And I’m a total sucker for a beautifully laid table, as the French call it, l’art de la table.
If you’ve ever been to France or Italy especially, you’ve probably enjoyed some gorgeous table settings, even in inexpensive restaurants, thanks to lovely colors in seating, table-tops, floor tile and thoughtful lighting.
The last thing you want is bright glaring overhead light.
The idea is to set a mood, to eat and drink slowly, to enjoy a leisurely meal.
Creating a pretty table isn’t as difficult, scary or expensive as you might assume but it takes a little planning, some digging around for lovely, affordable items and having the confidence to put them all together.
Details matter: iron textiles. Polish metals. Make sure your glassware is clean, not pitted or cracked.
(Those of you with very small children, especially boys, may snicker and leave at this point!)
I’ve been amassing tableware and linens for decades now, and have a good collection of antique china and porcelain, including brown transferware, a sort of poor man’s china popular in the 19th century, which also comes in pink, purple, red and black.
I use mismatched but heavy silver-plate cutlery, found at flea markets, and keep it well-polished.
New tablecloths aren’t always easy to find, and tend to be expensive, but flea markets and consignment shops have plenty of them.
I sometimes just buy a few yards of nice fabric and hem it myself by hand.
Summer breakfast on our New York balcony
For new things, I like: Mothology, Anthropologie, Pottery Barn, Wisteria, Horchow, Crate & Barrel, Ballard Designs.
But I mostly haunt flea markets in every city and have found some great/affordable/quality old things at antiques fairs, consignment shops and inside group antiques malls.
To create a pretty table, for the holidays — or ongoing — here are some things you might want to collect (or rent):
— linen or cotton napkins
— tall candles aka tapers, maybe mixed with unscented votives
— candlesticks or candle-holders, brass, glass, wood, crystal, silver
— a centerpiece of fruit or flowers or vegetation; (no fragrant flowers or arrangements too tall to see over)
— a couple of handsome serving platters and large serving bowls
— a large fabric tablecloth to soften and add color and texture or a long, wide fabric runner
— clean and well-polished cutlery, (what Americans call flatware)
— matching glassware (one for water, one for wine)
— salt and pepper and butter in their own servers/dishes
— a nice jug for serving cold water
No open containers!
Here are some of my own photos, for inspiration:
Restaurant Alexandre, Montreal. Marble table-top ringed with polished brass and cheerful striped bistro chairs
So sorry I couldn’t get these home safely from Venice!
I found the tablecloth in Prince Edward County, Ontario. The cup and saucer are early 19th century, English
A collection of candlesticks — three from Mexico (pewter) and one silver-plate found at a flea market
Partly to flee the daily insanity of life in the U.S., I’ve begun reading books much more than in recent years.
On a trip to rural Ontario, I made time one afternoon to browse a local bookstore at length and spent more than $200.
Here are some of my recent picks:
A Bright, Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan, 1988
Inspired by the recent PBS series about the Vietnam war, and with its images and names fresh in my mind, I plunged into it — after finding the book in an upstate Connecticut junk store for $2.
The writing is magisterial, truly extraordinary in its depth and breadth. While extremely detailed, it’s not boring or stuffy. If this war holds any interest for you, this is a great book.
The Risk Pool, Richard Russo, 1989
Loved this one! Russo writes about struggling working-class towns and the people, generally men, who live in them. I enjoyed his book “Empire Falls” and had had this one on my shelf for years. A story about a deadbeat father and his son, and the town in which they live, it’s a powerful portrait of how to survive an off-again-on-again parent, and eventually thrive.
Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann, 1901
It turns out I share a birthday, June 6, with Thomas Mann. This is the first book of his I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. The pace is slow, with little action, but a stately progression through the decades of a prosperous small-town German family in the mid 1800s.
All of which sounds really boring, right?
Not at all. Each of the characters is relatable and recognizable from spoiled, twice-divorced Antonie to her ever-questing brother Christian to the reliable head of the family, Thomas.
A Legacy of Spies, John leCarré, 2017
He’s a master of this genre and has been for decades. If you’ve seen the 2011 film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you’ll have the characters’ names in your head as you read this, his latest.
