As some here know, I live to travel — 41 countries so far and so many more I’m so eager to visit: Iceland, Finland, Morocco, Japan, maybe back to New Zealand and definitely back to Scotland, Ireland, England and France.
That also means hours airborne and I have bizarrely mixed emotions about flying:
I love flying, in theory, but loathe wide-body aircraft and being jammed into one with 300+ other people. I know that smaller aircraft, especially the very smallest, can be more dangerous and bumpy. I just hate being surrounded by so many people 35,000 feet in the air for hours.
I can’t wait to go somewhere far away!
Ohhhhh, I hate turbulence.
And now, the notion of. 6,8, 9 hours wearing a mask?
So, in the meantime, I’m watching every possible film and TV show set far from the United States, like Baptiste (Amsterdam), Happy Valley, Broadchurch, Shetland, Hinterland (England, Scotland, Wales), Wallander (Sweden, UK) and many others.
Jose and I are total #avgeeks, and on our Facebook and Instagram feeds watch JustPlanes.com— with the coolest aviation videos of planes taking off and landing all over the world, mostly from the cockpit!
I once had the most amazing experience — as an adult! — flying home into LaGuardia airport in New York from Toronto on Air Canada. The flight path goes down the Hudson River then turns east then south again to land.
The flight attendant, seeing me peer excitedly out the window as we got closer and closer to the airport — pre 9/11 and prohibited cockpit visits — asked if I’d like to see the landing from inside the cockpit.
Are you kidding!?
What a fantastic thrill!
I’ve had a few aviation adventures over the years:
The domestic Nicaraguan airline whose aircraft was so tiny they weighed our baggage — and us!
Or the Russian-built aircraft I flew in in Venezuela, with all its interior markings in Cyrillic.
The flight from Valetta to Tunis, in a smallish aircraft and some turbulence, with all communications in Arabic only.
Or the BOAC flight I took on Christmas Eve as a child to London — with holiday decorations hanging from the ceiling across the single aisle.
Flying as a courier (no ticket!) to Stockholm, Caracas, London and Bangkok.
Or the flight to Scotland, age 12, for a summer staying with a friend — smuggling my hamster Pickles underneath my coat in his custom-designed cage made by a friend’s father.
And the Faucett Air flight into Cuzco, Peru, a small landing strip surrounded by mountains and one with low cloud cover. That was a white-knuckler.
And the tiny plane that flew me and a Gazette photographer and a CBC reporter and a cameraman — and hundreds of boxes of donated clothing — from Kuujjuaq to Salluit, Quebec, flying north for hours about the treeline, with nothing but ice and snow to see and eventually land on.
One of my favorite books, ever, is one written by a former 747 British Airways pilot Mark vanHoenacker, (still flying for them, but not that aircraft), Skyfaring. It is the most lyrical and lovely book about how the world appears from the air, and the cockpit.
I admit to being a total fangirl, in awe of all pilots and their skills.
Jose knows, if he’s meeting me at the airport arriving, I’m often last out because I’ve had a quick chat with the pilots, if possible.
If you’ve never seen this movie, you’ve missed a classic!
New York City practically vibrates with ambition — and schools thousands of super-talented teens at places like Juilliard, the School of American Ballet, and The High School for the Performing Arts.
In May 1980, a film about the latter (not shot in the actual school) was released, and its ebullient soundtrack still makes me smile — the title song won the Oscar for Best Song and the soundtrack won the Oscar as well.
It follows a handful of teens from their first year — as Americans call it, freshman year — through to graduation. One, Doris, has a frighteningly pushy stage mother. Another lives alone in an empty apartment, paid for by his absent mother. A third has a father who drives a classic yellow cab (long gone!) who bursts with pride at his son’s talent.
Friendships form. Teachers push them hard, one cautioning them how very difficult it will be to make a living at their art.
