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30 terrific holiday gifts: 2016 edition

In culture, design, domestic life, entertainment, family, food, life, love on November 26, 2016 at 4:18 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Long-time readers of Broadside know this is an annual tradition. I love scouring the Internet for a few lovely things you might want to give others, (or hint for for yourself!)

I don’t include  gifts for children/teens, sports/outdoor gear or tech toys as they’re not my areas of expertise or interest.

 

The thing everyone seems to want now is a great experience — an adventure to remember, not more stuff.

 

What one person loves (Mozart!), another hates, so I’m reluctant to make many specific suggestions here, but I agree.

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How about giving a museum membership?

A subscription series of tickets to ballet, jazz, classical concerts, a choral music series?

Gift certificates to hotels, travel, spa days?

Even offering to head out for a monthly hike or long, lazy lunch with a dear friend, and sticking to it. That’s a gift to both of you.

Prices for this year’s list range widely, as usual, but many are less than $100, and some much less than $50.

I hope you’ll find some inspiration and fun!

1. Most essential this year? Give of yourself: your time, skills, expertise, hugs. Offer a package of home-made coupons to a friend, family member or neighbor for dog-walking, massages, baby-sitting, soup-making. If the disturbing rise in hate crimes in the U.S. has you concerned, donate to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood or any of the many groups fighting hard to protect civil rights.

If you can afford to give money but have no clear idea how or where start, my friend Jen Iacovelli’s book is a great guide for new philanthropists, at any level; Simple Giving: Easy Ways to Give Every Day.

 

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2. The British website, Plumo, has long been a favorite of mine, offering women’s clothing, shoes and accessories — and some home-focused items. These small gray ceramic houses are perfect to hold a votive candle; imagine a miniature village on a pale linen tablecloth or lining a mantelpiece. $15.83 each (plus shipping) Also in black, $31.66 (plus shipping.) And a taller, more ornate version in olive green $19.79 (plus shipping)

 

3. So many people are now worn out  — and, worse, misled, by fake news. We read widely, and one of our favorite reads is the London-based but utterly global in scope, the Financial Times, which we read on paper. It’s unabashedly pro-capitalist, but nonetheless smart and insightful; we keep the weekend edition for weeks on end as it takes us so long to read through and enjoy it all: book reviews, travel, recipes, wine, interviews and profiles. $4.79 week for the digital version, including the weekend FT.

 

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The New York Times newsroom

As someone who also writes freelance for The New York Times, (here are 22 of my stories, a fraction of what I’ve done for them), and has for many years, I’d also urge you consider buying someone a subscription to this American/global newspaper, especially for a high school or college student, or someone who’s never read it before. Someone who really needs to grasp the crucial difference between fake news and deep, fact-based reporting. Yes, their bias is liberal. But, more than ever, (they’re soon to cut staff again), deep fact-based reporting, comment and analysis relies on — and rewards — financial support. Only $3.13 a week for the first year, doubling a year later.

 

4. How can you resist the two major food groups contained in this jar — cognac and butter? From Fortnum & Mason, that elegant London emporium, cognac butter to slather on a hot scone or a waffle or a pancake or…$14.95

 

5. MUST HAVE a Star Wars cookie cutter set. Wookies! Darth Vader! R2D2! $29.95

 

6. Love this white and denim blue cotton rug, clean and simple, but not boring. Reminds me of sunlight on water. It would be great a in a room with lots of crisp blue and white with color hits of lemon yellow, apple green or chocolate brown. $187.95 (8 by 10 size, comes in many different sizes.)

 

7. This golden wall-mounted tea-light holder feels very Game of Thrones to me. In a good way! Imagine a wall of these flickering on a cold, dark winter’s night. $38

 

8. Now what would someone do with five white-washed square wooden boxes of varying sizes?  I use mine for: holding incoming mail on our hallway table; stashing notecards in my desk drawer and holding papers on my desk. (That still leaves two more!) $29

 

9. My favorite book for anyone aspiring to making art — dance, theater, literature — “The Creative Habit” by choreographer Twyla Tharp. She’s tough! Lots of great, practical ideas and very low woo-woo quotient. Used hardcover copy, from Powell’s in Portland. $10.50

 

10. Cat fan? Kittycat socks, from UK women’s fashion retailer (now selling in the U.S. as well), Hobbs. $13. Or, the same sock, with a fox terrier. $13

11. One of my favorite food suppliers is spice store Penzey’s, whose website offers tremendous choice. How about, in the depths of frigid winter, this selection of Mexican seasonings? Get inspired! $51.29

12. Regular readers here know I’m a huge fan of using candles, all the time, in every room. This gorgeous, unusual candlestick, designed for tapers, comes in two heights. This, the lower version, is $48

13. Christmas ornaments! This cheery woollen fox, complete with striped scarf and firewood tucked under his arm. $14. This set of three maple veneer ornaments includes retro skis, a snowshoe and an old-time sled, $32. This set,  of four blue and white ceramic circles, is elegant and unusual, from Etsy, $40. This little gray bear, with his jaunty red and white check bow-tie, is made in Italy. $4.88

14. You can never go wrong with a bud vase: perfect for a bedside table, or a grouping of them in the middle of the dining table. $8-18.

