Been standing on my own two feet for a long, long time
By Caitlin Kelly
I read this story and wanted to weep….at how crazy this is:
Bribing SAT proctors. Fabricating students’ athletic credentials. Paying off college officials. The actions that some wealthy [American] parents were charged with Tuesday — to secure their children a spot at elite colleges — are illegal and scandalous. But they’re part of a broader pattern, albeit on the extreme end of the continuum: parents’ willingness to do anything it takes to help their grown children succeed.
As college has become more competitive and young adults’ economic prospects less assured, parents have begun spending much more time and money on their children — including well after they turn 18. Modern parenting typically remains hands-on, and gets more expensive, when children become young adults, according to a new survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times.
A significant share of parents, across income levels, say they’re involved in their adult children’s daily lives. That includes making doctor’s appointments, reminding them of school and other deadlines, and offering advice on romantic life, found the survey, which was of a nationally representative sample of 1,508 people ages 18 to 28 and 1,136 parents of people that age. More than half of parents give their adult children some form of monthly financial assistance.
I often wonder how I might have turned out if this sort of behavior was normal in my life.
Here’s my college experience:
— Lived at home in Toronto with father and his girlfriend, 13 years my senior, for my freshman year. No additional responsibilities, got terrific grades.
— In November of sophomore year, father announces I need to move out and find a place to live as they are selling the house to live on a boat in the Mediterranean. This is many decades before email or cellphones.
— I get $350 a month from my grandmother to live on. This pays my rent on a studio apartment ($160/month, terrible neighborhood), tuition ($660/year), food, phone and answering service, books. Everything, basically. The monthly income from my maternal grandmother wasn’t enough so I started freelancing at the age of 19 to supplement it.
— My mother was traveling the world alone for years, also far far away. I saw her maybe once a year when she flew me to wherever she was. Sort of fun, mostly weird.
— During my university years, I lived alone, was attacked in my apartment while taking a bath, moved, moved again, suffered some health issues, started writing for national magazines. And attended and graduated from the most demanding and least nurturing (53,000 students) school in Canada.
— In those three years, I had no relatives to check in on me. Just friends. That established a lifelong pattern for me; friends as family.
So, you know, this kind of intense parenting strikes me as completely nuts.
The only reason I was able to get people twice my age to give me ongoing well-paid assignments was being responsible, meeting deadlines, delivering excellence. Was I mature enough to handle all this alone? Well, I had to be. I had no choice.
The New York Times quotes a survey finding that 74 percent of American parents are making medical appointments for their college-age children, the same percentage reminding them not to miss deadlines for tests and classwork.
I mostly loved my independence in those years. I dated all the wrong boys, made some great friendships, wrote a lot for our weekly student newspaper, led a student exchange with UNC-Chapel Hill that was life-changingly great. Jump-started my career.
The other day, I received an email from a young friend I met in Tucson a few years ago and who has since gone on to work in Nigeria, teach English in Turkey, do volunteer work in Mexico, compete for a London-based fellowship and intern at CNN in Atlanta.
He only graduated last May.
Nor is he a person of privilege, quite the opposite, making his trajectory even more impressive.
His email thanked me for my belief in him.
We had had a long and deeply personal conversation during a student program I was teaching in. I was touched he trusted me enough to ask my advice and was happy to give it.
It made me stop and think about the people who’ve shown their belief in me along the way and how that trust and confidence in my skills and strengths kept me going when I thought I couldn’t.
While some of today’s millennials have won trophies for showing up and some have been told Good job! for almost everything they do, I’m a Boomer from a challenging and demanding family. Everyone is a high achiever and kudos were not the norm. So the people named here made a serious difference in my life.
I know that I know how to photograph. It’s hard to take creative risks without some encouragement!
My high school art teacher, who allowed us to use her first name. Funny, warm, down to earth, she saw how troubled and unhappy I was, (bullied every day there for years), but she nurtured and appreciated my talents for drawing, painting and photography. I needed a safe place to be good at something, and to be liked, even on my worst days. She offered it and belief in someone who might not be bullied forever.
A friend of my father
He loaned me a Pentax SLR camera, knowing I wanted to become a photographer. Even more generously, he told me about an annual contest, open to anyone in Toronto to submit their images of the city to Toronto Calendar magazine — which used them as their sole cover image. Still in high school, I sold three of mine. That boosted my confidence in a way no high school grade ever could have.
I started selling my writing to national magazines when I was 19, still an undergraduate at university. I still can’t quite imagine what they thought of the kid who showed up in their offices with a multi-page list of story ideas I went through until they finally said yes to one of them.
