Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives

For two hours last Friday evening, I talked with someone I've known for more than two decades.  We were in school together, but her private school pedigree kept me sufficiently intimidated that we didn't properly get to know one another until the summer after we graduated, when we traveled to Halifax, both young and married in our first year out, to the wedding of mutual friends.

She made her life decisions deliberately, marrying a fellow she'd dated for most of her university career.  I'm pretty sure she was thinking about her thesis topic when she was a first-year.  And she intentionally had her babies young, reasoning that she could have her career when they grew school-aged and she was still young enough to chase down her ambitions.

On the other hand, I dithered about my major, didn't write a thesis due to lack of focus and confidence (luckily a four-year degree didn't require it, and few of us had sufficiently overcome our undergraduate insecurity to do it) and married a man I met in a fountain in Italy and who proposed to me ten days after he met me.  I had my kids after being married for several years, but certainly didn't know how it would impact my career, not that I had much of a plan for that, either.

So, as I pointed out to her on the phone, she has it together, and unless people know her well enough to understand that she's been through her own share of stuff during the past twenty years, they might think she'd look down upon us who've stumbled through life and had some more conspicuous failures.

The trip to Nova Scotia was made by my young husband and me in a 1971 VW Bus.  We had our first real fight driving through Montreal in the middle of the night, but made it for the wedding and looked quite presentable once there.  My friend, Dutch born, had married a true original, a South African who'd come to Halifax and then moved on to Queen's University, where he studied with his wife to be and me, though we didn't really know one another then. They were down to earth, but sophisticated and well-traveled, and my husband--who had spent a number of years living abroad himself--and I had great fun with them.

Once back in Toronto, we and other assorted friends had marvelous meals cooked by the South African.  Then they had their babies, but were still great fun--they were exhausted but because they had their children young bounced back faster than the rest of us who did it later on-- and continued their dinner parties, complete with good conversation fueled by cheap wine and opinions of a strength that can only be found in those in the grips of young adulthood, or at least only should be.  Life had not knocked the corners off any of us just yet.  But it would.

They went to Texas first, and we followed, in an unrelated fashion, a few years later.  They moved back to Canada, then to Texas again, then back once again.  It was pretty hard on both of them, in their own ways. In the meantime, to us, they served as absolute life rafts and tour guides in the strange land to which I'd moved.  How to be home with little babies all day?  How to live in this place where I had no cultural markers?  Our weekends together were a balm to my soul.

In the end, they went back to Toronto for the foreseeable future and we stayed until Fort Worth turned out to be home for us. When my husband and I split, they took it hard, but tried to be on both sides.  Ultimately history won out, though they would have liked to have kept up connections with the two of us.  At one point in the middle of it all, I sniveled to her that I'd "given him the best years of my life."  As soon as I said it I knew I sounded like Tony Soprano's mother, but my friend laughed indulgently and said, even if that were true, why give him any more? She had me there.

We keep in touch by phone and email, and have found we have more in common now in our middle age even than when we were young--our similarities lie more in our temperments than in circumstance, as it turns out.  And yes, she did get that career, and is in the thick of it now, almost an empty-nester in her early forties.  And we all thought she was crazy.

Last summer I had a great visit with them, and later their now nearly-grown children.  At one point, right before the South African arrived to meet us for a beer at a favorite pub, she told me the most romantic thing I've ever heard.  She said she is so happy to be married to be her husband because, she said, "he is such a nice man."  Twenty years together, and her takeaway is still that he is nice. I never hear this from long-term wives. If they weren't so dear to me, I'd be sincerely jealous.  In fact I am.  But more than that, I deeply admire and marvel at what they've done---managed to grow, change, raise great kids and give each other the room to be themselves, and still like each other after all of it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

An (Atypical) Immigrant's Tale

Yesterday I woke up at The Drake in Chicago, after jumping on a plane the day before to meet with partners who reviewed my work over the past fiscal year.  Later, I had fun eating and drinking wine with a colleague at a trendy bar, then wandered past beautiful apartment houses on Lake Michigan before I retired to my posh (if treadworn) hotel.  I got up in the morning and ran a couple miles by the lake--on the Gold Coast, as I believe it's called--before getting in a cab and heading to a lovely office where I did some work and chatted with co-workers I usually only speak with by phone or e-mail.  Despite weather delays at O'Hare that made even frequent fliers grumpy, I ended up having a fine talk with a nice man, now nearing eighty, who had been an in-house lawyer at a couple of major public companies and then got into "a little private equity stuff" and now lives with his wife in Palm Springs. 

