Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Bereavement: Julian Barnes and my old friend

One of our longtime friends, Donald, has lost his wife to an aggressive form of brain cancer, which took her in barely three months. 

I was reading Julian Barnes' latest book, "Levels of Life", when I got the news. Barnes' book explores, among other themes, his grief following the sudden death of his wife, the editor Pat Kavanaugh, from the same illness. 

That unstinting yet poetic exploration deeply influenced how I spoke to Don, when I learned what happened.

I had already underlined this observation:

"Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven't. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven't. Later still—at least, if we are lucky (or on the other hand, unlucky)—it divides into those who have endured grief and those who haven't. These divisions are absolute, they are the tropics we cross."

Don and I spoke at length one evening, on the phone, and I recalled this passage vividly:

"I swiftly realized how grief sorts out and realigns those around the griefstruck; how friends are tested; how some pass, some fail. Old friendships may deepen through shared sorrow, or suddenly appear lightweight. The young do better than the middle-aged, women do better than men... 

I remember a 'dinner-table conversation' in a restaurant with three married friends of roughly my age. Each had known her for many years...and each would have said, if asked, that they loved her. I mentioned her name; no one picked it up. I did it again, and again nothing. Perhaps the third time I was deliberately trying to provoke, being pissed off at what struck me not as good manners but as cowardice. Afraid to touch her name, they denied her thrice, and I thought the worse of them for it."

He also finds the source for his pain, supplied in a letter from one of his friends, a widow:

"...she wrote to me, 'The thing is—nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain. I think if it didn't matter, it wouldn't matter.'"

And "it matters" because of how Barnes views love:

"Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of its outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. If it is not that—if it is not moral in its effect—than love is no more than an exaggerated form of pleasure."

But grief, he says, "does not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive is more selfish. It is not a place of upper air; there are no views. You can no longer hear yourself living."

No surprise, then, that Barnes considers taking his life, but realizes, "insofar as she was alive at all, she was alive in my memory" and asks himself, "... how am I to live? I must live as she would have wanted me to."

Without Barnes' witness to the wildness and depth of his grief, I might have stumbled through a conversation focused on facts and details. But thanks to his magnificent writing, I was able to stay with my friend to reminisce about their love for one another, and the passage he had recently entered. 

Conversations with bereaved friends grow more frequent. I hope to be present to each as he or she wishes—to not avoid mentioning the absent partner, as Barnes' friends (and some of my mother's) did, perhaps in a misguided wish to "not bring it all back". 

It's a scary conversation when one is relieved of sure-fire comforts and clichés, but it's real, and it is just one of the ways we can take care of one another, as this generation faces its last decades.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The daughter of a frugal woman ponders her legacy

Among the handful of blogs I read regularly is that of Frugal Scholar, an articulate university prof who is (her term) "pathologically frugal". She's written a from-the-trenches post, "Is Frugality Fun?"  

Spoiler alert: is is for her.

Frugal (We have corresponded personally so I am privileged to use her first name) makes a bit of money re-selling thrift finds and scores nifty gifts for her young children and their friends. Very occasionally Frugal hints at the dark side of frugality, a tendency to buy just because something is such a deal. (She often spots this and resists.)

I am the child of a Depression-era, penny-pinching woman who had little of Frugal's zest, and heaps of the self-righteous judgment some uber-frugal can display. 

Every blessed time she saw me, Mom asked how much I paid my hairdresser and would then upbraid me; she never met a MagiCuts she didn't like. One day, I shot back, "But see what you get for $16?", which spun her into huffy silence. But, I felt, she asked for it.

I am dismayed when frugality tips from responsible, value-conscious consumption into anhedonic self-denial that sucks joy out of life. A childhood with just such a mother formed us. 

My brother lives large (and made sure he could fund that). My sister, who died years ago, married a man so cheap that he permitted them to own but one set of sheets at a time. My modus operandi has been to closely observe consumption—including its rationale and results—while rejecting frugality as a paramount principle. Dad's bon vivant genes mitigated Mom's. 