Or sent me out to report stories I’d never done before — like sitting in the open door of an airplane to watch a skydiver or calling the German headquarters of Adidas for a story about running shoes. I was hired at 26 as a staff reporter for the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best national newspaper, without a minute of daily newspaper experience after eight years’ freelancing for them and my editors there sent me out on major stories that ran front page, terrifying me but giving me opportunities to grow, learn and shine.
Once in your life, if you’re lucky, you meet the right person at just the right moment. Not romantically, but in a much deeper sense.
A former Resistance hero, he was the founder of a Paris-based journalism fellowship I was selected to participate in, (and also founder of a home for wayward boys; Glenans, a sailing school, and a major daily newspaper.) He introduced me to everyone, proudly, as “Le terrible Caitlin!” — which I thought rude until I realized it meant terrific.
I was 25, desperate to somehow get a great journalism job, to build my skills and self-confidence. To have someone so incredibly accomplished like me and deeply believe in my potential? He did, for which I’m forever grateful.
I’ve had some amazing adventures as a journalist. I’ve spent a week crewing on a Tall Ship and sailed with an Americas Cup crew.
The best adventure (so far!) was in March 2014 when I joined a multi-media team in rural Nicaragua for a week’s reporting on the work of WaterAid there. We worked in 95-degree heat in Spanish and Miskitu and became so close that we all stay in touch still. It means a lot to me that clients trust me to tell their stories.
My fencing coach
How cool was it to be coached by a two-time Olympian? Amazing!
I had arrived in New York with no job/friends/family/college alumni — and had to re-start my journalism career at 30.
I landed in Manhattan, a hotbed of fencing talent. My coach, who was teaching the sport at NYU, was a former Navy man, who decided after a year or so of our mediocre foil fencing to turn a small group of women, then in our mid 30s, into sabre fencers. This was unheard of — and we couldn’t even progress beyond nationals because there was then no higher-level competition available to women.
It meant learning a new weapon, new ways of thinking and behaving on the strip, and most of all, simply being willing to try something that looked weird and impossible at first.
His faith and belief in us — much deeper than any we had in ourselves! — was truly transformative. I went on to become nationally ranked for four years, happily surprised at what you can do when someone sees talent within you, pushes you hard to develop it and celebrates the results.
My first agent
I found him through a friend. Quiet and soft-spoken, he took me to lunch at one of the city’s most elegant restaurants, Balthazar, where we ordered Kumamotos. (Oysters. I had no idea!)
I wanted more than anything to write non-fiction books, to do deep, national reporting on complicated subjects. Ambitious stuff. Finding an agent isn’t easy — you need to like, trust and respect one another, knowing you’re entwining your reputation and career with theirs.
And when an agent takes on a new writer, one who has yet to even publish a book, they’re gambling on a raft of things: your skill, your determination, your ethics, your ability to see it through to the end.
He fought hard for my first book as 25 publishers said no, some quite rudely. It did sell, and we’re now working together once more on my third book proposal.
She’s opened her home to me for decades and treated me as family, even though we met professionally when she was a PR rep in Toronto and I wrote about the organization she worked with. After I became a victim of crime here in New York, she let me stay in her Toronto home for three weeks to recover to decide if I would come back to the U.S.
My husband, a fellow journalist, has been-there-done-it-seen-it-all — he’s won a Pulitzer Prize for editing 9/11 photos for The New York Times, photographed three Presidents as an eight-year member of the White House Press Corps, covered two Olympics, several Superbowls, the end of the Bosnian war. He knows what excellence in our field looks like and demands.
His faith in me — even as our industry has lost 40 percent of its staff since 2008 — is enormous. He’s seen me write two books, (with two tired fingers!), and encourages me every day to take even more creative risks.
Who believes — or believed — in you along the way?
It happened to me at 14, when a series of frightening events beyond my control collided within a few days while I was living in Mexico.
My mother became ill and suddenly incapacitated; a friend my age had just arrived from Canada for a two-week visit and, while staying with us — we were then on our own — she burned her eyelashes and eyebrows off while lighting our hot water heater.
We had no phone, few friends and no relatives anywhere nearby.
We figured it out. Mostly because we had to.
I left my mother’s care after that and have never lived with her since. I keep reading blogs by women who talk about being “unmothered.” After 14, that was pretty much my new normal; my step-mother, only 13 years my senior, was not a nurturer.
So I’m always fairly fascinated by discussions of what it means to be(come) mature and responsible.
