Julie L. Kessler
lawyer traveler writer


Omitting Women Altogether

Oct. 4, 2012

Yesterday the L.A. Times business section contained a remarkable story by Tiffany Hsu. In the article, Hsu reported that the Saudi Arabian’s version of the Swedish retailer Ikea’s catalog had omitted something. A striped chair perhaps? A flowery sofa? An avant-garde Scandia shaped box of glassware? No, the Saudi version omitted something a bit more, shall I say, utilitarian to its bottom line.


The Saudi version of the Ikea catalog simply erased all the women pictured in the Swedish retailer’s catalog. That’s right. Only men and boys in the household catalog pictures for the Saudi’s.


The world has long debated and been critical of Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women, which is well known in this regard to be one of the most restrictive and repressive in the world. However, the complete omission of not only half its population, but the very segment of the population who makes the vast majority of decisions vis-a-vis household furnishings and decoration is mind bogglingly stunning for what the omission represents in a broader human sense.

In general terms we tend to omit what’s superfluous, unimportant, redundant, boring, stupid, offensive or otherwise not useful from our art, our literature, our culture and our stories. We don’t simply white out entire segments of our population based on gender just because we have access to an app for that. Now mind you, the Ikea catalog is hardly titillating as Playboy, not exciting as a trip around the world, and certainly not as scandalous as say, the former governor of California’s recent and incredibly lame interview on 60 Minutes. No, the Ikea catalog is precisely what it purports to be: a catalog of household furnishings, decorative items and textiles uniquely designed, affordably priced, mostly green and virtually impossible for the average Homo sapien to assemble without the aid of fourteen extra hands, preferably one with a PhD in architectural engineering. Some peripheral extra sensory perception probably wouldn’t hurt either.


The gender omission is of course even more remarkable given that Scandinavia in general and Sweden in particular has some of the world’s most progressive equal rights laws protecting women. It also has some of the most generous maternity and child care leave employment protection laws anywhere on the planet.


The Ikea Group was quick to issue a statement saying that the altered Saudi catalog clashes with its values and that the Ikea Group does “not accept any kind of discrimination.” The Ikea Group went on to clarify that Ikea Saudi Arabia is run by a franchisee outside the Ikea Group. That may well be true, but the fact remains that the franchisee gets its merchandise from the franchisor, which of course is the Ikea Group.


If the Ikea Group truly does “not accept any kind of discrimination,” then the Ikea Group can make a decision not to sell their products in countries where blatant gender discrimination is part of the daily social fabric. The Ikea Group certainly can’t force its values on countries with values different from its own and the majority of the world. But the Ikea Group can make a fiscally difficult though socially and morally correct judgment about what steps to take next.


I am neither naive nor Pollyanna and the Ikea Group will, in all likelihood, continue to sell their products in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere where half the population is simply eliminated from its social discourse. But I have only one question. How were all those men and boys in the Saudi catalog born and raised since apparently there are no women in the homes, at least not homes furnished or decorated with Ikea products? I’ve heard that invisible women make rather strange bedfellows.

At Home on the Range

Sep. 25, 2012

As I was leaving an independent bookstore where I dropped off few things for an upcoming book signing, I came across "At Home on the Range" by Margaret Yardley Potter, the great-grandmother of Elizabeth Gilbert of "Eat, Pray, Love " fame. Not only did I pick up "At Home on the Range" and read the back cover, I discovered that it was a cook book, and yet still I took it with me. This was startling for a few reasons. While I love both reading and eating, anyone who knows me knows I seriously hate cooking. I also intensely abhor shopping for things to cook. And I detest cleaning up after cooking or shopping even more. However, since Gilbert wrote the preface of "At Home on the Range," and I admired her other writings, her great-grandmother’s book accompanied me to NYC this past weekend, much to the chagrin of my teenaged daughter.


Never in a million years could I have predicted what happened as I traversed the country in the bumpy blue skies: not only did I read every single page of great-grandmother Gima’s book, I dog eared at least a dozen pages of it. More importantly, I fell head over heels in complete admiration of Gima. What wit, what humor, what writing style, what smarts! That Gima was way ahead of her time was a vast understatement. This woman completely rocked and would have in any era! So much so, that I not only read an entire cookbook, I thoroughly enjoyed every single page of it. Though of course, everyone who will read this book will learn that while it may be a cookbook, and a very good one at that, it is in fact so much more than a ‘how to’ cook book. It’s more of a ‘how to fully live while you are lovingly feeding some of your favorite people’ book. And this came no less from a woman who did her heartfelt and culinary magic during some pretty tough years in the early twentieth century!


As my plane neared JFK, I finished the last page, tucked it safely into my carry-on bag and thought what an amazing woman Gima must have been. And how very lucky her family was to have had her grace their lives, despite her life's relative brevity of her life.


