Style and substance.

I'm kind of sad that the American What Not to Wear is in its last season. It's one of the three shows I currently watch. The others are Coronation Street and The Hallmark Channel's Cedar Cove. Yes, I realize that makes me sound like an old lady. I used to do Edge. Big time. But I've done a lot of living since then and, trust me, I have seen far too much of man's capacity for cruelty and violence in real life to see it as entertainment anymore.

But back to What Not to Wear. I love the transformative nature of the show. I love how with one week, some tough love, and a $5000 wardrobe, Clinton and Stacy can give people a new lease on life. The hosts have a "get up" mentality that I appreciate. They are all 'that's so sad you lost your job, your spouse and your dog, but for the love of all that is sacred, lose the hammer pants!' When it comes to their subjects, those sporting said hammer pants, mom jeans or Working Girl shoulder pads, my feelings are less clear. Some are depicted as professional martyrs ('Now that I'm a mom, I put myself last'), others are professional victims advertising their pain, and others are sulking that they are no longer a size 2 and able to sport a midriff top. For me it feels self-indulgent that they wander around looking so miserable that co-workers feel compelled to out them on TV.  Perhaps that's why I so love it when Stacy and Clinton take them to task and make them look like functional human beings.

I'm not sure why some people wear their pain and others don't. I'm not sure if it's a personality thing (introvert/extravert) or a sensibility thing (a desire for a public or a private life) or something less noble, like sympathy seeking (for Sloppy Sue) or pride (for the ever-polished.) For me, I feel that it's important to share my story, as a cautionary tale if nothing else. However, I do not want to be pitied ever (it's an ego thing) and learned quickly that people find it hard to pity you when you are sporting a wardrobe worth more than their car.

I had parts of a previous blog excerpted in a documentary on postpartum depression. I'm played by an actress woman wearing a ratty pink bathrobe. I really like this production and was flattered to have had a small part in its creation, but I have never looked like that in my life. Presumably, a polished exterior would not convey my interior pain to the audience, however. If you are messed up, you need to look messed up unless the director is trying to prove a point. In Breakfast at Tiffany's and Belle de Jour, Holly Golightly and Severine's gorgeous Givenchy and YSL wardrobes were meant to serve as contrast to their turbulent inner worlds. The funny thing is that, years later, these characters are remembered primarily as style icons.  I'm as guilty as anyone. When I think of Belle de Jour, I think only of Catherine Deneuve's fabulous Roger Vivier shoes, not her sad state.


The downside of dressing better than how you feel is that you are not treated with the empathy given to the sloppy Sues of the world. Perhaps it's the What Not to Wear factor. If you look together on the outside, people assume you are together on the inside. For me, it's the opposite. The more chaotic I feel on the inside, the better I look on the outside. Many times, I've been asked to volunteer time or donate money to people who were, in that moment at any rate, better off than I was. If it weren't so irritating, it would be funny.

So what's the solution, then? Do we all have to become our own PR agents, modifying our dress to let the world know we need some TLC? Do we simply all wear t-shirts (or send out Facebook status updates) indicating our state? Or should we all just act with kindness, expecting little of people unless they offer it, and giving as much as we can when we are able.

That way, we can all just ditch the hammer pants.

To Errand is Human

"I'm getting groceries."  
My euphoria fled.
- Patricia Cornwell, From Potter's Field

My son is home sick today. Too much Terry Fox run and too much badminton kicked off someone's asthma. But I was not sure if he was really ill so I told him that instead of watching television and playing cars, he'd be accompanying me on errands. The fact he agreed to this means he's really sick.

Nobody likes errands.

Errands, are, of course, a fact of life that are almost impossible to avoid entirely. I know people who are basically billionaires and even they find themselves at the doctor or getting a passport photo taken from time to time. And for the rest of us, they are a regular thing. As the Zen proverb reads, "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." Yup.

The daily grind of dishes, groceries, packing school snacks, vacuuming up the clouds of dog hair, and laundry (always laundry) is almost enough to make me want to run off and live solo in a yurt. I fully understand Laurence J. Peter's quip, "It's better to have loved and lost than to have to do forty pounds of laundry a week."

In the introduction to his brilliantly titled book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Jack Kornfield writes about trying to preserve our spirits in the midst of all the errands:

"Most spiritual accounts end with illumination or enlightenment. But what if we ask what happens after that? What happens when the Zen master returns home to spouse and children? What happens when the Christian mystic goes shopping?" 

How is one to retain the peace attained on the mountaintop when one returns home to a sick family, the meltdown of the financial markets, or a dog with a GI "situation"?