A recent New York magazine article focused on women in their 30s choosing to freeze their eggs as they have no luck finding a man eager — let alone willing — to take on the responsibilities of marriage, let alone of parenthood:
Before he was a fertility specialist, Dr. Keefe was a psychiatrist…
“There are a lot of options,” he said, “and people have to choose the one that’s right for them. But in order to know what’s right, you have to ask yourself, why are you here?”
“I wasted a lot of time in my last relationship,” I admitted. “I want to make sure that I take care of myself.”
He leaned forward and paused. “There’s something wrong with the men in your generation,” he said. I was stunned. Here was a doctor who had just been talking about the importance of considering statistical significance, and now he was chalking my dating problems up to the broadest of generalizations. But he was articulating two forms of truth: the mathematical and the personal.
“It isn’t you,” he said. “All day long, I see patients like you. You’re smart, beautiful, accomplished, nice. It makes no sense. I go home to my wife and I say, ‘There’s something wrong with the men in this generation. They won’t grow up.’”
People who fetishize parenthood assume that only by getting married and/or having and/or raising children can you truly become an adult.
I don’t buy it.
I’ve seen too many sloppy, careless brutes wearing wedding rings, running their vows ragged. I’ve also seen too many careless parents.
I do think that caring for others, actively and consistently, is key to maturity and generativity, the desire to give back. It might be a pet or a child or your neighbor or your students.
I recently watched an odd indie film, Obvious Child, in which the main character, a young comic named Donna Stern, gets pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to have an abortion.
I enjoyed the film in some ways, but found her neurotic compulsion to date losers and make lousy life choices in general, even with loving and solvent parents nearby, depressing and irritating.
Grow up, I wanted to shout at the screen!
I feel the same way (cliche alert!) when I hate-watch the HBO series Girls, which follows the lives of four whiny white girls in their 20s as they try to find jobs, men and friendship in Manhattan. I know many young women lovelovelove the show and its outspoken young creator Lena Dunham.
I just can’t.
We all make terrible choices and we usually get most of them out of the way in our 20s and 30s. (I married the wrong man, moved to NYC with no job in sight, etc.)
When I met the man I’m now married to — 15 years together this spring! — I wondered if he was mature enough to be a husband, which is both a noun and a verb meaning to care for. (Well, actually to manage frugally and carefully, which is close enough for me.)
He ticked all the boxes, as the Brits would say: handsome, great job, funny, snappy dresser, global travel, devout Buddhist. But he felt somehow rooted in single life.
My doubts blew away in one powerful action, when we flew out to help my mother after she was found to have a very large benign brain tumor and we had to take care of her home, dog and paperwork with only three days in a foreign country.
He dragged her soiled mattress onto the verandah without a word and started scrubbing it clean. I’d never seen someone so nonchalantly do a nasty job with no drama, foot-dragging or avoidance. It meant a lot to me.
He stepped up.
I now teach college freshmen and am intrigued to see which of them are more mature than others and why. I’ve also met some lovely young people in their early to mid-20s, maybe old souls, who seem able to just get on with it, with grace, style and humor.
I don’t believe you have to be old to be wise nor do I assume that someone young(er) is de facto foolish and unable to make excellent decisions.
But I do fear for the current crop of children and teens whose parents and grandparents hover incessantly over them in a desperate and misguided attempt to protect them from every possible owie.
The world does not arrive with a big pile of bandaids to hand out.
She was wandering the shoe department at Bloomingdale’s, the one at 59th and Third in Manhattan. On a hot, humid day, her pale arms were fully bare, shoulder to fingertips.
But something terrible had happened to her, and to them; they were covered with deep, wide scars, dozens of them up and down each arm. Had she flown through a windshield? Been pushed into a window?
Whatever had happened to her surely divided the moments before and the moments afterward into two very different lives.
We all have them.
Sometimes joyful — a scholarship, a career-making award, a fellowship, a new baby, a wedding.
Sometimes devastating — an awful medical diagnosis, the onset of a chronic illness, an accident and subsequent injury, a divorce, the death of a child or loved one, getting fired or long-term un(der)employment.
It might not be, and probably isn’t, just one moment, but the epiphany that results is often very powerful and, like a river suddenly silted after a landslide, can radically alter a previously set course.
For my husband, Jose, then a White House Press Corps photographer for The New York Times, it was the 1995 assignment — which he volunteered for — to cover the end of the Bosnian war, over Christmas, a job that would prove to be frightening, dangerous, bitterly cold and mean spending six weeks, often alone, in utterly foreign surroundings with very little to eat in rough living conditions.
The first few times I asked him to describe it, he teared up. This is a man of ferocious sangfroid, so a lot had happened there and it changed him forever; he came back and soon afterward became a devout student of Tibetan Buddhism.
