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Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

A whole house to myself

In behavior, cities, culture, design, domestic life, life, urban life on June 30, 2012 at 1:35 am
Herbert Storey Cottage, Westfield War Memorial...

Herbert Storey Cottage, Westfield War Memorial Village, Lancaster (after 1924) (Photo credit: pellethepoet)

I haven’t lived in a house since 1988.

Even then it wasn’t a whole house, just our ground-floor apartment in a house at 42 Green Street in Lebanon, NH. I grew up in a few houses (interspersed with apartments) in Toronto and Montreal, but have never owned or rented one myself.

In NH, I loved the 1930s-era pull-out wooden cutting board in the kitchen. I liked having a lawn and a lot of room between us and the neighbors. I liked that our dog, a small terrier named Petra, could safely roam the quiet street for hours.

For the month of June, first at my Dad’s, then house-sitting, I’ve been living in a whole house. I’m now at a hotel for three nights — then back home to 1,000 square feet, no stairs, one door to enter and one to the balcony.

Houses are complicated!

Multiple doors, and stairs and a back yard and a front yard and a garden and garage and a driveway. (My Dad, typically, turned his garage into a painting studio and most of his gravel driveway into a garden. Kellys are like that.)

I’ve lived in the same one-bedroom apartment, (with such crappy closet space that I need a garage and storage lockers for things like skis, luggage, old paint, out-of-season clothing), since 1989 when I bought it, thinking, up and out to a house within a few years.

As if.

The doctor husband bailed just as he stopped being broke — and I started to. I’ve been there ever since. My second husband, then beau, moved in with me in the fall of 2001. His official moving day — seriously — was 9/11. He told the movers to come back in a week; his quick thinking on that day of terror helped The New York Times win their Pulitzer prize for news photography.

Our home isn’t large, and I also work there. But we have a great river view from the top floor, a balcony, pool, tennis court and a garage. It’s light and quiet and our monthly costs still low enough we save decently for retirement and travel. There are times I feel trapped and claustrophobic, but I value the freedom if offers me to write for a living without panicking over the monthly mortgage.

A house anywhere nearby, (in the northern suburbs of New York City), would cost $300,000+ (plus at least $12,000 a year in property taxes) — usually for an un-renovated 1,200 square foot 1950s box with a postage stamp lot. No thanks!

We could afford something battered 90 to 120 minutes’ train or car ride further north, in a much more rural area, or the decades-long burden of a huge mortgage payment. I prefer quick and easy access to Manhattan — I can be parked near the Metropolitan Museum within 40 minutes.

For the past month, I’ve enjoyed the temporary luxury of multiple bathrooms on every floor, a kitchen big enough to swing a cat in, (good thing there’s only a dog here), not to mention a walk-in closet bigger than my only (5 by 7 foot) bathroom at home. Room to keep an ironing board permanently set up.

But the responsibility!

The one I house-sat has huge gardens that needed a lot of watering in a heat wave, and a pool requiring daily attention — which paid staff do at our apartment building.

I prefer sitting very still, with a frosty G & T and a glossy magazine.

Do you live in a house?

Do you enjoy it?

Why getting sick in America is a really bad idea

In aging, behavior, business, family, Health, life, Medicine, politics, US, work on June 28, 2012 at 2:42 am
May_30_Health_Care_Rally_NP (641)

May_30_Health_Care_Rally_NP (641) (Photo credit: seiuhealthcare775nw)

One element of living in the United States sickens me to my core — the persistent inequality of access to affordable quality health care, something citizens of virtually every other developed nation take for granted.

Today the U.S. Supreme Court will hand down its decision on the constitutionality of what’s been called Obamacare, a mandate requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance. A CNN/ORC International poll released this month showed 43% of Americans favor the law, 37% think it too liberal, and 13% oppose it because it is not liberal enough.

I grew up in Canada, where health care, paid for through taxes, is offered cradle-to-grave by the government. Yes, it has some deficits, but everyone can see a doctor and go to the hospital without fear of medical bankruptcy, common here.

From this week’s New York Times:

When Wendy Parris shattered her ankle, the emergency room put it in an air cast and sent her on her way. Because she had no insurance, doctors did not operate to fix it. A mother of six, Ms. Parris hobbled around for four years, pained by the foot, becoming less mobile and gaining weight.

