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Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

Ten important lessons you’ll learn by traveling alone

In behavior, cities, culture, life, travel, urban life, women on July 30, 2012 at 12:01 am
GranBazar Istanbul

GranBazar Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I enjoyed this column in The New York Times about the distinction between tourist (arguably incurious) and traveler (insatiably so):

For the most fortunate among us, our travels are now routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur…Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods…We urgently need to reclaim the etymology of restlessness — “stirring constantly, desirous of action” — to signal our curiosity toward what isn’t us, to explore outside the confines of our own environment. Getting lost isn’t a curse. Not knowing where we are, what to eat, how to speak the language can certainly make us anxious and uneasy. But anxiety is part of any person’s quest to find the parameters of life’s possibilities.

I’m intrigued that every single day — for three years or so — readers of Broadside seek out my post about women traveling alone and whether X place is actually safe.

Kids, nowhere is safe if you’re stupid or careless! If you insist on drinking heavily/drugging/wandering off with total strangers to their (lockable!) home or vehicle and/or at night and/or dressing sluttily, seriously...

Would you take those risks in your home neighborhood?

It’s provincial and dumb to assume X is dangerous only because it’s unknown to you, and “foreign.” You’re missing a whole pile o’ world out there!

I took my first solo flight, from Toronto to Antigua, when I was about seven. I traveled alone through Portugal, Italy, France and Spain for four months when I was 22. Since then, I’ve chosen to be alone in places as far-flung as Istanbul, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia — and Los Angeles.

Ironically, I’ve only been the victim of crime at home, in Toronto, Montreal and suburban New York.

Some lessons I’ve learned you might find helpful as well:

A passport is a mini magic carpet

Once you have it in hand, literally, you can go almost anywhere. I’m still awed by the power of one small document to open the world. Which is maybe one reason I so love (yes) all the Bourne movies, where Jason Bourne always has a collection of passports and identities. So cool!

A current, detailed map is a wondrous tool

I’m old school. I have, and adore, the Times World Atlas, which weighs a bloody ton. I love flipping through it and dreaming about where to go next. I have maps of all sorts of places I haven’t even gone yet, like Morocco, but which allow me to study them at leisure and think about what I’ll do when I get there. Maps offer lots of intriguing possibilities and ideas for exploration.

Don’t play it too safe

Yes, you need to stay healthy and un-molested. But it doesn’t mean sitting at home terrified to leave the cosy and familiar boundaries of your town/state/province/country. Travel to a place that’s really challenging is an excellent way to discover what makes you deeply uncomfortable — and why.

When in Rome….

Do your homework and dress respectfully, paying close attention to local customs and taboos. I didn’t look a man in the eye in rural Portugal for three long, lonely weeks. Nor in Istanbul. I knew the rules, and played by them. There’s no ego battle involved, no need to “prove” that your country’s ideas are better. You’re in their world for a while, and it works just fine for them. In a global economy, we need to remember this, every day.

Dream really big, then find a way to make it happen

My Dad’s current partner is 77 and such an inspiration to me. Just before she met my Dad, she had committed to move to Mongolia and work in the Peace Corps; luckily for all of us, she picked my Dad. There are many avenues to creating, and funding, a domestic or foreign travel adventure: a fellowship, grant, temp on contract jobs, fruit or vegetable or tobacco-picking, farming, volunteer work, missionary work, finding work aboard a freighter or cruise ship, study abroad, au pair jobs.

The world is filled with kindness

Sappy, huh? I would never have seen this as clearly had I not taken the terrifying risks I did to venture off alone. I met some British Reuters reporters in Madrid who suggested I look up their freelancer in Barcelona, a German woman married to a Briton. In my two visits there, she: let me take a bath (it had been months of showers only); lent me her typewriter so I could write and sell some stories; paid for a cab to her home when I was really sick and broke, arriving from Italy by train late at night, and lent me her weekend home. This from someone I barely knew.

Being alone is work

It means you’re the only one in charge of all it: where to go, where to stay, where to eat, when to leave and how to get there. You have to change currencies and languages. If you get sick, you’ll have to find a doctor or hospital or pharmacy and explain the problem — something I’ve done in French and Spanish, sometimes in tears. I once had an allergic reaction, alone in Istanbul, that I thought might kill me; I’d totally forgotten I’m allergic to dust and mold, and had spent a wonderful afternoon looking at old rugs in the Bazaar. Every time the dealer flipped the pile, a cloud of it was filling my nostrils…I could barely breathe or swallow all night. Eating alone, especially in good restaurants, is another challenge; I always take a book or magazine, and I usually sit at the bar, where conversation is easy and often fun.

How capable you are! (or not)

Once we’re on the road of responsible (sigh) adulthood, with student loans and bills and a spouse and/or children, the challenges are often financial and emotional, but routine. Travel, by forcing us into unfamiliar surroundings and dealing with dozens of strangers whose motives we don’t know and may find confusing or opaque, forces us to up our game and sharpen our wits — never a bad thing! Trusting your intuition can save your life. Being resourceful is like lifting weights; you have to actually put things into motion to see results!