This morning I dashed out the door to my appointment at the local office of the Department of Homeland Security.  My appointment was at 8 a.m., and when I arrived with about two minutes to spare, there was a line outside the door.  Once unlocked, I stood in line while the bald, tattooed worker at the door asked for identification, asked each person whether the address on their DHS letter was their current one, and then asked to look at the palms of our hands.  I was told where to sit. When I tried to walk around the row instead of across everyone's knees, I was instantly directed--"No!  I said, sit there." The lady I met at the resort in Austin would make a fine DHS employee, based on today's experience. 

I was also admonished for using my Blackberry.  Evidently communicating with my colleague in London--I didn't get the impression the timezone issue would cut much ice with the Office Administrator--was not appropriate.  This meant I had to look around.  I was the most fortunate person in the room.

Yesterday, when I told the partners I really hoped the weather wouldn't hold me back because I needed to get to my appointment at the DHS to renew my Green Card, they were perplexed.  "Where are you from?" one asked.  "Canada," I responded.  "Really." He hadn't even considered me as an immigrant.  I have brown hair and freckles on my nose and sound, now, like I am from Orange County, or so I am told by native Texans.

This morning I sat with the people who are, in the eyes of the United States Government, the same as me.  I wished I could have asked them about their stories, but I didn't speak their languages.  (During my last wait, ten years ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a young woman in a Burka who held a Ph.D from a university in Pakistan. She had immaculate Oxford diction and I was wildly intimidated.)

On the rare occasions I've been stopped for traffic violations, I've never been asked for my papers.  I've never been the butt of a racist joke or been yelled at or told I've been stealing American jobs in marketing professional services.  At cocktail parties, nobody tells me I don't deserve to be here or I am likely to break the law or use up social services. No one looks at my children and whispers they are a drain on the system. There doesn't need, as far as I've heard, to be a wall between my country of birth and the one where I now live.  I had the priceless benefit of spending thirty years in a nation with a high standard of living and an even higher standard of education, so the opportunities afforded me in the United States have been extraordinary. 

I am lucky.  But I am not better.  The country to which I have been so fortunate to immigrate has provided me a life and experience I could not have dreamed of as a child.  Today I was reminded that all of us who have the chance to live in freedom and relative prosperity in our homes of choice are, if one looks at the broader world, are a tiny percentage.  If you have had the happy providence to be born in a country in which you are safe, free, and can earn your way to better things, count your blessings.  And remember that accepting those who are tired and poor can build great nations.  As for me, I am just plain blessed to be here.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Wisdom in Exile

Prejudices are what fools use for reason.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Overspent and Not Grown Up

I wanted to believe I could afford everything I bought.  In fact, I wanted to believe I could afford anything I wanted.  In my imagination, there was no gap between what I was earning and the image I was trying to present--the fantasies I tried to maintain about what I wished my situation to be and what it actually was.

--Avis Cardella, Spent

Like Avis Cardella, I fell in love with Vogue when I was fifteen.  Like Cardella, I grew up a long way from Manhattan, though hers was a psychological chasm, since she lived in Brooklyn.  Yet in many ways she was no closer than I was on the frozen tundra.  Back when we fell under the magazine's spell, there weren't celebrity gossip websites or W Magazine.  There was the cluttered cover of Cosmo, but Vogue was something else entirely--a world where dresses costing thousands of dollars were within reach for anyone who would spring for the five bucks the September issue cost.  It was art, and I spent hours poring over Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton shots and reading, awestruck, the prices of Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein gowns I could only dream of. 

I remember buying my first pair of designer jeans and a red Ralph Lauren skirt I bought during my first trip to the last call sale at Holt Renfrew on Bloor Street in Toronto.  In high school I worked, like Cardella, lots of jobs and spent the vast amount of what I made on clothes.

What I didn't do was make it to Studio 54 when I was eighteen, because, ever practical and having no notion of my power over the opposite sex, I was working to go off to university. So unlike Cardella, I didn't manage to find myself some very rich men to take care of me during my twenties and thirties. As a result, I didn't get to buy Jil Sander suits and shop for Sub-Zero fridges for my perfect house in the Hamptons (along with a spacious Manhattan apartment) or fly off to Paris when I was going through a rough patch.  I was camping in a 1971 VW bus and wearing my husband's cargo shorts. 

Cardella's book Spent is ostensibly about compulsive shopping, but it's really about a woman who takes the path of least resistance.  Until she can't.  She (wisely) breaks off her engagement to a rich German businessman and ends up with a nearly penniless artist who lives in a cramped and filthy loft.  Still, she is terrified--at forty--to be independent.  But until she figures out how to be a sister who's doing it for herself, she doesn't face up to much of anything.  She may say she hid in her shopping habit, but it's clear the men were the enablers. 