Three moments stand out for me:
1) At 25, I won a fellowship to live in Paris for eight months in a group of 28 foreign journalists from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35, and travel alone and in the group, all across Europe, from Denmark to Italy to Istanbul. I was bored with my quiet, calm life in Toronto with all the boxes ticked: boyfriend, dog, friends, work, family. I craved a major kick in the ass, both personally and professionally. That it was!
But I was also terrified to leave, knowing that it would forever change me. I’m still friends with people in Ireland and England and the U.S. and France I met that year, and have since traveled widely for work using my language and reporting skills polished there.
It showed me that the world beyond my city and country is filled with smart, passionate, kind people. By doing hard work, alone, I learned how fully capable I really was.
2) At 41, I was lonely, broke, struggling mightily, and nursing the sounds of an abrupt and unwanted divorce and two break-ups since then. Into my life came a smart, caring, witty man who seemed to want to help me.
But then he didn’t — the day the phone rang and a credit card company informed me that he had opened my mail, stolen my new credit card, activated it from my home phone, forged my signature multiple times and run up all sorts of charges on it. When I called him to ask if he had done it, his three words — said many times in his career as a convicted con man: “It’s not provable.” Nor was it, despite evidence of six felonies. The police and district attorney scoffed at my request to act: to arrest, charge and prosecute him. They refused.
I learned to be much less trusting and know that “authorities” in charge of protecting us from crime may legally choose not to.It was my job, and my job alone, to be much smart(er) about my romantic choices and to stay safe.
3) The third came recently, after an intense eight-day reporting trip to rural Nicaragua for WaterAid, in the poorest part of the second-poorest nation in the Americas. There were many emotionally powerful moments, from Marly, 5, who let me braid her hair, to 69-year-old Ailita, who used her machete to carve a bamboo stem into a canoe seats for us. Jen and I spent a morning trailing two women in their world, one completely alien to ours, (no electricity, no running water, sixth-grade educations, no shared tongue) — walking through the rain forest, crossing the river in their dugout canoe, watching them gather cucumbers and beans and squash from the vine so that we could best describe their lives and their need for water. They were kind and welcoming to us, even though we had never met.
It reminded me again that potential connection, mediated by empathy, kindness and curiosity ignores many visible boundaries.
Ms. Brown, a 28-year-old advertising
copywriter in Portland, Ore., has set out to become a kind of Dear
Abby/Martha Stewart/Yoda for millennials.
Her new book, “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy (ish)
Steps” (Grand Central Publishing), is meant to help her peers navigate
the rocky shoals of maturity, to guide those 20-somethings who are just
figuring out that radio silence is not an acceptable breakup technique,
and food does not spontaneously manifest itself in the refrigerator.
“One of the most jolting days of adulthood comes the first time you run
out of toilet paper,” Ms. Brown said. “Toilet paper, up until this
point, always just existed.”
The idea for “Adulting” (which has just been optioned for television by
J. J. Abrams, executive producer of the “Lost” series) was refined when
Ms. Brown worked as a reporter for the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore.,
consulting her Facebook friends for a column about what skills or
possessions they should have by the age of 30.
It’s an interesting progression, this growing up thing. I know some people in their 60s and beyond who still don’t have a very good grip on maturity while I recently met a 21-year-old, deeply serious, who worries terribly about others — and felt like someone a decade older in this respect.
I moved out of my father’s house in the first semester of my second year of university and found a tiny apartment.
Living alone there, I learned how to shop for clothes and food on a minusucle budget. Who to bring home and what would likely happen if I did. I learned to do my own laundry, find freelance clients for my writing and photos, how to haggle with cheap-o landlords and landladies.
As a freelancer, even then, I learned how to juggle the competing needs of my professors and my clients — not surprisingly, perhaps, the clients usually won!
When my mother, traveling alone, had health problems alone in places like Germany, Italy and India and ended up in trouble, I had to field calls from the Canadian and American consulates there asking me what to do with her.
So, truthfully, I have limited patience for people who find adulthood or independence frightening or overwhelming, who can’t understand the need to buy toilet paper or cook a meal or know how to figure stuff out.
In a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Mass., in early 2009, I sat across the table from Diana, then 24, in the kitchen of her mother’s house. Diana had planned to graduate from college, marry, buy a home in the suburbs and have kids, a dog and a cat by the time she was 30. But she had recently dropped out of a nearby private university after two years of study and with nearly $80,000 in student loans. Now she worked at Dunkin’ Donuts.
