In every city I know, firefighters remain somewhat mythical beasts, people you typically only see — or hope to see! — on television or racing to help someone in distress or trying to save a burning building.
Socially, you might run into many different people, but in 20+ years in New York, I’ve only known one firefighter, married to a friend who was then, like me, a magazine editor.
They also have truly legendary status here because so many of these men — 343 — died in the attacks of September 11, running into the Twin Towers to try to save those trapped within.
This week I happened to pass by Ladder Company 3, on East 13th street, on my way to a store next door.
It’s so often like that here, that I accidentally stumble onto a serious piece of the city’s long and complex history.
Ladder Company Three was one of the worst-hit of the city’s battalions, losing most of its men. Ironically, it’s one of the city’s oldest, founded — of course — on September 11, 1865. They lost 11 men, and the front of their firehouse is covered in plaques naming the men. Just inside the door is an elegant wooden wall with gallery lighting honoring them, and there’s a comfortable wooden bench in front, where grateful passersby like me can sit for a moment.
Like many people, I’m in awe of the work firefighters do: terrifying, dangerous, often lethal. They run, by choice and by profession, into the worst situations imaginable.
I stared into the firehouse’s open door, mesmerized by the enormity of its ladder truck parked within. I could see a coat rack, with each firefighter’s coat, his name on its back in huge reflective letters and a uniform, with its boots, ready to step into.
A firefighter came to the doorway with two small portable bright orange chainsaws — one with serrated teeth, one with a smooth metal wheel. He fired them up to full strength, a task, he said, he does twice every day. Because so many people here live in apartments, they often need to cut through security gates.
I learned the difference between an engine (whose primary function is to spray water) and a ladder, needed, obviously, to reach the upper stories of taller buildings.
I also learned a new word — “taxpayer” — which refers to a small one or two-storey building in the city, both a real estate term and one used by firefighters.
Then — oh, beating heart keep still! — another truck pulled up, giving me a chance to see it up close. I got into conversation with a young, new firefighter, whose name was Middle Eastern, (many here, traditionally, are Irish), who’d previously served in the British military.
He was super-nice and answered my torrent of questions: the truck carries only enough water to last three (!) minutes, so quick and ready access to a hydrant is essential; the truck carries a crew of five, including a commanding officer and driver; and they have a special set of tools to allow them access to people trapped in a subway tunnel.
I scrambled to take as many photos as I could, knowing the odds of being that close to a New York City firetruck again were slim.
I essentially started my interviewing career — at the age of 12 — when I had to do an oral presentation for school and went to our local firehouse, in Toronto, to ask them about those little red boxes in the wall and all the drills we did, (this was a boarding school.)
I suspect everyone not wearing that uniform is as in awe and wonder as I am at their skill and bravery.
The backstory, for those of you who don’t use or need one, is the staggering price increase for the EpiPen, an injectable device that pumps epinephrine into your system to address anaphylactic shock, an allergic reaction to nuts, shellfish, fish or any number of substances.
If someone goes into that shock, they need the injection within 30 minutes or they can die.
In the U.S. — whose entire healthcare “system” is run to wring the maximum profit from our inevitable physical needs — there’s only one company making them right now, Mylan, whose female CEO, Heather Bresch, the daughter of a Senator, no less, might be the most loathed individual in the country right now.
Knowing she has the market cornered, (as other competitors left the field), she spiked the price of EpiPens to $600 — a huge jump, and one that makes a lifesaving device unaffordable to many people.
(The company, now under tremendous public fire, is offering a $300 coupon.)
Imagine needing, (as some people do), three sets for each child: school, home and your vehicle, a cool $1,800 to start.
I’ve been following this story, not because anyone I know uses an EpiPen but because I’m so sickened by corporate greed.
I also grew up, to the age of 30, in a nation with strict government oversight and regulation of drugs, medications and device prices — so no one gets gouged.
I decided to pursue this story on Friday morning, and started at 10:00 a.m.
I put out calls and urgent emails to sources in the U.S. and Canada, racing the clock to get the story reported and written quickly; as a “trending topic”, I needed to get it posted as soon as I could, yet make sure I was producing a smart, well-written and well-sourced piece.
Social media saved my bacon — a request to a writers’ group I belong to on Facebook prompted a fast reply from someone who knew a physicians (!) who personally relies on EpiPens and who emailed me back quickly and in detail.
Working behind the scenes with my editor who, as usual and of course, I haven’t met, we discussed how to best present the story, an angle I hadn’t read anywhere else — yet.
We posted the finished story, about 1,200 words, by 5pm. (Good thing I’ve worked as a daily newspaper reporter. That kind of speed is normal for me.)
If you have time to read it, please share it widely; Forbes is a pay per view model, and this story offers an important way for people who need affordable access to get it.
It was 95 degrees, and humid — and said to feel like 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
But it was a perfect day, a day spent gratefully away from the endless grind of the computer and the claustrophobic roar of the air conditioner.
A hooky day.
