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Archive for the ‘domestic life’ Category

Old friends

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, immigration, life, love, travel, urban life, US, women on March 28, 2015 at 3:31 am

By Caitlin Kelly

“Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (1939)

 

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Every year, at least once and sometimes several times, I head north to Toronto and to a cottage on a lake near Peterborough, Ontario, to visit my friends I’ve known for decades.

I left Toronto in 1986, afire with ambition, ready to marry. I met my first husband, an American, in Montreal and followed him to rural New Hampshire; neither took.

By 1994, I was a divorcee (no children) living in a pretty lonely suburb of New York City. Moving back to Canada felt like a retreat. I liked New York. I had yet to satisfy my professional ambitions.

And so I stayed.

In the decades I’ve lived in the U.S. I’ve made friends.

But they’ve come and gone, sometimes with a stunning rapidity. I arrived in New York at the age of 30 — long past the traditional ages when the powerful emotional glue of shared schools, colleges and/or post-graduate training seem to create lifelong bonds for many Americans, some of whom are still pals with their freshman room-mate.

Many of my friends now live very far away...

Many of my friends now live very far away…

So I’ve found my American friends through other means — a work colleague (briefly), my freelance life, serving on several boards and attending/speaking at conferences, several colleagues of my husband’s from the newspaper he worked at for 31 years and for whom I freelance as well.

Luckily, I have a friend now living directly across the street from me — we met (yes, really) through a local man we both dislike heartily. But, a new pal!

Without children or hobbies or many non-work passions I’ve found it challenging to find people with whom I can create new deep ties. The world is full of friendly acquaintances, “Heyyyyyy!” — but less filled with people with the time, inclination or interest to start a new chapter with a stranger.

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

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

So when I see my long-time friends in Canada, we’re also revisiting our earlier selves:

P., once a curly redhead, is now gray, long-married to his husband. We met on a rooftop in Colombia, and still laugh at the same things but our last conversation also included our spouses’ searches for new employment and the struggle over a parent’s estate.

M., also a decade older than I, has known me since I was in my early 20s. We both visited New York City together when I appeared on stage as an extra in the ballet Sleeping Beauty for a story. I’ve stayed in her home many times since then and belatedly realized she’s more family than much of my own.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, where I met M in freshman English class

Victoria College, University of Toronto, where I met M in freshman English class

M, who I met in freshman English class when we eye-rolled at one another. A teacher and college administrator, she came all the way to N.Y. from the northern wilds of British Columbia for my first wedding to be my maid of honor; (my last, fateful words as I headed down the aisle: “Just be my friend if this doesn’t work out”. Thank heaven she did), and all the way to Toronto for my second. We still talk every few months from her home in B.C. and I still use the battered, stained cookbook she gave me in 1986.

L, a fellow journalist, whose home brims with beauty: hand-made pottery, drawings and oil paintings and colorful rugs. Her cooking, and hospitality, is astounding. We met in the 1980s, covering the same story for competing newspapers and re-met decades later on a fellowship in Florida.

S, 20 years my junior, a fellow ferocious jock and adventurous traveler. We’ve set new records for unbroken conversation — on my most recent trip, last week, we sat down in a restaurant for lunch at noon. We got up again at 5:30.

S, my age, who I’ve known since high school when we were both mad about J. — all of us now long since married. Like me, she’s artistic, creative, a free spirit with no children but who shares a deep love of the natural world and travel.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment in rural Nicaragua — we’d never met and had a blast!

I find it comforting to know people over time, to be loved and valued and accepted and forgiven through the jobs, (and losses of same), the husbands, (and loss/gain of same), through illnesses and surgeries.

Fatter, thinner, happier or broken-hearted, lustily single or placidly married, they’ve seen me through it all, and vice versa.

You can safely fight and make up with these emotional distance runners — while others slink away or keep conversations perky, polished and politely, always, distant.

You know these friends’ partners and pets, (including the dead ones), their parents and siblings. Also, perhaps, their children and grand-children.

You know about the grant they didn’t win or the dream they never tried. They know why your brother hates you, and don’t care.

They know what makes you cry, even if they haven’t seen you  — or seen you do it — in years.

They see us through the rapids!

They see us through the rapids!

We hold one another to a high standard, knowing, sometimes far better than a late-arriving partner or spouse, what lies beneath our bravado and bluster.

We are witnesses to one another’s lives.

(Longtime readers of Broadside know that my family is not especially close or loving, so these long-lasting friendships mean the world to me.)

Here’s what I definitely do not want — “ambient intimacy”.

From New York magazine:

The British user-experience researcher Leisa Reichelt coined the term “ambient intimacy” in 2007 to describe the unfocused closeness we maintain by following friends’ day-to-day on platforms like Twitter. Soon, though, the signals that we continuously broadcast to our friends and followers promise to get more … not intimate, perhaps, but certainly creepy by today’s standards.

The Apple Watch’s ability to stream one user’s heartbeat to another through vibrations is one example of this closeness. As is Meerkat, the suddenly popular live-streaming app that lets users send live video to their followers, turning the previously static culture of webcams into a mobile, always-on experience. Soon enough, we’ll be able to live vicariously alongside anyone we choose at any moment of their life — the ultimate future of the selfie stick is a system that can photograph or record you from any angle and any distance at any time.

No, thanks.

I want to sit at a table, or side by side by the fireplace or lazing on the dock, and talk for hours to someone whose face I can see, and vice versa.

Someone I can hug.

Do you have friends you’ve cherished for decades?

 

 

 

Don’t read this post: the high cost of paying attention

In beauty, behavior, domestic life, Health, life, Technology, urban life, US on March 13, 2015 at 3:28 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

High above Paris --- silence!

High above Paris — silence!