Total strangers will really like you

Seems obvious, right? Not if you’re shy or your family or work has been confidence-sapping. I’ve been amazed and delighted and grateful to find, and sometimes keep, friends in the oddest of places, whether standing in a post office line in Antibes or at a conference in Minneapolis or sharing a truck for eight filthy, tiring, crazy days with Pierre, a trucker who spoke not one word of English. I did that journey, from Perpignan to Istanbul, to write about trucking in the EU. We couldn’t shower for eight days, and one day — a sunny, windy day in March in some Romanian or Bulgarian parking lot — I begged him to help me wash my (short) hair, which he did, pouring water from a jug he kept in the cab while I lathered up. It’s been the most life-changing of choices to fling myself into the world and find, every single time, that I am often met with open arms. You don’t need to cart along the usual security blankets and identity markers: the right school(s), family, skin color, cultural preferences or clothing. Just be your best self.

The natural world awaits

Travel by canoe, kayak, dinghy, bike, mo-ped. Lace up your hiking boots. Take binoculars, tent and sleeping bag, backpack, camera, pen, sketchbook, watercolors and your willingness to be there, un-plugged. The happiest five days of my life were a trip I took, alone, to Corsica in June 1995. I rented a mo-ped down at the port in Bastia, and zoomed around La Balagne, the northern end of the island, reveling in the impossibly gorgeous fragrance of sun-warmed maquis, sleeping in lovely small hotels at the sea’s edge, riding (shriek!) through a pelting rainstorm wrapped up in only in a couple of garbage bags. I stopped at the Deserts d’Agriate, gaping in wonder at the moonscape before me. I have no photos. But oh, the memories! Here’s my Wall Street Journal story about it.

Bonus lesson:

Do something you normally do at home, or have always wanted to try, that makes you really happy.

Alone, I took a ballet class  in an 18th-century studio in Paris, a watercolor class in Mexico City, danced to live blues at Harvelle’s, a club in Santa Monica, ate some great barbecue in San Angelo, Texas, bought textiles in Istanbul and went horseback riding — through L.A’s Griffiths Park at sunset, galloping along snowy train tracks in the Eastern Townships and through arroyos near Taos. When you’re out there all alone, it’s comforting to do something familiar that you enjoy, but somewhere new.

Here’s a wise and helpful blog post from a couple who have been traveling fulltime for more than a year, with their seven lessons learned.

Here’s a great essay from a young woman at Salon about her experiences of travel alone, and why (I agree!) every woman must do it.

What’s a solo travel moment you enjoyed?

What female jocks learn — and Olympic athletes know

In behavior, life, news, sports, women, work on July 28, 2012 at 12:02 am

As millions of us tune into the Olympics today in London, Mariel Zagunis, a saber fencer from Beaverton, Oregon, who won the U.S.’s first gold medal in fencing since 1904 in 2004 was chosen to lead the 529 American athletes into the opening ceremonies. Her parents, Kathy and Robert, were rowers, who met when they competed in the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

FedZag6

FedZag6 (Photo credit: Kashmera)

When I moved to New York, and was eager for a new athletic challenge, I trained with a two-time Olympian, saber fencer Steve Mormando, and was nationally ranked in the mid 1990s in that sport for four years.

Fencing rocks!

Competing in sports, especially when you’re aiming for the top, teaches many powerful lessons, some of them of special value to women, in whom unshakable confidence and physical aggression can be seen as ugly, “unfeminine” or worse.

Some of the lessons saber fencing competition taught me:

– Saber (one of three weapons used in the sport), requires aggression and a sort of boldness that’s totally unfamiliar to many girls and women in real life. If you hesitate or pause, you can easily lose to the opponent prepared to start the attack. Go!

– In saber, you “pull distance” and create space between you and your opponent by withdrawing backwards down the strip and extending your blade. This buys you time, and safe space, in which to make a smarter or more strategic move. I’ve often slowed down in life when it looked like I should speed up or jump in quick. Fencing taught me the value of doing the opposite.

– Anger is wasted energy. I hate losing! But stressing out when I did lose, which is inevitable in sports, as in life, only messed with my focus and concentration. Move on.

– Pain will happen. Keep going. I was once hit, hard, early in a day-long regional competition and my elbow really hurt. But I had many more opponents to face and didn’t want to just drop out. Life often throws us sudden and unexpected pain — financial, emotional, physical. Having the ability to power through it will separate you from the weaker pack.

When I fenced at nationals, the first group of American women to do so, there was no option to compete in saber at the Olympic level, let alone world competition. It was frustrating indeed to work and train so hard, traveling often and far, competing regionally and locally, but never have the chance to go for the ultimate challenge, trying for an Olympic team position.

The sport was dominated by European men, and its organizing body, The Federation International d’Escrime, decreed that saber was (of course) too dangerous for women.

Now the U.S. has Zagunis, a young woman of 27, who dominates the sport.