I drove into the city, (a 40 minute drive from our town on the Hudson River, north of Manhattan), reveling in air conditioning and listening, as usual, to WFUV (the radio station of Fordham Univerisity, a private Jesuit college here.)
Loved seeing dinghies with bellied sails on the Hudson and several huge barges being pushed by tugs. Tugs are like elephants for me — the very sight of one just makes me really happy. Given non-stop maritime traffic here, I get to see them a lot!
I enjoy the drive south from our town, parallel to the Hudson River to my right/west, with glorious views of the city’s skyline, the George Washington Bridge and New Jersey, just a few miles across the water. I moved to New York in 1989, and I never tire of these views. I feel lucky to live close enough to afford it, and to dip in and out of the city without paying every penny to live in it.
I parked beneath Lincoln Center, (whose underground parking lot was a recent discovery), and walked over to ABC — the television network — to drop off the backpack we filled to donate.
Those corporate lobbies are really something. HUGE. Boatloads of green and red marble. Mostly intimidating and not very attractive. One wall of the lobby is filled with color photos of all their stars, and you realize that each person is a brand, a polished and valuable commodity in their collection.
I’d planned on a 1:10 movie, but missed it so I settled into a favorite French restaurant, La Boite en Bois, for a long, long (2.5 hours) lazy lunch. It’s a tiny space, a few steps below ground, and has been in business for 30 years — an impressive run in such a difficult city.
For much of the time I had the 48-seat room all to myself. Chatted in French to one of the waiters and enjoyed a three-course (!), very good meal for $27 ($32 with tip.) I caught up on two days’ worth of the Financial Times and the day’s New York Times. (And fielded a few work emails.)
Hopped a bus crosstown to meet a friend for a drink at a craft beer joint, The Jeffrey, which was terrific. One of the fun things of living here is that there’s always something new to discover — because rents are so high, places can open, even to rave reviews, and be gone within months.
Walked six blocks north, bussed back to the West side and caught Equity, a new film, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, another below-ground gem. (Sounds like a Hobbit-y day!)
Walking back to the car at 10:15 p.m. — past the now illuminated Lincoln Center fountain, people silhouetted against its lit-up waters — was one of those perfect, classic Manhattan moments. Like Grand Central Terminal, Lincoln Center is such an elegant icon. I never tire of its understated white marble beauty.
The day wasn’t cheap; it’s Manhattan, after all, but not as bad as some might think. I usually limit my NYC excursions to once a week or so, but make sure to maximize my pleasure once I’ve made the journey.
Total cost of my perfect day: parking $48 (10 hours); lunch $32; bus fare $2.75 x two; cab $13; beer (paid for my friend, on her work expense account — we’re both journalists); movie $15, popcorn (dinner!) $5.
You can always see the famous icons of New York City, on postcards and T-shirts and in movies and television.
It can make you feel like you know the city even if you’ve never been here.
But, like every major city, it’s a place of many facets, most of which tourists will never see.
One of the coolest aspects of New York — and one so easy for pedestrians, drivers and tourists to forget — is that it’s a busy, working harbor.
The East and Hudson Rivers are as crowded with marine traffic as there is vehicular madness on the FDR (highway on the East Side), the BQE (heading out to Brooklyn and Queens) and the West Side Highway.
Every day dozens of tug boats are pushing barges somewhere — or guiding enormous cruise ships through a harbor filled with treacherously narrow and shallow channels.
I spent one of the happiest days of my work life here aboard a tug boat and came away in awe of these workhorses, each worth a ton of money and able to keep the city moving in ways no other craft can.
One of my favorite sights is seeing a tugboat at night, its lights stacked high like a mini wedding cake as it chugs along the river.
Broadway is still a real treat.
Despite crazy-high prices and the impossibility of getting tickets for some shows like Hamilton, seeing a performance in one of these classic, small, intimate theaters is well worth doing and can create a lifetime memory.
My favorite? Attending, of all things, Mamma Mia, with my husband’s Buddhist lama (yes, really)…Namaste on Broadway!
And Lincoln Center; this is the David Koch Theater. What a pleasure to wait for the house lights and the jewel-shaped lamps fronting each balcony to dim, the hush as the curtain rises on another ballet.
The entire building is delicate and lovely and ethereal — very early 1960s with all that white marble and gold — and makes an event there feel, as it is, like a special occasion.
This is a classic! One of my favorite shopping streets, East Ninth.
There are, still, a very few streets left in Manhattan, (more in Brooklyn now), that are funky and filled with quirky independent shops.
Rents skyrocket daily, forcing many long-time renters and businesses to shut and leave, sometimes to close for good.
A gas station at Houston and Broadway, one of a very small handful of gas stations in Manhattan, is soon to be torn down and replaced with….what else?…more million-dollar condominiums.
Hey, who needs gas anyway? Just thousands of working cabbies, to start with.
One of my favorite cafes, Cafe Angelique, (now on Bleecker’s eastern end) had to vacate its spot in the West Village when the landlord jacked the rent to…$45,000 a month.
Find — and support — the indies while you can!
Never forget — this is a city of incredible, rising income inequality.
