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Posts Tagged ‘Toronto’

Actually, no, I don’t work “for exposure” (or lunch)

In art, beauty, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, design, journalism, life, Media, Money, music, photography, Technology, US, work on October 27, 2013 at 5:57 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

If there is a current cri de coeur of the creative crowd, this is it.

Much as we might fervently wish for it, there’s no separate gas pump with a 35% discount just for painters or a 25% off aisle at the grocery store reserved for musicians or a 50% off sticker affixed to our phone, electricity or insurance bills.

English: Grocery store in Callicoon, NY, USA

English: Grocery store in Callicoon, NY, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Free food for artists! NOT.

Our costs are the same as everyone else’s.

So this piece in The New York Times, although hardly a new thought, hit a nerve:

NOT long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.

They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.

I like to see how many comments Times pieces elicit; as I write this, so far, 493 people have weighed in. That might be a record.

This hit a chord with me, again, when yesterday a local attorney — who drives a lovely Mercedes — asked me to have lunch with her daughter so her daughter could ask my career advice.

Shell Petrol Pump

Shell Petrol Pump (Photo credit: dvanzuijlekom) Free gas for writers! Just kidding!

I met the attorney because I interviewed her, (a paid gig, of course). We have no social or other relationship, but it’s a very normal expectation I want to share my 30 years’ expertise and insight without payment because….?

I don’t want lunch.

I want to be paid.

I grew up in a family of freelancers. No one had a paycheck, pension or paid vacations. Our earnings relied on our talent, skills and ability to negotiate a payment that made sense to us. It did, providing us with nice clothes, decent used cars, international travel, a home with a mortgage, i.e. a middle-class to upper-middle-class life.

This fantasy that creative people are eager to slurp ramen into our 60s or beyond is just weird.

Like that Times op-ed writer, Tim Kreider, I’ve also turned down many “offers” to go and speak unpaid — from the Retail Council of Canada (!), with no offer to pay my travel costs from New York to Toronto — to a local alumni group of a prestigious university who recently “invited” me to spend four hours of my time on that event, so I could sell copies of my latest book – at a discount.

None of which earns me a dime.

People wouldn’t ask their physician, dentist, accountant or attorney to come hang out, without compensation, for the afternoon.

Don’t ask me either!

How often are you asked to work without pay?

How taking it to the streets can change your life

In beauty, behavior, business, children, cities, culture, life, parenting, urban life, work on August 1, 2013 at 12:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The young boys I just blogged about, Unlocking the Truth, are doing something odd and radical.

They’re taking it to the streets.

Down on the corner

Down on the corner (Photo credit: samgrover)

I did it too, at their age.

Clearly, this won’t work for many kids — their town or city is too dangerous, they lack the maturity to handle it or their talents are sufficiently-developed.

But the positive effect it had on me still resonates today.

I spent my childhood, ages eight to 16, between boarding school and summer camp, always sharing a room, always surrounded by other people. So I was used to being around a lot of people I didn’t know.

I was then making little bead necklaces, and took my box of beads and a needle everywhere with me, the way an Ipod or cellphone now accompanies and distracts many tweens.

I decided to sit on a ledge in Yorkville, Toronto’s intimate, safe, upscale shopping area, and try to sell my necklaces.

Where did the idea come from? Who knows. It never occurred to me that it might be dangerous or boring.

Pine trees growing in Toronto's Yorkville Park.

Pine trees growing in Toronto’s Yorkville Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And some people bought them. They stopped to talk to me. No one laughed or found it weird. It was amazing.

I went back, at 15, to sell hand-made envelopes, and at 19 to sell my black and white photos, mounted on matt-board, for $25 apiece. One of the city’s top fashion photographers of the time, who I knew, walked by — and bought one.

I needed no permits or license, just the chutzpah to put it out there, my personality and my talent. Lucky for me, both seemed to be appealing.

Then a woman stopped to look through my additional selection of color slides, and ordered one, printed into a huge poster, for her wall at home. It cost — in 1976 — $125, an enormous sum. I delivered it and she wrote me a check.

