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Bossy?! Is that an insult?

In aging, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, education, family, life, parenting, women on March 12, 2014 at 3:19 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Did you see this recent piece in The Wall Street Journal?

Most dictionary entries for “bossy” provide a sentence showing its proper use, and nearly all focus on women. Examples range from the Oxford Dictionaries’ “bossy, meddling woman” to Urban Dictionary’s “She is bossy, and probably has a pair down there to produce all the testosterone.” Ngram shows that in 2008 (the most recent year available), the word appeared in books four times more often to refer to females than to males.

Behind the negative connotations lie deep-rooted stereotypes about gender. Boys are expected to be assertive, confident and opinionated, while girls should be kind, nurturing and compassionate. When a little boy takes charge in class or on the playground, nobody is surprised or offended. We expect him to lead. But when a little girl does the same, she is often criticized and disliked.

How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them there?

Much as I have very mixed feelings allowing corporate cheerleader Sheryl Sandberg to be the mouthpiece for women — hello, anyone else out there?! — I like this leadership and her new website, banbossy.com. 

Her goal, and one I admire, is to encourage young girls, and those who raise and teach them, to speak up and speak out, to claim and re-claim their voices, both literal and political.

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Here’s another take on this, from the consistently brilliant blogger Stacia Brown.

Did you see this wonderful collection of black and white images of five-year-old Emma, mimicking powerful, legendary women of the past? Amazing!

I think every young girl, especially, needs to know that her voice, ideas and opinions have value. Becoming a leader means stepping up, taking risks, speaking out and being brave.

Yes, she may end up bullied or called names or shouted at or booed for her daring. For being….herself.

Sticks and stones, kids.

One of my favorite beaux called me — affectionately but accurately — bossyboots.

Loved it.

Have you been called bossy?

Did you take it as a mark of pride?

Are you saving enough?

In behavior, culture, domestic life, family, life, Money, parenting, US on March 10, 2014 at 2:21 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal asserts that Americans spend way too much money:

You may overspend because you’re bored, you have no budget or you want to keep up with your neighbors.

Or you might be letting your emotions dictate your financial decisions.

Whatever the reason, you may be setting yourself up for a financial disaster.

But fear not: There are a few ways you can rein in your spending before it’s too late.

Tracking your cash flow and tapping into your feelings are two things financial advisers say you can do to curb your urge to spend.

“The spending choices you make now will greatly impact your quality of life later on,” says Patrick McDowell, a Miramar Beach, Fla., financial adviser.

Here’s an honest post by a new Broadside follower (welcome!), a college student, making minimum wage and struggling financially with college costs:

Although it can be annoying, I understand this is making me a better person.  It’s not just about the money all the time, it’s about a learning experience.

And here’s a dense and dry blog post, recently chosen for Freshly Pressed, about behavioral economics — written by a professor:

Certainly the evidence that people don’t typically behave rationally is quite compelling.  It’s easy to find examples of behavior which conflicts with economic theory.  The problem is that it’s not clear that these examples help us much. I’m pretty much obsessed by when, why, how and where we choose to spend our money. Or save it.

Given how little money most Americans save — here’s a blog post from The Economist about that — it’s a tough decision to postpone immediate pleasures (let alone the daily grind of needs), for groceries, housing and medical care in the future, possibly decades away. What if we never get there?

But what if we do live to be 80, 90 or beyond — and find ourselves broke and scared?

Here’s a frightening post from one of my favorite writers, Guardian journo Heidi Moore, about how older women — because we earn less and live longer — end up in poverty:

17.8 million women lived in poverty in 2012, 44% of whom lived in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty means “income at or below 50% of the federal poverty level”, which amounts to less than $5,500 a year…

What is surprising is that the slide into deep poverty is happening so soon, and in such massive numbers, among the elderly. It’s not clear what could have changed between 2011 and 2012 to cause it.

My mother went into a nursing home three years ago, paying — for a small room — $5,000 a month. Yes, really. That certainly made clear to me the very real cost of getting old, ill and needing costly care every single day. She saved, lifelong and ferociously, so she has the funds for it.

Most of us will not.

Our parents and grand-parents, and a few fortunate folk in specific industries, could look forward to a company pension; Jose will receive one from The New York Times, thank heaven. A few lucky people also get a company match to their 401(k) retirement savings from their employers.

But most of us are now expected and required to save and save and save and save, praying our investments retain and grow in value. I’ve been saving 15 percent of my income every year for a while; it’s finally adding up to a sum that makes me feel like the sacrifice is worth it.