This year, a new sport (which I truthfully find horrifying, but that feels hypocritical, doesn’t it?) — women’s boxing — has been added to the Olympics.

As we watch and cheer and cry and shout over the next few weeks, remember all the women along the way, their efforts often initially dismissed or derided, whose hard work and tenacity break down these barriers.

Did I choose the wrong country?

In aging, behavior, business, cities, Crime, culture, immigration, life, news, urban life, US, work, world on July 26, 2012 at 12:05 am
Globe

Globe (Photo credit: stevecadman)

How interesting to see that Canada — where I was born, raised and lived until 1988 — now has a higher per-capita wealth than the United States; $363,202 in assets to the average American’s total of $319,970.

From the website Daily Finance:

Indeed, the crash in U.S. home prices means that Canadians own real estate that is on average worth $140,000 more than that held by Americans. They also own twice as much property and have nearly four times as much equity in it after mortgages are taken into account.

One small bright spot for residents of the beleaguered U.S.: Americans still have greater liquid assets than Canadians. But even this statistic serves mainly to underscore the magnitude of the housing market catastrophe.

Public policy may be in part to blame: As The Globe and Mail points out, “Canadian leaders rejected mortgage interest deductibility,” making it somewhat harder for citizens to get so deep into mortgage debt. Moreover, subprime mortgages — those ignes fatui of the American economy — did not catch on in Canada the way they did here.

All of which leaves our “thrifty, socialist neighbors to the north” — who have long eschewed both the dynamism and the risk of the American system in favor of higher taxes, greater regulation and a sturdier social safety net — looking pretty clever right now.

Having survived three (so far) recessions in the U.S. since moving here, I’ve often questioned my decision. But I’ve also met some of my professional goals here, and more easily in a nation whose population is 10 times larger, than would have been possible at home, where about ten people in my industry got the best jobs and clung to them for decades.

I’ve married two Americans, one wretched, one not. I’ve survived being a crime victim here twice and the subject of a $1 million lawsuit from a minor car accident. Instructive!

Canadians are generally much more risk-averse, which I find boring and annoying (if, yes, more fiscally prudent.) Americans, for better or worse, are generally excited to try new things and less freaked out by failure. I like this a lot, and it’s one reason I came and stuck around. But it also assumes — which isn’t true for so many people here now – you can actually afford to fail.

Without a toxic mortgage I kept my home and built equity; the U.S. mortgage interest tax deduction (thank heaven) was a real help to me as a single freelancer.

The “American dream” of home ownership is typical of a major difference between the two nations — because it has long been such a powerful part of how Americans view their lives, no politician (even if it would have been wise to do so) dared mess with it.

And so bankers made out, literally, like bandits, selling the most appallingly toxic mortgages to people with no clue what they were getting into.

Canadians don’t have a “Canadian dream”, at least none I’ve ever heard as part of the standard cultural conversation.

The CDO crisis, fueled by greed on both sides and fed by the oxygen of enormous profits on one side and the illicit thrill of actually buying a house with 0% down, almost left the financial system here DOA. If you want to watch a real thriller, which really explains it, rent the terrific films Too Big to Fail and Inside Job.

While Americans, once more, are this week mourning the latest massacre of civilians attending a film near Denver by a deranged shooter armed with four guns, urban Canadians in Toronto are also confronting a shocking level of gun violence; ironically, Jessica Ghawi, a young sports reporter, had just escaped a shooting in June at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, a huge downtown mall, when she was killed in Aurora.

I wrote my first book about American women and guns, which one critic called “groundbreaking and invaluable”, my goal to understand, and explain, why Americans are so deeply attached to private firearms ownership.

But another recent shooting in Toronto claimed the lives of two people and when I went to check that story, yet another shooting had occurred since then.

So — which country is the better choice?

It’s an ongoing question for ex-patriates like myself, some of whom have husbands or wives or partners and children and jobs they value in the United States (or vice versa.) After the horror of 9/11, many of my Canadian friends urged me to “come home”, even though I’d already lived in the U.S. since January 1988.

While he loves Canada and would be happy to live there, my husband has a great job in New York City, which offers a pension we will both need. As an author and freelance writer, I can, theoretically, work from anywhere.

Both my countries have strengths and weaknesses.

The reasons we each choose to move, or stay, are multi-factorial: friends, work, climate, proximity to (or blessed distance from) family, excellent medical care and insurance, history, geography, a spiritual community, a landscape we love, a sense of history or shared culture…

Here’s a recent radio interview with Paul Martin, former Canadian Prime Minister, with Brian Lehrer, one of my favorite interviewers, on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. He does a great job explaining the differences in public policy-making between the two countries.

If you’ve left your native country to try another, how’s it working out for you?

If you’ve moved to the U.S., do you (ever) regret it?

Do you plan to move elsewhere?

Why?

Want to flee poverty? Don’t be American

In behavior, business, culture, life, Money, politics, urban life, US, work on July 24, 2012 at 1:56 am
Gini_Coefficient_World_Human_Development_Repor...

