Welcome to the writer’s life!

By Caitlin Kelly

As readers here know, this is an ongoing series, usually every six weeks or so, updating you on the joys and sorrows of life as a full-time freelancer.

It has not been dull, kids!

The good news:

I’ve gratefully had lots of work, challenging and interesting and well-paid — the trifecta!

I was asked to ghost-write for someone I knew in freshman classes at University of Toronto, someone whose own creative life kept intersecting with mine over the ensuing years — as she also moved to Montreal then to New York City. I had never ghost-written for anyone before but it was deemed excellent and didn’t even require a second draft.

Still blogging occasionally about pancreatic cancer research for the Lustgarten Foundation. I still have never met my editor, even though we don’t live that far apart — thanks to the pandemic.

Worked more on a story for The New York Times, which I’ll blog about here when it appears, probably next week. I started work on it back in December so it’s been a while.

We leased a Mazda CX0-30 last fall, our first time in that brand, and love it. While at the dealership, I picked up the glossy Mazda magazine and emailed its editor, based in England, to say, truthfully, how much we’re enjoying the car — and can I write for them? She and I did a get-to-know-you Zoom a while back. Several pitches now under consideration, and we might work together again as a team, Jose and I, since he is a professional photographer. That would be cool!

My income from some of these has been good enough I can actually just rest for a bit. We get our Johnson and Johnson one-shot COVID vaccination this Sunday and plan to take Monday and Tuesday off if we need it afterward.

I’ve been busy with coaching clients. I spoke to a PR firm in Ohio this week and next week working with a writer pal on three of his pitches.

The frustrating:

My bloody book proposal is still not finding any success — YET!

It’s been read by five agents and one editor.

I sent it this week to a Very Big Name in our industry, someone I’ve met twice a while back, who’s published 17 (!) books on writing. He was very generous and wrote back quickly and very encouragingly.

So I’m on a steep and tiring learning curve — still trying for an agent and a trade house; starting to research potential university presses and self-publishing. It’s a lot at once to manage and it’s really hard not to just give up.

But when people who know the subject say: “This is important and timely and I can’t wait to read it” I am going to take this as sincere.

My last book was published in 2011. The publishing industry has since massively shrunk and consolidated, meaning there are fewer and fewer smaller publishers. To sell a book to one of the Big Boys now means you have to have a subject they think will sell a lot of copies.

None will look at anything without an agent….and I’ve been through five already.

But — goddamnit! — I also see what books are being commissioned and I want to throw a chair. Some are so banal I simply cannot imagine that thousands and thousands of readers are going to rush to buy them.

I try to be a good soldier and cheer on all those others but it’s hard sometimes not to succumb to bitterness and envy. My first two books quickly found good agents and they worked hard to sell them to major publishers. Many agents now are not even accepting new clients and even those I am personally referred to or know personally can’t even reply to emails. It can feel very very depressing to keep banging on every door of every gatekeeper.

This business requires tremendous determination.

The writer’s life, lately

Charlotte Bronte’s words, from an exhibit at the Morgan Museum in New York

By Caitlin Kelly

This is my ongoing series, a peek behind the curtain of a full-time writer.

I thought I had an agent!

I was wrong!

That agent (the fourth to see it) took three weeks to even read it — the previous one called my proposal “too narrow” — said he was interested, but when I pushed back on some of his ideas backed out and said we “don’t share a vision.”

Oh, and he read my 26,000-word proposal so carelessly he failed to notice I’ve already published two books.

For God’s sake — three weeks’ wait for this level of incompetence?!

So the search continues.

The good news is that I know a lot of fellow authors and some kind enough to offer editorial and agent contacts.

But it’s an ongoing slog, to be honest.

Rejection is really disspiriting and really tiring.

Rejection means trying over and over and over to make yet another new contact — and wait and hope — who might be excited about my work. I’ve also asked a few friends for their advice on how better to position and market this idea. One kindly offered to read over the proposal as well.

I found a potential agent who sold a book fairly similar to mine; the agency only accepts referrals. (We know one of their authors so I have asked them for a referral. I feel shameless at this point, but needs must.)

I also coach fellow writers and had three clients this week, repeat clients, which means a lot. My coaching isn’t cheap — $250/hour — so I know I need to bring value! I’ve booked two more clients for early March, both of whom found me through Twitter.

But wait….how can I possibly justify coaching others when I’m such a failure (so far!) selling my book?

Apples and oranges! My experience helps writers at all levels, sometimes polishing a personal essay or helping them think of new markets or sharpening a story pitch. So this very frustrating book slog doesn’t dent my confidence and nor should it.

This is the only way to survive writing for a living — retaining optimism and confidence and that of others.