The photo above, of a space that dwarfs airplane hangars, is filled with food, all of it destined for the city’s poorest inhabitants, many of them elderly.
You can enjoy the High Line and Times Square, dear tourists, but it’s only one tiny sliver of New York City.
The film-maker of The Wolfpack literally found her documentary subject on the sidewalk — passing this group of handsome young men — and wondering who on earth they were.
Their story is almost unimaginable, raised inside their Manhattan apartment by a fiercely controlling father.
If you like shopping, you might enjoy a visit to Saks Fifth Avenue. I like eating lunch there, and enjoying this view.
Or, getting up to dance with 800 strangers at 7 in the morning.
Yes, I’ve done it, several times.
If you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see all sorts of elegance and beauty in the least likely places. This is a lamp on a private college campus in Brooklyn.
And this tea and coffee shop, here since 1907, makes me happy. I stagger out every time laden with pounds of beans and tea.
The pattern of a metal plate on a Soho street…This is a city that still truly rewards a close look and sustained attention.
The back of a store on Spring Street in Soho. Speaking of quirky…
My birthday month…a facade in midtown Manhattan. Note the twins of Gemini.
A firehouse. How gorgeous is this?!
Nope, not Rome or Florence or Paris…Soho, Manhattan. The cast-iron facades downtown are a terrific reminder of the city’s past, not just the gleaming multi-million dollar condo towers.
And for those who still dream of becoming journalists…Columbia Journalism School.
I studied here in the 1990s — now I teach writing there!
How can you resist? The city is filled with delicious bakeries and temptations…
If you come, make time to walk sloooooowly and savor all these sights.
It’s become something of a new anthem in itself…”I’m moving to Canada!” if Trump (or whichever Presidential candidate most terrifies/disgusts/depresses you) wins the nomination, or Presidency.
Not so fast!
I left Canada, where I was born (in Vancouver) and raised (in Toronto and Montreal) in 1988 to take a temporary editing job in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
Why there? I was madly in love with an American, a physician doing his medical residency at Dartmouth College after studying at McGill; we met when he was in Montreal. We later married — and divorced.
I came to the U.S. on an H1-B, a visa that’s difficult to get — the employer must advertise the position and be demonstrably unable to fill it with a qualified American. I initially came for three months, but had long wanted to come permanently, able to do so thanks to my mother’s American citizenship, which allowed me to obtain a “green card”, and become (o’ infelicitous phrase!) a “resident alien.”
I’ve lived in New York, in a suburban town near Manhattan, since 1989. It stuns me sometimes to realize it’s been so long, but I’m still here.
Like many Canadians, blessed with a terrific university education, (and zero debt upon graduation, thanks to low tuition costs), I felt, and was, able to compete with sharp-elbowed Americans all grasping for the various brass rings of publishing and journalism.
I craved a larger place to test out my skills. (It’s not easy!)
My maternal grandmother and her antecedents were all American, as are many cousins, some of them highly accomplished, one an ambassador, another an archaeologist. I was curious to know more about the culture that had shaped them.
Canadians are deluged by American media so it’s not as though we don’t hear about the place, all the time.
I was also tired of constantly being mistaken for an American, a very odd experience from fellow Canadians, where being openly ambitious is a no-no.
Not in New York!
Canada is usually routinely invisible to American news outlets. We’re used to it.
But now that the 2016 Presidential election campaign has become a bizarre and frightening circus, many Americans are wondering if that nation to the North — the one they typically ignore in quieter times — is a better option.
While Canada recently welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees, don’t be too quick to assume there’s an equal welcome for thousands of panicked Americans eager to flee a political scene they find abhorrent.
Read the Canadian government website for potential immigrants and you’ll find a list of exclusions, from health and financial problems to a DUI conviction. Yes, some of you will be able to obtain work visas, but many Canadian jobs pay less than you’re used to – and taxes are higher. You’ll also wait longer for access to some medical care.
Before assuming Canada is a default lifetsyle option, read its newspapers and listen to the CBC. Read our history and some of our authors, not just the ones you know, like Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. Talk to people who live there. In other words, before you reassure yourself that if it comes to a Trump inauguration, you can pack your bags and head to Vancouver (maybe not Vancouver – CRAZY expensive to live there), you might want to take a minute to acquaint yourself with some specific attributes of that country to the north
I wrote the piece from a place of mixed emotions.
In some ways I miss Canada terribly — my oldest and dearest friends, my personal history, a political climate that doesn’t demonize women for wanting reproductive freedom or gays for wanting to marry.
I miss a shared culture and its references.
Not to mention Justin Trudeau, our new 44-year-old Prime Minister.
But I also left for reasons.
This is the challenge of every ex-patriate and immigrant; we leave a place we know well and possibly love, throwing our fresh hopes onto a new land and its values, political and economic.
For the first time since moving here, I’ve wondered about moving back, even for a year. My American husband loves Canada and has portable skills. We’ll see.
How about you?
Is moving to Canada an option you would ever consider?
So far, I’ve made it to 38 countries, from Thailand to Turkey, New Zealand to Austria, Fiji to Tanzania.