It’s also simplistic to shame people who “spend too much” when millions have lost their jobs, often repeatedly, and have run through whatever savings they might once have had. Millions are also now earning far less than they once expected or hoped to.

Wages are stagnant or falling while the cost of living rises each year — and we’re still human beings who actually want to leave our homes and have some fun!

I splurge on four categories: 1) items or improvements for our home; 2) travel; 3) entertaining friends; 4) fresh flowers.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

How about you?

What do you splurge  on — and where do you keep your wallet closed?

Do we expect too much of marriage?

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, men, women on February 18, 2014 at 12:41 am

By Caitlin Kelly

From The Economist:

Eli Finkel at Northwestern University in Chicago.. told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week that most married Americans expect their spouses to develop profound insights into the essential qualities of their other half, fulfilling their needs for esteem and self-actualisation. A spouse, these days, can be expected to be a confidant, lover, co-parent, breadwinner, activity partner and therapist. This, he concludes, makes being happily married harder than it was in the past.

I was struck, and touched, by how many of you “liked” my recent post about my 14 years (so far) of marriage with Jose.

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One commenter noted that I believe in work, that a happy marriage doesn’t just happen spontaneously. Maybe it does for some people.

In our case, our marriage is hard-won. We were both married before, very unhappily. We came to our relationship, as many of us do later in life, scarred, wary and battle-hardened, by life, by work, by disappointing relationships along the way.

It wasn’t a great start and we’ve benefited from several smart, insightful counselors along the way.

So, what do you think of this list? It does strike me as exhaustive, and possibly exhausting to fulfill.

— confidant, lover, co-parent, breadwinner, activity partner and therapist.

I don’t expect him to parent children (we have none). I do expect him to earn a living, but he is not the only breadwinner; we rely on my income as well. I don’t really look to him as an activity partner, much as I’d like to. I love going to movies. He hates it. I love theater and dance and museums. He’ll join me occasionally but he’s happier reading or relaxing at home after another hectic workweek. We’ve helped each other confront some of our issues, but I also have a therapist and her role is clear.

I’ve also learned the hard way that it takes two people to make a marriage.

Duh!

Actually, not really. You can hit every traditional milestone: a fancy wedding and sexy honeymoon and a big house and tons of kids — and still have a crappy, lonely, cringe-making life, wondering why on earth you took vows with this creep.

If both people aren’t in the same set of traces, pulling hard in the same general direction most days, I think your marriage is less likely to last.

I don’t actually feel like an oxen tilling the fields. But we all need backup!

Knowing that each of us is as fully committed to life’s dreary scutwork — laundry, groceries, scrubbing the toilet, getting the damn car inspected, collecting all our tax paperwork — as we are to one another’s deeper happiness helps a lot. Jose is not, thank God, lazy or messy or disorganized. (OK, I can be the last two, rarely the first.) He puts gas in the car. I wash the floors.

Sexy? Maybe not for some people. Someone taking responsibility is deeply attractive to me.

Shared values matter enormously.

One of the many self-help books I read while dating, (yes, I admit it!), offered what I thought was an interesting way to decide if someone new might prove to be a good fit romantically: PEPSI — whether we had a decent match in the following categories: Professional, Emotional, Physical, Spiritual and Intellectual.

From our first date, I knew we matched well on four of the five.

Offering your sweetie your absolutely undivided attention, preferably for an hour a day, (yes, it’s not easy; that’s the point!), is also huge. In an era of CPA — continuous partial attention — this is one of the greatest gifts we can still, and must, give one another.

But I think the single most important element of a marriage you want to last for decades is, paradoxically, remembering that your partner or spouse is a separate human being.

We each carry our own fears, hopes, dreams, goals and unresolved wounds. We each arrive at the altar — whether we marry at 20, 40 or 60 (possibly all three!) — as someone with a past. We all bring ghosts, angels and demons, some of which we have yet to even notice, acknowledge, tame or banish.

(Which is where good therapy can also strengthen your marriage, whether you go alone or together.)

I keep a photo of Jose, as a small baby in his onesie, his mother beaming beside him, nearby in a lovely frame. I treasure everything about this image: her joy, his delight, her optimism, their love.

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Gregorita is so thoroughly delighted with him, even though he’s a surprise baby and she’s 50 and her husband is not in good health and they have little money.

She cherished him, but she died decades ago.

Now it’s my turn.

Here’s a post from Psychology Today, by a man happily married for 43 years, with his five tips for a satisfying marriage.

What do you expect from your husband, wife or partner?

Is it too much — or not enough?