One of the tedious tasks of suburban living, where most of us drive everywhere, is the constant need to pump gas.

Worse?

The television screens and their incessant chatter right above the gas pump that some stations now inflict on offer to customers.

I would actually pay more for quiet gas-pumps. I so crave silence and downtime, those daydreaming moments we all need to just mindlessly stare into space for a bit…

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

I love teaching college; I teach two two-hour classes every Thursday.

But Friday? I’m wiped! Paying close attention to what I offer and everything my students say, however enjoyable, is also really tiring.

Paying attention takes energy!

The Grand Canyon -- whose profound silence makes your ears ring

The Grand Canyon — whose profound silence makes your ears ring; photo: Caitlin Kelly

Where, short of the Grand Canyon or some other pristine wilderness, can you now luxuriate in pure, unadulterated silence?

Where, short of hiding in your own bed under the covers, (without your phone!), can you sit still and just think?

A new book explores the issue; an excerpt in The New York Times:

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.

What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.

The sad state of this commons is on display everywhere.

In the summer of 2011, just before Jose and I got married, he took me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat.

My friends, knowing how chatty I am, figured that would be essentially impossible.

The first few days, (which I chronicled here at Broadside every day), were difficult.

No sound, just beauty

No sound, just beauty

But the greatest gift of the retreat was not having to pay attention.

We were told, all 75 of us from around the world assembled in an upstate New York monastery, that if someone looked at us, we did not have to look at them, smile at them or even acknowledge their presence at all.

We were not there for that.

It was the greatest freedom I’d ever felt.

As I wrote then:

I just don’t want to know half the things that total strangers feel somehow compelled to tell me.

(How about you?)

Many times I’ve been chided here for being “unfriendly”, and in so doing breaking the social rules everyone else follows so obediently, when it’s never been my personal goal to be friendly. I choose my friends and intimates very carefully. I don’t need or want everyone to like me. The idea, in fact, somewhat horrifies me.

A journalist since college, I’m professionally skilled at creating brief and powerful intimacy. I love that it requires me to win the confidence of strangers, of all ages and kinds, from convicted felons to elected officials (sometimes in the same person!) But it does mean I spend an inordinate amount of time making sure they feel comfortable with me, and will share with me as much as possible in the limited amount of time we have, whether by email, phone or face to face.

To not interact, to not have to manage my facial expressions or smile to cheer someone up who appears down or reassure them I am not down myself, is a release.

By the end, we were deeply reluctant to return to the incessant noise and chatter of Western life. Jose and I went to a local restaurant, and sat at the bar…where we were bombarded visually and auditorily, by three huge television screens.

It was weird and disorienting and exhausting.

When did silence become such a terrifying concept?

Do you treasure silence and disconnection as much as I do?

Making a pretty home: customize, re-purpose, DIY and upcycle

In beauty, culture, design, domestic life, life, Style on March 8, 2015 at 12:31 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The next instalment…stay tuned for the final one on framing your art and photos!

The real fun of making your home pretty is, for some people,  also the satisfaction of making it yours in small and telling details — from nice dishtowels that pick up the room’s colors to choosing and replacing nasty/worn/outdated hardware, whether on a chest of drawers, closet doors, kitchen cabinets and/or your front door knocker.

Even if you’re renting, there are many ways to make a space personal and absolutely individual.

Here are a few ideas:

Repurpose

When I decided we needed a fresh new look for our tired-looking fabric headboard and old curtains, I dreaded the yardage cost of nice fabric, let alone all the labor required to cut and sew it. Solution? Three $25 shower curtains from West Elm, whose large scale and clear, fresh colors were exactly what I needed; two curtains became our curtains and the third, torn to fit and tucked into the old headboard’s crevices, became basic fabric to use as needed. (Fabric sold by the yard is typically 54 inches wide, while most shower curtains are 72 inches in width.)

I found two great-looking bamboo/rattan storage boxes at my local garden supply store and, stacked one atop the other, they hold CDs in the lower one and all our nasty-looking extension and electronics charge cords in the smaller one on top; stuff is easy to find, and all that clutter is hidden. Sitting on top of that is a lovely early cutlery or candle box, bought at an auction or antique store, that perfectly fits/hides/keeps handy all our television remotes.

Olive, cream and taupe -- oh, my!

Olive, cream and taupe — oh, my!I fell in love with these gorgeous heavy cotton print napkins  — imagine what a gorgeous pillow cover they would make when (hand)-sewn together!

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This fabulous purple, cream, gray and black print fabric is a shower curtain at Anthropologie, for $88 and could make a fantastic headboard cover large enough even for a queen or king headboard. There’s a whole color scheme right there.

Customize

I found a great red and black wool flat-weave rug in a Toronto antique store for $125. It just needed some trim or edging; I bought two wide pieces of black Ultrasuede and added them to each end, (sewn on by our local dry cleaner). Much better!

Even the most tedious of dressers — found on the curb? At a consignment shop or thrift shop? — can be sanded and then painted any color you like and jazzed up with new and unusual knobs, like these ones below I selected from the dozens on offer at (yes, again) Anthropologie. Even your local hardware store or Home Depot has some great options for very little money, like these or these. Changing the knobs or handles on your furniture or kitchen cabinets can add a totally new look for little cash.

Ceramic, enamel, glass...lots of choices!

Ceramic, enamel, glass…lots of choices!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upcycle

The world is full of great finds — but some need your creativity, vision, and sweat equity to get them there. When you need a piece of furniture or a lamp, especially, haunt your local thrift and consignment shops, flea markets and antique stores first for interesting options. If a piece is cheap enough, (i.e. has no intrinsic historic or esthetic value as is, to you or others,) change it! Paint it, stain it, or chop a dining table’s legs down to make it into a coffee table, for example.

Focus on the shape, size and condition of the object, not just its current color.