One approach is to make everyday tasks as blissful as possible. By listening to audiobooks in the car, I've doubled my reading time and reduced in-car stress. I've set up a command station to get us out the door in (relative) peace every morning (a blue and white bowl with sunglasses, a DIY snack station, cubbies for all the shoes.) I light a candle while I'm paying bills (current favs are Assouline's Books candle and Diptyque's 34 boulevard saint germain.)

At one point, I made the decision to no longer shop for food at the local version of the Mega Lo Mart, where the lighting is jarring, the lines are long, the people are cranky, and everything smells vaguely of tires. Instead, I shop at the local Whole Foods or Longo's where the staff are friendly, the pace relaxed, and the lighting soothing. For us, the extra cost is worth it since it transforms a source of dread into something more palatable.

And maybe errands offer the potential for even more. Henry James, who was generally a pretty smart cookie, wrote:
True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one's self, but the point is not only to get out - you must stay out; and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand.                                          
When I get into a cycle of worry (always!), I like to find some absorbing errands like organizing the junk drawer or paying the bills or restocking the supply of birthday cards. The act of puttering tends to get my mind focused on something other than my troubles and has the added benefit of allowing me to check something off my To Do list.

The chores cannot be eliminated, but there is no reason why we cannot bring as much joy to our daily tasks as possible. To errand is human. To make bliss, divine.

Bliss Notes: An apple a day

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, 
I would still plant my apple tree.  
- Martin Luther

At this time of year, baskets of crisp red apples line the outdoor tables at fruit markets, the cinnamon scent of apple cider wafts out of coffee shops, and bakery counters are lined with golden apple pies. It's hard not to be mad about apples.
Throughout history and literature, apples have represented more than simply a tasty snack. King Solomon sang, "comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love." Jane Austen noted, "good apples are a considerable part of our domestic happiness." Adam and Eve, William Tell, Snow White, Newton, Cezanne, and John Chapman have all had apples play a major role in their lives (OK, maybe with Adam and Eve it was really a fig, but lets not be sticklers...)
So why is it that the apple is so much more buzzworthy than, say, the pineapple or the peach? Is it a matter of the crop's ancient peerage? Is it a matter of better PR? When asked on Oprah why she named her daughter Apple, Gwyneth Paltrow responded that the name conjured up a picture of sweetness and wholesomeness. I agree.
And then, there is apple pie. Anne Dimock, in her lovely book, Humble Pie: Musings on What Lies Beneath the Crust, writes: "When you arrive and taste the joy you've created with a homemade pie, beautiful crust and all, you will at last understand why it is that the Buddha is always smiling." In fact, she dedicates an entire chapter of her book to "Zen and the Art of Making Piecrust." Other authors who have waxed poetically about pie include Karen Stolz, who in the sweet novel, World of Pies, writes "When the pie was browned to a perfect color and smelled like heaven, we pulled it out of the oven and let it cool until we couldn't stand it." Even David Mamet becomes rather blissful (not an expletive to be found!) when discussing pie in Boston Marriage: "Yes, this shall be our party. And we must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie. It can out stress as the heat of the hand repels quicksilver. Faugh, I say. Faugh! Keep your precious vapors, your fantods, your anxieties. Give me a pie." Amen!
Apple pie, which is neither too tart (like lemon) or too sweet (like raspberry), seems to be one of those rare birds that most people agree is a good thing. As Roger Welsch noted, "Some people don't eat pork. Some don't eat meat. Some people don't ingest caffeine or alcohol. Is there anyone who, as a statement of ethics or conscience, doesn't eat pie?"I hope not. I don't think I'd like them very much. 
Sadly, I come from a long line of pie-making challenged people. Dr. Acrelius, a Swedish parson living in America circa 1758, described an apple piecrust so tough that "its crust is not broken if a wagon wheel goes over it." I think that my Swedish-born relatives perhaps viewed his words as a challenge rather than a criticism. Luckily, Anne Dimock in Humble Pie urges us to share her recipe for Thanksgiving Pie with friends: "The pie recipe is to share because pies are an important way of saying thank you. Like compliments and recognition, there are never enough good pies, and this one has all the wonder and delight of the discovery of a new star." It is not to be baked only on Thanksgiving Day but any time we want to thank someone or practice gratitude. One of my favourite justifications for buying pies is Carl Sagan's quote, "If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe." But perhaps, this year, I will give the pie a try...