Then the only child of a globe-trotting freelance Canadian family — i.e. plenty of time to travel and no measly American two weeks’ vacation a year for us! — I took my first solo flight at seven, from Toronto to Antigua.
I live to travel, whether a weekend road trip from our home on the Hudson River near New York City to friends in Rhode Island or Maryland or a longer journey across an ocean.
Deeply grateful to have been so many places, here are some of the ones I’m still eager to visit:
Morocco, Iceland, Finland, Croatia, Japan, South Africa, Argentina, Antarctica, the Inner Hebrides where this blogger lives and the Outer Hebrides where this one grew up, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, Brazil; within the U.S., to drive California and see the canyons of Utah and revisit the stunning vistas of Montana and the Dakotas; within my native Canada, to revisit the North.
We might finally make to to Newfoundland this summer, meeting friends there to camp and hike in spectacular Gros Morne National Park.
They chose Mexico City as their premier destination and I agree. It’s a fantastic place I’ve been to several times over the years, (although not in this list below.)
Here’s a tightly-edited list of 20 places I’ve been to I think well worth a visit:
Think of France and the last thing you’ll likely picture are cowboys and pink flamingos, let alone in the same region. But this flat marshy part of southern France is full of surprises and these are two of them. I spent my first honeymoon there, and interviewed a lady bullfighter for a story. Thanks to the TGV, the high-speed train network across the country, nowhere is hopelessly distant.
Like many others, I love this city’s architecture and scale, the colors — whether the pearly gray of buildings and rooftops or the deep rich tones of the glossy wooden doors leading to quiet, private courtyards — navy, emerald green, burgundy. Every alley has history and mystery. It’s a bustling city with room for visual intimacy.
I also come home every time with clothing and accessories that win compliments for years afterward. French women of every age dress with a style and confidence that’s inspiring to me.
My paternal grandfather emigrated from the small Donegal town of Rathmullan to Vancouver and I’ve been back to his birthplace twice. The northwesternmost county of Donegal is wild, windy and much less touristed than other parts of Ireland.
There are gorgeous islands nearby like Aranmor and tiny towns with welcoming spots like the Lobster Pot in Burtonport. (If you go, say hello to Annie and Tim, the owners.) We rented a cottage there for a week and fell in love with this part of the country.
I only saw the North Island, but found this distant nation stunningly beautiful, its people kind and welcoming and the 12-hour flight from Los Angeles worth it. The Coromandel Peninsula was breathtaking and I loved the exotic and unfamiliar (to me) vegetation like pohutukawa trees.
New York City
Few Western, let alone American, cities offer this combination of energy, elegance, style, history and architecture. From the canyons of Wall Street to Broadway to Harlem to Central Park, this is a must-see. The best bits are far from the noise and insanity of midtown, where throngs of tourists waste their days bumping into one another. (Check the archives here for several posts on quieter treasures here.)
And don’t come in summer! (It’s smelly and humid.)
That bridge! The fog! The harbor! San Francisco is an old-money town, with a quiet, low-key style all of its own. A terrific museum, the Presidio, old-school restaurants and a quieter pace. Take a day to drive the lush green hills and sleepy towns of Marin County.
The Hudson Valley
Just north of Manhattan lies a gorgeous region, where I’ve lived since 1989. Home to enormous Beaux Arts mansions like Lyndhurst, Kykuit and Hyde Park, its geography is stunning, especially as the Hudson River narrows near Cold Spring. The nation’s premier military academy, West Point, perches high above the river on the western edge — opposite a former Catholic monastery now home to a variety of Buddhist and other programs focused on spirituality.
Some of the steep and winding riverside drives are simply spectacular, especially in fall. Well worth an extra few days exploration if you’re coming to New York City.
The Toronto Islands
I grew up in Toronto, now a sprawling city of 2.6 million. It attracts many tourists to its shopping, (Queen Street West!), galleries and museums and many excellent restaurants. It sits on the northern edge of Lake Ontario, a fact easily missed because access to the waterfront has long been badly mangled by two expressways.
But one of the city’s treasures, in all seasons, are its islands, a quick, cheap ferry ride across the harbor. One of them is filled with colorful small homes, with fortunate residents who live there year-round, even though the region is technically public parkland. In summer, there are bikes for rent and a petting zoo and lovely beaches.
We were married on Centre Island in September 2011, and our guests arrived via water taxi. The church is tiny and intimate — and I could barely hear my processional music because of the cows mooing nearby in the petting zoo.
Watching the sun set from there over the city skyline is fantastic.
Many people visit France many times, but never think to visit this stunning island off its southern shore. I went there in 1995 for a week, traveling around the north by moped alone, and loved every second of it. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, anywhere — timeless, rugged, ringed by the Mediterranean.
Similar to French tourism, where many visitors focus on a few well-known spots, those going to Spain usually choose Barcelona and Madrid over the lovely southern cities of Seville, Cordoba and Granada. I was there a very long time ago, but was mesmerized by the beauty, history and the mix of Spanish and Arab influences that affected food, architecture and language.