15. Nothing makes me feel more organized than a fistful of lovely sharpened pencils. Like these. $14

16. We’ve all got a nasty little umbrella we bought for $5 on a street corner when desperate one rainy day. But what a delicious luxury to own a beautiful, and beautifully-made umbrella, with a smooth but lightweight wooden handle and a wide, protective span. I love this one, (I snagged mine at a discount store version of Longchamp, in burnt orange); here in a warm creamy beige and a few other options. $195

17. I love this other French luggage brand, Lipault, and use their chocolate brown satin backpack when I travel. I really hate logos and prefer something classic and simple, yet well-made and not boring. That’s a lot to ask of a backpack, but here’s Lipault’s answer:  in red, deep purple, black, turquoise or ruby, at $54.

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I paid a big $12 for this one, on sale at Aldo

18. Watches are still cool. I really like the simplicity of this one, suitable for a man or woman, (38 mm in diameter), with a tan webbing strap, glow in the dark hands, black face and European/military time as well. (But I confess confusion — why isn’t 2:oo p.m. marked as 1400 hours?) $110

19. My wedding earrings from Jose look just like these — I wear them everywhere, every day. These are from Neiman-Marcus, simple, clean and, yes, diamonds! $750

20.  Hell to the yes! For a man. For a woman. For your teen (s). A gray sweatshirt with one key word on it — Feminist. $20.

21. Why would anyone want to sit in total silence for days at a time? Because it will totally shift their relationship to words, action, social behavior. I did a seven-day silent retreat in the summer of 2011 and it was both challenging and life-changing. Here’s a list of six places around the U.S. to go for this experience. (It was my birthday gift from my husband.)

22. From uber-chic Tribeca store La Garconne, these faceted gold stud earrings are perfect: subtle, low-key but not boring. Yes, please! $530

23. These would be fun under khakis or chinos; Fair Isle socks for men. $8

24. Of course, someone you know is going to love this poster clean, crisp graphics illustrating the different types of water towers in New York City, one of its most iconic and dominant features. $29

25. For the aviation geek in your life, (or avid traveler), this pale gray woolen blanket with the image of an early aircraft. So cool — and yet so warm! $145

26. I love to cook and bake, (as does someone on your gifts list!). This set of wooden-handled measuring cups is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. $56

27. We use a pair of open salt/pepper bowls like these; these are in black and white marble, smooth, rounded, sensual. $55

28. Bonjour, Monsieur! The quintessential Frenchman’s style is a muffler at the neck of a blazer, tied with rakish nonchalance. This one is on a woman’s site, but is perfectly unisex, navy blue with a thin white stripe. So chic and so damn cheap. $36

29. This season’s color is copper. This large, flat leather pouch is perfect as a small clutch handbag or (as I do with mine), for stashing my phone, charge cord and earpieces so I can find them easily, and keep them clean and organized. $88

30. The color of buttermilk, this small squishy leather drawstring bag, would add a hit of style to any woman’s (non-corporate) outfit. $140.

 

Not your typical Thanksgiving…

In aging, behavior, domestic life, life on November 24, 2016 at 7:08 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Hungry!

I’m typing this on my laptop, alone in bed.

My husband, a freelance photo editor, is working at The New York Times today, yesterday and tomorrow.

I can hear my neighbors below me and down the hall laughing and welcoming guests for today’s big celebration.

Tuesday and Thursday are my “fast days”, when I restrict my calorie consumption on those days to 750 calories, my goal to lose at least 30 pounds, ideally 45 or so. I’ve been doing this diligently since June and am seeing progress.

It’s hard, though. I just ate lunch and I’m still really hungry.

The sky outside our windows is a flat, leaden gray.

The town below our windows is eerily silent.

I see all my friends’ posts and photos on Facebook and Twitter, and I’m envying their feasts and fellowship.

But Jose and I are not close to our families; his lives far away from us and mine lives in Canada, which celebrates Thanksgiving there in early October.

So we’re usually invited to share it here with one of our friends and their family.

One year we went to an elegant restaurant instead.

Last year we spent this holiday at a friend’s home near D.C., a long, long table filled with delicious food and lots of her family.

She invited me back this year, but I decided to stay home…and good thing I did, as my right knee, (which is very damaged due to advanced osteoarthritis), collapsed on me on Sunday night, making it impossible to straighten my leg, the pain so intense I almost fainted and/or threw up.

Luckily, I saw my doctor Tuesday morning, who drained fluid from it and injected cortisone. I yelped!

Now I have a cold.

Awesome!