It bounced.

I was lying in bed at home, sore and bleeding from the surgical removal of all four wisdom teeth, when the bank called.

I knew a lawyer, even then, and sicc’ed him on her. I had my money within a week.

But it taught me a powerful and unforgettable lesson in when, where and how much to trust. Her elegant appearance and charming manner were seductive — and misleading. That’s a good lesson to learn at 19.

To her, I likely appeared a wide-eyed street kid who knew little and trusted much. Not for long!

SJSA Grade Six -  The Year I Rebelled

SJSA Grade Six – The Year I Rebelled (Photo credit: Michael 1952)

In my freelance work today, I’m using much of what I learned out there alone at 12:

– Think you have talent? Go test the market, face to face when possible

— Some people will be wildly enthusiastic

– Some people will cheat you

– Some people will be indifferent

– Some will sneer or dismiss your work

-- Knowing young that you have specific, saleable skills or talents is empowering. You won’t starve!

– Being able to charm and engage your customers/clients/audience is huge

– Asking for attention, and managing it, can be stressful. Many kinds of work will require it

Here’s a video of Creedence Clearwater Revival singing “Down on the Corner”.

Do you love Joni Mitchell as much as I do?

In art, beauty, culture, entertainment, music, women on June 22, 2013 at 12:29 am

By Caitlin Kelly

If you took away every other piece of contemporary music and allowed me only one artist to listen to, it might well be that of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s now 70, living in L.A. dividing her time between there and her property north of Vancouver in Sechelt, B.C.

Friends of mine in Toronto last week had the rare and fantastic opportunity, at the annual Luminato Festival, to hear her sing — when she had only agreed to read a poem. So jealous!

You may never have heard of her — while those of us who grew up singing along to her work keep playing and re-playing her work — after all, there are 28 albums listed on her official website.

She officially retired in 2002, although you’ve likely heard one of the 587 (!) versions of her song “Both Sides Now”, written when she was only 21. Singers including Taylor Swift and Madonna have cited her as a major influence on their work.

A winner of eight Grammy awards, her classic album “Blue” was named one of the 100 best albums ever made by Time magazine.

She started out as a visual artist but got pregnant, gave her daughter up for adoption, and only by accident fell into her long career as a singer/songwriter.

Here’s one of her paintings, from 1987, linked to her song “Night Ride Home”, one of my many favorites.

She started out living in a small Western Canadian town, where her mother “raised me on words.”

She’s even inspired 47 songs by others, as recently as 2011 — including the classic “Our House” By Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young, yet another Canadian.

Many other artists have recorded her work, some of them making her songs into hits. A favorite, “Michael from Mountains”, off the 1967 classic by Judy Collins, “Wildflowers” is a song written by Mitchell.

Cover of "Hejira"

Cover of Hejira

I have so many favorites among her work, but Hejira is an album I could play all day every day and never tire of. The word has several meanings, one of which is “a journey to escape something dangerous or undesireable.” It came out when I was a second-year university student, living alone in a crummy small apartment in Toronto, struggling to combine freelance photography with full-time studies at a large and demanding bureaucratic institution.

(If you’re lucky enough to be in Pacific Beach, CA on November 9, 2013, a band called Robin Adler and the Mutts will perform the entire album. Wish I could be there!)

Hejira expressed the aching, overwhelming multitude of feelings I felt so powerfully then — joy and excitement at leaving my family home for good; fear I would not do so successfully; dating a succession of men, many of them unlikely; trying to define who I was as a young woman in the larger world.

I love this lyric — talk about the wrong man!

No regrets, coyote

We just come from such different sets of circumstance

I’m up all night in the studio

And you’re up early on your ranch

This is a verse from “Amelia”, nominally about Amelia Earhart, but which resonates for me, still, as someone happiest in motion, in flight, traveling somewhere new:

The drone of flying engines

Is a song so wild and blue


It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you


Then your life becomes a travelogue


Of picture post card charms


Amelia it was just a false alarm

Here’s a fantastic, recent hour-long exclusive interview with her by fellow Canadian Jian Ghomeshi on his CBC/PRI show, “Q”.