I was in Seville in spring, when the entire city burst into fragrant orange blossom. Unforgettable!
Mae Hong Son
The odds of getting there are slim, I know, as it’s a small town — pop. 6,000 — near the Burmese border, in northern Thailand. But if you’re going to Thailand, it’s worth it. I’ve never been to a town so small I could, and did, walk from the airport into town, with a Buddhist temple across the street. Centered around a small lake, its guesthouses are inexpensive and welcoming. We rode mopeds right to the Burmese border, one of the craziest adventures of my life — as the road was, literally, still being built, and we drove through clouds of silky red dust, using our feet as pontoons.
The Eastern Townships
A region of charming small towns a 90-minute drive south of Montreal, it’s got skiing, hiking, canoeing and gently rolling hills — where you can also dog-sled, go horseback riding or snowmobile. Here’s the website.
If you love the Louise Penny mysteries starring Armand Gamache, this is where she lives and where they’re set. We have stayed many times at Manoir Hovey on Lake Massawippi, a luxury resort worth every cent, and look forward to returning year after year.
I lived here as a little girl and have been back many times since. I find it more challenging, (expensive, slow to traverse by public transit), than Paris but a place everyone must visit and get to know, even a bit. From the enormity of Tate Modern to narrow cobble-stoned alleyways to the elegance of Primrose Hill, (with its terrific shopping and fantastic city views), London contains — like Paris and New York — many smaller and more intimate neighborhoods.
Some of my favorite things to do there include a visit to Liberty, (a store of enormous style and elegance. Not cheap!), tea somewhere lovely, (the Ritz last time!), visiting its flea markets and a few of the smaller museums, like Freud’s house, Sir John Soane’s house, the Wallace Collection or the Geffrye.
I lived for 18 months in New Hampshire and got to know NH and Vermont fairly well. I still prefer Maine, albeit coastal Maine, which is where most tourists will end up.
The coast is studded with small hotels and inns, has fantastic scenery and — if you want to drive that far — Acadia National Park. which is right on the ocean’s edge. We rented a house on Peak’s Island in Casco Bay, off of Portland, for a week and loved walking down to the dock to buy fresh lobster.
To watch the sun rising over the Andes, its light spilling into each successive valley, is one of life’s great pleasures. I was there decades ago and remember it as if it were yesterday.
Charleston and Savannah
Two of the most elegant and historic cities in the U.S., each with its own character. Charleston is more formal, Savannah funkier, but both offer moss-draped trees, charming streets and squares, fantastic Southern food.
Canadians who canoe know this northern Ontario park and love it deeply. You can see many images of it through the paintings of the Group of Seven, Canada’s version of the Impressionists.
Slabs of granite lapped by deep, dark waters. The haunting call of loons. Pine trees gnarled, bent and twisted by the winds.
I grew up canoeing its lakes and miss it still.
The Grand Canyon
The silence, below the rim, rings in your ears.
A fox leaped across the path I was walking. The light shifts minute by minute, creating new shapes and shadows. Few places on earth will make you feel as small, humble and grateful to have witnessed its staggering beauty. Of all the places I’ve ever visited, this one remains one of my favorites.
The interior of Ngorongoro crater is probably what Eden looked like — a vast plain filled with animals beneath the hot sun.
Have you seen the new film “Brooklyn”? From the excellent novel by U.S.-based Irish writer Colm Toibin.
I saw it this week and was once more struck by the question of what’s home for those of us who have chosen to leave behind the country of our birth.
We didn’t flee in terror, so we’re not refugees who simply can’t stay in our country of origin, and leave knowing that we might never be able to return.
If we’re really lucky, we arrive in our new country with health, some savings, a good post-secondary education and skills, speaking the new language and with friends, relatives and/or a decent job awaiting.
In the film “Brooklyn”, young Eilis, the heroine, leaves the small Irish town of Enniscorthy for Brooklyn, with a job as a sales clerk in a department store arranged for her. A local priest also pays for her night classes in accounting.
It’s a lovely film, and one I enjoyed — but it is a golden story, and a much smoother arrival than many face.
I left my native Canada in 1988 to move from Montreal to small town New Hampshire, legally allowed to do so because of my mother’s American citizenship, which gave me access to a “green card”, the coveted right to live and work legally in the U.S.
I arrived in New York in 1989 with the man I would later marry — and soon be divorced from — with no job or contacts or advanced degree, which I would discover most my competitors in journalism possessed.
Then I weathered three recessions and an industry that has lost 40 percent of its workforce since 2008. Reinvention once is challenging enough. Post-secondary education in the U.S. is often extremely costly, and student loans are the only debt you can never discharge through declaring bankruptcy; I recently interviewed a young woman who owes more than $200,000 — for an undergraduate degree at a non-Ivy League school, a choice she now bitterly regrets.
I’ve been back to Canada many times since then, sometimes as often as four to six times a year. I’m not super-homesick, but it’s an easy drive for us, and I still have very close friends back in Ontario.
Every visit leaves me with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret for leaving friendships of a depth I’ve never found here and a kind of social capital impossible to achieve in a nation with 10 times the population of Canada.