But in 2008, Oregon opened its Medicaid rolls to some working-age adults living in poverty, like Ms. Parris. Lacking the money to cover everyone, the state established a lottery, and Ms. Parris was one of the 89,824 residents who entered in the hope of winning insurance.

And this, on how confusing and frightening it can be to receive a fistful of enormous medical bills:

With so little pricing information available, expecting people to shop around for quality care at the lowest cost — something that’s not always possible in emergency situations — is also asking a lot of consumers. “I have always found a bit cruel the much-mouthed suggestion that patients should have ‘more skin in the game’ and ‘shop around for cost-effective health care’ in the health care market,” said Uwe E. Reinhardt, a health policy expert and professor at Princeton University, “when patients have so little information easily available on prices and quality to those things.”

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul law passed in 2010, tries to make some improvements (though the Supreme Court is expected to rule whether all or some of the law is constitutional this month). But while the law’s changes help you shop around for insurance policies — specifically through its new HealthCare.gov Web site, a one-stop shop that lists all of your insurance options in one place — it’s still unclear how effective the law will be for anyone comparing medical services.

On February 6, 2012, I had my arthritic left hip replaced. Thanks to my husband’s job, we have excellent insurance coverage, but I knew enough to do plenty of questioning, and negotiating, long before that gurney wheeled me into the OR to avoid nasty and costly surprises later. For example, I needed to make sure the surgeon would accept whatever fee my insurance company offered — decisions and prices I have no control over — but which would come bite me on the ass if I didn’t plan ahead.

I also had to make multiple calls to find out:

1) what the anesthesiologist would charge (about $3,800);

2) what my insurance would pay (about $1,000);

3) who would be on the hook for the difference. Me. (I told the billing manager I’d send my tax return to prove my income; $2,800 is a very big number for me.)

Jose, my husband, offered to look at the medical bills as they arrived, as they would only freak me out, not helpful post-surgery. The hospital — for a three-day stay, with no complications, charged $90,000. No, that’s not a typo.

Did they collect it? Probably not, but they routinely try for whatever they can get.

Then my surgeon billed $25,000. (Our insurance covered it all. Thank God.)

But…what if, like millions of Americans, I had no insurance?

Like my friend R, who is young, broke and lives without it. He recently slipped and fell on a wet sidewalk, needed an ambulance and needs physical therapy then surgery. Worst case, he’ll be paying off a huge bill for years, maybe a decade.

In my 24 years in the U.S. I’ve never lived one minute without health insurance; my mother has survived four kinds of cancer and I live an active and athletic life that also puts me at greater risk of injury. How ironic that being active, (fighting the great American scourge of obesity), can put you at risk of losing your shirt financially…

The cost of buying my own insurance, as a freelancer, left me with few additional funds for fun stuff like travel or nice clothes or shoes or replacing things in my home — air conditioner, dishwasher, computer — I needed and relied on. By 2003, it cost me $700 a month.

Health care is a right, not a privilege. We will all get sick or fall down or suffer a complicated labor or discover a tumor or suffer a heart attack. None of us is immune.

Many Americans cannot even purchase health insurance because they have — in that exquisite euphemism — a “pre-existing condition.” If you’re already sick, tough shit!

Seriously?

Life is a pre-existing condition. Americans, and their elected officials, must deal with this reality more effectively.

Have paddle, will travel

In culture, History, life, travel on June 26, 2012 at 12:11 am
Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall ...

Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall (Canada). Scene showing a large Hudson’s Bay Company freight canoe passing a waterfall, presumably on the French River. The passengers in the canoe may be the artist and her husband, Edward Hopkins, secretary to the Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoePierre Berton

Well, kids, I don’t personally know if that’s true. But I do know how much I love being in a canoe.

I rented an aluminum one this week for a big $7 and paddled for 45 minutes on the very edge of Lake Champlain. It was a long way from the 3, 5 and seven-day canoe trips of my adolescence, at summer camp in northern Ontario.

I loved how, still today, it felt automatic and natural to pick up a paddle and carve it smoothly and cleanly into the water with that distinct, delicious gurgling noise of water being pushed behind me only by my own muscle power. The gentle slap of waves against the hull. There’s an intimacy with the water and the land you can’t get any other way.

The last time I canoed, also solo, was in Quebec, on Lake Massawippi, where I crept up on that most elusive and Canadian of sights — two beavers swimming by. (I solo, so far, because my husband Jose does not swim, nor paddle. But since he bought me a tent for my 55th. I see a canoe trip in his future!)