But I’m thankful for so much:

 

— A safe, warm, dry, bed and a cozy duvet

— The little radio that brings me the world and keeps me company

— My laptop!

— A hard-working healthy husband who is sustaining us through three freelance jobs

— Savings (so we don’t have to panic if I’m ill for a few days)

— Fresh food in the fridge, (which I’ll enjoy tomorrow)

— A gorgeous orange-cranberry bundt cake I made yesterday that turned out really well

— The insurance to be able to see a doctor quickly

— A doctor I know, like and trust

— A safe and reliable car to drive to the doctor

— A husband willing to drive me there (losing two days’ income and work to do so)

— Working Internet (hi there!)

— A working landline (spoke to a Toronto colleague today for 90 minutes about a possible project)

— Paid freelance employment for a new steady client

— General good health

— Dear friends, here in New York, in Toronto and around the world

– The 16,300 followers of Broadside (thank you!)

—  A solid marriage of 16 years; we’re spending this Saturday night with a friend recently widowed after 60 years of marriage

 

Hoping all my American readers are enjoying a restful holiday with people they love!

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Self-care means survival

In domestic life, Health, life on November 19, 2016 at 1:04 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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This is a tough time of year for many of us.

Forget (!) the U.S. election and how weary some now are of constant comment, opinion, raging, crying, etc.

Some families are withdrawing from one another over the holidays to avoid (further) estrangement.

The next six weeks also mean a lot of rushing around, to parties, (for work, for fun, with family), to buy gifts, to attend professional events.

Maybe, on top of all that, you’re looking for work or a new job, or coping with illness or injury.

This time of year can also mean new, fresh heartache; we have friends who recently lost both parents (to a drunk driver); a friend whose husband died this summer; a friend whose husband of many decades died a month ago…each of them facing their first Christmas and New Years as an orphan, a widower and a widow.

 

Taking consistent care of ourselves is crucial to our ability to help nourish and sustain others, whether children, parents, friends, spouses, neighbors.

 

A few ways to nurture yourself:

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Keep fresh flowers or plants in your home

As I’ve written here many times, especially as the trees lose their leaves and color here, every week I buy fresh flowers and keep our houseplants thriving. Even $15 worth of grocery store mums can fill multiple vases and jugs around our apartment.

Flowers are everywhere in our home: bedside, bathroom, dining table, side tables. I recently splurged $27 for three plants at a local nursery, including a pale purple cyclamen and a deep purple African violet.

Silence

We live, most of us, in such a noisy world! Traffic, airplanes overhead, other people’s music and conversations, our children, our pets.

Silence is deeply restorative. Find a place, at home or out in nature, to be alone, silent and still every day.

Pets

Talking to, hanging out with, patting your cat/dog/guinea pig.

Sleep

Since the election, I’m sleeping 9 to 9.5 hours every night, an escape from fear and stress. Self-employment from home allows me to nap as needed. Few escapes are as consistently accessible, free and comforting as a nap or a refreshing night’s sleep.

Meditation or prayer

Making time to intentionally focus on your spiritual health is sustaining. A friend living in another state recently started an on-line group of us to meet for meditation together. It sounds odd, but we were all grateful she thought of it.

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

Friendship

Face to face or on the phone or using FaceTime or Skype only. We really need to see our dearest friends’ faces and hear their laughter (or sighs). None of this online silliness! Get a hug. Give a hug. (In times of stress, ditch/avoid faux friends and competitive types, emotional vampires and frenemies. You need backup!)

Especially with those you’ve known for decades, reminisce about all the great times you’ve had together — and plot some adventures for 2017 to look forward to.

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Candlelight

I keep a scented candle on my bedside table and it’s a soothing, calming final sight before I blow it out at night. It creates a ritual. We also light candles every evening when we eat dinner together ,(no TV blaring, no phones) and that, too, is a ritual that gently slows us down and moves into the evening.

Soft textures

I step onto a cozy bedside sheepskin rug every morning and treasure our woolen throws and blankets to nap under. Whether you wear a silk scarf or a cashmere muffler, or snuggly socks or slippers, keep your body as coddled and comfortable as you can.

Lovely images

We have a large collection of art, design and decorative arts books (all of which can be borrowed from your local library.) Few things are as pleasant as leafing through inspiring bits of beauty. Thanks to the Internet, virtually every museum in the world is now available for browsing.

Even better, get out to a museum or art gallery, sit on a bench and really, really savor a few pieces — sculpture, paintings, pastels, a mask or chariot — slowly and carefully.

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Nature

Get out there! No matter the weather, fresh air and light are a great way to detach from grim thoughts, social media and yet another bloody screen.

Avoid all social media

It’ll wait.

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Looking at art restores and refreshes me. This astonishing life-sized painting of Joan of Arc hangs in a hallway of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Music

This is one of my favorites, whether listening to the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto or Erik Satie or the Stones or…Crank up the stereo and sing along as loudly as you dare.