If it’s a lamp base, for example, it might be perfect in another color, or with a fresh new lampshade, maybe in a different size, color or shape. (Lampshades come in a dizzying array of options — round, rectangular, square, curved — and in thick paper and fabrics from burlap, linen, cotton and silk. Check out Ballard Designs for inspiration.)

$55 for the base + paint + new shade and finial. Done!

$55 for the base + paint + new shade and finial. Done!

Here’s a bedside lamp I found I found in an antiques shop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, for $55. It was then a sickly pale mint green with pink striping, but (measure!) I knew it was exactly the height I needed and could (being plain wood) easily be spray painted the creamy white I wanted to match another lamp already in the room. I bought a new cream silk lampshade and a ceramic finial. Voila!

Finishing touches

I found the fabric for these and had covers custom-made to match my living room's color scheme

I found the fabric for these and had covers custom-made to match my living room’s color scheme

Our pale green velvet sofa, (bought from Crate & Barrel a decade or so ago), had come with narrow piping that, on its cushions, had worn down to the interior threads from daily use. New covers were hopelessly expensive. I racked my brain, then sent the pillow covers to my favorite fabric workroom in (where else?) Middletown, Rhode Island. The owner, Cheryl, is amazing — she chose the weathered rust-colored linen she made into finger-width piping and gave our sofa a fantastic new look. Yay!

It’s not terribly expensive to custom-make (or sew by hand) gorgeous pillow covers for your sofa(s), bed(s) and chairs. A custom look (add welting, piping, ribbon) is easy to accomplish and looks like a million bucks, for much less.

Need help figuring out your next decorating steps?

Send me some photos and let’s do a consult — $150/hour.

Making a pretty home: grace notes

In antiques, beauty, design, domestic life, life, Style on March 5, 2015 at 1:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s the next in my ongoing series, which includes 10 tips; lighting; choosing and using color and customizing/DIY.

If you’d like personalized help or advice, send me some photos and I’m happy to help you find a solution to your decorating dilemma. I charge $150/hour.

As a former student at the New York School of Interior Design, I learned a lot in those classrooms!

The smallest home — even a shared dorm room — can still be made personal and lovely. And it doesn’t have to take much money, but a bit of imagination.

A few ideas:

 

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– Look for items that are similar, in size, shape, color and texture. Group them together

A small (or large collection) has much more visual impact than one item. Here are two wooden horses I found in Port Hope, Ontario, a small town east of Toronto. I found the smaller one (new? not sure) at auction for a few dollars. The larger one, hand-carved folk art, was more than that, just over $100. But the pair work nicely together.

– Don’t overlook the beauty, color, texture and life that flowers, greenery and plants can add

But have fun with it. Don’t keep them in their sad little plastic nursery or grocery store pots! A funky antique or vintage tin, a glass jar, a pretty pottery container are so much nicer; this site, Jamali Garden in New York City, is a trove of amazing and affordable ideas. Keep an eye out at your local thrift and consignment shops for affordable ideas and inspiration. I found this terrific metal cachepot at a local consignment shop for $25 and have been adding various pieces of greenery and flowers over weeks, replacing them with fresh ones as needed.

 

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Treat yourself to a few tools, like Oasis, the green foam used by florists to line pots and dishes so you can adapt a wide array of containers to any design you like. A frog, a glass or metal holder into which you stick plant stems, will also offer you more arrangement options.

 

$10 for five at my local thrift store. Score!

$10 for five at my local thrift store. Score!

– Color!

A calm soothing white/cream/neutrals color scheme is gorgeous (albeit difficult with small children and/or pets). But adding pops of color keeps it fresh. I scored five of these lovely wine glasses for $10 at my local thrift store. So pretty with a holiday table!

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– Add a personal and unexpected detail

This velvet sofa is at least a decade old and the welting had worn thin on the cushions. Replacing it was too costly, so was re-upholstering or slip-covering. All that needed fixing was the welting. But the scale of the welt was also key, something bold and interesting. I looked at plenty of polite, safe pale green options on-line before going in this direction instead. Love it.

 

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– Relate texture and colors to one another

I found this Victorian mirror in Port Hope as well; its soft apricot velvet interior echoes the color of fabric on a table below and several frames we hung nearby. The table-covering is dark embroidered silk (texture, color, pattern), with a pierced copper-colored lantern (texture, color, pattern) atop a bold cotton print (pattern, color.)

 

At night, with a votive inside it, it casts such gorgeous shadows!

At night, with a votive inside it, it casts such gorgeous shadows!

– Keep your eyes open for surprises

I found this pierced metal lantern in, of all places, a shop at the back of a cafe in Minneapolis, when I was out there for a presentation at the University of Minnesota about my book, Malled. I’m a curious traveler and, no matter where I journey, even for a short business trip, I build in a day or two to explore local shops, museums and/or restaurants. Regional tastes can vary widely and you never know what you might find. This one cost very little — $13.50 — so I bought two, (pairs always have more impact!), and shipped them home via FedEx since they were light but too bulky for my suitcase.

 


 

One error many people make is assuming their rooms have to be all-done-all-at-once. Buying everything from one place, whether Ikea or some other retailer, can make a room look cookie-cutter and boring.

If you’ve inherited some nice pieces, find ways to incorporate them, whether some lovely china and glassware or a great old chair (if the shape and condition is good, re-upholstering is well worth it.)

Read design magazines and borrow some books from your local library, (not to mention hundreds of on-line sites for inspiration), to find rooms you find really attractive — so much so you want to go live in them!

Don’t worry if they’re in a huge mansion or tiny cottage; don’t focus on cost or whether you’ll find something just like it. Look at all the details you find appealing and figure out why so you can make (more) thoughtful and informed choices when you buy something to add to your home. 