Gini_Coefficient_World_Human_Development_Report_2007-2008 (Photo credit: jiruan)

Depressing, lucid and infuriating, this recent piece in Bloomberg Businessweek lays out a stark analysis of American income inequality, now at its worst level in decades:

A recent finding nicknamed the Great Gatsby Curve may be the most controversial of all. With it, University of Ottawa economist Miles Corak makes the strongest case yet that inequality and mobility are intertwined—the more unequal a society is, the greater the likelihood that children will remain in the same economic standing as their parents. His research comes as the country—and the presidential candidates—debate inequality and what, if anything, government should do to slow or reverse its trajectory. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project, Americans believe more ardently than their global counterparts that “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill.” And yet, according to Corak, it’s as simple as this: “More inequality means less opportunity.”

The reporter only had to travel an hour out of New York City, where the magazine is published, to find extraordinary wealth — Greewnwich, Darien, New Canaan, Connecticut, home to billionaires — right next to grinding poverty, in towns like Bridgeport.

If the region were a country, it’d be the world’s 12th-most unequal, ranking just below Guatemala. Economists measure income disparity using the Gini coefficient: A measure of 0 means all money is evenly distributed; 1 means one person has it all. The U.S. had a Gini of .467 in 2010, up 2 percent since 2000, census data show. (With the exception of Chile and Mexico, it has the highest level of disparity of the 34 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.) The Bridgeport region’s Gini grew 17 percent during this time, to .537, making this 625-square-mile swath home to the biggest income divide of any metropolitan area in the U.S.

I live a 20-minute drive from these towns, so I see these disparities in my own life.

They are increasingly common here, and increasingly intractable.

– If you can prepare sufficiently to get into college, can you handle the work and graduate?

-- Can you even afford college? How?

– Can you get a job that pays your bills and your student loans?

– Can you save any money?

– Can you afford to acquire, if necessary, even further educational credentials?

– Do you have the requisite social skill and emotional intelligence to take advantage  of — and create for yourself — every possible connection and opportunity?

The leap from poverty to even relative affluence seems unimaginably large now for too many.

My husband grew up in a moderate-income family, his father a Baptist minister of a very small congregation in a small city. Thanks to his father’s service, Jose was able to attend college on full scholarship and graduate debt-free.

Armed with talent and drive, my husband won a secure job at The New York Times in his mid-20s. Today, I wonder how many could replicate that leap.

I came to the U.S. from Canada in June 1989, seeking better work opportunities. I had several clear advantages: no children; serious savings; a demanding liberal arts education and college degree, no debt; fluent English; competence in two other foreign languages.

Plus, perhaps most crucially, confidence in my abilities and the (ugh) willingness to cold-call more than 150 strangers to land my first New York City job.

Today, full-time freelance, earning about that same staff salary 24 years ago, I probably look like a downwardly-mobile failure, which is pretty ironic, given my initial ambitions for immigrating. But I still have short and long-term savings, thanks to a combination of extreme frugality, a lucky lawsuit settlement and a husband with a decent, union-protected income.

A low-wage job, part-time with no health insurance, is no way out out of poverty. In the United States, in 2012, the word “job” is now about as meaningless as the word ‘blue” to describe the sky. 

Millions of working-class and middle-class Americans are being totally knee-capped by crappy wages, part-time work, no union protection, (7 percent unioized in the private sector, 12 percent in the public), chronic unemployment or underemployment — and no one who really gives a damn whether things get better for them.

Yesterday, The New York Times ran a story about how many older Americans are now losing their homes, even those who lived frugally. The cost of living here is crazily rising while many home values have plummeted:

Once viewed as the most fiscally stable age group, older people are flailing…while people under 50 are the group most likely to face foreclosure, the risk of “serious delinquency” on mortgages has grown fastest for people over 50…

Among people over 75, the foreclosure rate grew more than eightfold from 2007 to 2011, to 3 percent of that group of homeowners…

Older Americans are losing their homes because of pension cuts, rising medical costs, shrinking stock portfolios and falling property values, according to Debra Whitman, AARP’s executive vice president for policy. They are also not saving enough money.

Half of households whose head is between 65 and 74 have no money in retirement accounts, according to the Federal Reserve.

I’ve put that last sentence in boldface because it is so deeply shocking and depressing. Fifty percent of Americans facing the traditional age for retirement have no money at all beyond their Social Security benefits?

So, even if you flee poverty in your teens or early adulthood, you’ve got a 50 percent chance of hitting the skids in your golden years?

Nice.

Do you fear falling (further) into poverty?

Any thoughts on how to fix this mess?

But it’s exactly what we wanted! How did you know?

In behavior, domestic life, family, life, love on July 22, 2012 at 12:40 am
Wedding Gift

Wedding Gift (Photo credit: INIJIE)

It’s summer and, in North America anyway, it’s wedding season!

If you’re getting married any time soon, be sure to practice this phrase.