I love that it ends with an audible hug.

Are you a fan as well?

Have you ever heard her in concert?

How was your childhood?

In behavior, children, domestic life, family, parenting on April 19, 2013 at 4:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I loved this recent special issue of New York magazine focused on childhood in New York.

Barbara Walters’ dad ran nightclubs?

Chevy Chase got stabbed in the back by a mugger?

Matthew Broderick in Sweden to promote Ferris ...

Matthew Broderick in Sweden to promote Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Matthew Broderick was robbed constantly?

The black and white photos are fantastic, and the memories, of New York and childhood, lovely.

I was born in Vancouver, and lived in London ages two to five, before moving to Toronto where I lived to the age of 30.

My childhood was a mixture of material comfort and emotional chaos. We lived, until my parents split up, in a large, beautiful house in a nice neighborhood. We had a huge backyard, a maid named Ada and I walked to school. But my parents were miserable and I used to hide behind the living room curtains as they shouted at one another. It was a relief when they divorced and my mother and I moved into an apartment in a downtown area much less charming.

I was at boarding school at eight, and summer camp all summer every year ages eight to 15. So I didn’t see that much of my parents. I was then an only child, so grew used to amusing myself with books, toys, art, sports.

I spent my school year awakened by bells: 6:55 wake-up; 7:05 walk around the block, regardless of weather; 7:25 breakfast. And so on. We wore plaid kilts and ties, in the Hunting Stewart tartan, and black oxfords and dark green knee socks. In summer, our camp uniform was yellow and blue, white for Sunday chapel. I spent most of my childhood surrounded by strangers — room-mates, cabin-mates, teachers, housemothers and counselors.

In retrospect, it was a distinctly odd way to grow up.

But it’s what I knew. I got a terrific education, made some wonderful friends at camp and developed my athletic skills. Camp was my happiest time and forever shaped my love of nature and outdoor adventure. I learned how to canoe, water-ski, swim, sail, ride horses. I collected badges and awards and prizes, at school and camp, for my talents, whether athletic or intellectual.

Every summer I would act in a musical, Flower Drum Song or Sound of Music or Hello Dolly!. I usually won the the lead, so knew from an early age I could win and hold an audience. I wrote songs and played them on my guitar, singing before the whole camp, an audience of 300 or so, strangely fearless.

I felt loved and safe at camp, while by Grade Nine I was always in some sort of trouble at school — my bed was messy, I talked too much in class, I sassed teachers and got into radio wars with room-mates. When my neatness scores (!) fell too low, I’d be confined to campus on weekends and had to memorize Bible  verses to atone. (“For God so loved the world…” John 3: 16, kids.)

We were only allowed to watch an hour or so of television on Sunday evenings, although we were taken to the ballet and the Royal Winter Fair to watch horse-jumping. Every Wednesday night, after filling out a permission slip, we could go out for dinner with a friend or relative — the lonely kids left behind were fed a comforting meal of fried chicken with cranberry sauce and corn.

Privacy was an unimaginable luxury when you always shared a room with four or six others. There was nowhere to shut a door and just be alone in silence, to exult or cry. I was sent to my room at school, as punishment, for laughing too loudly. We were constantly told to be “ladylike.” In both places, we ate our meals communally, at large tables, consuming whatever food was served to us whenever it was offered.

Many decades later, I’m still seeing the many ways this has shaped me, for better and for worse.

How was your childhood?

The comfort of the familiar

In aging, beauty, behavior, cities, culture, design, domestic life, History, life, urban life on February 2, 2013 at 1:55 pm
English: Panorama of Toronto. Français : Image...

English: Panorama of Toronto. Français : Image panoramique de Toronto. Italiano: Un panorama di Toronto, al tramonto. Nella skyline si nota la CN Tower, la più alta torre per telecomunicazioni del mondo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We stood on the sidewalk, gobsmacked.

