broadsideblog

Posts Tagged ‘Montreal’

Backstory: How I got my Ubisoft profile for The New York Times

In blogging, business, culture, design, entertainment, journalism, Media, Technology, work on May 5, 2013 at 5:36 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of Broadside’s readers are journalists or student journalists, so occasionally I explain the backstory of how one of my major features comes to be. (With tips!)

English: The New York Times building in New Yo...

English: The New York Times building in New York, NY across from the Port Authority. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s the story, which ran April 27 in The New York Times.

Here’s the lede:

When Tchae Measroch leaves work, his hands usually bear a fresh cut or bruise. He works, often on his knees, in a small room crowded with an odd mix of items: a dried-grass hula skirt, a car door, baseball bats, swords and knives of varying length, a camouflage net typically used to disguise military equipment from enemy eyes.

Mr. Measroch, a lively 36-year-old sound-effects artist, spends his days figuring out how to make noises he’s never heard — like that of an 18th-century musket being loaded or the thump of someone’s skull hitting the deck of a warship. A selection of wooden flooring samples also helps him create the sounds of each character’s footfalls, no matter in what location, or century, they appear. “A big part of the job is footsteps,” he explains.

I came up with this idea many months ago and pitched it to my editor at the Sunday business section, who had already bought four previous stories from me, so I felt confident he’d be ready for more. (Tip: Repeat business from someone who knows and likes your work is the best!)

I know the Times doesn’t do much on Canada, where I grew up, and not much on business there (Tip: Look for something unusual, less covered by your outlet.)

I knew this story had a number of really interesting elements: it’s based in Montreal, uses a huge, multinational workforce and is based in France. I wanted to focus on a sort of story, and industry that gets relatively very little coverage in the mainstream press.

I had never played a video game in my life! (Tip: Don’t be scared to venture into a subject you know nothing about. You will be sure to ask a lot of questions that an expert overlooks, but which your readers might wonder as well.)

Ubisoft Stage at Press Conference E3 09

Ubisoft Stage at Press Conference E3 09 (Photo credit: Colony of Gamers)

I reached out to the PR contact to set up a day of face to face interviews in early February. During our very first (of many) conversations, he warned me not to even ask about video games and violence. (Tip: I did anyway, with him in the room after I’d interviewed the writer of Far Cry Three. They may tell you to behave a certain way, but that’s not your job.)

He chose a few people to speak with me and I started reading as much about the industry and this company and their games as I could. I speak fluent French so could also read articles in French, (and do some of my interviews there) if need be. (Tip: You have to have some context for every story, no matter how short. Why does it matter and why now and to whom?)

I planned to do a basic company profile, but the challenge with focusing on only one company is not producing a puff piece — uncritical blather. A major company literally choosing to open its doors to a Times reporter is nervous as hell and tightly controls what we can see or hear. (Tip: Be sure to find people who are not pre-selected by the PR staff and talk to as many sources as possible, including former employees, to get the best-rounded picture you can.)

So it’s something of a battle of (polite) wills from start to finish, as they hope to put everything in the best light possible — naturally — and I look for a compelling narrative or drama or conflict.

By the time I found it, the loss of one of their most talented writers, no one would discuss it! I spoke to a few people who knew all the details but they wouldn’t tell me anything much and certainly not on the record. (Tip: Do it anyway):

There was much industry speculation when Patrice Désilets, who created Assassin’s Creed, left Ubisoft in 2010 to work for THQ, a rival in Montreal. Had his bonus been insufficient? His pay too low? Neither Mr. Désilets nor his Los Angeles agent would discuss the matter; after Ubisoft acquired THQ Montreal in an auction of THQ assets in January, he returned to work for his former employer.

One of the books I was reading at the time, for pleasure, was book of reporting tips, one of which was “Go early, stay late.” So I got to the Ubisoft studio 15 minutes early — in seriously frigid weather — and stood on the street corner to watch staff arrive…almost all of whom were young men, a fact I could easily have overlooked in my rushed and controlled tour of the place.

While freezing my butt off, I noticed that the next door neighbors were a gas station and an upholstery shop; the latter detail made it into the story, contextualizing the neighborhood and Ubi’s choice of low-cost real estate. (Tip: Notice everything — and select later. Use your cellphone for reference photos and all the interesting visual details you will forget or get wrong or not notice in the moment. Your writing should be visual and auditory, taking readers into that place with you.)

