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Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Do this before you turn 30

In aging, behavior, domestic life, life on October 31, 2012 at 3:48 am
Paris Sunset from the Louvre window

Paris Sunset from the Louvre window (Photo credit: Dimitry B)

As Broadside has grown — now almost 3,000 readers worldwide — it turns out that many of you are in your 20s, even teens.

Oh, the 20s!

I loved mine and have so many great memories of that heady, dizzying decade. Dated a ton of guys, from the bad-boy Serb with the black leather trousers to the blue-eyed Welsh engineer working in Khartoum I met on an airplane to the Actor who dragged me off on a three-day canoe trip from hell. I began writing for national publications right after my college graduation until 1982 when I won a fellowship to go to Paris for eight months and travel Europe on someone else’s franc.

I shrieked with joy when that letter arrived, desperate to flee Toronto, a stale relationship and the hamster wheel of freelance work.

At 26, back in Toronto (that boyfriend now history), I was hired as a staff writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s best newspaper, having never studied journalism or any newspaper experience anywhere. But by 28, I was bored and restless and at 29 moved to Montreal to work for the Gazette. I needed to lift my foot off the gas pedal of workworkworkworkwork. I wanted a husband, (and found one there, a tall, clarinet-playing American medical student at McGill.)

My 20s were a heady mix of insatiable professional ambition, dating, taking five dance classes a week, ballet and jazz. I traveled alone to Kenya, Tanzania, Ireland, France and England for pleasure — in addition to traveling to places like Copenhagen, Istanbul and Sicily for my fellowship. For work, I met Queen Elizabeth, spent eight days crossing Europe in a truck with a French truck driver and danced in the ballet Sleeping Beauty at Lincoln Center (as an extra). I had a small black terrier named Petra.

So, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, for those of you hoping to get it all figured out (hah!) by 30, some advice:

Date a few people who aren’t your “type.” You’ll learn something about them, yourself and the world. I once dated a man named Bob from a small town in Saskatchewan, who drove a Beemer and worked at IBM and wore white shirts and blue suits. In the middle of a dinner party with my writer friends, he said, “You’re a bunch of limousine liberals.” He was right.

Become financially literate. Understand, if you live in the U.S., what a 401(k) is and why you need to pay into it, right away and every year. Especially If you’re self-employed, put away 10 to 20 percent of every check you earn and be thoughtful about how you invest it. Read widely and deeply on personal finance so no one can bamboozle you. I suggest the books by three funny, down-to-earth, plain-spoken personal finance writers I’ve interviewed: Americans Manisha Thakor, Carmen Wong Ulrich and Canadian Alison Griffiths.

Learn the meaning of the acronyms RRSP, REIT, ETF, APR. Learn your FICO score and how to improve it.

Have two credit cards. That’s it. And one of them is only for emergencies. Make sure they have a low APR, preferably 10 percent or lower.

Needs beat wants. You want a $600 handbag/new car/bigger TV. You need: food, water, safe housing, health, savings, a decent education and good friends.

Conduct yourself professionally! Use proper grammar, diction and spelling in every business communication; dress appropriately for the occasion or job; look people in the eye and shake their hand as if you mean it. Show genuine and sustained interest in their skills and experience. (Thanks to social media there is no excuse for not preparing adequately for a meeting. conference or job interview.)

Get a passport and use it. Try to flee your native land at least once every year. We live in a truly global age. You must learn firsthand how other people live — and not just by visiting “Paris” in Vegas. Here is a beautiful blog post by someone just past 30, recently Freshly Pressed, about what she is discovering in India on her own.

Read and listen widely. Don’t limit your consumption of “news” to Facebook or Twitter or outlets whose political values comfortingly echo your own. Continue to choose intellectually challenging material after you have left the halls of academe — or be prepared to have your lunch eaten by those who do.

Buy and stock a toolbox. Know how to use an Allen wrench, cordless drill, hammer, screwdriver. Self-sufficiency is sexy in both genders.

Read the business pages every day. Everything starts with economics.

Figure out what you want sexually. It might be abstaining until marriage, or for a while, or forever. Get to know your own body and what pleases you most. Learn to clearly express what you want — and do not. No means no! If you’re sexually active, consistently use a highly efficient form of birth control; know what the morning-after pill is and how to get one quickly.  Know how and why you must avoid HIV, HPV, chlamydia and the rest of the STDs. If all you want from a sexual encounter is some quick amusement, try not to break someone’s heart.

Travel as often and as far away and for as long as you can possibly afford. The best way to find out how much in common we all have with one another — yet how differently we interpret religion, culture, ethics and public policy. Even a road trip within your own province or state can teach you something (and be a lot of fun.)

Always pursue personal projects unrelated to your job. It’s tempting to meld your identity with your job and title and company and paycheck. You’re a person with multiple interests, not just a worker. If you get laid off (which is likely these days), you’ll have other passions and skills.

Unplug regularly. Get away from everything that beeps and buzzes, every day. Silence, and solitude, is deeply restorative.

Find a community where you feel deeply loved and valued, no matter how much you weigh or earn or who you sleep with (or if you sleep alone) or whether you even have a  job. When times get tough, and they will, you need a solid posse.

Spend an hour every day in nature. Walk to work. Find a park bench and stare at the sky. Invest in clothes to keep you warm and dry so you can be safely and comfortably outdoors even in rain and snow. For a super-icy or snowy walk, Yaktrax rule!

Find doctors you like and trust. Ask lots of questions. If they won’t listen to you or answer you, find those who will. Take your good health seriously and protect it through eating well, exercise, sufficient rest. Right now, you’re taking it for granted. In 20 years, you won’t.

Ditto hairstylist/dentist/massage therapist/accountant/career coach/tailor/florist.

Invest in some really beautiful personal stationery and/or business cards. Use them, often. Write real thank you notes, promptly. They leave a powerful and lasting impression.

Find at least three forms of physical activity you love so you don’t have to go to the gym: softball, volleyball, cycling, hiking, skiing. Invest in some decent equipment so you’ve got no excuse not to get out and stay active.

