Some of you have had cancer. Some of you have lost loved ones to the disease.
I got my breast cancer diagnosis of DCIS, stage zero (thank God) in June 2018, right around my birthday. I needed lumpectomy and radiation and five years of Tamoxifen, a pill that suppresses estrogen.
It was not unexpected as my mother had a mastectomy in the 90s…but lived for many decades afterward.
The disease has hit our family hard this year.
Last Saturday at 6:30 we lost a 45 year-old niece of Jose’s, my husband, after many years fighting cancer. She leaves behind a widow — whose birthday was the next day — and their teenage son.
Jess was a force of nature and deeply loved by a large community. Like all the Lopezes, she was very loving person and her joy in life, even through years of surgery and treatment, was obvious to all.
Ironically, though, cancer has also, unexpectedly, finally given me a relationship I had wanted for decades, with one of my three half-siblings. He and I never grew up together and he’s 10 years younger, and has had an amazing life, enjoying both personal and professional success. He still lives in Toronto, where we both, separately, grew up. I met him when I was 15 and he was five. We had a few awkward Christmases together but every attempt I made to get to know him better really went nowhere.
Until this year, when he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
I started texting and emailing him regularly, sometimes to offer comfort and support, sometimes to warn him of the emotional fallout of this disease, often much overlooked by healthcare workers focused on the physical and friends too damn scared or ignorant to keep showing up.
I dropped a former friend who said something cruel and stupid. I was truly shocked by some of the careless things people said to me. You quickly learn to tighten your circle of intimates!
The day you end radiation, in some hospitals, you ring a bell or a gong. It’s a powerful moment. You’re done! The whole staff comes around to celebrate it with you.
I also texted him the Monday after radiation ended —- and warned him it would be totally normal to feel scared and shaky and alone after so many months of hands-on care and multiple medical relationships. some of which do continue. He appreciated it immensely.
Anyone who has had the disease knows it pushes us very quickly into another world of unfamiliar language and procedures, daily anxiety (and sometimes terrible side effects and pain) while undergoing treatment and daily anxiety after remission for fear of recurrence. It’s a weird disease because so many people get variations of it, yet it’s also often deeply isolating because those who remain unscathed really have no idea what we go through. People make assumptions about our prognosis, either blithe or dire, often both inaccurate and hurtful.
Our bodies and souls are left forever altered; I still sometimes catch a glimpse of a small black dot on my upper torso — the tattoo inked on my skin so they could aim the radiation machine accurately — an attribute I also now share with my brother, for his only tattoo is a radiation landmark dot as well.
Luckily, after surgery and brutal amounts of chemo and radiation — my brother is (!) back to playing hockey, his great love.
We now speak, email and/or text quite often and we’re finally getting to know more about one another and our challenging relationship to our father, which bonds us further.
It really helps to know someone else who really knows our father and what life has been like as one of his four children, two of whom I have no relationship with at all.
I haven’t yet printed or framed this image, taken at a friend’s Ontario cottage. But I could!
By Caitlin Kelly
I’m not someone with a lot of disposable income to spend. I’ve worked most of my career in journalism, which I’ve enjoyed, but isn’t high paying or secure — no pensions for me! I’ve also lived in Toronto and suburban New York for most of that — two areas that are costly for rent/housing. In the U.S., if you work freelance, you’re also stuck between medical bankruptcy or paying a fortune for health insurance — like $20,000 a year, which was normal for us for years.
So I’ve always been pretty good at squeezing my money hard for full value and enjoyment.
As readers here know, my two biggest splurges are travel and our apartment; it’s only a one bedroom, so there’s no fear of a costly boiler/roof/plumbing drama or having a tree split our house in two during a hurricane or tornado.
I grew up a family that came from serious money, so we’ve had the combined blessing and curse — as we didn’t have nearly as much of it as our ancestors! — of creating a stylish and elegant home and wardrobe without lots of cash. My maternal grandmother was very wealthy and hired Toronto’s top interior decorator to do her homes, so I grew up around lovely art and furniture and wallpapers.