“With college,” she explained, “I would have had to wait five years to get a degree, and once I get that, who knows if I will be working and if I would find something I wanted to do. I don’t want to be a cop or anything. I don’t know what to do with it. My manager says some people are born to make coffee, and I guess I was born to make coffee.”
Young working-class men and women like Diana are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks. Today, only 20 percent of men and women between 18 and 29 are married. They live at home longer, spend more years in college, change jobs more frequently and start families later.
The markers of adulthood to me aren’t then the usual: college-grad-school-marry-procreate-own real estate-get a job-get-another-job.
Not everyone has those dreams. Or can afford them.
They’re things we all can do, even in our teens — like writing thank-you notes on paper; bringing a gift when you stay with someone; going to a funeral for someone you didn’t know to show respect for their family, which you do.
Knowing how to cook a healthy, affordable meal and serve it to others, lovingly and gracefully.
Understanding the importance of volunteering your skills and mentoring others when you can.
Knowing how to handle your own money intelligently and responsibly — your credit score, low-interest credit card (singular), your taxes and savings.
Helping someone prepare for major surgery and helping them heal after it. Going to chemo with them or helping them choose a wig when their hair falls out.
In an economy when one-third of us are working for ourselves anyway, defining ourselves as an adult by “getting a job” is an outdated metric.
STUDYING the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.
I was an English major, a choice I don’t regret. But I graduated with no debt.
Has that choice helped me as a writer? Frankly, no. I didn’t enjoy college much. I found it impersonal and bureaucratic and have never gone back for a graduate degree as a result.
What being an English major did teach me, by attending a ferociously demanding school, University of Toronto, was how to think, how to frame an argument, how to discuss ideas with passion and focus out loud with other smart, determined people.
So, those are life skills I’ve been using ever since. Chaucer and 16th. century drama? Not so much.
When, how and where did you learn your life skills?
What do you consider the markers or milestones of adulthood?
The black and white photos are fantastic, and the memories, of New York and childhood, lovely.
I was born in Vancouver, and lived in London ages two to five, before moving to Toronto where I lived to the age of 30.
My childhood was a mixture of material comfort and emotional chaos. We lived, until my parents split up, in a large, beautiful house in a nice neighborhood. We had a huge backyard, a maid named Ada and I walked to school. But my parents were miserable and I used to hide behind the living room curtains as they shouted at one another. It was a relief when they divorced and my mother and I moved into an apartment in a downtown area much less charming.
I was at boarding school at eight, and summer camp all summer every year ages eight to 15. So I didn’t see that much of my parents. I was then an only child, so grew used to amusing myself with books, toys, art, sports.
I spent my school year awakened by bells: 6:55 wake-up; 7:05 walk around the block, regardless of weather; 7:25 breakfast. And so on. We wore plaid kilts and ties, in the Hunting Stewart tartan, and black oxfords and dark green knee socks. In summer, our camp uniform was yellow and blue, white for Sunday chapel. I spent most of my childhood surrounded by strangers — room-mates, cabin-mates, teachers, housemothers and counselors.
In retrospect, it was a distinctly odd way to grow up.
But it’s what I knew. I got a terrific education, made some wonderful friends at camp and developed my athletic skills. Camp was my happiest time and forever shaped my love of nature and outdoor adventure. I learned how to canoe, water-ski, swim, sail, ride horses. I collected badges and awards and prizes, at school and camp, for my talents, whether athletic or intellectual.
Every summer I would act in a musical, Flower Drum Song or Sound of Music or Hello Dolly!. I usually won the the lead, so knew from an early age I could win and hold an audience. I wrote songs and played them on my guitar, singing before the whole camp, an audience of 300 or so, strangely fearless.
I felt loved and safe at camp, while by Grade Nine I was always in some sort of trouble at school — my bed was messy, I talked too much in class, I sassed teachers and got into radio wars with room-mates. When my neatness scores (!) fell too low, I’d be confined to campus on weekends and had to memorize Bible verses to atone. (“For God so loved the world…” John 3: 16, kids.)
We were only allowed to watch an hour or so of television on Sunday evenings, although we were taken to the ballet and the Royal Winter Fair to watch horse-jumping. Every Wednesday night, after filling out a permission slip, we could go out for dinner with a friend or relative — the lonely kids left behind were fed a comforting meal of fried chicken with cranberry sauce and corn.
Privacy was an unimaginable luxury when you always shared a room with four or six others. There was nowhere to shut a door and just be alone in silence, to exult or cry. I was sent to my room at school, as punishment, for laughing too loudly. We were constantly told to be “ladylike.” In both places, we ate our meals communally, at large tables, consuming whatever food was served to us whenever it was offered.