Clear, fresh colors (lemon yellow, aqua, fresh white) or moody, jewel tones? Worn and weathered surfaces or clean, shiny modern ones? Do you prefer a floor of bare hardwood (and what color)? Or an area rug? Maybe sisal?

The most interesting of all rooms are added to, (and subtracted from!), layer by layer, year after year, decade after decade. The richest, visually, use different textures, tones, materials — like wood, glass, stone, metal, wool, silk, cotton, velvet, mirror and ones that relate to one another the way old friends find much in common to discuss.

Also look at some specific styles of design, whether French, English, Japanese or Swedish; you might find you’re suddenly and deeply passionate about tansu chests, Navajo rugs or bergeres. (Hello, Ebay….)

This book, from 1977, A Pattern Language, is widely considered extremely helpful.

I like this one, Decorating With Pattern, from 1997; (as you can see, the newest books aren’t necessarily the best!)

Of all my many design books, I love Home, by Stafford Cliff, with great photos and interviews with people about their quirky, lovely homes. Certainly the only design book I’ve ever seen with an athlete included (Sebastian Coe)!

Have fun!

 

 

 

Making a pretty home — why (great) lighting matters so much!

In aging, beauty, design, domestic life, life, Style, Technology on March 1, 2015 at 12:29 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Now that The New York Times has, this week, killed (!) its weekly Home section, I’m here to the rescue!

Kidding.

But as someone passionate about interior design and who studied at thew New York School of Interior Design, I love all things design-related and will miss that section a great deal.

Here’s the first in a series of three posts, all of which I will post in the next week, on how to solve some of the most common design problems.

 

One of my favorite vintage NYC bars, Fanelli's, on Prince Street

One of my favorite vintage NYC bars, Fanelli’s, on Prince Street. Love those period chandeliers

Especially for those of us in the (brrrrr) Northern Hemisphere and those anywhere near the 50th parallel, sunlight is a treasured resource — only now are the days beginning to lengthen.

Nights are long, cold and dark — and every scrap of light matters.

A hallway sconce at the Nelligan Hotel in Montreal. Love it!

A hallway sconce at the Nelligan Hotel in Montreal. Love it!

I once visited Stockholm in November and will never forget what incredible attention to light was paid there, everywhere, from the post office to the votive candles glowing on restaurant tables at mid-day; (it was dark by 3pm or so.)

No matter how much time, money or attention you pay to your home (or not!), the quantity and quality of the lighting there can make a huge difference to your mood, ability to concentrate, your family’s happiness and, most importantly, their safety.

Many people are badly injured, even killed, by falling in their own homes and being able to clearly see where you’re stepping — or chopping onions! — is really important.

The left is before; the right is after. I designed the kitchen myself

The left is before; the right is after. I designed our kitchen myself; the wall lamps are are from Restoration Hardware

A few tips on how to best illuminate your home:

The most welcoming rooms have four different light sources. Our living-room, which is 12 feet by 24 feet, has five: a desk lamp (task light); a small accent light; a floor lamp, a lamp on a bookshelf and a reading lamp.  There’s no overhead light, nor do I ever want one there.

There are many ways to use light. Task lighting is used, as it suggests, for doing specific things using that light — cooking, bathing, working, reading. A chandelier over a dining table creates a focal point for the room, casts a warm pool of light, and saves floor space in a small area. Many people use under-counter lighting in their kitchen beneath their kitchen cabinets. We chose open shelves instead, so the lighting in our kitchen is three wall-mounted lamps from Restoration Hardware and three pot lights in the ceiling, all of them on dimmers.

 

Accent spot light and candlelight in a corner of our livingroom

Accent spot light and candlelight in a corner of our living room

What mood do you hope to create? A nasty overhead light far above your head does little to flatter anyone or any interior. Useful for a hallway, sure, or a bathroom, but not very attractive in a bedroom, living room or dining room. Pools of light delineate your space.

Dimmers! We have our bathroom, kitchen and dining room lights on dimmers and it makes a huge difference to the atmosphere we can create as a result.

Choose your lighting with a careful eye, not only the style of each lighting source but the bulb: LED, incandescent, filament, halogen…each has a very different quality of light and energy usage.

This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it's versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.

This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it’s versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.

Lamps can make or break the beauty of  a room. Whether you prefer formality and elegance, modern simplicity or a sparkling crystal chandelier, it’s out there!

Consider quality, size, color and condition of your lampshades. They can be square, rectangular, round, conical, in card, silk, cotton, burlap. The most elegant, formal rooms often have tightly pleated colored silk lampshades, glowing like jewels when lit. Plated sharp-edged card shades are hell to clean.

Don’t forget how many amazing options are available on-line. Two of my favorite resources are Circa Lighting and Renovation, with hundreds of choices.

– Make sure your lamps are close/tall/bright enough to actually do the job you need them to; three-way bulbs are a nice choice.

– Remember that every lamp you choose adds color and texture to the room. I love this metal articulated task lamp from Wisteria ($219), this one (in purple, turquoise, cream and silver) from PB Teen for $79, and this table lamp, with a clear glass base from West Elm, which we have and love, $89. It doesn’t look like much, but its value, to me, lies in its ability to cast enough light without adding any design drama because of its simplicity. I discovered the PB teen lamp in — of all places — a gorgeous inn we stayed in in Prince Edward County, Ontario. They were the bedside lamps and so perfect I picked one up to see who the manufacturer was. (Ideas are everywhere!)

Include the timeless beauty of candles as well, whether a row of flickering votives lining a windowsill or tall tapers. I keep a scented candle by my bedside and often start and end my days with a few minutes of its gentle light and spicy, relaxing smell. We also eat dinner in a room filled with lit (unscented) candles, votives and tapers, (in addition to a chandelier on a dimmer, with reflective bulbs [silver bottoms] that keep the glare out of our eyes.)