A career spy, retired, is brought back to account for — atone for — the very work he was expected to do without question or remorse.
Transit, Rachel Cusk, 2017
This novel, nominated for Canada’s Giller Prize, was a big fat “meh.” I read another of her books and found it equally…not very interesting. It’s received rapturous reviews, too.
I’ve given her work two tries. That’s enough for me.
I recently treated myself to even more books, so cued up are Reckless Daughter, a new biography of fellow Canadian, singer Joni Mitchell and Endurance, about his year in space, by astronaut Scott Kelly.
My tastes, always, skew more toward history, biography, economics and social issues than fiction, which I so often find disappointing. I don’t read sci-fi. horror, romance or much self-help and I recently bought a book written for self-employed creatives like myself, seeking inspiration — but after 33 pages of banal repetition gave up in annoyance.
This week I’m working on an outline for what I hope might become my third book of non-fiction, having found a new agent who’s expressed initial interest.
What have you read lately that you’ve enjoyed and would recommend?
Our final morning in Montreal, I insisted we pay a quick visit to one of my old haunts, the enormous market down by the Lachine Canal that sells an astonishing array of produce, meat, cheese, flowers, chocolate, tea, coffee — you name it!
While Montreal has multiple markets, we chose this one and it was a perfect fall day, with people of all ages arriving with babies and dogs.
Because we were traveling and staying in hotels, I didn’t buy much food — a piece of cheese, some apples and bananas, home-made mustard, maple popcorn and some astounding chocolate. The friends we were heading to visit in Ontario are about start building a new home, so a set of chocolate tools (!), like a hammer and saw, seemed like a good house gift.
Of course, this being Quebec, many of the signs are in French, but everyone will speak some English, if not fluently.
Pies: Pumpkin, apple, blueberry, sugar, maple sugar
There are 100000 sorts of things made with maple syrup and Montreal bagels, which are completely different from the doughy ten-ton things New Yorkers love to boast about — these are lighter and chewy and boiled then baked.
Scary meringue ghosts for Halloween!
Canada’s legendary food — poutine — cheese curds and gravy
I’m leaving, starting in Paris with Jose for my birthday, for six weeks in Europe, most of it spent alone and my longest break in 30 years — Paris-Berlin-Budapest-Zagreb-Istria-Venice-London.
A few reasons to travel:
Meeting “the other”
Who’s “foreign” and why? What does it even mean to be a foreigner? What’s janteloven and how does it affect Scandinavian behavior? What’s a “bank holiday” and why do people look forward to it? Why do the Dutch keep their windows open and their interiors visible? What part of a Thai person’s body should you never touch?
We each live within a cultural and historical matrix affecting our choices, whether we realize it or not. Shedding that protective shell, even briefly, can be eye-opening — even life-changing.
The Brooklyn Bridge, NYC
Becoming “the other”
Suddenly you’re the fish out of water, whose assumptions and beliefs can seem weird, even rude, where you’re the visitor.
To slooooooow down and pay close attention to where you are
Turn off your phone! Put down that damn selfie-stick!
Instead, bring binoculars, a sketch book, a book to read. Sit on a rocky hilltop or by a waterfall or in an outdoor cafe. Sit still for an hour and be truly present.
Memories are the best souvenir and paying attention creates them.
Learning/testing your resilience and resourcefulness
It’s up to you to: read the map/menu/train station directions/find the hotel or hostel or apartment. It’s up to you to catch the right bus or subway, (a challenge if the language is Arabic or Chinese or Japanese or Cyrillic or Greek!) But the self-confidence it brings transfers nicely once you’re back on familiar soil.
Using/learning another language
Read the local paper or listen to radio and TV. Learn the phrases for “please” and “thank you” and “I need help.” Using the local language, if at all possible, is a basic show of respect, even if you blunder.
Realizing the value of other ways of thinking: political, economic, social, urban planning, healthcare
Americans, especially, have shockingly little knowledge of the world; with a huge Pacific Ocean to the West, the Atlantic to the east, simply getting out of the U.S. can mean a long, expensive flight. Nor are Americans taught much, if anything, about other countries and American exceptionalism can add a layer of potential arrogance and tone-deafness.
