In 1982, Japan made shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” a part of its national health program. The aim was to briefly reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible. Go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace. Forest bathing was Japan’s medically sanctioned method of unplugging before there were smartphones to unplug from. Since shinrin-yoku’s inception, researchers have spent millions of dollars testing its efficacy; the documented benefits to one’s health thus far include lowered blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and stress hormones.
I start to feel very ill at ease when I haven’t spent time in nature and in silence there; after two tedious months of physical therapy aimed at loosening and strengthening my arthritic right knee, each session consuming two hours, I was sick to death of only relating to machines and being stuck indoors.
On our trip to Montreal we continued north to Mont Tremblant and spent two days enjoying what was left of the autumn leaf colors and stunningly warm weather.
The area is full of walking and cycling trails so we took one through the woods down to the Diable River where we sat on the rocks and listened to the rushing river. The woods were largely silent except for one nearby blue jay.
I loved the lush moss, peeling birch trees, sun-dappled leaves and ancient stones.
I loved the soothing sound of the river rushing over and around rocks.
I loved watching leaves tumble into the water, only to be swept under and away like little yellow boats.
The day before, I ventured to the edge of the hotel property and found a grove of trees whose thick, twisted, intertwined roots looked like nothing I’d ever seen before anywhere, like something out of a fairy tale.
I sat on them for a while, just being still and present, watching the sun glow lower and lower through the trees. The woods were silent — no chipmunks or squirrels rustling past, no birds squawking to one one another.
It was eerie and disorienting.
But so, so good to be out, once more in nature, as always reminded that humans are just one more species.
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 had so much fun in Montreal in September, we came up again — this time by car — to celebrate my husband’s birthday and to enjoy the city in warm, sunny weather. (We’ve been here in February, and it’s an adventure, but the wind and cold and snow can be really daunting.)
We stayed again at the Omni Mont-Royal, on Sherbrooke Street, whose central location is terrific, with lots of great shopping within a two or three block walk.
There are nearby excellent restaurants, like the freshly made pizza we had at this place on Peel Street, sharing a delicious antipasto, an oven-fresh-made pizza and three glasses of red wine.
This visit I went down to Notre-Dame Ouest to check out its small section of antiques stores and loved the mix I found.
The selection at L’Ecuyer, at 1896 Notre Dame Ouest, is the best and most affordable, (the other shops are priced at $1,000 or much more for their material), and the owner has a great selection of china, glass, paintings and hand-made textiles. He specializes in vintage suitcases and they’re fantastic. I saw everything from a zebra skin rug ($1,200) to a spectacular 18th century walnut armoire ($7,000) but also many smaller items for much less.
Like many along this strip, he rents out his items to television and film crews — he’d just loaned out several paintings that morning to a movie starring Kathy Bates and Felicity Jones being filmed locally.
We treated ourselves to dinner at Lemeac, far from the tourist trail, in the elegant residential Francophone neighborhood of Outremont. Diners ranged from hipsters in their 20s and 30s to a woman in a gold turban in her 70s or beyond. As we left at 10:30, a line-up filled the doorway…
I took a spin class at the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, whose drop-in rate is $30, (but $15 for some guests of local hotels, like ours.) The classroom was large and sunny, on the top floor, and — like everything in Montreal — offered in a mix of French and English.
The MAA is in a gorgeous pair of buildings from 1905, with two lovely period stained glass windows that glow at night; the lobby contains a fantastic, huge period photo mural from 1890 — celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Montreal Snowshoe Club.
One of the things I most enjoy about Montreal is how damn stylish its women are — especially those 50 and beyond. Oh la la! Great haircuts. Great hair color. Chic, minimalist clothing in gray, black, cream and beige. Lots of them wearing cool sneakers, studded with black crystals or a fur pom-pom.
I find it really inspiring.