If you’re a musician, what a great way to lose yourself! I so envy — and have been fortunate enough to know several talented amateur musicians — those who can just pick up a flute or violin or harmonica or guitar and delight themselves. (I need to get my guitar out of the basement and start building up my calluses again.)

Attending a concert is a great way to destress. Jose and I recently attended an evening choral performance, all in Finnish, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in upper Manhattan. It was sublime! The echoes!

Play a game

Anything! Gin rummy, Scrabble, Bananagrams, cribbage, bridge, mah jongg. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Borrow your kids’ or grandkids’ Legos and have at it.

Exercise

Yay, endorphins. This has been my preferred method of stress management for decades, whether dance class, spin class, a long walk or playing softball. Especially this time of year, as we all start eating and drinking too much, burning off some of those calories will help.

Spa stuff

Some people hate being touched by strangers. But for some of us, a massage and/or manicure and/or pedicure and/or facial (yes, costly!) can be a great stress-buster. We’re lucky enough to live next door to a very good hotel spa, so I have incentive to work and and save hard for another visit.

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Cooking at the house we rented last year in Ireland

Cook

Only if you enjoy it! Creating something delicious is both focusing and distracting — a stack of muffins, a savory soup or stew, a pile of roast vegetables fills your home with great smells and gives you instant, possibly healthy, gratification.

11 ways to be a great host

In domestic life, family, life, parenting, travel, U.S. on November 18, 2016 at 3:24 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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After a long journey, time to relax…

Thanks to Jackie Cangro for the idea!

A few suggestions for those of you about to become a holiday host:

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No nagging, chivvying or political battles

Of all years, this is probably going to be the toughest for many of us. If you and your guests hold opposite political views, staying calm and civil is key. Garden-variety queries all guests dread — “So, why are you still single?” are bad enough!

Whatever it takes, try to avoid big arguments. Not much winning likely.

Private time!

Even the most social and extroverted among us need time to nap, rest, read, recharge. To just be alone for a while. Don’t feel rejected if someone needs it and don’t be shy about suggesting a few hours’ break from one another, every day.

A cheat sheet

Offer a sheet of paper with basic info: the home’s street address and phone numbers; nearby parks or running trails; an emergency contact; taxi numbers or the nearest gas station; directions to the nearest hospital, pharmacy and drugstore; how to work the coffee-maker and laundry facilities.

Anything guests need to know to stay safe and avoid creating inadvertent chaos.

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Thoughtful details: nice bath/shower gel or soap, bottles of cold water at bedside, setting a pretty table with a tablecloth, flowers and cloth napkins, a scented candle bedside, extras they might have forgotten or need (sanitary supplies, razors, diapers.)

Good guests really appreciate these.

A mini flashlight in their room

Especially helpful in a larger home, to navigate one’s way to the bathroom, on stairs or into the kitchen for a midnight snack.

A small basket of treats

Granola bars, crackers, some hard candy, almonds. We all get a bit hungry between meals.

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A selection of magazines

Nothing gloomy! Glossy shelter magazines always a safe bet.

Ask about and accommodate serious dietary preferences and allergies

Adding some half-and-half or a loaf of multi-grain bread won’t break the bank. If your guests have long lists of highly specific must-haves, it’s fair to ask them to bring some with them, (if traveling by car.)

If your guests are arriving with multiple ever-ravenous teenagers, maybe discuss splitting the grocery bill; it’s one thing to be a gracious host, but if your normal budget is already tight, don’t just seethe in silence at the need to keep buying more and more and more food.

A frank discussion about what you expect and all hope to accomplish: (lots of nothing? A tightly scheduled day?,  and at what speed

Few things are as grim as staying in a home that has vastly differing standards of cleanliness, timing, punctuality, tidiness, organization — even religiosity — than you do.

Some people are up at 5:00 a.m. every day on their Peloton or email while others’ notion of a holiday mean sleeping until noon. Do your best to coordinate schedules, at least for shared meals, then prepare to be easy-going and flexible.

A card in your room with your home’s wi-fi details and password

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The private home we stayed in in rural Nicaragua, while working for WaterAid. We felt deeply welcomed, and grateful for it!

A true sense of welcome

Most essential.

People know when their presence is really wanted and welcomed — and when it isn’t, (like the dirty cat litter box under my pull-out bed at one “friend’s” home and the empty fridge in another’s.)

If you really can’t bear having others staying in your home with you, (for whatever reason), don’t do it. It can be a difficult conversation and you may have to gin up some solid excuses (bedbug invasion?) but there are few experience as soul-searing (believe me!) as staying with someone — especially if your own home is a long expensive journey away — who doesn’t want you there.

11 ways to be a great guest

In behavior, children, domestic life, entertainment, family, life, love, parenting, travel on November 16, 2016 at 3:33 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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A shared meal is a gift

With American Thanksgiving looming and the holidays after that, many of us will soon become guests, whether meeting the parents of the one you love, (and maybe hope to marry — no pressure!), reconnecting with friends or with family you might see infrequently and who you don’t know very well.