— The shadows cast by electric or candle-lit lanterns made of pierced metal are mysterious, exotic and add a distinctive note; look for great sources from Morocco or Mexico.

Here’s a helpful and detailed guide to lighting your home.

The little thing someone said that meant the world to you

In behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, travel on February 25, 2015 at 1:11 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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I was flying home from Paris to New York on a wide-body 777.

The turbulence wasn’t, objectively, that bad at all and, really, could have been much worse. But I really dislike turbulence, especially at the start of a 7.5 hour trans-oceanic flight with Godknowshowmuch more of it ahead.

Even while mortified by my babyishness, I cried. Not a lot and not loudly.

A man sitting in the seat in front of me, an Indian man in his 60s or beyond, was gentle and kind.

“It’s all right. We’re all here with you,” he said.

His very simple words meant a lot to me, as someone who’s been through way too much emotional turbulence in my past life, which I sometimes think is why physical turbulence undoes me somehow. Nor did I grow up in  family who did a lot of comforting or cuddling if/when I was scared. That was my job.

I was so touched by his words and later wanted to thank him, but he was too quickly gone.

Maybe he’s just that kind to everyone.

I’m forever amazed at the things we say to one another, whether strangers on an airplane or teacher to student (or vice versa), that can leave such a positive effect on us, years, even decades later.

Sometimes it’s like a stone whose initial plunk into the water ripples outward in many circles, having a much deeper and profound effect on you than the person speaking could possibly know or understand.

It seems such a little thing…

Maybe not everyone is as open or susceptible to these things as I seem to be, but I try to say nice things whenever and wherever I can; readers of this blog know I can be very tough indeed. I’m no Pollyanna, but it’s been so powerful in my life when someone has offered a nugget of passing wisdom.

What could you say today to change someone's life for the better?

What could you say today to change someone’s life for the better?

Like the woman I met socially just as my now-husband and I had started dating. We were serious about one another from the start, but we argued a lot and were stubborn and hot-headed. Not a pretty combination.

“You can give this man his happiest years or his worst years,” she said. I knew her very briefly and maybe saw her once or twice after that.

That made clear to me what my wisest choice would be and, 15 years later, we are happily married.

I didn’t come from a family filled with cute, cosy homilies, so I learned to find much of my wisdom and comfort from people beyond that circle.

In my mid-20s, on a journalism fellowship in Paris, a perceptive friend about 15 years my senior noticed my obsession with antiques, one that continues today.

Probably 200 years old, found at a country auction in Nova Scotia

Probably 200 years old, found at a country auction in Nova Scotia

“You don’t have to buy other people’s histories,” she said.

That same year, back in the days before (yes, really!) the Internet and the cloud, I was shooting a lot of film and slides, and had hundreds of them, going back years and much global travel, in a big black portfolio I used to show editors to win work.

It was stolen and I was devastated. How could I possibly persuade people to trust me and invest their time and money in my skills?

“Nope,” said a fellow fellow, a woman a bit older than me, also from Toronto, said firmly. “Everything inside that portfolio is already inside you. You don’t need it.”

She was right.

What has someone said to you that changed your life for the better?

What have you said?

Take a bath!

In beauty, behavior, design, domestic life, life on February 21, 2015 at 1:31 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Literally.

After 20 years with a nasty, shallow old tub, the new one arrives -- Jan. 2009

After 20 years with a nasty, shallow old tub, the new one arrives — Jan. 2009

Some people — really?! — only take showers.

These are not my people.

Loved this recent piece from my favorite weekend read, the Weekend FT:

The difference between showers and baths is both temporal and temperamental. Who has time for a bath? Fast, convenient, economic: showers have a utilitarian purposefulness that befits our productivity-obsessed contemporary mode. A quick once-over and out you jump, ready for the day.

Baths, on the other hand, are a positively analogue way of scrubbing up. They are slow and contemplative. All that time spent waiting for the tub to fill, then the meditative lolling, the body scrubs and face masks and, if advertising is to be believed, the accompanying soft music, chocolate and candlelight.

Short of this legendary 1793 portrait of the French revolutionary Leader Jean-Paul Marat slumped, dead, in his bathtub, we generally think of the bath as a place to lounge and relax.

And think of all the gorgeous art of women bathing — is there a famous image (other than the film Psycho?) of a woman — or man — in the shower?

(I admit, I love a rainhead shower and a huge, spotless stall, as some good hotels now offer.)

And for those of us in Canada and the U.S. suffering this brutally cold winter — weeks of temperatures of below zero with wind chill — few things can melt your bones and soften your chapped skin like a long, warm, oil-filled bath.

Maybe my deep and fervent desire for a bathtub that is deep, private and mineallmine! is a holdover from my childhood and teen years attending boarding school and summer camp.

At boarding school, a favorite way to torture someone you didn’t like much — and that was sometimes me — was when someone would lob into the tub, over the wooden partition that didn’t reach the ceiling, whatever was handy.

You’d be alone, finally, basking in the brief, coveted breath of privacy. Then — wham! splash! shit!

It was often a bit of your precious store of food. Oranges, for example. Nothing quite so calming after a long day of school and study than bits of citrus bobbing around you.

Summer camp, eight weeks every summer, meant only showers. Or very cold lake water.

I designed a broad ledge of marble to allow for comfortable seating

I designed a broad ledge of marble to allow for comfortable seating

So when it finally became possible for us to renovate our one tiny — 5 by 7 feet — apartment bathroom — the biggest and deepest tub was a no-brainer. Ours is fiberglass and 21 inches deep, which, I admit, makes it difficult to clean. I almost fall in each time!