Because you will get some seriously weird shit as wedding gifts.

If your wedding gifts are given in cash, score! No such luck for me.

Here’s a blog post about the 10 items couples should register for, but never do…

Every time I watch the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and see the couple get a house — a house?! — as their wedding gift from her Dad, I wonder what that would be like. (My Dad gave me a knife set for the first wedding and a set of sterling salt and pepper dishes for my second.)

We recently got a belated wedding gift from a friend we see fairly rarely. He gave us…a gong. So cool!

Jose and I are now competing to see who gets to ring it first/most/most often and under what circumstances:

– come to bed, at once!

– you’re snoring. Off to the sofa!

– breakfast/lunch/dinner is served

– time to drive me to the train station

Unlike a toaster/blender/vase, you’re fairly unlikely to get multiple gongs. Maybe not even one.

My favorite nuptial gifts, (from both of my weddings) have included:

-- a pair of binoculars

– a picnic basket

– a mini-blender

– a drawing of several nautical knots (get it?)

– a gorgeous wide, deep bowl perfect for pasta or parties

– a gift certificate to one of our area’s loveliest restaurants; (this from a couple who live nowhere near us, who did their homework)

Don’t wait too long to select or send your wedding gift. One friend waited almost two full years after attending my first wedding.

Her gift arrived just in time for…my divorce.

And here’s a website where you can actually get a refund if this happens to you, oh generous gift-giver!

What’s the best wedding gift you received?

Or gave?

The worst?

The terror/joy of a new project

In behavior, books, business, culture, design, journalism, life, Media, work on July 20, 2012 at 12:06 am
Русский: Изображение использования душа Шарко

Русский: Изображение использования душа Шарко (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Maybe a jet of freezing cold water against your kidneys would do it?

For the past year, I’ve put off finishing the proposal for what I hope will become my third, commercially published non-fiction book.

I had a gazillion quite legitimate reasons excuses:

– I’m getting my hip replaced (which crippled my hands?)

— I’m recovering from hip surgery (and too busy playing Ipad Scrabble)

— I have to go to physical therapy three times a week (which of course consumes 24 hours of the day)

– I need to make money first (actually true)

But the deeper, tougher, sighing truth is…

I’m scared.

Every creative venture for which you seek external interest, validation or sales — your Etsy site, your play, your poetry, your drawings or music or pottery or stained glass — must find its audience at some point.

If you need people to pay for it, let alone pay you well and buy more and more of it, maybe to pay for your food and shelter and your kids’ new shoes, the stakes are even higher. No pressure.

Like anyone with a creative idea, I want it to find favor. I also want, and need, for my ideas to sell for some serious money, for once. To finally get the editors with very deep pockets to call me for a change.

What if it were a game-changer? (What if it’s a total failure and no one wants it?)

(Which likely explains the voyeuristic pleasure of watching all those reality TV shows where people have to be reallycreativereallyfast, like Design on A Dime or Cake Wars or my favorite [yes] Project Runway. “Make it work” is a great motto for life!)

I’m also ambivalent:

I love writing books.

I hate the endless time-suck and income-drain (paying for assistants and PR help and finding every possible way to get people to read/review/love the damn thing) that comes with its eventual publication.

I love the thrill of an agent, then an editor saying “Yes! We’re in.”

I hate the crazy-making and ever-tougher contracts they send later.

I love getting enthusiastic emails from readers.

I hate getting shredded by anonymous trolls on amazon.com.

I went away for the month of June, spending two weeks alone with no television or company to distract me, telling everyone (hah!) I’d be working on my book proposal. I took all the notes I’d made, and the latest draft and my sources…and didn’t even take them out of my suitcase.

Nice.

But I started working on it in earnest last week — (which suggests the vacation had the desired effect) —  and, reading through my source material, found some things I’d forgotten. I started getting excited about this again and stopped doing everything else but that. Hours flew by and I kept cranking.

Then I cold-called a source whose resume and background, (being appointed to various committees by a few Presidents), were terrifyingly august, which I began the conversation by telling him.

I know that one of the best ways to up your game, when possible, is to get some Big Names on-side, people whose opinion carries weight and whose interest in a project can help you discern what larger interest exists in your iteration. It’s also really intimidating!

(The bad news is that it makes your stomach hurt with anxiety. The good news, if you’re smart, genuine and persuasive, you’ll find a few allies. Hey, all they can do is say “No.”)

But he took my call, and immediately got the idea. He’s as passionate about the subject as I am and knows this stuff inside out. So I asked (gulp) if he’d read the proposal. And he agreed.

I asked another wise source, and she promised to read it it this weekend. While it’s scary to show an idea-in-progress to people who know about 10,000 times more about the issues than I do, I’m also really grateful for fresh eyes and smart input.

Much as I fear criticism, knowing I’m on the right track will also help me pitch it with greater passion and conviction. (I realize as I write this, that within academia, for better or worse, you have a thesis advisor; I never went beyond my B.A., so I have to scout out these mentors when and where I can find them.)