I'm especially annoyed about freeloading. The community agency where I take French class sometimes places bags of free bread on a bench for clients to take; one of their programs is food security for families in need. A classmate takes a bag each time, saying "I only eat bread when it's free." I know she has a very comfortable financial situation. (For that reason, Dad forbade Mom to shop at charity thrifts; we had to sneak as if visiting a shooting gallery.)

And yet, inside me is a frugal woman screaming to get out. Sometimes, I let her. As Frugal says, a Goodwill score is terrific fun, and you've rescued a garment (Frugal finds Chloe!) to live another day. But mostly I'm frugalish, reheeling shoes the second they begin to tilt, refusing overpriced, logo'd goods, avoiding out-of-season produce: the usual good habits, nothing fancy.

Mom's influence is never far, so when I buy something at full price—even if I urgently need it—I see her pursed lips and practically hide it from myself as I carry the bag home. 

Frugality relates to self-worth, security, and our reaction to the rapid running of life's hourglass. Like other virtues, it can't exist without its opposite pole, so let's splurge occasionally—a fine bar of soap? a box of ruby raspberries?—and enjoy every last morsel with vibrant, intense pleasure.

 Morning, Mom; call if you want to go to the Sally Ann.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Thanksgiving: Celebrating life's milestones

On (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend, our son Etienne and his sweetheart Tash became engaged, to everyone's delight.

Etienne planned the moment carefully, choosing to propose at her mother's country house. 

He prepared a thermos of hot chocolate, invited Tash for a walk, led her to the end of the dock, and asked the classic question-with-a-ring. 

He chose a vintage Art Deco three-stone sapphire:

We met for a shopping expedition a week before; associate Francine and owner Jeff of Daisy Antiques in Montréal had an enchanting collection. His budget went much farther, and buying vintage reflected the couple's values.

Toward evening, revelers blew conch shells, a family tradition, as the sun dropped toward the lake and magnificent fall colours blazed behind them.

Etienne's brother Jules, a butcher, made the boar-and-pork charcuterie served for hors d'oeuvre.

He's also a pro oyster shucker, so shucked Choice Harbour oysters with Tash's youngest brother, while wearing what Canadians call "The Kenora Dinner Jacket", double flannel plaid, Blue Jays cap optional.

The engagement was not the only celebration. Tash's middle brother blew out his birthday candles and her niece, four months, made her first visit to the country, with her mother:

Sapphires are pretty; babies are precious!


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Jewelry: Ornate, detailed, divine

As I pass through a busy street or other prime people-watching spots, I often see women in generic jewelry. Real, classic, but the jewelery equivalent of a bowl of oatmeal. Women buy this because it "goes with everything", and I too have a few passe-partout items.

Oatmeal is comforting, healthy and excellent value, but sometimes you crave a chocolate truffle or a little wedge of brie, a luscious bit of unctuous delight.

But women can seize up when considering a jewelry purchase beyond the classic, hence, today's stroll through the Passage.

Two guidelines for wearing an ornate piece:
1. Take it off-road: instead of pairing with a dressy outfit, wear it with a simple sweater or tee, and
2. Don't cut corners. If it's good quality you will wear it often, with joy, and if not, it sits in the drawer. As you increase the ornateness, fake gems and metals can look tacky, though some vintage costume pieces are magnificent.

I prefer ornate rings and earrings to necklaces; necklaces are the print dress of the jewelry world, very memorable—and they can be heavy. 

Nor does ornate equal blingy; I'm talking texture, richness of materials, saturation of colour, not massive, clanking scale.

Let's window shop!

Admittedly costly, but here to build the eye is the Blooming Daisy ring by the Turkish master jeweler Sevan, a three-dimensional intaglio carving inside a lemon quartz flanked by (low whistle) green diamonds. A showstopper with an accompanying price tag ($13,400). 