I have yet another New York Times story in the can, (more than 100!), edited and with photos taken, so I’m just waiting for it to be published. In the meantime, I pitched four different Times editors — the Kids’ section, the Well editor, the Letter of Recommendation (NYT Magazine) and Styles. Three were rejected and still awaiting the fourth reply.

I’m still blogging for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds pancreatic cancer research, so I get to interview scientists. It’s a bit intimidating but also really challenging and interesting.

My friend Abby Lee Hood, in Nashville, convened a Google hangout and 22 fellow freelance writers and some radio people showed up from London and Amsterdam and Seattle and L.A. It was great! We are all so lonely and so isolated. There were perhaps three or four of us older than the rest — most were in their 20s and 30s, some even younger. But we have lots in common. I so enjoyed it.

I’m trying to read for pleasure and have started or am in the middle of four books. The one I’m most enjoying is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which manages to make even obscure science compelling. I will also ad that her chapter describing mania, from the inside, is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read; my mother was manic depressive and I witnessed several episodes. They were completely terrifying.

And this payment arrived!

Yay!

The United States has no such system, but Canada and other nations pay authors a sort of royalty for library use of our books. The way most commercial publishing works means many authors — like me — will never ever see a royalty for our work. We got paid an advance of four or five figures (some get six!) and have to “earn out” with sales, but with each sale netting us a few dollars, never the cover price. It really is just a fancy and costly way to buy mass distribution.

So it’s deeply satisfying to know Canadian readers are still finding value in my work since Blown Away came out in 2004 and Malled in 2011. I did deliberately choose subjects that fascinated me but I also knew would hold longer appeal than a few years’ trendiness.

The amount I get annually is very little in relative terms — about $500. Some authors earn thousands from it.

And it’s worth 20% less because of the Canadian dollar.

But none of that matters to me.

Most of us write, not for fame or fortune but for

Audience

Making a lovely home: 7 elements

I was so lucky to inherit this 16th c Italian textile from my mother

By Caitlin Kelly

Midwinter, mid-pandemic — cabin fever!

Help is on the way!

As some of you know, I spent some time in the 90s studying interior design at the New York School of Interior Design.

I learned a lot, and loved almost every minute of it. The school has taught and trained some legendary designers, so I really enjoyed and appreciated how rigorous it was. I even got an A in color class, which remains one of my life’s triumphs — we learned how to mix colors from scratch.

I decided not to go into the industry for my living, preferring to just love it, but my professional-level training has also informed how nice our one bedroom apartment looks since I better understand design principles.

Here’s a helpful post from the UK magazine Homes & Gardens:

The seven:

Space

This is one of the most challenging — too many rooms are just overstuffed while the enormous houses some people prefer (and can afford!) can mean trying to figure out how to create areas of use that make sense and relate to one another. Our living room is 24 long and 12 feet wide, a great space, even with only an eight-foot ceiling (built mid 1960s.) I would kill for the much much taller ceilings and elegant windows I see in most French and British design magazines.

So we divided the room into two-thirds, divided by a low bookshelf that holds two matching table lamps that illuminate the sofa and the dining area at one end. I’ve lived in this space for decades, so re-arranging it is both a mental break and a necessity as our tastes change.

We have a small dining room that, now, is once more being used as a sitting room — we kept our old sofa and now love our view from it straight north up the Hudson River. We settle in with our newspapers and, as snooze time overtakes, nap!

Line

The vertical lines of the room come from features like windows and doors or maybe a tall fireplace. They’re prized for giving a feeling of freedom and can make a room seem taller. Choosing a tall piece of furniture, for example, can lead the eye upwards and visually heighten the room. In any scheme a balance between horizontal and vertical lines is essential.

Form

This is the shape of your room and the objects in it. Too many rooms are full of endless squares and rectangles!

Consider some circles or ovals as well.

Our antique dining table is oval. We have two square olive velvet stools. Our dining chairs have oval shaped backs. Look around your room with an eye to what shapes it contains — too much repetition?

Here’s our living room’s gallery wall — as you’ll see, it has a variety of shapes, sizes and colors although the dominant colors are red, black and white.

top row, left to right: My photo of a staircase, Paris; a 1950s British photographer; Jose’s image from Mexico

middle row, left to right: a poster from a show I saw in Paris; David Hume Kennerley’s portrait of former First Lady Betty Ford; a winter portrait of the Grand Canyon by a friend

bottom row, left to right: me and a pal after a magazine photo shoot about kids cooking; Bernie Boston’s famous image; a Hokusai poster.

A mix of the famous and the personal.

Light

Crucial!

If your room has lots of natural light, you’re lucky! We use mirrors to help amplify it and bounce it around a few rooms.