What struck me most, watching it again last week, was not the aching, yearning YES! I felt about it all in my early 20s…I had graduated university in 1979 and was just starting my journalism career — but the film’s darkness and sadness as well.
The characters’ adolescence is filled with the angst and self-doubt we all experience, but often prefer to forget.
In 1976, talent manager David De Silva attended a stage production of A Chorus Line and noticed that one of the musical numbers, “Nothing“, had made a reference to the New YorkHigh School of Performing Arts. The musical inspired him to create a story detailing how ambition and rejection influence the lives of adolescent students. In 1977, De Silva travelled to Florida, where he met playwright Christopher Gore. He paid Gore $5,000 to draft a script titled Hot Lunch, and provided story ideas involving the plot and characters. De Silva took the project to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), which acquired the script for $400,000.
Director Alan Parker received the script after the release of his previous film Midnight Express (1978). He met with De Silva in Manhattan, New York, where the two agreed that Parker would draft his own script, with Gore receiving sole screenwriting credit. Parker also enlisted his colleague Alan Marshall as a producer. Gore travelled to London, England, where he and Parker began work on a second draft, which was significantly darker than what De Silva had intended. De Silva explained, “I was really motivated and interested in the joy of what the school represented for these kids, and [Parker] was really much more interested in where the pain was in going to the school, and so we had our little conflicts based on that area.”
What’s most striking to me, now, is how sheepish and scared the characters are about their racial and sexual identities — one finally pronounces himself, with barely disguised disgust, as “homosexual.” Another mocks his Puerto Rican roots. And AIDS was just on the horizon, and would soon decimate so much talent just like these youngsters.
Love the dance scenes.
Love Anne Meara as the tough-love teacher.
Love the honesty about the brutal competitiveness and insecurity that’s a part of life for every artist, no matter how talented or ambitious.
I’ve been very lucky of late to find an editor who likes my essays, so she bought this one on the topic I have come back to many times — too many! — on this blog: whether to remain living in the U.S. or return to Canada.
Here’s a bit of it:
And so I left behind a perfectly good country, one with excellent and heavily subsidized university education, cradle-to-grave healthcare, a wide, deep social safety net, and a Constitution that promised “peace, order and good government” rather than “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
For years, Canadians had often guessed I was American, which is a veiled insult that means too bossy, too direct, too nakedly ambitious. I wanted faster decisions and a wider playing field, not the endless foot-shuffling of risk-averse fellow Canadians and a career limited to a handful of major cities.
I’d thought American was more egalitarian than it is, but that turned out to be silly idealism. When I dared suggest to someone at Dartmouth that I audit classes there, since we were in the middle of nowhere for the next four years, pre-Internet, the university administration refused. How about part-time study? Also no.
As I began to try to make sense of my new home, I read two seminal works of the early 1990s that explained the shadowed side of John Winthrop’s 1630 vision of America as a much-admired “city on a hill”: the first was Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, about two boys growing up in a decrepit Chicago housing project during the 1980s; the second was Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, a study of two school districts, divided by wealth and class, which were allotted wildly unequal resources by the American way of funding education through housing taxes. This was a key difference between my experiences in Toronto and Montreal.
In Hanover, a local social worker told me about the grinding poverty she saw on muddy backroads, the battered trailers with plastic on the windows, while Dartmouth’s most privileged students raced their shiny sports cars through town and dropped enormous sums in its few stores. There is poverty in Canada; this is particularly true for the shamefully neglected Indigenous people. But the shocking inequality of the United States, where the three wealthiest Americans collectively own more wealth than the bottom half of the population (while the middle class struggles to pay for healthcare and university tuition), is absent; Canada has its billionaires and millionaires, but they tend to be more discreet about their good fortune.
First American lesson: Prove you’re rich! Income inequality be damned.
I really enjoy the quality of life and the kind of professional opportunities that living in the U.S. — near New York City — has given me.
I would never have had these things had I stayed in my home country.
Canada is both geographically enormous — and really small!
