When workers aren’t free

By Caitlin Kelly

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

This recent column in The New York Times hit home for me:

After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.

Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.

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My greatest freedom — to take on amazing assignments, like working with WaterAid in Nicaragua in March 2014

Some things worth saying

By Caitlin Kelly

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Thank you!

I really appreciate what you did for me

I admire your strength

I love your sense of humor

I’m not sure how you do it — but good for you!

I don’t know how I’d get all this done without your help

You’re such a terrific friend

I love you

I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings

This is a tough assignment — so we’ll be sure you get the compensation you need for doing it

What can I do to help?

When can we get together?

Your teaching really pushed me — I learned a lot in your class

I enjoyed our time together

I’m so sorry for your loss

I made an error in judgment — I won’t let it happen again

How are you?

This must be a tough time for you

You did an amazing job on this project

What can I bring?

Sure, I can help — what time do you need me there?

You’re going through a rough time right now, but I’m here for you

Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow

Your resilience is an inspiration to me

I’m so glad we met

I’ll drive you to your appointment

I can take care of the kids this weekend

I’ll sit with you during chemo

What have you said recently to lift someone’s spirits?

What do you most need to hear right now?

Health care is a right, not a privilege

By Caitlin Kelly

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If you move to the United States from any nation with single-payer government-run healthcare, you might be gobsmacked by what you encounter here.

You’ll learn new words and phrases like:

“pre-existing condition”, “co-pay”, “annual deductible” and “usual and customary.”

If you get a full-time job with benefits, you will be mostly preoccupied with how much medical coverage it offers you and your family, at what cost, and with what amount of deductible — i.e. how much more money you have to shell out after already paying a monthly premium for what is supposed to be full coverage.

It’s a bizarre, byzantine way to handle healthcare, because it puts millions at risk, as anyone following the current, bitter political debates over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, (aka Obamacare), well knows.

If you work full-time for an employer who can afford to offer it, you’ll get health insurance through them, often heavily subsidized.

If not, welcome to free market capitalism!

My husband worked 31 years at The New York Times, as a photographer and photo editor. He retired from there, although we’re both still working. As a retired former staffer, he pays $400 a month for his health insurance. That, we can easily handle.

The company decided to save money by refusing this same subsidy to retirees’ spouses — so I pay $1,400 a month for the same plan. That’s $20,000 pre-tax I have to earn just to avoid medical bankruptcy — the single greatest cause of personal fiscal disaster in the U.S.

I’m a reporter, so as I debated choosing a much cheaper plan I queried the billing managers for two of our physicians. Both said: “Hell, no! If you like what you’ve got, keep it.”

They know better than anyone what a crazy and costly mess you can face if your cheap-o plan doesn’t cover something like — oh, you know –— the anesthesia for your four-hour surgery.

That surprise bill could be high enough to knock you out cold once more.

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My first steps with my new left hip, February 2012.

As an aging jock with orthopedic issues that have required multiple surgeries and a lot of physical therapy — the co-pays alone costing up to $60 a week — not having excellent coverage is a gamble I’m not willing to make.

 

As more and more Americans are forced into the “gig ecomomy”, i.e. self-employment or precarious, poorly-paid contract work, we’re forced into free-market pricing for our most precious possession — our health.

 

Yet I find it almost incomprehensible to read this, in the liberal New York Times:

When Representative Mo Brooks said it was unfair that healthy “people who lead good lives” should have to subsidize the insurance of unhealthier ones who presumably don’t, he bluntly raised an often unspoken question that runs through policy debates in Washington: Who deserves government aid and who does not?

Such proposals can be — and often are — couched in the language of economics, with advocates and critics calculating the efficacy of incentives, returns on investment and long-run savings. As Ben Carson, the Trump administration’s housing secretary, commented last week while touring publicly subsidized housing in Columbus, Ohio, “We are talking about incentivizing those who help themselves.”

But the judgment of who is deserving — as opposed to what is most effective — is at heart a moral one.

In pushing for repeal of the Affordable Care Act last week, Mr. Brooks, an Alabama Republican, suggested that people with pre-existing conditions deserved to pay higher premiums, because they had not “done things the right way.” That could include a cigarette smoker’s lung cancer — or a newborn’s congenital heart disease.

Couching this as “government aid” completely distorts the larger issue — are you really happy living in a country where you’re just fine — but millions of others aren’t?

This kind of self-righteous garbage, the “deserving”, makes me so angry.

Yes, those who live in a single-payer system do pay the costs of treating other people’s cancer (some are smokers!) and diabetes (some are obese!) and people who injure themselves while high or drunk or are torn to pieces by a dangerous, distracted driver.