The milestone-free life

In aging, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, love, women on February 16, 2014 at 1:26 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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“There’s a thin line between pleasing yourself and pleasing somebody else”– Indigo Girls

Here’s a great post from blogger Infinite Satori. Her thoughts on milestones — and ignoring them:

Get married in your mid 20s, buy a house in your late 20s, have a baby in your late 20s and early 30s, and the timeline moves along. That’s what they say right? The reality is you don’t have to get married, you don’t even have to have a baby if you truly don’t want to. Before I explain this any further, please know that I am not against any of these. Because I would love to have at least one child one day and if I, one day, decide that marriage is for me it would be because I found the right one who I connect with in all levels. Spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally, everything. And more importantly, that it feels right to me. To my heart. To my soul. My point is, it’s very important to listen to what you inner voice is telling you. And if it’s telling you that kids aren’t for you, that marriage isn’t for you, listen to it.

You are probably meant for a different path in life, one that stays true to your purpose here on this planet. Don’t get married because your parents want you to, or because you’re in a long-term relationship and you might as well tie the knot, or have a baby because you’re a woman and that’s what you’re suppose to do, or because you’ve hit that “milestone” and you feel like you need to, or because you need a man to make you happy, or because your peers are all getting married and you don’t want to be left out. You don’t have to hit these societal milestones and timelines and you sure don’t have to plan your life around it most especially if you don’t want to. Create your own life.

Hell, yeah!

Most the women my age are now grandmothers or great-grandmothers, owners of multiple homes, thrilled with their expanding, multi-generational families’ achievements, running a business or enjoying a big fat corporate salary and title. Or they never had to work, having “married well.”

Few of these women, as I have and continue to do, stare into the sky at passing airplanes and still wish I was on one — heading to…who knows where? Somewhere new, somewhere to be tested, to not speak the language, somewhere I need to carry and read a map.

I feel completely out of step with them.

My life never really followed a tidy, laid-out trajectory. I attended university, and graduated, (after much prodding. I love learning, but didn’t enjoy a huge school, University of Toronto, where undergrads just didn’t matter much.) I never wanted an advanced degree so that was the end of that — until I studied interior design in my mid-30s. But after my marriage blew up, I didn’t finish my certificate.

I’ve always pitied people who feel the wrath or contempt from their peers or family for not doing what everyone expects them to — instead of creating and following their own path.

My parents never pressured me to marry, (young or at any age), or have kids or “settle down” or buy property or “grow up.” Thank God.

They wanted me, still, to enjoy life and travel and do the very best work I’m capable of. To be useful and kind to others. My maternal grandmother was married a bunch of times and my father has four kids with four different women, so “normal” doesn’t fit our family too well.

I freelanced as a journalist right out of college, (instead of desperately seeking a full-time job; luckily I had no student debt and Canada’s healthcare system covers everyone, job or no job.) I won a fellowship to Europe for eight months when I was 25, and only took my first staff job after that, at 26. I left after 2.5 years and went to a Montreal newspaper, stayed 1.5 years and followed my first husband to New Hampshire.

I married him late, when I was 35 — and was (sadly but somewhat relievedly) divorced two years later. I was single for six years, then met the man I’ve been with ever since.

Neither of us had children nor a desire to have any.

But when you don’t have children, nor even nieces or nephews, (none that we are close to, now adults anyway), life becomes weirdly shapeless. Nor have we attended others peoples’ kids’ birthdays, christenings, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and baby showers. I would have loved to, but we were rarely included.

(We have, sadly, attended wakes and funerals for the parents and partners of friends, honored and proud to do so.)

This makes our lives a milestone-free cycle — work, sleep, play, repeat.

Bizarre, really, when you scan the greeting card section of the drugstore and see the endless iterations of affection and progress most people officially celebrate all through their lives.

Not having children also really forces you to consider and examine — pardon the grandiosity of the word — your legacy.

You haven’t passed along your genes, or your sofa, to anyone.

No one will cherish our carefully-curated stuff 30 or 50 years from now, at least no one related to us.

We’re still stymied making out our wills, deciding who (who?) to leave our eventual estates and assets to: church, charities, friends, almas mater…

Do you feel compelled to hit specific milestones?

What if you don’t?

It’s V-Day! 14 Years in, 14 reasons my marriage (whew!) still thrives

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, women on February 14, 2014 at 12:41 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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The image is our wedding, in September, 2011, late afternoon, in a small wooden church on an island in Toronto’s harbor.

We met in March 2000, online, and after our first date at a lovely French bistro in midtown Manhattan, that was it.