Lighting is not easy to do well. Every room should have multiple light sources, ideally all on dimmers, not just harsh overhead lighting which can be both unflattering and inefficient.

Over the years, I’ve changed our bedside tables a few times…the latest ones (a few years old now) are chased silver, hollow, and I have no idea where they come from (other than the Connecticut antiques store where I found them.) There are so many styles it’s overwhelming! The shades are simple pleated ivory. And, yes, I like finials!

I found our living room pair on sale in a chi-chi Greenwich, CT. store.

Sometimes the best things can be found in thrift and consignment shops or (my favorite!) at auction.

Color

So much to say!

Regulars here know my love for the British paint company Farrow & Ball knows no bounds — I even got to visit their Dorset factory in 2017. Amazing!

I like colors that are fairly quiet but not boring so I can add the patterns with things I can easily change.

The trend now is for very deep saturated colors, which are really beautiful but not for me in a one bedroom apartment. One lesson I learned the hard way is that when you live in an open-plan home (we have 3 doors: the front door, the bathroom door and the bedroom door) you can’t have different colors everywhere!

Well, you can, but it’s gross.

The eye is going to travel from one space to the next and needs to not be constantly confused.

So, after several iterations (faux finish brown; Chinese red; pale yellow-green) our living room is now a pale soft gray (F & B’s Skimming Stone.) So is the bedroom (initially faux finish cobalt blue, then aqua, then Granny apple green.) The bathroom remains a deep mustard, a nice contrast to the gray glass tile of the shower. The kitchen cabinetry is a soft green, also F & B. (One reason I’m a fan is that you can re-order a discontinued color.)

Of course, color shows up in many ways: fabrics, rugs, artwork, wall, ceiling and floor, lamps and shades…

Here’s the antique armoire (possibly 18th century, bought at auction online, delivered from NH) whose teal color is now repeated in our living room. The two baskets up top were plain and I painted them in two colors. The small painting is my late mother, painted by my father.

Texture

This is also tricky.

Our new sofa is a pale silver velvet, but has a sheen that reflects light. The throw pillows on it are print linen and a different kind of velvet, in burnt orange, a color in the linen print.

Adding texture can come from rugs, throw pillows, a throw, different sorts of fabrics.

Also from decorative items: glass, brass, ceramics, wood.

Our new dining area rug is a deeply textured sisal.

I’m still deciding — months after pulling down our living room curtains — what to do with the window! Probably a Roman blind, but it’s a huge commitment of funds so I’m not rushing into it.

Pattern

Design school taught me that you can, and should, have at least three different patterns within a room, (fabrics, rugs.)

But…which ones?!

This is where scale matters. Do you want a large-scale design (not as easy to find with many American sources as British) or small? A print or woven? A damask or something more modern?

Again, British designers seem much bolder in their use of pattern on chairs and sofas and curtains. The expense of acquiring anything new is always a bit sobering…but a room with no pattern is sad indeed!

The new/modern sisal rug at one end of our living room deliberately echoes this antique kilim I bought this fall in an online auction — the diamond patterns are similar even though the period, colors and materials are different.

I wanted this rug because — a rare find! — it was in perfect condition, the perfect size, well-priced and offered the colors I wanted, but in fairly quiet tones. The teal is the exact color of the antique armoire it lies in front of. The white relates to the silver sofa it also lies in front of. Everything needs to relate!

Living in the past. Long past!

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this Guardian story about people who choose to live in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s — estehtically, anyway.

And I recently did a lot of global reporting — speaking to people in Seattle, DC, Ontario, Genoa, L.A., Stockholm, London, Finland and Philadelphia — about a hobby they all share, historical costuming. (The man in Philly does it for a living!)

It means making and wearing clothing of much earlier eras and centuries, finding patterns and appropriate fabric, and wearing the correct undergarments to create the correct silhouette. (No sports bras allowed!)

It’s an amazing obsession, and demands a lot of patience and skill and meticulous attention to detail. It’s mostly enjoyed women, and mostly white women — something they’re well aware of! I did include an Iranian-American.

One of the women I spoke to is a mechanic in Finland. One is an Army wife in Ontario. One is a jewelry appraiser in Stockholm.

All were a joy to speak with! I could have spent hours geeking out with Jenny Tiramani, a legendary costume designer who worked for years at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre — and who founded and runs London’s School of Historical Dress.

Here’s the piece, my first sale to the Styles section of The New York Times, for whom I write fairly often:

Here’s the start:

It’s a world of corsets, stays and chemises. Of weskits, bum rolls, breeches and hoop panniers. For actors, wearing period costume has long meant literally stepping into the past: lacing soft modern flesh into antique shapes and learning how to use the toilet without peeling off multiple layers.