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No one admires or wants to support stupid, careless behavioral choices.

But I’d rather know that everyone can get good care quickly than smugly snuggle into my personal bubble,  knowing for certain that others live in terror of losing their insurance or access to the drugs and care they need.

I grew up in Canada, to the age of 30, never once seeing or paying a medical bill. Nor have my parents, who still live there, in two different provinces, despite multiple surgeries and, for one, months of big-city hospital care.

I’m no fan of endless taxation. But a vast percentage of the U.S. federal budget goes to defense, waging endless wars against often undefeatable enemies.

And the outrageous rates I pay are giving health insurance executives’ massive salaries. I find that disgusting.

I believe healthcare is a right, not a rare privilege only granted to those who someone decides is “deserving.”

The tyrant in your pocket

By Caitlin Kelly

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Not my words, but powerful ones, from The New York Times‘ writer Ross Douthat, on our addiction to smartphones, tablets and digital interaction:

Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.

Which is why we need a social and political movement — digital temperance, if you will — to take back some control.

I know, I know…how else could you be reading this, except on a device?

So, of course, I want you here and I want your attention (hey, over here!) and I want you to keep coming back for more.

But I agree with him that life spent only attached to a screen is a miserable existence:

It’s dangerous

American car accident rates are much higher now than a few years ago, due to drivers texting while behind the wheel.

It’s distracting

People walk into the street, into objects and into other human beings because they refuse to pay attention to where they are in the real world, aka meatspace.

It’s alienating

For all the connection it brings, staying tech-tethered also distances us from the people and experiences all around us.

It’s rude

The worst!

It may be a sign of my generation, or my friends, but when I’m with someone in a social setting, like dinner or coffee or just a chat, we aren’t looking at our phones.

On a recent week’s vacation, breaking my normal routines, I stayed off my phone and computer — and took photos, read books and magazines (on paper), ate, slept, shopped, walked, exercised, talked to friends.

Do I care if everyone else “likes” my life?

Not really.

If I like it, I’m fine.

Do you take technology sabbaths and turn off or put away all your digital devices?

A year of 5:2, intermittent fasting

By Caitlin Kelly

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Occasionally!

A year ago I decided to give it a try — while the truly hard core consume only 500 calories two days of every week, hence the name 5:2.

Here’s my initial blog post about it.

Two days every week, I restrict my intake to 750 calories, sometimes a bit more (800 to 850), and have been doing this consistently for a year.

I can’t tell you how much weight I’ve lost because I won’t get on a scale — it would destroy all motivation if I didn’t like result!

I don’t care if I end up thin; ideally I want to eventually lose at least 30 to 40 pounds.

But friends now immediately notice the difference in my appearance, and my husband, who obviously sees me most often, and most exposed, sees it as well.

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My upper body is smaller and firmer.

My face is thinner.

I’ve dropped a band and cup size for my bras.

I now see muscle definition in my calves and arms that wasn’t there, or hadn’t been as visible.

I’m also lifting weight, (30 reps for each exercise, mostly upper body), and take a 45-minute spinning class (i.e. seated bike) twice a week, emerging each time sweat-drenched. That helps suppress my appetite and burn some calories.

I only allow myself alcohol Friday through Sunday.

Fasting isn’t fun, of course! But it’s totally do-able and, after the first few weeks, you’re not ravenous on fast days, just hungry. Big difference.

If you really want to lose weight, and are prepared to make a permanent change to your health habits, this regimen might be worth trying.

I fast on Tuesdays and Thursdays, (although I shift that as needed, when traveling, for example), and friends know it, so we can still meet for a coffee, but not for a meal.

I work alone at home, (with no kids to feed as well), so it’s easy to stock our pantry and fridge with low-calorie foods and drinks, like home-made iced tea, coffee, tea, selzers, things I actually enjoy, so there’s no chance of falling off the wagon: water-packed tuna, low-calorie Wasa crackers, Babybel cheeses (80 calories each), low-fat cottage cheese, fruit, vegetables, low-calorie salad dressings, peanut butter, soup, plain yogurt.

Measuring portions, with a set of tea/tablespoons and measuring cups (and/or a kitchen scale) is essential as is, obviously, knowing calorie counts.

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Fast days, de facto, allow very little room for carbs or sweets; a 15-calorie Lifesaver or a few  dried apricots or half a banana or a cup of blueberries or strawberries.

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My body feels better– no more acid reflux!

I’m hoping to drop at least two dress sizes by the time I’m closer to my goal. But I’m also allowing several years to do it, not insisting on instant results.