Thanksgiving Pie by Anne Dimock

3 apples (use a soft, sweet variety like McIntosh or other sauce variety) 
1 (12-ounce) package fresh whole cranberries 
1 cup light brown sugar 
3/4 cup walnuts 
1/4 cup light brown sugar 
1/4 cup white flour 
3 tablespoons butter, softened or cut into bits 
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 
1/8 teaspoon salt
· Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 
· Prepare the piecrust and fit into a 9- or 10-inch pie pan. 
· Peel, core and dice the apples. 
· Place the apple pieces in a large bowl with the cranberries and 1 cup of light brown sugar; mix well and place into the pie shell. 
· Place the walnuts in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade; pulse for 5 seconds. 
· Add the remaining ingredients and pulse until blended but still crumbly. (If you don't have a food processor, chop the nuts by hand and blend them with the rest of ingredients with the back of a large spoon.) 
· Spoon the topping all over the pie. 
· Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees for 30 more minutes; cover with foil to prevent the topping from darkening too much. 

Busy busy

While I'm busy being productive, I decided to put Serena in charge of the blog. But she informed me that, given that it might be the last warm, sunny day until spring, she intended to spend it outside.

Hey, if you'd buy me an iPad, I'd be able to help you out...

Sometimes you need a little Lilly

Sweet September

The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as we continue to live.  - Mortimer Adler

At this time of year, I always get a hankering for some Laurentian pencil crayons, a set of Mr. Sketch markers, a fleece-lined corduroy jacket, a Charlie's Angels lunchbox, and a pair of Bass Weejuns. I love Back to School.

Of course, just because I am not going back to school this year does not mean that I cannot capture the excitement of learning. Here are some of the things I love doing to celebrate September (especially now that all of those school forms have been filled in - phew!)

Find a class. Many colleges and universities offer non-credit adult education classes in everything from art history to basic web design to Shakespeare to conversational Spanish. There is nothing lovelier than walking to class in the fall, cradling a latte, and carrying a book-filled leather satchel with the knowledge that there will be no final exam.

Find a new author. As author Jane Hamilton advised, "It is books that are the key to the wide world; if you can't do anything else, read all that you can." While I am a voracious reader, rarely do I pick up a book these days that is not on the topic of business, Christianity, PTSD, mothering, or class wars on the UES. I remember the excitement of discovering a wonderful book I would never have read had it not been assigned in school: Moonfleet, The Chrysalids, Who Has Seen the Wind. Pick up a YA novel or a detective novel or a book on micro-financing. Try something new.

Try a new workout. Even though I detested gym class (once you have knocked over the vault  judge at a gymnastics meet, the gym teacher is no longer your ally), I loved how no one sport lasted more than a week. Just when the cruelty of dodgeball seemed too much to bear, we started on floor hockey. Just as my shins could take no more, we took up swimming. Eventually I was able to find something I liked (field hockey did have those cute outfits...) This fall, perhaps a kickboxing class might be fun, or Tai Chi, or ping pong.

Find an interesting elective. Between graduation and parenthood, I got involved in the local film festival (granted, TIFF has become a big deal.) Some years I volunteered, other years I saw four or five films a day for over a week. Whether I was watching a film from Vietnam or chatting with Julianne Moore (who looks even better in person than on film), I was taken out of my everyday experience. Perhaps this is the year to try painting, to take up rock climbing, to learn German, or to get tickets to the Opera.

Embrace your inner kindergarten student. I love creating vision boards. While this activity might qualify me for inclusion in the Big Book of Very Silly People, I find that sitting down with a stack of magazines, some poster board, a pair of scissors and a glue stick (the almond-scented Coccoina, but of course) and making a collage of images that appeal helps to keep me focused. Many people pepper their vision boards with things they want -- yachts, fasts cars, diamond studded bolo ties. I like to find images that represent the way I want to feel: calm, peaceful, content.

As I greet my happy, not-yet-homework-laden children this week, I will slip on a tweed jacket, polish up an apple, and try to indulge my Back to School state of mind. How are you going to celebrate the season?

Book Review: God Never Blinks

Recently, I finished Regina Brett's book, God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life's Little Detours.  The moment I was finished, I started it all over again. It's that good. The book was originally a piece from Brett's Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper column to mark her 45th birthday. She outlined 45 key life lessons and then, on her 50th birthday, added five more. The 50 lessons have been expanded to 50 chapters and each one is a jewel. Brett has seen a lot of hard things: childhood neglect, rape, an unplanned pregnancy, dropping out of school, breast cancer. Anyone who has survived what she's survived and is still smiling gets my attention.

My favourite chapters deal with the notion of comparing our lives to others. While I know that by 65 everyone has been affected by illness, crime, death, divorce, or serious financial setback (and, sometimes, all five) at the age of 41 there are still a lot of people out there who through birthright and good fortune have managed to escape the hard things in life (often, they will attribute their lack of misfortune to good planning; I know I did.) And if you've suffered major setbacks, it's hard to not feel resentful of those who haven't. Brett has felt this way too and offers some practical ways to embrace your lot in life with grace.