We shopped at two Canadian retail legends, Browns shoe store (men and women) and Aritizia, a privately-owned Vancouver-based chain also sold online and in the U.S. that sells women’s clothing. Its colors are mostly limited to solid burgundy, olive, dark green, black, gray and a mid-pink, many in knits; prices are reasonable for the quality with many items below $100 to $150. I also appreciate their sizing, some of which easily and stylishly accommodates me (between a 12 and 14) without screaming this is a plus-size garment!
I’ve gone twice now to the salon La Coupe, at the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke, for cut and color; the color was fantastic and well-priced. The space is dead simple, even basic — black, gray and white — but offers a variety of services and has been in business since 1967.
Walking the city offers lots of architectural surprises; be a tourist and look up to find some unusual sights, like this gray stone building now housing McGill’s alumni association that used to house a distiller’s headquarters. It looks like a Scottish castle!
Visiting Montreal is like a quick, easy trip to France, with many of the same charms and pleasures; this is Alexandre et fils, where I ate in the mid 1980s when I was a feature writer at the Montreal Gazette and lived nearby — three of my former colleagues still work there.
This is a must-read for any woman dating people she doesn’t know well or hasn’t met through people she completely trusts.
If she’s easily prone to being quickly wooed, beware!
It’s a new six-part series, and podcast, from the L.A. Times, by Christopher Gofford, and took more than a year to report.
It’s the true story of a multiply divorced California woman, a financially successful interior designer — desperately lonely — who was targeted by John Meehan, a con man.
It’s terrifying, compelling and an essential read to understand that:
— such men exist
— such men seek out victims and select them carefully
— such men groom their victims, love-bombing them with gifts and cards and “kindness”
— failing to ask why they’re so “kind” to someone they barely know is imprudent
— such men quickly insinuate themselves into their victims’ lives
— such men are sociopathic and vicious when exposed
— such men are professional liars and who, really, will others believe — them or you?
I know this because I’ve also been a victim of one.
In December 1997 I met a charming, handsome, intelligent man who — within a few weeks of meeting me — brought a pot of home-made soup to my door, bought me gifts and told me repeatedly how much he loved me.
He pretended to be a successful lawyer, a partner in a three-person downtown New York City law firm, complete with engraved stationery, business cards and other “evidence” of his false identity; in Chicago (where his exploits made front page of the Chicago Tribune) he’d posed as a doctor, using a business card with impressive initials that anyone who knows medicine would instantly know was fake.
He kept proposing marriage, sending dozens of emails and cards attesting to his immediate attraction and devotion, as did John Meehan, a standard MO for con men. (I found this weird and excessive, not romantic.)
It took me longer than it should have — (lonely and insecure = vulnerable) — to flee his clutches, at which point, like Meehan, he began threatening me and my family. Not with physical harm, as Meehan did, but in my case called my local district attorney to lie about me; as someone who lives in the U.S. as a resident alien (i.e. not a citizen) he knew this could make my solo life difficult. And knew, even irrationally, I feared that.
I was terrified by his screaming phone calls, and stayed at a friend’s home for a few days.
As did Meehan’s victim, I hired a detective, a former NYPD policeman, who quickly discovered and told me the sordid truth.
By that point, the guy had stolen and opened my mail, activated my new credit card and used it, forging my signature — all felonies.
The police and district attorney all laughed in my face. It was “only fraud” they said.
“No harm done,” they said.
Because “my” con man was careful to steal only a certain amount from each of his many victims, the banks didn’t care — it’s a cost of doing business to them.
Because the amounts were small enough, (typically $1,000 or less), the credit card companies also wouldn’t chase him and prosecute — and the costs of this fraud is built into our interest rates.
Because the women he victimized were so embarrassed and ashamed or police disbelieved them or DAs wouldn’t take on their cases, he was rarely arrested, prosecuted and convicted.
Because the women he chose to steal from should have known better, should have asked tougher questions, should have dumped him fast, their friends and family — like mine — were furious at our stupidity and gullibility.