Finally, she realizes there is no refuge in a relationship unless she owns her stuff. She's been to therapy before, but as she says, she wanted to kick her emotional issues out of the way rather than get into the uncomfortable business of actually looking at them.  By the time she is really ready for therapy, she can't afford it, but she forges ahead in any case. At long last she opens all of her credit card bills and looks at them seriously.  Then she finally works on putting her career in high gear and not, for a change, trying to find a man to distract her and bail her out. 

It's a good story, but Cardella leaves the reader wondering.  She's now married to a Paris businessman, but doesn't tell us (presumably for the purposes of privacy) how she found a healthy relationship after all the co-dependents she went through.  Neither does she put fear into anyone who might be headed toward a problem with spending; her rapturous details about the clothes she coveted and bought, the perfect skin she achieved after a lifetime of acne, her hair's perfection with her regular Bergdorf cut and color--all make it sound almost worth the credit counseling and thirty-six months of payments. In her epilogue, Cardella tries to make the case that compulsive shopping should be taken seriously.  The rest of her book, as readable as it is, contradicts her argument.  For us girls who love our clothes, it just sounds like way too much fun.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Getting Old is Not for Sissies

Last week my mom lost her younger brother to cancer.  Earlier this year, a good friend my parents winter with passed away, after a long and difficult struggle.  This follows their winter last year, where another friend died from ALS. Their neighbors, who've lived along side them nearly two decades, are declining at an alarming rate.  Getting old isn't for sissies. 

I'm at a loss what to say when we talk on the phone.  Everyone in their lives--they being as it stands now as notable exceptions--seems to be in various states of infirmity.  In this part of the world, people of a certain socioeconomic status do tend to live longer than their parents did; after a conversation with my parents, I think this may be because people in their generation spend most of their time going to doctors for all of their various ailments. 

What they don't say, at least they haven't said for a long time, is, how are you?   The children merit a perfunctory inquiry, but my work and social life are of no interest.  I try to talk about current events, but the conversation always turns to someone's hip replacement or latest round of chemo or, in one case, shock treatments for long-term depression.  There are frequent clucks of the tongue about how so and so is in denial and how someone else just isn't bucking up and seeing reality.  So any effort on my part offer the possibility of upside is roundly dismissed.  To me upside is that they themselves are still healthy.  Not long ago they used to go to movies and dinner, but now all them seem to do is sit around and talk about how sad everything is and how everyone else needs to get their acts together. 

I don't know what it feels like to lose a sibling or even a close friend.  I lost a spouse, but not through death.  My parents were married forty-eight years last week, so my life experience registers with them not so much as a loss but as a failure.  (What I did fail to do, however, was send them a card to mark the occasion, and that was duly noted.) 

What I do know is that focusing on "reality" doesn't do much to help those who are experiencing loss or pain.  Neither does mouthing platitudes, of course.  All I can draw upon is my experience.  When I was going through my divorce, I remember calling a friend, crying that when my little boy woke up in the middle of the night, there was another woman comforting him.  It should be me, I wailed, it should be me. 

"There are worse things," she said, "than another person loving your child.  There is someone there.  Be grateful for that."  That's reality, too.  But it helped make things better. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Second Acts: What Will You Do With the Rest of Your Life?

As baby boomers go, so does popular culture.  It's bugged me for years--I am technically a boomer, but at the tail end of the long tail.  Although I fancy myself a GenX type, I'm really just a lagging boomer.  At some point, they will all die off and I will get to do something first. But for now, if I run across certain kinds of Me and My Friends journalism or a blog that speaks to what boomers are going through, it often resonates. 

The my husband wasn't happy and left me and I had no idea books are rather funny--really, do the women in this generation think they're the first who've been traded in for newer models?  It's an old story, and all the Pilates and Botox in the world won't change that. 

But the stories about the second act--and these often include the ones moving past the shock of losing a spouse--are compelling.  After all, this generation, really is different, now that they are older. At least in higher income and educational brackets, they are enjoying robust, to say the least, middle age, and living longer and better. They are seriously engaged in the world (which does, after all, revolve around them) and certainly are not interested in retiring to the La-Z-Boy and the remote anytime soon.  They're entirely too hot and interesting for that. 

Jean Chatsky, on WoWoWow, gives us a glimpse into the lives of those who make successful transitions into a second or third career.  Spoiler:  if you dream of owning a B&B or a restaurant, go work at one before you throw your 401K behind it.  She quotes extensively from Kerry Hannon's What's Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job.  As with anything worth having, Chatsky notes, a successful second career takes due diligence, contacts, and a healthy dose of realism.