I quickly lost a fair bit of weight a few years ago on a very, very strict diet — so much, so fast that neighbors asked my husband if I was OK. I looked amazing, but was miserable and couldn’t sustain it.

Of course, I soon regained the weight.

This has to be my new life.

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

Pushpushushpush = success! Maybe not…

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s a deeply American belief that if you never ever ever give up you’ll eventually get what you want.

It’s charming in its meritocratic faith — but it’s also often bullshit.

Some doors, for all sorts of reasons, stay shut, locked and barred to us, whether social or professional.

Maybe not forever, though.

Patience, it turns out, really can be a virtue. (Oh yeah, and tenacity, in it for the long haul.)

I recently broke through to a market I’ve been wanting to write for for, literally, a decade or more. I wanted it soooooo badly, and wrote to the editor in chief several times, even as every new one arrived.

I had all the right experience and credentials.

Crickets.

Then (yay!) someone who works on staff there followed me on Twitter and I asked, nicely, for an introduction to someone higher up the ladder. She did it. Now I have an assignment I’d finally given up ever attaining.

Sometimes it’s best to just lay down your tools and walk away.

We’re taught from childhood that winners never quit and quitters never win.

But sometimes it’s wisest to retreat and re-think strategy, to ask ourselves why we even want this thing we think we need so desperately.

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Patience — such a Victorian ideal in this era of instant everything —  can produce results.

I won a New York Times national exclusive, a story about Google, (and I don’t cover tech nor live anywhere near Silicon Valley), by waiting six months after learning about it. During those months, my contact and I exchanged more than 100 emails, as the negotiations were so delicate and protracted.

Here’s the story.

Sometimes you just have to wait:

— For the right person to get the hiring/budgetary authority to appreciate you and your skills. That might take months, even years.

— To develop the emotional intelligence to handle a situation you’re sure is yours right now. Maybe you’re really not quite ready for it.

— To nurture social capital, and its referrals to the players who can help you achieve your goals. Trust takes time!

— To polish the social skills required to network well with senior people in your field or industry. Not everyone will respond to your texts or emails just because you’re in an unholy rush. Buy and use high-quality personal stationery. (It works, I know.)

— To acquire the requisite technical skills to add real value to whomever you’re approaching. Just because you want it rightnow! doesn’t mean you’re offering what they need. Your urgency is not theirs.

— To realize, by thinking about it calmly for a while, that a golden opportunity is…not so much.

— To accumulate the savings you need to be able to ditch a crappy marriage or live-in relationship, a nasty job, abusive internship or freelance gig. Once you have a financial cushion, (or, as we call it in journalism, a fuck you fund), your choices become true options. You don’t have to rush into a decision, or stay miserably stuck in a bad situation.

— If you’re mired in endless conflict and confrontation with someone, withdrawing for a while, (maybe even years, if social/family),  might be the best option while you decide what’s best for you, not just for them. It takes time to reflect deeply and to process difficult or painful emotions.

What success(es) have you gained by waiting and being patient —  even when you didn’t want to?

 

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

Do we need role models?

By Caitlin Kelly

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A favorite TV series, about an older Swedish detective

Once you become an adult, certainly if you’re female and choose an unconventional life — maybe not marrying or not having children or working in a creative field — you might crave a role model.

Someone who took the path less traveled by, and thrived.

As American poet Robert Frost wrote, in 1916:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Mainstream, mass market American women’s magazines are too generic, hence unhelpful.

Impossible to relate to corporate warriors like Sheryl Sandberg or Arianna Huffington in their $4,000 sheath dresses and multi-million-dollar lives.

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I hope to keep traveling!

In North America, older women are typically offered a depressingly bifurcated path — turn dumpy and invisible or spend every penny on Botox, fillers and plastic surgery. Look younger, or else!

Neither appeals to me, so I’m forever in search of inspiration, i.e. role models.

In June — where I’ll be celebrating in Paris — I’ll hit a milestone  birthday.

Since my mother and I don’t speak and my stepmother died nine years ago, I don’t have many older women to talk to intimately about what lies ahead.

So it was a great pleasure recently to run into a friend from my dance classes — I was out walking in our small town in the sunshine — and catch up with her, a woman about to hit her next milestone birthday, a decade beyond mine.

She really is an inspiration to me, about to fly to Japan, again, where she’ll be teaching writing and staying with her partner, who has a home there. Last time we met up, she was off to Barcelona to visit one of her daughters.

She always looks terrific, trim and fit, wearing flattering colors and — most importantly — has a real infectious joy and spirit of adventure.

I lost both my grandmothers the year I turned 18, so it’s been a long, long time without a much older woman in my life to talk to.

