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Archive for the ‘domestic life’ Category

Stretching your comfort zone…to the breaking point

In aging, behavior, domestic life, education, life, love, parenting, women on May 16, 2015 at 1:31 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

We got up at 6:00 a.m. to attend Daybreaker -- an enormous dance party held in various NYC venues. That was a new adventure for both of us!

We got up at 6:00 a.m. to attend Daybreaker — an enormous dance party held in various NYC venues. That was a new and fun adventure for both of us!

If there’s a phrase I hate, it’s “comfort zone”.

How big is it?

Why is it so small?

Or so large?

Women, especially, are socialized to make nice — to make everyone around them comfortable. That can leave us hamstrung saying “Um” a lot, avoiding the difficult, when we really need to become comfortable with discomfort — extending the edges of that zone as far as we (safely) can.

And, really, what’s “safe”?

Many women are also still socialized to expect little of ourselves intellectually and economically beyond the tedious maternally-focused media trope of “having it all” — working yourself into a frenzy to be perfect at motherhood/work/friendship/PTA cupcakes.

To never show a moment’s vulnerability.

To do it all, all alone.

As if.

I do mean developing and consistently using and trusting your own power, a strength and resilience that sees us through the scariest and most unexpected moments.

They'll just keep going...

They’ll just keep going…

That might be physical, tested through sports or the military or parenting or adversity.

That might be intellectual — studying subjects so difficult they make your brain hurt — coming out the other side wearily proud of your hard-won new skills.

That might be spiritual/emotional — helping someone you love through a tough time. Or yourself. Probably both.

Jose and I have had an interesting, eye-opening few weeks caring for my 85-year-old father in Canada, where I grew up, after a hip replacement.

He’s the kind of guy whose biceps, still, feel like touching concrete. Who, in the past two years alone, sailed in Greece for a month and flew to Hong Kong and Viet Nam.

Like me, he doesn’t do “ill” or “weak” or “helpless.”

A comfort zone -- enjoyed far too long -- becomes a soul-cage

A comfort zone — enjoyed far too long — becomes a soul-cage

It’s been instructive, and sobering, for all three of us to see how intimately  — not our norm! — we’ve had to interact through this transition.

Seeing someone you care for ill, in pain, nauseated, is frightening and disorienting. You desperately want to fix it, right away, but all you might be able to usefully do is wash a bloodied bedsheet or empty a pail of vomit.

You become a reluctant witness.

They become reluctantly passive, forcefully humbled by the body’s new and unwelcome fragility, even if blessedly temporary, a painful way station on the road to recovery.

It’s not fun. It’s not sexy.

Nor can you hand it all off to someone else.

It’s your job to give it your best, no matter how scared or freaked-out or overwhelmed you might feel.

It is real.

You also, if you’re lucky, get to see your partner be a mensch. Jose is an amazing husband in this regard, a man who steps up and gets shit done, no matter how tired he really feels, no matter if it’s all new and unfamiliar.

No whining. No complaining.

We never had children and have no pets, so the whole cleaning-up-bodily-fluids-thing is not part of our daily life and never has been.

But drives to the pharmacy and laundry became daily activities, plus cooking, cleaning up, housework, helping him back into bed. By day’s end, we both needed, and took, a long nap.

And Jose’s caregiving of me for three weeks after my own hip replacement in February 2012 was, in many ways, easier: I had less pain, a nurse came in every few days to check my progress and our hospital at home is a 10-minute drive from home, not an hour, as it is for my father.

I’d never seen my father ill and he’s never spent a night in the hospital, so taking medications, (very few, but still), and constant attention to the physical came as a shock to all of us.

As a family, always, we tend to live in our heads, to focus on art and politics, to thump the dinner table in vociferous arguments over (yes, really) geeky shit like economic policy.

We don’t do a lot of hugging or “I love you’s”. We’re private, even shy in some ways.

We typically don’t inquire after one another’s emotional states nor really expect or even want a candid answer. (WASP, Canadian, whatever…)

Feelings?

