The pleasure of using old things

By Caitlin Kelly

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I know that for some, “old” equals crappy, broken and dirty. Something to ditch and replace as soon as possible.

If you’ve only had other people’s used stuff — and not by choice but through financial necessity — or had to use your own things until they broke or wore out, even after much maintenance and multiple repairs, the allure of antiques may be completely lost on you.

Some things are nicer bought fresh and new, unstained and pristine, (linens, shoes and intimate apparel, for example.)

And if your aesthetic hews modern, then many early styles of silver and wood, glass and ceramic will leave you cold.

Not me!

I love haunting antiques fairs, flea markets, consignment shops and auctions on a treasure hunt. Once you know your stuff, (how a teacup from 1780, 1860 and 1910 differ, for example), you’re set to find some amazing bargains from those who don’t.

Not for me the joys of Ebay or other online sites — I want to see stuff up close, to touch and hold it and know for sure what I’m buying, or not. Practice, lots of looking and study helps. I really enjoy talking to dealers who are as passionate about their stock as I am. I learn something new every time.

New York City, like Paris and London, holds annual antiques fairs, some selling their wares, literally, to museums. Admission is usually $20 or $25, and the quality on offer is astounding. If you love history and the decorative arts, to see and touch Egyptian or Roman objects, or marvel at a medieval manuscript, is a thrill in itself.

The dealers — no matter how wealthy most other shoppers are — are almost always friendly and gracious, even when it’s clear I won’t be pulling out a check with sufficient zeroes on it.

The teacup pictured above is a recent splurge.

I spied the tea-set at a Manhattan fair, in the display case of a British regional dealer whose prices were surprisingly gentle, (unlike the $18,500 ceramic garden stool nearby.)

The set included a teapot, creamer, two serving plates, a bowl and 12 cups and 12 saucers, a rare find all together and all usable except for the teapot, which has a hairline crack inside.

I drink a pot of tea, or several, daily and sit at an 18th century oak table my father gave us. I love 18th century design and this tea-set is likely late 18th or early 19th century. You can tell by its shape and by how light each piece feels in your hand. The bottoms are plain white, unmarked by a maker’s name.

I hadn’t spent that much money on anything fun in many months — only on really boring stuff like physical therapy co-pays and car repairs.

This was just a hit of pure beauty, and one we’ll use every day.

A bit giddy and nervous about making so large a purchase, I sat in the cafe there for a while to ponder, sharing a table with a well-dressed woman a bit older than I, both of us sipping a Diet Coke. One of the pleasures of loving antiques is meeting others who also love them and she was there to add to her collection of armorial porcelain, a specialized niche I know as well.

Turned out — of course! — we were both from Toronto and had both attended the same girls’ school, although she was a decade older than I.

We enjoyed a long and lively conversation and she very generously gave me an extra ticket to the Winter Antiques Fair, which is also on at the same time, which I attended last year, (and where I bought a black and white photo by Finnish legend Pentti Samallahti. The image we now own is in the 6th row down, 2nd from the left. I’m dying to own the third one from the left in that row!)

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Charlotte Bronte’s writing desk

I appreciate the elegance, beauty and craftsmanship of finely made older things and feel honored to own them, wondering who else sat on these chairs and used this table — definitely not while writing on a laptop, but likely a quill pen, writing by candlelight.

Because so many people now disdain “brown furniture” and hate polishing silver, there are some tremendous bargains to be had, all of them costing less than junk made quickly in China.

We’re only passing through.

In their quiet, subtle way, antiques remind us of that.

The challenge of making a big change

This is one of my favorite bloggers, Chelsea Fuss, a single woman who left a thriving floral design business in Portland, Oregon and who is now living in Lisbon.

Her blog, frolic, is a consistent joy: frank, lovely, wise.

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Where in the world will you go? What if it doesn’t work out? What if it does?!