In the preface of the book Gilbert wonderfully honored her great-grandmother Gima and her remarkable life. To add the proverbial icing to the cake, all proceeds from the sale of "At Home on the Range" will go to ScholarMatch, a nonprofit organization that increases college access for low income students of exceptional promise. I’m sure Gima would have been beyond proud to have a legacy which will help provide those in need with an avenue to learn and discover their own passions. Without a doubt, Gima is in a heavenly place along side her trusted range, cooking up a storm or baking a few loaves with an enormous smile on her delightfully lovely face.  JLK

The Best Postal Snafu Ever

Sep. 12, 2012

Sometimes you simply must hand it to the post office. The beleaguered U.S. postal service is of course as American as apple pie, though perhaps not nearly as useful. However I don’t like apple pie.


A year ago my husband, the kids and I moved into our new home, literally four blocks away from our old house. Two weeks before the move I dutifully went to my local post office with a change of address form. Actually, not one, not two, but four, since funny enough, my husband kept his name when we got married, and our two remaining teenagers at home now get plenty of their own mail. I waited in a long line and finally handed the completed forms to a harried clerk and that apparently was that.


For the first three months in our new home we received about half our mail. We learned this only when I received a text message from an unknown number that some important mail of ours would be left for me outside our old front door. This went on for about another three months: a brief text, a quick thank you in response, and a dead drop collection when ever convenient. I continued with my monthly trips to the post office with completed change of address forms. To no avail.


A few months later, while working in my home office, the doorbell rang. I open the door to face a stranger who said “I was going to text you but I was walking to the beach, so here you go” and she then handed me our mail. We stood there for a nearly an hour talking when I realized we were still standing outside (such bad manners) and I invited her in. And that was the beginning.


She has become one of my closest and dearest friends and we now routinely “toast the postal service” with gratitude for its ineptitude. Our mail still regularly goes to her home, but now it’s just yet another excuse to take a walk to the beach, have a glass of wine or simply toast the post office and laugh.


So while I can’t seem to be able to get the post office to get our mail straight to save my life, I may just send the postmaster general a thank you card and a box of chocolates instead for the serendipitous and timely arrival of one of life’s best treasures: a great friend. JLK

You Have To Do The Foot Work

Sep. 10, 2012

You Have To Do The Foot Work is the working title of my next book. The title was inspired by a kindly tennis teacher who continues to not so kindly remind his stubborn students that the various tennis strokes they attempt will simply not bear fruit if the footwork isn’t properly executed and followed through.


I pondered that concept for a few days and it stuck with me as having a far larger meaning than simply on the tennis court. There is obviously (pardon the pun) a concrete foundation for all important things in life which one wants to accomplish, whether personal or professional.


Interestingly enough, this concept came home to roost this past Friday morning once again while on the tennis court, though this time without our tennis teacher. Our somewhat irregular Friday foursome was in the last throes of our doubles match. A fairly rambunctious group of women comprised of a former career flight attendant with a wonderfully infectious hearty laugh, another with a constant smile the size of Alaska, and the fourth, a lovely lady from Tennessee who is a far better player than the remaining three of us, yet always gracious in her compliments when we manage a good shot.


An hour or so into the match, two handsome men, probably in their early 30’s in wheel chairs descended on the vacant court next to ours. I became utterly mesmerized by them. They were fitted with some specially designed athletic wheelchairs which allowed for maximum maneuverability and stability on the court. One of the two was a tennis coach and also had a specialized cart for his constant supply of tennis balls. I could not take my eyes off of these two men. Watching them play tennis was akin to seeing The Bolshoi Ballet perform Swan Lake, albeit without the tutus. These men glided across the court, turned and swerved short, hit the ball, maneuvered the distance again, slammed the ball, slid across the court, repeat, repeat, repeat. From purely a physics standpoint, I couldn’t make out how they managed to race back to the speeding ball in time to slam it, time and time again.


I was completely mesmerized. Hooked on watching the men on the next court, I nearly got a concussion when a ball came right at my head from Ms. Alaska, but I wasn’t at all prepared as I was so intently watching the two men. (For sure, some of you are now thinking “What else is new, you are always watching men!”) Fortunately for me, our match was over 20 minutes later, and I then spent the next several minutes intently watching these two men having a ball while playing ball.


It got me to thinking about “Foot Work” and what it means for each of us. Without a doubt, these two men were doing all kinds of “Foot Work,” but amazingly without the benefit of their feet. It was something to watch and a sight to behold, and admittedly, I spent the majority of the weekend intermittently looking at my feet, thinking about the thousands of miles around the world they had traversed without complaint and likewise carried me judiciously in various runs the world over. My gratitude was palpable and I embraced in my mind’s eye those two tennis players whose “can do” spirit in the face of staggering odds was utterly awe inspiring. You Have To Do The Foot Work for sure; but one thing is clear, there are very many ways of doing that. JLK