After re-working the same material for months — probably like many of you — I need fresh eyes. I lose all perspective on it.

Do you find yourself dicking around and postponing work on your creative projects?

Do you find others to help you with them?

What successfully gets you — and keeps you — moving ahead on them?

Didn’t you plan to be 55?

In aging, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, life, love, women on July 18, 2012 at 12:12 am
Universal Life Insurance Company

Universal Life Insurance Company (Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

Actually, no, I told him.

He’s the man who sells us our insurance and Jose and I were in his office yesterday morning pricing life insurance. Automatically seeking the least expensive price category, I looked at “elite preferred non-tobacco” — i.e. really healthy people!

It was marked N/A. Because we’re already too old.

Holy shit.

Frankly, I’d never considered pricing life insurance, but that’s why I married a man whose most common phrase is: “Be careful.”

I never planned much of anything, I realized, when asked.

Which shocked me into writing this post…

From the age of about 12, I wanted to become a journalist, and ideally a foreign correspondent. I knew I never wanted to have kids. I figured I might get married eventually, but it was never anything I thought much about or fantasized over; I’ve now done it twice.

But planning?

Hmmm, not so much. I knew I wanted to move to New York for work, but did not know exactly how that would happen. I did start writing for major American publications in my mid-20s, freelance, to start building some contacts. I even interviewed for a staff job at the Miami Herald in my late 20s. But actually leaving everything behind?

I ended up meeting an American medical student in Montreal, fell in love, got a green card through my American mom, and crossed the border to follow him, for good. I still had no definite agenda beyond finding work in my field and eventually, as I did, marrying him.

I would say, truthfully, I’ve spent a lot of my time and energy preparing for these goals:

– I studied French and Spanish throughout university to gain fluency

– I started freelancing before I was 20, so I learned a lot, quickly, about my industry and made contacts within it

– I knew I wanted to write a few books, so I took workshops and attended conferences which taught me how to write a proposal and find an agent

So why haven’t I been more directed in plotting a specific direction and set of coordinates for getting there quickly and efficiently?

I’ve always had self-confidence and have bounced back from some very rough times emotionally, so have always (correctly) assumed whatever shit showed up, I’d cope somehow.

I have good skills, and a variety of them.

I have savings.

I’m pretty smart.

I don’t take drugs or drink to excess, which could seriously cloud my judgement or decision-making.

I’ve also been faced with some serious headwinds that impeded my younger/idealistic assumptions about what I’d be certain to achieve professionally: three recessions since 1989; 24,000 journalists fired in 2008; having to re-start my career at 30 (i.e. losing the first eight years’ hard work and social capital when I left Canada).

And being fired from a few jobs also killed some of my drive. It’s painful and humiliating and every time it happened I lost a little more appetite for climbing back into that harness with a clear action plan ahead of me. Having my first marriage end within two years also shook my sense of certainty about planning for the future.

But, if I look back over my career and life, I’ve achieved pretty much everything I’d hoped for without a tick-the-box meticulousness.

Especially living in an affluent part of the gogogogogogo United States, I see a lot of people making themselves (and their kids) crazy when they fail to achieve their specific goals — getting into X college or Y company, not earning as much as they’d expected to by 25 or 30. I think that attitude adds tremendous stress, unnecessarily.

I always knew the broad outlines of what I most wanted:

interesting, well-paid work

intellectual challenge

good health

a loving and loyal partner

dear friends

frequent travel

a safe and attractive place to live

enough disposable income for cashmere, decent wine, tickets to the ballet occasionally

My mother, now in a nursing home at 76, inherited enough money in her 40s that she never had to take or keep a job. So she traveled the world alone for years. She never taught me the normal tools: how to dress, wear make-up, stay employed, find and nurture a husband, balance a checkbook. Nor did my Dad, a celebrated film-maker, still world traveling and kicking ass at a healthy 83.

They’re fun and interesting people, but normal and conventional life issues like wills, insurance, planning for the future  (beyond, crucially, save money and stay healthy), just weren’t part of our conversations.

So, did I plan to be 55?

Hell, no more than I planned to be 17 or 29 or 37 or 42.

Are you someone who does a lot of planning?

How does that affect your life?

Would you please have sex with that chair?

In behavior, business, culture, life, travel, work, world on July 16, 2012 at 1:50 am
The most commonly known foreign languages (inc...

The most commonly known foreign languages (including Irish as a second language) in the Republic of Ireland in 2005.

Je parle francais.

Hablo espanol.

I speak two languages in addition to my native English — “speak” means conducting a general social conversation. It does not mean discussing nuclear physics or how to perform some surgical intervention.

Nor do I have a handle on the boatloads of idioms that make one a truly elegant speaker; one of my favorite blogs is this one, which sends out a fresh French idiom — almost as good as a baguette! — every day. (Elle a du chien, je crois.)

I wanted to speak both languages to work as a foreign correspondent; by the time I’d acquired the necessary skill and experience, journalism had begun its lurching descent into cost-cutting and foreign bureaus worldwide were being shut down. Tant pis!

