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Q and A with Plum Johnson: her new memoir: “They Left Us Everything”

In aging, behavior, books, domestic life, family, life, love, women on June 30, 2016 at 1:44 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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I recently read a lovely new memoir by a fellow Canadian and she was kind enough — thank you, Plum! — to agree to a question and answer interview with me for Broadside.

As regular readers here know, I love to find and feature talented writers and photographers whose work I hope will be valuable to my blog readers as well.

One great joy of the creative life is celebrating talent and sharing it.

Her book resonated strongly with me, as it’s set in the town of Oakville, near Toronto where I grew up and return often to visit.

I haven’t had to clear out a huge family home, as she did, but I totally related to much of her story. It’s fun, funny, poignant.

Certainly anyone faced with the daunting and often emotionally overwhelming challenge of sorting through decades of their parents’ belongings, let alone selling the family home, with all its attendant memories, will enjoy her book.

I also love that one of Plum’s role models for memoir is one of my favorite writers, Alexandra Fuller, a British woman (now living in the U.S.) whose two memoirs of growing up in Zimbabwe were best-sellers. When I teach writing, I always use some passages from her books.

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The book’s Canadian cover

 

Tell us a bit about yourself…

My first book, (written when I was five), was called ‘The Mouse and the Hat.’ My mother saved it and it surfaced when I was clearing out her house. Writing came easily to me, but Dad said, “Life isn’t meant to be easy!” So I figured I should do something harder. Many of us ignore out childhood passions, don’t you think?

When I was six years old, a friend of my mother’s published a satirical romantic novel in which the feisty heroine was loosely based on Mum. That book sat on a shelf in my bedroom for years. Each night I’d stare at it, secretly dreaming that one day my own name might replace the author’s on the spine. I’m sure a therapist could infer all sorts of things from that early obsession, but I still treasure that book. It reminds me that my dream was there from childhood.

After college, I taught high school for a year and then switched to advertising. I got a job as a copywriter for Sears – in their catalog division. It was wonderful training! Copywriters spend all their time ‘killing their darlings’ – madly cutting until their copy achieves pure essence, using as few words as possible.

 When did the idea for this book come to you?

The light-bulb moment came when I was taking Mum’s stuff to the thrift store. I noticed three things: the store was piled high with identical stuff from the fifties; adult children were dropping it off by the truckload in a big hurry; and it had all lost its value – nobody wanted it.

I stood back and thought, Wow – look at this big picture!

 

Why isn’t anybody writing about this? I wonder if there’s a book here?

 

What did your agent think of it initially? Was it an easy sale, as there are so many memoirs now?

Memoirs used to be a hard sell, but I think that’s changing – especially with the success years ago of The Glass Castle. The popularity of reality TV has changed readers’ appetites.

 

We’ve become a nation of voyeurs

 

If ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ why read a novel? My original pitch was that I’d write a “Goodnight Moon” for adults. (It’s got good “buzz” – right?) My agent liked the idea. I planned a lighthearted book about “saying goodbye to stuff.” But the more I wrote, the more the book changed. Suddenly the “old lady whispering hush” emerged: a strong mother-daughter theme that caused me to look deeper.

 

 

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The American cover

 

Did you have any concerns (as many people do when writing about their family)?

 

Sure. When I began looking deeper I was terrified. Not terrified of what my family would think, but what readers might think once the book was published. I was confessing so many private thoughts about my relationship with Mum – and I wasn’t proud of them.

 

Did you have any role model/memoirs whose tone or structure inspired yours?

 

I’ve always loved reading memoir, so I have lots of favorite books. I was reading Rick Bragg’s memoir about his mother, All Over but the Shoutin’, Susan Cheever’s Treetops, Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and also rereading essays by Nora Ephron.

 

How did you structure the book and why?

 

My first attempt was strictly chronological. I happen to like chronological order – it’s a pure form and leaves no place to hide. But as different readers and editors offered opinions, the structure began to change.

One reader had marked a big red arrow about twenty pages in with the words: YOUR BOOK STARTS HERE.

 

Then my agent (who also happens to be a great editor) took all the chapters, shuffled them like a deck of cards, handed them back, and said, “What about this?”

 

We lived with that for a while until, at the eleventh hour, another editor gave me a thoughtful ten-page critique that was exactly right. It was like eureka! I spent a frenzied weekend putting yellow sticky notes all over my kitchen wall and changing the order of a few key things.

 

What was most challenging about writing it?

 

The editing of any book is the hardest part, but also the most satisfying. It took me about nine months to write and almost two years to edit. Of course, now I can’t remember what we left in or what got cut.

 

The most fun?

 

Trying to find my book in the bookstores. It was usually shelved under “Grief and Bereavement.” I had no idea it was about grieving.