Many decades later, I’m still seeing the many ways this has shaped me, for better and for worse.
As Broadside has grown — now almost 3,000 readers worldwide — it turns out that many of you are in your 20s, even teens.
Oh, the 20s!
I loved mine and have so many great memories of that heady, dizzying decade. Dated a ton of guys, from the bad-boy Serb with the black leather trousers to the blue-eyed Welsh engineer working in Khartoum I met on an airplane to the Actor who dragged me off on a three-day canoe trip from hell. I began writing for national publications right after my college graduation until 1982 when I won a fellowship to go to Paris for eight months and travel Europe on someone else’s franc.
I shrieked with joy when that letter arrived, desperate to flee Toronto, a stale relationship and the hamster wheel of freelance work.
At 26, back in Toronto (that boyfriend now history), I was hired as a staff writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s best newspaper, having never studied journalism or any newspaper experience anywhere. But by 28, I was bored and restless and at 29 moved to Montreal to work for the Gazette. I needed to lift my foot off the gas pedal of workworkworkworkwork. I wanted a husband, (and found one there, a tall, clarinet-playing American medical student at McGill.)
My 20s were a heady mix of insatiable professional ambition, dating, taking five dance classes a week, ballet and jazz. I traveled alone to Kenya, Tanzania, Ireland, France and England for pleasure — in addition to traveling to places like Copenhagen, Istanbul and Sicily for my fellowship. For work, I met Queen Elizabeth, spent eight days crossing Europe in a truck with a French truck driver and danced in the ballet Sleeping Beauty at Lincoln Center (as an extra). I had a small black terrier named Petra.
So, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, for those of you hoping to get it all figured out (hah!) by 30, some advice:
Date a few people who aren’t your “type.” You’ll learn something about them, yourself and the world. I once dated a man named Bob from a small town in Saskatchewan, who drove a Beemer and worked at IBM and wore white shirts and blue suits. In the middle of a dinner party with my writer friends, he said, “You’re a bunch of limousine liberals.” He was right.
Become financially literate. Understand, if you live in the U.S., what a 401(k) is and why you need to pay into it, right away and every year. Especially If you’re self-employed, put away 10 to 20 percent of every check you earn and be thoughtful about how you invest it. Read widely and deeply on personal finance so no one can bamboozle you. I suggest the books by three funny, down-to-earth, plain-spoken personal finance writers I’ve interviewed: Americans Manisha Thakor, Carmen Wong Ulrich and Canadian Alison Griffiths.
Learn the meaning of the acronyms RRSP, REIT, ETF, APR. Learn your FICO score and how to improve it.
Have two credit cards. That’s it. And one of them is only for emergencies. Make sure they have a low APR, preferably 10 percent or lower.
Needs beat wants. You want a $600 handbag/new car/bigger TV. You need: food, water, safe housing, health, savings, a decent education and good friends.
Conduct yourself professionally! Use proper grammar, diction and spelling in every business communication; dress appropriately for the occasion or job; look people in the eye and shake their hand as if you mean it. Show genuine and sustained interest in their skills and experience. (Thanks to social media there is no excuse for not preparing adequately for a meeting. conference or job interview.)
Read and listen widely. Don’t limit your consumption of “news” to Facebook or Twitter or outlets whose political values comfortingly echo your own. Continue to choose intellectually challenging material after you have left the halls of academe — or be prepared to have your lunch eaten by those who do.
Buy and stock a toolbox. Know how to use an Allen wrench, cordless drill, hammer, screwdriver. Self-sufficiency is sexy in both genders.
Read the business pages every day.Everything starts with economics.
Figure out what you want sexually. It might be abstaining until marriage, or for a while, or forever. Get to know your own body and what pleases you most. Learn to clearly express what you want — and do not. No means no!If you’re sexually active, consistently use a highly efficient form of birth control; know what the morning-after pill is and how to get one quickly. Know how and why you must avoid HIV, HPV, chlamydia and the rest of the STDs. If all you want from a sexual encounter is some quick amusement, try not to break someone’s heart.
Travel as often and as far away and for as long as you can possibly afford. The best way to find out how much in common we all have with one another — yet how differently we interpret religion, culture, ethics and public policy. Even a road trip within your own province or state can teach you something (and be a lot of fun.)
Always pursue personal projects unrelated to your job. It’s tempting to meld your identity with your job and title and company and paycheck. You’re a person with multiple interests, not just a worker. If you get laid off (which is likely these days), you’ll have other passions and skills.
Unplug regularly. Get away from everything that beeps and buzzes, every day. Silence, and solitude, is deeply restorative.