But being someone in New York who speaks two foreign languages has helped me win jobs, both staff and freelance. It seems to awe the uni-lingual. (Educated Europeans speak 4, 5 or 6 languages and think little of it.)

I’ve lived in France and Mexico, and have visited both places many times. I hope to retire to France, so speaking the language well (better!) is important to me. My American husband, Jose, who is of Mexican descent, had a fun time with me when we visited Mexico…as everyone turned to him and began chatting in Spanish, which he understands but does not speak. He’d point to me, the white Canadian girl, as the one who actually does speak it.

Speaking French gave me the best year of my entire life, on an eight-month fellowship based in Paris that sent me all over Europe to do reporting on someone else’s dime. It allowed me to work in Montreal, where I met my first American husband, at the Gazette. It allows me to think seriously about retiring to France, as no language barrier daunts me.

Maybe this is simply having grown up in Canada, which has two official languages, French and English. Growing up there means seeing many items labeled in both languages. It’s completely normal to meet fellow Anglophones who speak fluent French — without which any government job is difficult-to-impossible to obtain.

I never understand people who disdain the notion of learning another language, a second or third tongue. It has opened doors to me professionally and personally, allowing me to make friendships that would have been otherwise impossible, like those with Mila (Brazilian) and Yasuro (Japanese), who shared that glorious fellowship in Paris. I don’t speak Portuguese or Japanese, but we all got along famously in our second shared language.

I lived in Mexico for four months when I was 14, and quickly learned two new adjectives, often hissed suggestively at me by men on the street or the bus: fuerita and juerita. (Little foreigner and little blondie.) I had an older, fatter friend  — she was fuerota/juerota.

Of course, trying to communicate in another tongue means making some delicious mistakes.

In French, the verb baiser can to kiss or to have sex with. The meanings of words, in Spanish, can change significantly from one country to another — so coger (to physically pick up, one meaning) can also mean to have sex with. Yes, I’d like you to have sex with that chair, please!

You can imagine…

My mother, traveling for years alone through Latin America, once declared passionately that she had many toilets! (Tengo muchos excusados...meaning, she thought, “reasons.”)

Do you speak several languages?

Which ones?

When and where do you use them? Why did you learn them?

Dites-nous!

Flowers and plants and shrubs — oh, my!

In beauty, behavior, cities, design, domestic life, life, Style, urban life on July 14, 2012 at 12:04 pm

I love this blog, {frolic}, and this post about a gorgeous plant nursery in Sweden.

I love nurseries and garden centers!

Buying flowers and plants makes me so happy. I enjoy getting up early in the morning to say hello to them all, watering and spraying them before another 80 to 95 degree day. (Did you know you shouldn’t spray plants when they’re already in direct sun? The water droplets act like magnifying glasses and can burn into the vegetation.)

We only have a small balcony — 12 feet wide by six feet deep — but it gets a lot of sun and wind, facing northwest and on the top floor of a six-story building with no shade beyond the building’s own shadow.

Here are some of this year’s plants (so far), clustered at the base of our Alberta spruce, which has already weathered several brutal winters exposed to frigid temperatures and high winds.

This year’s include heliotrope, lavender, marigold and back-eyed susans. One year we chose a flower that attracted tons of daddy-long-legs. Oooops!

The way we make the best use of our tight space is with talaveras, brightly colored hand-painted ceramic pots and wall planters Jose bought for us in Tucson. They add a cheery note and we store them away in the garage carefully every winter. They’re not cheap, but so much prettier than clay pots!

I’ve also spray-painted several clay pots bright lime green and deep navy blue, to match our balcony fabrics and decor.

In addition to the talaveras, we also hang three small doves of unpainted terra cotta,  — the photo at the top of this post — that double as (unused) candle holders. I bought them in May 2005 at the edge of the Salto San Anton, a small waterfall in the neighborhood I lived in when I was 14 in Cuernavaca. We went back expecting to find it totally different — but the empty field I used to gaze into instead of doing my homework was still, all those years later, still an empty field.

Here’s a photo of the other end of the balcony, which becomes our outdoor cafe for the summer. We set up a pretty table, with matching napkins and cutlery, glasses and plates in a range of blue, yellow and green that I’ve collected over the years, some vintage, some antique, some new.

The bench is just a homemade plywood box, (which contains all our hardware, tool boxes and gardening tools), with custom-made cushions and pillows that make it into a banquette we can easily toss indoors when it rains. Some of them are made of vintage fabric, one of them of two napkins I sewed together. The printed dark blue fabric is a bedspread that covers the hideous pebbled glass divider between our balcony and our neighbor’s.

Here’s a lovely blog post from London, about her balcony garden, recently chosen for Freshly Pressed.

Do you have a garden?

Details, please!

Negotiating — every freelancer’s challenge!

In behavior, books, business, culture, life, Money, work on July 13, 2012 at 12:02 am
Freelancer (video game)

Freelancer (video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)very single new client means a new set of negotiations. Your ability to negotiate will make the difference between surviving and thriving, intellectually, physically, emotionally — and financially.