We couldn’t really be more different. Jose — an American, the cherished only son of a small-town Baptist minister, loves routine, security and familiarity. I — Canadian, the oldest child of a film-maker father and journalist mother, globe-trotters both — live for adventure, new experiences and spontaneity.

But we’re still delighted to have found one another.

Here are 14 reasons why:

We laugh our asses off

People look at us on the commuter train, where everyone else is quietly reading the paper, or snoozing, or texting. What’s so funny? Anything, really.

We talk to one another, every day, a lot

His workday — as a photo editor for The New York Times — is crazy-hectic, with six scheduled meetings every single day. He juggles assignments for photographers, staff and freelance, literally across the world, and speaks to dozens of editors and reporters. Sometimes he’s even emailing at 3 a.m. to a guy in China or India. But we chat, even for a minute or two, several times every day. I want to hear his voice, share a triumph and connect. When we’re home, our computers are (mostly) off and we eat our dinner by candle-light and catch up. Studies have found that the average couple speaks very little during most days. I find that really sad.

We have very different interests

I’m a culture vulture, forever seeing museum and gallery shows, theater and dance, coming home from the library with a pile of books. He’s a devout Buddhist who meditates every morning and reads his texts. But we have enough overlap and mutual curiosity about one another’s interests.

We share a ferocious work ethic

God, that man works hard! So do I. As I write this, it’s another major blizzard here in New York and he’s working from home. We attach to our computers and phones and go. He’s seen my freelance workday up close, and knows how intense and focused it is. We are both career journalists who started selling our work to national outlets while we were college undergrads. We enjoy our work and know why it still matters, to us and to the larger world.

We have one another’s backs

He has verbally taken both of my parents to the woodshed when needed, hotly defending my needs and concerns when I just couldn’t seem to do it myself. I’ve done the same for him with neighbors or anyone, anywhere, who disrespects him. He is Hispanic and has been mistaken for a manual laborer, when wearing his casual clothes. The man has a Pulitzer prize. I tell people that. He tells them about my accomplishments. We are absolutely one another’s best advocates.

We both have spiritual lives, individual and shared

He is a devout Buddhist, who had an altar and prayer flags hanging in his Brooklyn apartment when we met. I’ve been attending a local Episcopal church since 1998. We’ve attended one another’s services and appreciate and respect our individual traditions and choices. I’ve seen, and been touched by, how connected he is to his guru, Lama Surya Das, now a friend of ours, and we’ve invited our church ministers home for dinner.

We treasure our friendships

I love his loyalty to friends. We keep our friends close, even when they live many miles distant.

We take care of one another

After my left hip replacement, in February 2012, Jose took three weeks’ vacation time to stay home and nurse me. He made an enormous list of all my pills and exercise schedule and stuck it on the wall. He cleaned my wound, all 12 staples of it. I make our home as clean and attractive as possible: candles, fresh flowers, pretty linens, a beautiful table for mealtimes. I make us delicious meals, when I can muster the energy. I even brush and polish his shoes, much to his embarrassment. It’s just care. It’s what a good marriage is about.

We’re not scared to have a (loud, scary) argument

This was a big step for us. We fought like crazy for years when we met: stubborn, mid-life, long divorced, battling for recognition and respect in a dying and difficult industry. It’s not easy to allow someone new into your life after you’ve already had a few decades of one. He also grew up in a family that never (visibly) argued. It’s almost all mine did. That was an adjustment.

When we do, we know it doesn’t mean the end

That was another big step. For a variety of reasons, I’m a little (OK, a lot) freaked out by possible abandonment. He never once stomped away in silence or shut me out for days or weeks, as some men might. While we were dating, we both left one another’s homes in fury but we also made up the next day, after we’d cooled down. Just because we fight sometimes doesn’t mean we don’t love one another deeply.

We save a lot of money for our (we hope!) shared future

I save 15 percent, which I hate. He saves 10 percent. I want a comfortable retirement. The only way toward that is saving a shitload of money.

We play together

We love to play games — golf, Scrabble, Bananagrams, gin rummy.

We both survived lousy first marriages and want this to be our last

Once you’ve tasted the bitter fruits of a nasty marriage and even nastier divorce, marriage can terrify you. It scars you and scares you. It’s expensive and miserable and confidence-shaking. Why even bother doing it again? My maternal grand-mother married six times — maybe eight — we lose track. My parents’ marriage busted up when I was seven and my mother never re-married or even lived with another man. You have to really want to be married and do the work it takes to stick around.