Brett is a firm believer that God never gives us more than we can handle. She writes about the book Breath, Eyes, Memory:

Author Edwidge Danticat describes a group of people in Guinea who carry the sky on their heads. In her lyrical novel about the tragedy and trauma one family of women face, she tells the tale of a people who are powerful enough to bear all things. Their Creator designed them to carry more than others. They don't know that they were chosen for this. But if you experience many difficulties in life, you were designed to bear them. ... God never gives us more than we were designed to carry. Some of us were designed for more, some for less. No matter what, even if we are asked to carry a portion of the sky, it is beyond bearable. It is a gift. 

It's a pretty great way of looking at things.

A long time ago, I had a piece in an anthology about mothering. One of my co-writers was Sheree-Lee Olson, who wrote a brave piece titled, I Am My Father. In it, Olson writes about how hard it was to leave her baby with her at-home husband so she could return to work. As she felt herself morphing into her father - the hard working, driven breadwinner - she referenced the gardening concept of hardening off. Gardeners gradually expose young plants to harsh environmental conditions in order to toughen them up and help them survive the outside world. I'm not a gardener, but Olson's image stuck with me over the years. Hardships create survival skills. Moreover, plants that have not been hardened off don't tend to flourish unless
confined to a greenhouse.

When I read Brett's book, I was reminded of this notion. I've never viewed the hard things I've had to face as a gift. Frankly, I had a lot of resentment. Seeing things from Brett's perspective allowed me to think about things differently. When the hard times come - and they always do - some people will not be ready. They have not been hardened off. And so something really minor - a kitchen renovation going awry, a temporary job loss, a non-fatal illness - will unseat them. I've always been judgemental of these people, gnashing their teeth at the most insignificant things. The problem with hardening off is that is can devolve into growing hard. I saw as weak and foolish the people who'd not been gifted with hardship and who then fell apart over something seemingly small. After reading this chapter, I was finally able to view them with empathy. Or course they are falling apart; they are a seedling and it's their first winter. Per 1 Peter 1:6-7, they have not been refined by fire. They don't yet know the importance of leaning hard on your faith, holding things lightly, and putting love at the forefront.

Brett has made me realize that I'm one of the lucky ones, which is not something I've been feeling in a while. I can feel sorry for myself or I can get up and use my sad tales to help others going through hard times. So many of the writers I know have suffered terrible hardships. I can only assume that somehow the two things are linked. Perhaps writers go through hard things, so we can write about them and help others feel less alone in their struggles. If so, I urge young creative types to seek another profession stat.

I have a sense that, in part, this blog is a way for me to share my journey. A way to let people know that in spite of life's trials one can go on and one day sit in the sun and drink a Bellini on an island in Italy.

Because Brett believes in that too. She's a big fan of using the good china, burning the expensive candles, and putting on the good lingerie. Life is short and sometimes brutal. We owe it to ourselves and to others to find the joy.

(If you want to feel really grateful, go see Joe when it's released. It will make you happy to not be living those lives. And yes, that's Nic Cage on the left.)

Road trip: Christie Antiques Show

Saturday was the semi-annual antiques market at Christie Lake near Hamilton. I haven't been there for a couple of years and didn't want to miss another one. I made sure I was there when the gates opened at 8:00am. Thank heavens I did. From 8:00 until about 10:00, the weather was lovely. Overcast and cool, but lovely.

I did not have anything in particular in mind, but I wanted to look at costume jewelry, fox items, french bulldog items, candlesticks and train cases. Plus, I had a request to look for classic 1970s/1980s vinyl. 

I wandered around and chatted with various vendors. I found a pair of Wedgwood candlesticks for $75 but they were willing to sell them for $45, which seemed very reasonable. I saw a blue plaid train case but it was not in good enough condition. I'm more into chic than shabby.

I found a pair of white flower earrings that struck me as pretty. For $10, how could I not? I've wanted a costume triple strand pearl necklace for a while (well, truth be told, I've wanted a Mikimoto one more, but that darned austerity thing keeps rearing its head.) So, I was thrilled to find a pristine Carolee vintage piece for $25. 

Not a bad haul for $75.

The candlesticks make a nice addition to my little collection.

Oh, and I found good quality copies of Back in Black and Blizzard of Oz that came from the collection of a former DJ. Together they were $20. 

The skies opened up on us all around 10:30 and I felt bad for the vendors and people in flip flops (in an uncharacteristic fit of organization, I wore hiking boots and brought an umbrella.) Luckily, I had my finds so I grabbed a latte and ran for the car.