 

Did you take notes as you were emptying the house or did you have to rely on memory?

 

Yes – notes! Remember – I was living in Mum’s house for more than a year. I knew very few people in town, so I had no social life.

After sorting all day, I’d collapse into bed and write down memories triggered by the things I was finding

 

Memories were in no particular order. Just a jumble of thoughts. But I ended up with a collection of “scenes” that I used later in my manuscript.

 

Any reaction from your family?

 

My family read the manuscript before it ever went to a publisher. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any relationships, so I promised to remove anything they found hurtful. Thankfully, nothing got removed – except later by the editors!

 

What sorts of emails/reaction have you gotten from readers — it’s so much a generational rite of passage for so many people now!

 

That’s the thing about memoir: you think you’re writing about your own life but it turns out you’re writing about everyone else’s as well.

 

We all have so much in common

 

I wish I could thank the stranger who came up to me outside an elevator shortly after my book came out. She recognized me from the book jacket and did a double-take. “Are you Plum Johnson?” she said. I started backing away, thinking: uh-oh, here comes the criticism. “May I give you a hug?” she said. “Because I had a mother just like yours!”

 

 

 

Lessons from Dad

In aging, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life, men, parenting, women on June 19, 2016 at 3:41 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Today is Father’s Day.

Some of you are fathers. Some wish to become one. Some of you love yours deeply, while others, like me, sometimes have strained and challenging relationships with theirs.

I spent much of my childhood, after my parents split up, between boarding school and summer camp. Even though his apartment building was, literally, across the street from my school, custody arrangements made it difficult to see him — and he traveled the world as a film director.

So the time I did get to spend with him was rare. I moved in with him and his girlfriend, later wife, when I was 14.5, and lived there until I was 19.

Those were our best years:

We played sports: badminton, squash, skiing, and went for long walks in the country, giving me a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors and for being athletic and active.

We played Scrabble almost every evening, with Jack the cat usually stepping right into all our carefully placed tiles.

We drove across Canada, sleeping in a tent, with a few stopovers in North and South Dakota where we attended several native American pow-wows. At night, they placed food at the door of our tent, a welcome gesture.

We drove and drove and drove and drove — Canada is enormous and we had started in Toronto.

I left home at 19 and never moved back. He recently turned 87 and is still in very good health.

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A scene from Dr. Zhivago, a film we saw together

 

Some of the lessons I learned:

 

Kick ass!

 

He was always eager to rattle the cage of received wisdom, challenging every source of authority, and his films, mostly documentaries, but one film for Disney and several television news series, reflected that.

Here’s his Wikipedia entry.

 

Be excellent, always

 

Life is short and wasting it producing mediocre bullshit is a terrible choice. It is, always, a choice.

 

Be frugal — but enjoy life

 

He’s always owned used (nice!) cars and spent his money on good food, travel, art. I’ve adopted his ways and enjoy my life as a result. I treasure my many memories and love looking at the the objects, photos and souvenirs I’ve collected over the decades.

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The view from our cottage rental in Donegal, June 2015 — visited my great-grandfather’s one-room schoolhouse in Rathmullan

Figure out your finances

 

He never gave me a dime for college or birthdays or graduation. Just not his style. So, from an early age, (and, luckily, I did inherit some money from my maternal grandmother), it was all up to me to figure out how to budget, what to buy and when and why, how to save and invest and not go broke, even in the toughest of freelance years.

A great lesson, even when difficult to manage.

 

You can indeed earn a living as a creative professional

 

This is likely the most essential of all, in a culture that both reveres the “artist” and all too often dooms him or her to penury and frustration. We had cotton years and cashmere years, some that were wealthier and some that were less so. But we never lost our home or felt terrified that was likely.

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Paris

The world is filled with wonders

 

He returned from his work travels — long before cell phones or the Internet, so a month of silence — bearing odd bits of the world I’d never see anywhere else: Inuit sealskin gloves, a caribou-skin rug, a woven Afghan rifle case, badges from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. There was an extraordinary world out there waiting for me to get into it, explore it and tell my own stories about it.

 

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Women can do anything

 

I graduated high school at the height of second-wave feminism, and thank heaven for that! It never — then or since — occurred to me that women should or could accomplish any less than their male competitors.

 

Insatiable curiosity

 

It’s how I earn my living, as a freelance journalist for The New York Times, author of two non-fiction books and world traveler. The world is bursting with untold stories.

His bookshelves, like mine, include art, history, biography, memoir, design.

 

Stay competitive, always

 

Pretty counter-intuitive lesson for a teenage girl, but also key to my ongoing success in the super-competitive world of publishing and journalism. If you have a great idea, keep it close to your vest, then sell it to the highest bidder.