Here are some of the ways I enjoy stylish life without a ton of money:
My $3 18th c teapot
Flea markets and antique stores
A goldmine, potentially. I’ve seriously studied antiques so when I spot an underpriced bargain, I pounce. I’ve got an enormous 19th c paisley wool shawl (that covers Jose’s desk) for $150, an 18th c teapot (missing its lid) for $3, a massive wicker suitcase at a show in Toronto that Air Canada let me stash in the airplane overhead compartment. I recently revisited one of my favorite spots, an enormous, sprawling antiques mall in Stamford, CT that’s a favorite of NYC designers, Most items are $1,000 or more, so it’s not a hotbed of bargains, but the quality is fantastic and it’s inspiring; I did get a lovely frame for $56 and an olive green small glass vase for the same price. If you never look at high(er) quality material — or sink happily into down cushions — it’s hard to recognize and appreciate it. Half of the battle is a little education. I got a stunning handmade blue and white wool coverlet in Maryland for $100 — worth three to four times that much (you can easily Google it when in-store.)
The shadow of a black wooden painted folk art horse, found in an antiques shop in Port Hope, Ont.
Consignment, thrift and vintage shops
Such treasures! I scored four stunning ruby red wineglasses at our local thrift shop for $10 and have spotted some very good early pieces there. Since most people don’t know the real from the fake, it pays to learn a bit. Carrying a tape measure and small magnifying glass are useful to know if something will fit your space and be able to read tiny marks denoting silver plated cutlery (EPNS) or the hallmarks of sterling silver. I’ve found lovely linens in all of these — tablecloths, damask napkins, pillowcases. Most are pristine but can easily be bleached.
I’ve also found great things in Greenwich, CT at a clothing consignment shop — many larger cities have one, and if your area has a wealthy neighborhood, go! I’m not one for designer names, but got a pair of brown suede Ferragamo loafers for $100 I wore for maybe a decade. I’m still using a super-thick cashmere cardigan I got there for $100, also many years ago. No one knows it’s vintage or pre-owned!
My favorite NYC vintage shop is on Rivington Street, Edith Machinist. Her prices are very fair and the selection carefully edited. Edith is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met!
These simple metal lanterns were super cheap, found in a Minneapolis cafe
The very word tends to intimidate — since the only auctions we generally see in mainstream media are people bidding millions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Yet there are many local and regional auction houses selling all sorts of lovely things at a wide range of prices, and they’re well worth a look — in NYC, Doyle and Swann Galleries have given me some good stuff (and I’ve sold at Swann); in NH. where I lived for 18 months, William Smith. Skinner in Boston, Leslie Hindman in Chicago. Our tribal wool living room rug came from a Doyle auction — $800 including tax and a buyer’s premium. I bought a print by Raoul Dufy and a gorgeous huge lithograph by Vlaminck at the same Swann auction and love seeing them every day on our bedroom wall.
There is always a buyer’s premium! So be sure to check as it can add 25% to your bid.
Things we use every day can be a joy or an annoying mess. Invest a bit extra for a supply of fresh quality pillowcases and towels; nice soaps; candles and votives, some plants. None are prohibitively expensive. Even a very good screwdriver and basic toolbox will make life easier. Pretty lampshades, (they come in every color and style, from pleated fabric to marbled paper) are an easy upgrade; Ballard Designs is a good place as is the website OKA.
I love reading design magazines and own many many reference books on every aspect of design. I love to sit back and leaf through them, always happy to see new colors or fabrics or combinations of things I wouldn’t have thought of. I won’t ever own a Tudor cottage or LA mansion, but I can enjoy looking at them and gathering style tips. Your local library will have lots of options — as do websites like Apartment Therapy, Frederic magazine, House and Home magazine’s videos.
If you find a great — anything! — buy multiples of it: linen napkins. great loafers on sale, a lovely sweater. Saves time and energy searching. Also, when items are in pairs (like two matching side table lamps or two bedside tables) they gain more visual impact.
I’ve been collecting transferware china and silver lusterware for years, usually very cheaply, so I can set a pretty table with enough items. Choose something you love and start a collection.
Mix old and new
Whether your home or wardrobe, combining new/fresh and vintage/antique makes for the most stylish mix. I have a gorgeous Donna Karan embroidered sweater I splurged on maybe 25 years ago. It actually looks vintage and now it sort of is! I usually add a vintage accessory (shoes, earrings, bag, scarf) to a contemporary piece. And when it comes to furniture, very few items made cheaply in China offer the character, design, material quality and longevity of a decent antique, even a reproduction piece.
Keep it simple –mostly
A stylish home, and wardrobe, work best if you stick to a few key colors and styles. I wear a lot of black, gray, navy blue and almost never frills, flounces or prints. A color that repeats in our bedroom (headboard and blind fabrics) and living room (an antique painted armoire, rug, two throw pillows) is teal. The current design trend to make everything gray (!??) is so sad and tedious — add some pops of color, print and texture (velvet, silk, linen) to keep your home from looking like an insurance office from the 80s.
