I received an email last week from my very distant past.
A young girl was traveling from a Canadian city to a European one with her Dad while he was to speak at a conference. We were airplane seatmates with an ocean to cross and many hours to fill.
It was March 1980, and I know the exact date because I was 20 and about to begin a life-changing four-month solo trip through Portugal, Italy, France and Spain.
This week, she wrote to me — having seen my New York Times wedding announcement, thanks to her Dad — despite her current job in a dangerous Mideastern location. How cool to be remembered, and fondly, and to re-establish a connection. For I remembered her also very well.
My mom met the King of Belgium on one of her flights and I shared one journey with Canadian celebrity Rick Mercer, although not sitting beside him.
Her email made me remember a few other intriguing in-flight seatmates:
An assistant coach for the Toronto Argonauts and a team member, his thighs as thick and solid as tree trunks, on an Air Canada flight from Winnipeg to Vancouver. I was as intrigued about life in the major leagues as the coach was about the life of a writer.
A devastatingly handsome Welsh engineer, azure-eyed, deeply-tanned, living in Khartoum, flying from Dublin to Bristol on Christmas Eve to visit his Mom as I was flying there to visit mine. Instead, smitten, we ran off together for a few days driving the foggy hills and valleys of Wales.
The gentle physician on my flight from Newark to Vancouver last year as I faced the hideous task, without any family help, of putting my mother into a nursing home once I arrived. The man, who turned out to know a colleague of mine, trains other doctors in how to care for the dying. He offered powerful words of advice as we began our descent.
On a flight from Minneapolis to New York, my seatmate was a senior executive for a television network. I mentioned an idea to him that I had for a show — and he liked it enough to give me his card and ask me to pitch him. I’ve since assembled some of the necessary pieces, so we’ll see what happens.
Who has been your most interesting airplane seatmate?
When and where did you meet? Did you stay in touch?
I’m no fan of things that are made of plastic or chrome, things that buzz and beep and demand my constant attention, let alone charge cords and batteries. I use them because they’re useful. They make work easier.
But I much prefer objects with patina, provenance, crazing, chips. Made of wood and stone and glass and porcelain, often worn smooth by others’ hands, cradled 100 or 200 or 500 years ago by someone long gone.
I admit it without embarrassment — buying antiques also allows me to own crystal and silver and beautifully made objects that don’t carry today’s retail prices.
I recently leafed through several worn black leather photo albums from 1912, awed by the women in their bonnets and boots, the men standing proudly beside the very latest in technology — a hand-cranked car, an airplane.
What were their lives like? How did their air smell? What music did they enjoy?
When I drink from a tea bowl from 1780 or sit on a chair made in 1850, I’m intimately connected to history. I’m a part of it — as we all are — but attaching myself, physically and emotionally, only to the shiny and new, is too seductive. It de facto erases the past; an “old” cellphone may be barely six months past its date of production.
I’m drawn, inexorably, to antiques, to items that have passed through history, whether from a distant farmhouse or shed or a merchant’s home or a trader or a teacher. I like the fact they are memento mori, the implicit reminder we’re all just passing through, borrowing — for a few decades — the objects we allow to define us and our taste to others.
For now I’ll enjoy them: rush-seated painted chairs; early gilt frames with bubbled glass; botanical prints; heavy silver forks and light-as-a-feather coin silver spoons; hand-woven rugs and linens. My most recent antiquing trip yielded terrific finds, from a large ironstone pitcher ($16) to a swath of mustard-colored charmeuse silk ($10.)
One of my latest acquisitions, found in Port Hope, Ontario, is a black painted wooden folk art horse, about a foot high and a foot long, beautifully hand-carved, standing on a base painted with the words “Souvenir de”.
A memory of….what? Did his creator lose interest? Forget? Die?
I love this omission. It gives me something to wonder about.
I’ve wasted a lot of my life chasing things that weren’t there for the capturing — men, jobs, ideas, friends, affection from the wrong people, approval or admiration from those who were happier forgetting my existence.
I suspect I am not alone in my quixotic quest.
There’s a fine line between tenacity and bloody-mindedness, determination and obsession. We admire those who never give up or in (Churchill), but there are times and places it’s our best choice. There are people who will never reciprocate our love, no matter how sincere or ardent.