“Bridgerton,” Shonda Rhimes’s racially diverse Netflix series set in 1813 England, has suddenly ignited new interest in Regency fashions. But a global community of hobbyists has been designing, making and wearing clothing from the 19th century and earlier for many years. Long a private obsession fueled by films like “The Leopard” and “Pride and Prejudice,” social media has widened the conversation, with fans of all ages and backgrounds worldwide now trading notes on how best to trim a sleeve or adjust a straw bonnet.

Pre-pandemic, they gathered in Los Angeles at Costume College, an annual conference, at Venice’s Carnival and the Fêtes Galantes at Versailles. Some lucky Europeans, like Filippa Trozelli, find themselves invited to wear their historical clothing to private parties at ancient local estates.

As someone who loves vintage/historical textiles — and who wore an Edwardian day dress for her first wedding — I totally get the appeal of this obsession. I love the notion of time travel, of swishing through a garden in yards of silk or meeting up in Venice with equally obsessed pals from around the world.

I had long wanted to write about this subculture, as I follow several of the women on Instagram, but never had a “peg” or “hook” — i.e. what relevance would it have now? Thanks to Bridgerton, it does!

The joy of seeing art again

By Caitlin Kelly

I hadn’t been to a museum since early March 2020, after attending a conference, where I saw a show of Degas at the National Gallery, which I loved.

I really miss seeing art face to face!

So when a very good friend got us tickets to to see a show at the Whitney (closing this weekend), and an outdoors lunch afterward (30 degrees be damned!) I eagerly said yes.

I had planned to double-mask but my one mask was so hot and so uncomfortable I couldn’t.

The show is fantastic. I’ve been to Mexico several times and so I knew the work of the big three muralists — Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco. I’d seen some of their work in situ. The scale is astonishing, truly monumental. You really need to step back a good. few feet to really grasp it all.

This show offered insights into how the Mexican muralists inspired American artists between 1925 and 1945, years of economic upheaval.

There’s the Bonus Army.
There are riots and police brutally putting them down with guns and batons.

There’s a powerful shared spirit of rebellion.

The show includes this huge, wall-length black and white photo of an L.A. mural — commissioned to show happy Mexicans — that instead is a powerful, damning repudiation.

Note the rapacious eagle — the symbol of American might and power — hovering above a crucified Mexican.

Of course, the mural, like so many, was quickly destroyed or painted over.

Their rage and honesty are searing and challenged, then as now, corporate and political power.

Today’s many #BlackLivesMatter murals — honoring the many Blacks shot dead by police — seem to be the contemporary equivalent.

These muralists did not mess around!

Rivera was hired to paint a mural at the then-new Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, a hugely prestigious commission — but failed to curb his politics as expected.

From Wikipedia:

The Rockefeller family approved of the mural’s idea: showing the contrast of capitalism as opposed to communism. However, after the New York World-Telegram complained about the piece, calling it “anti-capitalist propaganda”, an image of Vladimir Lenin and a Soviet Russian May Day parade were secretly added in protest. When these were discovered, Nelson Rockefeller – at the time a director of the Rockefeller Center – wanted Rivera to remove the portrait of Lenin,[2] but Rivera was unwilling to do so. In May 1933, Rockefeller ordered the mural to be plastered-over and thereby destroyed before it was finished, resulting in protests and boycotts from other artists.[3] Man at the Crossroads was peeled off in 1934 and replaced by a mural from Josep Maria Sert three years later. Only black-and-white photographs exist of the original incomplete mural, taken when Rivera suspected it might be destroyed. Using the photographs, Rivera repainted the composition in Mexico under the variant title Man, Controller of the Universe.

The controversy over the mural was significant because Rivera’s communist ideals contrasted with the theme of Rockefeller Center, even though the Rockefeller family themselves admired Rivera’s work.

The Whitney show is large, with works by others, like Ben Shahn and Philip Guston. There are works by Canadians and Japanese, also influenced by the muralists and their commitment to social justice.

From the Whitney:

With nearly 200 works by over sixty Mexican and American artists, this exhibition reorients art history by revealing the profound impact the Mexican muralists had on their counterparts in the United States during this period and the ways in which their example inspired American artists both to create epic narratives about American history and everyday life and to use their art to protest economic, social, and racial injustices.

My holiday gift list 2020: Enjoy!

By Caitlin Kelly

This is my favorite post every year!

I seek out a wide range of lovely gifts, from this year’s lowest price — $15.00 for a quirky deck of playing cards– to the highest, $1,150 for a stunning hand-made ring.

I don’t choose tech, music, books or things for teens/children/seniors.