Making new friends
Social media and the Internet offers us unprecedented opportunities to make new friends, literally worldwide. Thanks to blogging, my journalism work and Twitterchats, I’ll be meeting up with new and old friends this summer in London, Paris and Berlin, and hope to make a few more along the way.
Americans call it Canadian bacon; we call it peameal!
Exploring new cultures
Through food, music, museums, galleries, architecture, parks and natural wonders. It’s easy to forget how essential other cultures have also been to the foundation of so much Western thought — French, Asian, Greek, Arabic, just to name a few.
Find out what a muffaletta and a pan bagnat have in common!
Gaining a deeper appreciation of history
I once stood in front of the magnificent marble facade of an Italian church with a Chinese friend who asked if we had such things in my country, Canada. No, I said — we didn’t even become a country separate from Great Britain until 1867.
Stand inside the ringing silence of the Grand Canyon or the African savannah or Australia’s Outback….and remember we’re mere blinks within millennia.
The Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York
Savoring nature’s silent beauty
So much travel is focused, as it should, on the great cities of the world. But there are so many stunning natural sites, from White Sands Monument in New Mexico, (actually silica), to the vast red deserts of Namibia and Morocco, the jungles of Central and South America and Africa, the rugged islands off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland and the U.S. and Canada…
Trying new activities
No bungee-jumping for me! But I’ve tried street food in Bangkok, chocolate-filled churros in Mexico City, sea-kayaking on Ko Phi Phi, horseback riding through the desert in Arizona. Even if it’s an activity you know, doing it in a wholly different environment is worth trying; I loved playing golf on Cruit Island in strong winds at the ocean’s edge — leaving my cheeks salty with sea-spray.
Looking for travel ideas or inspiration?
There are hundreds of travel blogs; one, written by a young Scottish friend — who met her American husband (of course!) while teaching English in China — is Stories My Suitcase Could Tell.
I also enjoy the sophisticated tips offered by a Canadian living in Paris, here.
It’s a fantastic time to visit Canada, where I was born (Vancouver) and raised (Toronto, Montreal.) The Canadian dollar is about 73 cents U.S. and it’s a gorgeous place, with much to see, from Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland (forever on my to-do list) to the spectacular Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island — at the opposite end of my enormous country.
I join weekly travel-focused Twitterchats, like #TRLT, #travelskills and #culturetrav. If you love travel, it’s a terrific way to learn a lot about the world and meet equally passionate fellow travelers.
I woke up this morning to a Twitter feed filled with images of a skinny white woman about to marry a billionaire, Pippa Middleton, sister of the Duchess of Cambridge.
This week, 242 people died of cholera in Yemen.
Guess which got the most attention?
To many people, now, both are journalism — and possibly of equal value.
Not in my book. I’ve done it for a living since 1978.
I’m really weary of watching fellow reporters fawning endlessly over the wealthy and powerful and their private jets and their super-yachts and their pretty lives.
What good does any of this voyeurism offer to a broken world filled with growing income inequality but a reminder that 99.9% of us will never live a life even vaguely resembling this.
All this, as the Trumps and his billionaire Cabinet take millions from other plutocrats to craft policy to make them all even richer.
If you haven’t yet seen Spotlight — which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015 — or All The President’s Men — a 1976 film was nominated in that category but that won four other Oscars — do it. Soon!
Spotlight tells the story of a team of reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered a sex abuse scandal within the Catholic church, for which they received American journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, in 2003. The film makes clear, as does ATPM, that real reporting and journalism that can topple powerful, secretive abusers. It takes time, teamwork and tough editors and reporters who simply refuse to give up once they realize the magnitude of the story, even as it looks impossible to get.
In ATPM, two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward — two real people of the same names — bring down President Richard Nixon after months of piecing together disparate facts and crimes, all the way met with denials and resistance. In one great scene that every reporter can identify with, the editor in chief, Ben Bradlee, says, “I have to really trust my reporters. And I hate trusting anyone.”
In our business, serious mistakes can end a career.