Dominique Browning was a successful editor and writer, until she wasn't.  Her bookSlow Love:  How I Lost my Job, Put on my Pajamas and Found Happiness tells how she found a substantial existence after her identity got blown away.  Not easy--illness, the end of a love affair and the sale of the house where she'd envisioned her grandchildren visiting were part of it, but not having a place to go every day was the worst.  As with so many high achievers, she didn't know who she was once people stopped taking her calls.  A long, painful journey, but as is the way with those who endure these trips and take notes while they travel, hers is a great story.  Her blog, Slow Love: Intertidal Years is the wonderful result of that hard-earned wisdom.  She tells us of her garden gate, helping friends through illness and the empty chair that means the end of a friendship.  I hate to say it, but I look to her and others like her as I consider where I might go someday.  But right now I am too hot and interesting for that. 

Monday, June 7, 2010


It finally came to pass, after months of planning.  From the minute I saw that deck, I saw party.  Despite pouring rain the first time and a foot of snow after I'd put in my successful offer, the house's emotional pull came from the vision of kids and teenagers in the big family room, with parents in the kitchen and on the deck.  By the time party day was looming, we had a forecast of 102 degrees. 

I'd thought through the guest list. Could I combine my kids' school friends and their parents with my grownup gang from my single life?  It would all shake out, I reasoned.  My daughter and I had agonized over the music mix, and I was still tinkering with it at midnight when the day finally came.  I am forty-three, but might well have been a teenager worrying about whether friends would show up.  This was not a dinner party, but one where people might decide their presence wouldn't be missed. 

I spent my day off dusting and knocking off cobwebs from places I'd never noticed before, and before I knew it, it was time to collect the children from school.  I hadn't heard from the caterer at Central Market, and kept getting voicemail.  Finally at three-thirty I reached a real person, who said my order was marked for pickup and not delivery.  Then she pulled the actual form and declared that the entry had been incorrect and that she would get in the car immediately.  I was glad my professional brain had kicked in and decided to call.  Kudos to the true professional on the other end.

An hour before the start, my hired bartender had arrived.  The drinks were iced, the food was out.  Tick, tock.  I called a couple of close friends who wouldn't laugh at my neurotic concern, and they assured me they were on their way.  A half-hour after the official start, it seemed that everyone arrived at once.   

It all went by in a blur.  There was a gaggle of sweaty ten year old boys who ran and wrestled on the front lawn, a collection of tweener girls mingled and strolled together, and a cluster of women gathered at the kitchen island, low talkers all. The rest of the gang, once they'd had a tour and exclaimed over the house--much to my delight, as I realized quite a bit of my decorating in past months was done with the idea of The Party--hit the deck.  It was bloody hot (note to self, more beer, less wine, though we didn't run out) but the shade and the number of native Texans helped. 

By nine-thirty, it was down to a few of us. Then a good friend brought new friends, and I finally allowed myself to be poured a full glass of wine and sat down for the first time all day. We all got wise for awhile.  I really did hit it off with someone who'd arrived at the party to meet me specifically, and then my daughter arrived back from her other party and suddenly it was time for everyone to go, and the house was as quiet as it had been before they descended.

The kids crashed, and I got into bed and had that odd feeling of letdown that comes with the conclusion of something one has considered rather too much.  To me, after four years of feeling conspicuously divorced and living in a matchbox, this was a monumental event.  To all of the dear people who showed up, it was a happy event they were pleased to celebrate with me and to see one another.  A party's a party.  Can't wait for the next one. 

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Best Sites for Room Porn

Like foodies, people who love their homes have favorite places to look for new ideas.  I've never been a Good Housekeeping kind of gal, but then people who market these kinds of things know that snobbery has always extended to our home environment, so there's no lack of fantasy rooms to stumble upon online. I don't think of myself as a homemaker and so have been surprised at how much I like to look at the cool things others have done, but as my friend Julia says, there's something to float everyone's boat.

One must be careful, or envy creeps in quickly.  The magazines and websites I like best don't make it seem like one must have a mansion to live a happy life.  It's the small spaces that intrigue me most anyway. What I love seeing are not homes that are "decorated" but that give the viewer insight into the life of those who inhabit the space.  Even if I could afford a decorator--out of the question--I'd never use one.  I can live with imperfection until I find the right thing on my own. My stuff is a combination of inherited antiques (none of them sufficiently valuable to finance my children's college educations with, in which case I'd quite likely part with them) and things I've picked up here and there.  I've got a couple of pretty nice etchings alongside framed art from the sale rack at Target. I found a lovely hall tree at antique/junk place in an older neighborhood near me, and there are a few furniture samples from my ex-husband's days in the business.  It's changed over the years and will continue to evolve as I do, but everything I have is meaningful to me. I make it a rule not to buy something just to fill a space. 