Cultivate a compassionate heart. Don’t forget others whose lives are still much tougher than yours. Mentor a kid. Be a Big Sister or Big Brother. Volunteer. Set aside some cash for charitable donations or offer your time and skills to a cause you passionately believe in. By the time you’re partnered and/or a parent and/or super-busy with your career, it’s easy to forget how many people helped you achieve your dreams.

Learn to cook. Healthy, cheap, sociable and fun. One of my favorite cookbooks is Bistro Cooking, with yummy easy stuff like clafouti and vichyssoise.

Don’t take everything personally! Some people are just mean. Some are deeply distracted by a personal sorrow you cannot begin to imagine. Or they have a headache. It’s not all about you.

Fail. Don’t just keep picking the safest and easiest path. Take a (calculated) risk and live with the consequences. (That’s where resilience comes from.) The most successful people are not those who avoid risk, but know how to live with it and bounce back from it.

Drink less. A shocking number of young women and men routinely drink to excess. Empty calories, hangovers, (and the sexual risk of being drunk around people you don’t know well), and alcoholism are really unattractive.  Step away from the margarita!

Find a few old fogies you like and trust who are not related to you. Spend time with them. Listen to them. They have wisdom to offer.

If someone is unkind to you, flee. Don’t waste your time and energy trying to figure out why they’re a dick. Just go.

Remember that everyone comes with some emotional baggage. But it’s not your job to carry it.

If you’re utterly miserable all the time, tell a good friend and find a therapist. Honor what your heart is trying to tell you. Don’t hide your sorrows. They are lightened when shared.

What other advice would you offer?

My 30-hour train journey: New York to Minneapolis

In beauty, books, cities, culture, journalism, life, photography, travel, urban life, US, work, world on October 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm

As some of you may know, a hurricane is due to hit the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. sometime this morning. I’m giving a speech Tuesday evening at 7:00 pm in Minneapolis, Minnesota so Friday night, Jose suggested I jump on a train to make sure I actually got there in time, as all of New York’s public transit was being shut down, and flights were sure to be canceled.  By Sunday evening — as I was almost at my destination on Amtrak — the wait time to speak to a customer service rep for Delta airlines was between seven and ten hours…

I bought a $227 one-way ticket (with nowhere to sleep but sitting up in my chair) and hoped for the best.

So, here I am, writing this from my Minneapolis hotel room, and here’s my story…

I left from Croton-Harmon, the Amtrak station about 15 minutes drive north of our home, to get to Albany, a two-hour journey, where I changed trains for the 15 hour trip to Chicago. I initially boarded the Ethan Allen Express, named for a Vermont hero.

The Hudson Valley, where I begin this trip, is one of the prettiest places in the United States, its trees now a blast of red, yellow, orange, brown and crimson — all likely to disappear after the hurricane blows through this week. The train tracks hug the eastern shore of the Hudson River, speeding (a relative word — crawling, compared to a TGV) past 18th. century towns and landmarks like West Point, the military academy. We passed Our Lady of Restoration Chapel, built in 1840 facing the river, where I was married (the first time) in May 1992.

The car is filled with students. A young girl is busy rolling cigarettes on her notebook, carefully adding filters. The girl behind her is knitting a gray scarf. Two young men behind me discuss their friends.

“She married a prince of some foreign country! That’s crazy. She’ll never have to work and someday she’ll be a queen.”

The train for Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited, leaves Albany at 7:05 p.m. and I settle into my aisle seat, a large woman in the window seat whose bum will press up against mine (and vice versa) for the next 15 hours, even though we don’t speak. The train is packed, and I can hear many people saying they, too, are fleeing Hurricane Sandy and whatever havoc it might wreak.

I sit in the lounge car, now that it’s dark, and watch a DVD on my laptop,  Frozen River, an excellent 2008 feature film about two desperately poor women who smuggle illegal immigrants in their car trunk across the St. Lawrence between the U.S. and Canada. It’s an apt choice because at Syracuse, two hours north of Albany (and 1.5 hours south of the Canadian border) immigration officials climb aboard and check some people’s identification. I overhear them say they are removing someone with all their luggage.

In the lounge car, a bearded young Aussie in a black hoodie is yammering on to a pretty young Hispanic girl who, with great pride, tells him she passed an employer’s drug test by using her mother’s urine.

We all sleep in whatever position we can manage within our seats, but no one bothers to pull the dark blue curtains so the brilliant orange lights of the passing landscape keep flickering through the glass. My soft challis scarf makes a perfect eye-shade wrapped around my head and my wool cape is long enough to make a warm blanket and small pillow.

I fall asleep at 1:00 a.m. but am awake at 4:00 as we stop in Cleveland, Ohio. A man three rows ahead of me is reading his laptop, the screen blindingly bright in the darkness.

The train crosses northern New York, a narrow sliver of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and into Illinois. A man got on in Albany struggling to carry a huge ice chest filled with food, as well as his rolling suitcase, black fabric covered with pink flamingos, so full he cannot zip it closed. He looks poor and scrawny and tired, like many of the passengers. This is the America that will vote in a week for their new President.

Who will they choose?

This is a whole other America, one I rare see in my affluent suburban bubble near Manhattan, where a devastating moment is your kid not getting into Harvard or Yale.

At sunrise, around 7:00 a.m., we straggle to the lounge car for coffee and tea. One woman’s hair (like mine) is squashed and crimped from behind — bedhead.

Trainhead?

I sip my tea and eat my pain au chocolat that Jose packed for me, and watch the sun gilding the shorn cornfields of Indiana, a vegetative high and tight. It seeps across the pick-up trucks and barns and silos and quiet farmhouses. Cows and horses stand in their paddocks, waiting for the day to begin.

We barrel through this quiet landscape, timeless, lovely, calm.

Chicago!