Some of her thoughts on the challenges of changing your life, big-time, (of which there are five in her post):

1. Nothing is perfect. Often, when I engage in these sorts of conversations, people are looking for a magical answer, a perfect life. Nothing is perfect. As my brother likes to remind me, everything in life is a trade off. Whatever new life you are able to acquire, one thing is for sure, you will have a new set of challenges. Weigh the positives and negatives and be honest with yourself about what your priorities are and what you are willing to sacrifice to make your dreams real. For example, when I left my home base in Portland, I was giving up a creative community, a great location for operating my business, all of my current and potential clients, most of my business and the ambitions and goals I had for it, everything I owned! The list goes on! Some people might say, “You traded all that and more to work as a glorified slave?” It’s all in how you look at it. At the time, my priority was to get my hands in the earth, apprentice on organic farms (I volunteered on farms in exchange for room and board, cutting out the rent factor), see more of the world, meet new people, and mix things up a bit to see what happened. I actually had no end goal in sight. I ended up staying in Europe and moving to Lisbon. I got a whole new life, and a whole new set of problems, with my new-found-life and accomplished dreams.

Two bloggers I follow have done this as well; Cadence (an American in London) and Juliet, a Canadian in Paris.

I know many of you are immigrants or ex-pats; here’s a brand-new blog, by an American man now living in Bucharest.

I’ve cast off my former life a few times and…it’s terrifying!

OK, it was for me.

The first time, I was 25, and won an eight-month fellowship to Paris (!) to study, travel and work in a group of 28 journalists from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35. I ditched a live-in boyfriend (willingly), my dog (sob), friends, family and a thriving freelance writing career I was sick to death of.

I was stuck in a cosy cocoon, but desperate for some wings.

It certainly gave me that!

I’d left my parents’ home at 19, and there I was, living for the first time in a college dorm room (tiny!) with bathrooms down the hall and a hyper-vigilant staff who grilled me when they thought I had “un clandestin” (i.e. a man) in my room.

I traveled alone (on reporting trips) to Sicily, Denmark and Amsterdam and spent eight days in a truck with a French driver going from Perpignan to Istanbul, still one of the best adventures of my  life.

I’m still good friends with some of the people from our fellowship.

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Lake Massawippi, Eastern Townships, near Montreal

I did it again when I left my hometown of Toronto for a job in Montreal, where I’d once more be working en francais.

I loved my enormous top-floor apartment and quickly made new friends and met my first husband.

But the city was a poor fit for me, as was the newspaper I went to work for. Montreal, a charming place to visit, offered a brutally cold, snowy and interminable winter; very high taxes; limited professional opportunities, terrible public services and a much higher crime rate than Toronto.

I was gone within two years.

Off to a small town in New Hampshire to follow my first husband’s medical training there — but I had no job, no friends or family, and it was long before the Internet and its easy social and professional connections.

Then, two years after that, we moved to a town in the suburbs of New York City, just in time for a recession. Again, with no job, no family or friends and no alumni networks to lean on.

I had never lived in a small town before New Hampshire.

I had never lived in the suburbs before New York.

You can make a huge change.

Chelsea did. I did.

I know many people who have.

It takes guts, self-confidence, resilience.

Savings and good job skills are essential.

It may not work out at all as you’d hoped or planned; my first husband walked out the door (literally) barely two years after our wedding and promptly married a woman he worked with. That was very definitely not in my plans.

But here I am today, with a home, a town and a second husband that all make me happy that I made the move  — and that I toughed it out.

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Grand Central Station, NYC. One of my favorite things about living here.

Have you made a huge change in your life?

How did it turn out?

Living in chaos is exhausting

By Caitlin Kelly

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photo: NBC News

It took me a while to figure this out.

The way that President Donald Trump behaves — a mixture I find both exhausting and toxic — is far too familiar.

He scowls.

He rages.

He accuses everyone who disagrees with him of trying to undermine him.

He’s flapped his hand at his wife in public as if she were a poorly-trained servant, leaving her behind as he ascended the White House steps — leaving the Obamas, instead, to escort her, each extending a gentle hand to Melania’s back.

He has every privilege and power the world can bestow upon him and it’s insufficient to his insatiable needs.

There’s no way to predict what he will say or do next, and millions worldwide are now on tenterhooks, anxious and insecure.

What fresh hell awaits tomorrow?