The show is ridiculously well organized (it puts TIFF to shame - after 20 years of film fests, this might be my final year...) and they serve poutine. It all made me a happy girl.

The next show will be in May and if you have the chance to go, I highly recommend it! 

Fall preparation

It's been one of those weeks. The quote that comes to mind is from Blue Jasmine: "There are only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming." Yup. Glad the week is almost over.

On Wednesday, which seems like a week ago now, I decided I needed a couple of new pieces for my fall wardrobe and wanted to check out the new outlet mall just north of Oakville. It's a Premium Outlets mall, which was designed for the gaggle of cross-border shoppers that seem to populate Halton.

The Burberry outlet is not yet open. I'd been hoping to pick up a new quilted barn jacket as I'm getting really tired of the purple one I bought at Neiman Marcus a hundred years ago.  I looked in Ralph Lauren (nice but low stock), Brooks Brothers (lovely and highly tempting!), J. Crew (needed clearer signage and less loud music), Hugo Boss (good but more office-y) and Banana Republic (the clothes need to be steamed - it looked like Columbo's closet in there.) I saw a few contenders but did not find a jacket I really liked. I then went into Tommy Hilfiger, which is a store I've not been in for years. I love their ad campaign of the past few years, though, with the country, preppy vibe.

Well, wouldn't you know that they had an adorable, loden green number like the one on the model above that makes me look as though I've just returned from the hunt? And it was under $100! 

It's just begging to be paired with this sweater from Joules. 

And this flask,

What pieces are you looking at for fall?

La Dolce Vita: Venice

It was back to school yesterday with the weather to go with it. It's back to blazers and cords (albeit bright fuchsia ones.) My only ode to summer was the choice of shoes.

It seems like months ago that I was sitting in the sunshine in Venice. Hard to believe it was only last week.

Ah Venice. Venice was the only place on my Italian getaway to which I'd been before. So I didn't have to do many touristy things except take some photos.

Instead, I could have a long breakfasts from the hotel on the Grand Canal.

The first place I wanted to visit was the post-renovation Gritti Palace. If it's good enough for Robbie Williams, it's good enough for me. (He was staying there but, sadly, I did not see him.)

The renovation is gorgeous. I'd read about it in Architectural Digest but it's even more splendid in reality. They have a lovely outdoor bar on the Grand Canal and it's a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

They also have a lovely outdoor restaurant. Based on the golf-ball sized baroque pearls sported by some of my fellow diners, it seems to be a bit of a swish spot. I had tuna tartare, seafood pasta, and wine, always wine. As I was keeping to my austerity budget, I was please that the waiter sent over lots of little extras like wonderful shortbread cookies. Not a bad way to spend a better part of a day and night.

The shopping in Venice is surprisingly good. I didn't remember that from my previous visit. I fell in love with this throw from Frette. I left it there but if you have a spare $18,000, it's yours.

The fabrics at Bevilacqua were magnificent...

But my heart belongs to Fortuny. I bought a little evening bag there because it's Venice and, austerity or no austerity, how could I not?

I'd been feeling a little overwhelmed at points on the trip and felt the need to get away from the crowds. And so I picked up the Cipriani phone at the San Marco docks and asked them to send out the pretty wooden speedboat to fetch us. You can do that, you know. And it's splendid.

Cipriani is a little slice of paradise on the island of Guidecca. It's outside of the hustle and bustle of Venice and you feel as though you are in the Caribbean.  Apparently, Casanova did his wooing in the gardens. It's that lovely.

The hotel was officially closed as someone had booked out all of the rooms for a 50th birthday party (lucky devil!) But they are firm believers in hospitality and so they made up a little bar area in the garden just for us. Naturally, I ordered a Bellini. And for the first time in a while, I felt like I could breathe. Sitting in a sunny garden, overlooking Venice with a nice glass of Prosecco is highly restorative and if you are having a "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers" moment, Cipriani does not disappoint.

After Venice, it was back to Rome for a few days of wandering. Whereas there was a time when I might have required an extra suitcase for my return, my purchases were modest but meaningful: a silk bag from Fortuny, gloves from Madova, a hair clip from Valentino, paper from Florence, a garnet cross from the Vatican, and a Chanel lipstick (Gabrielle, a nice true red) and YSL Lip Stain (Grenat Acrylique) from duty free.

Molto Bene!

Christmas Traditions: The Nutcracker Ballet

Every year, I take my daughter to see the Nutcracker. (I took my youngest son once, but he loudly complained that there was too much dancing...