Ubisoft office in Montreal

Ubisoft office in Montreal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interestingly, and not unusually, the two most compelling elements of the story came about unplanned and by accident. The man in the lede was someone I met for perhaps 10 minutes of an entire day, but knew immediately his piece of it would be cool and unusual.

The second was discovering that the game’s writer Jeffrey Yohalem, is American and a graduate of Yale. Perfect for the Times audience, so I added another spontaneous meeting with him to my agenda in Montreal; I did more than 13 interviews, most 30 to 60 minutes, for this story, many of which are not in this version (Tip: Over-reporting means you’re likely to much better understand and explain the nuances of your story, even if you cannot use the quotes or details as you or your source might have hoped. Better to know more than less!)

Writing this story became much more challenging than I’d hoped; as a freelancer, I know my fee in advance and have to budget my research, reporting, writing, revising and editing (with editors) time into all of that before I begin. This story became too big and too unmanageable. I had a ton of information but no clear story line.

Shit!

I was also between editors, a perilous spot for everyone as my new editor and I had never before worked together and she had not commissioned the story and it was changing shape under her direction. It worked out, but needed yet another 10 hours’ reporting (much of which ended up on the cutting room floor.)

I’m happy with the final product, and received a nice note from one of the players in the piece, which was pleasant. It also became the third most emailed and fifth most read of the entire day’s paper — something I do with almost every business story I’ve written for the Times.

I’ll be starting work on my sixth piece for this section in June and hoping to do many more. Who knows business writing could be so enjoyable? (Tip: You never know what sort of writing will most engage you.)

10 over-rated tourist spots — and 10 much better alternatives

In beauty, cities, culture, life, travel on April 15, 2013 at 12:28 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Having visited 37 countries, and a fair bit of Canada and the U.S., I’ve had that moment when you think — Really?

Some spots get breathless copy, (hello, free trips!), from travel writers who might never have gone there if they’d had to pay, and secretly hated the joint.

Toronto Skyline

Toronto Skyline (Photo credit: Bobolink)

In June 2012, my husband and I visited the Thompson Hotel in Toronto, lured by the fawning copy we’d read everywhere about how amazing it was. Not so much. The famous rooftop pool was closed the four days we were there, the bathroom door was so poorly designed it didn’t even close fully and they’d forgotten to put a handle on the inside of it. Like that…

Here are 10 spots everyone tells you are so amazing but aren’t:

The Paris flea market. Merde! I’ve lived in Paris and been back many times. An avid flea market and antiques shopper, I’ve been to the markets there and most often have come away weary and annoyed: snotty, rude shopkeepers, overpriced merch, items so precious you’re not allowed to even touch them. I’ve scored a few things, but the emotional wear and tear is so not worth it.

Instead: Go to London’s flea markets and Alfie’s on Church Street. I love them all and have many great things I’ve brought home from there, from Victorian pottery jugs to silk scarves.

English: Broadway show billboards at the corne...

English: Broadway show billboards at the corner of 7th Avenue and West 47th Street in Times Square in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Times Square, New York. Puhleeze. If you want to be shoved constantly by throngs of fellow tourists, their backpacks jamming into your face and their five-across-the-sidewalk amble slowing you down, go for it! It’s a noisy, crowded, billboard-filled temple of commerce, with deeply unoriginal offerings like Sephora or The Hard Rock Cafe. They have nothing to do with New York.

Instead: Washington Square. It’s at the very bottom of Fifth Avenue, and leads you onto the New York University Campus. You can sit in the sunshine and watch the world go by, then walk down MacDougal Street to Cafe Reggio, an 85-year-old institution, for a cappuccino.

MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, New Yor...

MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, between Bleecket Street and West 3rd Street, facing North. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Austin, Texas. I simply don’t get it. I was bored silly.

Instead: Fredericksburg. A small town in Texas hill country, it has antiques, great food, fun shopping and history.

Miami. Meh. Maybe if you’re crazy for dancing and the beach.

Instead: Key West. I’ve been there twice and would happily return many times more: small, quiet, great food and you can bike everywhere. But don’t go during spring break!

Vancouver. I was born there and have been many times. Its setting is spectacular, no question. But I’ve never found it a very interesting place.

Instead: L.A., baby! One of my favorite cities. Yes, you have to do a lot of driving. Deal with it. Great food, great shopping, beaches and Griffith Park, one of the best parks anywhere. I had one of the happiest afternoons of my entire life there — galloping through the park at sunset on a rented horse then dancing to live blues that night at Harvelle’s in Santa Monica. Abbott-Kinney rules.