In the photos here, you don’t see the glass swinging door we later added for the shower; I loathe shower curtains — clingy, clammy, mildewy.

We spent some serious coin on this space, about the cost of a quite-nice new car; priced per square foot, it’s gob-smacking. But every minute I spend in there, which is of course quite a bit, makes me and my husband happy. So, the hell with it. Even our high-end contractor’s workmen loved my design and said I should go into business. (Not yet, maybe someday. If you click this link to his website, you’ll see he’s posted my kitchen, which I also designed.)

I also hope to stay in this apartment for a while longer; having studied and written about “aging in place” and the interior design that accommodates it beautifully, I specified a wide, comfortable bullnose edge to allow me to sit and, if needed, spin in place atop it. In February 2012, I needed full left hip replacement — my design worked perfectly!

I created a small wall niche for bath products, currently holding some of my favorites from Roger & Gallet, Penhaligon and Fresh’s Hesperides.

IMG_20150213_163339220

My favorite, which my late grandmother used to use, is a delicious deep blue gel called Algemarin. None of this “shower gel” nonsense. This is serious stuff! Pour a bunch into your tub and you get deeply blue tinted water, lots of bubbles and a delicious scent. Capri, here I come!

And because I am a Francophile everywhere, those little mosaic tiles we bought in Paris and shipped home

And because I am a Francophile everywhere, those little mosaic tiles we bought in Paris and shipped home

When did you finally feel like an adult?

In aging, behavior, culture, domestic life, family, life, love, men, urban life, women on February 11, 2015 at 1:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

 

 Crossing the Atlantic -- thumb firmly in mouth. Adulthood? Nope, not yet!

Crossing the Atlantic — thumb firmly in mouth. Adulthood? Nope, not yet!

It happened to me at 14, when a series of frightening events beyond my control collided within a few days while I was living in Mexico.

My mother became ill and suddenly incapacitated; a friend my age had just arrived from Canada for a two-week visit and, while staying with us — we were then on our own — she burned her eyelashes and eyebrows off while lighting our hot water heater.

We had no phone, few friends and no relatives anywhere nearby.

We figured it out. Mostly because we had to.

I left my mother’s care after that and have never lived with her since. I keep reading blogs by women who talk about being “unmothered.” After 14, that was pretty much my new normal; my step-mother, only 13 years my senior, was not a nurturer.

So I’m always fairly fascinated by discussions of what it means to be(come) mature and responsible.

A recent New York magazine article focused on women in their 30s choosing to freeze their eggs as they have no luck finding a man eager — let alone willing — to take on the responsibilities of marriage, let alone of parenthood:

Before he was a fertility specialist, Dr. Keefe was a psychiatrist…

“There are a lot of options,” he said, “and people have to choose the one that’s right for them. But in order to know what’s right, you have to ask yourself, why are you here?”

“I wasted a lot of time in my last relationship,” I admitted. “I want to make sure that I take care of myself.”

He leaned forward and paused. “There’s something wrong with the men in your generation,” he said. I was stunned. Here was a doctor who had just been talking about the importance of considering statistical significance, and now he was chalking my dating problems up to the broadest of generalizations. But he was articulating two forms of truth: the mathematical and the personal.

“It isn’t you,” he said. “All day long, I see patients like you. You’re smart, beautiful, accomplished, nice. It makes no sense. I go home to my wife and I say, ‘There’s something wrong with the men in this generation. They won’t grow up.’”

People who fetishize parenthood assume that only by getting married and/or having and/or raising children can you truly become an adult.

I don’t buy it.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

I’ve seen too many sloppy, careless brutes wearing wedding rings, running their vows ragged. I’ve also seen too many careless parents.

I do think that caring for others, actively and consistently, is key to maturity and generativity, the desire to give back. It might be a pet or a child or your neighbor or your students.

I recently watched an odd indie film, Obvious Child, in which the main character, a young comic named Donna Stern, gets pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to have an abortion.

I enjoyed the film in some ways, but found her neurotic compulsion to date losers and make lousy life choices in general, even with loving  and solvent parents nearby, depressing and irritating.

Grow up, I wanted to shout at the screen!

I feel the same way (cliche alert!) when I hate-watch the HBO series Girls, which follows the lives of four whiny white girls in their 20s as they try to find jobs, men and friendship in Manhattan. I know many young women lovelovelove the show and its outspoken young creator Lena Dunham.

I just can’t.

We all make terrible choices and we usually get most of them out of the way in our 20s and 30s. (I married the wrong man, moved to NYC with no job in sight, etc.)

When I met the man I’m now married to — 15 years together this spring! — I wondered if he was mature enough to be a husband, which is both a noun and a verb meaning to care for. (Well, actually to manage frugally and carefully, which is close enough for me.)

He ticked all the boxes, as the Brits would say: handsome, great job, funny, snappy dresser, global travel, devout Buddhist. But he felt somehow rooted in single life.

Newlywed!

Newlywed!

My doubts blew away in one powerful action, when we flew out to help my mother after she was found to have a very large benign brain tumor and we had to take care of her home, dog and paperwork with only three days in a foreign country.

He dragged her soiled mattress onto the verandah without a word and started scrubbing it clean. I’d never seen someone so nonchalantly do a nasty job with no drama, foot-dragging or avoidance. It meant a lot to me.

He stepped up.

I now teach college freshmen and am intrigued to see which of them are more mature than others and why. I’ve also met some lovely young people in their early to mid-20s, maybe old souls, who seem able to just get on with it, with grace, style and humor.

I don’t believe you have to be old to be wise nor do I assume that someone young(er) is de facto foolish and unable to make excellent decisions.

But I do fear for the current crop of children and teens whose parents and grandparents hover incessantly over them in a desperate and misguided attempt to protect them from every possible owie.