Few things will make your home drearier than overly bright lighting, especially from overhead fixtures. It’s inefficient, unflattering. Get a dimmer! The world is full of really attractive lighting now, even from places like Home Depot, and a few handsome lamps can quickly change the look of a room.
Take very good care!
I am not a fan of fast fashion, at all. I don’t buy it, hate its environmental costs and dislike how it promotes mindless, endless consumption. So I tend to buy quality and hang on to it! If you invest in quality clothing and footwear, take good care of it. Visit the cobbler. Get to know your local tailor if something needs altering. Most of my beloved/ancient cashmeres all have tiny holes I just stitch up — and make sure to add cedar blocks when I store them. All our silver is antique silver-plate and I put the Downton Abbey staff to shame with my polishing!
The world is full of amazing posters! From movie classics to early illustrations and paintings. Browse pretty much any museum site and you’ll find a fantastic selection very affordably. We have three on our living room walls — one, a huge black and white drawing I bought in France by legendary artist Sempe, another from the Carnavalet Museum in Paris and one, a Hiroshige print; we framed the latter two in gorgeous red frames.
Shot at a Toronto flea market. I think this would make a great black and white print.
I know this is counter-intuitive, since you’re commissioning someone’s skill and labor to help you, whether getting a vintage suit tailored to fit or a custom-made pillow cover, curtain or framing a piece of art. But every penny we’ve spent for this has handsomely repaid us in daily pleasure. As I’ve mentioned before, online shops like The Cloth Shop in London have some excellent fabrics at very fair prices in colors and textures I rarely find on North American sites.
Shop your phone!
If you own a cellphone with a decent camera, as many of us now do, you’ve got tremendous options for creating a gorgeous gallery wall for yourself! The world is full of beauty just there for the noticing — whether a nature image, your pet in repose, a beloved relative, an architectural detail. I take photos almost every day.
Here are a few, all taken in June 2022 on my solo California road trip, I’d consider worth framing:
Play with filters — often an image in sepia or black and white is more striking and beautiful than in color. Sites like Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn, among others, offer a wide selection of simple and affordable frames.
Also, crop as needed! If I printed that sunset (taken in Morro Bay, CA) I would crop out the boat on the left hand side.
Obviously, the world is full of retailers and almost all of them have sales. I’m not a coupon person but there are money-saving apps that help you find the best price on specific goods.
One of my favorite books, on how to be a productive creative person
By Caitlin Kelly
It’s an odd thing to ask of fellow adults, perhaps — more common for young kids and teens to have someone older to look up to and possibly emulate.
I don’t have kids and fear the adulation so many youngsters now offer to celebrities, influencers and millionaires. The best people aren’t necessarily those with the fattest bank accounts. Fame and fortune are just easy, visible metrics.
I take a spin class at our local JCC with a teacher I knew was clearly in his late 70s. He’s whippet-thin, with nary an ounce of body fat. He also teaches fitness classes. I recently discovered he’s in his 80s. Amazing!
He’s also low-key, modest and very encouraging, all super admirable qualities in my book.
As I head into a quieter period of my life with less focus — finally! — on hustling for work, I relish finding older people whose lives and values I admire.
People with physical and intellectual energy, curiosity and liveliness, people still engaged in community, or community building. Where we live, (a place I enjoy), is also an expensive and competitive part of the U.S., which means most people are focused totally on getting and sustaining high incomes, raising their children to do the same.
Those priorities leave little time, room and interest in friendship, without which we can’t really see who someone is beyond the surface,
As former President Jimmy Carter enters hospice care at home, I know millions of us have long admired a man who spent decades helping others, often through Habitat for Humanity, a program that helps build housing for those in need. I wish we had more role models like him!
People like Paul Farmer, who spent years working as an MD in Haiti, or Peter Reed, a former medic recently killed at 33 by a missile — while volunteering in Ukraine.
People who choose to put themselves in harm’s way to help others are also extraordinary to me. I admit, I have tremendous admiration for the career journalists, like fellow Canadian Lyse Doucet of the BBC, who spend their lives bearing witness in some terrifying times and places.
Brave young women activists like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai.