Santa Fe, N.M. Heresy, since my husband grew up there. Cute, charming, gorgeous — for very rich people!

Instead: Taos or Truth or Consequences. Both are much smaller, funky as hell.

Quebec City: Beautiful to look at, some nice restaurants and an impressive setting on the St. Lawrence.

English: Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

English: Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Instead: Montreal. You can get the same sense of history in the narrow, cobble-stoned streets of Old Montreal, but still enjoy fantastic meals, great shopping and the legendary Atwater Market. Take a caleche up to the top of Mt. Royal then go for brunch at Beauty’s.

Las Vegas. I’ve been there twice, only for work. If you want to shop or gamble, you’ll love it. If you want to do anything else, forget it.

Instead: Stockholm. If you’re planning to blow a ton of cash  anyway, go somewhere truly amazing to do it. The city is beautiful, the light unforgettable, and the Vasa museum one of my favorites anywhere — a ship that sank in the harbor in 1628 on its (!) maiden voyage. I’ve been watching Wallander, a fantastic cop show shot in Ystad, and am now dying to return to this lovely (if spendy) country.

The South of France. I love it and have been several times, but $$$$$!

Instead: Corsica. I wept broken-hearted when I left, after only a week there. People were friendly, food was excellent, the landscape simply spectacular. One of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet; here’s my Wall Street Journal story about it.

Bonus:

Sydney. Call me fussy, but after 20 freaking hours in an airplane that cost a mortgage payment, I expected Heaven On Earth from this Australian city. Yes, it’s attractive. Lots of beaches. The Opera House. But I found the people there bizarrely rough and rude, much more so than anyone I’ve ever faced in New York City. I made a friend on the flight over and we went out for dinner — and were (!?) told to leave the restaurant because we were disturbing the other patrons. This was the oddest and most unpleasant dining experience of my life, especially when all the other diners applauded our exit. I assure you, we were neither drunk nor disorderly.

Melbourne_Flinders_St__Station

Instead: Melbourne. Lovelovelovelove this city! The Yarra River. The ocean. Elegant neighborhoods. Flinders Street Station. All of it. I’ve rarely enjoyed a city as much as this one.

Here’s one list, by a travel writer.

Here’s a list of 31 others, including the Grand Canyon (!), from readers of the Los Angeles Times. (They, like me, think Austin, Texas and Santa Fe, N.M. are totally not worth it.)

Where have you been that left you disappointed?

Where have you been that — shockingly — knocked your socks off?

Montreal, in the snow, swirling with memories

In behavior, cities, journalism, life, travel, urban life on February 9, 2013 at 12:19 am

Montreal — like much of the Northeast U.S. right now — is in the middle of a heavy snowstorm. The streets are thick with snow. Pedestrians trudge and slip and slither, gaze firmly downward, their mouths covered by heavy, thick mufflers. The bus fills up fast, between puffy parkas and oversize backpacks.

A hallway light at the Nelligan

A hallway light at the Nelligan

When I got into the cab this morning to head north from Old Montreal — we’re at the Nelligan — to my appointment, I asked the driver, in French, “How’s traffic?”

“Terrible!”

“Are they plowing the roads?” It was then 10:30 a.m.

“Not yet,” he replied. “They won’t do it until later today.” (We only started to see plows at 3:30.)

I’m here reporting my fifth New York Times business story. It’s been interesting, since I lived here in 1969 and from 1986 to 1988 when I was a reporter at the Montreal Gazette. Jose is here with me, my husband, and he’s loving the crazy cold as much as I am.

As I move around the city, on foot and by bus and by taxi, so many memories! It was here I flew kites atop Mount Royal with my Mom and took a freezing cold caleche ride with my American beau, the man I would later marry (and divorce.) It was here my Dad took me to Expo ’67; the grey concrete cubes of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat still stand, a few blocks from our hotel.

It was here I lost a tooth — yes, really — at the Ritz-Carlton, when my father was staying there. Jose and I later took refuge there, at bargain rates, after we both reported on 9/11, terrified and exhausted. We came downstairs for breakfast and wondered who the raspy-voiced, long-haired guys were at the next table — Aerosmith.

We drove past the Royal Victoria Hospital, an enormous gray Victorian stone pile on a steep hill — and I remember the day I slipped and fell on the ice outside my hotel and tore all the ligaments in my left ankle. It took six hours to get a pair of crutches. (I was on assignment then for The Globe and Mail, and [of course] kept working, in snow and ice, on crutches.)