Being a guest can also mean stepping into a potential minefield of mutually hurt feelings and/or unexpressed frustration.

Some hosts are explicit about their wishes, but many are not.

I’ve stayed with friends many times, some of whom live in fairly tight quarters; no one we know lives in a 4,000 square foot house or a stately mansion.

Fortunately, Jose and I have been invited back many times by the same hosts. (On a blessedly few occasions, it’s been a total shitshow, usually when staying with [sigh] my family.)

 

Here’s to a lovely holiday season!

 

 

Eleven  ways to hasten a return invitation:

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No political arguments!

The reason you’ve been invited into the sanctuary of someone’s home is to enjoy fun, friendship, fellowship not to engage in ferocious battles or shift them, suddenly, to your opposing worldview. (Or vice versa.)

When political conversation becomes (over)heated, contentious and ad hominem insults are flying — slow down long enough to ask yourself, seriously, what’s the upside? How much anger, even estrangement, is worth it?

(If it’s time to torch a bridge or two, have at it, but make sure there’s gas in your car or a taxi nearby and alternate lodging you can afford.)

Bring Scrabble, cards, Bananagrams, a good book, headphones and music you love, a sketchbook.

Head out for a long, head-clearing, blood-pressure-lowering walk.

Or, as some Americans are choosing to do this year after such a contentious election, just stay home, or at a hotel instead.

When asked for your dietary preferences, remember  — it’s not a full-service restaurant

Some people have life-threatening allergies, but others think nothing of imposing their impossibly long list of preferences.

If you insist on ready access to a specific food or drink, bring it with you — rural options can be distant and limited.

Stay quiet until you know your hosts are awake

This seems like basic good manners to me, but friends we recently stayed with at their country house upstate said they’re often awakened with pointedly heavy guests’ foot-steps as early as 8:00 a.m.

This is a couple who work 18-hour days running their own company and I know how weary they are!

Make sure you know how to find and (quietly!) make coffee or tea. Bring your own headphones and reading material.

Be a grown-up and entertain yourself and your kids in (relative) silence until everyone is fully conscious.

Sex? Keep it private and quiet

Ask any host about the worst guests they ever had, and the screamers and moaners will likely top the list. It’s great you’re so deeply in love (or lust), but sharing space with people you might not know very well is neither the time nor place to enjoy a noisy sexual marathon.

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An ex-boyfriend of mine had relative bring a sheep (yes, really) to his suburban home from upstate while visiting for Thanksgiving…

If you’re bringing your children and/or pets, have a full and frank discussion before arriving about what your hosts need and expect from them, and from you

Not everyone is used to plenty of high volume shrieking/barking, especially if they don’t have a child or a pet.

People who’ve chosen to “get away” are actually hoping to flee their everyday stresses, not add new and fresh hells to their time off. Promptly clean up every mess and apologize/offer to replace anything your kids/pet damage or break.

Buy groceries, pay for them or split food/drink costs with your host

Ditto for taking your hosts out for a few good meals. Don’t be a mooch.

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Quiche is a quick, easy and affordable way to feed a few people…

Bring a gift

Don’t arrive empty-handed: offer a great bottle of wine, some beautiful soap, a lovely coffee table book on a topic you know your hosts will enjoy.

On one visit we gave a set of gorgeous Laguiole steak knives; the ones we brought were different colors than these ones, but very welcomed.

On another, we gave our hosts a small handmade pottery serving dish. Most recently, we offered another couple a lovely wooden spoon and a rustic white bowl.

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Detach from, or put away, your electronics

While many of us now spend ours day on social media, time away with friends or relatives means enjoying (or trying to!) actual face to face conversation, in the house, walking through the woods or wandering the beach.

Everyone needs and deserves quiet private time, but focus on the people who’ve invited you, not only your technology and distant amusements. And no phones at the table!

Write a thank-you note, on paper, and send it within a week

Sure, you can email, and most hosts probably expect nothing more. But choose a pretty card or use your personal stationery and highlight the things you most enjoyed.

Help out wherever you can

Wash dishes or cook a meal or walk the dog or baby-sit for a few hours. Maybe you can help mow the lawn or weed the garden. Your hosts will probably say no, but might well appreciate the offer. It’s a home, not a hotel.

Avoid public grooming

I was once hosted by a younger friend who sat on the sofa watching television with his wife  — while both of them flossed their teeth. Not my style.

You may walk around your own home clipping, cleaning or polishing your nails or brushing your teeth in transit, but in someone else’s space please keep all of it within the confines of a bathroom with a closed door.

 

Create lovely shared memories, not regrets you’ll all spend years trying to forget.

 

Do you enjoy being a guest or host?

What other tips would you offer a guest — or host?