Surely you jest.

Frailty? Pain?

Not so much.

And so three comfort zones now have entirely new boundaries. I doubt such extensions arrive without cost.

We now know one another better than after years of brief less-intense visits, and have forged deeper, richer bonds as a result.

(Dad is doing great, so we’re now back at home; he’s well on the road back to normal, active life. No more tinkling of the bedside bell for help, a tradition we used for me as well.)

New horizons!

New horizons!

Have you been stretched recently?

How did it turn out?

Simple pleasures

In beauty, behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, life, travel on May 10, 2015 at 2:25 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Some of the past week’s small town pleasures have included:

Walking two blocks to a local cafe for breakfast

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The local variety store — owned by the same man for 31 years

Walking past heritage homes

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Boxes filled with penny candy — even if it’s now five cents a piece

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Patting a gorgeous 11-week old puppy outside the pharmacy named Otis

Patting a huge white Bernese dog in the park named Sugar

Chatting to a stranger in the park and learning more about this town, where he was born, raised and now works

Saying hello to people walking and cycling past

Butter tarts!

This is a butter tart. Yum!

This is a butter tart. Yum!

The frogs’ singing from the backyard pond

Watching the robins and doves lining up — bird spa! — to bathe in the backyard pond

A cold beer and a bowl of peanuts

The best!

The best!

Reading a great new novel given to us in a stack of free books

Naps

More naps

Not driving

Tulips in the park across the street

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Washing cars in the driveway (and spraying Jose “by accident”)

Climbing the stairs (we live in an apartment)

Having to holler across the house to be heard (ditto)

A big backyard

Sitting on the verandah and staring into the sky

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Not needing to know what time it is

Beating Jose at Bananagrams

Being able to keep up with my freelance writing work even while sitting at the kitchen table in Canada

Blueberry pancakes for breakfast

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The haunting sound of passing train whistles

Meeting our old friends for a long lunch

The warm sun on bare skin after an endless and bitter winter

A Canadian farmer’s market specialty (which Americans call Canadian bacon)

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Tossing a softball in the park at sunset

Silence

Having the maitre d’ at a local restaurant remember me from our last visit

Hitting a big bucket of balls while listening to a nearby woodpecker

Finding a 1960 black Ford pick-up truck for sale

$8,000 Canadian or best offer...

$8,000 Canadian or best offer…

On not wanting to have children…

In aging, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, love, men, parenting, women on April 3, 2015 at 6:40 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

kid-gum

“Our son is in Tikrit!,” Jose announced last weekend.

Of course he was. Perpetually adventurous, Alex couldn’t have lingered — sensibly and safely for his final semester of college — in Istanbul.

He’s actually not our biological or even adopted son.

He’s one of a small group of talented young people we call our “freelance kids” — who happily call us their freelance Mom and Dad.

We can answer all the questions their parents generally cannot — like, how does an ambitious couple in our industry, (littered with divorce), keep their relationship thriving? How do we handle crazy schedules and work-imposed separations?

How do we handle burnout?

And what do you do when you fall off an elephant into the Mekong River and ruin all your costly camera equipment?

A talented, ambitious and successful photographer, we met Alex when he came to The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, open to any student members of the NAHJ or NABJ.

Since then, Alex, a Chicago student from Milwaukee, has slept on our suburban New York sofa many times as we’ve welcomed him, as we also have with Molly, another young shooter from Arizona we met the same way, now living in Portland, Oregon.

I didn’t want to have children, and nor did Jose. We’re giving, generous, fun people, quick with a hug. We love to hear our young friends’ stories, happy or sad, and have given much advice on matters both personal and professional. They know we’re there for them.

It gives us great pleasure and satisfaction to have become trusted friends, often even older than their parents.

But we didn’t change their diapers or rush them to the emergency room or coach them for their college essays.