I have a four hour layover, from 9:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. until my train leaves for Minneapolis, (its final destination is Seattle). I buy a locker (using a scanner that takes my fingerprint! for $12) and stuff my things into it. I buy my three usual weekend newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Financial Times, and head out into the sunshine.

Right outside the train station is the Chicago River, crossed by a number of bridges. This is the view from the Adams Street bridge.

I was in Chicago in November 2011 for the first time, so I know where I am and where to go, which I consider such a luxury — feeling at home in a place far away. I head toward Lake Michigan to find a spot for breakfast, to settle in and read my newspapers.

But first, I want to say hello to my history, and head a few blocks over to State Street, to this white tower, built in 1912, developed by my great grandfather Louis M. Stumer. The architects, Holabird and Roche, did many of the city’s grandest buildings. I love having a personal connection to this great city and a building that still stands at its heart.

100 years old, thanks great-grandDad Louis Stumer!

A fantastic art supply store, Blick, is their main tenant. If you love great paper, notebooks, pens — go! I stocked up there last time.

I settle in for breakfast at the Corner Bakery, and pick up a sandwich for the rest of my journey, another 8.5 hours further west to Minneapolis.

I board the Empire Builder, a two-storey train I last took from here in August 2002, (heading to Vancouver, Canada to see my mother through brain surgery) that goes all the way west through another half-dozen enormous states, to Seattle, where its final miles of track are mere feet from the Pacific Ocean. (I was then in Dayton, Ohio researching my first book, about women and guns, when the surgeon told me to get there as fast as I could. Last-minute airfares are so costly, I went by bus and train.)

This time I’m seated beside a woman who is a retired archeologist, whose late husband was an astronomer whose experiments rode inside two space missions. She did work in Michoacan, a state in Mexico I’ve also visited and knows Santa Fe, NM well, where my husband was born, so we have lots to discuss.

But I soon withdraw into music on my laptop and an empty two-chair spot, to sleep as much as I can. I listen to Briton John Renbourn’s acoustic guitar and Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan, — gentle, meditative — both a perfect soundtrack as the sun sets over the fields of Wisconsin. We stand still — waiting, every time for a freight train ahead of us — as the fading light paints a stand of white birch trees to our right a soft pink.

The train rattles along, through towns like Red Wing, Minnesota and Lacrosse, Wisconsin. Here’s a photo of the station at Columbia, Wisconsin; a few minutes later a small parade of kids came by in their Hallowe’en costumes.

As I walk the car’s narrow aisle, I see a group of women knitting the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. “Are those…feathers?” I ask one. “Yup. It’s going to be a cowl,” she says, showing me creamy wool with gleaming feathers sticking out of it. “This ain’t your grandma’s knitting!”

I get to talking to two of the women — 38 of them belong to a passionate Minneapolis group that’s just gone to Chicago for a three-day knitting conference. Their fingers are all flying: an orange sweater, a pale pink sock, a black hat. One offers to make me a muffler, complete with feathers, if I pay for the materials. Yay!

One woman lived for years in Pakistan, and her friend has been to Afghanistan and Thailand and Pakistan. People are amazing. You never know who’s sitting beside you or behind you or in front of you — until you find out.

We stop for a brief break somewhere in the Wisconsin/Minnesota? darkness. People are eager for fresh air, a cigarette, a chance to walk around a bit.

This is a Santa Fe car parked on the tracks beside us as we took our micro-liberty.

“All aboard!”

We shuffle back in and climb the narrow stairs, as this train has two levels, including my favorite — the observation car — whose individual seats face outwards. When I did this trip in 2002, and came all the way from Seattle back to NY, it was one of the best experiences of my life.

You really can have no idea how beautiful the U.S. until it has flashed past you for days and nights on end, mile after mile after mile: farms and fields and rivers and cities and ducks on still ponds and flying geese and abandoned factories and slick college campuses and huge mansions atop hills…

I ask a conductor if Minneapolis is halfway across.

“Oh, no! That might be in Montana.”

We are late, hardly unusual for Amtrak. Americans don’t like the train much, (or, to be correct the wealthy and powerful lobbyists for the auto and airline industry do not), so the system and its cars is slow, outdated and inefficient.

We pull into Minneapolis at 11:00 p.m. Sunday night. I started my trip at 3:58 p.m. Saturday in New York.

A man with two enormous incisions, with fresh black thread sticking out of his stitches, his right hand swollen like a balloon, clutches his small, trembling reddish dog against his enormous stomach. “She doesn’t like stairs,” he tells us.

We de-train.

I stumble into a taxi and head for my hotel. I’ll have two full days to recover before I speak about my book, Malled, and retail, to 100+ students at the University of Minnesota.

Made it!

A cloudy fall Manhattan afternoon

In beauty, behavior, cities, life, urban life, US on October 26, 2012 at 12:03 am
English: McNulty's Tea & Coffee - located on 1...

English: McNulty’s Tea & Coffee – located on 109 Christopher Street . This is one of my favorite stores. Go!! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I take the subway south to Christopher Street from Grand Central Station.

Across from me on the train is a lean, tall, attractive woman in her 40s, maybe 50s. Not an ounce of body fat. Her male companion is equally attractive, equally lean. She’s wearing white skinny jeans tucked into low red suede boots. His hair is salt and pepper, very well cut.

Tourists.

There are always clues — his messenger bag has an unfamiliar label. They are unusually quiet, speaking so low I can barely hear them, in what sounds like Dutch.

I get out of the subway and cross Seventh Avenue to my hairdresser, whose three-chair salon feels like home. I found him more than a decade ago through my husband, (now bald), who came to him when he had hair and Alex was over on Carmine Street. Now he’s on Grove, in the West Village, my favorite Manhattan neighborhood of all, with its low 19th and 18th century buildings, narrow and cobblestoned streets, sheltering trees, its cozy cafes and well-loved indie bookstores tucked into battered little spaces with pressed tin ceilings and worn wooden floors — a place whose intimacy is best experienced on foot, walking slowly, noticing things.