Men who were charming and handsome and witty — but forever flitting somewhere out of range — once ignited my passions. I loved the chase and the challenge of winning and wooing them. Then it got boring and exhausting. I wanted to love, and work with, people who simply saw my virtues and came to me, unbidden, to enjoy them.
One of the six agents I’ve worked with along the way said I was the most determined person he had ever met. He said it with admiration, and a little surprise.
I’ve become less driven, but not very much and less than I’d like. I find it hard to detach from a dream, to recognize when it’s gone stale and it’s time for a new one.
One of my favorite columns in the media is Mrs. Moneypenny, in the weekend FT, written by a woman who admits to being overweight and somewhat deaf — but who clearly makes a ton of dough, is learning to fly a private plane and goes off on shooting weekends on country estates.
It can be sobering to learn what other people think of you. I am not alluding to my 360-degree appraisal, but something worse. Observant Olivia has moved from being my guardian angel to another, more grown-up job in our company and has written a 15-page manual on how to look after me, in order to assist her successor. But 15 pages? How long does it take to explain how to retrieve my BlackBerry from the black cab lost property office?
I am not sure OO’s document was meant for my consumption, but I had a look anyway. The contact details of my immediate family, my parents, and even the names of my dogs, are all there, as you might expect. But reading on, I learned that Mr M, apparently, is to be e-mailed my updated diary once a fortnight. Since when?
Some of the comments are nice: “Mrs M is very clever at sending thoughtful presents,” says one. Others imply, correctly, that I can be less than organised. “Go through Mrs M’s handbag when she gets in; check she has enough business cards, put her keys, hearing aid and make-up back in the bag and ask her about any paperwork.”
There are few public occasions when you discover, in a nice way generally, what others think of you: graduation, a milestone birthday, a book party, a wedding.
(Sadly, the Internet has allowed as much random toxicity as international expressions of affection; my least favorite amazon.com review of “Malled” describes me [!] as “bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy.”)
In my wedding reception toast to Jose, I lauded the three Cs that made me want to marry him: his courage (and encouraging me through life’s challenges); his character (doing the right thing, quickly and automatically) and his company, and how much I enjoy it.
He referred to my “enlightened innocence” and insatiable curiosity about the world.
We then asked all of our 24 guests to tell us all how they met us, but in so doing they also talked about us. In describing me, the words “intense, passionate” and “high energy” all cropped up. One woman said I “give good phone” and have a “highly developed sense of outrage.”
What have you been told about yourself — and when and by whom — that surprised you?
Not every bride gets to describe her wedding day as perfect, but ours was.
Here are some details of our fab day in Toronto, my hometown, Sept. 17. and how we achieved such a terrific result on a fairly tight budget.
Here’s a link to a 24-image slideshow of the day. (Why am I laughing so hard just before I walk down the aisle? The church is right next to a petting zoo — and we’re hearing cows moo!)
Jose and I decided to marry on very short notice — about eight weeks — so we had a tough budget, short time-line and international details to wrangle. Both of us being divorced after our own first marriages, and in two different states, we had to hire a lawyer in Toronto to handle all our Ontario government-required paperwork and keep a close eye on the process.
I knew I wanted to marry at the church on Centre Island, St.-Andrew-by-the-Lake. Like our home church in Irvington, NY, it’s small and intimate, with gorgeous stained glass, a wooden floor and a powerful sense of history, built in 1888 for families summering on the island, a short ferry ride from the foot of Toronto.
We were having only 24 guests, so we needed and wanted a space, indoors and out, that would be charming, quirky, historic, intimate and welcoming. Set in the middle of parkland, surrounded by water, shaded by ancient weeping willows, this was the perfect spot.
The minister, Michael Marshall, was also a lucky, perfect fit for our personalities. He’s also a chaplain at the Hospital for Sick Children, and has five grown children of his own. Our family is creative and driven — photographers, journalist, film director — and he handled us beautifully.