Find a community where you feel deeply loved and valued, no matter how much you weigh or earn or who you sleep with (or if you sleep alone) or whether you even have a job. When times get tough, and they will, you need a solid posse.
Spend an hour every day in nature. Walk to work. Find a park bench and stare at the sky. Invest in clothes to keep you warm and dry so you can be safely and comfortably outdoors even in rain and snow. For a super-icy or snowy walk, Yaktrax rule!
Find doctors you like and trust. Ask lots of questions. If they won’t listen to you or answer you, find those who will. Take your good health seriously and protect it through eating well, exercise, sufficient rest. Right now, you’re taking it for granted. In 20 years, you won’t.
Invest in some really beautiful personal stationery and/or business cards. Use them, often. Write real thank you notes, promptly. They leave a powerful and lasting impression.
Find at least three forms of physical activity you love so you don’t have to go to the gym: softball, volleyball, cycling, hiking, skiing. Invest in some decent equipment so you’ve got no excuse not to get out and stay active.
Cultivate a compassionate heart. Don’t forget others whose lives are still much tougher than yours. Mentor a kid. Be a Big Sister or Big Brother. Volunteer. Set aside some cash for charitable donations or offer your time and skills to a cause you passionately believe in. By the time you’re partnered and/or a parent and/or super-busy with your career, it’s easy to forget how many people helped you achieve your dreams.
Learn to cook. Healthy, cheap, sociable and fun. One of my favorite cookbooks is Bistro Cooking, with yummy easy stuff like clafouti and vichyssoise.
Don’t take everything personally! Some people are just mean. Some are deeply distracted by a personal sorrow you cannot begin to imagine. Or they have a headache. It’s not all about you.
Fail. Don’t just keep picking the safest and easiest path. Take a (calculated) risk and live with the consequences. (That’s where resilience comes from.) The most successful people are not those who avoid risk, but know how to live with it and bounce back from it.
Drink less. A shocking number of young women and men routinely drink to excess. Empty calories, hangovers, (and the sexual risk of being drunk around people you don’t know well), and alcoholism are really unattractive. Step away from the margarita!
Find a few old fogies you like and trust who are not related to you. Spend time with them. Listen to them. They have wisdom to offer.
If someone is unkind to you, flee. Don’t waste your time and energy trying to figure out why they’re a dick. Just go.
Remember that everyone comes with some emotional baggage. But it’s not your job to carry it.
If you’re utterly miserable all the time, tell a good friend and find a therapist. Honor what your heart is trying to tell you. Don’t hide your sorrows. They are lightened when shared.
We all know the standard metrics: graduate college, grad school, marry, have kids, acquire property and a vehicle.
I never had kids, so that typical dividing line into Maturity escaped me.
But for many of us, different moments mark a definite end to innocence.
Here are ten that resonate for me:
I grew up in a family of freelancers whose approach to paying income tax — which is never deducted at source, for those of you who’ve never done it — was, hmmm, variable. One day my Dad said, “I have two pieces of advice for you about taxes.”
“Running and hiding?”
Suffice to say I now have a very good accountant and genuflect to him deeply.
In New York, getting a mortgage is like some bizarro obstacle course littered with lawyers with out-stretched hands. Check, check, check, check!
Knowing — and caring about — your FICO score
For those of you outside the U.S., this is your credit score whose quality determines whether life is pleasant (low interest rates on mortgages, car loans, credit cards) or a hell of slammed doors refusing you access to any sort of credit. Surprisingly few consumers realize what sort of leverage you have with a good score — a lot!
Giving informed consent for my mother’s brain surgery
That was very weird, given how deeply private she always was. I looked, literally, into her head, staring at the four-inch tumor on X-ray that soon, successfully, came out.
Putting my mother into a nursing home
Pretty much the hell you’d expect: having to sell 95 percent of her things and make consequential decisions quickly. Being an only child makes it both easier and harder.
Getting a colonoscopy
For those of you under 50, something to look forward to! (And those putting it off out of fear, it’s no big deal. You have one wearying day beforehand to cleanse you colon, go to sleep during the procedure. Done.)
Knowing your neighbors
When you’re young, single and often behaving badly, you may not want to know your neighbors. Who was that guy/girl skulking out of your apartment? What were those weird noises at 3 a.m.? Once you’re a bit older, maybe traveling for work, maybe with a place you own and/or value more than a dive shared with six roomies, having kind and watchful neighbors is a wonderful thing.
Regular mammograms/Pap smears/prostate exams
I’m always a little stunned when I hear of someone, (who has health insurance, which in the U.S. means these are no-brainers), who skips these essential tests. No one wants to hear bad news. My mother has survived breast cancer, so mammo day is always a little shaky for me. But seriously? Just do it!