Montreal harbor — with the legendary housing Habitat, from Expo 1967
If you have (as I have) lived in a few of its major cities and have no wish to keep moving just to find a new job with a slightly different perspective, then what? I had lived in Toronto (a really ugly and expensive city) and Montreal (a charming city but with very limited prospects for an ambitious Anglo journalist). Vancouver was too far away (and also has very costly housing) Ottawa and Halifax and Calgary too far away or too small.
My half-brother, 23 years younger, married an American and has long lived in D.C. and recently became a first-time father, of twins — so now we have American citizens in the family.
And my husband, Jose Lopez, is also American, as was my first husband.
I know it hurts my Canadian father, who had a very distinguished career as a film-maker there, that we both have professionally and romantically dismissed Canada, even though we visit. I suspect many immigrants to the U.S. feel some of what I do — pride and pleasure in our accomplishments here (it’s HUGE) — but also something of a tug to our homeland.
It is an utter nightmare for many Americans to have a President like Trump. It is very frightening to imagine four more years of him, while also having little optimism about how much better Joe Biden would do.
I love old diners, anywhere! This is on the North Fork of Long Island, NY
You choose to leave your home country, initially, for all sorts of reasons — education, marriage, adventure, a job, a fellowship.
You choose to stay elsewhere for a host of others.
I lived in Mexico at 14, in France at 25, and moved to the U.S. at 30.
Moving away is always a little scary, but — for me — so was the prospect of spending my life in a city I didn’t like much, and which still is the professional hub of my industry.
And the truth is that, being gone for decades, means re-entry can make you feel like a stranger in your original homeland.
Have you lived outside of the country of your birth?
It’s the most expensive series ever filmed there, two seasons of 10 episodes each, from 2015.
I might be the only person left in the world who has yet to visit Iceland, but I can now really see why people go. What a spectacular and dramatic landscape it is!
It only has 364,000 people, and 60,000 in the capital, and is the most sparsely-populated nation in Europe.
The characters in Trapped are all very human, often confused, working either in Reykjavik or an isolated small town on a fjord — where the evil runs mighty deep and sometimes for generations.
There’s Andri, the police chief in Season One, who’s a tall, hefty guy with a thick brown beard and hair that always needs brushing, His assistants, Hinrika and Asgeir, are small town residents, and a real contrast — Hinrika is tough, smart and cynical while Asgeir is always vaguely goofing off and playing chess on his computer.
Their police station is small, and, like everything here, absolutely dwarfed by snow-capped mountains.
The sense of being trapped in this show has many layers: by small town life, by family dramas and secrets, by unsolved murders and disappearances, by ambition. Mostly by weather! So much snow, rain, ice! Roads get shut down and planes and helicopters grounded.
By Season Two, Andri has moved back to big-city Reykjavik, and Hinrika is now police chief. But her marriage to Bardur, 20 years her senior, is ending and Andri’s oldest daughter has become a rebellious 15-year-old in a lot of black eyeshadow, living with an aunt.
The pace is slow, but there’s plenty of plot development and it takes a while to finally reveal who’s the true baddie.
Along the way, we get to see Icelandic sheep farmers and ponies and an enormous ferry that is key to the first season plot. There’s a female minister whose formal collar is a white ruffle that looks positively medieval.
Several people die in gruesome ways — consumed by flames, and one with a bolt gun used to kill sheep.
But it’s really compelling and the murder of one character left us on the the verge of tears.
My go-to comfort food is toast with butter and flaky maldon salt (I could eat this all day long!), and I didn’t hold back from sharing this with the team. Inspired, producer Julia Longoria made some calls to food writers at The Times to ask about their favorite comfort snacks.
Lo and behold, Kim Severson’s comfort food was also toast — specifically, cinnamon toast. Kim is a food writer based in Atlanta. She was eager to share her method, which involves toasting a slice of bread, buttering it “to complete abandon,” and coating it with cinnamon and sugar. “One bite of this and I’m exactly back in my mom’s kitchen after school,” she says in the episode.
