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
It might be the worst taboo of all — old age. Not middle age, the final decade(s.)
I moved into an apartment building at 30 where everyone — who knew? — was 20 to 30 years older than I. It’s a nice spot, atop a hill, with no steps or stairs anywhere, perfect for people with mobility issues, (aka canes, walkers, even crutches.)
Since I developed early and bad arthritis in my left hip, I get it!
What I like most are the 80-year-olds here who are so stylish, funny and well-dressed. Marie, on my floor, has bouffant hair, great clothes and a booming laugh you can hear down the hallway. Even heading out to a doctor’s appointment, she looks terrific.
When she told me her age, I laughed — I figured her 20 years younger. This has happened so many times in the elevator when I’ve spoken to white-haired women, (and it’s usually the women who are rocking it out) and found them fun, funny, engaging.
My Dad is 81, blessed with tremendous energy and health, and recently started making a documentary, his former career, working with scientists he introduced himself to. His partner is 74, slim, lovely, smart and has lived a life filled with adventure.
There are days I fear old age and there are days I look at the men and women I know who’ve blasted past the worst marker — 65 (if you make it that far, you’re good for a while, stats show) — and are still, healthy and solvent, enjoying the hell out of their lives.
They have surgery, they take meds, some walk slowly. But they’re in it.
I don’t look to the anorexic 15 year-olds in Vogue for inspiration, not that I ever did.
I’ve been alone in many places: D.C., Vancouver, Istanbul, Ko Phi Phi, Palermo, Key West, Tunis. I live to travel and, many times, there’s no one with the same budget, interests, schedule or passions with whom to share a journey.
So I happily go alone.
My mother traveled the world alone for many years — all throughout Latin America in her 40s, the South Pacific, overland from London to the Mideast, India. She taught me not only to be (safely) fearless, but to keep a current passport and a passion for using it.
Here are twelve tips for solo women travelers of all ages:
Know where you’re going. What are their underlying beliefs, customs, rituals, dress? The countryside of Portugal, for example, was even tougher than urban Istanbul for relentless male attention or harassment. Even catching someone’s gaze was unwise. Some cities have their own codes of dress: wear Easter egg pastels, baggy sweats, white athletic shoes or nude hose in downtown Manhattan (or Paris!) and, yes, you’ll be viewed as a tourist and treated accordingly.
Do your homework and decide how much you want to stand out or blend in; as a woman alone, blending in is usually the wiser, safer option. (Headscarves, long sleeves, a salwar kameez, etc.) It shows respect for where you are, which will often be returned with more welcoming treatment. Speaking some of the local language is also a key way to signal this.
Do your homework. There are many ways to determine which areas, streets or neighborhoods are more or less safe for a solo woman. One of my favorite resources is The Thorn Tree, an online bulletin board on the Lonely Planet website. When I and my then best friend, two blonds from NY (albeit savvy and well-traveled) were heading off to Venezuela for a week, we posted some specific questions there and found fantastic, detailed answers (even a local travel agent we used) from a British ex-pat then in Mexico.
Read the local newspaper. Find out what’s happening, and not just on-line. Read the editorials and op-eds; what are people talking about there and why? Read letters to the editor. What sort of fun events are listed for the weekend? Key: if you’re in a part of the world where men are relentlessly going to try to catch your eye and chat you up, hiding behind a spread-out broadsheet is a great choice. Worked for me in Spain and Portugal.
Unplug from technology. For several reasons. If you’re in a poorer, rural environment, be sensitive to the lives of people who may be living on $1 -2 per day. If you’re going somewhere to see, smell, taste and hear it, be there. Remain open to it in every way possible.
A set of earbuds shuts you off from potential conversation, advice — and warnings. I would never ever walk around plugged in, alone, in many parts of the world. You must remain aware of your surroundings to stay safe.
Pay attention. This will make your trip more social, fun and interesting, but will also keep you safe. Look around — are there other women there as well? Are they safe? What are they wearing? How are they behaving? In many more socially conservative parts of the world, women don’t leave their home without the officially sanctioned accompaniment of a child, husband or parent.
A woman alone there, to the larger culture, often reads: looking…sexual…naive. Even if you’re not.
Do some of your favorite activities. I took a ballet class in Paris, and mid back-bend, stared up into hand-painted 18th-century ceiling beams. In Coayacan, a suburb of Mexico City, I took a watercolor class and finally learned how to work more effectively on larger pieces. In Los Angeles, I galloped through the dusty hills of Griffiths Park at sunset, then danced to live blues at Harvelle’s, an 80-year-old nightclub in Santa Monica. Heaven!
Take a yoga, spinning or dance class. Attend service at a local church or synagogue.