Been there, lived it and hated it.

I grew up in a family that had mental illness and alcoholism in it. You learn to adapt, even while you wish you didn’t have to. You’re constantly on-guard for the next draaaaaaama, the next mess to clean up.

Americans are learning to similarly bob and weave and dodge and feint to accommodate his incompetence and capriciousness.

How to cope:

We become hyper-vigilant, ever alert to the next catastrophe.

We anticipate disaster, ever ready to finesse it, no matter how scared or overwhelmed we really feel.

We’re confused, because what was said the day before — or 10 minutes earlier — is now different. Pivot! Fast! Do it again!

The cognitive load leaves us unfocused or less productive at work and in intimate relationships. We’re burned out.

Gaslighting is incessant, the denials of terrible things they just said. You heard it. You saw it. But…no, you didn’t, they insist. 

Four years of this?

I’m exhausted after a week.

A mid-winter walk

By Caitlin Kelly

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We’d endured day after day after day of cold, gray, wet, sunless weather.

Cabin fever was setting in — not to mention Vitamin D deficiency.

Finally (yay!) a January day, unseasonably warm for a downstate New York winter, about 45 degrees F, and it was finally a chance to get out for a walk!

Here are some images I shot with my cellphone, along the pathway near our home I’ve been walking in every season for decades.

It’s nothing fancy. No amazing, jaw-dropping views; it’s a mile in each direction, and there are several benches at the reservoir’s edge so you can sit for a while and savor it.

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I love how the light shifts season to season, how the woods, in spring and summer, go from silent to full of animals and birds.

This time of year, the only sounds I heard were dried leaves rustling in the wind, a brook and some cars circling the reservoir.

Winter is a season whose beauty is easily overlooked, subtle and quiet — water reflections, pale leaves, lichen and moss.

There is something so deeply soothing and restorative, for me, walking in nature alone.

No music.

Just air and light and water, trees and rocks and plants and sky.

Do you get out into nature often?

Do you also find it healing?

Money: getting/spending/saving it

By Caitlin Kelly

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One of my pleasures is enjoying culture — and yes, it costs money!

A friend recently saw an ATM receipt that left her gobsmacked — $139,000 — in the hands of a young woman, maybe in her 20s.

My friend is a single mother who works in a creative field, frustrated that she has yet to hit the level of income she craves, deeply envious of the stranger with so much more than she.

I get it — when I found out that a friend of ours, someone our age, earns $500,000 a year, I was stunned.

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

My husband and I are both working full-time freelance, with a mortgage that won’t be finished for another five years unless, somehow, we make a lot more money and can pay it off sooner.

What’s currently killing our ability to save — or enjoy much beyond basics — is $1,800 month in health insurance costs; his, heavily subsidized by his former employer as a retiree while they soak me the full price.

Yes, there is cheaper insurance, but it all comes with huge deductibles and co-pays.

The getting and spending, (and saving and investing, ideally), of money is often a lifelong challenge for all but the very wealthy.

But it comes down to basic economics: if you’re always broke, you’re under-earning or living beyond your means.

If you’re mired in poverty — with little education and/or weak job skills, multiple dependents and/or health issues — it can feel, and be, almost impossible to climb out.

And I know far too many women, of any age, who remain somehow terrified of money — especially when asking for it or more of it, (i.e. negotiating an initial salary, asking for raises/bonuses/commissions/better freelance rates), and handling their finances confidently and intelligently.

As if, for some reason, we don’t deserve it.

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It does mean taking charge.

It does (gulp) carry consequences, no matter how much action (or inaction) you choose.

I once attended an information session at the U.S. firm where I keep my retirement money.

It was laughable.

As in laughably bad, full of jargon and weird, arcane advice possibly of value to people with millions to manage — or waste.

Not me!

Selfishly, as a journalist, I get paid to learn, and, in writing about personal finance for the Times and Reuters and others, have learned (and taught readers!) a lot about handling money.

I also read the financial pages of two newspapers daily and read several business magazines to keep abreast of what’s happening in the domestic and global economy.

If you don’t know the word fiduciary, learn it and make sure anyone going near your money professionally is one.