Here’s a photo of what was our 1969 address — now transposed to a glam condo tower from the gray limestone apartment we lived in, since torn down.

former home

It’s 3432 Peel Street, a block north of Sherbrooke. We were here for a year — my Mom had a TV talk show and I attended a private, co-ed Catholic school. It was a hell of a shock. I’m not Catholic and I had not attended school with boys since third grade – this was Grade Seven and all the girls were a year older and hopelessly sophisticated in comparison.

I promptly developed a huge crush on a pink-cheeked boy named, of course, Michel.

I love how French are this city’s aesthetic choices and offerings; I bought heavy stock Lalo notecards the exact color of raspberry coulis and an opera-length black bead necklace at Agatha, a Paris-based jewelry company. And I always enjoy Montrealais’ consistent chic — even in the bitter cold, one young woman on the subway platform, swaddled in her coat, sported a gamine pixie haircut and bright red lipstick.

We have been utter gluttons on this trip, as some of it is vacation. Yesterday we indulged in a 2.5 hour lunch, with wine at La Chronique. The restaurant, ironically designed with a menu that looks like a newspaper and a ceiling design that mimics a printer’s tray, had only four tables filled, people staying away because of the weather. It was silent, the food fantastic.

Gravlax appetizer at La Chronique

Gravlax appetizer at La Chronique

We ate one night at Lemeac, a neighborhood restaurant for affluent Francophones, and the couple at the next table were intriguing. She wore a gold signet ring the size of a grape, a leather skirt and expensive manicure. She sent back her food because they brought her a steak — not steak tartare, which is essentially uncooked ground meat. The picture of polished, wealthy, mid-life elegance, she sounded soigne en francais, and crude in English. “He’s a fucking idiot,” she snapped to her companion of someone they were discussing.

He was Asian and they slipped easily back and forth, as so many people do here, from French to English, like otters slipping in and out of water. I miss living in a place where language is so fluid and thinking done automatically en deux langues.

I took Jose to one of favorite haunts from my time here in the 1980s, Stash Cafe, whose apricot crumble is a thing of magnificence. Here he is, post-stew.

jose@stash

One major difference between Montreal and New York is that so many people, here, wear fur — trimming their parka hoods or full-length unapologetic mink and sable that sweep to their ankles. There are boutiques selling fur in a variety of forms.

It was also here, on a face-punchingly, nostril-shuttingly frigid day in February 2007, that I bought mine. (Fur horrifies many people, I know.) It is also both light, non-bulky and extraordinarily warm, making it perfect for this sort of unforgiving cold. It is nice to wear it here, and be completely unremarkable — in New York, some PETA fanatic might well douse me with red paint in fury.

Caiti:winter

People mocked us for heading north in February  — again! — for this holiday.

But, as my most Canadian friend — a former wildlife biologist — reminded us: “Cold is not the problem. Improper clothing is.”

Define “vacation”

In behavior, domestic life, life, travel, urban life on January 31, 2013 at 2:10 am

As we were preparing to leave New York for two weeks’ vacation — visiting my Dad in Ontario, doing a NYT story in Montreal with some leisure time there as well — everyone at Jose’s job was making fun of him.

“North, in winter? You’re heading north?”

Take a Vacation!

Take a Vacation! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, yes. Packing hats, mitts, boots and lots of warm clothing is pretty normal for us. In our 13 years together, we have yet to take a beach vacation, mostly because Jose does not swim and money is usually too tight. (Although we did squeeze in two two-week trips to Paris in 2007 and 2008.)

Our last really big trip was three weeks in Mexico in May 2005, far too long ago. It was completely wonderful in every way: we visited Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, where I lived when I was 14. We even went back to my old apartment building there — totally unchanged.

Vacation, these days, is often a time to simply eat, sleep, read for pleasure, repeat.

Jose’s job, as a photo editor for  large daily newspaper, means six meetings every day and answering hundreds of emails. By the time we take some time off, he’s whipped. My workdays are a blur of email, calls, pitching ideas, following up with editors, reading and writing.

My perfect vacation means getting off the computer, out of the car and never touching a telephone. It’s also a blend of city excitement and, when possible, some spectacular natural landscapes.

Day One of this trip meant a lot of sleeping. I read an entire book, ‘Rules of Civility”, something I have no time and less attention for at home; it’s set in 1938 Manhattan and is a good read. We played Bananagrams with Dad and his partner, and Jose took a terrible photo of me gloating when I won.