A last-minute challenge– no speakers in the church! Jose bought a set at the Apple store and they worked beautifully, the sound filling the small church with the music we had chosen and burned at home on a CD: 30 minutes of settling in tunes (from kd lang, a Canadian, to the classic hymn “Jerusalem”), my processional (Dona Nobis Pacem, [give us peace] sung a capella), our register-signing music (a guitar piece by Sor) and our recessional (You are the Sunshine of My Life by Stevie Wonder.)
I wore a Ghost dress I bought a decade ago in L.A., a gift from Jose (the “old”), a silk overblouse bought recently at a sample sale in NYC from Opening Ceremony; brand-new, insanely expensive Manolo Blahnik slingbacks I bought impulsively in Toronto the week before the ceremony (“new”). My “borrowed” was a vintage hankie from a friend and my “blue” a tiny enamel and gold heart my Mom gave me when I was eight, both of which I tucked into my bra.
My mother, far away in a nursing home, was not going to be with us, so this carried extra meaning for me.
Jose wore a black suit he owned, and new/antique mother-of-pearl cufflinks I gave him.
We had no maid-of-honor or best man or attendants, but family and friends were very much a part of it all. My sister-in-law Sheena made brownies for after the service; my brother Robinson, who is ten years younger than I, handled the music and our friends Marcia, Merrill and Peter all did readings. My friend from freshman year at University of Toronto, Marion, came all the way from Kamloops, B.C. and helped me create the table arrangements — a bowl of fresh flowers for head table and sparkly branches down the middle of the main table, all of which I bought, either in NY (we drove north) or bought in Toronto.
We cut costs by:
being decisive and flexible; not having a limo/DJ/attendants/fancy rehearsal dinner (Chinese food instead), having help from friends and family, supplying my own table decorations, not having champagne, having a cash bar (for about 40 minutes) and keeping the guest list short, as the room we chose could only hold 30 people in all.
Our two best decisions: holding the ceremony at 5:00 p.m (sunset was 7:00 p.m.,) knowing how well the light would illuminate the church, park and city skyline at that time of day and spending 2.5 hours meeting the minister four days before the service to get to know one another. The former guaranteed spectacular images with dramatic shadows and the latter meant we felt relaxed and at ease with our officiant.
The word husband is also a verb, which I really like — to till, or cultivate. A good marriage is a living thing that demands attention and care.
Wonder why there’s no equivalent verb for being a wife…
Becoming someone’s wife means a lot of things. You might cover parts of your body with henna or scars. You might have to show everyone the blood-stained sheet after your wedding night to prove you had been a virgin beforehand. You might move into your in-laws’ home and become their virtual slave.
For a feminist and someone who had been divorced for 17 years, it’s an odd feeling to be a wife again. It feels good! I realized it was a piece of myself I was holding in abeyance. I’ve finally heaved a sigh of relief to have closed a door that remained open; we’d been engaged for eight years.
Three older women friends from church, congratulating us both, said they all knew it was me — and it was — who had been the reluctant one, not Jose, which most people (sexists!) assumed it must be. My first marriage, which lasted barely two years after five together beforehand, did mean leaving behind my career, family and friends in Canada to start again, at 30, in New York in a recession. It was terribly hard and lonely.
When I joined Jose at the altar two days ago, I was meeting an old, dear friend of eleven years, a man whose character I know and trust, a fellow journalist — not the glittering but controlling doctor I married the first time. This time, I already had a career in the U.S., my own identity certain, my accomplishments sufficient to capture that most valuable of real estate, aNew York Times wedding announcement.
I also wanted to arrive at the altar feeling terrific about myself, after a rough few years. And this year has been a wonderful ride: “Malled” published, its sitcom script awaiting CBS’ approval for a pilot, offers of chances to consult, new magazine clients. I finally felt like the old me again. Now I could become a full(er) partner.
When you marry, or remarry at 54, that walk to the altar feels very different than it did for me at 35. If you have kids (we do not), they’re grown up and may have kids of their own. You’ve lost friends to premature death; we lost 12 in two horrible years. You’re facing your own health issues or those of aging parents.
My mother, glowing and thrilled in a yellow silk dress last time, is now in a nursing home with dementia and did not attend. My stepmother, with whom I always had a tough relationship, has been dead for four years. My Dad, healthy and strong at 82, looked fab in a bow-tie and double-breasted navy blazer, his new partner Mary, in a saffron yellow silk jacket — just back from Hong Kong and the marriage of her daughter.