My hairdresser is a classic New Yorker, a gruff guy in his late 40s, maybe early 50s. No bullshit. Someone calls him and starts asking the prices of every possible service. “Are you starting your own salon and looking for pricing?” he asks.

And yet I’ve seen him bend over and offer a gentle, shy kiss to his clients, outer-borough women in their 70s and beyond, one of whom came in a wheelchair with her attendant. Everyone comes to Hairhoppers: trendy young bankers, lawyers, museum curators, a few Uptown blonds. We remember all his assistants, and ask after them, even years after they’ve left, like Brie, who moved to San Diego and got married, and Eddie, who now works uptown, and John.

This day, I’m sharing the space with a state attorney and a retired English teacher. We’re soon deep into passionate conversation about the economy, hard to avoid as we’re all barely feet from one another. There’s no brittle status anxiety here, but one of those rare and special places where strangers immediately feel comfortable, often trading phone numbers after a lively exchange. The teacher and I are talking so much I keep turning my head and Alex gives up cutting. He’s pissed. Chastened, I stare straight into the mirror, and talk to her reflection.

I cross Seventh and head to one of my favorite restaurants, Morandi, to eat outside, even though it’s gray and drizzly. A man with two sons sits nearby, someone famous in a baseball cap, but I can’t remember who.

A blond man in a T-shirt is pacing the sidewalk, on his cellphone, deeply disturbed. “But can he sing? I have to find an arranger, and book a studio and I don’t even know if he can sing. He can’t?”

A man in a black suit, carrying a garment bag, joins his companion behind me. Lawyers, one of whom seems to want to change jobs. “If Romney wins, my heart just won’t be in this work anymore.” They discuss the machinations of the Senate. Can’t tell if they mean state or federal. I love eavesdropping, and look as though I’m reading a book, which I also am.

Two Town Cars pull up, waiting, rain-beaded. A handsome stocky man exits the restaurant with his son, maybe 11, his blond wife with her $1,200 Stella McCartney handbag, and another woman. They jump into the Town Cars and drive away.  I wonder how the world appears to a young boy for whom so luxurious a life  — a $50 lunch, an idling limousine and driver — is routine, expected.

I stop into Greenwich Letterpress to sigh over the beauty of their work, and pick up a price list for their business cards. The samples offer many familiar names, of writers, designers, photographers. I finally feel a bit like a New Yorker, knowing who they are. They’ll charge $340 for 250 cards. Hmmm, is every contact I meet worth $1.36?

I suspect it would take me more than a year to distribute that many cards. In today’s melting-ice-floe economy, who knows which professional identity I’ll be using by then?

Running late for my 3:20 train, I cab it to Grand Central and am so late I have to buy my ticket on the train — paying double the price, punished for my tardiness. In the space of six hours, I’ve spent more than $250, grateful I can afford it right now.

Manhattan often feels like an expensive lover who, exquisitely and charmingly and with great certainty of purpose, shakes your pockets empty.

I dive into “Canada”, Richard Ford’s new novel, as the Hudson River flashes by on my left, the fall colors muted in the mist.

Doormat or diva? The freelancer’s dilemma

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, Money, work on October 24, 2012 at 2:27 am
Freelancer (video game)

Freelancer (video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll quote from the email directly:

Your invoice got lost in accounting again.

And, no, I’m no longer working for this client. They did pay me the full amount they owed for all the work I’d done, and sent the check Fed Ex — which I insisted on — and they graciously actually did.

The great challenge of working freelance?

When do you stand up for yourself?

When do you accept crap without complaint ?

I started freelancing as a magazine and newspaper journalist when I was still a college undergraduate. I needed that income to pay my bills, for tuition and books and clothes and housing and food, with zero financial aid or any help from my parents. My writing was not some cute hobby or unpaid internship or spare change I planned to blow on shoes or partying. This was the cash I needed to support myself.

So I learned at a very early age to negotiate, to ask for what I thought was fair. I once overheard an editor begging a fellow freelancer, (a man, older than I), not to quit his weekly column, for which he was getting — in 1978 — $200/week. She was paying me $125. I was 19.

Lesson learned. You can’t get what you don’t ask for.

But you can’t ask for what you don’t know is possible.

Every woman working for income needs to read this great book, “Women Don’t Ask”, which teaches women to negotiate (better) and explains culturally why we often just don’t even try. Men usually do!

Here’s a long, smart and persuasive blog post about why women freelancers so often undervalue their skills and under-price them as a result.

Like many self-employed people, I work alone in a super-competitive field, one (journalism) that is shrinking and whose pay rates have been cut in recent years even as our living costs soar. That means being up to date on what’s happening out there with my colleagues.

Are they getting screwed, too? (Often, yes. When I posted the comment above on Facebook, I quickly got sympathetic replies from peers across the nation with similar stories.)

Standing up for yourself, all alone, is scary.

If freelancers, (some of whom just refuse to stand up for themselves), just keep on accepting the bullshit — “Oh the person in accounting who writes the checks is on vacation” -- you’re going to be a broke, angry, bitter doormat. The people feeding you this BS certainly got their paychecks! Their lights are on, their phone bills and rent paid.

But if you fight the bullshit and demand better treatment, even politely at first, people can dismiss you as a diva, never work with you again and tell everyone they know you’re a pain in the ass.

Here’s a link to one of my favorite blogs, Freelance Folder, with a list of how and when to say no to a client.

And another, on how to spot a PITA client before signing a contract with them.

This one, on how to avoid burnout, is something I need to read more often.

If you work for yourself, how do you negotiate this crucial balance between assertiveness and deference?

The $10.32 loaf of bread

In behavior, business, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, Money, parenting, politics, US on October 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm
2001-2006 Mini CooperS photographed in USA. Ca...

2001-2006 Mini CooperS photographed in USA. Category:BMW Mini R53 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s the price of a loaf of Eli’s Bakery walnut and raisin bread in my town.

I don’t live in some remote Arctic village where everything must be flown in, inflating prices to a crazy degree, but a suburban town 25 miles north of New York City.

$10.32.

For bread.