I’ve carefully chosen almost all of this year’s recommendations from independent makers and retailers, with a very few from larger companies. The list includes two Black makers, one of them British.

I also offer the backstory for each item when I’ve found one. I love knowing more about whose skills and hard work I’m supporting and sharing.

There’s no income for me in this — just the pleasure of curating.

In a year where so many of us can’t safely or legally travel, I’ve also deliberately made this list pretty global and with some specific nods to travel and maps.

Gifts could arrive from places as far-flung as Los Angeles, Stockholm, Philadelphia, Cheltenham, England, Toronto, Ottawa, Sydney, Paris and Manhattan. When I ordered my two gorgeous throw pillows from Svensk Tenn, a divine Stockholm department store, they arrived within days, beautifully wrapped in tissue paper with a note. Presentation matters!

I’ve converted all foreign currencies into U.S. dollars.

From Pippa Small, a Canadian jewelry designer in London, whose rings go up to an eye-watering $26,000.

This pair of abalone shard earrings, simple and unusual. $467

Every year I find something fun from this American homegoods website, Mothology.

This year it’s a whale — who also serves as a handy bottle-opener. $16.95

https://www.mothology.com/tabletop/

I discovered this retailer, Alex Mill, when it popped up in my Instagram feed. I really like the witty simplicity of their goods. The company is eight years old, based in Manhattan, run by a son of the American retail legend Mickey Drexler (who used to run J. Crew), Alex Drexler.

A unisex bandana-print wool scarf in navy/white or red/black/white. $95

Nothing beats light, warm soft cashmere on a bitterly cold day — take it from me, a Canadian!

These neck gaiters are also beautifully unisex in navy, black, red and gray. $65

I love this boiled wool hoodie, which comes in yellow, dark green and black. $160

Farrow & Ball’s brilliant yellow is called Babouche, of course! They’re actually backless unisex leather slippers worn in Morocco and these come in two delicious colors — pale coral and pale blue. $45

Poor New York City! It has been so hard hit by the pandemic, losing millions of tourists who helped sustain Broadway, hotels, restaurants and other attractions. Since you’re unlikely to get here for a long time, enjoy some edible icons in delicious chocolate, from a New York company in business since 1923, Li-Lac Chocolates.

This package includes a train car, a Statue of Liberty and an edible Empire State Building. $160

https://www.li-lacchocolates.com/Chocolate-Gift-Basket-NYC

This six-year-old business, Meeka Fine Jewelry, owned and run by Philadelphia businesswoman Monika Krol, offers the kind of jewelry I really love: minimal, unusual and using lots of semi-precious stones. This isn’t a site for rubies, diamonds, emeralds or bling-y settings, but understated elegance. Here are just a few of her many, many offerings. Roam around!

Oxidized silver and prehnite stud earrings (the pale green of seawater) $150

Lilac chalcedony, oxidized silver stud earrings $125

A ring of Montana agate (clear with black speckles) set in 18k gold. I’ve asked Jose for this! $1150

John Derian is a much admired retail shop owner whose quirky style is terrific — he’s best known for glass decoupage dishes and platters. His East Village NYC store is crammed with lovely discoveries. In a time when the world feels so so distant, when even going to the grocery store feels scary, here’s a soft, sensuous way to experience the globe

A silk scarf with the globe printed on it. $175

I love everything offered by Stockholm design store Svenskt Tenn. There’s fantastic-but-spendy printed linen, sold by the meter, home goods, furniture. I’ve chosen to highlight only two item, but look around. So much beauty! The placemats are of the same linen print of the two sofa throw pillows we bought from them.

Linen print placemat, magnolia print $41.00

https://www.svenskttenn.se/en/range/textile/kitchen-dining-textiles/placemats/placemat-textile-japanese-magnolia/110001/

I defy you not to be charmed by this elephant print tea cosy. (Also, possibly, a hat?) $70

www.svenskttenn.se/en/range/textile/kitchen-dining-textiles/tea-cosys/tea-cosy-elefant/110569/

This Paris site is also swoon-worthy, if you love textiles and an 18th c aesthetic as much as I do, from Antoinette Poisson.

Throw cushion in black and cream $112

I hate most of the phone cases I see. But these, by Stringberry, come in a really wide array of designs. I bought one and love its design and its rugged, smooth-but-matte finish.

Phone case, $33.

Phone case, moon and stars design $33

I’m a huge fan of adding candlelight whenever possible, especially for those long, cold dark winter nights. I love the gleaming reflective brass of this two-taper design. I’d put it bedside or even in a small bathroom: 11 inches wide, 22 inches high. From a small-town British indie retailer.