 

Here’s my Reuters Money story this week about the best financial advice some well-known people got from their Dads.

 

I especially like this one:

Dara Richardson-Heron, MD

CEO, YWCA U.S.A.

“My Dad, father of four girls, made it clear to each of us that we should never be limited in any way by our race or gender, particularly true as it related to receiving equal pay for equal work. That’s why I’m so fortunate he was ahead of his time and also very intentional about discussing the tremendous importance of pay equity. Because of his advice and guidance, I am on a mission every day to use my skills, experience, and expertise to help all women achieve economic empowerment and equity.”

What did your father teach you?

 

What lessons are you sharing with your children?

The joy (and terror!) of your first solo apartment

In aging, behavior, cities, design, domestic life, life, U.S., urban design, urban life on June 15, 2016 at 2:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

One of Broadside’s most faithful followers — Rami Ungar, whose blog is here –– is moving into his first apartment on his own as he starts his first post-college full-time job.

 

IMG_20151219_080332133_HDRThe view from my friend’s studio apartment on East 81st, in Manhattan

 

Big step!

 

Independence. Self-reliance.

How do you make rice? Boil an egg?

I’ll never forget (does anyone?) my first apartment where I lived alone for the first time. A studio, with a sleeping alcove just big enough for my double mattress (on the floor), it was on the ground floor of a building facing an alleyway in a not-very-good part of Toronto.

The rent? $160/month — while my monthly income was $350.

I was so broke! But it was mine, all mine, even still sleeping in my childhood bed, under my red and yellow and blue patchwork quilt.

I was an undergrad, in my second year at University of Toronto, an easy walk to our downtown campus.

It was really, looking back, a terrible choice for a single woman, not safe at all.

I ended up having to move out within six months after one spring evening, when — my bathroom window open to the breeze — a man (yes, really) leaned into my bathroom window, at his waist height, and tried to pull me out of the bathtub.

Terrifying.

I moved next into a gorgeous studio on a much nicer street, on the 6th floor, with a balcony facing over the lush treetops of a nearby park.

No one could get at me.

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A table set for one of our dinner parties

Ever since that first first-floor home, I’ve lived on a building’s sixth, and usually highest, floor, usually facing trees — both beautiful and with zero possibility of a stranger accessing my door or windows.

But living alone is such heady stuff!

Everything is up to you: when and where and what to eat. Buying and cooking groceries. Learning to cook. Deciding who to bring home for how long and how often. Are they safe?

Doing laundry. (Or lack of same.)

You’re now negotiating your home’s care and safety directly with strangers — your landlord, maybe a superintendent or janitor.

Your rent is due exactly when they expect it. Every month. In full!

I was out on my own at 19, which, in retrospect was pretty young to be on my own in a major city. But I didn’t want to live in a dorm — after years spent sharing space with people at boarding school and summer camp.

Some people loathe the solitude and loneliness of solo life. For a while, I loved it.

Now, having been with my husband for 16 years, I really cherish the comfort and company of married life. I’d find it difficult to be alone now. (Not to mention his help getting things off those higher shelves.)

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A French laundromat washing machine…quite incomprehensible!

I liked this recent New York Times story about New York’s newest micro apartments:

It’s a nice place for a sleepover. The 302-square-foot unit I stayed in rents for $2,670 a month, furnished, which includes convertible and small-space objects from Resource Furniture. That company’s sofa-wall bed combination called Penelope (my destiny?), made in Italy by Clei, is the linchpin of the space: a Murphy-style bed, surrounded by deep cabinets, that unfolds over a diminutive charcoal-gray sofa.

I spent a good half-hour practicing opening and closing that bed, which is heavier and trickier than anything Bernadette Castro ever tackled, but much, much more comfortable, because it has a proper-size mattress and a firm base. (The two photographers who had accompanied me on my mission declined to help, perhaps taking their journalistic ethics too seriously.)

I know, I know….that’s about the size of some people’s walk-in closets!

I also loved the writer’s nostalgia for her first apartment:

My first single-person’s apartment in New York City was a studio on Christopher Street, in a prewar tenement building with a hallway that smelled of cat and scorched garlic. There was a kitchen of sorts in a cubby space with a tiny Royal Rose stove, a sink and a mini fridge — but I never cooked there.

I was no Laurie Colwin (I don’t recall owning a pot) and anyway, the Korean market on Bleecker Street was my cafeteria. It was 1984; on weekends, the young men who came downtown to showboat kept me awake until 5 a.m., but I didn’t care. When I wasn’t cursing them, I loved watching the performance.