These men (and women!) lie for a living.
Like Meehan, the man I was victimized by is now dead. Thank God.
A book I highly recommend to every girl and woman is The Gift of Fear, written by a security expert, with a one page checklist of warning signs. It clearly explains how the way women are socialized to be “nice” and compliant can endanger us.
I urge everyone to read this series or listen to the podcast — and share it with women you know and care about.
It’s highly instructive and shows how to spot the warning signs of a similar predator.
The point of a real live human editor is to have someone smart do this to your copy as needed.
Today, there’s a widely-shared myth that writing means you simply bang out a bunch of words as they occur to you, hit “send” or “publish” and you’re done!
That intense feeling of Ihavetosaythisrightnow? Not your best product, most likely. You might feel done — but your public and permanent offering might also be misspelled, ungrammatical, incorrect, dull or confusing.
At worst, all of these.
We all need editors!
When I teach writing, and blogging, I emphasize how essential it is to re-read, revise, and repeat the process, many times. Some of my blog posts have gone through 10 or 15 revisions before you see them — I change words, clarify my thoughts, delete or add.
Very few writers can’t benefit from fresh eyes and ears on their material, whether they’re writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, journalism or a blog post.
I was fortunate indeed to have a very tough editor on my most recent book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, which was published by Portfolio, a major New York City house focused on business. Next time you sneer: “It’s not rocket science!” remember that my editor had previously worked for NASA…
I turned in the manuscript, which was about 100,000 words and had taken me about nine months to produce, and got back what, in the industry, are known as “notes”.
There were a lot of them, including her approval of Chapters 11 and 12.
“What about Chapters One through 10?”! I wailed.
Revision city, kids.
Every book goes through an editor — usually several!
Being a cynical sort, I sometimes wonder how many revisions a published story or book has been through — one best-seller, its editor told a writing conference, needed twelve.
A young journalist I know came within a hairs’ breadth of winning a very prestigious award and received huge accolades for her story; I saw its first draft and knew what a heavy lift it had been for her and various editors, including me, to get it to that point.
Nor did she ever bother to publicly thank me for my help, which rankled.
The New York Times, for which I write freelance, has recently cut its copy editing staff, preferring to hire more reporters. Now I’m seeing more errors in the paper — like the word “et” (albeit a French word, but that’s what editors are for!) instead of “est”.
And good editors do a lot more than correct spelling mistakes.
Can your writing or blogging use fresh eyes, or some sharpening?
I offer one-on-one coaching and individual webinars, in person (NYC-area), by phone and by Skype.
Few issues are as fraught with emotion as how we get, spend, save or give away our money.
If you don’t have enough to survive, every day becomes an emotionally and physically exhausting battle.
And when you live in a country devoted to bare-knuckled capitalism like the United States, if you don’t have enough, the social safety net is weak and thin.
The federal minimum wage is still an absurd $7.25 an hour — I’ve never paid any of my part-time assistants less than $12 an hour, even 15 years ago.
American unions now have the lowest membership in a century, even as one third of American workers lurch into what’s now widely and risibly called the “gig economy”, a jaunty and inaccurate euphemism for fiscal insecurity.
Professor Thaler’s academic work can be summarized as a long series of demonstrations that standard economic theories do not describe actual human behavior.
For example, he showed that people do not regard all money as created equal. When gas prices decline, standard economic theory predicts that people will use the savings for whatever they need most, which is probably not additional gasoline. In reality, people still spend much of the money on gas. They buy premium gas even if it is bad for their car. In other words: They treat a certain slice of their budget as gas money.
He also showed that people place a higher value on their own possessions. In a famous experiment, he and two co-authors distributed coffee mugs to half of the students in a classroom, and then opened a market in mugs. Students randomly given a mug regarded it as twice as valuable as did the students who were not given a mug.
This “endowment effect” has since been demonstrated in a wide range of situations. It helps to explain why real markets do not work as well as chalkboard models.