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Members of  my team, Softball Lite taking a CPR class, March 4, 2017 in Hastings, NY.

But our apartment building is pretty much an old age home, the sort of place people move into at 65 or 75 or 85 after they’ve sold the family house.

So I watch people decades older than I navigate their lives, whether romantic, professional or personal. We don’t hang out, but we do socialize and chat in the hallways or lobby or driveway, our shared spaces.

One woman — in her late 80s, maybe older — on our floor, has a fab new Barbour tweed jacket and looks amazing, even with her walker. I told her so, and as I walked away, heard her say, happily: “That made my day!”

Older people get ignored.  They aren’t listened to. Their needs and desires get dismissed.

That’s not what I want! That’s not what anyone wants.

My father, at 88, is still blessed with enough income and health to be traveling internationally and deciding where to live, still on his own. In his own way, he’s a role model — my husband, a late-life surprise baby, lost both his parents when he was still in his 20s.

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Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds; Cruit Island, Donegal, Ireland

I know the elements of a happy later life, especially after retirement, will be many of the same things as today:

good health, enough money to enjoy some pleasures, intimate friendships, a strong sense of community, a well-tended marriage.

I’m also deliberately trying new-to-me things and learning new skills, like CPR and how to play golf. I debated trying to learn German, but I admit it — I wimped out!

Like both of my parents, I enjoy knowing several much younger friends — people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, each of us at a different stage of life, perhaps, but often struggling with similar, life-long issues, whether intimacy, work or how to handle money well.

We don’t have children or grand-children, (putting us very much out of step with our peers.) So we enjoy others’ when we can.

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I like having chosen the road less traveled, with its many twists and turns.

But a compass and a guide are helpful.

Do you have role models to help you figure out your life?

Who, and how?

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her practical tips, offered through one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, have helped many other writers and bloggers worldwide, quickly increasing their sales, reader engagement and followers; details here.

Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

The joys of a small(er) life

By Caitlin Kelly

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I found this essay intriguing, originally published on the blog, A Life in Progress (and which garnered a stunning 499 comments):

The world is such a noisy place. Loud, haranguing voices lecturing me to hustle, to improve, build, strive, yearn, acquire, compete, and grasp for more. For bigger and better. Sacrifice sleep for productivity. Strive for excellence. Go big or go home. Have a huge impact in the world. Make your life count.

But what if I just don’t have it in me. What if all the striving for excellence leaves me sad, worn out, depleted? Drained of joy. Am I simply not enough?

What if I never really amount to anything when I grow up—beyond mom and sister and wife? But these people in my primary circle of impact know they are loved and I would choose them again, given the choice. Can this be enough?

What if I never build an orphanage in Africa but send bags of groceries to people here and there and support a couple of kids through sponsorship? What if I just offer the small gifts I have to the world and let that be enough?

It was a friend of mine, someone I met in freshman English class at University of Toronto decades ago, who posted it on her Facebook page.

She is often wearied by the insane pace others have set for themselves and keep setting.

It can feel like a race.

This always felt like our theme song, from Michelle Shocked:

Leroy got a better job so we moved
Kevin lost a tooth now he’s started school
I got a brand new eight month old baby girl
I sound like a housewife
Hey Shell, I think I’m a housewife

Hey Girl, what’s it like to be in New York?
New York City – imagine that!
Tell me, what’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker?

I wasn’t exactly a skateboard punk rocker, but I did leave Canada — dear friends, family, thriving career — for New York.

When two paths diverge sharply, one to crazy, restless ambition (mine), one to settled domesticity (hers), raising three daughters, and a steady job in a smaller city, it often breaks a friendship.

One life looks too sharp-elbowed, the other ordinary and mundane (M’s word choice — I showed her this post beforehand.)

Social media can make these comparisons somewhat excruciating, with all the dark/messy bits of either choice edited out.

Life is more complicated than that.

I chose to leave Canada for New York when I was 30.

When people ask why, I answer with one truthful word: ambition.

It hasn’t all turned out as I hoped. The man I moved to be with, my first husband, proved unfaithful and soon walked out on our marriage.

Three recessions severely slowed my career progress.

Jobs came and went.

Friendships I hope would last for decades imploded.

Shit happens!

But I’ll never forget the heart-bursting joy when I exited the Sixth Avenue headquarters of Simon & Shuster clutching the galleys of my first book.

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions

Or how cool it was to compete for four years in nationals in saber fencing.

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I now have a happy second marriage and a home in a town I love.

I have an agent, and work, and ideas and friends.

No kids. No grand-kids. No family homestead.

Do I regret my ambition, and its costs? No.

Choosing a quieter life limned by one’s own family, town or community is a choice.