Whew! Let's try to drop some zeros, shall we?

Channeling Sevan's boho chic but much more affordable: earrings from Beladora, that trove of chic and unusual treasures: pink sapphires set in blackened silver. Price, $495. 

If longing for lush colour on your finger, spring for this garnet and turquoise ring from the '70s, rich gems set in 14k: the real thing, baby. From Beladora; price, $695.

Love gold hoops, but what if they had that something extra? These Georgian (ca. 1910) French earrings of 18k rose and green gold set with garnets, for example, from The Three Graces; price, $1,950:

Cathy Waterman Diamond Star Earrings: blackened 22k gold set with diamonds, a beautiful design from a renowned jeweler; price, $3,360.

The finale! A modern, nature-inspired necklace light enough to wear all day: London jeweler Roger Doyle's ruthenium (a material related to platinum) and gold-plated silver orchids set with diamonds. Price, £3,000.

Ornate jewellery costs more than simpler designs because of workmanship and use of more materials. Design and fabrication are critical elements; a badly-designed ornate piece looks fussy and busy. The vendors in this post, as well as First Dibs and auction house sites are free displays of the finest examples. 

It's worth saving for one standout—your signature—and that piece will, I predict, please you infinitely more than a safe classic that no one, including you, really notices after the first six months.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Hair: Give us a crack at current styles

Classic bobs, ponytails, pixies and the shoulder-length mane: popular styles for women past 50, and I'll head off defensive comments by saying these are beloved classics for a reason: cut well, they look current and pretty.

I also see the retiree buzz job, the the man's-cut-on-a-woman helmet. I'm more leery of this one; only the rare grown woman doesn't look like she's out on a day pass, but stylists dole it out anyway.

Some of the current looks seem off limits to clients who need bifocals to read the bill. I'd like to see them at least offered, even if we decide against them.

It's not always the stylist's fault; my friend Alice looked at her 8th grade graduation photo one day and realized that she had not changed her cut for 45 years. (She found a new salon and got a fab makeover.) 

The styles below are all riffs on classics; it's the little detail that updates the 'do. None may be for you, but just like window shopping, it's useful to see what's current.
1. Undone braids and twists

We were the genration to own the ponytail, and it still lends a crisp, classic vibe to long hair, which more of us are keeping. But there are some updated long styles that would look stunning with grey hair.

I love the insouciance, the wink of the fan of ends, and the fact that you can garden in this style and not have to keep pushing it back. Yes, you do need to essay a side French braid, but that's a fun life skill to acquire. 

Girl, if I never see a lank ponytail trussed with a banana clip again, it's too soon. The young'uns deconstruct the updo with twisted sections. Works well on medium to long hair, just taking sections and playing.

Here's a curly version with the twists moved to the nape:

Directions and ideas are here; and take a look at another romantic braid, the fishtail. If you are worried about the pins showing, get some good-looking "tortoise" ones  and they'll seem deliberate.

2. Po-mo pixies

A pixie shows off our eyes, and we love the carefree charm, but too many  hairdressers see you're past fifty and the next thing you know, every bit of softness can get sheared off.

The "relaxed pixie" with its longer top and nape updates this super-short cut. A good stylist can create your own variation.

Note too that the sweeping bangs start a little further back on the crown, a good trick for thinner hair.

Its downtown cousin, the undercut pixie, with a versatile long top layer, can be worn with that top tossed back or to to the side, as Garance Doré shows in a cheeky 30-second video of herself playing with her new cut:

3. New bits for a bob 

The classic side-swept bang, ubiquitous and practical, does avert the need for a precise trim every few weeks. But the asymmetrical bang, which works with any length of bob, is edgier. Why don't we get us some edge? 

We own classic bobs, but how often does a hairdresser suggest we try a half-up knot as a looser, lighter effect?

It comes down to a hairdresser's sensibility, which may not coincide with his or her technical skill. 