How much do our parents shape us?

In aging, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting on November 12, 2016 at 2:58 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Two recent films have me thinking, long and hard, about the effects our parents, and their behaviors and values, exert on us, whether we’re young or adult — American Pastoral, from the book by Philip Roth, and Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen.

One reviewer says Captain Fantastic is “the best movie about parenting I’ve ever seen.”

This Guardian reviewer calls it “strange and wonderful.”

The reviews of American Pastoral aren’t terrific, but I found much in it to think about — a solid citizen, owner of a Newark, NJ glove factory inherited from his father, ends up losing his rebellious daughter to an underground movement devoted to blowing up buildings and sowing social unrest.

It encapsulates the schism of the 1960s between the “squares” and the hippies, between those committed to the way things were and those determined to rend the social fabric edge to edge.

Dakota Fanning plays the daughter, moving from a stuttering teen simmering with suburban rage to a mentally fragile adult. Her father never gives up his search for her, a heart-rending theme for me, who has had many estrangements from my own.

The father in Captain Fantastic is a divisive figure, an authoritarian raising his six children in a teepee in the woods of Oregon, home schooling them and subjecting them to intense physical training. The breathtaking beauty of their surroundings is in contrast to their total social and cultural isolation — I thought, the whole way through it, of Cea Person, whose searing memoir of a similar childhood in the woods of Canada, North of Normal, is unforgettable.

Here’s my blog post about it, including an interview with Cea.

I’m fascinated by these two films for the questions they raise about how much we want to become our parents — or rush to flee their influence.

I never had children, but am always intrigued by how people choose to raise them and to impart their values, whether social, intellectual, creative or religious. I’ve seen a few adults I know work hard to break free of their family, often with painful consequences, and others still in thrall to patterns that make them unhappy but can’t find a way out.

I’m always in awe (yes, and envious) of happy, emotionally close families, the kind where an adult daughter and her mother remain best friends, and Sunday dinners en famille go on for decades.

Not us.

Both of my parents are free spirits, both of whom — not surprisingly — came from wealthy but emotionally difficult families. Neither of them ever talks about their childhood.

My father was raised in Vancouver, his father, (an Irish immigrant from a small town in Co. Donegal), founded and ran a successful trucking company there; my mother, born in New York City, was raised by a wealthy mother from Chicago who had multiple husbands, divorcing the ones who annoyed her most.

Headstrong ‘r us.

My mother, who never attended college but married at 17, lived life on her own terms, whether wearing a sari, (her best friend for decades was East Indian), a different wig for every day of the week or moving us to Mexico when I was 14. That ended badly when she had a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve, stranding me and a friend on our own for a few weeks there.

My father, a successful and multiple award-winning filmmaker of features and documentaries, never met a cage he didn’t want to rattle, hard. Both are still alive, long divorced.

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My mother and I have no relationship at this point.

Even this late in life, I’m still their child in some ways — stubborn, creative, a world traveler, intellectually curious, with friends ranging in age from the 20s to 80s.

My tastes in art and music and food are both developed and wildly catholic, as theirs are, a gift I appreciate.

Both are smart as hell and super-competitive — family Scrabble games can get a little feral!

My father is ferociously agnostic, my mother for years a devoted Catholic; I occasionally attend Episcopal services. (My husband, a devoted Buddhist, was raised by a strict Baptist minister.)

In other ways, I’m quite different.

My mother has lived in such disparate spots as Lima, Peru, Bath, Roswell, New Mexico and B.C.’s Sunshine Coast; I’ve now lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years, am much less successful professionally and financially than my father was and, in some ways, more disciplined in my choices than either have been.

I’m also a product of my times, my adolescence in the hippie-ish late 1960s and 1970s and my native country, Canada, which remains socially liberal.

Which parent do you most resemble?

Or have you chosen to reject their values?

How much do you wish your children will be (are they?) like you?

The immigrant’s dilemma on Election Day

In aging, domestic life, life, news, politics, travel, U.S., world on November 5, 2016 at 11:27 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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In a few days, American citizens will choose their new President, (and other elected officials, which tends to get lost in the fray.)

Some of us who chose to come to the United States — and not those (blessedly) fleeing war, oppression, terror, economic disaster — are now, nervously, wondering…what next?

Will we stay?

If not, where will we go?

When?

This is not unique to me; here’s a comment on a recent piece in The Economist:

An American friend who has 2 children to raise and educate has already emigrated, to Australia in this case, because his wife is Australian. And then a few Asian dual-citizenship friends already left. In their words, “America is not a good place to raise kids – too many guns, and too many strange xenophobes. It’s not worth it.” They are all bilingual, bi-literate, high-skilled professionals. I certainly am packing too if Trumps wins.

I’ve avoided much discussion here about this election, although I will say clearly I do not want Donald Trump to win and am very, very fearful of the effects, domestically and globally, his election would create.