Intimacy and constancy are, for me anyway, more precious than ever.
Here’s a recent essay about the issue from the Canadian national newspaper, The Globe and Mail:
The marriage is happy, the husband fantastic. But the word “wife” remains itchy and ill fitting. When my husband’s work took us to a foreign country for a year, his colleagues tried to make sense of my presence. Neither employee nor local, I was an appendage, and experienced a shrinking each time I was branded as such. “Oh, you’re the wife,” the colleagues would say, followed by a smile of tolerance, even kindness, but never excitement. “Wife” eclipsed all of my other identities: Writer! Runner! Mother! Parking-ticket fighter! No further investigation was required: Wife was my beginning and end, alpha and omega.
Well, kids, it’s almost W-day. The sweetie and I picked up our m-m-m-m-m-m-marriage license yesterday in Toronto, my hometown.
It’s been 19 years since I last walked the aisle, on May 31, 1992. My last words to my maid-of-honor?
“Be my friend if this doesn’t work out.” And two miserable years later, we were done. He’d bailed to marry a woman he worked with.
This time I’m marrying a man I’ve known for 11 years and lived with for ten. We’ve had some crazy fights. We’ve visited France, Mexico and my native Canada many times. My friends know and love him. We share an Episcopal church and minister and a Buddhist lama, a love of French bistros, strong red wine and laughing too loudly on the stuffy/boring commuter train.
We picked up my ring yesterday, buying it from the Toronto jeweler I’ve been visiting since I was a little girl, with a Granny who had the means to indulge her whims in some gob-smacking ways. It’s a lovely link to my past. (Jose’s silver ring we found on Etsy.)
We will have only a very small group, only 21 people, including friends I’ve known since high school and barely beyond. My Dad, in blessedly fine fettle at 82, will walk me down the aisle. No maid of honor or best man or attendants. No garter or bouquet toss or DJ or limo — we’ll arrive at the church, on Toronto’s Centre Island (a huge park, basically, with fab views of the city) in water taxis instead, en masse.
We had a two-hour meeting with the minister here who will be marrying us, a hospital chaplain with five kids and a ponytail.We needed some advice on how to integrate Buddhist details, so he left his office at the hospital and reappeared five minutes later with — who else? — the hospital’s Buddhist chaplain, a nun of Jose’s specific lineage, in her saffron and burgundy robes. I do love my multi-culti country!
Turns out, she told us, I am supposed to give him an arrow (!) and he to offer me a vase.
Too late. We already registered for more conventional things like a coffee grinder and kitchen scale.
I will end with a bunch of random, yet helpful, tips garnered from a variety of sources. Make sure your son or daughter knows how to sew on a button or a repair a hem, change a light bulb (yes, honestly some have never done that at home), tie a tie, defrost a refrigerator (some dorm fridges aren’t self-defrosting) and judge how long different foods can stay in a refrigerator before going bad.
And here are a few more: How to tip properly, use a microwave safely, strip and make a bed, pack a suitcase and safeguard valuables.
Rant alert, dearest readers. I was out on my own, living in a minuscule studio apartment on a not-very-good street of downtown Toronto when I was 19, the fall semester of my sophomore year. Was I ready? Not really. But my family had sold the house and were headed off to live on a boat in Europe. Jump!
My rent was $165. I was on the ground floor (wrong!) facing an alley (wrong!) in a vaguely seedy/affordable neighborhood. I would not have qualified for student aid or loans and didn’t want dorm life after a childhood and adolescence spent at boarding school and summer camp sharing space with four to six strangers. I wanted privacy.
I still remember the price of a can of tuna then — 65 cents — as I ate a fair bit of it. I was not a very chic dresser as my budget was so tight; it took me months to save the $30 I then needed for tights, a leotard and slippers to take free ballet classes on campus. I bought and cooked my own food, did my own laundry, played “Hejira” on my stereo, entertained members of the opposite sex whenever I felt like it.
I lived there until June when, one terrifying night, a man leaned in my bathroom window and tried to pull me out of the bathtub. It’s true — you can be too scared to scream.