In both films, weary, rumpled reporters do what most journalists actually do — knock on dozens of strangers’ doors (often met with resistance or hostility) looking for sources to speak to them and confirm what they have so far learned or suspected, read through reams of paper documents to find the ones that matter, meet with scared, reluctant witnesses to, or victims of, the crimes, trying to persuade them to put the facts “on the record”, i.e. make them public.
Much of true journalism is slow, tedious, quiet, behind the scenes. It can involve a lot of frustration as you hit dead end after dead end, source after source who refuses to help or to comment, fearful for their job, reputation, even their life.
It’s the opposite of fawning over the wealthy and powerful, which so many now see as “journalism.”
As Trump and his family, and associates, continue to prompt more and deeper investigation, remember that it’s the reporting by The New York Times and Washington Post that have brought much of their behaviors to light.
I’ve been, so far, to all of my native Canada except Nunavut, PEI, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, to 38 of the 50 United States and 38 (soon to be 40) countries.
Here’s an alphabet of some favorites:
Andalusia is an absolute must-see, even though most people choose (rightly!) Madrid or Barcelona when first visiting Spain. I began my trip through Spain, (alone), in Huelva, arriving by train from Portugal, visiting Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Ronda. The region, which spans the entire south of Spain, is heavily influenced by Moorish design and architecture, from the Mezquita of Cordoba with its red and white stone arches to the white beauty of the Alhambra. Ronda is simply spectacular — a town set high upon a cliff.
I loved Auckland: great food, lovely setting, friendly people, easy access to countryside. New Zealand, a costly/long air journey to reach, is worth every penny. One of my happiest trips anywhere, ever.
Picture “Blade Runner”, with a river and amazing food. I spent much time on the narrow boats traveling up and down the Chao Phraya River, enjoying the breeze and watching people. The late Jim Thompson, whose textile company is still in business, has a house there, open to tourists. The city can feel crazy, but I loved it.
I spent 10 days in Copenhagen and could easily have stayed longer: compact, beautiful, set on the water. Not to mention Tivoli, its famous amusement park.
Corsica, of every place I’ve ever seen, remains one of the most breathtaking in its rugged, mountainous beauty. I traveled around the north by mo-ped, alone, inhaling the scent of sun-warmed maquis, its scrubby herbal underbrush. I loved everything about this French island, lesser known to North Americans than Europeans.
My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in Rathmullan, in this northwestern-most county of Ireland. The attendance records from his one-room schoolhouse include his record of bad behavior — with my grandfather scolded for “persistent talking.”
We rented a cottage in Dungloe and did day-trips around the county. It’s Ireland at its wildest, wind whipping in from the Atlantic, sheep grazing at the very edges of steep cliffs. I’ve been to Ireland five times, and this bit quickly became a favorite.
Just south of Montreal, a 90-minute drive, lie the gently rolling hills and small towns of L’Estrie or the Eastern Townships. We’ve been many times since 2001, staying every time (splurge!) at Manoir Hovey, a family-owned resort on Lake Massawippi. Intimate and elegant but not stuffy, perfect for a romantic or restful weekend.
I ended up in Fiji thanks to my peripatetic mother, who spent years traveling the world alone. Blue starfish! Cricket matches! Lush green landscapes!
I’ve been to this small funky college town in northern Arizona a few times, en route to the Grand Canyon. I stayed last time at the Monte Vista, built in 1927, and ate breakfast at the bar, watching a local cabbie have his first Bloody Mary at 8:00 a.m.
Gros Morne National Park/Grand Canyon/Grand Central Terminal
We still haven’t made it to Gros Morne, a UNESCO world heritage site, and one that looks like Norway — in Newfoundland — but it’s high on our list.
The Grand Canyon is everything you want or hope it will be: majestic, awe-inspiring, stunning. The best way to experience it is to hike deep into the canyon, (starting very early in the morning to avoid summer heat and carrying a lot of water), to truly appreciate its flora, fauna and silence.
GCT, (my station!), is truly a cathedral of commutation. Filled with great restaurants and shops, it’s a jewel of New York City with its star-studded turquoise arched ceiling.