One of my favorite people, and bloggers, is writing candidly about getting smarter about money. I admire her for being forthright and questioning her decisions publicly.

People rarely do.

I urge anyone thinking about how to better handle their finances to read this fantastic book, (which I reviewed in The New York Times, and am now friends with its author), Pound Foolish. It’s not a how-to, but a smart and insightful overview of the personal finance world.

She also writes a smart and helpful advice column for Slate.

My other favorite money columnist is Michelle Singletary, with the Washington Post.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.
Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona — travel has always been a priority for me

Jose and I were were lucky to both have attended and graduated from college debt-free; he on full-ride scholarships, I attending Canada’s best university for $660 a year. (No, there’s no missing zero.) Neither of us attended (or needed) graduate or professional school.

Nor did we have children, saving us an estimated $200,000+ per child to raise.

Nor do we have dependent relatives.

My priorities have been travel and retirement.

But I admit it — it really did feel useless and annoying to keep putting money away year after year after year for what I hoped would one day help fund a retirement, denying myself so many purchases, (newer car, nicer clothes) and pleasures in order to do so — until that sum finally grew to six figures and I thought, with relief and pride: I did that!

And, yes, for many reasons, saving money is difficult for some people, and impossible for those who don’t earn enough to get past subsistence.

But it’s also urgent (and tedious!) to distinguish between wants and needs, between what everyone around you may boastfully own, often on credit, (new phone, new car, huge and lavish wedding, bigger house, etc.), and what fits your financial priorities.

Peer pressure to keep up — i.e. spending! — will kill you and your financial future.

It’s one reason I constantly urge women, especially, who earn less and live longer, to always, always ask for more — and to read this book that tells them how to do it.

Do you find handling money frightening or intimidating?

Any great tips to share?

Light a candle

By Caitlin Kelly

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As I write this post, it’s snowing here in New York.

The world is blessedly silent and softened, flakes swirling in the wind and piling up against our windows and ledges.

Our view of the Hudson River is totally obscured in a blanket of white.

Perfect time for candles!

My vision of candles forever changed about 20 years ago, when I visited Stockholm in late November, when the sun rose at 8:30 a.m. and set around 2:30 p.m.

Darkness arrived so early in the day that it was both unsettling and disorienting.

I’d never before seen businessmen at lunch — dining by candlelight. But it was both a smart way to boost illumination and add to the room’s ambience.

I now start and end my winter days with a bedside scented candle, a gift from a friend.

It’s a soothing start to a dark, cold, windy morning — the scratch of match-head on matchbox, the whoosh and flare of flame, the flicker as it catches the wick and begins to glow.

At night, I breath out, extinguishing it. The day is done.

So much nicer than brilliant, suddenly shocking electric light or, worse, the artificial glow of a tablet, phone, television or computer screen.

(If you ever watched Downtown Abbey on TV, you might recall the Dowager Duchess holding a fan to her face as she confronts the new glare of electric bulbs.)

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Candlelight is silent.

Candlelight is gentle.

Candlelight is timeless.

It reconnects us to the past — from the tallow candles of our ancestors to the elegant tapers of Georgian homes (magnified by enormous mirrors everywhere.)

Try it and see how it alters and softens your mood

As the saying goes — it’s better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.

Showing up

By Caitlin Kelly

5th-anniversary

Our wedding, Sept. 18. 2011 — grateful for our friends’ attendance!

It was a cold, gray, rainy morning and the small Tarrytown, NY church — where author Washington Irving once worshipped — was filling up.

The long, dark wooden pews held friends, colleagues, cousins, a brother.

Several neighbors from her apartment building, including me, joined them.

So did one of her physicians, who would speak about her with respect and affection.

Attending a memorial service is — to put it bluntly — rarely fun.

It’s a spine-stiffening reminder of our mortality, no matter our age or health.

But someone has died and we’re there to honor them and their life, no matter how tenuous the thread of connection. To hold up, sometimes literally, their grieving friends and family, to show them that they, too, are loved and valued by a larger community.

It’s the right thing to do.