I now teach two college classes and have so far had 26 students, whom I regularly refer to (not to them!) as “my kids”, and, for many of them, I feel affection, glad to sit down and chat with them at length outside of class. I worry about some of them and how they’ll turn out — as parents do.

But when the vast majority of men and women still do become parents, those of us who don’t seem weird.

People assume we “hate kids” — not true — or are selfish; (like all parents, de facto, are not?)

Jose and I each chose to make our careers within news journalism, a volatile and insecure field that at the very top still pays its award-winning veterans less than a first-year corporate lawyer. So we both knew, long before we met in our early 40s, that whatever money we earned there was it, and having children would be costly both to our ambitions and our savings.

It is.

Today we’re financially far ahead of anyone we know, (short of the truly wealthy) with our retirement savings, not having had to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to raise children or to buy/rent a larger home, (or live, cramped in too small a space for years),  or to pay for college. That’s a huge relief in an era when most Americans — even after decades of hard and/or decently-paid work– still barely have $100,000 saved to fund 20+ years of retirement.

And my own childhood just wasn’t much fun; an only child, I spent ages eight through 13 at boarding school and summer camp, living at home for only two years of that.

Parenthood looked like an overwhelming amount of work and I knew I would never be able to count on anyone in my family to offer help of any kind.

They're good company

They’re good company

As her only child, my mother’s own emotional and medical needs sucked me dry; by the time I was getting marriage proposals, I was busy carving out a career for myself in journalism, one so competitive — and poorly paid and with lousy schedules — I still couldn’t imagine adding the many enormous responsibilities of parenthood to that mix.

Let alone a husband!

I now teach freshman writing at a private college in Brooklyn and have a mix of sophomore, junior and senior students in my blogging class there.

I love the interaction with my students and have gotten to know a few of them personally. I really enjoy our conversations and am happy to offer advice when asked. It feels good to share wisdom with younger people.

But I don’t regret my choice.

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It is painful to know that no one will visit my grave, (if I even have one), or retain much memory of me once all my friends and family die.

There are days I’ve envied the pride and pleasure others feel in their children and grand-children.

But it is what it is.

I’ve realized how much I love emotional connection and nurturing others — with the freedom to stop if and when I feel depleted.

But utter and total dependency scares me to death.

Here’s an excerpt of an essay about this choice from Longreads:

People with children have told me that it is virtually impossible to put into words what they gain from their children. “I would be at a loss to describe it in any way other than clichés,” a friend told me. “You can’t know what you are missing until you are on the other side.” Well, I don’t know what it feels like to bungee jump either, yet people don’t try to convince me to hurl myself into a canyon. Besides, I might be able to jump once and then decide that it isn’t for me. With having children this obviously isn’t an option.

A new book, with the sad title, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, a collection of 16 essays about not wanting to have children, is just out this week.

It’s edited by Meghan Daum; here’s a recent seven-minute audio interview with her about the book and her choice, from NPR’s The Takeaway.

I attended an event in Manhattan this week with Daum and three of her authors, fascinated to see a SRO crowd of probably 75 people. That’s a big turnout for any reading, and especially in NYC where there’s probably 10 a night.

And here’s an excerpt from an interview with her about this most personal of choices in The New Yorker:

One reason I feel it’s important to talk about choosing not to have kids (as opposed to not being able to have them when you want them, which is a whole other story) is that, so often, the discussion is reduced to glib remarks or punch lines like “I’d rather have expensive shoes!” or “Instead of having kids, I bought a Porsche!” That stuff drives me crazy. First of all, it diminishes the serious thought that so many people who make this choice put into their decision. Secondly, it perpetuates the “selfish” chestnut by assuming that people who opt out of parenthood are therefore choosing to live self-absorbed, materialistic lives. As a mentor and an advocate, I’ve seen no end to the ways that childless people can contribute to the lives and well-being of kids—and adults, for that matter. Those stereotypes are tiresome and counterproductive.

 What’s been — or likely will be — your decision whether or not to have children?

Any regrets?

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.

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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

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