I learned to paddle in 65-pound red wood-and-canvas canoes, learning strokes like the J, feathering, the pry, running pry, C-stroke. We’d set off into Algonquin Provincial Park, (7,630 square kilometres), our packs laden, our eggs packed in oatmeal, our cookpans covered with thick soap to protect them from burns. We got to know these dark, deep, cold lakes as well as our streets at home — Cedar Lake, Biggar, North Tea. We’d start out at the Amable du Fond, which sounds really romantic but was a river winding through a marsh full of mosquitoes, a winding passage deceptively easy compared to what lay ahead.

At night we’d hear the haunting cry of loons. If something crashed a little too loudly in the woods, we pretended it didn’t. We skinny dipped in water lapping against ancient granite, carved millions of years ago by glaciers. The air smelled deliciously of dried pine needles.

We portaged across muddy, rocky paths. Portaging quickly separated the wussies from the trippers — it means carrying all your stuff across a piece of land, no matter how steep or slippery or mucky or thick with black flies. It means hoisting that bloody canoe yourself, up onto your shoulders, solo or with another paddler, while also carrying a heavy pack, no matter how sweaty or miserable you are.

We didn’t freak out when a diabetic camper once took the wrong path — it’s easy to do when all you can see are your own feet and a bit of path beneath the canoe on your weary shoulders. Someone just ran and got her.

This is what you learn on canoe trips — what you, and your companions, are made of. Who whines. Who lily-dips. Who’s willing to scrub out the grimiest pot. Who freaks out over nothing and how deeply annoying drama is.

We paddled in rain, in fog, on chilly mornings. When we were sore and tired and fed up, when the lake seemed endless and the next campsite unimaginably distant, we’d sing, loudly, sometimes in a round with choruses echoing across the waters, a song written by a woman in 1918:

My paddle’s keen and bright
Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight
Dip, dip and swing
Dip, dip and swing her back
Flashing with silver
Swift as the wild goose flies
Dip, dip and swing

One of my favorite museums in the world is the Canadian Canoe Museum, in Peterborough, Ontario. If you are a lover of canoes and kayaks and the world they open up to you, it’s a must-see, with 600 beautiful examples of  both.

As every Canadian knows (or should), the country was opened up by the coureurs de bois and voyageurs often led through the wilderness by Indians along their well-established routes. Only at the Canoe Museum did I finally understand the bravery and organization it took to load up one of these enormous vessels — usually 25 feet in length or 36 feet.

June 26 is National Canoe Day.

Paddle on!

Want to work selling Apple products? Expect peanuts

In behavior, business, design, journalism, Media, Technology, work on June 24, 2012 at 1:46 am
Apple Inc.

Apple Inc. (Photo credit: marcopako )

Here’s a long, detailed and depressing story from today’s New York Times about how badly Apple pays its front-line workers:

America’s love affair with the smartphone has helped create tens of thousands of jobs at places like Best Buy and Verizon Wireless and will this year pump billions into the economy.

Within this world, the Apple Store is the undisputed king, a retail phenomenon renowned for impeccable design, deft service and spectacular revenues. Last year, the company’s 327 global stores took in more money per square foot than any other United States retailer — wireless or otherwise — and almost double that of Tiffany, which was No. 2 on the list, according to the research firm RetailSails.

Worldwide, its stores sold $16 billion in merchandise.

But most of Apple’s employees enjoyed little of that wealth…

About 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year. They work inside the world’s fastest growing industry, for the most valuable company, run by one of the country’s most richly compensated chief executives.

If you read the whole story, you’ll find one more tale of dashed illusions, of bright, eager and capable employees who thought — oh, honey we all did! — they were, you know, different. They’d make the impossible leap into management, a good salary, commission and/or a big raise.

Retail is the third-largest industry in the U.S. and the fastest-growing source of new jobs.

Shitty jobs. Part-time. Low wages. No benefits. No commission. No bonus.

Most importantly, and most confounding to anyone who still believes America is a land where hard work is rewarded with opportunity to rise, frontline retail jobs — no matter how sexy the product — typically offer little to no chance of upward mobility within the company whose huge profits your cheap labor enables.

As one worker told David Segal of the Times:

Like many who spoke for this article, Shane Garcia, the former Chicago manager, talked about Apple with a bittersweet mix of admiration and sadness. When he joined the company in 2007, he considered it a place, as he said, that “wanted you to be the best you could be in life, not just in sales.”