We know we have a lovely thing going, and tell one another this often

We both say thank-you a lot, and mean it. I never take him for granted. Life is too short to waste it being horrible to the person you have taken vows with.

How about you?

How’s your love life these days?

Do you work to live — or live to work? Karoshi is crazy!

In aging, behavior, business, culture, domestic life, family, Health, life, US, work on January 31, 2014 at 12:25 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Did you hear about the young woman, Mita Diran, who died of overwork recently after tweeting about her long hours — 30 hours without a break?

And here’s the 24-year-old who died the same way.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

I have four words for this, and they’re not: Rock on, you over-achievers!

Rather: Are you fucking kidding me?

And here’s a whiny, tedious rant at Slate by a woman who’s shocked — shocked! — to find that French workers get subsidized meals from their employers and are treated with a great deal more respect than they are in the U.S.

Duh. Americans are simply nuts about work. They go onandonandonandonandonandon about how busy they are and how needed they are and how many things they just added to their to-do list.

As if this makes them more….something.

Tired, probably.

Here’s a list of 10 reasons — written by a local colleague and former board member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors — why you might consider taking a break.

They include:

1. Quantity kills quality.

You want to be excellent at what you do. But the more tasks you take on, the smaller your chance of doing an excellent job at any of them.

2. Sleep matters.

“The way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is getting enough sleep,” Arianna Huffington said in a 2011 TED talk. She would know. She fainted from exhaustion and broke her cheekbone and is now something of a sleep evangelist. “I was recently having dinner with a guy who bragged that he’d gotten only four hours’ sleep the night before,” she continued. She considered retorting: “If you had gotten five, this dinner would have been a lot more interesting.”

3. You suck when it counts.

You’ll be bad at generating new ideas, finding creative solutions to problems, and worst of all you’ll suck at listening attentively to the people around you. That disrespects them and wastes their time as well as yours.

4. Your mood is a buzzkill.

The kind of irritability and impatience that goes with being overworked and behind schedule will cast a black cloud over the people around you both at work and at home. If you’re an employee, it will damage your career. If you’re a small business owner, it will harm your business.

5. Your judgment is impaired.

The research is conclusive: sleep deprivation impairs decision-making. As a leader, poor judgment is something you can’t afford. Crossing some tasks off your to-do list, handing them to someone else, or finishing some things late is well worth it if it means you bring your full concentration and intelligence to the tough decisions your job requires.

Readers of this blog know I work my ass off. But they also know how much I deeply cherish balance in my life.

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I bitch about being broke a lot. Money isn’t great right now at our house, but we’ll be fine.

The truth is this: I could work twice as many hours and, probably, double my income.

At what cost?

On Monday this week, I revised a story for five hours’ straight. The rest of the week was spent emailing pitches and checking in with long-time clients to see where we are and lining up details for a crazy foreign trip I’ll be making at the end of March for work. In other words, I’ve been plenty busy.

Yesterday — yes, the hell with it — I devoted to all the things that actually make me happy, no matter how retro or silly or low-value they may sound to some people:

ironing, tidying the linen closet, a manicure, making cranberry bread, making dal for an Indian food feast, listening to CDs, (instead of the radio, and talk shows because I’ll learn something), emailing a distant friend who’s not feeling very well, chatting with pals on Facebook and deciding not to make soup. Even my non-work days have limits!

That filled up most of the day.

I spoke to my husband, as is typical for us, twice. We never let a day go by — and he has six meetings every day at his busy newspaper job — without one to three brief phone calls to say hello and trade some news. He’s my husband. I want to talk to him. When he comes home in the evening, the computer is off (except for blogging!) and we talk to one another, a lot.

Minda, who wrote the piece above, has no children, like me. She confesses in her story that her husband had to get assertive about wanting more of her attention, and she says she works most weekends.

Nope. Not for me.

I could make a lot more money. I have. Seven years ago, I made twice as much. In 1996, I made twice as much.

It didn’t make me twice as happy.

I know that some of you are desperate to get a job, and a well-paid job, so someone who isn’t dying to work all the time probably seems lazy to you.

Uh, no.

What I am is someone who knows her priorities: sleep, (8-10 hours every night, without fail), friendships, uninterrupted time with my husband, travel, preparing decent food for us and our friends, a clean and tidy home. I take dance class 2-3 times a week and try to work out in other ways as well.

I’ve learned my limits the hard way.

On March 17, 2007, I begged Jose to rush me to our local hospital, in pain that even laying the seatbelt across my chest was agony. I had no idea what was wrong with me, but something sure was — a 104 degree temperature and pneumonia. That meant three days in the hospital on an IV and a full month to regain my strength.