Our plans include time in Toronto and Montreal, for shopping, some good meals, seeing friends and (yes) some business meetings for me as well. It’ll be a mix of the familiar — lunch on Queen Street, upscale at Nota Bene or low-key at Prague, where the schnitzel is plate-sized and amazing – and exploring some new-to-us spots.

Last time in Toronto, in June 2012, we tried, (and didn’t enjoy), the oh-so-trendy Thompson Hotel. This time we’ve voted for the Hotel Ocho. It’s…interesting. It’s hilarious to be in a place where every single person is about 12, O.K. maybe 26. Every time we step into the lobby, they all look at us in puzzlement: “Old people, why are you here?”

We’re also here facing two pieces of Canadian currency history — the new polymer $20 bill, (which is hideous and even has the wrong maple leaf on it), and the end of the penny next week as legal tender; it’s been costing the Mint 1.6 cents to produce each penny.

We’ll be in D.C. for a few days in early May when I go there to accept a writing award, and in Arizona and New Mexico in May/June. Our big trip this year will be two weeks in Newfoundland, and I’m eager to finally visit Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO Heritage site since 1987.

I’m dying to visit many more spots, from Japan to Buenos Aires to Croatia, returning to Paris, London and Istanbul, to canoeing in the Arctic. I live to travel and would happily spend almost every spare penny on it. The endless challenge is making enough money to be able to go far away and really relax — when every single minute not working, freelance, means not earning income.

When you go on vacation, where do you like to go?

What do you enjoy doing?

What does it cost you to live these days?

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, life, Money, travel, urban life, US on January 29, 2013 at 3:09 am
Apartment buildings in the English Bay area of...

Apartment buildings in the English Bay area of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Beautiful but oh so spendy!!! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent New York Times article made clear — again — why living in Manhattan is increasingly for the wealthy:

The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide. The average sale price of a home in Manhattan last year was $1.46 million, according to a recent Douglas Elliman report, while the average sale price for a new home in the United States was just under $230,000. The middle class makes up a smaller proportion of the population in New York than elsewhere in the nation. New Yorkers also live in a notably unequal place. Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia or Sierra Leone — the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth, according to 2010 census data.

Ask people around the country, “Are you middle-class?” and the answer is likely to be yes. But ask the same question in Manhattan, and people often pause in confusion, unsure exactly what you mean.

What many people outside New York don’t know, necessarily, is that many “New Yorkers”, and I include myself in that bunch, have never lived in The City, as we call Manhattan. It’s too damn expensive!

They live on Staten Island or Queens or the Bronx or Brooklyn or (as we do) in Westchester or New Jersey or Long Island or Connecticut. We waste hours of our lives trading time for money, commuting an hour or more each way.

Since leaving my hometown, Toronto, in 1986 — where real estate is insanely expensive, (only Vancouver is worse), — I’ve lived in Montreal, a small town in New Hampshire and in suburban New York. I’ve seen huge differences of the cost of living firsthand.

In Toronto, rent/mortgage costs are high, almost no matter where you live. In Montreal I rented a stunning apartment — top floor of a 1930s building, with a working fireplace, elegant windows, two bedrooms, dining room, good-sized kitchen — for $600 a month. It was the 1980s, but my then boyfriend was paying $125 a month to share the entire top floor of an apartment building. I didn’t need a car, food and utilities were reasonable, but the taxes! Holy shit. I moved to Montreal with a $10,000 a year raise, and looked forward to extra income. I only kept $200 a month of that, the taxes were so bad. More to the point, I hated the lack of services I got in return — a high crime rate, pot-holed roads, lousy hospitals and libraries. I moved away within 18 months. (Not to mention a winter that lasted from October to May. Non, merci!)

Rural New Hampshire, with the U.S.’s lowest taxes, was cheap enough, but we needed two working vehicles, plus gas, insurance and maintenance, an expense I never needed in Toronto or Montreal.

Moving to suburban New York, where we bought a one-bedroom 1,000 square foot top-floor apartment, with a balcony, pool and tennis court, allowed us a decent monthly payment, thanks to a 30-year mortgage, all we could then afford on one salary, his, a medical resident.

I still live here, now with my second husband, paying $1,800 a month for mortgage and maintenance combined. That may sound like a fortune, but it’s pennies in this part of the world. We could easily spend that for a tiny studio in Manhattan. He pays $250 a month for his train pass to travel a 40-minute trip one-way into Manhattan.