Three years later, his work life seemed tense and thankless. He had little expectation that upper management would praise or even notice his efforts.

Sales employees, Mr. Garcia and others noted, deal with stresses all their own. Though commissions are not offered, many managers keep close tabs on sales of warranties, known as Apple Care, and One to One, which is personal tutoring for a fee. Employees often had goals for “attachments” as these add-ons are called — 40 percent of certain products should include One to One, and 65 percent should include Apple Care.

Retail is a game of bait-and-switch, of metrics used against low-wage employees to prove they’re productive to keep their job — but never worth much more money.

I lived this world, as a part-time sales associate, working for The North Face, an internationally known brand of outdoor clothing and equipment for 27 months. I earned $11/hr, with no bonus or commission, no matter how much merchandise I sold. Like Apple workers, we were measured by things like sales per hour or UPTs (units per transaction.)

Yet, no matter how much merch we moved, we never made a living wage.

Like the Apple workers in this story, I also quit, (grateful to have boosted my writing income high enough to free myself), also deeply disappointed in the enormous gap between that brand’s sheen and the thankless grunt work of selling their stuff.

I wrote a book about it, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, out in paperback July 31 (also available, now, as an e-book). You can read the first two chapters free, here. It’s been compared to “Nickeled and Dimed” for its unvarnished look at low-wage labor in America and was nominated for the Hillman Award, given to “journalists who pursue investigative reporting and deep storytelling in service of the common good.”

Since initial publication, in April 2011, I’ve received dozens of emails from retail workers, past and present, managers and associate alike, telling me how accurate my book was in describing the hell of much retail work. I got the latest only a few days ago, from a Canadian woman my age, working in a women’s clothing store:

We make a small wage (no raise) and are expected to purchases clothes from our store that can cost us 2 months wages.  Most of us (sales associates) just buy our clothes at thrift stores.

Nice.

The Times story has clearly hit a nerve.

As I write this, 513 comments have already been posted; in the time it took me to finish this post, that number rose to 548…

Have you worked retail?

How was it for you?

My new boss…all 9.2 pounds of her

In animals, behavior, domestic life, family, life on June 24, 2012 at 12:46 am
Cover of "Small Dogs (Complete Pet Owner'...

Cover via Amazon

Boy, is she bossy!

Imperious, demanding, insistent, determined. Exhaustingly high-energy. She runs reallyfast then plops down and passes out.

She rings a small bell, hung at her height at the back door, which she strikes whenever she wants to go out, no matter what time of day or night it is. If you don’t jump up immediately, she fixes you with an indignant stare.

And she has this weird habit of licking my ankles when I come out of the shower.

While house-sitting, I’m also dog-sitting. She’s a small, low-slung terrier, (like my late lamented Petra, who died in June 1996.)

One of my favorite get-well cards after my hip surgery this year came from her…a folded card, posed in front of her at dog height, that read “One step at a time.”

I’d forgotten what it’s like to have a dog. Oh, the cuddles! (Oh, the barking!) She jumps into my lap wherever I am and keeps a careful eye on me when I’m in the shower. (In case I melt?)

She climbs across me, little claws digging into my flesh. (Hello, I have a new six-inch scar!)

I do love the insane enthusiasm with which she greets a patch of grass. The smells! The excitement! Like Petra, she does these little gazelle-like leaps of joy.

But she’s a nervous little thing, forever chewing on her metal name tag attached to her collar or shredding one of her many toys.

Let’s review: curious, imperious, high-energy, not good at sitting still, nervous tics, crazy excited about her environment, loves cuddles.

As a dear French friend once said of me: “T’es charmante et chiante a la fois!”

Exactement.

We might be a very good match after all.

Wandering the graveyard

In aging, behavior, culture, History, life, travel, urban life on June 22, 2012 at 1:11 am

Near the house I’m sitting in Vermont is a town with a small graveyard with some early stones. Early, of course, is a relative term in a nation as young as the United States.

I wandered there at sunset, the sun low and pearly in the sky. I was sweaty and sore from a major workout at the gym, feeling as alive and strong as I have in years. What better time to contemplate one’s mortality?

I always notice the same things in graveyards dating from the 18th. or 17th. century here — people who died at, then especially, a ripe old age in their 80s or 90s, but a large number of young wives in their early 20s and their tiny babies, some dead within a few days or weeks of their birth.