The kitchen and bathroom windows looked out onto a grimy air shaft, and right into my neighbors’ apartments, so at night I did a lot of ducking, being too slack to install a shade or even tack up a sheet. If you closed the bathroom door, you’d be stuck until a PATH train rumbled past and shook it free. (My first night in the apartment, I spent two hours trapped in there, having closed the door firmly to clean the black and white herringbone tile floor.)

Mostly, my tiny apartment was a launching pad, and I was thrilled to be living alone.

As was I in mine.

 

Do you remember your first apartment?

What was it like?

 

 

We’re all WIPs…(works in progress)

In aging, behavior, domestic life, life, work on May 28, 2016 at 12:40 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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This is one of my favorite paintings…it’s huge, and hangs in a hallway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It’s Joan of Arc realizing her destiny.

We live in a culture obsessed with being perfect and efficient and productive.

We’re human.

And a culture based on an industrial production model, aka laissez-faire capitalism, doesn’t really allow for much humanity, the times we’re slowed by grief or panic or confusion.

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Give your tired old dogs a rest!

We can’t all operate at 100 percent all the time, even if some people expect it.

We get sick, with an acute illness, or a chronic illness or, worst, a terminal illness.

We nurse loved ones with these afflictions.

I see so many people flagellating themselves for not producing more (why not producing better?) or not meeting others’ (unreasonable) expectations or failing to keep up with others who may have the advantage of tremendous tailwinds we’ll never see or know exist.

We could all use a little break, no?

A common phrase among fiction writers is their WIP, their work in progress, i.e. a book or poem or essay they’re plugging away on, whether with a contract and a publisher or just a lot of hope and faith.

 

We’re all a work in progress, really.

 

Getting older (I have a birthday soon!) is a great way to slow down long enough to reflect on the progress we’ve already made, not just scrambling every single day to do it all faster and better.

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It’s so easy to feel inadequate when deluged daily by a Niagara of shiny, happy, successful images on social media.

As if those were the (full) true story.

 

But everyone has a wound and a dark place and a weak spot, likely several, and they often remain well hidden, sometimes from ourselves and sometimes for decades.

 

Have you seen this moving, powerful TED talk?

It’s 12:58 in length, presented by a writer named Lidia Yuknavitch — who I confess I’d never heard of before.

Her talk reminds us that:

“Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful,” she says. “You don’t know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That’s your beauty.”

It is so easy, at every level and stage of life, to feel like less than, a failure, a loser, and no one is ever supposed to admit it!

Only losers admit to feeling fear, envy, insecurity.

Not true.

We’re human.

And we all end up in the same place eventually.

 

The true meaning of friendship

In aging, behavior, domestic life, life, love, urban life, women on May 22, 2016 at 2:38 pm

By Caitlin  Kelly

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Two chairs, two friends…

The word “friend”  only became a verb thanks to social media.

One once befriended someone or made a friend; note the verb to make.

 

It takes time, and effort and consistent interest.

 

It also requires a shared sense of values and expectations if it’s to last more than a few days or weeks.

Today it’s become a word with multiple meanings, some of which...don’t mean a thing.

Having just weathered intense cyber-bullying by an online group fellow women writers, (none of whom have ever met or spoken with me), I spent some time culling my “friend” list on Facebook.

More than 200 people are now gone from my list of “friends”, as I realized I’d allowed myself to accept requests from people I didn’t know well, assuming — innocently, hopefully and very stupidly — that everyone who wanted to be my friend also knew, and shared, my values, ethics and/or professional expertise.

Nope.

Several of these women proved to be Trojan horses. Lesson, painfully, learned.

So, back to true friendship.

This week also reminded me what it looks and feels like:

Face to face conversation.

Revelation.

Mutual trust.

Sharing stories.

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One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua in March 2014 — now still friends with these three

On Monday I went for lunch with a woman who lives across the street from us, and who I hadn’t spent time with for at least six months. We’d had a disagreement last fall, and stopped our weekly walks.

I wasn’t sure we would continue our friendship. We seemed, suddenly, just too different.

Then she was felled, (luckily, getting better now), with a challenging acute illness.

I took her flowers, shocked at the trials she was facing and sorry for her difficulties.

This week, I returned to the relationship with a deeper gratitude for her good humor, her sense of perspective and delight in her recovering health.

Like a handful of people, she knows me very well.

There is something so comforting talking to someone who just knows you, loves you and accepts your quirks.

On Wednesday, I met another friend, a newer one, and we went to the Met Museum after having lunch at Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, both on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

We’re still getting to know one another, and she is a working artist and art teacher — we geek out over things like Vikings and monstrances.

On Thursday, I caught up with a woman who was originally a story source, a brilliant (Harvard MBA, ho hum) finance expert.