And, if you deeply knew and loved the person, it’s heartbreaking; even the female minister conducting the service warned us it would be difficult for her as she was a close friend of our neighbor.

One of my favorite writers, Susie Boyt, recently ended her 13-year column in the Financial Times; a great-grand-daughter of Freud, she is so deliciously un-British, all feelings and emotion, a huge breath of fresh air in those po-faced orange pages filled with PLU (people like us), and I will miss her!

She writes, in her farewell column:

I think that celebrating and mourning should be practiced in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.

I also loved this, from her:

You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you’re needed for the call could come at any time.

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We now live in increasingly connected but disconnected times.

We check our phones constantly for some amusing text or parade of emojis.

We hang out on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, “liking” and “friending” — but rarely sitting with someone who is in pain, scared and dying.

That’s the tough part. Showing up.

More than ever, now, we need to show up in one another’s lives: when someone is ill, or injured, or their parents are dying or your favorite teacher or professor is retiring.

Not every event is sad, of course, but we need to be present, to witness, to celebrate and to console.

I’m at an age now (sigh) where funerals and memorials — for friends, for parents, for neighbors — are more prevalent than graduations, weddings and christenings, all events filled with flowers and joy, hope and anticipation.

And few moments are more sobering and searing than a virtually unattended funeral or memorial service.

I’ve been to one of those.

I’ve been to one that was standing room only, for former New York Times photographer (and someone whose life you might know from the film The Killing Fields), Dith Pran.

I’m especially sensitive to unattended milestones; neither parent attended my college graduation. My mother wasn’t there for my second wedding and neither were my husband’s two sisters or their partners. That hurt, a lot.

So I try, (grateful for the freedom as a self-employed person to be able to do so), to attend memorials and funerals for the people I know, even someone like our neighbor A., a single woman, never married, who was ferociously private.

We never socialized and rarely spoke.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

St. Marks in the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s oldest churches

But at her memorial service I learned a great deal about her, and how very deeply her life, and her enthusiasms, had touched so many others.

Until or unless you’re in the room for these intimate, once-in-a-lifetime events, you’re missing a great deal.

We’re all a thread — as one late beau, cut down too soon by cancer, used to joke — in life’s rich tapestry.

He was right.

He is right.

Show up.

17 things to try in 2017

By Caitlin Kelly

Set at least one face-to-face date with a friend (or colleague) every week

In a world of virtual connection, it’s too easy to spend our life tapping a keyboard and staring into a screen. And we miss out on so much by not sitting face to face with friends and colleagues — their laughter, a hug, a raised eyebrow.

Eat less meat

I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian, but have decided, for health reasons, to try and eat less red meat. Great recipes help, as does finding a good and affordable fishmonger.

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Switch up your cultural consumption

If you’ve never been to the opera or ballet, (or played a video game or read a manga),  or visited a private art gallery or museum, give it a try.

We all fall into ruts, easily forgetting — or, worse, never knowing or caring — how many forms of cultural expression exist in the world.

If all you read is science fiction, pick up a book of real-life science, and vice versa.

Have you ever listened to koto music? Or bhangra? Or reggae? Or soukous? One of my favorite musicians is Mali’s Salif Keita. Another is the British songwriter Richard Thompson.

Watch less television

I turned off the “news” and my stress levels quickly dropped. I read Twitter and two papers a day, but most television news is a shallow, U.S.-centric (where I live) joke. I enjoy movies and a very few shows, but try to limit my television time to maybe six hours a week.

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Read for pure pleasure

I consume vast amounts of media for my work as a journalist, (we get 20 monthly and weekly magazines and newspapers by subscription), often ending up too tired to read for pure enjoyment.

Make a point of finding some terrific new reads and dive in.

 

Schedule a long phone call or Skype visit each month with someone far away you miss

Like me, you’ve probably got friends and family scattered across the world. People I love live as far away from me (in New York) as Kamloops, B.C., D.C., Toronto and London. Emails and social media can’t get to the heart of the matter as deeply as a face to face or intimate conversation.

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Get a handle on your finances: spending, saving, investing

Crucial!