Money is so often a proxy for other, often deeper, darker issues: power, control, status, humiliation, (why Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein could be a sexual predator and so many people who relied on his goodwill to help them get or stay rich remained silent for so long.)
I’ve been fairly obsessed with money for a long time.
It’s caused no end of drama within my family and I’ve been handling my finances alone since I was 19 and moved out of my father’s home to live alone in a large city and pay for university from my earnings as a writer and photographer, with a small monthly income from a grandmother.
It taught me very early to know my worth and to bargain hard for it. I still remember the joy of earning 18 percent on a Canada Savings Bond, whose value quickly doubled.
One place I do spend money freely — travel
I also remember vividly being so strapped then that it took me months to save the $30 I needed to buy tights and slippers so I could attend a free ballet class.
My living expenses were phone/rent/tuition/books/clothes/groceries/answering machine.
No car. No TV. No cable.
My family has plenty of dough, but made clear to me to never ask for a penny of it, nor ever expect to run home for help. I inherited some money from my grandmother in my mid-20s, which helped me to to buy an apartment, a security for which I’m very grateful as I’ve bounced in and out of the job market, survived three recessions and work as a full-time freelance journalist — an industry now in complete chaos.
I break into a sweat when spending money on more than the basics; (except for making our home lovely and travel.)
My cellphone and computer are probably four or five years old, (no big deal.)
But our Subaru has 180,000 miles on it, is 16 years old and cost us $1,800 in repairs in recent months — so we’re finally about to lease a gorgeous luxury vehicle.
The thought of committing to anything beyond our monthly health insurance and mortgage payments is scary even though we have the cash, (money we’ve saved for years), and emergency savings, so this is not — as Thaler would nod knowingly — 100 percent rational thinking.
Airfares? I’ll splurge on those…
Some of the financial challenges I see so many women struggling with:
1) being scared to ask for more (i.e. raises, bonuses, negotiating a higher salary or fees)
2) giving money and gifts to children and grand-children to their own financial detriment
3) under-earning because of sexism, racism or other institutional barriers
4) under-earning while taking time away from paid work to care for children and/or others
5) failing to understand the devastating financial impact of divorce and planning for that. I had a prenuptial agreement in my first marriage and could have ended up in very dire straits without it.
Does handling and managing your money cause you anxiety?
More than 18,900 people have now signed up to follow Broadside — and I only know a very few of you.
So, to get to know some of you a bit better, here are 20 questions I’d love some of you to answer.
Pick whichever ones suit you, some or all…
Thanks for playing!
I’ll go first!
1. Favorite city/place:Paris
2. What do you see out your bedroom window? Treetops and the Hudson River, facing northwest.
3. How many languages do you speak?English, French and Spanish
4. Where were you born? Vancouver, B.C.
5. Where do you live now?Tarrytown, NY
6. What sort of work do you do?Writer and writing coach
7. What makes you most angry? Arrogance/entitlement
8. Who do you most admire? Those who fight for social justice
9. What’s your blog name and why do you blog? Broadside is a play on words. I like to hear what readers worldwide have to say. It’s a place for me, as a professional writer, to write for pleasure, not income.
10. Dog, cat or other sort of pet person? Dog (although currently dog-less)
11. What are some of your creative outlets? Photography, writing, drawing, cooking, interior design
12. Number of countries visited? (or states or provinces) Forty countries, 38 U.S. states, seven Canadian provinces
13. What did you study at university and why? English literature, French and Spanish, with the goal of becoming a foreign correspondent
14. Deepest regret? Our family’s unresolved estrangements. Never getting a staff job at a place I dreamed of.
15. Unachieved goal(s)?I’d like to publish at least two or three more books.
16. Typical Saturday morning?Coffee, reading The New York Times and Financial Times (in print), listening to favorite radio shows like On The Media, Studio 360, This American Life and The Moth. Spin class.