But also relief for the option of another place to be, to try new things — like becoming a nationally ranked saber fencer and studying interior design — the freedom to create a new identity. I know I’ve done things while living in the States I’d never have ventured at home.
(I’ve also lived in England, France and Mexico, albeit for shorter periods of time.)
The oddest moment for me is when I head north by train, because as it’s crossing the bridge high above the Niagara River we’re briefly suspended between the United States and Canada, their respective flags visible as well as the clouds of mist rising from Niagara Falls.
What better metaphor?
In the film, Eilis is initially wracked with homesickness; small-town Ireland, though, is so much more different from Brooklyn than big-city Toronto, where I grew up. It was no huge shock for me to arrive in New York, having visited many times before.
It was a shock for me to adjust to some American ways of behaving, from the relentless pressure to be real friendlyall the time (exhausting!) to the omnipresence of privately-owned guns, (the subject of my first book.)
I still have difficult processing, (which I now pronounce as prawh-cess, not the Canadian pro-cess), the values of a country where everyone, everywhere, exhorts one another to “Have a good day!” — while millions of people own guns and many people now fear teaching in any classroom (thanks to so many college campus shooting massacres and that in Newtown, CT) or going to the movies (ditto) or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.p
And the poverty rate of 18 percent — 12 percent in Canada (OECD figures) — is depressing as hell to me.
Watching a movie about immigration to the U.S., (my favorite of the few on that subject is the 2009 indie film, Amreeka), suddenly brought up a host of feelings I usually keep under wraps; when you move to another country, you’re expected to fit in, to adopt its ways, to salute its flag and (in the U.S.) recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which I still don’t know or do.
In “Brooklyn” Eilis flees a tiny, gossipy town with few job prospects — the same reason I left Toronto, a city of 2.6 million now.
I recently had lunch there with a young friend, 32, who is super-smart and has a fantastic work history in his field. Yet he echoed what I keep hearing from people decades younger than I there, a deep aversion to taking risks. As one friend, also in her 30s, reminded me, if you misjudge the size or enthusiasm of the Canadian marketplace for your idea, there’s nowhere to hide your failure. With only a few major cities, where to go next?
And failing, getting fired, losing market share — these remain shameful in Canada for many people. That, in itself, discourages innovation, let alone the social and financial capital it takes to move ahead.
In the States?
Hah! People like Martha Stewart go to prison and come out unscathed, returning to their wealth and social circles. It can create a culture of lying and deception, (see: New York Legislature and its parade of felony convictions for corruption), but also encourages risk taking.
If dozens, if not hundreds, of people hadn’t been willing to take chances on me here, I’d have nothing to show for my own risk in coming here. I’m always grateful for that, and to them.
When you leave your home country behind, you also lose — especially in pre-Internet, social media days — the intimacy of your friends and family’s lives, all those births and christenings and showers and weddings you probably can’t afford the time or money to celebrate in person.
When I married for the second time, I chose to do so on a small island in the harbor of Toronto, a place filled with happy memories and the people I still feel closest to, even decades later.
I’ve made some friends in New York, but few, and several friendships here I thought would — as my Canadian relationships have — last for decades ended abruptly, three of them within a few years. That’s a cultural divide I’ve never accepted or been able to successfully breach.
In Toronto on our last visit, I sat with a friend from university and her 23-year-old daughter, who I’d first met as a bump in her mother’s belly at my first wedding and only once more when she was 13. Now she’s an accomplished actress.
There are some immigrants whose lives explode into massive wealth and success when they choose the U.S. Others find the grinding lack of social safety nets and ever-shaky job market, (zero job security, few unions, low wages, extraordinary competition), simply too much and return ‘home” once more.
If you have changed countries for a new one — especially the U.S. — how does/did that feel?
Recently I heard someone say if you want to see where your priorities really lie, look at two things: your calendar and your bank statement.
If you believe your priorities are what truly matters to you, look no further than those two places to confirm or deny your hunch.
Let’s do an experiment. Take a look at your calendar, and take an inventory with me. How much of it is work related? How much of it is spent in social engagements? With family? Doing hobbies? Self improvement?
And how much white space do you see?
We have become a culture that is severely uncomfortable with white space. We don’t like being left alone with ourselves, and that’s because it’s not always fun.
To Dr. Brown, co-author of a book called “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul,” the discussion begins with defining the term. He describes it, among other things, as a voluntary activity that can take us out of time or at least keep us from tracking it carefully. It is spontaneous and allows for improvisation.
Another crucial component, according to Dr. Brown, is play’s capacity to elicit diminished consciousness of self. Or, to put it in layman’s terms, it gives us license to be goofy. In an interview, Dr. Brown provided the most familiar example: how almost every person makes faces and sounds when meeting an infant for the first time.
“If you take a look at relatives looking at the bassinets, turn your camera back on their faces,” he said. “What you see is nonsense. There is this deep, innate proclivity for nonsense, which is at the core of playfulness.”
Finally, play is also purposeless, at least in the moment.