I was also fortunate at 25 to meet a man I dedicated my first book to, Philippe Viannay, who died in the mid 80s, a few years after I won the fellowship in Paris he created for journalists from around the world to learn about Europe by reporting on it through four solo trips. He was a Resistance hero, helped found a major newspaper and sailing school and home for troubled boys. He was also a lot of fun! It was the greatest honor to know him and be liked by him. He came into my life when I was 25 and my own father, never an easy man, was often distant, emotionally and physically. It was deeply encouraging to meet and know someone so incredibly accomplished who — liked me! So I wasn’t simply admiring someone from a distance, but seeing up close how he comported himself in later life.
Social media can also create monstrous “role models” — like the wealthy Tate brothers, whose toxic influence on gullible teen British boys is so widespread that teachers are now addressing it.
In recent months, Ms. Stanton said, students have started bringing up Mr. Tate in class. They extol his wealth and fast cars. And for the first time in her 20 years of teaching, her 11- to 16-year-old students have challenged her for working and asked if she had her husband’s permission.
She has heard students talk casually about rape. “As the only woman in the room, I felt uncomfortable,” she said. Once, a student asked her if she was going to cry. At home, even her own three sons seemed to defend Mr. Tate.
“He is brainwashing a generation of boys, and it’s very frightening,” she said. “They seem to think he is right. He’s right because he’s rich.”
In the Midlands, Nathan Robertson, a specialist who works with students who need additional support, said that in the past year, he had regularly heard Mr. Tate broadcasting from students’ smartphones. Many in a class of 14- and 15-year-olds he worked with cited Mr. Tate as a role model. When the topic of abortion came up in class, boys began laughing, he said, and called feminism poisonous. Some said that women did not have any rights and that men should make decisions for them.
Many people see someone in their own family as a role model.
I have mixed feelings about my own parents…both born wealthy to difficult parents of their own. My mother’s mother married six (!) times, twice to the same man (my grandfather, who I never met) and my mother, desperate to flee, married at 17, never attending university, then or later.
So I did admire my mother’s spirit of adventure — she later traveled the world alone for years, living for a while alone in New Mexico, Bath and Lima, Peru. She was self-taught and read widely and deeply. She could be a lot of fun. In our good years, we laughed a lot. She offered her time as a volunteer to hospice patients in the hospital.
My father, an award-winning film-maker, is similar — their marriage lasted 13 years before divorce. He, too, loves to travel, is artistically talented as well, and was often gone for weeks working — in Ireland or the Arctic or Mideast. He is perpetually curious and has a wide range of interests, even at 93.
So in some senses, they are role models for me.
The qualities I most admire, in anyone:
A ferocious work ethic
I admit, I most often look to people who are fairly talented and highly accomplished at their work or in using their talents. But it’s not about their wealth or fame or public adulation. Too often, people who’ve hit the heights are quite happy to leave needy others behind.
We all need people to look up to, people whose behavior and demeanor set a high bar we can aspire to.
I think the popular notion of “living with art” means being a bazillionaire in a mansion, the person bidding millions at auctions for Monet and Picasso paintings.
So not true!
But it may be an acquired taste if you didn’t grow up around art, which I did, and it has profoundly shaped my eye, my life, my homes and how I see things.
My father was a renowned maker/director of documentaries and television shows, so we had enough disposable income for him to buy art. His eye and taste — like mine and my mother — is eclectic, so this included Inuit prints and soapstone sculptures, a wooden antique Japanese mask, a Chinese scroll, 19th century Japanese prints, a Picasso lithograph. He is a skilled artist in his own right, so he made etchings, engravings, lithographs and oils. He even worked in silver.
I love Japanese prints, so this is an area I know something about; I saw an amazing show of Hokusai, whose Great Wave, is very familiar, at the British Museum in London in July 2017, and learned that he — like so many famous and legendary artists over the millennia — suffered some very lean years, and was much helped by his daughter, a fellow artist.
I was lucky to inherit some family money, even in my 20s, so I spent time in art galleries and acquired a few photos and prints, some of which I still own and enjoy. Photography is very much an art form and there are so many extraordinary images out there. I treasure this image, which hangs beside our bed, by Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti.
His photos, bought from the gallery I bought from, are $1600. Not cheap! But not hopelessly out of reach if this is a priority and you have the means…Here are more of his. I want at least 3 more!
What hangs on our walls is a wide array — photos by legends like Steichen and Lartigue, 16th century tapestry fragments left to me by my mother, a huge Inuit print of a polar bear (over our bed), a Vlaminck litho I bought at auction for $600, which seemed like a hell of a bargain.
The Vlaminck litho, 1929
Unlike wealthy folk, I don’t buy art for investment, although we have sold a few photos at auction when we just needed cash.