17. Do you play a musical instrument? Acoustic guitar, but haven’t touched it in decades.
18. Do you have a motto? Chase joy.
19. Biggest accomplishments? Re-inventing my career/life at 30 in New York City in a recession, with no job, friends or family here. Surviving a crazy childhood. Winning a Canadian National Magazine Award.
One of the great essayists is Pam Houston, a 55-year-old American, whose most recent story is a lovely paean to her Colorado ranch, the one she bought and paid for, alone, through her writing and teaching — hardly well-paid pursuits.
She’s a woman and a writer I admire, (and have never met), someone with a deep hunger for adventure and who has chosen, and savored, an unconventional life.
It’s hard for anybody to put their finger on the moment when life changes from being something that is nearly all in front of you to something that happened while your attention was elsewhere. I bought this ranch in 1993. I was 31, and it seems to me now that I knew practically nothing about anything. My first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, had just come out, and for the first time ever I had a little bit of money. When I say a little bit, I mean it, and yet it was more money than I had ever imagined having: $21,000. My agent said, “Don’t spend it all on hiking boots,” and I took her advice as seriously as any I have ever received.
I had no job, no place to live except my North Face VE 24 tent—which was my preferred housing anyhow—and nine-tenths of a Ph.D. All I knew about ownership was that it was good if all your belongings fit into the back of your vehicle, which in my case they did. A lemon yellow Toyota Corolla. Everything, including the dog.
The entire essay is a great read about how we find/make a home. Here’s a bit more:
I had no way to imagine, in that first moment of seeing it, that the view out the kitchen window—of the barn and the corral and the Divide behind it—would become the backdrop for the rest of my life. That I would take thousands of photographs of that same scene, in every kind of light, in every kind of weather. That I would write five more books (and counting) sitting at that kitchen table (never at my desk), looking, intermittently, out at that barn. That it would become the solace, for decades, for whatever ailed me, and that whenever it was threatened—and it would be threatened, by fire, flood, cellphone-tower installation, greedy housesitters, and careless drunks—I would fight for it as though I had cut down the trees and stripped the logs myself.
I feel a bit this way about my one-bedroom suburban apartment, bought at the same age as Pam and one, like her, I’ve stayed in since then.
Between September 1982 and June of 1989 I moved from Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire-New York. I had won a fellowship, had a great newspaper job, made new friends, took another newspaper job, found a man I wanted to marry and followed him from my native Canada to the U.S.
But it was a lot of moving and adjusting and I was worn out by it all. Anyone who’s moved around a lot, let alone changed countries a few times, knows it can be wearying.
We ended up here, my first husband and I, because he found a medical residency position nearby, and friends had suggested this as an attractive town. I knew nothing of New York state, nor the suburbs, having primarily lived in large cities — Toronto, Montreal, London and Paris.
My New York view, straight northwest up and over the Hudson River, is only now blocked in summer as lush treetops block my sight-line. But the view is spectacular in every season — with snow, fog, rainstorms sweeping downriver and enormous barges pushed by tugboats heading north.
A new, gorgeous bridge has just opened, spanning the river, as elegant as a Calatrava.
The walkway along our town’s reservoir
The apartment, on our building’s top floor, is generally quiet — on a curving, hilly residential street lined with ancient stone walls — and regular sounds are crickets, hawks overhead and leaves rustling. We even hear coyotes now.
The town has a large reservoir whose landmarks — if you can call them that — are three small black turtles sunning themselves on the rocks and a cormorant who spreads his wings to dry, and looks like an out-take from a 17th-century Japanese print.
On the eastern bank of the Hudson River, we have the prettiest commute possible to New York City, and the haunting sound of train whistles as Amtrak rockets back and forth to upstate, Vermont and Canada,
Our town has massively gentrified in the past decade or so, losing its two diners and its restaurant prices have gone crazy-high. Parking has become difficult to find.