But as we got to work, I realized that an episode about toast felt incomplete. What goes with toast? Tea, of course.
My typical routines include (and how I miss it!) a spin class at 8:30 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. It was a perfect way to start my day energized, social and feel a bit less guilty about what I would later consume.
I still make a pot of tea almost every day around 4:30 or 5:00 pm, in a small pea-green teapot, often PG Tips, Constant Comment or Irish Breakfast. I love tea, and it’s a great break from one more boring bottle of healthy water. I like it strong enough — as an Irish neighbor once told my Dad — for a mouse to walk across.
My other routines and rituals:
— reading two newspapers a day, in print, The New York Times and Financial Times
— watching New York Gov. Cuomo’s daily press conference on CNN at 11:30 a.m.
— lighting tapers and votives when we sit down to dinner
— setting a pretty table, even just for us
— a nap
— listening to NPR talk shows like the Brian Lehrer show, The Takeaway (not food!) and All Things Considered
— whatever TV shows are my current favorite. I was loving my Sunday line-up on PBS: Call the Midwife, World on Fire, Baptiste, Endeavour….and all have ended their seasons.
— blogging! This keeps me engaged when not writing for income, and allows me to connect with you
— Twitter. I confess to spending much more time there than optimal, but it also brought me my two latest clients, so it works in that regard.
— In summer, long lunches outdoors with my softball team
And I wouldn’t call it a routine, I really miss having friends over for a meal, something we usually do at least once a month, often more. We will often do a Sunday lunch, lazing for hours over conversation, rather than a Friday or Saturday night.
Most people think I write for a living, and, yes, the product I sell is an article or story or blog post for publication, for a company or for a journalism outlet.
But before I have anything to write about, I’ve listened carefully to strangers who have to place their trust in me to get it right, make their views known without distortion and communicate it all compellingly to even more strangers.
It’s a challenge!
I really enjoy it, but it can be difficult. My current project means speaking to a source in Europe and using a video interface, which can freeze or drop words or whole sentences. Add to that an accent and a complex topic, and away we go!
My interviews have sometimes been extremely delicate, like the young black women I spoke with for my first book about American women and gun use. Each had been arrested for a gun-related crime (not murder) and each had her own reasons for owning and using one.
My job was simply to listen quietly, non-reactively, kindly, without judgment.
I suspect it may have been a rare occasion for them to simply tell their story and just be listened to — not to a cop or a judge or a social worker, let alone a middle-aged, white stranger.
The photo above is fairly typical of me when I’m really focusing hard; I’m not looking at the speaker (not to be rude!) but really thinking.
An interview, journalistically, is a terrific experience but it’s not conversation in any conventional sense. It has elements of that — nods, laughter, echoing back what someone just said, asking a clarifying question, even swearing — but it’s also a controlled interaction where the writer must stay in the driver’s seat, even if done delicately and invisibly.
I recently did my first transcription for a fellow journalist, whose interview was with a major pop musician. Oh, I felt for them! The replies were often mumbled or mono-syllabic. I was as tired at the end of making sense of it as they probably were as well.
To conduct a really good interview requires both intellectual acuity (make it interesting for them! ask smart and incisive questions and follow-ups) and emotional sensitivity (don’t rush them!)
I did a series of interviews in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, years ago, for Chatelaine, a national women’s magazine, which meant asking sources — all women — to revisit an extremely painful experience, a side effect of a drug, Mirapex, all had taken for their Parkinson’s disease or for restless leg syndrome.
The side effect was an excess of dopamine over-stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, and the women had unwittingly become compulsive gamblers, terrifying their families and confounding their physicians.
Between their emotion and the disease, they shook and/or cried through the interviews and one’s family raged about her behavior — without really understanding, medically, what was even happening or why. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported and I apologized to each beforehand and thanked them afterward for how exhausting it was for them to share their stories.
Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than a journalist.
When I listen for work, I bring tools to the table with me:
cultural sensitivity (what’s taboo, what’s likely to elicit passion or emotion or silence)
prior research (to know what to ask)
patience (not every word or sentence is riveting)
editing as we go (see above!)
attentiveness to their pauses, hesitations, laughter, emphasis, repetition
Start out by talking about something the other person likes, or maybe doesn’t like, and finding out why that is. It could be music, art, books, films, food, favorite childhood toys or even other people. The point is to explore one another’s affinities, attitudes, beliefs and opinions — but never argue about them. As the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.”
Likes and dislikes develop through experiences, and those back stories are willingly told if you ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. These don’t necessarily have to be long, drawn-out conversations.
Even when I interview super-smart eminent scientists, as I did for a recent story, I make time for some casual personal conversation as well. I discovered that one of the leaders in water treatment shared my experiences of flying Nicaragua’s domestic airline — and eating at a great Indian restaurant in Montreal (where he attended McGill, across the street.)
Those fun, personal, quirky moments make even the most serious interview more human and playful.
We talk most easily to other human beings, not robots.
Jose and I talk to one another a lot.
It’s one of my favorite elements of our marriage — because really listening to someone is an active form of love.
With so much more time at home to reflect, it’s been interesting to flip through old photos, enjoying happy memories.
A few of these:
Jose and I, now together 20 years, married in 2011, met through an online dating site, which I was writing about for a magazine story. His was one of (!) 200 replies to my profile, whose candid headline was Catch Me If You Can. He did!
Not one to hesitate, he pulled out the big guns and, within two months of meeting me, invited me to the White House News Photographers annual dinner, a black tie affair in D.C. seated with senior photo editors of his employer, The New York Times.No pressure!
And, showing off his extraordinary access as a former NYT White House Press Corps photographer, we were allowed into the Oval Office.
Two of my proudest moments: Malled (2011) and Blown Away (2004.) I loved writing both books and have two proposals I’m slowly working on. Journalism has been so decimated in the past decade and there are very few places that still offer room to tell a story in depth — and pay enough to make it worth doing.
September 2019, Ontario, doing one of the 30 interviews for my story on Canadian healthcare, interviewing a physician. Jose and I traveled around rural Ontario for three weeks that month and had a fantastic time — I interviewed plenty of people but we also stayed with old friends, like a woman I hadn’t seen in 50 years (!) I went to private school with. So fun!
Jose thought it would be a good idea to photograph the judging of the Pulitzers, so he did! When you work 100 percent freelance, as we both do, you’re constantly drumming up ideas to sell. No ideas, no income!
The fab team of radiologists and physicians my on my final day of radiation for early stage breast cancer, November 15, 2018. They were so kind and compassionate.
We love visiting Montreal. Such charm! It’s about a 6.5 hour drive from our home in New York. I love speaking and hearing French encore une fois and we have some friends there to catch up with. We even now have a favorite room at the hotel we like, the Omni Mount Royal — which overlooks the exact site of the (torn down) brownstone I lived in at 12 with my mother. We used to fly kites on Mount Royal — and when I met my first husband in his final year of med school at McGill, took him up there on a ffffffrrrezzzing caleche ride. So many memories!
Summer 2017, a glorious Budapest cafe. I treated myself to an unprecedented six weeks’ travel through six countries: France, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, England. It was worth every penny. Dying to travel again! Unlikely — I met up there with my best friend from university, who lives in Kamloops, B.C., whose daughter had been studying in Eastern Europe.
Yup, that’s fellow Canadian, actor Mike Myers, who I met at Fleet Week in NYC a few years ago, at a Canadian consulate event. He was a lot of fun.
Our wedding, September 2011, on an island in Toronto. A tiny church, with 25 friends/family in attendance. It was a perfect fall afternoon.
