about the Danube and Elbe Rivers in one of those first lectures. I assume the course of the rivers has not changed significantly—although I don’t really know. But when I was in that 7th grade classroom, East and West Germany were separate countries, and Berlin was still divided by a wall. Much of Eastern Europe was controlled by the Soviet Union, which was still the Soviet Union. The Cold War was in progress, and US troops were fighting in Viet Nam. The names of African nations I learned as a child have changed. The world has changed—as it always has.

Over millennia, the Earth has been transformed many times.  Both physical and cultural geography have undergone changes as civilizations have appeared and disappeared. When Europeans first came to my section of New Jersey, there were vast forests on both sides of the Delaware River. There were islands in the river that no longer exist. English settlers lived in caves built into the banks of the river, and over time built roads and buildings that covered swamps. Since my husband and I have lived in our current house, new houses have been built on our block and trees have vanished.

Learning facts about geography is important and valuable, but it strikes me that it is like taking a snapshot of a particular time and place. The borders and names of countries and cities can change overnight during wars or political upheavals.  Physical changes can take place, too, as a result of natural disasters such earthquakes, tsunamis, or volcanoes, or human acts, such as bombings.

Even with satellites, photographs, and computers, maps identify terrains that are in reality fleeting and mutable. “Those maps of our private world,” as Alexander McCall Smith refers to them, are also fleeting and mutable, at least in the physical sense. The first house you lived in might no longer exist, but in the memory of your childhood, it remains constant and unchanged by time.

When I think of myself as that 7th grade girl, I realize I had to learn and create many new maps. My own personal geography had changed. My family had moved to a new town, a new house, and I was in a new school.  Despite my terrible sense of direction (I’ve been known to get lost getting out of an elevator), I don’t remember having any problems navigating the physical geography. I felt a sense of excitement, along with the apprehension. I didn’t know what path my life would take, but I fashioned some new maps as I walked it.

As we go through life, we create many new maps and learn to live in different settings, both physical and emotional. We graduate, we marry, we find a new job, we become parents—all of these life moments change our own personal geography. Sometimes it’s scary; sometimes it’s exciting. According to legend, ancient mapmakers labeled unknown areas with the inscription, “Here Be Dragons.”  In truth, we all face dragons and uncharted territory as we go through life. Our futures are Terra Incognita to be explored and mapped. But really, would we want it any other way?