We also have three framed posters — one of a Japanese artist and two of Paris. Art doesn’t have to be expensive. You just have to love it and enjoy looking at it.
I feel really lucky to wake up to beauty every morning on our walls. We live in a basic red brick 1960s apartment building with no inherent charm and in a one bedroom, which severely curtails how much wall space we even have!
I think our favorite image (it hangs over Jose’s desk), is an original, signed by the photographer who Jose worked with at The New York Tines, and is an image many Americans know — of John F. Kennedy standing at the window of the Oval Office — by the late George Thames. You can buy a copy of it from the Times for $50 and up.
As I’ve admitted here, I spend a fair bit of my time on Twitter.
I’ve made some good friends, found a few excellent work opportunities and enjoy exploring a wide range of accounts, from a woman in Scotland who makes dyes from plants to a photographer currently in Antarctica.
Sometimes the algorithm takes you down a rabbit hole of the same sort of tweets, so a while ago I ended up seeing a lot of knitting, knitters and their many gorgeous creations.
Where I found a photo of an amazing hat with a map of the world, made by a Dutch women for her own pleasure. Not for sale.
MUST have it!
As someone who’s lived in five countries and been, so far, to 41, this was so me.
I dared to ask her if she would make one for me. She said yes!
We agreed the cost could never match the hours it would take and she graciously said she didn’t need the income.
Oh well, I thought, it’s the Internet. You never know, and it was a huge favor for a distant stranger.
But then, a few weeks ago, there she was again, and ready to mail it!
I asked if she might like one of my photos in exchange, and we emailed a selection of eight, offering it in color or black and white, at whatever size she preferred.
Unlikely but true — our neighbor across the hall now lives in Holland, was back recently, and will mail it there.
The hat is so perfect — part wool, part alpaca — so it’s very soft and very warm. It has every continent, each quite recognizable.
This kindness from a former stranger — now a distant friend — was such a lovely start to 2023.
Re-watching comfort films and TV shows for the umpteenth time. Of course, we know the dialogue by heart — half the fun! Life is so chaotic and unpredictable, knowing for sure what will happen next is a lovely thing. Mine include The Devil Wears Prada, All The President’s Men, Spotlight, Dr. Zhivago, Billy Elliott, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, Casablanca, The English Patient and Good Will Hunting.
A pot of tea and maybe a little something sweet to go with it. I recently made this date/nut bread and it’s soooo good! I skipped the icing.
An afternoon spent in the company of a dear friend.
Looking at art.
Savoring a great novel.
Snoozing under a blanket on a cold, gray afternoon.
A kiss from your dog.
A kiss from your sweetie!
A late afternoon game of gin rummy, possibly with a nip of single malt.
Fresh flowers in every room.
A scented candle by the bed.
The eternally glorious music of Bach, Handel, Erik Satie.
Trying a terrific new restaurant.
A long lunch with old friends visiting from Toronto. We went to my favorite Manhattan spot, Keen’s, in business since 1885. Push through its front doors, and you’ve stepped back in time: white tablecloths, a ceiling covered in antique clay pipes, a tank with live lobsters (their lobster bisque is so good!) There’s a pub room with its own bar and a fireplace and the bar, of course, has a huge painting of a nude woman above the bar.
Trying a new, fresh fragrance from my favorite perfumer, Penhaligon’s…This one, Castile, smells deliciously of orange blossoms, a memory from when I was 21 and traveling alone through Europe for four months. I was in Seville in orange blossom season. Amazing!
A day spent with a young pal visiting from Montreal. We had Chinese food for lunch, then I drove her around Manhattan to its southern edge, spotting Lady Liberty and the orange Staten Island ferry. We parked in the South Street Seaport and walked around a bit, enjoying its history and architecture.
I love quirky windows. This was in the Seaport, a private home.
A catch-up call with my bestie from university.
Longer brighter days as spring sloooooowly approaches.
A cozy new winter jacket, on sale.
The brief moment when the rising sun behind us hits the windows on the western hillside of the Hudson River. I call it the ruby moment.
Finding a surprise bit of money in a coat or jacket pocket.
Discovering a surprising and lovely find — recently a terrific dive bar a block from New York harbor and this amazing cut-metal mural on the side of the Peck Slip School, honoring a Dutch ferryman of the 1630s.
This little bear used to sit deep in my uniform shirt pocket during my years at boarding school. Invisible comfort and companionship.