I feel so lucky when I meet and get to know a woman who’s both wicked smart — and deeply kind. What a pleasure to see her, even once a year when she visits New York.

On Saturday — (this is not a typical week!) — I had breakfast with a fellow writer, a specialist in medical topics, visiting from Toronto, then we both spoke on panels at a writers’ conference.

A woman I’d never met before stayed behind after my panel to talk to me….and we kept talking until midnight when we had to run for our respective trains to get home.

She’s an author from Alabama; here’s her book about a terrifying day when dozens of tornadoes traumatized the U.S.

Whew! What an energizing, delicious gift this week has been.

The gift of friendship.

And how helpful, for all of us, to see the world through others’ eyes and their perspectives. It’s so easy to get caught in your own little worldview, trapped by your own firmly-held opinions.

A key difference I’ve seen here in the U.S. is a discomfort with, (understatement, more like terror of), major differences of opinion, certainly on issues like politics, religion, feminism, the usual flashpoints. If you don’t agree 100 percent on everything, discussion (certainly online) flares into nasty, name-calling argument and boom!

There goes your “friendship.”

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

I’m slow to make new friends.

Having been betrayed by a few, I’m now much warier about letting a new person in close.

 

True friendship takes time to grow, to deepen, to broaden.

 

You may have to forgive them, (and they you!)

Intimacy can be challenging.

Some flee at the first sign of friction.

 

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Coming from a family of origin whose typical stance is estrangement or anger, my friends are my family.

Few things are as precious to me as the intimacy of friendship, old and new.

How about you?

Do you make friends quickly and easily?

Have you weathered the sting of deception and betrayal?

 

“Oooh, that sounds hard!”

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life on May 18, 2016 at 1:52 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The two initial (male) designers of the Brooklyn Bridge were both felled by illness — only the fierce determination of Emily Roebling brought this world-famous landmark to completion.

 

I mentioned this intermittent fasting regimen to someone recently, a man my age, a fellow journalist, slim and trim.

I was stunned by his immediate reply: “Oooh, that sounds hard!”

Like “hard” was a bad thing, something to be feared or avoided.

Well…yeah.

It is difficult!

It’s not simple or fun to cut your consumption by 50 percent or more and try to keep going with normal activities.

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The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

But people cope with much more difficult challenges every single day: serious illness, unemployment and underemployment, debt, family dramas, homelessness — and the kind of hunger no one ever chooses but that poverty imposes.

 

One of the pleasures of doing something difficult, despite initial frustration and weariness with it — whatever it is — is getting past that initial “oh shit!” moment and eventually easing into an ability to handle it, even enjoy it, even do it well.

 

 

It might be the many challenges of immigration, and learning a whole new language and culture.

It might be, and often is, the first year of marriage when you think…who is this person?!

It might be a new job or your first job after college or an internship where they never really tell you what to do but expect you to do it really well anyway.

The sexy new word for surmounting difficult is “grit” and many books are being published praising it and wondering how to inculcate it into privileged people who’ve never had to scrap or scrape — hard — to get what they want or need from life.

But it’s truly enervating and exhausting to live this way for years, even decades.

It can feel overwhelming and impossible to get out of a hard situation, one you didn’t choose, whether an abusive family or origin (or marriage), a lousy job whose income you and your family really need or even a behavioral tic of your own that you now see is causing you problems.

I don’t fear most things that are difficult and generally enjoy a challenge.

I don’t respond well to people who expect life to be a smooth, easy ride, cushioned by wealth and connection and social capital.

Because, for so many people, it’s not.

It’s hard.

(Witness the current U.S. Presidential campaign and the face-palming reaction of those who had no idea life was so difficult for so many fellow Americans.)

And being scared of things that are hard can paralyze you from taking action.

But there’s also a crucial difference between a chosen challenge and one imposed from beyond your control.

Then the real challenge is how to meet it, if possible with grace and courage. (And the biggest posse of support you can muster.)

How about you?

How do you get through difficult situations?

The challenge of intermittent fasting

In aging, beauty, behavior, domestic life, Health, life on May 14, 2016 at 1:02 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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A great doorway on East 9th Street, NYC

The idea is simple — two days a week you consume only 500 calories; 600 calories for men.

The rest of the week you eat normally, (assuming that “normal” isn’t mountains of chips and doughnuts!)

As someone who’s been trying to shed 30-plus pounds for a decade, unsuccessfully, I’m trying this instead.

I  deeply admire people with the consistent and unyielding self-discipline to weigh and measure every mouthful every day but I’m not that person.

Two days a week? Yes. I can do that and plan around it.

Unlike hardier souls, I’m eating 750 calories on my fast days and, for now, not working out or doing vigorous exercise as my energy on these days is simply too low.