Like many people, especially freelancers and the self-employed who have no paid sick days, I kept on working while ill.

Never again.

FINGERS ON KEYBOARD

Yes, I need to make money. And I need to bump it up by probably 50 percent this year (sigh) to make a significant difference to our quality of life.

How about you?

Do you work to live, or live to work?

The view from the plateau

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life on December 31, 2013 at 1:08 am

By Caitlin Kelly

As we head into 2014, the view from here is distinctly novel. Finally, after decades of struggle and toil — and thank heaven for some respite! — things are in pretty good shape.

It’s such an odd notion for me, to not have to struggle all the time. It’s felt like a default status.

When you’re as ambitious, driven and competitive as I am, there’s always some new mountain to scale, a new place I need to plant my flag.

I’ve written two well-reviewed works of non-fiction, which for many people is a terrific accomplishment, a mountaintop from which to enjoy the view. But being a New York-based writer means knowing people — some half my age — who have already produced six or ten books, or a TV series or a NYT best-seller or…

It’s difficult to just sit still and enjoy the view.

Time to try.

Evening view from Col de Perjuret on the south...

Evening view from Col de Perjuret on the south edge of the Causse Méjean plateau in the Cevennes, France. Panoram stitched from several shoots. —- (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our apartment, after years of waiting, is finally renovated and an absolute joy to come home to; here’s my blog post, with photos, of the big reveal of our fall kitchen renovation this year.

My husband still has a good job he enjoys, with no imminent threat of losing it, a very real fear we faced in the winter of 2009 when his employer laid off many of its staff. I have a decent list of established clients who want to work with me, even as I still seek new ones almost daily.

We’re in good health and have savings. We have friends. My parents are still alive and fairly healthy. We have no kids or grandkids or nieces or nephews to worry about, (or to enjoy.)

For the moment, (she wrote, praying for more of the same), our lives contain no sweat or drama or conflict, all of which have simply felt normal to me for a long, long time. Operating in crisis mode, as many of you know, is exhausting and distracting:

Between 2000 and 2012, I had four orthopedic surgeries, the most recent being the replacement of my left hip. I waited 2.5 years for the surgery because I was scared of the operation and needed to find the income to allow me to fully rest and recover for a month; freelancers get no paid sick days.

Between 2002 and 2010, my mother, (whose only child I am, and who lives a six-hour flight away), faced multiple major surgeries and months-long hospital stays, first selling a large house and moving into a small apartment and, on a week’s notice in 2010, into a nursing home.

I moved to New York in 1989, to face the first of three recessions since then; the latest one, reaching its nadir between 2007 to 2009, was a terrifying time for us financially, as it still is for millions of Americans.

My step-mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in March 2006 and was dead within 18 months, dying on my husband’s 50th birthday.

So, for a very long time, life felt like trying to swim in rough surf — every time we surfaced for air,  we were thrown back onto the sand, coughing up salty mouthfuls.

Now, grateful but somewhat disoriented to find ourselves on a calm and quiet plateau, we wonder what our next steps are.

How does your life look and feel these days?

Are you looking forward in 2014 to some new travels or adventures?

Expecting or enjoying a new baby or grandchildren?

Coping with your first year of university?

Whatever it is, and wherever you are, I wish all of you  — now almost 8,800 readers worldwide — the very best for 2014!

A tale of two cookbooks

In behavior, culture, domestic life, family, food, life on December 27, 2013 at 2:42 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

I love cooking, and cookbooks and folders filled with recipes clipped from everywhere.

I knew Jose, my husband, was a potential keeper when he had the same 1989 cookbook I’ve used for years, and love, written by American ex-pat Patricia Wells, “Bistro Cooking.”

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We once had friends over for dinner and the recipe — flambeed chicken with mushrooms — contained the unforgettable phrase “Avert your gaze” for the moment when you ignite the bird. (Or singe your eyelashes and eyebrows.)

Two cookbooks I’m getting to know and enjoy are so utterly different. Even their covers and photos are as unalike — as the British would say — as chalk and cheese.

One, Tamasin’s Weekend Food, is written by Tamasin Day-Lewis, sister of the British actor Daniel Day-Lewis. I have no idea where I bought it — probably on a visit home to Canada, where it’s much easier to find books by British publishers than here in New York.

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I love everything about this book, from its silver end-papers to the way it’s structured: Friday Night, Saturday morning, Saturday lunch, Tea time, Saturday supper and Sunday lunch.