My home of several decades. Visitors to New York City should set aside even one day to take the train, (Metro-North, a commuter railroad), north along the eastern edge of the Hudson River. It’s so beautiful! The western shore are steep rocky cliffs called the Palisades, the eastern edge a mix of New York’s second-largest city, Yonkers, and the “river towns”, small, historic villages set like beads on a string at the water’s edge, including mine, Tarrytown. Most have great restaurants and shops, and you can see Manhattan to the south, glittering like Oz. One of the most spectacular towns is quaint Cold Spring, where the river narrows dramatically and you can rent kayaks.
I spent only three days in Istanbul, while working, but it’s unlike any other city I’ve seen. Where else can you ferry between Europe and Asia? Its minarets and muezzins alone create a skyline/soundscape distinctive from anything Western. I spent an entire day in the Grand Bazaar sipping mint tea and looking at rugs.
I’ll be in Istria this summer, for the first time, really excited to explore a new-to-me part of the world; 89 percent of it lies in northern Croatia, where I’ll be visiting the towns of Rovinj and Bale. From there, it’s a quick trip northwest to Venice.
I couldn’t think of anywhere I’ve been yet that starts with J! But living in New York, this is one of our two major international airports, so it’s key to international air travel.
Key West/Ko Phi Phi
Key West, Florida, the southernmost point in the United States, is funky, offbeat and a great spot for a long weekend. No sandy beaches, but lots of fun bars and restaurants. Best of all — rent a bike or walk everywhere.
It’s been a long time since I landed on Ko Phi Phi, but it remains in my top five most indelible travel experiences. A two-hour boat ride from Krabi, in southern Thailand, Phi Phi was tiny and gorgeous — I hope it still is.
It can feel enormous and overwhelming, so take it slowly, neighborhood by neighborhood. Stroll the Thames. Have tea! Stop for a pint at a pub. Visit Primrose Hill for a great city view, and enjoy the shops and restaurants along Regent’s Park Road; PH is a lovely residential area with pastel-colored villas. Visit Hamley’s toy store and Liberty, possibly the prettiest retail store in the world. Visit Freud’s house and marvel at his odd office chair!
It’s everything you think — timeless, breathtaking, mysterious. Watching the sun rise over the Andes, light spilling into valley after valley after valley…
I love Maine and have been back many times. The coastline is rugged and beautiful, its small towns varied and interesting, Acadia National Park worth a visit. Blueberries, antiques, ocean and lobster — what’s not to like?
What Eden must have looked like. You reach it after descending for an hour of hairpin turns, and see animals spread out for miles. This stunning landscape lies in northern Tanzania; damned expensive to get to from almost anywhere, but worth every single penny.
Mexico, one of my favorite places; both the city and the state.
Regular readers here know how much I love Paris, where I lived at 25 in a student dorm in the 15th, and have returned to many times, usually renting a flat on the Ile St. Louis or in the Marais. In any season, (but especially fall), it’s a city that always rewards the flaneur/euse — the meandering explorer with no set agenda.
Especially (brrrrr!) mid-winter. Set high on a cliff above the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City is a taste of Europe without crossing an ocean. Narrow, winding cobble-stoned streets, (treacherous when icy). Delicious French food. Some shopping. Have a drink at the bar of the elegant, classic Chateau Frontenac hotel.
I know, you expected Rome! I’m headed to this town in Istria/Northern Croatia, eager to explore its narrow, lovely cobble-stoned streets and deep sense of history. I’ve never been to Croatia and am so looking forward to it.
Savannah, Georgia is a perfect weekend getaway — charming, elegant, historic. Great food and shopping. The city is a series of small squares; earthier and less manicured than Charleston.
San Francisco…swoon. Small enough to feel manageable but large enough to offer a variety of museums, restaurants, great shopping and architecture. Sacramento Street, for sure. The Presidio. Drive out into Marin County, filled with perfect small towns and lush green hills.
Sintra is a resort town in Portugal, a day trip from Lisbon, that feels like a children’s book illustration — steep wooded hillsides and castles filled with glorious Portuguese tile, azulejos. Simply astounding.
New Mexico, (where my husband was born and raised) is one of the most beautiful states of the U.S. — the light, the landscapes, the mountains. Taos is a small town but feels like, and is, a place people actually live; (Santa Fe is gorgeous but expensive and touristy.)