How must have life, and death, felt like then?

Women died in childbirth. Their babies died of a host of diseases for which modern medicines were far distant in the future: smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza. Doctors, if one even lived anywhere nearby, arrived at whatever speed their horse and muddy, icy or snowy roads allowed them — after being hastily summoned by someone riding, rowing or running at top speed to find them. Even then, they had only a limited armamentarium in their black leather bag.

Husbands might — as one man did in this cemetery I visited — have three or four wives in their lifetime.

How much more familiar and intimate the spectre of (early) death must have been.

Where I live, in a northern suburb of New York City, I was for many years puzzled by many small graveyards I’d spy as I turned back onto the highway. They’re shaded by thick, old trees, bordered with stone walls and a wrought-iron gate. I wrote a New York Times story about them, (how I often satisfy my curiosity about something), and discovered these had once been on family farmland, long since sold off, the graves left behind.

It’s so easy to forget who came before us and what their lives, and landscapes, were like. Early graveyards are a useful reminder.

Their marker stones are often very beautiful, with a skull or an angel, and deep incised script in red sandstone or white marble.

My husband is a Buddhist and wants me to cremate him and spread his ashes at our favorite lake in Quebec. I should choose the same method as, with no kids, I can’t see anyone going to kneel at my grave. My ashes, similarly, are probably best scattered into a Canadian lake from the back of a canoe, to the haunting cry of a loon.

If my husband dies before I do, who will even take care of my disposal and estate? Serious stuff I still have to decide and write into a longer and much more detailed will.

I have no idea where my grandfathers are buried, or my paternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother, a grande dame who squandered much of her considerable wealth, was cremated. My mother buried her ashes in a silver Russian tea caddy (what else? where else?) in a Toronto park. Yes, illegally. I have no idea where exactly…but I wave to her whenever the subway car passes through the Rosedale station, nearest to the park.

My maternal great-grandfather, a prominent businessman in Chicago in the late 19th. century, has a gorgeous mausoleum I hoped to visit when I was there last year, but ran out of time. At least I know he’s still there.

Do you ever visit cemeteries to which you have no personal attachment?

Why?

Five ways I’ve become American — and five Canadian holdovers

In aging, behavior, culture, life, politics, travel, urban life, US, war on June 20, 2012 at 12:22 am
A typical Baseball diamond as seen from the st...

A typical Baseball diamond as seen from the stadium. Traditionally the game is played for nine innings but can be prolonged if there is a tie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 24 years (!) since I left Canada, where I was born and raised, for the United States, it’s inevitable I’d take on some of the characteristics of my new home. Although I was always mistaken in Toronto for someone south of the 49th. parallel — I talked and walked too quickly, laughed too loudly, was far too ambitious and direct in my speech.

“You’re American, aren’t you?” is not a compliment there. (My New York City-born mother married my Vancouver-born father and moved north. She has since become a Canadian citizen. Both my husbands have been American, one from New Jersey [divorced 1995] and one from New Mexico, [married 2011.])

And yes, I realize, these are generalizations — there are Canucks who enjoy baseball and Americans who love to travel and desperately want some form of government health care.

Here are five ways I’ve begun to feel more American:

1) I enjoy watching baseball. Sitting in the stands for hours, inning after inning, watching the sky grow dark and the lights grow brilliant. Popcorn and a chili dog for dinner. Overpriced souvenirs. Hokey games on-field like the race between the hot dog, the ketchup and the mustard. I play second base and can hit to the outfield, (and did not grow up playing), so I now appreciate it more as a player.

2) I love how Americans do business. They just get on with it! I’m amazed and grateful for the chances I’ve been given to succeed and thrive, by people who don’t know me from childhood or my family or with whom I attended college or grad school. That takes guts and decisiveness, both of which I value deeply.

3) I fight like a demon over healthcare, bills and any form of my rights. The single biggest change an immigrant to the U.S. must make, and quickly, is realizing no one is looking out for our interests but you (and possibly your lawyer.) Coming from a nation that’s much more of a nanny state, Canadians tend to look to the government for their solutions. Not Americans! I think this is not a bad thing, but I do not envy those with little education, poor English skills or a shy personality.