I moved into a sorority house the next week, safely on the top floor surrounded by other young women. That fall I moved into another tiny studio apartment, this one — like where I live now — overlooking nothing but trees, safely completely inaccessible in height and design on the sixth floor in a better area.
I learned a lot by living on my own so young: how to budget, how to deal with adults and professors and landlords without any help or intervention or advice from family; my parents were both very far away, both traveling and often unreachable. Whatever the problem, as an only child and already writing and selling photos to national publications to pay for school, it was mine to solve.
My best advice to freshmen:
Learn how to get along with your professors. Don’t text them or expect hand-holding. They’re not Mummy. They are professionals paid to help you learn. Period.
Understand and respect the complex interplay between being drunk and stoned and the increased chances of a sexual encounter — or several — you did not anticipate, plan or want. Learn to say no, mean it and leave in sufficient sobriety you remain in control of your safety.
Practice using condoms. Use them.
Practice saying no. Mean it.
Enjoy the extraordinary array of facilities your campus offers you — socially, intellectually, physically. Even getting into a gym or pool as nice as yours right now will cost you a fortune post-grad.
Grades matter, but not as much as you think or fear (short of those applying to grad or professional programs.) That stellar GPA often means very little to most employers — who really crave ethical, hardworking and highly disciplined employees. Yes, a GPA is meant as proxy for all those qualities, but it doesn’t always work out that way. The “skills” you acquire by sitting in a college classroom and (only) striving for top grades may not translate tidily to a job in the real world.
You do not need to keep up with the materialistic cravings of your fellow students, whose parents may out-earn yours by many multiples. College is the first set of steps to adulthood, not four (or five or six) years of shrugged-off do-overs.
Work your ass off. Just do it. If you get into grad school, you’ll need to be in the habit. If you get a job, you’ll need it. If you have to work for yourself, self-discipline will prove far more valuable than your diploma.
A deadline — i.e. the paper is due Friday morning — is not a suggestion. It is not negotiable. Not Friday afternoon six months from now.
Just because your BFFs are: bulimic or anorexic or tattooed or multiply pierced or high most of the time doesn’t meant this is a great trend to follow. College is a great place to locate and stiffen your spine.
Have fun! Get to know the sort of people you never even acknowledged in high school, The real world is going to put you face to face with all sorts of people from now on, so start discovering and enjoying them.
If someone comes on to you — whatever your sexuality or theirs — be flattered and polite, especially if sexual behavior is new to you, but go slowly. Sex is fun, but not worth getting an STD or pregnant. Don’t confuse attention with affection.
Don’t focus all your energy on how much better everyone else is doing — socially, sexually, intellectually, athletically. If you’ve gotten into a good school, you’re now surrounded by some kick-ass talent. Watch it, learn from it, but don’t let it intimidate you.
Professors are not God. If you have a solidly researched and thoughtful opinion that differs from theirs, share it, politely. But your feelings are not facts. Learn the difference.
Take on leadership roles. You never know until you try if people will follow your lead. If they do, you know you’ve got the goods. They don’t teach that in the classroom, but the confidence it will give you will play out for years to come.
My latest copy of New York magazine arrived, its cover a color photo of the dust cloud after the fall of the Twin Towers. Inside, it offers an alphabet (!?) of all things 9/11, from three men named Michael Lynch who died that day to a mini-profile of the last person pulled from the Trade Center wreckage.
Stop. Just stop.
I was shocked at my reaction when I tried to read that issue. I fought back tears, then had nightmares after I read some of it. So did the sweetie. We’re both hardened, seasoned mid-career news journalists, accustomed to handling difficult and emotional material.
The National Geographic Channel has scheduled a marathon of related coverage on Sept. 11.
Other outlets also decided to try to get out ahead of the pack. Adam Moss, the editor of New York magazine, decided its issue — an A to Z compendium of Sept. 11-related vignettes — should be published well ahead of the 10th anniversary so it would reach readers before the onslaught of coverage began.
“I’m sure, inevitably, people will feel it’s too much and shut down at some point,” he said. “We just hoped we could get what we feel is a pretty good issue out there before others did.”