Take a hike! Get into nature, wherever you end up: walk along the river or lakeside; rent a canoe or kayak or sailboat; go for a bike ride. Pack a pair of running shoes and some comfy workout clothes so you can take advantage of the great outdoors wherever you are. Great way to meet locals — and their dogs.
Plan your evenings. I admit it, evenings can be tougher when you’re alone and female. Do you really want to venture out alone, for a meal, a show, a concert? Yes! But use your hotel concierge — or even a youth hostel’s evening group events — to help you make safe, wise, fun choices. I always search for concerts and museum shows at every city I plan to visit, and build in time to enjoy what the locals love. Splurge on cabs when necessary.
Sit at the bar. That’s where people on their own are often happiest and most comfortable, not just boozers chatting up the bartender. I had a great conversation in a dive bar in Atlanta with a young man working in finance as we whiled away the early evening. Many of a city’s best restaurants serve meals at the bar, where you can feel less obvious and self-conscious as a woman out alone, and a good barkeep will keep an eye on you.
Plan for the beach. I always take a small plastic case I can tuck into my bathing suit, which will hold my credit card/debit card/cash, freeing me to swim or snorkel without worrying someone is nabbing my stuff. If you like to sail, kayak, canoe, snorkel, surf….check out local facilities and build them into your trip; always take a bathing suit, windbreaker and golf or baseball cap to protect your head.
Stay sober.Seriously. Only once in my life (boring, but true) have I gotten really drunk, at a bar in San Francisco (not on purpose — long day, empty stomach) and was able to stagger safely the few blocks back to my hotel. Insanity. True insanity.
No matter how lonely, depressed or vacay-ish you’re feeling, getting drunk or stoned around strangers is a profoundly stupid and potentially life-threatening choice. You’re alone. Who’s going to offer your medical history to the EMTs or ER? Or the police?
Be open to meeting people. I’ve enjoyed meals and even overnight stays in the homes of strangers I’ve met along the way, from the Cote d’Azur to the Coromandel Peninsula. One of the greatest pleasures of traveling alone, as a woman, is how many people are happy to welcome you into their lives and homes. I met a flight attendant from Paraguay at Honolulu airport, shared a cab with her and, realizing how cheaply she got her hotel room, buddied up with her for the week. In New Zealand, four lovely kids in their 20s met me at the youth hostel, adopted me, took me to a beach house, then home to a hill-top mansion outside Auckland. When they all waved goodbye to me at the airport, it was terribly hard to leave!
Not every man is out to get you or jump you! Not every friendly conversation is some sort of trap.
But some are.
Learning to quickly and accurately suss out the good ‘uns will keep you safe and send you back home with indelible, amazing memories.(My very worst experiences, i.e. criminal ones, happened in my suburban New York town. Maybe because my guard was down?)
Since I’m the hostess — and Broadside now has (yay!!) 462 subscribers, from British Columbia to England to New Zealand — I’m increasingly curious to know more about you, oh lovely and faithful readers.
So, to start,
Here are ten random things about me…
— I was born in Vancouver to a Canadian Dad and American Mom who met in the south of France, and I moved to London ages 2-5, then lived to the age of 30 in Toronto.
— I’m passionate about antiques and am happiest around objects with serious history and patina to them: I use coin silver teaspoons, painted, rush-seated chairs about 200 years old and often wear vintage shawls and scarves.
— I’m most excited when I have a bunch of trips lined up: next week, Toronto; July; upstate NY; August, I’m speaking at a retail conference in Minneapolis.
— I’ve developed a bit of “white coat syndrome” when I have to see a doctor, after having to see five specialists in a few months in 2010 for my arthritic left hip, which needs replacing.
— I usually have fresh flowers in our apartment; this week, peony and stock and three yellow spider mums. My favorites include parrot tulips, lilac, hyacinth, delphinium and anemones.
— I have three half-siblings, 5, 10 and 23 years younger. We all have different mothers and I’ve never met the woman who is my half-sister. Yes, it’s complicated!
— I love to play competitive sports. I was a nati0nally ranked saber fencer in my 30s, with a two-time Olympian as my coach, and have been playing co-ed softball for eight years.
— I live to travel. Some of my favorite places (so far) include Corsica, Thailand, Paris, Algonquin Park, Ireland, Maine.
— My favorite cocktails are Tanqueray gin and tonic, a spicy bloody Mary, a gin martini with olives or Lillet on the rocks.
— I attend an Episcopal church while my sweetie is a devout Tibetan Buddhist — a man of Mexican heritage whose own Dad was a Baptist minister. He’s taking me (shriek!) on a 10-day silent Buddhist retreat this July.
Please tell me some things about you!
I’m curious to know about y’all, and have you “meet” one another as well.