By Caitlin Kelly
I read very few newsletters — already inundated by Twitter, two daily newspapers, a dozen monthly magazines and, when I have an ounce of attention left, books.
But I really enjoyed the latest one from an American journalist, Anne Helen Peterson, on the boxes her mother kept for her from her teens — a time, she writes, so much more memorable to her than her 20s and 30s.
She writes beautifully about what it felt like to go through those boxes and reconnect with her much younger self; I’d guess she’s in her mid to late 30s.
That big plastic storage bin was allowed to sit undisturbed because my mom lives in a small town in Idaho with a basement approximately the size of my current house — as is the Idaho way. But now she is moving to a place with NO BASEMENT, and some tough decisions have to be made. By me.
I spent the day after Christmas pouring out the contents of these envelopes, taking pictures with my camera and, as an old friend of mine used to say, with my heart, and allowing that heart to be towed in so many unanticipated directions. Because turns out: I was an excellent archivist of my teen self.
The corsages, sure, but that’s classic memory book stuff. I’m talking about movie stubs and campaign pins, about 9th grade English notebooks and printed-out (and pencil-edited) drafts of college admissions essays.…
All archives are, to some extent, narratives: edited stories of the self or others. What I kept then was a story of myself that felt precious and still, at that point, untold. I wasn’t saving in the hopes of someone else discovering who I was. I think it was much more a case of ensuring my future self’s attention. The artifacts were the grammar that made the story readable.
I envy her terribly!
I lived with my father and his girlfriend (later wife) ages 14 to 19. I have very few artifacts of those years: my high school graduation yearbook, some photos. I struggle to think of much else.
My family of origin was never one to keep stuff for others…my father sold the house we lived in and went to live on a boat in the Mediterranean when I was 19 and in my second year of university. I took my wooden trundle bed and wooden desk to the studio apartment I moved it with me. And my stereo!
I really treasure the photo below.
I was maybe six or seven and sitting in the backyard of the last house I shared with my parents before they divorced. It was a big house on a beautiful, quiet street — Castlefrank — in one of Toronto’s nicest neighborhoods, Rosedale. I never lived anywhere like that again.
Luckily, my husband Jose (a photo archivist for the USGA) was able to take this one precious very faded color photo and bring it back for me.
My mother left behind several thick photo albums, but, typical of our relationship, I know very few of the people in them. She never spoke much about her life to me. I do have images of her — slim, gorgeous — modeling for the Vancouver Sun, and a spectacular photo of her that I love.
Cynthia being glamorous.
My stuff? Not much. I moved a few times and only years later found a set of excellent encyclopedias that had been in storage while I was boarding school and camp.
I still fondly remember some items from my teenage-dom — a thick caribou skin rug my father brought back from the Arctic which shed horribly, a poster and a fantastic embroidered sheepskin coat, wildly bohemian and wholly out of place in my white, suburban-ish high school. But I own none of these.
Oddly, a little embarrassedly, I still own and treasure a few stuffed animals from my childhood — like the elephant I found in my London hospital bed after my tonsils were removed. Faded but much beloved, she sits in our bedroom still.
Because I moved around a fair bit and neither parent even had a basement — let alone the willingness to store any of my stuff in it — I’ve definitely lost some very precious teenage things, like a green and white Marimekko notebook in which I wrote my prize-winning poetry and some songs. That one really hurts. I had a storage locker here in New York, but I lost track of the payments for it — and they sold everything in it.
Do you still own treasured items from your early years?
Who, if anyone, will want or value them later do you think?
It’s foundational to everything we do, from earliest childhood to later years — we (have to!) place our trust in medicine and health procedures, in the men and women who pilot airplanes and drive subway trains and schoolbuses, in the chefs and cooks who prepare our meals when we eat away from home — and the health inspectors whose role it is to make sure it is safe.
If you live in the U.S. and follow news — which some of you don’t — a big story of late has been a shocking, relentless barrage of lies from a newly elected Republican congressman from Long Island, George Santos.
From The Daily Beast:
The perplexing series of alleged lies from George Santos, the Republican congressman-elect from Long Island under investigation by county, state and federal prosecutors, have continued to roll in this week—with each “embellishment” as shocking as the last.
Among the new claims under scrutiny in the last 24 hours: Santos’ high school education, his claim to be half-Black, a claim that his family’s Jewish last name was Zabrovsky, and that “9/11 claimed” his mother’s life after she’d “fled socialism” in Europe.
Basically everything he told voters is a lie. And…he will still be sworn into office.