I asked the men who own and run the store, one they spent $600,000 to expand and renovate recently — who can afford this bread? How many are they selling each week? (Five.) Sometimes they get an order for ten at once. $100, for bread.

Then I went out for lunch with my softball team, a co-ed group I’ve known for a decade. One of them says his teen-aged son refuses to drive one of the family’s two cars, a Toyota Corolla, because it’s “a cleaning lady’s car.”

Excuse me while I shriek: What the fuck?

My town, and county — reflecting the income divide that is deepening and widening in this country at warp speed – are becoming a place I no longer recognize.

The cars in our town’s parking lots now are shiny new Mini Coopers, Range Rovers, Audis and BMWs, not the dusty econoboxes I used to see. There are three art galleries selling garish, huge paintings of dubious beauty.

The median income in my town, in 1989, was $40,000, then $60,000. It’s now, I believe, about $80,000. That sounds like a fortune depending where you live.

But it doesn’t buy you much around here.

And the sort of hyper-competitive materialism my friend despairs of in his own son is normal amongst his status-obsessed peers, in a town far wealthier than ours.

Over lunch  — wondering, as we all are, who will become the new President in two weeks and what our world will look like if uber-rich Romney wins — we had a long and impassioned discussion of the rich and the poor and the disappearing, desperate, job-seeking middle class.

Why do so many rich Americans not give a shit about those lower down the socioeconomic ladder?

“They’re losers!” said one, a retired iron-worker. He doesn’t think that, but many rich people now do — if they live in a big house and drive a shiny new Beemer and their wife wears designer clothes and their privately schooled kids are headed as legacies for an Ivy school and grad school, why, they deserve it!

And anyone who’s failed to scale the greasy pole of material success at their speed and height does not. Poor people are shiftless, lazy, poorly educated, unwilling to work hard. So goes the mythology.

It must be all their fault.

The two largest sources of new jobs in the American economy are part-time, pay minimum wage and offer no benefits. Slinging burgers at McDonald’s or folding T-shirts at the Gap will not, contrary to any Republican fantasy, help propel the hardest worker on earth into the middle class. These are working class jobs.

I know. I worked retail for 27 months, then wrote my book “Malled.” I saw firsthand the disdain the wealthy have for those who serve them.

Romney’s contemptuous remark — that 47 percent of Americans, those paying no federal income tax, are leaching off the rest of them, the productive ones — revealed a raw, vicious and useful truth. Many of this economy’s winners, gloating on third base, are convinced they hit a triple.

The rest of us can go to hell.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece about minority kids who get into top prep schools but can’t relate in any way to the privilege therein:

WHEN Ayinde Alleyne arrived at the Trinity School, an elite independent school on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, he was eager to make new friends. A brainy 14-year-old, he was the son of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, a teacher and an auto-body repairman, in the South Bronx. He was soon overwhelmed by the privilege he saw. Talk of fancy vacations and weekends in the Hamptons rankled — “I couldn’t handle that at that stage of my life,” said Mr. Alleyne, now a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania — and he eventually found comfort in the school’s “minority corner,” where other minority students, of lesser means, hung out.

In 2011, when Mr. Alleyne was preparing to graduate, seniors were buzzing about the $1,300-per-student class trip to the Bahamas.

He recalls feeling stunned when some of his classmates, with whom he had spent the last four years at the school, asked him if he planned to go along.

“How do I get you to understand that going to the Bahamas is unimaginable for my family?” he said in a recent interview. “My family has never taken a vacation.”

It was a moment of disconnection, a common theme in conversations with minority students who have attended the city’s top-drawer private schools.

There was once a very clear understanding of noblesse oblige — that the privileged owe a responsibility to help those less well-off. No longer.

Increasingly, Americans have a servant class and a class that ignores them, until it needs their kids cared for or their doddering mother attended or their cars washed or their groceries delivered. They live in different neighborhoods, attend different schools, shop in different stores. They do not attend the same churches or share a bus, train or subway car. Rich kids think being “poor” means driving a car costing less than $75,000.

I watch it in dismay and wonder where, truly, the United States is headed as a nation, a polity, an identity in which to take pride. Social mobility is now at its lowest in decades.

From Foreign Policy Journal:

During the second half of the 20th century, the United States was an opportunity society. The ladders of upward mobility were plentiful, and the middle class expanded. Incomes rose, and ordinary people were able to achieve old-age security.

In the 21st century, the opportunity society has disappeared. Middle class jobs are scarce. Indeed, jobs of any kind are scarce.

Are you seeing this growing divide in your own schools, neighborhood, life or work?

How — if at all — is it affecting you and your kids?

War Horse and the power of imagination

In animals, beauty, culture, design, entertainment on October 21, 2012 at 12:46 am
War Horse (film)

War Horse (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe some of you have been fortunate enough to see the theatrical production of War Horse, (which is on in New York at Lincoln Center until January 6.) Based on a 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, and made into a film last year, this play won five Tonys, including Best Play for 2011. It’s also playing in Melbourne and Toronto and a German-language version opens in Berlin in 2013.

I finally saw it this week, grateful that we have online access to discount tickets — my front-row balcony seat cost me $43 instead of the usual $125.

It’s hard to know where to start to praise this intense and astonishing piece of work. It’s definitely not for young children; I saw a young girl, maybe seven or eight, clinging to her father’s coat in the lobby afterward and knew exactly how she felt.

It is a play about war, and there’s much violence, and gunfire and exploding bombs and crows feasting on corpses, all staples of conflict but hardly what a young child is eager to see or able to handle.

For those who don’t know the work, it’s the story of Joey, a roan horse bought at a county fair and sold to a military officer.  In WWI 18 million horses were killed — but Joey somehow survives. The scenes where he leaps a barbed wire fence or is confronted by a tank are heart-stoppingly dramatic. By the end, when Joey is finally reunited with the boy who loves him, there isn’t a dry eye in the house and snuffles sound from every seat.