We’re now at the end of a break for the holidays in Canada, staying with my father at his house in a small town — with nothing to do.
The town is filled with very beautiful old houses and has a gorgeous waterfront trail along the edge of Lake Ontario. But there’s no movies (my drug of choice!) or theater or museums.
It’s forced Jose and I to…be still.
So what have we done?
Organized photos, talked at length with friends on the phone or gone to see them in person for a long lunch, read entire books start to finish, slept, cooked a terrific Moroccan lamb stew for friends who came for the afternoon, browsed several bookstores and bought new books (yay!).
I binge-watched an entire season, 13 episodes, of Frankie and Grace on our computer.
I’ve written multiple blog posts and planned several new ones — Q and As with some fantastically creative and successful people I hope you’ll find inspiring — freed from the production line of life as a journalist. Planned a possible vacation next July and decided against one in Spain this spring.
Lit a scented candle bedside every morning and at night. Enjoyed the rumbling and whistles of passing trains. Savored the skeletal beauty of bare trees and bushes against a wintry gray sky.
Played gin rummy. Talked. Sat in silence to watch the jade green waves crashing against a snow-dusted beach. Emptied my email in-box. (OK. not so playful!)
Took bubble baths in my Dad’s old claw-foot tub.
I loved the Times’ story about planning for play because it’s so deeply unAmerican to even breathe a word of…laziness. Rest. Downtime.
The entire culture is one of non-stop doing, not mindful being.
It’s one reason we keep coming back to my native Canada for breaks; Canadians, in general, value a more balanced life, and love to be outdoors even in winter. In my decades living near New York City, a place of frenzied ambition, I’ve always felt like an outlier for wanting — and carving out in my life — a lot of room for play and relaxation.
Like one of the people featured in the Times story, we’ve chosen to remain in a one-bedroom apartment and drive an old, paid-for car in order to be able to work less.
There are times I’d kill for more space or a shiny new vehicle. But the time and freedom we gain by not having to gin up an additional $500 or $1,500 every single month for years to come to pay for them?
Our priorities are retirement, (so we have saved hard and lived fairly frugally to do so), and travel. Without children, we also have the means, and the time, to focus on our own desires and how to pay for them. Selfish or not, it gives us a life we enjoy and value.
Anyone who’s been reading Broadside for a while knows I’m a high-octane person. But recharging, for me, is every bit as essential as rushing around.
How about you?
Do you make time, and deliberately set aside money, to just relax?
This is the warehouse for NYC’s food bank. As you enjoy your meal today, remember how many cannot, without help.
Today is American Thanksgiving, a day when friends and family gather to celebrate.
Here are some things I’m grateful for:
This blog now has more than 15,900 followers worldwide, and more join every day. It’s a place we continue to have lively, civil, moving conversations about our lives. Those of you, like Ksbeth, Rami, Steve, Charlene, Matthew, Grace and Leah who have been here for years, I’m honored you return here.
I enjoy writing it and hearing from you, and am so glad you make time to visit, read and comment.
As someone who spent the fall of 2011 on crutches, so bad was the pain in my damaged left hip, (since replaced), and who has spent months on end in physical therapy attending to both knees and my right shoulder pre and post-surgery, I’m so grateful to be strong, flexible and healthy.
Without good health, we have nothing.
Jose is a treasure. We met online when I was writing a story about internet dating for Mademoiselle magazine and 200 men replied to the personal profile I put up on one of the sites. He was in the mix. Ironically, we both work in journalism in New York but we would never have met any other way. It’s now 15 years and it feels like minutes.
We’re staying this week with dear friends in suburban Maryland, a four-hour drive from our home. They’ve welcomed us many times and it’s a blessing to know their home is open to us. In a world where work comes and goes too easily, where family can be complicated and moral support gets you through it all, deep and sustained friendship is one of my greatest joys.
Jose and I now both work full-time freelance. That means, every single month, we need to earn multiple thousands of dollars in income to pay all our bills. If we’re ill or tired, we can take time off, but there’s no paid sick leave or vacation. No one pays into a 401k to help save for our retirement now.
Everything is up to us. So having a strong network of people who know and respect our skill and hire us to write, edit, teach and take photographs is key to our ongoing success.
We’ve been careful and frugal. Having a financial safety net allows us to take time off when needed and the creative risks we need to to compete effectively with people decades younger.
We talk constantly about our ideas for work, travel, our home, new projects to work on individually or together, whether our blogs or creating new workshops. I’m grateful for a partner who is fun, funny and full of ideas. I am fortunate to have friends who help me refine mine and who share theirs.
I’m fortunate to have grown up in a home bursting with creative talent. My father, still alive and healthy at 86, was a film-maker and someone who makes art in multiple forms: engraving, etching, oil, lithography and silver. My late stepmother wrote for television and my mother was a journalist and editor. It was simply normal behavior to have tons of ideas, sell them to make a living and know that a percentage would be rejected or not very good. When I took the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking for a story, I scored in the 98th percentile. I guess it rubbed off!