I went to Tucson for work, and loved it. A small city with some great restaurants, an 18th century mission and (geek alert!) The Pima Air & Space Museum. I love aircraft — and what less likely place to see a MiG?
My hometown. Not the prettiest city, but great food, several very good museums and, my favorite, the Islands, reached by ferry within about 15 minutes, year-round. Set in the harbor, they offer a great view of the skyline at sunset, several cafes and bike rentals — and beaches. Check out Kensington Market (funky/vintage/ethnic foods) and St. Lawrence Market (huge, amazing.)
Maybe the best part of travel — heading into new places for new adventures.
Few cities have so spectacular a setting as Vancouver, my birthplace — with mountains to the east one side and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The local art gallery is small but has a great cafe. Take a day to enjoy Granville Island, with shops, artists, food markets and restaurants. Stanley Park is fantastic; rent a bike and do the circuit, allowing time for the most YVR of experiences, watching seaplanes landing and taking off.
All that you think — mysterious, crumbling, narrow alleyways, the enormous piazza of St. Mark’s Cathedral. One of my favorite spots is the studio of Spanish textile designer and inventor, Mariano Fortuny. I spent my 21st birthday here, alone, staying at the legendary Gritti Palace.
It’s easy to spend days here just visiting every one of its many museums and art galleries. But it’s also a city that rewards walking, to appreciate its low-slung, elegant layout, created by a Frenchman, Pierre L’Enfant, in 1791. Enjoy its smaller neighborhoods as well, and take the Metro — you’ll see the city’s unique mix of uniformed military, eager young interns with their badges and lanyards, students and government workers.
On my to-do list, on the Mexican Caribbean coast. I’ve been to Mexico many times, and love it, but not yet to that part of the country.
I’m going to cheat here and go with YUL — the airport code for Montreal. One of my favorites, a city I’ve lived in twice, as a child and as an adult. Summer offers the Jazz Festival and a comedy festival and winter is really cold and windy. But ohhhhh, the restaurants! The shopping! The city never disappoints. Small enough to scoot around by cab or public transit.
I’ve never been, but will be there this summer as part of my six-week journey through some of Europe.
Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.
Which is why we need a social and political movement — digital temperance, if you will — to take back some control.
I know, I know…how else could you be reading this, except on a device?
So, of course, I want you here and I want your attention (hey, over here!) and I want you to keep coming back for more.
But I agree with him that life spent only attached to a screen is a miserable existence:
American car accident rates are much higher now than a few years ago, due to drivers texting while behind the wheel.
People walk into the street, into objects and into other human beings because they refuse to pay attention to where they are in the real world, aka meatspace.
For all the connection it brings, staying tech-tethered also distances us from the people and experiences all around us.
It may be a sign of my generation, or my friends, but when I’m with someone in a social setting, like dinner or coffee or just a chat, we aren’t looking at our phones.
On a recent week’s vacation, breaking my normal routines, I stayed off my phone and computer — and took photos, read books and magazines (on paper), ate, slept, shopped, walked, exercised, talked to friends.
Do I care if everyone else “likes” my life?
If I like it, I’m fine.
Do you take technology sabbaths and turn off or put away all your digital devices?
My friend Pam is crazy for orchids, so we made our first-ever journey this week — about a 20-minute drive south of our town — to the New York Botanical Garden, a legendary destination we had never seen.
The show, which filled room after room of the enormous conservatory, was spectacular, complemented by hanging lanterns and tinkling exotic music.
It ends April 9.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see huge baskets of orchids when I visited Thailand, but typically have only admired them in nurseries and flower shops.
This was an astonishing array — and this year’s show, their 15th focused on orchids, was all about Thailand, which has 1,200 species of orchids.
The displays included several small altars, enormous topiary elephants and a temple.
It’s hardly as though we need any more books. We have hundreds already, many of them (ugh) still unread, even years after buying them, whether reference, history or fiction.
But who can resist a brand new book?