Brass wall-mounted candleholder $121.96

https://www.tinsmiths.co.uk/brass-candle-holder-double.html

OKA is a homewares company owned by three women with classic English style. I love their colors and scale. As a big tea drinker and collector of early ceramics, this cup and saucer caught my eye.

Blue and white cup and gorgeous saucer, 18th c style $60

https://www.oka.com/en-us/product/kraak-breakfast-cup-saucer-blue-white/

Who among us is sick to death of Staples? To really spruce up your WFH desk, how about these?

Three pale turquoise faux-shagreen binders, also from OKA $65

https://www.oka.com/en-us/product/faux-shagreen-box-files-turquoise/#dimensiondetails

LOVE this one! Warm, hand-knit, colorful, unique.

Rainbow-hued massive wool cowl/hood, made by a Black woman creator, Chasten Harmon, in L.A. $265

Kingsley Thompson is another Black designer, working in small leather goods, Cheltenham, England.

Leather bookmark $27.59


Is there anything as tedious as ALL THAT hand-washing? Make it a sensual pleasure with Caswell-Massey soap. Fantastic quality, American made. The sandalwood is so nice!

A full year of soap, in three woody scents $98

OK, wait….Monet and VANS sneakers? Only from my favorite Canadian retailer with the weirdest damn name ever, Gravity Pope. I make sure to drop in every time I’m back in Toronto and always leave with a great pair of shoes or boots.

Yes, for guys, Monet paintings for your kicks. $90

https://www.gravitypope.com/collections/men/products/vans-vn0a2z5i18h-moma-monet-authentic

And I really want these simple pale gray suede boots. $475

We met the creator of Effin Birds, Aaron Reynolds, in Ontario at an annual conference up north and even shared an unheated cabin with him. His merch is very swear-y — but so much fun! There are pins and stickers and hockey jerseys and T-shirts, too.

Effin’ Birds pack of Playing cards $15

There’s nothing nicer for the most basic table than a pretty print tablecloth (add a padded liner beneath.) Like this one, from Paris shop Simrane.

Pale green and gray Indian print tablecloth $103

How can you resist? All the way from Piggott’s Store in Sydney, Australia!

Bright pink Indian cotton boxer shorts in a small palm tree print $43

Along the same lines, there’s nothing nicer than a fragrant neck to kiss. Here’s a crisp option.

Lime cologne. $50

OK, I caved — here’s an amazing blanket from one of my favorite major retailers, Anthropologie. It fits my 2020 theme of, if we can’t visit a place in person, we can still dream and enjoy some version of it!

Black and white woolen blanket — with maps of Paris, London or New York. $200

I am oddly mesmerized by this dress, which also comes as a T-shirt and mock turtleneck. I love a stretchy dress I can throw a sweater on top of. I like a bold print. I really enjoy being stylish and comfortable. And this NYC site, Wray.com, has a wild range of sizes and prints, all the way to 3XL. It’s never easy to find stylish, fashion-forward clothing for larger women — and this site offers plenty of it; check out their Neighborhood dress and Quinn dress.

Print dress $228.

Regular readers of my blog, and this list, know I loooove a well-dressed man. And I love elegant touches like a great pocket square. I really like this indie American website, Sid Mashburn (and the partner site for women, a 10-year-old Atlanta store with some great stuff, Ann Mashburn) — classic but not boring menswear and womenswear.

Walk like an Egyptian! with this hand-rolled wool and silk pocket square, complete with hieroglyphics and Anubis. $80

You’ll either love or hate these chocolate leather lace-up boots, from Ann Mashburn. They’re pricey but I have no doubt you’d get a decade’s stylish wear out of them. $650

Living with very old things

By Caitlin Kelly

No, not me or Jose!

A decade ago my mother had to suddenly sell all her belongings and go into a nursing home, and into a small room. She was able to take a few pieces of art but lost a lot of it to auction.

I shipped home, across a border and country, a pair of her early textiles, framed. I have no idea where she bought them or when or if my grandmother had owned them. I wish I’d asked when we were still cordial, but of course I didn’t.

I’m a massive fan of textiles, old and new, and always wondered what these two pieces were — and I follow a serious antique textiles dealer in Britain on Instagram. I recently asked her if these were what I suspected — 17th century Italian.

They are!

Wow.

I’m now wildly fantasizing who used them, and when and where and for what purpose. They are velvet and gold thread and the centerpiece, I believe, is linen.

Italy in the 1600s was quite the place…1.7 million Italians died of plague in the first years of that century. In 1656 around 300,000 people in Naples, this was half the population of Naples at that time….Good God, why is this so awfully familiar?!

We own a few other quite old objects, which have been gifts or bought at auction or antique stores or shows. I know some people have zero interest in old stuff or owning old stuff, but I really love living with, enjoying and using lovely and material bits of history.