The world does not arrive with a big pile of bandaids to hand out.

Do you feel like an adult?

What did it for you?

Being rich and being happy don’t always go together

In behavior, children, Crime, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting on January 31, 2015 at 1:00 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Would you be happy shopping all day?

Would you be happy shopping all day?

It’s a world so many people desperately aspire to, the one where you finally have, literally, millions or billions of dollars, where your car(s) and homes are costly and many — and your worries, one assumes, become small and few.

Like the couple who rent out their Paris apartment part-time as they jet between it and their other six homes worldwide. I sat in it recently and admired a lovely framed graphic on one wall, thinking it looked a lot like the enormous posters all over the Metro for the largest show by Sonia Delaunay in decades.

It was a Delaunay.

Here’s a sobering recent reminder of how toxic that world can be for some, a New York man who murdered his father, after being raised in a life of privilege and power.

From The New York Times:

They were alike in many ways, Thomas Strong Gilbert Sr. and the son to whom he gave his name and who, prosecutors say, would eventually kill him.

Graduates of elite boarding schools and Princeton University, the two men were handsome, gifted athletes who — on the surface at least — seemed to be navigating the exclusive glide path of wealth, social position and success that has long defined life inside America’s upper crust.

All this exploded, however, when, the police said, Thomas S. Gilbert Jr., 30, marched into his parents’ apartment this month and shot his father in the head — after asking his mother to run out and get him a sandwich and a soda.

The attack shocked not only those who knew the Gilberts but also many more who live in their rarefied and intertwined world of hedge funds, private clubs and opulent homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons.

The Times received 500 emails commenting on that story, many of whom — perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not for an upscale publication — expressed pity for the alleged killer.

I know someone whose partner recently became a millionaire after a decade of intense effort. He built his entire company from scratch, both of them sacrificing mightily to do so. But he hasn’t slowed down a bit and his partner is not, as I hoped, now lounging in hard-won luxury.

When more is never enough...

When more is never enough…

If you can handle a searing glimpse into the folkways of the wealthy — and have a strong stomach — you must read the Patrick Melrose novels. Written by Edward St. Aubyn, from an aristocratic English family, they reveal what lies behind some intimidatingly elegant and polished facades.

For years, people kept telling me these were astonishing books.

How good could they really be?

Amazing.

Gasp-inducing.

And, for some of us, far too close for comfort.

Here’s a bit from a long and fascinating interview with him from The New Yorker:

The irony in the title of St. Aubyn’s third Melrose novel, “Some Hope,” published in 1994, points both to a career-long interest in the idea of psychological deliverance and to a desire not to be mistaken for an artless writer. To read the novels is to watch a high intelligence outsmart cliché (or, to use a more Melrosian word, vulgarity), and so protect his protagonist’s literary distinction. Similarly, St. Aubyn has been careful to protect his own life from the dull tarnish of remembrance-and-release; it would pain him if readers mistook a twenty-year literary project for a therapeutic one. “What he wanted was a very pure success,” Oliver James, an old friend of St. Aubyn’s, and a clinical psychologist, told me.

But the awkward fact is that writing saved St. Aubyn’s life. Years of psychoanalysis, and the controlled fiction that followed, deferred the threat of suicide. St. Aubyn describes Patrick as an alter ego, though there are some differences. Patrick ends up with a day job—he’s a barrister—which St. Aubyn, with a seeming shrug of privileged incomprehension, barely makes convincing. More important, Patrick has no experience of therapy, beyond a group meeting or two in rehab. Instead, he ruminates, and makes sour, studied jokes. The novels enact, and describe, therapeutic progress, but St. Aubyn, led by a literary taste for compression, and by the desire to create “vivid and intense and non-boring” fiction, left out much of the process that helped him survive to midlife.

I read the Melrose novels finally a year or so ago.

It felt as though my own life had been X-rayed and thrown up onto a large white lightbox.

The cashmere and jewels and lovely homes. The literary and cultural references. The shrugging assumption that everyone lives a life of privilege and ease — or should.

Or could if they just did things right.

Oh, but you’re struggling?

To some ears, it’s a foreign language. They try to understand a few words, but it doesn’t really register and just isn’t very interesting.

Other Melrose-isms rang true:

The sycophants and hangers-on, skilled in the art of flattery.

Those slickly determined to displace children in the eyes of their own parents, able to remain so much more amusing and so much less demanding than flesh and blood.

The ability to find almost everything in the world worthy of intense interest, except your own children.

The missed holidays and birthdays and celebrations.

There are, of course, many people with a lot of money who have terrific relationships with their families.

But there are also some unimaginable darknesses behind the glittering veneer and the-stuff-we-all-want-so-badly — the Benchleys and Goyard handbags, the Dassault Falcons waiting on the tarmac at Teterborough.

I recently met a couple a decade older than I; she, smooth and assured, he a tenured professor secure in his stature.

We talked about my family and, she, probing far more deeply and quickly than I was used to, elicited far more of my candor than usual — and, later, that would leave me feeling regretful and queasy.

It’s not a fun tale in some respects.

And then he asked:

“Have you read the Patrick Melrose novels?”

I had.

“I could barely get through two of them,” he said.

Indeed.

The kindness of strangers

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, life, love, travel, women on January 24, 2015 at 1:37 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

An offering in rural Nicaragua -- fresh from the tree!

An offering in rural Nicaragua — fresh from the tree!

Without which, most of us can’t survive.

I know one reason travel moves me emotionally, and why I so enjoy it, is that — 99 percent of the time — it has rewarded my (cautious) trust in the kindness of strangers with what I hoped for. Not robbery or rape or someone out to do me harm, but someone funny and generous and smart who is willing to open their heart and home to me.