Joining a faith community
No disrespect to atheists and agnostics. But for many of us, finding a congenial place to nurture your spiritual growth is a major step. It’s easy to focus solely on family/work/friends/fun — until the shit hits the fan.
Making a will/living will/power of attorney/health care proxy
So cheery! But if you have been fortunate enough to have accumulated anything of value, it’s worth deciding who to leave it to. And facing any sort of major surgery — even childbirth, my mom-pals tell me — means facing the scariest of fears about mortality or severe injury.
How about you?
What milestones have marked your path to adulthood?
A friend recently sent me a fifth-grade photo of himself, wondering if I could guess who he was.
It was pretty clear.
In my second-grade class photo, maybe third, I’m surrounded by a sea of perfectly composed little girls, their braids neat, hands folded on their laps, gleaming patent-leather Mary Janes, skirts, tight, bright smiles.
There I am, a happy mess — hair that desperately needs brushing, my front tooth missing, well-worn sneakers.
Except for the gap teeth, I’d say that’s still me. I’ve always been someone who — as early photos reveal — is often less worried about appearing perfect than having fun and being comfortable, the sort of kid whose worst tantrums erupted if my clothes felt constricting or I had to wear shoes I couldn’t run in.
In an early photo, taken in a London park, I’m wearing a lovely wool coat, holding a paper bag and looking a little anxious. It’s not clear if I am holding a cookie or about to feed some birds. But I recognize the mix of style (boiled wool double-breasted coat with nice sleeve details), anxiety, food.
These three themes, including feeling antsy if I can’t travel overseas every year or so, have remained consistent for me. I love great food and enjoy cooking and entertaining. I’m a worrier — my sweetie’s nickname for me is N-squared (for Nervous Nellie). And I do passionately love elegance and beauty.
I had my photo taken this week for an article about me in the local newspaper. What an agony of self-consciousness! What to wear? What decisions will people make about me when they see it? Will it make them want to buy my new book — or avoid it because of something in my demeanor, clothing, smile?
I was so fretful about how I would appear, not so much from vanity as…not sure. Fear of disdain? Of losing readers? (Surely my choice of clothing that day, a black blazer and softly draped cowlneck blouse, would also gain me some!)
I was badly bullied by a small gang of boys for three long years in high school, and have ever since felt terribly self-conscious about how I look, even though I know objectively I’m attractive and can dress stylishly, even on a budget.
It’s hard to shed that teenage persona, of fearfulness and judgment.
When did you realize who you were — and are you still OK with being that person today?
Nice Wall Street Journalpiece ran this weekend about re-visiting your childhood home(s).
It’s a poignant thing, often clouded with nostalgia. For some, it’s simply impossible.
My sweetie, who grew up in Santa Fe, was a Baptist minister’s son. His Dad’s church and their adjacent home were both torn down to make way for the city’s Georgia O’Keefe Museum, opened in 1997. He has often reminisced about riding his bike alone as a little boy through Santa Fe’s streets, so I was eager to see where he grew up. But it’s gone.
When we visited the museum, he stood at the north end of one room there: “This used to be my bedroom,” he said. How odd that hundreds of people, possibly thousands by now, have stood — having no idea that this space once housed a family and a congregation — where he once slept in his little boy pajamas and dreamed his young dreams.
Only the apricot tree, the one his mom made jam from, still stands in the museum’s tiny courtyard. His parents are long-dead, so the memories of that home now reside in his head and those of his two older sisters.
The old three-story brownstone apartment building at 3432 Peel Street in Montreal where I lived with my mom — where I came home night, alone, at the age of 12 to find that we had been robbed — is long-gone. The white brick house in Toronto, on a busy corner where I lived while in high school, is still there. I wave to it each time I go north.
I went back, in May 2005, to the apartment building in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, where my mom and I lived when I was 14. I used to walk up a short, steep hill to my school, where I spent too much of my day staring out the windows at two distant volcanos, one per tall, narrow window.
In that building, my bedroom window looked directly into a next-door field full of cows. Surely, by 2005, it had changed. Surely, by then there was some flashy high-rise or a new house or…
Nope, still a field full of cows. The photo with this post shows our Cuernavaca building; we lived on the third floor.
What a soothing pleasure that was to find a spot from my childhood so unchanged. The nearby waterfall, Salto San Anton, was of course still there — and now three pottery candle-holders from a store on that street sit on my terrace wall every summer, a tangible reminder of one former home now gracing my current one.
Have you gone back in search of a childhood home? What did you find?