This would have been pre-1994, when I was competing as a sabre fencer at nationals.
June 2015, Co. Donegal, where we rented a cottage
I’ve been so fortunate to have paid adventures like this one! March 2014. My first ride in a dug-out canoe.
I had planned to leave journalism and become an interior designer so I studied here in the 1990s — and loved it! Then I taught writing there for years.
I’ve been twice. What an amazing place! This is from 2013
What a hoot! This would have been 2011 or earlier, before my hip replacement. They gave me the clothes to keep! And the photographer (small world!) came from Atlanta to New York, the husband of an old friend.
This is probably my proudest writing moment — a National Magazine Award for an essay (humor!) about my divorce. I wrote it and sent to a national Canadian women’s magazine who sat on it for a few years (I got divorced in 1995), but they did a great edit — and voila!
The subjunctive is used to express desires, doubts, the unknown, the abstract, and emotions.
Americans, especially, are a nation accustomed — beyond those in the worst poverty — to a specific sort of aggressive optimism, the “American dream” that life will, through lots of hard work, get better.
A pandemic killing thousands every day has shredded this.
How can anyone look ahead with optimism?
How can anyone plan?
How can we make rational decisions without reliable information?
Can we stay healthy?
For how long?
It’s a challenge to keep moving ahead when you have no idea if you’ll get your job back or your health insurance or if your children will be back at school or college or university.
German schoolchildren are back in their classrooms.
My French friends are celebrating the end of “le confinement” — while a feckless America lurches deeper into recession and chaos and morons carrying guns storm a…Subway sandwich shop.
Tomorrow in North America, the annual paeans to great mothers begins again.
It doesn’t resonate the same way for others, like me.
I wrote about this once in detail, here, and it spurred one of my most valued friendships, since that person and I finally saw the effect of having really difficult mothers on our lives and life choices.
It does change you.
It’s also deeply taboo to not like your mother — and it’s extremely painful to have your mother not like you, especially if you’re their only child.
So, at the request of an editor, I wrote this essay about how my mother and I became estranged, and still were when she died this February, in a nursing home very far away from me.
I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her in a decade.
I did love my mother, even as I was fed up with how she chose to squander every gift life can offer: physical beauty, Mensa level intelligence, curiosity, open-mindedness, inherited wealth, deep and abiding friendships.
Between her bipolar illness and alcoholism, her behavior was often erratic and selfish. It deeply hurt and really scared me, as my visits to her were usually alone, with no one to turn to for moral support or help. I had no siblings to commiserate with — or strategize.
I couldn’t turn to one of her friends. She was someone who eschewed close relationships unless with very old friends, most of whom lived in other countries. She didn’t know her neighbors, so neither did I. When she attended church, she never went to coffee hour and, when I forced her to on one of my annual visits (selfishly desperate for someone else to know her), she was furious with me.
When she left my father, and she was 30, she had plenty of suitors, and one was very kind to me — oddly, decades later, that man’s daughter, living in England, contacted me (or vice versa) and we renewed a friendship we’d had at 12 in Toronto.
So I miss the best of her, as it was lovely.
But I don’t miss the worst.
Here’s some of the essay:
I hadn’t seen her in years nor tried to re-connect. I knew better, even though others repeatedly urged me to, including my father, 50 years divorced from her but lately back in touch.
“You’ll regret it!”
“What if she dies?”
“You never know…”
But they didn’t know the full story.
Every year I sent her a Christmas card filled with the past year’s news, but never received a reply, not even in 2018, the year of my early-stage breast cancer, surgery and radiation. When she had had a mastectomy decades before, I’d flown from New York to Vancouver to get her back home and re-settled.
A few years ago, she told my best friend, a local who went to visit, to tell me to stay away.
How does one end up so estranged?
More easily than you’d think.
I hope you’ll read the rest — and if you, or someone you know, is also estranged from a parent, this may comfort them.