4) I’m optimistic. This is huge. I didn’t used to be. But if you’re not, you’re toast. The United States, for all its many problems — a completely useless and fucked-up Congress, growing income inequality, outrageous costs for post-secondary education, racism, the war on women — rewards those who see the glass as half-full. Whiners do poorly here. I hate whiners.

5) I generally think people create their circumstances and success. Within limits. I can’t vote, so I’m not a Republican. But barring severe mental, physical or emotional disability, I think people can achieve much without endless hand-wringing or government intervention. I was a Big Sister, a volunteer mentor to a 13-year-old girl, about 14 years ago. It was a shocking eye-opener. I had long been a default liberal, but saw within minutes that her toughest challenges were being created by her own family, whose emotional abuse, manipulation of taxpayer-funded benefits and habitual behaviors left me stunned. (Yes, I was very naive.) I absolutely believe in giving help to those in real need, but have no patience with those who abuse it or take it for granted.

And yet…

1) I believe, strongly, that excellent health care is a right, not a privilege accorded only to those with jobs, or whose employers choose to be generous. Free-market health care is an obscenity and stupidly expensive.

2) Unions matter. Barely seven percent of private sector workers in the U.S. belong to a union. Workers are too often treated like crap; they can be fired any time, for any reason, with no penalty or severance. It still shocks me how weak labor is and how powerful the wealthy.

3) I revere nature. I feel more at home in a canoe than in an SUV. I completely fail to understand kids who refuse to play outdoors and parents who allow this. If you don’t feel a passionate, deep-rooted (pun intended) attachment to the natural world, why would you fight to nurture and protect the environment?

4) I know, and have always known, that I’m a global citizen. I’ve carried my own passport since early childhood and it’s my most treasured possession, in addition to my green card. Every nation is intimately linked to the others, and Canadians travel widely. We know it, we value it. (Only 30 percent of Americans own a passport — 60 percent of Canadians did, according to government stats, in 2009-2010. If you’ve never left your borders, how can you possibly understand, and care about, how others think?)

5) War stinks. It’s a terrible waste of lives, money and taxpayer income better applied to a whole host of issues — education, health care, infrastructure. It’s appalling to watch billions spent on two wars at once in the U.S. I never understood why I didn’t know more about Canada’s essential role in D-Day until my American husband took me to Normandy to the beaches and cemeteries there. For Canadians, going to war is seen as a nasty, last-ditch necessity, not a matter of national pride and economic interest.

bonus: Skepticism!

Canadians are generally much slower to warm up socially and professionally. We’re not (as many Americans have been taught to be) “real friendly.” Why bother? Until we know, like, trust and respect you, what’s the upside? In my time in the U.S., I’ve been scammed, cheated and lied to with breathtaking impunity — as my Mom warned me would likely happen. It’s left me weary and wary of glad-handers. I also now know, and have hired, a private detective and multiple lawyers. I get it.

This worldview also complicates trade and diplomacy between two countries, as their underlying principles are often quite different — American risk-taking versus Canadian caution; American in-your-face-ness versus a more European reserve.

Whether because I’m a journalist whose life has been spent questioning and challenging authority, or it’s cultural or I just like being a curmudgeon, this is one Canadian-ism I’m hanging on to for life.

What cultural differences matter most to you in your daily life?

Back again, 24 years later

In aging, behavior, books, business, culture, domestic life, immigration, journalism, life, urban life, US, women, work on June 18, 2012 at 12:06 am

The women are still lean, in Tevas and cargo pants. The men wear beards and drive pick-up trucks. The kids are plentiful.

I used to live up here, far from a big city. Muddy Subarus everywhere. Ads at the local cinema for a tattoo parlor. I knew Route 89 like the back of my hand.

I came to live in New Hampshire, in a small town, in the summer of 1988, with no prior experience of rural or small town life. I’d always lived in large cities: London, Paris, Montreal, Toronto. The absolute silence of our street was astonishing.

I followed the American man I would marry in 1992 — and who would walk out of our apartment, and our marriage, barely two years later.

The woman who lived here 24 years ago was terrified.

She — I — had left behind her country, friends, family, a thriving career. My whole identity. Anyone who moves to a new country “for love” better have a Teflon soul, a full bank account of her own and the stamina for re-invention.

I remember exactly how I felt as I crossed the border into the U.S. from Canada to move here — like a raindrop falling into an ocean. The United States has a population 10 times that of Canada. Surely I would simply disappear, never to be heard from, or of, again.