Choosing a life of ambition-fueled drive, another.

Each brings its own satisfactions and joys.

Which sort of life have you chosen?

Are you happy with your choice?

It really requires stamina

By Caitlin Kelly

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Everything, really.

Life.

Love.

Work.

Getting and staying in good physical condition.

Retaining resilience in the face of loss, grief, illness.

So much of life comes at us reallyreallyfast, especially in the age of the Internet.

And then we think, I can get whatever I need or want reallyreallyfast as well.

But it just doesn’t work out that way unless you are very lucky.

And so, when things move much more slowly than we want, or need, what’s our choice?

Staying the course.

Stamina.

Someone two decades younger than I has sustained too many losses of late — the death of a parent, the other lost in the mists of dementia, job loss, the end of a long romantic relationship/home and an injury that’s impeded her from her beloved sport.

I want to envelop her in layers of bubble wrap for a while so nothing else can bruise her lovely spirit for a long time to come. It’s hard to keep going, in any direction, when you feel the wind has been knocked out of you.

But I know her, and I know she has stamina. She will, somehow, power through this.

We all must.

Only with hindsight — and surviving some of life’s insanity and unfairness and sadness — can you more deeply appreciate the power of stamina, of staying in the game, (even if you need to withdraw from it for a while.)

To those of you struggling these days, (and who isn’t on some level, daily?), wishing you comfort, strength and the devotion of family and friends to help you through.

Onward!

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Routine vs. novelty

By Caitlin Kelly

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My former employer, The Globe and Mail, an espresso and a yogurt — a typical breakfast!

I love trying new things, and am often easily bored by routine.

It’s why I generally do better being self-employed, as any truly tedious gig is easily-enough ditched, soon to be replaced with something more interesting and challenging.

But, like everyone, I also find real comfort in the familiar, the tried and true, the reliable and known.

It’s one reason, I confess, I return on vacation to places I already know — my hometown, Toronto; Montreal, Mexico, Paris and London (all of which I’ve lived in), D.C. (to visit friends) and New Mexico (where Jose was born and raised.)

My recent week in Toronto offered both; I deliberately chose to stay in a downtown rented flat, the location and the apartment a novel choice for me. Loved it!

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I tried a few new-to-me restaurants and cafes, and also enjoyed a cafe I’ve been eating at since I left the city for good in 1986, The Queen Mother Cafe. I love its booths, its oddly Asian menu and ohhhh, the cakes!

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One afternoon I headed out, looking forward to trying a new-to-me restaurant — only to find it empty and closed. So much for novelty! That’s the challenge of a city with rapidly-accelerating property values and rents. Your beloved whatever may well be gone the next time you visit a favorite city or town.

In daily life, it’s a challenge to keep mixing it up, balancing a thirst for the new with the stability of reliably knowing that some things won’t change, at least for a while.

Between birth and age 30 I changed cities four times, countries four times. I’d attended five schools. I’d lived in 13 different homes, from apartments in Cuernavaca and Montreal to a student dorm in Paris to a stone cottage in Scotland; (this doesn’t include five years in a Toronto boarding school and nine summers spent at four Ontario summer camps.)

I’ve now stayed in the same one bedroom apartment since moving to the U.S. in 1989.

The thought of packing/sorting/moving/adapting again? Brrrrrr!

I was burned out from moving too often too quickly; between 1982 and 1989 I’d moved Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-NH-NY. I was fried. I wanted roots. I wanted to find and nurture new professional and personal relationships, which I have.

I’m still using the same doctors, hair salon, library since I arrived and am 17 years into my (happier!) second marriage.

But these days, finally,  I’m feeling a bit restless and so I’m actively seeking out some novel experiences.

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A favorite Toronto store. I always visit and always find something fun to buy

This week, (however small it may seem), I’m reading a collection, a best-of 2015’s science fiction and fantasy. Loving it! As someone whose normal media diet is news and non-fiction, reading in this genre is a stretch for me but one that’s really proven pleasurable.

I’m now absorbing less news, unusual for me.

I may (gulp) sign up for a decorative arts course in London this summer, as I’ll be there anyway. It’s not cheap, but it’s focused on two of my passions, combined — antique textiles and Asian art.

I dread intellectual sclerosis!

Here’s a 27 year old woman who set two Guinness World Records for seeing every country in the world, as the fastest female to do so…talk about new adventures! She began in Palau and ended in Yemen. (The video I link to here is 22 minutes long.)

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Riding the Red Rocket, Toronto’s streetcars…this one, the King St. car,  blessedly empty at noon.

Which of the two, novelty or routine, do you prefer?

Why?