Do you know your APRs? Your FICO score and how to improve it? Are you saving 15 percent of your income every week or month? (If not, how will you ever retire or weather a financial crisis?)

Have you invested your savings? Are you reviewing your portfolio a few times a year to see if things have changed substantially?

Do you read the business press, watching where the economy is headed? If you’ve never read a personal finance book or blog, invest some time this year in really understanding  how to maximize every bit of your hard-earned income and cut expenses.

I wrote five pieces last year for Reuters Money; there are many such sites to help you  better understand personal finance. Here’s a helpful piece from one of my favorite writers on the topic, (meeting her in D.C. last year was a great nerd-thrill!), the Washington Post‘s Michelle Singletary.

Fast one or two days a week

I’ve now been doing this for seven months, two days a week, and plan to do it forever. The hard core consume only 500 calories on “fast” days. I eat 750, and eat normally the other days. (Normally doesn’t include fast food, liquor [except for weekends], junk food like chips and soda.) It’s helped me shed weight and calm digestive issues.

It’s not that difficult after the first few weeks and doing vigorous exercise helps enormously, thanks to endorphins and other chemicals that naturally suppress appetite.

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Rockefeller Center, as seen from Saks Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, NY

Explore a new-to-you neighborhood, town or city nearby

Do you always take the same route to work or school or the gym? We all try to save time by taking well-known short-cuts, but can miss a lot in so doing.

Make time to try a new-to-you neighborhood or place nearby. Travel, adventure and exploration don’t have to require a costly plane or train ticket.

Ditch a long-standing habit — and create a new one

Watching television news had become a nightly habit for me, even as I found much of it shallow and stupid.

My new habit for 2015 was playing golf, even just going to the driving range to work on my skills.

My new habit, for 2016, is fasting twice a week.

Not sure yet what my 2017 new habit will be.

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Write notes on paper

As thank-yous for the dinners and parties you attend. For gifts received. Condolence notes.

Splurge on some quality stationery and a nice pen; keep stamps handy so you’ve no excuse. Getting a hand-written letter through the mail now is such a rarity and a luxury. It leaves an impression.

Decades from now, you’ll savor some of the ones you received — not a pile of pixels or emails.

I recently ordered personalized stationery; here’s one I like, from Paper Source.

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Buy something beautiful for your home

Even on a tight budget, adding beauty to your home brings you every day.

A bunch of $10 tulips. A pretty pair of hand towels. Fresh pillowcases. A colorful cereal bowl or mug.

A platter for parties!

Even a can of paint and a roller can transform a room.

Your home is a refuge and sanctuary from a noisy, crowded, stressful world. Treat it well!

Visit your local library

Libraries have changed, becoming more community centers. I love settling into a comfortable chair for a few hours to soak up some new magazines or to pick up a selection of CDs or DVDs to try.

Get to know a child you’re not related to

We don’t have children or grand-children, or nephews or nieces, so we appreciate getting to know the son of our friends across the street, who’s 10, and a lively, funny, talented musician.

People who don’t have children can really enjoy the company of others’ kids, and kids can use a break from their parents and relatives; an outside perspective can be a refreshing change (when it’s someone whose values you share and whose behavior, of course, you trust.)

If you’re ready for the commitment, volunteer to mentor a less-privileged child through a program like Big Brothers or Big Sisters or other local initiatives. Everyone needs an attentive ear and someone fun and cool to hang out with and learn from  — who’s not only one more authority figure.

Write to your elected representative(s) praising them for work you admire — or arguing lucidly for the changes you want them to make, and why

I admire those who choose political office. For every bloviating blowhard, there’s someone who really hopes to make a difference. Let them know you appreciate their hard work — or make sure they hear your concerns.

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Write a letter to the editor

If you ever read the letters page, you’ll find it dominated by male voices. Make time to read deeply enough that you find stories and issues to engage with, about which you have strong and lucid opinions and reactions.

Support the causes you believe in by arguing for them publicly — not just on social media or privately.

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Spend at least 30 minutes every day in silence, solitude and/or surrounded by nature

Aaaaaaaaaah. Essential.

If you’re feeling stuck, try mind-mapping.