I find it extraordinary to tap away on a laptop on top of a gate-leg oak table, probably British, someone made in the 18th century. Ours looks almost exactly like this one, without a drawer.

The craftsmanship is amazing — finely curved edges, smoothly fitted leaves and legs. My father gave it to us a few years ago and I love it. It easily seats four, six at a pinch.

Then there’s a tiny teacup, hand-painted. I love its designs — also very unusual, and someone said, maybe made for the Islamic market. I’ve studied ceramics and silver and furniture and textiles because they fascinate me, so when I spot something potentially that’s very early (for me, anything 18th or 17th century) — and undervalued — I know what it is!

Like this 18th century teapot, missing a lid — $3.50 in an upstate NY junk shop; if it had a lid, it would sell for about $1,000.

The teapot on the table…

If I could own something really ancient, it might be a piece of Greek, Roman or Middle Eastern sculpture or art.

Do really old pieces interest you?

The hell with excellence

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Worrying doesn’t get you there…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

When Kamala Harris was named as the Democratic nominee for Vice President, a somewhat bitter joke made the rounds of social media — every Indian parent wondering — why not President?!

I realize it’s a mark of real privilege not to strive and struggle to be the best all the time and have done plenty of struggle, thanks — try starting at 30 as a new immigrant to New York City journalism (a cabal of Ivy League graduates) and weathering three recessions in 20 years!

I grew up in Toronto, the media capital of Canada, and competition there has always been extremely fierce, so I’ve always known to bring my A game to work.

But the rest of my life?

Feh!

Our home is lovely and I do brush my hair and we cook some very good meals and I do dress up nicely when I got out and enjoy making that effort.

 

But the endless pursuit of excellence is just too tiring!

 

It feels so American, to constantly be proving you’re better/stronger/faster/cheaper/whatever it takes to be at the top of the heap.

For work, and especially in some fields, of course this is necessary, for years or even decades. There’s no choice.

And I know, firsthand, being married to a Hispanic-American-born man whose own family expected excellence of him, that high parental expectations can be really important.

But the perfection so many people now perform on social media is also so weird to me. I’m so very much imperfect, and I’m fine with it.

There are only two groups of people whose approval I most value —  people I love and respect and people whose good opinion of me as a professional means I can make a living.

So when my poor husband urges me, repeatedly, to improve my golf game — lessons, a special glove, practice — I make a nasty face and shrug because the word amateur means someone who loves….not just someone who’s a REALLY good non-professional.

We recently played one of our county’s most challenging courses, all 18 holes (a first for me) and we did not play slowly (as is deemed extremely rude) and thereby hold up the many players right behind us. So I did fine, even playing poorly compared to many others.

Golf is meant to be fun, but knowing (and seeing!) others right behind you at the last hole is not wildly relaxing at all.

So I need to be good enough to not mess up others’ enjoyment, and I get that. But I don’t feel compelled to get really good at golf or other leisure pursuits.

 

It’s leisure!

 

It rhymes with pleasure.…not work.

This summer I finally started swimming laps in our apartment building pool, building up to 30 laps, about 20 to 25 minutes. I could have pushed much harder but I want to enjoy my life too!

I’ve just never been someone attracted by “perfection” — which is also deeply subjective, as any writer quickly learns. Any creative person learns. What one person adores about you and your ideas another may loathe.

 

So, maybe because of this, you learn to value yourself and your own internal standards.

 

I think this is an overlooked and undervalued superpower.

 

Travel memories…

By Caitlin Kelly

As readers here know, travel is usually my greatest joy in life.

I took my first international road trip — in my playpen in the back of my parents’ car — from Vancouver to Mexico. I took my first flight, at seven or eight, to Antigua from Toronto. I always know exactly where my passport is and my Canadian currency and my leftover euros.

Being confined to the disease-riddled political madhouse of the United States right now is, for some of us, really frustrating.

So here are some of my favorite travel memories:

 

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My last taste of elegant hospitality, Middleburg, Virginia, March 2020 — just as the pandemic shut everything down.

I was on my way to D.C. to attend and speak at an annual conference, and added two extra days in this town to play and relax and enjoy some solo time. I loved it. I also had breakfast there with a local friend, an extra pleasure.

 

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I do love a great hotel bar. This is the freshly and beautifully renovated Royal York, in my hometown of Toronto; September 2019.

 

When you’re traveling and need to meet people for business or pleasure, an elegant hotel bar (if not too noisy!) can be a good option. I interviewed a psychiatrist for my healthcare story here, while sitting on those stools, and later enjoyed a cocktail with a young pal from Twitter.

 

 

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I had never seen elk — or a sign like this! New Mexico, June 2019.