I love her elegant assumption, (so not true for us), that one has fled the craziness of city life for a weekend spent with kids and dogs in some crumbling 16th century rectory with muddy Wellies in the entryway.

It has a soft red ribbon with which to mark your place.

I love the photos of her — no make-up, lean-limbed, clutching a bunch of carrots in her blue jeans like some Celtic Scarlett O’Hara, long hair askew. Even on the cover, she’s looking down, not smiling and looks tired.

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The recipes, each quirky enough to be interesting, are a mix of humble — home-made bread — and vaguely exotic, like pan bagnat., one of my favorite French things to eat.

I recently — on a weeknight even! — when it was rainy and windy and the night air smelled of woodsmoke, tackled her salmon fishcakes with creme fraiche tartare sauce. All of it made from scratch. She insisted on wild salmon — and, indeed it had a wholly different consistency than the filets we usually buy. The tartar sauce, as promised was “moreish, the sort of thing you have to dip your finger into.” Indeed! It was light, creamy, tart and unlike any gummy, nasty bottled tartar sauce I’ve eaten.

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The other book, “The barefoot contessa back to basics” is very American, from its cover image of jolly, not-thin Ina Garten looking into the camera with its perky lime-green lettering, spine and end-papers to the photo of her gorgeous country house — a mansion in the Hamptons and super-elegant kitchen. It was a wedding gift to us from friends who, like us, love to entertain guests.

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I like that she includes recipes for cocktails, one of which we served at a brunch for friends — mango banana daiquiris.

I like her list of 10 things not to serve at a dinner party, including garlic and raw onions, nuts and two fish courses. (We now make sure to ask every guest if there is any food they loathe, having once made a fantastic salmon dish at which my friend J [sigh] sniffed: “I don’t eat fish.”)

Not the right answer!

The recipes offer a nice range of choices and the color photos are terrific. I’m looking forward to exploring it further even as, (yes, somehow), I try to shed 30+ pounds over the next few months.

Here is a review of 14 cookbooks that came out in 2013, from Time Out New York, and 12 more from The New York Times. (Several books made both lists.) The one I’m most intrigued by is “Ottolenghi”, by the owner of the London restaurant that bears his last name.

Do you have a favorite cookbook or two to recommend?

The gift without wrapping — love

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life, love on December 24, 2013 at 1:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many of us, the holidays are a time of frenzied shopping, wrapping gifts, tearing them open with glee, (and pretending we love those socks, really!) — surrounded by loved ones, deep in the bosom of a welcoming family.

For others, it’s a lonely time of want and exclusion.

My greatest gift, for the past 13 years, has been my husband, Jose, who proposed to me on Christmas Eve, with snow falling around us, after the evening service at our small historic church. He knew that night had many painful memories for me, going back decades, and decided to “re-brand” it with something new and happy.

But we didn’t marry until September 2011, eight years later, in a small wooden church on an island in the harbor of my hometown, Toronto.

Our marriage, which we cherish for this, is hard-won.

JRLCAK WEDDING01

We were — and still are — two hot-headed, competitive, stubborn workaholics, both career journalists more accustomed to pouring our best, (our all), into our work, a safe place to win recognition, awards and income. His parents died before he was 30 and we’re not close, emotionally or physically, to our families, no matter how hard we’ve tried. No one from his family attended our wedding, nor did one of my brothers or my mother. We have no children.

So we’re very much one another’s family.

We also married, (the second marriage for both), at what is euphemistically and hopefully called mid-life.

I’m grateful for the daily gift of a good man who loves me deeply.

We laugh loudly, and a lot. We talk for hours. We lean our heads against one another’s shoulders in public. He does the laundry. I do (some!) of the cooking. He’s starting to beat me (damn!) at Bananagrams. He’s the guy who — when I start waving the wooden stick after I’ve finished my ice cream bar — makes the buzzing noise of a light saber.

The furthest apart we’ve (yet) been — I was in Tunis on a solo vacation and he was in San Francisco, judging photos for the “A Day in the Life of America” coffee table book.

In this, our 13th holiday season together, he has shown me, more than anyone in my life so far, that love doesn’t come in a box or bag or sealed-plastic container.

It has no price tag or return policy.

If we’re really lucky, it’s right there in front of us.

When — if ever — do we just stop shopping?

In behavior, business, culture, domestic life, family, life, Money, urban life, US on December 19, 2013 at 12:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Every day, my email in-box (guilty!) fills up with notifications of sales from flash-sites like Gilt and One King’s Lane and Ideeli or from retailers I’ve purchased from before.

I delete almost every single one.