Joey, and all the horses in the show, are played by three men, two inside an astonishing construction of cane and painted nylon mesh and one standing outside, manipulating the head and neck.

The power of imagination, somehow, makes the men invisible, even as they remain on-stage whenever the horses do. The puppets, made by the Handspring Theater of South Africa, become snortingly, ground-pawingly, tail-twitchingly alive and the three men essentially disappear. One of the most moving moments, for me, was the death of one of the horses — as the three men silently and slowly withdraw from its shell, its spirit leaves the stage, and us, behind.

Here’s an 18-minute TED talk about them, with a visit from Joey.

One of the great luxuries of living near New York City is easy access to some of the world’s best plays, musicals and concerts. Thanks to my husband’s job, we can get discount tickets whenever they’re offered, and the seats are usually amazingly good, like fifth or eighth row of the orchestra.

I love the imagination, training, research and talent it takes to create these powerful illusions: lighting, costume, music, actors, writing, staging, direction, sets. I’m incredibly lucky we can, occasionally, affordably and regularly savor such skill only an hour from home. It’s one the reasons I wanted to come to New York, and why I’ve stayed.

What’s the most memorable production you’ve ever seen?

Every 20 minutes an American dies for lack of health insurance: one man’s story

In behavior, culture, Health, journalism, life, Media, Medicine, Money, politics, US on October 19, 2012 at 12:11 am
Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This, from The New York Times:

So why didn’t I get physicals? Why didn’t I get P.S.A. tests? Why didn’t I get examined when I started having trouble urinating? Partly because of the traditional male delinquency about seeing doctors. I had no regular family doctor; typical bachelor guy behavior.

I had plenty of warning signs, and that’s why I feel like a damned fool. I would give anything to have gone to a doctor in, say, October 2011. It fills me with regret. Now I’m struggling with all my might to walk 30 feet down the hallway with the physical therapists holding on to me so I don’t fall. I’ve got all my chips bet on the hope that the radiation treatments that I’m getting daily are going to shrink the tumors that are pressing on my spinal cord so that someday soon I can be back out on the sidewalk enjoying a walk in my neighborhood. That would be the height of joy for me.

The writer of those words, Scott Androes, is now dead. He did not have health insurance so he did not see a doctor when he first noticed the signs of prostate cancer.

When Times’ columnist Nick Kristof yesterday wrote about his friend’s death, he got replies like this one:

“I take care of myself and mine, and I am not responsible for anyone else.”

Here’s some of Kristof’s column:

I wrote in my last column about my uninsured college roommate, Scott Androes, and his battle with Stage 4 prostate cancer — and a dysfunctional American health care system. I was taken aback by how many readers were savagely unsympathetic.

Readers’ Comments

Readers shared their thoughts on this article.

“Your friend made a foolish choice, and actions have consequences,” one reader said in a Twitter message.

As my column noted, Scott had a midlife crisis and left his job in the pension industry to read books and play poker, surviving on part-time work (last year, he earned $13,000). To save money, he skipped health insurance.

The United States, whose own Declaration of Independence vows “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, has become a shockingly divided place, where far too many of those who have inherited, cheated, conned, off-shored — or yes, fairly earned — their good fortune — are now hammering the oars of their lifeboats against the desperate, clutching, frozen hands of those now dying and drowning in the icy waters of an ongoing recession.

Too many of of those now driving gleaming new luxury vehicles see people like Androes, if they acknowledge them at all, as mere bugs on the windshield, something small and annoying to be ignored or dismissed.

Androes screwed up. He, God forbid, decided to step off the hamster wheel for a while and take life a little easier, something many of us long to do at mid-life. With no wife or kids to support, he was able to do that. But he was not able to afford health insurance, which is sold here like any other consumer product — and which can be brutally expensive. When I was able to get onto my husband’s health plan at work, even unmarried, in 2003, I was then, as a single, healthy woman in my 40s, paying $700 a month.

That meant an overhead, every year, of $8,400 just to avoid medical bankruptcy. Given that my mother has survived five kinds of cancer, I went without many other amusing choices (new clothes, travel, eating out) for years just to be sure I could, and did, get annual mammograms and Pap smears and all the preventive medicine possible to stay healthy.

Many people in the United States now earn $7 to 12/hour, since the two largest sources of new jobs in this country are foodservice and retail, which pay badly, offer only part-time work and no benefits (i.e. employer-subsidized health insurance). They might as well make out their will now. Because they can’t afford regular medical checkups, nor medication nor ongoing counseling to manage their diabetes or heart disease, even if it’s been diagnosed.

A young friend  — sober — fell on a slippery sidewalk, on a steep hill in the rain, and severely damaged one of his knees. He needs surgery that will cost $22,000. His employer, a Christian-based organization, the YMCA, refuses to help.

Yet another writer to Kristof said that people who are destitute medically have all created their own hells, and that’s where they belong:

“Smoking, obesity, drugs, alcohol, noncompliance with medical advice. Extreme age and debility, patients so sick, old, demented, weak, that if families had to pay one-tenth the cost of keeping the poor souls alive, they would instantly see that it was money wasted.”

I am ashamed to live in a country where selfishness is considered normal behavior.

I am appalled by such vicious callousness.

I am sickened by a growing lack of compassion from those who have never known, and utterly dismiss in others, the sting, shame, fear and misery of poverty and desperation.

And you?

How does this make you feel?

The armor of glamour

In aging, beauty, behavior, cities, culture, design, domestic life, Fashion, life, Style, women on October 17, 2012 at 3:38 am
Manolo Blahnik shoe (31 W 54th St - New York)

Manolo Blahnik shoe (31 W 54th St – New York) I wore Manolos on my wedding day, slingbacks like this. Divine! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have a chance to see the new film about legendary Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, The Eye Has To Travel, go!

You don’t have to care deeply about fashion or beauty to enjoy it, although for those of us who do, it’s a visual feast. Some of the people interviewed for this documentary include photographers Richard Avedon and David Bailey, 60’s model Veruschka, and designers Manolo Blahnik and Carolina Hererra.