Ironically, I’ve only become a crime victim — twice in Canadian cities (break-in, assault) and twice here in suburban New York (auto theft, fraud) — when supposedly safely “at home.”

Many people fear venturing beyond their safe and familiar world, certain that terror and mayhem will ensue.

Not for me and not for my mother, who traveled the world alone in her 40s.

Not for the many women I know who have ventured forth to places like Uganda and Haiti and Nicaragua, alone or with company, for work or for pleasure.

Not for for my many colleagues, male and female, working worldwide in journalism, who often have to rely on local interpreters and fixers and drivers, any one of whom might, in fact, prove to be a kidnaper. Using your smarts, network and instincts, you learn to be discerning.

Not for my young friend, 22-year-old recent Harvard graduate Devi Lockwood, now traveling the globe alone on a post-grad fellowship studying climate change, spending her year surrounded by strangers very, very far away from her Connecticut home; her blog is here.

Here’s a tiny excerpt from her journey:

Sharon retrieves an orange, plastic dreidel from the inside the pocket of her sweater. “With a dreidel, like in life, you have no control. You have to enter into the mystery and take your chances.”

I can’t help but smile at the gesture, the tears of upstairs now dried on my cheeks. Sharon closes her eyes for a moment to bless the object before she passes it into my hands. It is small but larger than itself. She could not have known that orange is my favorite color. I press the object into my own pocket.

It takes an interesting blend of courage, resilience, stamina, self-confidence,  and the humility to know and respect local customs of dress and behavior to trust yourself amongst strangers. You need self-reliance and gumption. You need to know how to read a map, (apps don’t always do the trick),  and manage in metric and Celsius and other languages.

And — of course — you don’t have to any sort of exotic foreign travel to have this experience. Try a neighborhood in your city you’ve never visited!

I’m in awe at my freshmen writing students’ bravery as so many of them have come from very distant parts of the world, and the U.S., to live, work and study among strangers. I’ve had students from Rome, France, Guam, Hawaii, Mississippi; Canadian college students, in distinct contrast, tend to attend their local universities (partly because there are many fewer of them to choose from and the quality is generally very high.)

How far would you go and feel safe?

How far would you go and feel safe?

You need, in my favorite French verb, to se debrouiller — figure shit out.

My blog posts about how to travel alone as a woman continue to be my best-read.

I’ve finally realized why this sort of unexpected kindness matters so much to me and why it touches me so deeply. Sometimes I’m so thankful it seems overdone, but it’s heartfelt.

I come from a family with plenty of money but one with little time or aptitude for emotional attentiveness. I left my mother’s care at 14 and my father’s home at 19, so have long been accustomed to fending for myself.

As an only child for decades, (step-siblings came later), I simply had to rely on the kindness of strangers in many instances because my own family was nowhere to be found — off traveling the world, long before the Internet or cell phones. Even when they lived nearby, I couldn’t rely on them for emotional or financial support and never, once, had the option of “moving home” back into their houses.

My solo week in Corsica, July 1995, was one of the best of my life!

My solo week in Corsica, July 1995, was one of the best of my life!

So I discovered that people I had never met before could overwhelm me with their kindness and generosity.

— Gudrun, the wife of a sporting goods executive living in Barcelona, who was then a stringer for Reuters. She welcomed me into her home, left me alone while they went out to dinner, and immediately trusted me. As I did with them. She later let me stay again and even lent me her weekend home.

— Tala, who, hearing we were planning to visit Paris at Christmas, immediately offered us her apartment there.

— Gillian, who invited me to her suburban home there and cooked a lovely meal.

— The young Portuguese couple I met on a train as they headed home to Lisbon to marry. They invited me into their apartment for that week and I ended up becoming their wedding photographer.

It’s instructive to see, also, how sometimes the people with the least to offer materially are so open.

We stayed in this house in a village with no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water.

We stayed in this house in a village with no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water

When I visited Nicaragua for work in March 2014 with WaterAid, the second-poorest Western Hemisphere nation after Haiti, I was struck by how genuinely welcoming people were. Yes, we were introduced by locals they know and respect, but I expected little beyond civility. Warmth and genuine connection were a joy, whether in Miskitu through a translator or Spanish, which I speak.

I sat one afternoon, lazing in the blistering heat on a shady verandah chatting with a woman. Marly, a little girl of five, came and sat with me, and let me braid her hair, a sort of easy intimacy I can’t imagine any American child allowing with a stranger, or their fearful parents allowing.

Here’s a sobering/sad New York Times story about Lenore Skenazy, a former colleague of mine at the New York Daily News, who has become (!?) an expert in telling terrified Americans that it’s OK to let their children play outside alone:

A second result is the Free Range Kids Project and a 13-part series, starting Thursday on Discovery Life Channel, called “World’s Worst Mom.” In it, Ms. Skenazy intervenes to rescue bubble-wrapped kids from their overprotective parents by guiding the children safely through a sequence of once-forbidden activities and showing their anxious parents how well the children perform and how proud they are of what they accomplished.

The term “helicopter parents” applies to far more than those who hover relentlessly over their children’s academic and musical development. As depicted in the first episode of the series, it applies to 10-year-old Sam’s very loving mother who wouldn’t let him ride a bike (“she’s afraid I’ll fall and get hurt”), cut up his own meat (“Mom thinks I’ll cut my fingers off”), or play “rough sports” like skating. The plea from a stressed-out, thwarted Sam: “I just want to do things by myself.”

In an interview, Ms. Skenazy said, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger.” The widespread publicity now given to crimes has created an exaggerated fear of the dangers children face if left to navigate and play on their own.

I’m simply sad for these children and the cringing, world-fearing adults they might become.

How will they successfully navigate the many steps toward full economic and emotional independence?

The only way to discover the potential kindness of strangers is to allow for its very real possibility.

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