I began selling my photos when I was 17, and my writing when I was 19, so I’ve been at this for a while. I also grew up, as I’ve written here before, in a family of freelancers. No one had a paycheck or pension, just their talent,  hard work and ability to negotiate — or have an agent or lawyer do it for them.

So I grew up lucky in this respect, knowing firsthand that many things in life are negotiable.

Tips:

— Know what you want to achieve before you take/make the call, send the email, Fed-Ex a work sample or schedule a meeting. People are busy, juggling family and work, study and travel. The kind of people you probably most want to negotiate with, i.e. with a budget or network that might use your skills, are probably really busy. Decide exactly what you want to have happen as a result of your interaction with this person: a gig, a contract, a column, an ongoing relationship, a referral. That clarity will focus your thoughts and actions.

– What’s your fallback position? We all know we might not get exactly what we want or even 20 percent of what we want. So what are your Plans B-F? Have a few alternative outcomes in mind, and ones less demanding or risky to your contact, so you don’t have to end the conversation with a shrug or silence. I’ve asked for all kinds of things I never got. It’s all experience, information and practice.

– Know, and stick to, your absolute deal-breakers. We all have them. They’re called principles. Know when and why you will simply walk away from a deal. Unless you’re about to become homeless if you don’t take on this gig, you have choices. Never assume you have to take on anything because you are young or inexperienced or new to the city, whatever. If a contact really skeeves you out, drop it. There are other clients out there! Yes, really.

– Do your due diligence. Before you initiate contact with anyone with whom you hope to do business, you must try to find out who they are, how they think, where they were educated, (back to grade school, if possible), their cultural or religious background, their global perspective (or lack of same) and some of their private passions, whether soccer, Chopin or ska. Your goal is not only not to offend, but to connect, authentically and enthusiastically, with their interests, experiences and values. Most people want to work with smart and enjoyable people, not just perky opaque robots trying to suck up to them and sellsellsell. Between every form of social media, and some thoughtful sleuthing, you can easily come to the table with a deep(er) appreciation of your contact’s perspective.

— What do they want? Basic, but easily forgotten in our rush to get the gig, get paid, get paid more, become famous, get the referral, whatever. You must have some clear notion how they’re thinking about this meeting, (even only by phone or email), in order to think through your arguments and talking points. What’s their motivation for taking your call, reading your email or coming to a meeting with you now?

— Have you investigated the potential obstacles to getting what you want from them? Maybe your contact’s life is in turmoil professionally or personally, (i.e. be patient), or their business/industry is tanking (see: due diligence), or they don’t know enough about you to feel you’re worth their time or money or (worst case) they might have heard or seen something negative about you. Until and unless you anticipate (and overcome) these possible roadblocks, your negotiation is imperiled by poor preparation.

— Never arrive empty-handed. I don’t mean arrive at a business meeting carrying flowers, but bring some intellectual brio to the game. I had two meetings in the past two days, one by phone with someone who is an absolute leader in his field and one this morning with another like him. I was honored, and nervous! In both instances, to my surprise, I shared some information with them that was news to each. The point? Offer something of value to them — a book, a link, a blog they might not have heard of, re-con on a client or conference in your shared field of interest. Don’t just suck up their time and energy.

— Assistants and secretaries are your best friends. I’ve often been on a first-name basis with someone’s right hand long — i.e. months of calls and emails to them alone — before I ever got to deal with my target client/source directly. Be kind, patient and genuinely friendly with them. They’re making decisions about you with every contact, and can grease the wheels to a meeting, (and that negotiation you’re itching for) or kill it.

– Know what your competitors are doing. Every freelancer in the world is competing with dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of others with excellent skills/education/contacts/experience. Don’t freak out about it. But be aware what others are getting (in payment, terms, conditions) by staying on top of your industry. So if you come in quoting rates much higher than your competitors’, be ready for push-back and know how to clearly explain the value you offer. (If you’re always desperately low-balling, that’s a failed negotiation in my book.)

– Why do they want you? This is key to a successful outcome. Unless or until you’ve established a clear, consistent and impressive track record that shows your value, you don’t have much. This puts you in a weak(er) negotiating position. So what’s your strategy? Will you work for less? (Maybe there are other significant benefits here beyond cash.) Can you get a referral or reference from this client? If you have a strong hand, use it! I’ve asked for more, and gotten it. You can’t get (any of) what you don’t ask for.

– What’s their budget? A standard question I get is: “How much will it cost me to have you….” Edit a manuscript or write website copy or help tailor a query letter. My standard answer is: “What’s your budget?” That often kills it right there, as they have no idea, or they hope it’s really cheap, and I’m not. You also to determine their goals, timeline, internal and external obstacles and resources. If they can’t pony up the money you want(ed), is there another benefit this gig or client can offer?

Here’s a great book, “Getting to Yes.”

Any tips you can share?

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