Perhaps most fascinating are the brief glimpses of Vreeland-as-wife or mother. One of her two sons says, to camera, he wished almost anyone else had been his mother. Vreeland’s own mother called her ugly, so so much for maternal warmth!

Vreeland was what the French call jolie-laide, with broad, flat cheekbones, a high forehead and a personal style she honed to a very sharp edge.

She was very much self-invented, and her boldness came from a sort of social confidence that comes, to many women, from being well-married and well-employed. One interviewee recalls her sending roses to Alaska for a shoot. What Diana wanted, Diana usually got.

I spent four hours the other day sitting at Saks, at the mother ship on Fifth Avenue, to sell copies of my book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which gave me a front-row seat to some of the nation’s wealthiest and best-dressed shoppers. It was interesting to watch how carefully some women put themselves together.

I grew up around two women who cared deeply about their appearance, their figures, their clothing and hair and jewelry. For my mother and stepmother, being beautiful, thin and well-dressed was terribly important, and they disdained women who didn’t share their values. My mother modeled for the Vancouver Sun as a newlywed in her early 20s and my step-mother had studied dance seriously.

Neither woman ever attended college, so their wit, smarts and style were essential to their success.

I still remember many of their clothes and jewelry, and very much wanted to have their female self-confidence. But I left my mother’s care at 14 and my stepmother was not someone eager to share her secrets. So I had to figure out this how-to-be-pretty thing on my own.

I was also bullied for two years in high school, called Doglin by a gang of boys, which severely dinged any desire to draw attention to my physical appearance. I was smart, verbally adept and confident, and that was what (and did) would carry me through the University of Toronto, filled with whip-smart men and women, in the late 1970s, a time when second-wave feminism was in full flush and women were a lot more concerned with being smart and listened to than decorative and appreciated for their physical beauty. Thank God!

But I’ve become much more interested in glamour as I age. After 40, it’s unwise to be quite so careless about your appearance — at least if you wish to be taken seriously by your professional peers, employers and competitors.

This is, clearly, influenced by region and industry. The sort of no-make-up asexual look favored in parts of New England, or the T-shirt and jeans schlubbiness of Silicon Valley, just looks weird and unsophisticated in places like Montreal and Paris, where defined personal style is (yay!) both expected and relished.  I lived in both cities in my 20s and 30s, which changed forever my sense of style — great accessories rule!

Details do matter — a high-cut armhole and a properly hemmed trouser, a silk pocket square, a highly polished boot, freshly-trimmed hair all send a powerful message. I thrive on visual beauty and, (beyond the hopelessly selfish and vain and the dreary label-whores), simply really enjoy a man or woman who has taken the time and thought to present an attractive appearance.

When I lived in rural New Hampshire, a man once chastised me (!) for my emerald green ankle high boots for mud season because…they were not black. I moved to New York within a few months after that dreadfully boring bit of bossiness.

I love glamour, and if I were rich, would stock up on clothes by Dries van Noten, The Row, Etro and Donna Karan, my favored mix of simple minimalism and lush bohemianism. Still mourning a pair of ruby red knee-high suede boots I tossed 20 years ago.

Ladies and gentlemen, do you arm yourself with elegance?

If not, why not?

It’s tough to be original

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, work on October 15, 2012 at 2:51 pm
Our Policy - Originality

Our Policy – Originality (Photo credit: Vintaga Posters)

Interesting piece in The Globe and Mail on this by Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, (a Florida-based organization that helps to improve American journalism):

Originality is elusive today in every place that people write – not just in journalism, but in academia, professional writing, book publishing, speech writing and politics.

In our panic to keep up with a changing world, we’ve failed to identify new methods for originality. We need to look to the writer-editor relationship, to the community of writers and thinkers and to the very process that writers use to go from nothing to something.

We’re mystified by the prospect of building a culture that breeds original thinking and writing in today’s digital world. Yet, we can look to writers who are successfully hitting the mark of originality and imitate their methods.

McBride points out that many writers now feel compelled to read everything already produced on their subject before diving into it themselves:
“There’s so much that’s been written about any given topic because writing now is mostly the continuation of a conversation already in play.”
So the challenge is real. Read (too much?) and risk the very real disaster of even unconscious plagiarism or start out fresh and blind, making it up as you go along.
In the old days, it was pretty clear that producing quality journalism meant GOYA (get off your ass) and leaving the newsroom. Talking to people face to face. Working your beat and your sources to hear something new and unheard of.

I try to find stories people haven’t yet heard and/or to tell them in a way that’s fresh and new. Of course, some stories are bread-and-butter, straightforward assignments that pay my bills, with a very clear brief from my client or editor.

Being original means taking a risk — of looking foolish, of being so far out ahead of everyone that they’re laughing at you, of getting it wrong, of positing a theory no one agrees with. It’s safer to stay tucked into the middle of the pack.
Unless you choose to self-publish, (not a paid option for most serious journalists), you  have to please a pile of editors, who can each shrug, dismiss or deny the value of your ideas.
So “originality” becomes a matter of consensus, a committee effort.
In my efforts to create original work, I try to conceptualize and thereby report differently from others, who often rush the process. For my most recent New York Times story, I spent an hour with almost everyone I interviewed, 12 sources in all. That’s a lot of time, (plus writing and answering editors’ questions) and, arguably, not the most efficient or profitable use of it for a freelancer who gets only one set fee, no matter how much time it takes. Many reporters devote 10 to 20 minutes to an interview and end up with rote, shallow answers.
Which might be why so much of today’s journalism is useless, a regurgitation of the same five ideas.
When I wrote “Malled”, I read ten other books about retail, labor and low-wage labor before finishing my manuscript. I didn’t worry about plagiarizing as I’m careful to attribute and give credit. I needed to broaden and deepen my understanding of these complex issues. An academic would argue that reading only 10 books was hopelessly insufficient.
Given the size of publishing’s current paychecks, it’s a constant battle between being thorough and engaging, making a living or sticking to ramen. I knew few writers who can afford to spend the kind of time we’d ideally prefer on our work.
Being original? It’s hard to find the time, literally, to step off the hamster wheel of production to ponder, read widely, talk to people not part of our day-to-day income streams. It’s necessary though.
It’s also a rare editor, in journalism or publishing, who’s willing or able to defend a story that’s truly off the margins. The easiest way to sell your new book proposal is by comparing it to three best-sellers just like it, which reassures nervous publishers. (Even then, it’s still a crapshoot, they all admit.)
Do you struggle creatively to produce work that’s original?
How do you achieve it?