(I’ve just bought three more books: Transit by Rachel Cusk, The Hustle Economy [a bit too basic for me, 12 years into full-time freelance] and Hillbilly Elegy, a New York Times best-seller that I’m enjoying but not bowled over by.)
The top three books in this stack were requests, given to me by my husband Jose for Christmas 2016.
I love the names of wine: gewurtztraminer, gruner veltliner, Vouvray, Muscadet, grenache, Montepulciano. (Dream second career? Sommelier, except for all that memorizing!) Jancis Robinson is someone whose work we read every week in the Financial Times. (My other favorite wine writer, a friend, is another woman, Lettie Teague, who writes for The Wall Street Journal.)
The next two books are a holdover from my childhood years growing up in Canada, where most of my reading material was published by Penguin; I’d read rapturous reviews of MacFarlane in the FT and am fascinated by landscapes and how we experience them.
The bottom four books were the happy result of browsing an indie bookstore, Logos Books, in Manhattan while recently waiting to meet a friend.
I so rarely spend time in bookstores — I would easily spend hunreds of dollars each year! — so I really enjoyed a good long browse.
The collection on offer was deliciously eclectic.
If you don’t know her or her work, Martha Gellhorn was a legendary war correspondent, ferocious and admired — and, incidentally, the third of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives. She was the only woman to land in Normandy on D-Day and covered every war, determined to be there to record every detail, no matter what the obstacles.
I long ago read a biography of Antoinette May, another war correspondent — a birthday gift from a friend and Globe & Mail colleague. Smart, tough determined fellow female journalists give me role models!
I’ve never read anything by John O’Hara and, frankly, I just loved the cover. The story is set in 1930. I love reading about earlier eras.
A Little Life has received rave reviews, although some say it’s a very sad book. I very rarely read fiction — as you can see, with five of these seven being non-fiction — so I hope it’s good. (I was given The Goldfinch as a birthday gift two years ago and put off opening it for a year, having heard it was far too long. But I absolutely loved it, even though it is too long.)
I recently started re-reading The Illustrated Man, which I first read when I was 12. I was so impressed with it that I wrote Bradbury a fan letter, from my summer camp in northern Ontario, and sent it to his New York City publisher, Ballantine.
Within two weeks, I had a hand-signed reply, with his home address in California, a postcard I treasure to this day.
He was real!
He wrote back!
To a little girl in Ontario!
What I could not have known then was that he — also age 12 — was magically transformed by a chance meeting. This, from his official website:
Throughout his life, Bradbury liked to recount the story of meeting a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico, in 1932. At the end of his performance Electrico reached out to the twelve-year-old Bradbury, touched the boy with his sword, and commanded, Live forever! Bradbury later said, I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard. I started writing every day. I never stopped.
Books can do this to us.
They connect us to the past, to an imagined future, to ideas and questions and challenges and gorgeous images.
They transport us, without a need for tickets or passports or jet lag.
Set at least one face-to-face date with a friend (or colleague) every week
In a world of virtual connection, it’s too easy to spend our life tapping a keyboard and staring into a screen. And we miss out on so much by not sitting face to face with friends and colleagues — their laughter, a hug, a raised eyebrow.
Eat less meat
I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian, but have decided, for health reasons, to try and eat less red meat. Great recipes help, as does finding a good and affordable fishmonger.
Switch up your cultural consumption
If you’ve never been to the opera or ballet, (or played a video game or read a manga), or visited a private art gallery or museum, give it a try.
We all fall into ruts, easily forgetting — or, worse, never knowing or caring — how many forms of cultural expression exist in the world.
If all you read is science fiction, pick up a book of real-life science, and vice versa.
Have you ever listened to koto music? Or bhangra? Or reggae? Or soukous? One of my favorite musicians is Mali’s Salif Keita. Another is the British songwriter Richard Thompson.
Watch less television
I turned off the “news” and my stress levels quickly dropped. I read Twitter and two papers a day, but most television news is a shallow, U.S.-centric (where I live) joke. I enjoy movies and a very few shows, but try to limit my television time to maybe six hours a week.
Read for pure pleasure
I consume vast amounts of media for my work as a journalist, (we get 20 monthly and weekly magazines and newspapers by subscription), often ending up too tired to read for pure enjoyment.