For example….I’d love to know what sort of work you do, or where you live and why you chose that place, or what sort of music you love.
Do you play an instrument? Have a hobby or passion?
Have you lived in different places? Which did you like best (and/or least) and why?
Yet, and yet and yet, I have entire days I think I just can’t: make that call, send that email, ask that favor, knock on that door or send that resume.
People have told me for decades how confident I appear, and the operative word might be appear, for there are too many days I feel like some medieval warrior girding her loins before even picking up the phone or sending out an email.
As someone with no steady income, salary or pension down the line, I’m in lioness mode: I eat only what I catch and kill. That means having to hustle for clients every day, whether reaching out to former or current ones or finding and cultivating new ones.
Either way, it means a lot of people contact and no guarantee of the outcome.
Which, if I fail, means — I’m broke!
I can blame my reticence on a few things:
— I’ve been canned from a few jobs, which has permanently dented my sense of likability, no matter how businesslike a layoff can be
— I was badly bullied in high school for three years by a small gang of boys
— I spent ages 5 to 30 in Canada, a country that has no tolerance for self-promotion or boasting then moved to the U.S., a place with a population 10 times larger, competing with some mighty sharp elbows. Time to man up!
— I faced a tough crowd in my own family, people who often found much to criticize and little to praise
But without a cheery demeanor and the conviction you have something worthwhile to offer, it’s tough to get out there and ask for what you want, whether a job referral, grant recommendation or help with a new project.
I had recently reached out to two people, one an old friend who didn’t call back for weeks and one a new contact whose initial voicemail sounded fairly frosty. So it was with a heavy heart I called both of them back.
Both were delighted to hear from me. Both had lost my phone number and wanted to hear my ideas.
If I hadn’t had the confidence to reach out again, I would have lost out on some cool opportunities.
I work out and take classes at a local YMCA, which guarantees a wide mix of ages and income levels. A life-long jock, a veteran of boarding school and summer camp, I’m used to being around other people in various stages of undress.
But it’s the naked emotion that often surprises me there, not the glimpses of others’ flesh.
I learn a lot in the locker room and often leave it in a very different mood than when I arrived:
— the mentally disabled children who come to swim, bound up in splints and diapers, laughing and playing with their caregivers
— a diabetic woman my age who needed the EMTs after going into sugar shock
— the woman who casually announced it was her 83d birthday the next day, the one whose vigor and tart wit made me sure she was 20 years younger
— the scars of surgery
— what a woman’s body really looks like in old age
I value the very few places in American culture where little children and people in their 80s or 90s mingle freely, sharing space and ideas. One is church, the other is the Y. I don’t have children or nieces or nephews and lost both my grandmothers when I was 18, so I hunger for cross-generational contact.
A few weeks ago I was worn out, weary of holding it together. A conversation that began in the locker room after swim class with the 83-year-old was, suddenly, the most honest and helpful I’d had with anyone in months…Then we kept talking in the parking lot, even after I burst into embarrassed tears. Her unexpected advice was blunt but kind.
I’m used to being visible physically, not emotionally, a common theme in my life. I tend to keep feelings bottled up, not wanting to burden friends or family who have, of course, their own challenges as well.
I know you change in the locker room. I didn’t know it might be more than your clothes.
I’m not a political person. I can’t vote in the U.S. where I’ve lived since 1988, nor in Canada, my country of origin.
As a career journalist, a classic news reporter, my role is to observe and listen and relate the facts, not to jump into the fray and publicly express a strong opinion, taking a stand on the record on a hot political issue.
On May 12, I finally did.
A bill called the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act has been proposed; it would require developers taking government subsidy to develop stadiums, conference centers and malls — all engines of economic development and jobs — to require tenants to pay $10/hour with health insurance, $11.50/hour without it.
That means a full-time worker would take home a munificent $20,000 or so per year — $10,000 less than has been calculated as the bare minimum in a place as costly as New York to survive, let alone thrive.
What a revelation it was…The power struggles! The threats! The pleas! The battle of the statistics!
No better theater could be found, even on Broadway.
Three men in costly suits argued against the bill — mercilessly hogging a huge chunk of time away from the rest of us — from the Economic Development Corporation. Their dire predictions of doom were relentless: thousands of jobs would be lost; angry developers would only take their projects to — gasp! — New Jersey or elsewhere; passing the bill would mean, they kept repeating, “a Faustian bargain” in which low-skilled workers would lose jobs to higher-skilled ones.
And all those lost construction jobs! Never mind the deliberately careless mixing of jobs that are union-protected and pay well (construction) with those that are not and do not (retail, typically $7-10 hour with no benefits.)
The hearings lasted from 1:00 p.m. to the evening. I finally got my two minutes (not three) at the mike at 6:00 p.m. — a wall clock with huge red numbers ticking away every second, a noisy blast ringing out twice to signal my time was up.