We’d walked along Queen Street in the freezing cold, counting the minutes until we were seated once more at our favorite Toronto deli, Prague, a Toronto institution of schnitzel and strudel and Pilsener and potato salad.

“Closed” read the sign.

A guy stepped out.

“What happened?”

“Some new owners bought it. They changed it. It didn’t work.”

Sigh.

I peered into the windows, looking in vain for the charming renovation they’d done a few years earlier, for the display cases filled with ham and jam and biscuits. All gone. The only thing left was the ancient mirrored wooden icebox from the original store.

There is something deeply comforting — in a life filled with constant change — in the familiar. Since I was born in Vancouver, I’ve lived in Toronto, Montreal (twice), New Hampshire, New York, Cuernavaca, Mexico, London and Paris. Between 1982 and 1989 I changed cities four times and left my native Canada for the United States.

After a few decades, when so many friends and jobs and colleagues and husbands and wives and sweeties have come and gone, knowing you’ll always find something lovely still standing in its spot takes on new power. It might be a tree, your old school, a beloved park. It’s a marker, a milestone. a piece of your past you can return to.

When we drive north to leave Toronto we pass a white brick house on a corner, the one we lived in when I was in high school. The one with tall narrow windows my Dad punched into those walls. The one with the lilac tree outside the kitchen door. The one where I lay in bed for a month with mono. The one where I wrote my essays in my first year of university while I still lived at home.

It was the last home I shared with my Dad.

I moved to New York in June 1989, so I have plenty of memories and associations there, sights and sounds I treasure as well, from our reservoir walk to weathered, patina-ed metal scrollwork of a nearby estate.

But there is something deeper for me in returning to places I first visited as a very small child and have been enjoying since. I have plenty of history in New York but much of it has been stressful — four surgeries in a decade, a brief and miserable marriage, becoming a crime victim twice in five years. For all the fun and excitement of publishing two books and re-creating my writing career, I miss the sense of optimism and excitement I had — as most of us do — in my early 20s, before I launched myself off the rocket pad of Toronto, my hometown.

We had lunch this visit at The Coffee Mill, which opened in 1963. I love the fresh rye bread, pre-buttered, they bring to the table. Their goulash and strudel and dark black coffee, all impossibly exotic in the Toronto of the 1960s. The seats are always filled with stylish regulars; when we we there this week, a famous Canadian actor sat a few tables away.

We stopped in down the block at the jeweler my Granny used to frequent, splurging her inheritance on enormous rings whose stones weighed down her hands. Jose bought my wedding ring and earrings there, a choice he happily gave me when we were deciding where to purchase that symbolic link to my future. I still own rings I bought there in my 20s and one my mother bought for me.

English: Toronto Globe newspaper office (with ...

English: Toronto Globe newspaper office (with a globe on top) on King Street East, Toronto, Canada, early 1860s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll be having lunch in a few days with my first true love, a man who’s now on his second marriage, a very late-life Dad. We’ll eat at Le Select, another Toronto institution, which sits  — of course! — directly across the street from the place where, in 1984, my writing career started in earnest, the newsroom of The Globe and Mail. I used to walk up its steeply sloping driveway ramp every morning, pulling open the metal door, grabbing a fresh paper off the stack there and stepping into that day’s chaos. Every single morning, as I did so, my pulse rate soared as adrenaline kicked in and I wondered what they’d ask me to accomplish that day. An enormous satellite dish would beam my words to Saskatoon and Moose Jaw and Victoria and Halifax. Magic!

It will be odd to see P., but lovely. We were inseparable in my first year at University of Toronto. I was 18, he 23 and editor of the school newspaper where I, desperate to become a professional journalist, spent all my time when not in class. I was still living at home, he in a big old house shared with room-mates, one of whom was a ferociously serious member of the Marxist-Leninist party. We got fancy journalism jobs, married other people, got divorced, re-connected briefly in the mid-1990s, lost touch, found one another again.

University College, south side, University of ...