The larger problem?  Our salaries are stagnant, if not falling. I earned more in 2000 freelance than any year since then.

Gas here in New York is just under $4/gallon — it was 89 cents a gallon in 1988 when I came to the U.S. Food is much more expensive than even two years ago, so we spend about $150+ every week for two people. We do eat meat and I work at home, so I often eat three meals a day out of that.

Our cellphone bill is absurdly high and something we need to lower. Electricity is about $75 a month as is the basic land-line bill. We also pay about $100 for a storage locker and $75 a month for our (unheated, unlit, no automatic door opener) garage.

The local YMCA wants $89 a month, (which I think really expensive) for a monthly single membership. One of the worst issues here? Tolls! It costs $4 each way to cross the cheapest bridge to get into the island of Manhattan, and another is $9 each way. Parking, if you choose a garage in the city, is routinely $25-50 for a few hours, while a parking ticket is more than $100.

These smack-in-the-face costs are only bearable, for me, because I’m self-employed as a writer, and can write most of them off as business expenses.

So why stay?

– My husband has a steady, union-protected job with a pension and a decent salary

– He likes his job

– I have ready access to the editors, agents and others in my industry I need to support my writing career. Online is not enough to build profitable relationships, at least for me

– I enjoy New York City a great deal. I love ready access to Broadway, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, fun shops and restaurants and quiet cobble-stoned streets to wander on a fall afternoon

– Where would we go? I have learned (after two deeply disappointing moves to Montreal and New Hampshire) that being happy somewhere is often a complex mix of things: housing (and its cost and quality), access to culture, a liberal (or conservative) environment politically, neighbors who share some of your interests and passions, weather, climate, taxes, government, your job/career/industry.

As several fellow Canadians I know said, “I moved to New York, not the U.S.” I’ve seen a lot of the States, and can appreciate the appeal of many other places here. But almost nowhere has made me feel confident enough to up stakes and start all over again. I was up for a cool job in San Francisco once, but the dotcom collapse ended that. I like L.A. a lot, but Jose refuses. (Next stop? South of France, s’il vous plait!)

– I love the Hudson Valley’s beauty and history

– We have some good friends, finally.

Here’s a fascinating blog post by a Canadian then living in Sardinia, now in the Cayman Islands, about the cost of living there. Many of her followers weighed in, from Hawaii to China.

What are your costs of living these days?

Are you thinking of moving to lower them?

How about Plans C, D and E?

In aging, behavior, books, business, domestic life, family, immigration, journalism, life, love, Media, US, women on December 11, 2012 at 1:50 pm
University College, south side, University of ...

University College, south side, University of Toronto….My alma mater, (Victoria College, actually.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think many of us have a Plan B — or are already living it.

But how many of you have thought far enough ahead about plans C, D and E?

Here’s a recent blog post chosen for Freshly Pressed by a woman who’s 40, in Toronto, the hometown I left in 1986. In it she discusses how it feels to face a life she did not plan for:

Life sure hasn’t gone the way I planned. That’s an understatement. I thought things would be different. As a kid, I used to think that life got easier as you got older. Now here I am pushing 40 and boy was I wrong about that. The older I get, things seem to get more complicated and every decision I have to make feels like the weight of the world.

Being a grown up is hard.

Hell, yes!

I am now at an age that feels absolutely geriatric, 55. Ahead lies a diminishing number of years on this earth, and physical decline. Cool! If I don’t have a few back-up plans (what if I get really sick? what if my husband dies?), I’m toast.

I’m writing this post sitting in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. I came by train from New York on Sunday to compete Monday for a fellowship that, if I win, offers $20,000 for six months to research an issue of interest to me. There are 14 finalists and they’ll pick maybe six.

I have to plan on not winning. Not to be negative, but realistic.

I have so many other ideas I can barely keep track of them all: writing (and I hope selling) two more non-fiction book proposals; three assignments from The New York Times and another which I hope will send me on my next trip; a conference I hope to create next fall; rustling up people to donate their talent for a fund-raiser; planning travel for 2013…

My point is that “planning” your life is truly a fool’s errand, no matter how comforting it appears. You can aim for goals, and likely hit many, if not most. But some you are going to miss.

If you do not grasp this reality, young, you may face a life of tremendous frustration and bitterness.

Some dreams will be snatched out of your grasp. Some people will disappoint you and betray you and lie to you and disappear. Some things are just shitty luck: infertility and/or miscarriage; accidents; disability or chronic illness. You still have to deal!