“Rape, incest or the life of the mother”

In behavior, children, domestic life, life, parenting, politics, religion, women on October 13, 2012 at 12:51 pm
Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyone who watched the debate this week between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan heard this phrase repeatedly from Ryan. If Mitt Romney wins, the only way an American woman will be able to get a legal, safe abortion in this country is for those three reasons — she is pregnant through rape, incest or her life would be threatened if she carried to term.

Here’s Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker on Ryan’s comments in the debate:

Ryan then went on to say something oddly disarming in its inherent lack of self-awareness. He talked about how, looking at a first sonogram of his daughter, he was thrilled by the beating heart in the tiny “bean” on the image, so much that he and his wife still call that child “Bean.” …Ryan’s moral intuition that something was indeed wonderful here was undercut, tellingly, by a failure to recognize accurately what that wonderful thing was, even as he named it: a bean is exactly what the photograph shows—a seed, a potential, a thing that might yet grow into something greater, just as a seed has the potential to become a tree. A bean is not a baby.

The fundamental condition of life is that it develops, making it tricky sometimes to say when it’s fully grown and when it isn’t, but always easy to say that there is a difference and that that difference is, well, human life itself. It is this double knowledge that impacts any grownup thinking about abortion: that it isn’t life that’s sacred—the world is full of life, much of which Paul Ryan wants to cut down and exploit and eat done medium rare. It is conscious, thinking life that counts, and where and exactly how it begins (and ends) is so complex a judgment that wise men and women, including some on the Supreme Court, have decided that it is best left, at least at its moments of maximum ambiguity, to the individual conscience (and the individual conscience’s doctor).

I am solidly and unmovedly pro-choice.

I think the right to a safe, legal abortion is a fundamental right for women who — as we do — want to control when, how or if we become someone’s parent. We might get pregnant, unplanned, at 13 or 18 or 28 or 37 or 42. An unplanned, unwanted pregnancy is one of the most fundamentally life-altering events in any woman’s life.

The right to abortion is the most important way for us to preserve the most essential autonomy we have over our own bodies.

“The life of the mother” ignores a basic fact women know intimately  — it is the sudden death of our dreams, hopes, plans and ambitions that, for many of us, determines the difference between “life” and death.

A woman with no:

– money

– reliable income

– clean, safe home

– partner, whether male or female, married or unmarried

– family to help her with baby-sitting or childcare

– education or access to education

– safe, loving marriage

is not a woman who wants to, or should — weak, scared, broke — become someone’s mother.  Women’s role on this earth is not simply to create children, no matter their emotional or intellectual strength.

Women become pregnant through laziness, ignorance, ambivalence — and a lost, broken or unused condom. Women get pregnant if they screw up their birth control or never knew exactly how to use it properly in the first place. Women get pregnant when they least expect it. (My husband was born to a woman who was 49.) Women get pregnant by men who, they soon realize, or already know, are absolutely unfit and unready, emotionally, financially, professionally, to become someone’s father and assume those lifelong responsibilities. Women get pregnant by men they are married to who are, they discover, having an affair. Women get pregnant by men who turn out to be scary shits, even abusive.

And single mothers are those most likely to fall into poverty.

No woman wants that for her future, or a child she might be forced to bear.

I do not think choosing abortion is a decision to be taken lightly, without a clear understanding that you are making the choice to end a life. It is no substitute for intelligent, thoughtful, responsible, consistent use of effective birth control. If you’re too scared to ask your partner to use a condom or find and use an effective form of birth control, your decision to abort is, in my mind, a sad, painful consequence of your own unresolved ability to handle your own sexuality.

Pregnancy is no joke.

From the non-profit Guttmacher Institute’s most recent report:

• Of the approximately 750,000 teen pregnancies that occur each year,[3] 82% are unintended[5]. Fifty-nine percent end in birth and more than one-quarter end in abortion.[3]

• The 2008 teenage abortion rate was 17.8 abortions per 1,000 women. This figure was 59% lower than its peak in 1988, but 1% higher than the 2005 rate.[3]

• Compared with their Canadian, English, French and Swedish peers, U.S. teens have a similar level of sexual activity, but they are more likely to have shorter and less consistent sexual relationships, and are less likely to use contraceptives, especially the pill or dual methods.[7]

• The United States continues to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world (68 per 1,000 women aged 15–19 in 2008)—more than twice that of Canada (27.9 per 1,000) or Sweden (31.4 per 1,000).[8]

From the American on-line magazine Salon:

There is hope for America yet: A new survey finds that most adults in this country believe that teens should be taught about both abstinence and birth control. What’s more, seven in 10 adults agree that federal funds should go toward teen pregnancy prevention programs that have been “proven to change behavior related to teen pregnancy” (i.e., actually work). And three-quarters of teens and adults think that antiabortion policymakers “should be strong supporters of birth control.” Sanity prevails!

Now here’s the bad news: Most teens “say they have all the information they need to avoid an unplanned pregnancy,” according to the report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and yet “many admit they know ‘little or nothing’” about contraception. Forty-seven percent feel clueless about condoms, and a whopping 72 percent admit ignorance about birth control pills. Worse still, 42 percent of teens believe contraception doesn’t matter all that much, that you just get pregnant “when it is your time,” says the survey.

I do not want men in positions of power telling women when they may become a mother.

Here’s a new memoir by Merle Hoffman, an American woman considered one of the nation’s leaders in the pro-choice movement.

What do you think?

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