 

Hoping that each of you has a happy, healthy 2017!

Friendships: some true, some toxic

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

From the smart digital publisher Aeon:

But even our easiest and richest friendships can be laced with tensions and conflicts, as are most human relationships. They can lose a bit of their magic and fail to regain it, or even fade out altogether for tragic reasons, or no reason at all. Then there are the not-so-easy friendships; increasingly difficult friendships; and bad, gut-wrenching, toxic friendships. The pleasures and benefits of good friends are abundant, but they come with a price. Friendship, looked at through a clear and wide lens, is far messier and more lopsided than it is often portrayed.

The first cold splash on an idealised notion of friendship is the data showing that only about half of friendships are reciprocal. This is shocking to people, since research confirms that we actually assume nearly all our friendships are reciprocal. Can you guess who on your list of friends wouldn’t list you?

As longtime readers here know, I’ve often blogged about friendship.

Like here, here and and here.

One reason friendship is so compelling to me is coming from a family that’s always riddled with anger and estrangements that go on for years, sometimes permanent. That’s deeply painful.

We all need love. We all need intimacy. We all need people willing to listen to our woes, cheer our triumphs, attend our graduations and bar/bat miztvahs, our kids’ weddings, to visit us in hospital or hospice — and someone, finally, to attend our funeral or memorial service.

A woman in our apartment building, (which is only made up of owners, some here for decades), recently died of cancer. She was prickly and cantankerous and had no family.

A note recently went up from friend of hers in a public space here to thank every single neighbor who showed up for her, took her meals, drove her to medical appointments — proxies for a loving family when she needed it most.

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Jose…

Another reason I so value friendship is having lost a few, and mourning the memories and histories now lost to me, shared with those women, like a New Year’s party in Jamaica with (!) live shots fired into the air around us or the day her friend let me helm his yacht — running it aground in Kingston harbor.

Like you, I treasure my friends and feel bereft when I lose one, although time and hindsight has helped me see that losing three of them has not inflicted long-term damage and, in fact, freed me to find much healthier, more egalitarian relationships.

I discovered that one of them had been lying a lot. That was enough for me.

Some of the friends I’m so grateful for:

Jose. My husband. We’ve been together 16 years and it’s the deepest and best friendship of my life. Even when I’m ready to change the locks, furious, I’ve never lost my respect or admiration for him.

N. She’s been through a hell of a lot, including early widowhood and a trans-national move. Her sweetness and optimism are refreshing, and consistent. My blood pressure drops when I’m around her.

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S. Who else would give me a stuffed octopus?! A fellow journalist and college teacher of journalism, her calm, wise advice helped me through some of my toughest classroom moments.

P. I haven’t had an adult pal-across-the-street since the mid-1980s when I lived on the top two floors of a Toronto house and made a friend living in a communal house across the street. Proximity makes it so fun and easy to meet for a coffee or an adventure shopping for Italian food in the Bronx. She’s got one of the biggest and most generous hearts of anyone I know. Also, funny as hell.

L. One of the very few close friends I’ve made at church, mostly a WASPy, frosty crowd. She’s an amazing mom, an attentive and loving listener, a font of calm wisdom.

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The view from D’s apartment, which she sometimes lends me…

D. Oh, what we’ve seen, and survived! Both of us divorced, both of us career journalists still (!) in the business, both of us who’ve become New Yorkers who came from elsewhere. In a deep, long friendship, there’s so much shared history. She’s my oldest friend in New York.

M. More than family, she took me into her Toronto home year after year, hosting and celebrating birthdays like Jose’s 50th, and nurturing me for three weeks after my terrifying encounter here with a con man. Now she’s recently re-married, at 70. Yay!

MS. Young enough to be my daughter, this talented photographer is beautiful, smart, hard-working, adventurous. I admire her drive and skill, and so enjoy her visits. She’s slept on our sofa many times.

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 A cup of tea at the Ritz in London…where C joined me

C. This astonishing young woman, also half my age, is a treat: whip-smart, emotionally intelligent, resilient as hell. She and I share a global perspective from life lived in various countries and some similar family issues. So happy that she and her fabulous husband are in my life.