Here are some of the twists and turns my life took after I chose to leave my hometown of Toronto, age 30:

– Took a newspaper job in Montreal. Hated it! The winter was brutally long, cold and snowy. The crime rate was crazy, and frightening. The paper’s management were…not what I wanted.

– Moved to a small town in New Hampshire to follow the man I planned to marry, an American. I tried harder than I have ever tried in my entire life to make friends, and it proved impossible. He was doing medical training, so he was either gone, exhausted or emotionally withdrawn.

Moved to New York City to make it as a journalist. I was promised a month’s try-out, paid, at Newsweek International. When I called to confirm my start date (after we had moved to NY and bought an apartment and he had changed training programs) they said “Oh, we have an internal candidate. We don’t need you.” I insisted and still did not get the job.

And that’s only the first five years!

My life since 1989 has included a two-year marriage to the doctor; three recessions, four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, losing a few staff jobs, three days in the hospital with pneumonia, dating a convicted criminal…and writing two terrific books, finding a lovely new husband and enjoying my new left hip.

None of this was planned.

Sure, I had some hopes: good journalism jobs (check); get married (check, check); write a book (check, check). So I’m happy with this. But so many things have blown up in my face, metaphorically speaking, along the way as well.

If you are not ready — emotionally, physically and financially — to adapt to whatever life throws at you, you’ll waste a lot of time when things go south in a fog of cognitive dissonance, moaning “What happened?” instead of packing your parachute.

Here’s a great blog post by a young woman writer whose blog I enjoy, about being prepared and knowing she’s not a victim. It is a choice.

How has your life turned out?

As you’d hoped and expected? Or…?

Back again, 24 years later

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

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

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

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

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

The woman who lived here 24 years ago was terrified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I no longer have to prove myself to anyone here.

Especially myself.

A nine-hour drive

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

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

Well, that was an odyssey!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have receipts for all those things?”

I actually did. Even my auction goodies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road trip!

In behavior, cities, life, travel, women, world on May 22, 2012 at 12:04 am
Open road, B6355 Big sky country, the road ove...

Open road, B6355 Big sky country, the road over the Lammermuir Hills. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I looooooove road trips!

I took the first one when I was too little to even remember it — from my birthplace in Vancouver, Canada all the way to Mexico, in the back seat of my parents’ car. No wonder I’m always eager to get behind the wheel, crank up the radio and flee the jurisdiction.

The New York Times recently ran a great selection of their writers’ favorites, several of which I’ve also done and enjoyed, like Route 100 in Vermont.

Here’s a fantastic recent blog post about driving Highway 1 in California, a classic trip I’ve longed to take.

Some of my favorite road trips include:

— When my Dad and I took a month to drive from Toronto to Vancouver, dipping south of the Canadian border into North and South Dakota along the way to visit some Indian pow-wows. We camped, and woke up to find a large steak and a bag of sugar at our tent door. In one farmer’s field, we camped and were awakened looking up at the owner on his tractor. I think every 15-year-old girl should spend a month with her Dad on the road. You learn a lot about one another.

Like….I am not a morning person. So my Dad would set the alarm for 6:00 a.m. and tell me it was 7:00 a.m. It worked, for a while.

— Our road trip from Mexico City to Taxco to Acapulco, in the mid-1980s. I speak good Spanish so, as the gas gauge fell alarmingly low, he said “There’s a house. Go ask where the nearest gas station is.” When we arrived in Acapulco, he remembered a cheap hotel from a decade or so earlier and there it was.

— My mom and I lived in Mexico when I was 14 and drove all over the place, which was vaguely insane for two women alone, one of whom was 14, with waist-length blond hair.

— Montreal to Savannah, Georgia, crossing — yes, this is its real name — the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, with my Dad. We dipped into tiny coastal towns like Oriental.

— My first husband I drove south from Montreal to Charleston, S.C. where he tried to teach me to drive — why? — on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We visited one of my favorite places ever, Kitty Hawk, N.C. where the Wright Brothers got the very first airplane to fly in 1903. I adore aviation and travel, so these guys are real heroes in my book.

— In Ireland, my Dad and I drove the outer edge of the whole country in a week; as Europeans well know, you can cross several countries in the time it takes to get out of Ontario or Texas. Ireland, side to side, three hours. I’ve spent that in NYC traffic just trying to get home! We visited Rathmullan, Co. Donegal, where my great-grandfather was the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse.

— In 2002 while researching my book about American women and guns, I went to visit a cowboy who lived in the middle of nowhere, between Silver City and Colorado City, Texas. For hundreds of miles, all one could see were oil drills pumping up and down.