University College, south side, University of Toronto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On this visit, as we always do, we had lunch with M., a friend I’ve known since my early 20s. It’s the sort of friendship where we pick up as if we’d stopped talking a week or so ago, not the three or six months that usually pass between our visits. Her love and enthusiasm and smarts are a touchstone for me. She, more than anyone except my husband, knows my intimate history — the sad dramas within my family and the ex-es who made me knees weak and possibly still could.

Do you take comfort in the familiar?

What are some of your touchstones?

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 waving a sword changed my life

In aging, behavior, business, children, culture, life, sports, women, work on January 3, 2013 at 1:42 am
English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Ta...

English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Task Force demonstrated the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program as well as displayed weaponry in support of Fleet Week 2010. More than 3,000 Marines, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen will be in the area participating in community outreach events and equipment demonstrations. This is the 26th year New York City has hosted the sea services for Fleet Week. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I moved to New York in June 1989, I arrived just in time for the worst, (of two since!), recession in my industry, journalism. I knew not a soul, had no job and had not attended university in the U.S., which, I belatedly realized, makes a huge difference in getting ahead here.

I wanted a fresh, fun challenge unrelated to work, and decided to take up fencing, through night classes offered at New York University. They’d supply the equipment. I just needed to bring energy, commitment and a pair of sneakers.

I’d taken ballet for years, and loved its grace, French terminology and history. But I wanted something ferocious and competitive, not endless plies and tendues going nowhere. Classes were taught by the NYU coach, Steve Mormando, a former Navy guy and two-time Olympian.

It was deeply, quickly humbling, as new muscles announced themselves with aches and pains. I was too slow and clumsy for foil and didn’t like epee. So Steve decided to make a small group of 30-something women into saber fencers, an unheard-of ambition in the early 1990s, when women had yet to compete nationally in that weapon.

I and my team-mates would make history by doing so.

The lessons I learned in the salle have stayed with me, helping me in work and private life. (NB: An epee, foil or saber is actually called a weapon, not a sword. But using the word “weapon” in my headline seemed unwise!)

Here is some of what fencing taught me:

Tenacity

Fencing bouts have only five touches. I was once down 4-0 and once would have simply thought “Fuck it” but Steve taught us that every point is a new bout. I won that bout, which changed how I see life’s possibilities. If I assume I’m defeated, I will be.

Fearlessness

In sabre, the weapon’s style is based on cavalry fighting, with only the body above the hips as target, including the head. Getting hit on the head is always a bit of a shock, even wearing a metal helmet, and I always came home with bruises on my arms and legs. No biggie. If you’re scared to get into the game, how can you compete effectively?

Anticipation

Fencing has been called “chess at the speed of boxing.” Like chess, the sport is very much a mental one, a matching of wits and temperament and the ability to look multiple moves ahead in order to win. This skill is essential to any sort of professional success.

Observation

The only way to win in fencing is to observe each opponent carefully, before and during the bout, in order to pinpoint and penetrate their weaknesses. Everyone has one, and likely several; I once had to fence a much larger man but used my smaller size and greater speed to my advantage.

Persistence

Fencing often hurts and, like many athletes competing in a sport they take seriously, pain becomes a mere distraction. The end goal is to stay focused and win. 

Detachment

Of all the lessons fencing taught me, this was by far the most valuable. I learned to stand back, to wait for an opening, to pull distance, to not react. Becoming emotional  — often a default female choice — is self-indulgent and useless, as anger and frustration simply impede the ability to fight (and win) with a clear head.

Here’s a fun story from The Globe and Mail about a Toronto businessman who fences extremely well with all three weapons.

American designer Vera Wang, best known for her wedding dress business, was a former competitive figure skater and ballet student, both of which shaped her drive as well. She told Allure magazine:

It was my life. I think the training and the discipline, the loneliness — you have to develop a core of strength — helped me in my career. And I danced at the American School of Ballet. That is is intense, intense shit. You know, feet bleeding, Black Swan.

Ralph Dopping, a Toronto designer, blogged about how his sport, martial arts, has shaped his perspective as well.

What does it take to get to the black belt level?

Training.

What else?