I’m disgusted and appalled by the way he dismisses and demeans women, Muslims, Mexicans (my husband’s heritage), the disabled and others.

I chose a country I then believed welcoming to “the other”, a place where your background and beginnings mattered less than your education, skills, drive and ambition.

This no longer feels true to me.

I have not become a citizen, so I will not be voting. I will accompany my husband to the polling station, proudly, as I did last time.

Choosing to emigrate to the U.S. places you in an odd few buckets.

The word “immigrant” is too often conflated with “illegal” or assumed to be someone whose choices elsewhere were so utterly barren that we had to come, have to stay and have no better options back at home — or in any other nation.

The true picture is much more  varied.

There are immigrants who’ve made millions of dollars. There are those stuck in low-wage, menial jobs, sometimes for decades.

But there are also millions of us who thought coming to the United States, making a deliberate choice, was worth a try, maybe later in life or mid-career, maybe having to persuade a dubious spouse or children to create a fresh start here.

There are many of us, especially those with multiple language skills and the ability to work in other languages or cultures, those of us with cross-cultural fluency, who could leave, returning to our homeland or trying yet another country.

I left Toronto, and Canada, a nation with cradle-to-grave government supplied healthcare, (versus the $1,400 I pay every month here in NY, thanks to self-employment and corporate greed), a country whose very best universities offer a year’s tuition for less than $10,000 — not the $50,000 to $60,000 plus charged by the U.S.’s top private schools.

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I came to the U.S. at the age of 30; then as now, I had no children to worry about.

Nor did I mind leaving my family of origin behind as we’re not close emotionally and returning, in need, is a quick 90 minute flight.

But my decision was still terrifying!

I knew very few people. Had no close family here — cousins in California with whom I have virtually no contact.

Had no job. Had no graduate degree nor the Ivy League education and social capital I would (belatedly!) learn are essential to elite success in the crazy-competitive Northeastern enclaves of publishing and journalism.

I now own property here. I’m married to an American. I have long-standing friendships and deeply love the region I chose, the lower Hudson Valley.

But the prospect of a Trump Presidency is making me, and many, many others deeply anxious.

Those of us with portable skills and multiple passports and/or citizenships do have options.

Thanks to my paternal Irish grandfather, I can also apply for Irish citizenship and an EU passport; I already speak fluent French and decent Spanish.

Does this country, in an era of growing global competitiveness — when American schoolchildren rank lower than other nations — really want a potential brain drain of some of the most highly educated and highly skilled workers, thinkers and innovators it needs most?

 

Of those once sufficiently seduced by that elusive American dream to wave goodbye to everything, and everyone, we knew before?

No matter who we vote for, we can still vote with our feet.

Will we need to go?

Will we want to?

We’ll know soon enough.

Great new film: Certain Women

In culture, domestic life, film, life, movies on October 29, 2016 at 12:29 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The skies will get you.

Shot in Montana, every frame looks like a painting, with gray clouds and snowy mountains and open fields.

This new film, starring Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and lesser-known Amy Gladstone, is slow, sad, powerful.

The director, a woman, Kelly Reichardt — who also wrote the screenplay from stories by Maile Meloy — made another film I enjoyed, Wendy and Lucy, which also starred Michelle Williams, about a young woman alone on the road.

The budget was $2 million, pocket change for any Hollywood blockbuster.

I liked so many things about this film:

— Michelle Williams, a movie star whose presence is always quiet and contemplative

— Amy Gladstone is perfectly cast as a lonely, shy ranch hand

— The Montana landscapes and sense of place and distance made me want to hop a plane there immediately

— This entire film focuses on three women and their complex lives. They’re not skinny/gorgeous/wearing expensive clothing. They’re facing a difficult client (one is a small-town lawyer), a difficult husband, a difficult life, a job that’s not what one had hoped for.

It’s how so many of us feel so often in life, swimming against a ferocious current in the only stream we’ve got.

— The actresses look like real women. Stewart’s hair is a mess, her eyes deeply shadowed with exhaustion. Gladstone’s open, hopeful face signals so much of what we feel when we’re so weary of being alone and can’t bear it any longer and there’s no one to love. Dern looks worn out.

Who among us hasn’t looked or felt like this?

— I love the moment when the rancher slides open the barn door every morning, her routine unvaried, her horses and dog her only companions, ever reliant on her skill and attention. You feel both the security of that routine, and its burden.

— There’s no tidy resolution to each of these women’s lives. We dip into their worlds for a while, live in it with them and feel compassion for their challenges, but we leave them behind again in the knowledge they’ll likely be just as challenged the next day. What a concept: real life!

It easily passes the Bechdel test — i.e. it’s focused on women and their ideas and relationships.

Here’s the review from The Guardian.

Here’s a recent profile of Reichardt from The New York Times Magazine.

It’s a question of character

In domestic life, family, life, love, men, Uncategorized on October 14, 2016 at 1:52 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” — coach John Wooden

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Exactly.