Every weekend, (yes, we still read some of our newspapers in print), a thick, glossy pile of flyers tumbles in a nasty tree-wasting avalanche from within the folds of the Times, each imploring us to spendspendspendbuybuybuybuybuybuy!

Consumer Spending

Consumer Spending (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

Between the easy availabilty of on-line shopping — a boon to the home-bound or retail-underserved — and a consumer-driven culture urging us to buy everything we see, right now, it’s an ongoing challenge not to spend money. Not to buy even more stuff.

The U.S. economy, a statistic that always somewhat horrifies me in its implications of rampant consumption, is based 70 percent on consumer spending — gas, food, diapers, gum, Manolos, trucks, Ipads, whatever.

So if we actually stop shopping, or slow down our spending on consumer goods, the economy slows. If you live in the U.S., and have any disposable income (such a bizarre phrase!) it can feel like some civic or patriotic duty to go spend some more money.

When I worked retail for 2.5 years in an upscale suburban New York mall, I saw the insanity — truly — of holiday shopping firsthand. People staggered into our store already so loaded with bags they looked like pontoons. They pawed through the racks, threw our stock onto the floor and shouted with anger when we didn’t have exactly what we needed when they needed it.

Ugly!

And yet very few Americans, even those with decades of earned income, have saved enough money to ever stop working.

In October 2013, USA Today reported:

A new report paints a rather grim assessment of how prepared we are for retirement. “The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is it Worse Than We Think?” from the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute on Retirement Security, says the typical American family has only “a few thousand dollars” saved for retirement.

“We have millions of Americans who have nothing saved for retirement,” says Diane Oakley, executive director of the NIRS. “We have 38 million working-age households who do not have any retirement assets.”

For people 10 years away from retirement, the median savings is $12,000. “Of the people between 55 and 64, one third haven’t saved anything for retirement,” Oakley says.

I read those statistics and wonder what is going to become of them; not everyone has children able or willing to rescue them.

Fortunately, (partly because we never assumed the costs of raising children), we’re way ahead of that $12,000 figure. We drive a 13-year-old vehicle and live in a one-bedroom apartment and I set aside the maximum for my IRA, even when I’d really prefer to spend that money on a long and fantastic overseas vacation, or some gorgeous new clothes or to take in all the shows, plays and concerts that Manhattan offers us.

Having significant savings is, for me, a much deeper comfort than anything I could buy.

Here, from Harvard Business School, why buying an experience (if you must buy anything at all) wins:

Conventional wisdom says that money can’t buy happiness. Behavioral science begs to differ. In fact, research shows that money can make us happier—but only if we spend it in particular ways.

In their book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, authors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton draw on years of quantitative and qualitative research to explain how we can turn cash into contentment.

The key lies in adhering to five key principles: Buy Experiences (research shows that material purchases are less satisfying than vacations or concerts); Make it a Treat (limiting access to our favorite things will make us keep appreciating them); Buy Time (focusing on time over money yields wiser purchases); Pay Now, Consume Later (delayed consumption leads to increased enjoyment); and Invest in Others (spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves).

I try to adhere to all five of these principles:

Paris - Île St. Louis: Berthillon

Paris – Île St. Louis: Berthillon (Photo credit: wallyg)

– I can still taste the salted caramel ice cream we savored at Berthillon on the Ile St Louis in Paris five years ago.

English: Ile St-Louis - Paris Français : Ile S...

English: Ile St-Louis – Paris Français : Ile Saint-Louis – Paris IV (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– I’ve chosen to work fewer hours, (which restricts my ability to shop, given that I save 15 percent of my pre-tax income every year as well), to better enjoy my free time and have experiences I value more than buying more things — to take a long walk mid-day or have coffee with a friend or read a book instead of flogging myself into another 10 or 15 hours’ paid work. I ended up in the hospital in 2007 for three days with pneumonia after chasing money too hard, too fast. Never again.

– I tend to hoard gift cards for as long as a year before finally using them, as I did recently with a Christmas 2012 gift card from my husband, (it bought two great pairs of shoes on sale.)

– I splurge on small surprises for Jose whenever I can, whether a book or a pair of colorful socks or a dinner out.

In a season where so many of us are rushing about madly shopshopshopping, it’s easy to forget that a more valuable gift can be as small and essential as a hug, a night or two of babysitting for a weary friend, making a meal for an elderly or ill neighbor.

It doesn’t have to come in a shiny Apple-designed, (cheap Chinese labor made), plastic shell or turquoise Tiffany box, no matter what their ads insist.

 Are you sick and tired of shopping?

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