How would I ever re-build my career? New friendships? A sense of belonging? Who would I be(c0me)?

And so I used to look at all the women here — almost every one of them mothers or pregnant — apparently so secure in their identity and their marriages, roaming in packs.

I didn’t want children, and everyone here did, eagerly. I’ve never, anywhere — not even far, far away in foreign countries — felt so alien, isolated and disconnected. There were no jobs for which I was qualified. I knew not a soul. My boyfriend, then a medical resident, was always gone, returning home exhausted and grouchy.

That we were unmarried, even then un-affianced, seemed to make everyone deeply nervous. What was it, 1933?

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been.

I did love our apartment, the entire ground floor of a big old house. I did a lot of sailing. I spent every Friday at the local auction house and learned a lot about antiques.  Eager for more, I drove 90 minutes each way to Massachusetts to take a class in it there. For amusement, alone, I drove the back roads of Vermont and New Hampshire. I drew. I even drove every Monday back to Montreal to teach journalism.

But, after 18 months of my best efforts, I was desperate to flee, to re-claim a life that made some sense to me, socially, professionally and intellectually. So we moved to New York, just in time for the (then) worst recession in journalism in decades. After six relentless months of job-hunting and with no contacts to help me, I found a magazine editing job that required my French and Spanish skills. I’d never edited a magazine before.

Coming back now, I sat in the sunshine at the farmer’s market, listening to a band play bluegrass and eating a slice of wood-fired- oven-made pizza. I stared at all those mothers with their babies and their swollen bellies — and felt at ease.

I’d gone to New York. I’d achieved my dreams, surviving three recessions; in 2008, 24,000 fellow journalists lost their jobs nationwide.

Achieving my dreams would have been impossible here, then. There was, in practical terms, no Internet or cellphones. Social media barely existed. And no one had ever heard of me or read my by-line.

Nor had I yet paid my American dues — attending all those meetings and panels and conferences, getting to know editors, serving on volunteer boards, showing up, landing a few good jobs, getting fired, getting other jobs, getting laid off. Finding an agent, and then another one, and then another. Selling two well-reviewed books. Mentoring other writers.

It felt sweet to sit in the sunshine here, now, content in having done what I’d hoped to and which looked impossible, here, nestled deep within these green hills.

I no longer have to prove myself to anyone here.

Especially myself.

A nine-hour drive

In behavior, cars, cities, life, travel, US on June 16, 2012 at 1:46 am
Nick Drake, c. 1969.

Nick Drake, c. 1969. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, that was an odyssey!

As some of you know, I could have crossed the width of Ireland three times in the time it took me to get from my Dad’s house in Canada to the house in Vermont where I’m now house-sitting til the 29th, responsible for a pool, a charming small dog and a huge garden.

I started at 8:45 a.m., dropping my Dad off at the car rental place to start his day. As it would turn out, I was driving in tandem with a convoy of tour buses filled with chattering, texting, flirting 13-year-olds…and every rest stop I made, they made as well.

The 401, which runs east-west in Ontario, might be one of the world’s most boring highways — a straight line of asphalt with farm fields on either side for hundreds of miles. (Kilometers, there.)

So, if you’re alone, as I was, tunes are key. My new radio wasn’t working (!?) so it was CDs that would keep me energized and awake for the next day.

Corelli. Martin Sexton. Some Indian instrumentals. That was enough to get me to the Quebec border, where a big blue flag said “Bienvenue” and I switched to the Indigo Girls.

Montreal traffic at 3pm was no pique-nique…especially when the first road sign telling me to look for Route 10 never re-appeared. Nope. Nowhere. And Montrealers, where I learned to drive in 1988, drive fast. At least I could read the road signs in French and knew which streets were which as the exits whizzed past.

Finally, I hit the Champlain Bridge…and was overpowered by a terrifying memory of a story I  covered as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette. There is a lane on the bridge that’s a dedicated bus lane during rush hours, the same one I was now using to head south to Vermont. A car filled with young people had smashed head-on into a bus heading the other way…and I had taken (and passed) my driver’s test the following day.

The minute you cross the bridge, you’re in flat, green farming country, surrounded on both sides by barns, silos, cows. Enormous churches whose steeples gleam in the sunshine. I stopped for a breather and flopped into a deep bend to stretch out my back. I stood and caught the eye of a man in a purple polo shirt driving a flatbed carrying a tractor.