So, based on that, here are a few of my favorites:

Dwell has been one of my favorite publications since it launched over ten years ago, but I avoided it during my rental years because it made me long for a place that was mine.  Some urban, some rural, some big, some small.  But always, the house in here are those of people who do things their own way.  Wish I was half as cool as any of them. 

The New York Times real estate section has some great stuff if one is willing to look for it.  Not all NYC and not all palatial (this link is to a woman's apartment in an attic in Romania, for example) there are some really cool spaces here that typically show great use of little square footage.  For those of us who don't live there or in L.A. or London or Paris, the housing costs are sticker shock, but a great consolation for those of us living in the flyover states.   

When I first moved to Texas, my parents gave me a subscription to Canadian House & Home.  Delicious photographs, mostly of urban spaces or the cottages (what Canadians call lake houses) of those wealthy enough to have them.  Upscale and aspirational, but since it's Canadian these lucky owners seem to feel at least a little shy about their dwellings and their attendant trappings. 

Nestled In is a great blog that is, sadly, ended, but the beautiful photographs are still up for the time being.  It's based in Finland and the product of a couple of nesting women, who nest together, so it's definitely got a more feminine vibe, but it's a simple, thrown-together aesthetic a bit like my own. Best of all, there isn't a trace of chintz. Have a look while it's still alive. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tipper and Al

After forty years, it's kind of hard to believe you wouldn't have made peace with your spouse's most annoying habits and with the deepest rifts between you. Reading about Al and Tipper Gore today, I felt surprised and disappointed, as though it was their responsibility to uphold my faith, tenuous at best, in the institution of marriage. 

I heard a story from my parents' senior circuit about a couple who split up after almost sixty years of marriage.  "He put the house on the market in the local Penny Saver," said my mother, as if this was the point.  This was a decade ago, when I was still married and thought I'd stay that way, despite ample evidence to the contrary.  What on earth, I thought, would precipitate such a split?  Did she suddenly decide, after sixty years, that the way he chewed got on her last nerve?  Did he suddenly realize at the age of 83 that the world was his oyster and she was holding him back?  Were they both just incredibly stubborn, only to realize on their respective deathbeds that the split had been the worst mistake of their lives? The whole thing, if I'd ever managed to come up with a plausible theory, would have made a riveting short story.  But I didn't know them and so never had the chance to ask. 

When new marrieds meet me (especially when they are out at a party without their spouse) and learn I am divorced, they usually lean in and quietly ask, "so, what happened?"  Often long-married people ask this too, if they don't know me well.  Those long-married who know me well enough don't want to ask because (this is only my theory) they worry divorce might be contagious.  The youngsters feel like they can learn the One Thing to Avoid and therefore keep their newly-minted union together.  With other divorced people, we can both exhale at our mutual catastrophes, and if their stories are told with a sense of self-awareness, sometimes we become good friends.  If they are past the initial stages and bitter, I tell them I'm sorry they've had to go through that and leave them with their misery.  Nothing I say will fix such a mindset.

When I'd been married a decade or so, I decided that successful long-term marriages involved all the platitudes people use--tolerance, forgiveness, perseverence--and also another thing: bullshit luck.  Sometimes the fault lines don't show up until a real curve ball gets thrown a couple's way, and for some it really never does. Sometimes money greases the wheels and they make it work because position or comfort make it tolerable. Other times they stay together because whatever lies outside the union, even if it's far better than the life of quiet (or loudly miserable) desperation, means too frightening a journey to the other side.  And sometimes people understand all they've signed up for, but they just love each other. 

These are the unions I envy and, as I am sure many did, I thought the Gores fell into the last category.  I remember an interview they did with Diane Sawyer right after the Lewinsky scandal broke.  When Sawyer asked Tipper what she would have done in Hilary's shoes, Tipper said, "how can anyone know what they would do in that situation until they're actually in it?"  I have no idea what transpired to end the Gore's marriage, and it's absolutely none of my business, but I remember feeling respect for such an honest answer. All I feel is sad for them and for their children, no matter whether what they've put out there--kind of an, "ew, 'mom and dad are making out' thing," as Rebeeca Traister said on All Things Considered today--and what we've collectively projected upon their union.  Forty years is nothing to sneeze at, especially in Washington.  I really hope they are all okay.