I think about trust all the time because trust in journalists — my career since university — is very very low.
This causes endless problems if voters believe a pathological liar like Santos — but not the reporters who uncovered those lies.
It’s a problem when people shriek “Fake news!” when they hear things they don’t want to, like COVID running rampant still.
It’s a problem when we keep sending our hard-earned tax dollars to governments that don’t do what they said they would, further eroding our trust in them, which, for Americans especially, seems subterranean at best.
From the moment a writer proposes a story, there’s a level of trust between them and their editor, whether they’re on staff or freelance. A staffer can be disciplined, suspended or fired for lying while a freelancer can lose access to a coveted market; The New York Times, for which I’ve written more than 100 stories, periodically sends every freelancer its long and detailed ethics code, and those who break it are out.
But there are legendary stories of lying reporters and their names are known to those of us in the industry, like Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, all of whom were — of course — much lauded for brining in powerful stories and every ambitious editor wants material like that. Until they turn out to be false.
Every time I ask a source to speak to me, they generally agree quickly and kindly, which, in itself is a sign if trust that I’ll behave professionally; my website makes clear I have a long and solid career in place as testament to that. Only once, and it was interesting, was I told “oh hell no!” when I tried to get sources, by an agency that helps teens on Riker’s Island accused of crimes. Only after pleading my case to them face to face did I win the interviews, which are in my first book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.” I’m proud of having won these stories, as they were untold and powerful and I’ve never forgotten them — and I’ve done thousands of interviews in my career.
That took trust.
We live in an era of easy, quick and profitable manipulation — of words, ideas, images. A few years ago the news agency Reuters invited a group of New York journalists (arguably pretty savvy) to listen to a powerful and frightening presentation about how easy it now is to alter images, whether video or still. It was deeply sobering to know how much energy is spent trying to sort out the garbage. My husband, Jose, is a photo editor for The New York Times, and it’s also his job — like every news editor now — to sniff out fake images. Staff photographers and longtime freelancers have earned their trust, Many photos arrive through a photo agency like the AP, Getty and and Reuters, to name three major ones — by the time they’re looked at for publication, they’ve been vetted by many editors who’ve already vetted their photographers.
Trust requires a long unbroken chain.
In 1997, as I think I’ve written here before, I became the victim — one of many! — of a skilled and determined con man who had duped many people in Chicago, done time and moved to New York where he picked up again. I won’t get into all the grim details, but it was a lesson for me, for anyone, in what behaviors inspire our trust and why.
He was physically attractive.
He dressed well.
He was very intelligent and engaging.
He was (of course!) initially charming — later creepy and threatening.
I fell quite ill the day before I was to fly from New York to Sydney Australia alone, hoping to research my first book — he brought me a pot of homemade soup.
How can one — when should one — mistrust kindness?
Read The Gift of Fear, a must-read book for every girl and woman — which includes charm and niceness as warning signs.
In late May I flew to Toronto, my hometown, for the first visit in 2.5 years, catching up with dear friends there; even though I moved away permanently decades ago, I stay in close touch with about half a dozen of them. I was invited to a cottage on Georgian Bay only reachable by boat…six adults, a cat and a dog and all our supplies! It was very beautiful and quite cold! The cabin I slept in had no heat so I wore a wool hat and a very heavy wool blanket.
Big Sur, CA
My tiny perfect room at Deetjen’s, Big Sur
In June, my birthday month, I finally spent a solo month driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles — a lifelong dream only made possible thanks to a wholly unexpected inheritance from my late mother. Along the way, I stayed with a pal in a town near SF, with another in Santa Rosa, had meals with nine other pals, some I had never before met — but have known for years only through social media. It was a real joy, after so much social isolation and loneliness trying to avoid COVID, to sit and chat for hours. I reconnected with two dear friends, both former colleagues of my husband Jose at The New York Times. I had lunch with a woman who became a friend after we cooperated on an exclusive story for the Times…with 150 emails between us by the time the paper flew me from NY to San Francisco to write about Google. I hadn’t been back to that city in a decade, or L.A. in 20 years. I fell very hard to California — such beauty! I cried on the way to the airport the day I left. What a joy it all was!
A great visit with Jose in November to Montreal and a hotel four hour drives’ northeast of the city on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. We live within a mile of the Hudson River — but this was a whole other sort of river! I loved speaking and hearing French again; I lived in Montreal as a Gazette reporter, in Paris at 25 and have been back to both places many times since.