Those are just words.

But they convey a mindset toward learning. The martial arts are centered in lifelong learning whether you practice consistently or not. The principles that are taught behind the study of the art is what stays with you.

For life.

What sport or physical activity has shaped you?

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…?

What do you see?

In beauty, behavior, culture, design, life, photography on November 4, 2012 at 1:03 am

Here is a lovely blog post from a young British man who keeps a limp yellow balloon as a reminder of a lost young man who needed his help — and who gave it to him. When he looks at the balloon, on the surface nothing more than a piece of yellow rubber, he sees connection, kindness, a reminder of the things he’s grateful for in his own life.

I love his clarity of vision — both rare and precious.

And here’s a great post by a feminist blogger deconstructing one of the most iconic photos of a man and woman kissing. Turns out it’s not at all what we thought — or hoped.

And here’s a recent post by labor activist Sara Ziff, whose organization represents the rights of models, arguing that the use of teen girls on the runway is a poor choice.

Not to mention, two huge and shocking scandals that have recently rocked the United States — the conviction and sentencing of Jerry Sandusky, a football coach who abused children in his care and the late Jimmy Savile, a beloved BBC entertainer, now accused by 300 adults of abusing them when he was also a popular figure, like Sandusky — whose public facade was a deep devotion to the care and welfare of children.

We see what we want to see.

The other day, my husband came upstairs from the laundry room and burst into tears. A proud and private Hispanic man, he very rarely cries. Typically, he began apologizing for his emotional reaction to what he had just seen — one of our neighbors, a retired single woman fighting multiple cancers. Normally gruff and private, she was staggering along the hallway with a friend, clearly weak, in pain and scared.

Jose saw it all.

It’s one of the reasons I love him. He is a career photographer and photo editor, so his talent, and profession, is observation and analysis. But it’s much more than that. He sees the person inside the clothes, the fear inside the bravado, the doubt beneath the smile.

I live in a suburb of New York, in a small town that, to my eye, is bursting with beauty: a red brick concert hall built in 1885; wrought iron fences, cupolas, wisteria, a view straight up the Hudson River, one often shrouded by fog or mist or snow or rain. Every day that I live here, and that’s now more than 20 years, I am deeply grateful to live in a place with so much to delight my eye and lift my heart.

As I write this, a bouquet of crimson-tinged calla lilies, in a hand-made pot, sits on my desk. It’s curved, sensuous, lovely — and a reminder of my wedding day, because my bouquet contained those colors and those flowers. So in them I also see, and savor, a sweet moment from my past.

I’ve lived in Paris, London, Toronto, Montreal, Cuernavaca and a small town in New Hampshire. Each place had ugly bits and moments of deep, desperate unhappiness in my life.

But each also offered its own specific beauty, from the austere, gray elegance of Paris to Toronto’s enormous parks and ravines and the islands in its harbor to Lebanon’s white houses with dark green shutters. I have a photo I took on Green Street, there, of late afternoon sunlight gilding the telephone wires.

I was in the Times Square subway station recently and, for once, looked up at the stretch of round glass embedded in the ceiling that allows light in from the street above. It was a sunny day, and the shadows of those above created a moving, kinetic artwork, their bodies and their motion making a dancing, ever-changing light show — of glass and concrete. It was mesmerizing.

Beauty is everywhere.

So is need — for love, tenderness, warmth, compassion, connection.

We are, all of us, surrounded daily by loveliness, grace, wisdom, intelligence.

We are, all of us, surrounded daily by pain, fear, anger, depression, frustration.

We are, all of us, surrounded by tremendous material wealth — and grinding, terrifying poverty.

We are, all of us, living in a world tinged with mystery, magic, madness.

We are, all of us, surrounded by exquisite creation — the squirrel nibbling an acorn, the hawk circling overhead, the blue jay flashing through the pines, the mushroom clinging to a rotted log.

We are, all of us, sheltered nightly beneath a sky freckled by galaxies, mere pindots on the shoulder of the universe.

As you move through your world(s), what do you see?

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