This week, thanks to the media, (yes, of which I’m still a member), I saw two powerful examples of character in action.

The first, which I won’t belabor, was that of Presidential candidate Donald Trump, mocking and dismissing the 14 women who have come forward to share publicly a private and humiliating and angering moment they say happened to them in his presence when he groped them.

We weren’t there, so only he and they know what happened.

But it’s how someone behaves in private — and behaves consistently — that defines the essence of their character.

It’s what you do and say to people, usually people with much less power than you have, (i.e. you can lose your job, your home, your friendship, your marriage if you fight back or tell anyone what shit they’ve subjected you to).

Some people wield that power like a billy club, swinging it with a smirk — over and over and over.

We also live in an unprecedented era of personality, where The Famous boast of, and monetize, their millions of followers on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, as proof of their popularity.

Oh, how we rush to buy their music and books and line up to vote for them, cheering til we’re hoarse.

We literally idolize them, projecting onto them every possible good quality we so long to see and feel in our broken world.

Yet we have no idea whatsoever who they really are.

I watch a show called Project Runway on Lifetime, a cable channel here, and have for years. It begins every season with a group of 12 or more ambitious fashion designers — some of whom have auditioned repeatedly for years to get on the show — who will be whittled down week after week by competing in a variety of difficult challenges.

Last night’s episode was an astonishing and moving reminder of character, that quaint, old-fashioned, Victorian notion of behaving with integrity and honor.

When it came time for the losing team to name one of their fellow team members to send home for good, four of the six said something unlikely and unprecedented: Send me. I screwed up.

I’ve never seen the show’s host and mentor ,Tim Gunn, so moved and so impressed with the behavior of the man chosen to leave, who had also volunteered to take one for his team.

If you’ve watched previous seasons, (yes, I’m a serious fan!), you’ll recall moments when there was a virtual stampede, (remember Ashley Nell Tipton?), to toss someone else under the bus.

It was ugly to see and, yes, revealed character.

I’ve now been with my husband for 16 years, married for five.

The decisive moment for me was a revelation of his character, in a time of fear, unplanned expense and chaos, when so many other men, no matter how handsome or charming,  would have wobbled or slithered away from the challenge or left me, once more, to pick up the pieces as her only, overwhelmed child.

My mother, living alone in a small town, had been been found — the door broken in by police after worried neighbors called them — lying in bed for days, unable to move.

A stroke? We had no idea. She lived, as she still does, a six-hour flight plus two-hour drive from us.

I called Jose, then working in one of the most senior and responsible photo editing jobs at The New York Times, and said, “We have to go. Tomorrow.”

He told his bosses and we went.

His decision to be a mensch was instant.

And invisible to everyone but me and his bosses.

It cost a fortune I didn’t have that he paid for — last-minute airfare, meals, car rental.

When we got to my mother’s house, he took her stained mattress to the balcony to scrub it clean. Not a word. No complaints. No whining.

Just — help, support, strength.

Character.

 

The un-screened life

In behavior, blogging, culture, domestic life, life, Technology on September 29, 2016 at 3:41 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Great piece recently by Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine:

A year before, like many addicts, I had sensed a personal crash coming. For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

And here’s a reply to his piece from The Federalist.

Like Sullivan, I went on a silent retreat, (and blogged about it, which broke a retreat rule!); if you’re interested, check out my archives from July 2011.

It’s a life-changing experience to withdraw completely from chitchat, both in person and online.

 

And, I know, it’s a bit rich to complain about our constant connectedness to screens on a blog you’re de facto reading on a screen, somewhere!

 

By now it’s become a counter-cultural act to:

not have a smartphone; not check it constantly; not feel compelled to post every thought and image on your multiple social media streams so that other people can like it, share it, re-tweet it.

It’s now also considered staggeringly rude, invasive and old-fashioned to use a telephone to call someone, let alone leave them a voicemail or message.

How dare you speak to me directly!

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

What are we, maharajahs?!

We had a party last weekend and it was a hit. We love to entertain and do it as often as we can afford.

A party?

You know, a room full of real people, sharing conversation and lots of great food and laughter and talking about everything from aerial yoga to the American Constitution.

Guests included several photographers — (one whose new book of pinhole photos I’ll soon feature here) — writers, three lawyers, editors.

Several had never met one another before and were soon deeply engaged in lively chats.

Yes, relating in real life is risky. Your joke might fall flat. You might be wearing the wrong shoes or not catch a cultural reference. Maybe you’re really shy.

But hiding behind a screen all the time is nuts.

This is what life is for: face to face connection, a fierce hug hello and reluctant good-bye.

Yes, I blog and tweet, and will continue to do so — because it’s now essential for me to have a lively, visible, provable digital presence.

But my phone is often off, left in a drawer or “forgotten” at home.

The un-screened life is my favorite and always will be.