But its combination of ethnicities and income levels, its handsome 19th century buildings and high-tech firms doing 21st century bio-engineering, make for an interesting mix.
I can be in midtown Manhattan within 30 to 40 minutes — or sit by the river here and watch the sunset; it’s a 5.5 hour drive to the Canadian border, and about the same distance to D.C., where we have good friends.
What our town, Tarrytown, NY, doesn’t have is any sort of interesting nightlife, or news-stands or much in the way of culture. But I save a fortune by not being tempted daily to spend money in a large city full of amusements and distractions.
I often wonder if or when we’ll move. We’re not able to rent our home, (a co-op with annoying house rules), so that’s a limiting factor.
My dream has been to move back to France, probably Paris, at least part-time. But we’ll see.
It’s not always easy to find a place that meets all your criteria: shared political ideals, a lovely landscape, enough good jobs, a decent climate, friendships, culture, ready access to the outdoors, quality medical care — and affordable housing.
And, these days, some protection from fire, hurricanes and flooding…
How about you?
What makes your home feel like the right place for you?
Maybe you know little about the VietNam war — you were too young then, or it didn’t affect you or maybe you didn’t care to learn about it.
This week, a 10-part series on the war has been airing on PBS in the U.S.; you can buy DVDs of the series or download episodes of it on ITunes.
It is unforgettable, moving, appalling, the result of nearly 100 interviews.
Each episode is 90 minutes to two hours long, and features a mixture of interviews with veterans of the war, both South and North Vietnamese and American, including an American doctor who was a prisoner of war, an anti-war protestor, the sister of a soldier killed early on in the conflict, journalists and others.
It is searing, disturbing, deeply sad; I see friends’ reactions on Facebook, left sobbing.
It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to (better) understand a war that lasted just under 20 years, from 1955 to 1975.
Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 966,000 to 3.8 million. Some 240,000–300,000 Cambodians, 20,000–62,000 Laotians, and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action.[A 2]
As someone who was born and raised in Canada, I had little conscious awareness of the war, which ended in my final year of high school. We knew about it, certainly, as Canadian media is forever saturated by all news from the United States, our largest trading partner.
It was a time, as today now feels again, when the country was deeply divided, between those who thought the war still worth fighting — and those staging enormous protests nationwide.
It’s deeply depressing to hear — on audio of the time — the endless lies fed to Americans by their leaders year after year, their broken promises that produced more domestic rage and frustration and more and more dead bodies.
One surprising effect, which I and others felt personally, was draft-dodgers, some of whom were professors in our university, exotic Americans — some 30,000 Americans fled to Canada to escape the draft and (!) 30,000 Canadians apparently volunteered to serve in the war.
“What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?”
The interviews in the film are raw and intimate, shot in tight close-up, as men and women now in their 50s, 60s or beyond recall the most terrifying moments of their lives. There are color images of them, young and strong, wearing camo, a stark contrast to the silk bow-ties and elegant jackets they wear as they recall the war for us.
The noisy, shocking film footage of battles and bombings and napalm, of ambushes and gruesome injuries and rows of dead bodies — both American and Vietnamese — makes looking away both tempting and cowardly.
There is, in Episode Nine, an astounding speech by John Kerry — then returned from the Mekong Delta wearing fatigues (who would later become U.S. Secretary of State.) That same episode includes an interview with photographer Nick Ut, whose image of a young girl who had just been napalmed, Phan Thi Kim Phuc (now living near my hometown, Toronto), remains one of the war’s iconic photos.
One of those famous images shown in the film sits on our living room wall — a signed gift from the late photographer, Bernie Boston, on assignment for the Washington Star.
And we have a friend, a former colleague of my husband, a “boat person” who fled VietNam after the war as a little boy, and who now works as an art director at The New York Times. He once told us his story, and it was difficult to reconcile the highly successful man we know today with the terrified refugee he was then.