PHMT. We met on a rooftop in Cartagena, Colombia when I was in my early 20s. I promptly fell hard! “I’m gay,” he said. Oh. OK. Let’s just be great friends! And we are. He finally stopped being cool to Jose when Jose and I married — knowing, finally, I was back in good hands, as he was so deeply protective of me for years. That’s friendship.

MO. Ohhhhh. We call ourselves the Pasta Twins, a play on each of our names, Marioni and Catellini. We met in freshman English class at University of Toronto, a very serious, very po-faced venue, when we rolled our eyes at one another. College pals know us in ways no one else ever will. We dated the wrong men, (like the gggggorgeous male best friends we met at a party, both of whom shattered our hearts), and fought for our independence from difficult fathers. Our adult lives could not be any more different — she’s the proud mom of three grown daughters and lives very far away now — but our love continues.

Wishing every one of you the blessing of friendship, now and for years to come!

The challenge of gift-giving

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It’s a really cold winter…maybe something warm, fun and colorful?

This was a funny/telling piece recently in the Men’s Styles section of The New York Times:

“The older I get, the more anxiety I feel about gift giving,” said Mr. York, a 48-year-old executive at a nonprofit company in Brooklyn. “It’s a huge amount of stress, and it will go on for several weeks, until about five or six days before Christmas. The more Christmases that pile on, there is more anxiety.”

For men like Mr. York, who try to do the right thing, the very idea of giving and receiving gifts can spur feelings of failure and self-doubt.

I’ve rarely seen such crazy anxiety as when I worked three holiday seasons as a sales associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban mall in New York, near my home here.

It started at Thanksgiving when holiday shoppers started panicking, and ratcheted up to truly stupendous levels as Christmas approached.

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Music? Hers is great stuff, from the 80s’…

What if I get someone the wrong thing?

What if they hate it?

I have no idea what they’d even like!

I admit, I did see more of this panic in male shoppers, like the man who (!) asked me what his 14-year-old daughter would like.

Problems:

— I was far from 14

— I have no kids or nieces of any age

— She’s your daughter, dude!

None of which, of course, I said to him. I probed gently as to what sort of girl she was and tried my best to be helpful. But, honestly, I found it sad and weird he had no idea what might make her happy.

Another man, frantically pawing through the ski jackets, yelped: “I need to find a present for a pain in the ass!”

Yup.

We all do, kids.

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For anyone you know who loves travel or aviation — or just gorgeous prose — get this!

In the 16 years Jose and I have been together, he’s given me wonderful Christmas gifts, everything from a colander and toaster (I was so broke that year!) to gorgeous earrings. The only dud? Snowshoes.

Snowshoes?!

Our gifts tend to be fairly traditional: clothing, jewelry, books, music and always a present “for the house” — pretty new dishes or glassware or kitchen tools.

This year, we set a very tight dollar limit for one another and yet I’ve been able to find a fun variety of things I think he’ll really enjoy.

The secret of choosing a great gift?

You need to know the person well.

The panic sets in when you’re buying for people you don’t really know at all, nor their favorite/hated colors or textures, what they own (or want to own), their current sizes, etc.

Even worse are the gifts we end up buying, often at the very last minute when we’re tired, cranky and already over-budget, out of sheer obligation, sometimes for people we don’t even like very much.

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One of my favorite Paris shops — scarves and mufflers in every possible color

As someone who was the grim recipient of too many of these — like the books with the big black streak on them, the stigmata of the remaindered (i.e. cheap) — not to mention discarded free cosmetic samples — just don’t!

(When someone has no money, of course a gift is anything they offer with love. When someone has plenty of money but no heart or attention to detail? That can feel mean.)

 

I posted an extensive list of ideas here recently, so click through for some last-minute ideas.

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Give a quality newspaper subscription! Facts matter now more than ever before.

And, maybe the best gift of all right now, is a donation to your favorite charity, domestic or global…

 

Want to help those fleeing Aleppo? Here’s a link to donate….

And seven more.

 

What’s the best holiday gift you’ve ever gotten?

The worst?