 

This was a great day — Valles Caldera is a national preserve where we spent a day enjoying nature and silence during our week’s vacation. My husband Jose is from Santa Fe, so we love returning to his home city and state, where we have friends and he once more revels in being home.

 

 

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Lacing up my skates for some ice-work at Beaver Pond, Mount Royal, Montreal. Winter 2019.

 

It’s a really Canadian joy to skate without a fee and in public. I really miss all the free public rinks I took for granted in Toronto —- and in New York, I generally only skate on an indoor rink and have to pay for it, a wholly different experience. This was a lot of fun and the rink, very sensibly, even has benches in the middle, so you can plop down whenever pooped.

 

 

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I love funky vintage diners. I meandered happily along Route 25 on Long Island’s North Shore and loved every minute; June 2018.

 

I love to meander! It’s such a pleasure to find a winding country road and savor all the sights — farm-stands, diners, little shops, old houses. This road terminates at the eastern end in Orient, where there’s a wide pebbled beach. It was a great day spent solo while Jose was working locally for the week and we were given a hotel room.

 

 

Georgetown

 

Georgetown, DC is such a beautiful neighborhood. Fall 2017.

 

I’ve been back to D.C. over the years many times — attending awards dinners, on a fellowship, visiting friends, on my way heading further south. It feels so very different from New York in every way, and Georgetown’s narrow cobbled streets and early 19th century homes are a lovely escape.

 

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Love the Atwater Market, Montreal.

 

I loved coming here to shop for food when I lived in Montreal for 18 months as a reporter at the Montreal Gazette. I didn’t stay long as a resident; the winter was brutal and the newspaper not a great fit for me. But, a six hour drive from our New York home, Montreal makes for a terrific break for us now. I get to speak and hear French, catch up with old friends and colleagues, shop for the kinds of clothes I really like (much more European!) and always visit our favorite restaurants.

 

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Pies! Pumpkin, apple, blueberry, sugar, maple syrup; Atwater Market

 

Maple syrup pie! Sugar pie!

 

 

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I love these ghost meringues! Atwater Market, Montreal

 

These were on display just before Hallowe’en. Love them!

 

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Dublin. So much beautiful weaving!

 

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Jose went to the local barber, ex-boxer Patrick Quinn. His haircut was 5 euros. Ireland, June 2015.

 

I’ve been to Ireland five times so far and could easily return many times more. It’s so small you can easily see a lot, even in a week or two. People are so warm and welcoming. The landscapes are astounding. Filled with history. I actually cry when I leave.

 

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Not the loveliest image, but definitely Venice, July 2017

 

I’ve been to Venice three times so far: I spent my 21st birthday there, alone, and enjoyed it, went back on my European fellowship year at 25 and hadn’t been back for decades — and made the crucial error of doing so in July when it was brutally hot and massively crowded. I am glad I went again, though, for all of three days, and remain determined to visit in cooler, quieter late fall or even winter next time!

I loved Giudecca, a mostly residential neighborhood and even found a small playground surrounded by low-level apartments. I sat on a bench in the shade there for a while and just savored the silence.

 

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One of the great pleasures of travel is…sitting still! Taking it all in. July 2017

 

I really loved my first-ever visit to Berlin, a city I’d only seen in films. I took the train from Paris and stayed at a terrific old hotel, the Savoy, on Fasanenstrasse, in Charlottenburg. I loved everything about our hotel — the white tablecloths in the gracious, spacious dining room, a quiet, small back garden, an adjacent cigar bar!, even a hair salon next door. I visited the Pergamon museum and enjoyed the Biergarten and biked around and spent a fantastic day swimming at Schachtensee, one of the many lakes surrounding the city and easily reached by public transit.

I stayed in Berlin 10 days and just got to know it a little. I’m eager to return.

 

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Since 2001, we have been visiting a gorgeous resort, Manoir Hovey, on Lake Massawippi, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. This is their dock, in fall. Oh, we miss it!

 

After 9/11 Jose and I were pretty shell-shocked as we both covered the truly grim details of its aftermath, I as a journalist and he as a New York Times photo editor. We fled north right afterward to this terrific small resort and have been back since then every two to three years, in every season — named Canada’s number two best resort hotel for 2020 by Travel & Leisure magazine.

 

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Must have tea in London! This was the Ritz

 

OK, so it’s touristy. But fun!

 

 

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I love the details that are so spectacular — not just the official “sights” but the memorable specifics like this Paris cafe

 

I’m wild about all aspects of design. I loved this detail.

 

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This is so French! That gorgeous, polished, oversize doorknob and the deep viridian and the gloss. Ooooohh, Paris!

 

Tell me about some of the places you miss!