Paris, January 2015
As regular readers of Broadside know, we live to travel, and are gone usually several weeks each year to Canada, other parts of the U.S. and, in better years financially, to foreign lands. This year has been fantastic in that regard, with trips to Maryland, Ontario, Quebec, Maine, London, Paris and Ireland. Because we’re now both freelance, and have friends generously welcoming us into their homes, as long as we have work and wi-fi, there’s no need to stay put in New York. Beyond grateful to be able to keep my passport handy.
We live on the top floor of an apartment building with a spectacular view, facing northwest, of the Hudson River and the opposite shore. Every morning we’re greeted with a fresh bit of beauty, whether the rising sun creating a line of demarcation across the hills, sparking every window into a “ruby moment” as it reflects the sun, or fog so thick we can barely see the trees.
We live and work in a one-bedroom, so we have to be tidy and organized, but love that our balcony is our refuge/office/spare room when the weather is good.
I really enjoy our town, Tarrytown, NY, 25 miles north of Manhattan, a place so pretty films and television shows are made here — a few days ago HBO was filming a show with Sarah Jessica Parker.
We’ve enjoyed many fun versions of this holiday over the years — spent in frigid, dark-by-2pm Stockholm, others with friends in D.C. and N.Y, getting to know them and their relatives better.
Our own families living very far away from us, we’re lucky to be invited to join others’ celebrations.
Wherever you are today, I hope your Thanksgiving is a happy one!
It’s Labor Day weekend — three days off for many workers in the U.S., where I live, in Canada and some other nations.
It’s always, for me anyway, a time to reflect on why we work and what we’re working for:
To fund higher education, for self and/or others
Short-term emergency savings
Medical insurance/expenses (Americans must buy health insurance like any other consumer product)
Major purchases — a vehicle, a home, a boat
Camaraderie with peers and colleagues
The thrill of scientific or medical or intellectual discovery
Learning and mastering new skills
To support the financial needs of family and others
A place to feel welcomed, to belong
Helping others — nursing, teaching, the ministry, the law
I’m endlessly fascinated by work. Maybe because I grew up in a family where no one had “a job” — with a paid vacation or sick days or a pension or raises. My father was a film-maker, my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote for television.
All the money earned in our home came from our individual, independent creative efforts.
Any story focused on business, labor practices, unions, wages, the Fight for $15 — to raise fast food wages to $15/hour here in the U.S. — gets my attention.
One of the books I admire is by MIT professor Zeynep Ton who studied five retailers who actually pay well and earn good profits, called The Good Jobs Strategy. Another, an early precursor of the current interest in more ethical garment production, is Where Am I Wearing by Kelsey Timmerman.
I’ve been working at home since losing my last staff job, at the New York Daily News, (then the nation’s 6th largest daily newspaper), in the summer of 2006. It was not a happy place to work, its unofficial motto, “Sink or Swim.” I don’t regret the loss of that job, although I miss making that income, much more difficult to attain through the intellectual piecework that is freelancing — you are only paid for what you produce, and often later than you need.
Since my high school days I’ve worked as:
a newspaper reporter (three daily papers)
a magazine editor (four national magazines)
a writing teacher (four colleges)
a writing coach (multiple private clients)
a photographer (published in The New York Times and Washington Post)
an author (of two works of non-fiction)
a volunteer Spanish-language interpreter (working with Chilean refugees)
a cross-cultural consultant for Berlitz
a retail employee at $11/hour
Of all of these jobs, I’ve by far most enjoyed my days as a daily newspaper reporter and really miss it.
At its best, there’s no better way to have fun and adventures and get paid for it. I met Queen Elizabeth aboard her yacht Britannia, flew to an Arctic village in December, climbed 100 feet up a Tall Ship mast, sailed aboard $6 million racing yachts, visited a Quebec hospice, broke major medical stories.
I’ve traveled, on stories, to Ohio and New Orleans and Texas, to Sicily and Copenhagen and London.
In March 2014, I went to work for a week in rural Nicaragua with WaterAid.
I love the intellectual stimulation of journalism — having to make sense of complex, unfamiliar material — like a recent piece on predictive analytics which I then need to write clearly and compellingly for others.
I love the variety of the people I meet and speak with, everyone from Olympic athletes to military veterans to a female Admiral to convicted felons. I can never afford not to be curious and open-minded.
I love writing books, diving deeply into complicated subjects that deserve, and rarely get, closer attention.
I love connecting with readers, one of whom recently called my book “Malled”, (a memoir of low-wage work), a page-turner.
I’m fortunate. At my age, we’ve little debt, no children to support and have acquired good savings for our retirement. So my goals for work now are different from fresh grads desperate to find any job and pay down enormous student debts.
But it’s a very very tough time for many American workers; union membership is the lowest since the Depression, 11 percent of public workers, seven percent of private. Even with corporate profits at record highs, wages remain stagnant for many, and worse for the lowest-paid — while costs keep rising, on essentials like college tuition and health insurance, (also here deemed a consumer product.)
Americans still have no paid maternity leave and even companies that offer it know many workers are too scared to take unpaid leave — lest their care for their families make them look like slackers.