But we’ll see. If I get more used to it, I may.

My doctor knows I’m doing it and she suggested 750 calories, knowing my starting weight.

I’m in my third week of it, fasting Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I also know a few friends who are doing it, so sharing advice and moral support is really helpful, too.

So what’s it like?

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Not intolerable, but, for me, tiring and uncomfortable.

It does takes serious willpower and planning and preparation to make sure I have the right foods handy; I work alone at home, so that bit is easy.

I don’t have to care for or feed anyone else, so have no temptation in that respect.

I know all the “right” low-calorie foods and, sadly, hate many of them and won’t eat them — tempeh, tofu, sushi, kale. Please don’t even try to change my mind!

I’ve memorized the calorie counts of some of the foods I like that are also healthy: crispbread (45 per slice), apples (80) and peanut butter (30 per tsp.)

Mornings are easiest — and 3pm is hell!

I go to bed hungry, very grateful to disappear into sleep.

The next morning, oddly, I don’t rush into the kitchen starving. I feel a bit disoriented, wary.

(I’ve never struggled with an eating disorder, so that’s not an issue, as it can be for some people.)

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Verboten! Sigh….

I see progress.

 

I don’t own or plan to own a scale. My goal is to be down by 30 pounds by September when I have my annual physical with our GP. Ideally, I’d love to shed 50, but not sure if that’s possible.

My clothes already fit differently, looser. I feel a bit lighter.

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100 calories — 1 cup strawberries, 1/4 cup zero-fat yogurt

 

I won’t pretend it’s easy, but it’s definitely not impossible.

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9 oz can of tuna; 2 crackers; 1 tbsp mayo, 1 pickle — 215 calories

 

It’s disorienting to not look forward to breakfast, lunch, dinner or snacks or sharing a meal with my husband or a friend. (A treat now is a few Lifesavers, at 14 calories each.)

It means arranging my social calendar, avoiding meeting others when my energy is low and my mood…anti-social. I’m definitely grumpy!

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A small salade nicoise: 1 hardboiled eg, 1/2 a tomato, 1 cup green beans, 5 olives and 1 tbsp dressing — 155 calories

 

It does take planning, making sure I have all the foods handy that are healthy, low-calorie and something I enjoy eating — hard-boiled egg (80) or  three cups of asparagus (100.)

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I make enormous batches of flavored teas (peppermint, peach, mixed berry) so I have a break from water, selzer and coffee. I drink some diet tonic water for the flavor.

People ask if I binge on “feast” days.

I do indulge in higher-calorie foods (cheese! bread!) and I’m a little shocked by how I do eat, so this has very much sharpened my awareness, and that’s a major step forward.

I tend to eye each mouthful with suspicion, but I won’t freak out about it and am now more likely to split a meal out with my husband and/or bring home half of it to eat on another “feast” day.

I do like the conscious decision to “feast” and “fast.”

It has made me much more appreciative of days when I can eat more — and how it feels to function, let alone work hard, with much less fuel in my system.

I also go to a spin class twice a week and a jazz dance class once a week, plus walking and lifting weights.

Have you tried this?

Has it worked for you?

 

 

 

 

Less work, more life

In aging, behavior, business, domestic life, journalism, life, work on May 7, 2016 at 12:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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I loved this recent post by a friend and colleague, a Toronto-based travel writer, Heather Greenwood-Davis, who has seen much of the world, and even took her two young sons and husband globe-trotting with her for a year.

Heather trained as a lawyer and did well, but…

 

My marriage suffered. My friendships suffered. My health suffered. I began to shut out the world and as a result the very people I thought I was suffering for.

It made no sense.

What was the point of a full bank account if I wouldn’t be around to enjoy it with them?

And so I downsized my career and upsized my happiness. I followed my passions and though there was an immediate hit financially, the life I’ve been able to craft with my family has more than made up for it. The happier I became, the more I earned.

 

As long-time readers of Broadside know, this is really one of my obsessions and an issue I care very deeply about.

Do you know this book — written by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter? — The Two-Income Trap? It argues that chasing the American Dream might be a fool’s errand.

If you’ve never read this classic book “Your Money or Your Life”, it’s an eye-opener. It makes clear, in plain and unvarnished language, the very real choice we make — we spend our lives focused on making (more and more and more) money, grow old and die.

That’s normal life for 99% of us.

But should it be?

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We’re not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

Do we all really need the biggest, fastest, shiniest, latest, 3.0 version of everything?

 

The tiny house movement addresses this longing as well, as some people choose to live in homes of 200 to 300 square feet, giving them the financial freedom to make less punishing choices than staying in a job they loathe to…pay the bills.

And so many students are graduating college with staggering debt and having very little luck finding a good job, the kind they hoped that college degree would help them attain.