Read the link and you’ll see an echo with the millions of refugees today fleeing in overcrowded boats from Syria and Africa. Plus ça change…
My father, a film-maker, also worked on a television series about the war, The 10,000 Day War, — it was the first time I knew the name of General William Westmoreland, a key player whom he interviewed.
I Googled that film —– and found that the nearest copy of it to my home is (!) at West Point, the military academy just north of where I live on the Hudson River.
Do you know much about this war?
Do you know anyone who served in the U.S.military in Vietnam?
Watching a ballet at the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City is one of my favorite things to do; if you haven’t yet been to New York or taken in a ballet there, add it to your to-do list!
Lincoln Center, three majestic white marble buildings centered around a stunning circular fountain, sits on the west side of Manhattan, spanning several blocks in the 60s. Walking across its plaza in the darkness always creates a sense of anticipation and elegance, whether you’re going to the opera or the ballet.
I’ve attended performances there over the years — and have even performed on its stage, in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Sleeping Beauty, with Rudolf Nureyev in the lead.
I’d studied ballet since I was 12 and had written about it before, so I was invited to come from Toronto to New York to be an extra — or “super” in the ballet. I was one of four “ladies in black” whose presence on stage in Act One presages the entrance of the witch Carabosse, who casts the spell on Princess Aurora, and puts her into a deep sleep. I didn’t have to dance, but walk beautifully and persuasively in costume so no one would suspect I wasn’t a professional dancer.
As a freelance journalist, I was sent on assignment to write about it by Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe & Mail — and dictated my story over the phone from my hotel room at the Empire Hotel to an editor in its Toronto newsroom. (No Internet then!)
What an adventure!
We had no dress rehearsal. We didn’t see our costumes until opening night and my shoes were very tight. I didn’t know the score, and came down (!) several bars too soon, leading three others down a staircase too early behind me. Ohhhhhhh, shit!
I’ve done many crazy things in my life, but staring out at that enormous audience in that prestigious venue, was fairly terrifying. I did all eight performances, exiting every night, as one does, though the stage door — which I now only get to see from the outside.
Last weekend I went with a friend to see the New York City Ballet’s version of Swan Lake, a classic first performed in Moscow in the 1890s. The music is gorgeous, the story — as often with classical ballet — one of deception and mistaken identity, the action orchestrated by a wicked sorcerer against a noble prince being forced to choose a bride.
The NYCB version is short, with only two acts, and the stage set is spectacular — designed by a Danish artist, poet and geologist. One of the reasons ballet is such a rich experience is its combination of sets, costumes, music, choreography and extraordinary dancing, creating a wealth of beauty.
The dancing we saw was a bit spotty, some of it excellent and some of it raggedy, including some of the pas de deux work where partnering is key, the ballerina relying heavily on her partner’s strength and sensitivity to allow her to do her best.
We had excellent seats in the second ring (balcony), with great sight lines; the Koch Theater has four rings, (you can see fine from higher up, but binoculars are helpful from that height.) Our tickets were $103 apiece, which is a lot of money for one show, although I paid $85 in 2006 to see Romeo and Juliet for similar seats, so it’s not much of a price increase in 11 years.
Having written about the ballet several times from backstage, I also really appreciate knowing what it takes to make every performance even possible.
Read your program notes carefully and you’ll find credits for everyone from the wig master to physical therapists and masseurs; it truly takes hundreds of highly-trained specific talents to mount a production, even before the first dancer begins to pirouette. Those pink satin pointe shoes can cost $100 or more per pair — and the corps de ballet alone had 24 women.
I’ve been going to the ballet since I was a small child in Toronto, and never tire of it, whether the warhorses of Sleeping Beauty, Giselle and Swan Lake or more modern pieces. One of my favorites is Serenade by Balanchine. That music brings tears to my eyes every time — and the opening montage is unforgettable.
I’m glad I did all those pliés and tendues, because I know, in a small way, the incredible hard work, athleticism and dedication it demands.