I was in Maryland that day and the sweetie was all packed, everything he owned ready to move from Brooklyn into my apartment 30 miles north. Instead, as a photo editor for The New York Times, he was pressed into immediate service on the biggest news story of the century. The paper won the team Pulitzer for their work that day.
But we both tasted far more of 9/11 than we had ever wished. Burned bits of paper floated into his backyard. I interviewed a volunteer who worked at the morgue and cried for 30 minutes after I hung up the phone, my professional composure shattered by the hideous details of what I heard.
For my first book, I interviewed Patty Varone, a true unsung heroine of that day whose name is unknown to almost every American — but whose role in it was essential. I’m the only journalist she ever spoke to.
She was for years his personal bodyguard, and so it was she who interrupted Mayor Giuliani’s hotel breakfast meeting that morning to tell him he had to leave at once. It was she who had to keep him safe — how? — as debris and bodies rained from the skies when they arrived at the attack site in downtown Manhattan.
It takes a lot to rattle an 18-year NYPD veteran. She had a tough time telling me her story. I’m grateful she shared it.
Journalists — print, film and broadcast — saw and heard far more than many civilians did that day. Many things we know and saw were carefully edited out of much of what you, the reading/viewing public, “know” about 9/11. We still carry smells, sights and sounds we wish we could scrub from our memory, but we can’t.
We know people who lost loved ones. We know fellow journalists physically and emotionally scarred by the events of that day.
So I have no need, and very little appetite, for any more of this.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a steady paid income — and millions of Americans this year do not — you are likely enjoying a holiday for Labor Day.
It’s an odd word, labor, as we now speak more frequently of work, off-shoring, out-sourcing, downsizing, right-sizing or, my new personal fave euphemism — excessing.
Labor used to mean working hard, often with your hands, in a field or shop floor or factory or on a boat or truck or assembly line, scrubbing the grease and dust from your pores at day’s end.
In 1996, I dated a man who had a job of unimaginable exoticism — he was a ship’s engineer and his job was to keep a DEP ship moving smoothly through New York harbor with its cargo of, yes, sewage. It was a shit ship.
But his workplace, which I visited once, was deeply humbling to a white-collar writer whose worst fear was…being edited. To get to work, he climbed a steep metal ladder up the side of his ship. To reach the engine room, the impossibly hot, slippery, greasy place he spent his shifts, he climbed down another metal ladder.
He was lean, ropy with muscle, his hands callused and hardened. He knew (how!?) to keep the engine running smoothly. I was in awe.
I never had to ask, “Honey, how was your day?” If he smelled of burnt diesel, not such a good one. Every night he showered for a very long time to scrub the day’s sweat, grime and dirt from his skin.
My snottty friends, I am ashamed to say, were dismayed that we so enjoyed one another’s company. He was funny, smart, kind, strong, easy-going. And cute!
I earned twice his salary. Neither of us cared about that much, nor that he wore overalls to work. He was well-read and great company.
I recently learned a new phrase, “emotional labor” which is deeply embedded in a culture so heavily reliant — airlines, healthcare, hospitality, retail, restaurant work — on personal service. A fascinating and frustrating lesson I took away from my 27 months working in retail as a sales associate is this: we only pay for (value, through wages, bonus, commissions) what we know to be true, verifiable and statistically evident.
The very core of “emotional labor”– the gentle way a nurse touches a patient or a hairdresser shampoos you or how a vet handles a scared animal — means it’s invisible. It’s how we care.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past few years, certainly moving from a newspaper job at a mid-career professional salary to $11/ hr. no commission folding T-shirts in a mall, (the subject of my new memoir), is the incessant, rampant and toxic snobbery that still infects much of how we, in the U.S., deride many forms of difficult, honorable, often deeply unpleasant work.
Meat-cutters and packers and those who kill the animals we eat.
Retail clerks who toil for poverty-level wages.
The home health aides who change our parents’ and grandparents’ diapers and wipe their noses and feed them for us, for hourly wages less than the price of a cocktail.
Miners whose dark, dirty, dangerous work brings the coal that powers the plants that provide the electric power that allows us to live in greater ease and comfort.
Hospice workers and chaplains, ministering to those who most need them.