For too many hard-working people, the “virtuous cycle” of work has long since been replaced with a vicious one, as so many us earn less than we used to, costs rise, good jobs are outsourced and turned into “gigs” with no benefits or access to unemployment insurance.

Whatever loyalty many people once felt to a job, employer or industry….Today? Not so much.

Every year, surveys show that a staggering portion — like 75 percent — of Americans are “disengaged” at work.

They arrive late, take sick days, dick around when they’re supposed to be working. They hate their jobs or, at best, feel bored, stifled, under-challenged.

This is brutal.

This is heartbreaking.

We only get one life — and it goes by very very fast.

 

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Beauty helps!

I so admire Heather for making a decision that goes against every sociocultural imperative: get (and cling to) a fancy job, make tons of money, make more, buy tons of stuff, buy more.

We’re urged by everyone — friends, teachers, parents, bosses — to keep climbing the ladder of material success and professional glory, no matter what it costs you emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.

I live in the same one bedroom apartment I moved into in June 1989.

If you had told me this would become my life, I would have laughed. I moved around a lot, and liked it.

I’d never before lived in any one domicile more than four years — and that was back in high school, with my father.

But my chosen life in New York also threw me a bunch of curveballs: three recessions in 20 years, a brief first marriage, an industry — journalism — that fired 24,000 people in 2008 and is in serious chaos today.

 

Life, if we are lucky, is a series of choices that reflect our deepest values, principles and priorities.

 

I didn’t want to change careers or leave New York, still the center of journalism and publishing.

I had no wish to assume enormous student debt to return to college to retrain for an entirely different line of work.

I didn’t want to move far upstate, or out of state, where I could live more cheaply, and possibly face serious social isolation, which I’d hated in New Hampshire.

My stubbornness created its own challenges!

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How much is enough?

I don’t have children, so did not have those serious financial responsibilities to consider.

I’ve been very fortunate to have maintained health insurance and good health (even with four orthopedic surgeries in a decade.)

My priority, always, has been to create the freedom to travel and to retire, (and we have) and to work on issues and stories that make sense to me.

It means making, and spending, less money.

We’re outliers, in some key ways:

We drive a 15 year old Subaru with 166,000 miles on it.

We don’t buy a lot of clothes and shoes and electronics; our splurges are meals out and travel.

We’re not close to our families, emotionally or physically, so we don’t spend thousands of dollars each year on travel to see them, gifts for them or their children.

I realized — after working at three major daily newspapers and a few magazines — work is just work. Like many others, I’ve also been  bullied in a few workplaces and terminated from a few as well.

That left some bruises.

I enjoy writing. I love telling stories.

But it’s only one part of my life.

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I have many interests and passions, not just the desire to work, make money and become rich, famous, admired.

I’ve become a nationally ranked saber fencer.

I’ve been able to help care for my parents through health crises because I didn’t have to beg an employer for time off.

I’ve been able to help friends as well, like taking a recent day off to get a friend home to Brooklyn from Manhattan after day surgery.

Now that my husband is also full-time freelance, we can take a day or two during the week and just have a long lunch or go for a walk or catch a daytime film.

Jose and I really enjoy one another’s company.

I’d much rather have a day with him, just chatting and hanging out, than making an additional $1,000 to buy…something.

We met and married later in life,  and we have both had terrific, satisfying careers in journalism.

Now our priority is one another, our friends.

Our life.

How about you?

 

Why I don’t celebrate Mother’s Day

In aging, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting, women on May 4, 2016 at 12:57 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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This lovely young girl survived a rough, strange childhood…

 

This week is awash with reminders from every direction to celebrate your mother — to buy her flowers and presents and take her out for dinner.

It’s a time of sentiment and emotion and gratitude for all that nurturing and support,  feelings we’re all meant to share.

Not for some of us.

My mother has one child.

She wants nothing to do with me; the details are too tedious to repeat here, but she can’t be bothered acknowledging my existence.

She lives a six-hour flight away from me in a nursing home.

She has plenty of money to pay for it so needs nothing material.

She has a devoted friend — a woman my age who is rude and nasty and bizarre to me — so she’s all set in that department as well.

She is bipolar and suffers several other conditions.

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My handsome hubby, Jose…who loves my independence and trusts me in the world

I lived with her to the age of eight, when my parents divorced and I was sent to boarding school and summer camp, arguably steeped in the kind of privilege that protected and cherished me and made me feel safe and secure and valued.

Not really.

Boarding school meant sharing a room with two or three or four strangers, most of them young girls like me who didn’t want to be there.

It meant a life regulated by bells — 6:55 wake-up, 7:10 go out for a walk around the block (neighbors set their clocks by us), 7:25 breakfast in the dining hall, seated at a table chosen for you.