A few days upstate in Saratoga Springs visiting very good friends, former Times colleagues. The hot springs did seem to help my arthritic hip!
I enjoyed some well-paid and really interesting work writing for a non-profit foundation that gives money for academic research. It allowed me to interview three brilliant, passionate and accomplished researchers. Loved it.
Jose continues to enjoy good health and has plenty of steady well-paid work, which has lightened my workload. I’m so grateful! I started writing and selling my photos at 19, hustling hard for decades. It is a great gift to just do a lot less.
Three dear friends each came to visit. We love our pals who live far away — one in Portland, Oregon, one in Milwaukee (both former students of The New York Times Student Journalism Institute) and my pal Scott, who lives in Pennsylvania. It was great to finally catch up with them, even though one of them fell desperately ill for about 24 hours — and so did we! With one very small bathroom, it was a bit of a horror movie. It wasn’t COVID or flu. Maybe norovirus.
Completely new, a much stronger relationship with one of my two half-brothers, 10 years younger, who fought stage 4 cancer and looks likely to be OK. We met when I was 15 and he was 5 but spent very little time together, even though we lived in the same city for decades; we had different mothers and never lived together. I had very early stage breast cancer (no chemo) in June 2018 so I have some idea what he’s been through and made sure to call and text him often. I’m surprised and glad (however a terrible way to get there) we have a deeper friendship now.
A lovely surprise — a C1 rating after my written and oral tests from Alliance Francaise (C2 is the highest), i.e. expert.
As you can tell, renewed and strengthened friendship remains my life’s greatest gift (beyond Jose and good health!)
For 2023 I hope:
For good health for me and Jose — and you!
Continued freelance opportunities
The health and income to allow me to travel more
To study and practice my French and Spanish
Mentoring journalists working at Report for America
A publisher for our book proposal (20 rejections so far, 16 more to go…)
Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukah or Kwanzaa, I bet you carry some powerful memories of those dates, especially from childhood. Some are happy, some painful.
Some of mine:
I’m 12 and my mother and I are living in a brownstone in Montreal for a year, at 3432 Peel Street. We have a meal with local friends, then board a British Airways flight to London with decorations across the middle aisle — and a holiday meal — then have Christmas dinner in London with my aunt and uncle. Three Christmas meals in 24 hours!
I’m 14 and my mother and I are living in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a city south of Mexico City. We live in a walk-up apartment building in a residential neighborhood, Lomas de San Anton. She attends CIDOC and I go to a school just up the hill. We know no one. We have no telephone, just a pay phone on the corner. The only people who know and care about us are far away in Canada or the U.S. or England. She is bipolar and decompensating more and more as we head toward Christmas Eve, when a friend my age is arriving for two weeks from Toronto. Things are getting weird — and I have no one to tell, nor the language to describe it.
My friend arrives on the worst night of my life, then and now. My mother is in full-blown mania, driving Mexican highways with her vehicle lights off. I’m in the camper van with a student of hers, an American who’s maybe 19. We’re terrified and captive. We collect my friend. My mother drives to an industrial town and drives the van into a ditch, where there is no way to get it out again.
We leave. My friend and I are alone for two weeks, at 14 and have some great adventures traveling around by bus as I speak enough Spanish by then and we somehow have money. She goes home (I have no recollection of how) and I move back to Toronto and move in with my father and his live-in girlfriend (later my stepmother) who I haven’t lived with in seven years. I never live with my mother again.
We never discuss the events of that night.
It’s 1996 and I’m two years divorced after a miserable two-year marriage and my mother flies to New York to visit me, but gets off the flight from Vancouver already tipsy and carrying some liquor in a paper bag. My boyfriend has driven to the airport to get her, and meet her, and I am mortified. She and I have a huge fight and she leaves to go to a local hotel. It’s Christmas Eve — and it’s chaos and misery again. I go to a nearby church, as I can’t think where else to go late at night on December 24. I squeeze into a pew beside a family (whose daughter has my name!) and belt our some carols, grateful for warmth and light and refuge and peace. My mother leaves the next day.
We never discuss this.
Jose and I have discussed getting married. We’ve been living together for a few years and he has bought a lovely vintage engagement ring. We attend Christmas Eve service at the same small church I ran to that Christmas Eve in 1996, and as we leave the church, it’s starting to snow.
“Let’s go to the lych gate,” he says. The small structure, typical of English country churches, has two benches, and a roof. “I know Christmas Eve is one of bad memories,” he said. “I want to rebrand this evening with a happier memory.”