Out there, on a long bare and empty stretch of road, my cellphone didn’t work, my gas was getting low and I was a long way from help. Then a white pick-up truck pulled up beside me, with a weathered man at the wheel. “You the writer from New York?”

Um, yes. That lost-tenderfoot thing probably gave me away.

“Follow me!” And when I arrived, his wife Doris showed me a long, narrow, low wooden box. “You’ve probably never seen or heard these and I want you to be safe when you’re here.” Then she opened the box, using a long metal stick. It was full of….live rattlesnakes. 

— Jose, now my husband, took me from his native Santa Fe, New Mexico along the High Road to Taos, through the town of Truchas. Spectacular.

— Alone, in June 1994, I drove in a circle from Phoenix, Arizona north to Flagstaff, saw the Grand Canyon and the  Canyon de Chelly, (inhabited for the past 5,000 years), and arrived back in Phoenix against a sunset sky so yellow and purple and orange — cacti backlit — I felt like a character in a 1940s Disney cartoon.

— I had a great solo road trip, in my beloved red Honda del Sol convertible, (since stolen, from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia. I stayed in B & Bs. I visited Monticello, home to polymath, and its designer, the U.S.’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. I drove through lush hills and valleys in West Virginia that made me feel like someone in a Thomas Hart Benson painting.

I didn’t learn to drive until I was 30, so I had a lot of driving to make up!

Go alone, or with your BFF or your sister or your nephew or Dad or Mom or husband or sweetie.

Pack a cooler with yogurt and green grapes. Bring binoculars and a sense of wonder.

Stop often. Eat well! Get up for dawn.

Drive in the cool of the night, as we did in North Carolina, the scent of dew-covered jasmine filling our nostrils.

But go!

What’s the best (or worst) road trip you’ve ever taken?

Old Friends…

In aging, behavior, domestic life, life, love, men, Uncategorized, women on May 31, 2011 at 2:01 am
Map of Toronto

TO, or Tronna, as natives are wont to call it...now known as the GTA.Image via Wikipedia

Sat on the park bench like bookends.

So goes the gorgeous 1968 song by Simon and Garfunkel.

In Toronto for a week, I’m basking in my past, catching up with men and women who have known me since I was thin(ner!) and bouncing off the walls with ambition (still am) and had not yet been married or divorced.

I left Toronto in 1986 for Montreal, New Hampshire and New York, where I’ve lived ever since. I go back two to six times a year to catch up with old colleagues and friends like:

Vicki, who I met in Grade Four, whose backyard contains what’s left of Pickles, my late hamster

Joe, my dreamy crush in high school, all blond bangs and deep blue eyes

Sally, (who shared my deep crush on Joe), my best pal from high school, at whose lakeside house I’m writing this from, and with whom I re-connected at our 1995, 20-year reunion

Marcia, who met me when I was afire, even at 20, with journalistic ambition: she was the head of public relations for the National Ballet of Canada and (yes) got me a part as a walk-on in Sleeping Beauty. I did all eight performances at Lincoln Center, with Nureyev on-stage as the Prince. It made a great story, especially when I came on-stage about 20 bars too soon on opening night!

Peter, an architect with whom I fell madly in love on a Cartagena rooftop when we were both there on holiday in our 20s. He’s gay, so we became, and have remained, dear friends

Stephen, who desperately wanted to marry me when I was 26, and lived with me ages 22-25, but married someone else instead and is now divorced and a PI living in the countryside. It was great to catch up on all those lost decades

Ken, my former squash partner from University of Toronto, now a lawyer and newly, at midlife, a Dad and husband

I’ve also loved physically passing by my past…

the streetcar rumbling past Maclean-Hunter, the downtown magazine publisher for whom I started my writing career, while still an undergraduate, for a magazine called Miss Chatelaine (hence the kd lang song title!)…the Chinatown restaurant where my Dad made a film in the 1960s…my old apartment building a block from campus, and a block from my Granny’s old apartment building.

And, while Toronto is a city of 3 million or so, the degrees of separation are few:

My sister-in-law — in her early 30s — met Stephen at my U of T Malled event and knew him from rally car racing.

A man I met for a business lunch has a former philosophy professor of mine as his father-in-law

The photographer who took my photo for a story by Canadian Press works with my sweetie on freelance stories for The New York Times

What’s it like now when you visit your hometown?

Did you leave it?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,435 other followers