It’s fun to be out on the road alone, a redhead in a Subaru packed to the rafters.

The perfect music as I passed through towns whose names would take longer to pronounce than to drive through, like this one,  St.-Pierre-de-Veronne-a-Pike-River, was Nick Drake’s album Pink Moon, (his third and final one, whose title track was used for a Volkswagen Cabriolet commercial.) I adore it — meditative, soft and quirky.

It’s barely a half-hour from Montreal to the U.S. border.

I offered my passport…which I had forgotten to sign after I got it two weeks ago. I showed my green card (which actually, now, is green, which allows me the legal right to work and live in the U.S.) in which I’m still a blond.

“Why do you have so much stuff in your car?” the officer asked. I stayed calm and perky and confident, the way Jose has taught me to be: “I’m away from home for a month.”

“Do you have receipts for all those things?”

I actually did. Even my auction goodies.

I figured for sure I was due for a complete shake-down, but was waved through.

It’s always an odd moment when I cross the border between my two homes, the one where I grew up to the age of 30 (Canada, and where my family still lives) and the U.S. (where I’ve married twice and re-built my career despite three recessions.) I treasure elements of both countries and find deeply irritating elements in both.

Toronto pals wonder why I’m “stuck there” and New York friends wonder about the appeal of that 10-hour drive north.

I end up trying to explain American political gridlock to my Canadian peeps and Canadian health-care to my bewildered American friends who desperately crave a better solution but many of whom loathe and distrust any solution involving government.

As I faced my final few miles, I turned the wrong direction and drove another half hour the wrong way, The Doors blasting loud to keep me awake.

I finally pulled into my friend’s driveway after nine hours, grateful for a huge glass of red wine and Chinese food for dinner.

What’s the longest drive you’ve ever done on your own?

A small-town vacation

In beauty, cities, culture, domestic life, family, life, travel on June 14, 2012 at 2:01 am
BNSF 5307,EMDX 9006.

BNSF 5307,EMDX 9006. (Photo credit: therailroadrooster)

My father moved from Toronto last year to an Ontario town that’s become popular with retirees, with elegant, early brick buildings, a river, a few good restaurants and three bookstores. Not bad for a place with 16,500 people.

– I visit one of the bookstores, buy a paperback and introduce myself to the manager. “You’re the second author we’ve had today,” he says. The first? Alice Munro. That’s like strolling into a music shop and being told that Beethoven stopped in a while before you did.

– There’s a line-up at the chips fan, selling Extreme Fries. Dad and I order the sweet potato ones and eat them, gooey with ketchup. A million calories, but so good.

– It’s dusk here at 9:30, so that’s when the drive-in starts its first show. It’s out, of course, on Theatre Rd., surrounded by fields. There’s a little booth at the entrance with a stern warning, “This is not a campground.”

We pay $20 for our two tickets, tune our car radio to 92.3 and pick a spot with a good view. Little kids in pajamas settle into the cars and trucks around us. We watch Men in Black III. Dad falls asleep. It starts to rain, so I have to use the windshield wipers to watch the movie.

– We walk to the corner deli for lunch. There are all my Canadian favorites — smoked meat and butter tarts and Smarties — for sale. Yay!

– His next-door neighbor keeps bringing us wonderful food: a cooked salmon, chocolate croissants, muffins. She’s 89 and a Buddhist.

– There are two sets of train tracks, one for the CP rail freight train and one for the VIA/CN line that carries passengers. The station, built in 1865, is brightly painted inside and lovingly restored to period condition. I take my husband Jose and we wait until the turquoise VIA train stops, pulls down its metal stairs, and he climbs up with all his bags. This sort of rail-side parting, the holidaying wife left behind, the husband heading back to his work in another country, feels somehow timeless.

The lady in her cap and uniform pulls up the stairs. I try not to cry and wave him off.

The freight train is miles long, laden with metal containers from all over the world. What’s in them? As it pulls past us, which seems to take a deliciously long time, I wave to the conductor. You have to wave to the conductor, no matter how old you are. (You can’t wave to a jet pilot mid-flight, after all.)

I wave to salute him and all the men (and women) across the centuries who’ve done this essential work. The train still brings us salamis and shoes and computers and new cars, chugging across the landscape from some distant port, from a ship that brought them to us from somewhere far across an ocean.

It’s magic.

At night, the train whistles pierce the darkness, echoing through the trees.

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