Make a point of finding some terrific new reads and dive in.
Schedule a long phone call or Skype visit each month with someone far away you miss
Like me, you’ve probably got friends and family scattered across the world. People I love live as far away from me (in New York) as Kamloops, B.C., D.C., Toronto and London. Emails and social media can’t get to the heart of the matter as deeply as a face to face or intimate conversation.
Get a handle on your finances: spending, saving, investing
Do you know your APRs? Your FICO score and how to improve it? Are you saving 15 percent of your income every week or month? (If not, how will you ever retire or weather a financial crisis?)
Have you invested your savings? Are you reviewing your portfolio a few times a year to see if things have changed substantially?
Do you read the business press, watching where the economy is headed? If you’ve never read a personal finance book or blog, invest some time this year in really understanding how to maximize every bit of your hard-earned income and cut expenses.
I wrote five pieces last year for Reuters Money; there are many such sites to help you better understand personal finance. Here’s a helpful piece from one of my favorite writers on the topic, (meeting her in D.C. last year was a great nerd-thrill!), the Washington Post‘s Michelle Singletary.
Fast one or two days a week
I’ve now been doing this for seven months, two days a week, and plan to do it forever. The hard core consume only 500 calories on “fast” days. I eat 750, and eat normally the other days. (Normally doesn’t include fast food, liquor [except for weekends], junk food like chips and soda.) It’s helped me shed weight and calm digestive issues.
It’s not that difficult after the first few weeks and doing vigorous exercise helps enormously, thanks to endorphins and other chemicals that naturally suppress appetite.
Explore a new-to-you neighborhood, town or city nearby
Do you always take the same route to work or school or the gym? We all try to save time by taking well-known short-cuts, but can miss a lot in so doing.
Make time to try a new-to-you neighborhood or place nearby. Travel, adventure and exploration don’t have to require a costly plane or train ticket.
Ditch a long-standing habit — and create a new one
Watching television news had become a nightly habit for me, even as I found much of it shallow and stupid.
My new habit for 2015 was playing golf, even just going to the driving range to work on my skills.
My new habit, for 2016, is fasting twice a week.
Not sure yet what my 2017 new habit will be.
Write notes on paper
As thank-yous for the dinners and parties you attend. For gifts received. Condolence notes.
Splurge on some quality stationery and a nice pen; keep stamps handy so you’ve no excuse. Getting a hand-written letter through the mail now is such a rarity and a luxury. It leaves an impression.
Decades from now, you’ll savor some of the ones you received — not a pile of pixels or emails.
Even a can of paint and a roller can transform a room.
Your home is a refuge and sanctuary from a noisy, crowded, stressful world. Treat it well!
Visit your local library
Libraries have changed, becoming more community centers. I love settling into a comfortable chair for a few hours to soak up some new magazines or to pick up a selection of CDs or DVDs to try.
Get to know a child you’re not related to
We don’t have children or grand-children, or nephews or nieces, so we appreciate getting to know the son of our friends across the street, who’s 10, and a lively, funny, talented musician.
People who don’t have children can really enjoy the company of others’ kids, and kids can use a break from their parents and relatives; an outside perspective can be a refreshing change (when it’s someone whose values you share and whose behavior, of course, you trust.)
If you’re ready for the commitment, volunteer to mentor a less-privileged child through a program like Big Brothers or Big Sisters or other local initiatives. Everyone needs an attentive ear and someone fun and cool to hang out with and learn from — who’s not only one more authority figure.
Write to your elected representative(s) praising them for work you admire — or arguing lucidly for the changes you want them to make, and why
I admire those who choose political office. For every bloviating blowhard, there’s someone who really hopes to make a difference. Let them know you appreciate their hard work — or make sure they hear your concerns.
Write a letter to the editor
If you ever read the letters page, you’ll find it dominated by male voices. Make time to read deeply enough that you find stories and issues to engage with, about which you have strong and lucid opinions and reactions.
Support the causes you believe in by arguing for them publicly — not just on social media or privately.
Spend at least 30 minutes every day in silence, solitude and/or surrounded by nature