I argued in favor of the bill. Retail work is one of the few remaining with no emoluments to soften it: taxi drivers, waiters, deliverymen and chambermaids do receive tips. Not associates! Few receive raises or promotions and very few are unionized.
And consider this, from the Gotham Gazette:
In New York City, there are about 34,500 households, representing about 90,000 people, in the top 1 percent. On average, these households have annual incomes of $3.7 million. At the same time, about 900,000 people in New York City — about 10.5 percent of city residents — live in deep poverty. Deep poverty is half of the federal poverty line; for a four-person family, that means an income of $10,500. An annual income of $3.7 million translates into a daily level of $10,137 — more than the average annual family income of those living in deep poverty. According to state tax data, half of the households in New York City have annual incomes below $30,000, an amount that the top 1 percent receives over the course of a holiday weekend.
If New York City were a nation, its level of income concentration would rank 15th worst among 134 countries, between Chile and Honduras. Wall Street, with its stratospheric profits and bonuses, sits within 15 miles of the Bronx — the nation’s poorest urban county.
It was an amazing experience, and an exhausting one, to hear everyone from academics to clergymen arguing for and against this plan. I felt sorry for the politicians, weary and worn out yet hanging in hour after hour trying to make sense of it all.
In Australia — I learned recently — the minimum wage is $15 hour for those under 20; $20 an hour for those older. It’s hard to imagine American legislators ever imposing such high standards. Yes, costs would rise…They already are, and workers still struggle in poverty as corporate bosses keep raking in millions in compensation.
Have you spoken out publicly in favor or or against legislation? How did that feel? What was the result?
Think of your favorite writers, whether of books, blogs, or magazine or newspaper articles.
Chances are you’ve become devoted to them because of their voice, even if you’ll never hear their accent or intonation directly.
Their authorial “voice” is crucial to attracting and retaining an audience.
Are they funny? Angry? Poignant? Sarcastic? How much you enjoy their work, and their choice of voice, depends mightily on this decision.
And maintaining that voice throughout the manuscript is the writer’s job — if the reader has started out expecting opera, they don’t suddenly want hip-hop halfway through!
Choosing which voice to use is just one of many decisions we need to make when we sit down to write — confiding, casual and conversational tones often work best for bloggers, probably less so for a more formal work of history or biography.
The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed. Think of your own favorite authors and see if that isn’t precisely one of the things that engage you, often at first without your noticing it. A good conversation is the only human equivalent: the realizing that decent points are being made and understood, that irony is in play, and elaboration, and that a dull or obvious remark would be almost physically hurtful. This is how philosophy evolved in the symposium, before philosophy was written down. And poetry began with the voice as its only player and the ear as its only recorder. Indeed, I don’t know of any really good writer who was deaf, either.
That’s what I want to feel as a reader; I want to feel someone there, compelled to tell me a story because they are sure only I can truly understand it. There are four authors whose voices are perfect for me – Colette, Willa Cather, Kafka and Rilke. In each case you can feel the heart beating and the mind thinking behind the voice. The book by Alvarez I’m reading, The Writer’s Voice, is quite interesting and provocative, but it’s also rather jumbled; however, it does make me want to spend more time with those favourite authors and their pitch perfect voices.
The underlying issue for every writer is confidence — that you will find readers, that they will want to read you, that your voice will be heard!
I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19 years old, so had, even then, a preternatural confidence (perhaps that of the only child, never competing as hard for attention?) that someone might want to hear what I have to say, in the way in which I choose to say it.
Bad editors can silence your voice and wilt your resolve to speak — or have your fictional characters speak — as you wish.
Tiny, white fragile — they float on the breeze, landing and sprouting in the least likely of places.
The great joy of writing and publishing a book, for me, is watching in wonder as it settles down worldwide — libraries have so far bought Malled in Kamloops, (a medium sized city in the interior of British Columbia, where my college best friend lives) to Christchurch, New Zealand to Denton, Texas, where it’s filed under “vocational guidance.”
A young friend, a fellow journalist, shot me a message on Facebook — “I overheard buzz about your book!” She lives in Hong Kong. Cool!
Like seeds, thoughtful books carry with them the germ of new growth — the spread of ideas, sometimes raising questions, even occasionally changing readers’ minds about an issue they once felt sure about, or maybe never even considered.
I’ve been honored to hear readers tell me “your book bolstered me at work” (from a retail associate in Phoenix) to “I’ll never shop the same way again” (readers in California and Toronto.)
I’m thrilled knowing my babies are finding readers all over the world. A friend then living in Las Vegas once sent me a cellphone photo of my first book, of two copies on his local library shelf.