We ate when we were told to and ate whatever we were given, whether we liked the food or not.

To make a phone call meant filling out a permission slip detailing the reason you needed to speak to someone.

No one hugged or cuddled or kissed us. That would have been weird.

Boarding school also meant having no privacy, ever — even the toilet stalls and bathtub surrounds didn’t reach the ceiling and girls would throw paper bags of cold water over the walls.

Fun!

So I quickly learned to be private, self-reliant and extremely cautious about opening up to others.

Luckily, I loved summer camp and looked forward to it every year.

But this life meant I spent little time with my mother; I lived with her full-time only in Grades 6 and 7.

She threw great birthday parties and we enjoyed a comfortable life. Over the years, living very far away from her, I saw her once a year or so.

She taught me a variety of skills: how to be frugal, how to travel safely and alone, how to set a pretty table with linen napkins and candles, to read widely and voraciously.

But I’m not sure she really ever wanted to be someone’s mother; her own mother was often a selfish monster to her, although very kind to me.

Then I left her care forever when I was 14 after she had a breakdown in Mexico, where we were living. I couldn’t take how scared this made me feel.

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She inherited money so, in my early 20s, she traveled the world alone for years.

The only time I saw her was flying, at her expense, to wherever she was at the time — Fiji, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica. Some of the trips were terrific, others less so.

If I didn’t get on a plane and go to her, I would not have seen her.

I learned to do what she wanted.

It all looked so glamorous from the outside.

But she had many breakdowns and hospitalizations, starting when I was 12 and continuing for decades. As her only child, I had to make snap decisions about her care with no outside advice or guidance. It was exhausting and overwhelming.

I rarely told anyone. What would I have said?

She drank. She had multiple health crises. She had no male companions and few close friends interested in helping out.

We later had about a decade where we got along, seeing one another once a year or so while exchanging regular, loving letters and phone calls and birthday cards and Christmas gifts.

For the past six years, we have had no contact and likely never will again.

This makes me sad and angry.

When I see women enjoying their daughters, and vice versa, my heart hurts.

 

If you and your mother love one another, this is a great gift.

Cherish it.

 

If you have children — which I don’t, by choice — cherish their love for you and devotion to you. Savor it and protect it.

Millions of people hate Mother’s Day, for a good reason.

And reasons usually only our very closest friends ever really understand.

It’s socially taboo to not love your mother deeply, these days professing it loudly and repeatedly over social media.

This holiday?

We just want to get through it.

 

 

 

Who should we mourn?

In aging, behavior, family, life, love, news on April 6, 2016 at 12:23 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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In the past few months, three famous people have died, two of whose deaths widely elicited public scorn, derision and relief: Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former Toronto mayor (and admitted drug user while in office) Rob Ford.

The late Pritzker Award-winning architect Zaha Hadid was by all accounts a brilliant tough cookie — who one acquaintance of mine immediately dismissed as a woman who only created properties for the world’s wealthiest.

I wonder about the wisdom of this.

I asked a friend in her 30s what she thought, a fellow journalist, a thoughtful person.

“They’re celebrities. They don’t feel like real people to us.”

I wonder about this as well.

There are people — serial killers, perpetrators of terrorism and genocide — whose deaths, natural or murdered, we don’t grieve. Those boundaries seem clear enough to me.

There are people within our own families, people who perpetrated sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, whose deaths we might also greet with a sigh of relief.

Here’s a powerful essay, from Bust, by a 26-year-old woman whose abusive mother died, and how that felt for her.

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I attended a funeral about a decade ago, of a man whose widow and adult daughter share an apartment hallway with us. We have never socialized and likely never will; we’re very different sorts of people. We say hello in the hallway and parking lot.

But when their father and husband was dying a horrible death of cancer, we helped them connect with a hospice and, when he died, we went to his funeral.

I was stunned to see how empty it was. I doubt more than a dozen people were there, and this for a local man.

I wondered, then as now, why so few people cared enough to come and pay their respects; I’ve attended funerals that were practically standing room only, filled with people utterly distraught at their loss.

Why did this man’s death go so un-mourned? What had he said or done (or left unsaid or un-done?)

For public figures like Scalia, Ford and Hadid, we have access to reams of information about them and their work, their public behavior and accomplishments, sometimes their struggles.

Those who knew them best might not feel comfortable sharing more intimate details, so we’re left with broad outlines.

Many people loathed Scalia and Ford for their misogyny and for holding power over so many lives while espousing values they disagreed with.

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They were also human.

They left behind people who loved them deeply and respected them.

Do they, too, deserve to be mourned?

I say yes.

What do you think?

 

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