As wardrobe stylist and author Sherri Mathieson observed on her blog:
"I've met people over 80 that have more sense of real style than 20 year olds. So it has less to do with age than the more important—exposure (geography, family, friends, job), curiosity and interest. 

And then your true ace is—(drumroll please!)how you absorb the information of what you see."

Some stylists are not absorbing the information; they're wearing Gran Goggles when a client over 50 gets in the chair. 

And when they do, what an improvement! Here's an example, retrieved from Good Housekeeping's site. Maryellen is 60. Here's the "before" bob. As she herself said, "I look like a mushroom."

A new cut and colour (and more current clothes) take Maryellen from the '90s to now:  

(I'll bet some of you are hankering to offer suggestions for the glasses, too.)

Too often they let us drift along, asking "Same as usual, right?" If you've found the stylist who has both eyes that see and hands that create, you're a lucky woman! 


Thursday, October 2, 2014

When mite is not right: Taking on moths

Call it hubris; moth-free for decades, I though that counted for something.
But one day in late September, I pulled out a fine wool shirt out of my closet, and saw a drowsy moth staggering down the front.

I freaked. Where did they come from?

Turns out, through the back door. We have a small storage locker off site, to warehouse items that our sons want but can't use right now—mostly furniture, but also several antique rugs. I failed to store them properly; we had simply rolled them in a corner. 

The unit has a wire mesh ceiling, so moths, hearing the siren call of old, undisturbed wool, set up shop, then likely jumped to something carried home

We visit the unit rarely and had never seen anything, but this time, we found a wild kingdom, from larvae to mature insects (ewww).

The carpets were destroyed beyond repair.

If you rent a storage locker, check their pest-protection practices. Our facility is sprayed regularly, but because of that open ceiling, moths (or their nasty friends, carpet beetles) carried in by someone else become free-range. We cleaned thoroughly and took all wool out. The unit now looks moth free.

The evening one fluttered by in our apartment, I knew they had breached our home. Searching frantically, I found a drawer full of wool berets, infested.

Several friends made their own discoveries after hearing my plight. Where their new pets were hiding:
- Vera's armoire, where she had sentimentally kept  (but never worn) her mother's old fur coat,
- Helen's daughter's closet; N. had long moved out, but kept some favourite old clothes there, and
- Natasha's spanking new apartment; they seem to have crashed the housewarming, arriving from somewhere. 

Natty's lavender
Natty asked me to buy her a kilo of lavender from the market; lavender or cedar sachets have some deterrent effect (depending on concentration) but do not vanquish an infestation according to this Guardian article
For a good tutorial on both prevention and dealing with the sons of bitches pests if they gain a winghold, see this article, and here is Martha Stewart's advice.

No free lunch!
The only guests I want are the kind who come over for a roast chicken dinner, not the type who say, "Hi, if you're not wearing that sweater, can I eat it?" But they are here.

I shall fight in the closets, I shall fight in the drawers, I shall fight around the baseboards; I shall never surrender.

Has anyone tried those pherome-emitting traps?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A new home for an English garden

On a trip to NYC in 1975, at a long-forgotten boutique in Greenwich Village, I bought an empire-cut, slightly bell-sleeved, calf-length dress made in England (by a defunct label, C'est Moi). 

The dress is made entirely of pieced vintage silk scarves of fine quality. Constructed with harmony of scale and colour, it hangs as if one piece, swishy and supple.
The saleswoman told me that Anne Byrne, the ballerina then married to Dustin Hoffman, had bought the same dress. True or good sales pitch? I wore it to parties, weddings, and soirées for at least a decade.

If that dress could talk, it would say "Champagne on the terrace, darling."

By the early '90s, I'd gained weight in the bust, and, unable to part with its magic, stored my divine dress and occasionally loaned it to friends. ("No hanky panky in the dress", I warned, though there was probably some out of it!) Through decades of closet clean-outs, the dress stayed.

Our son Etienne's beautiful partner Tash inherited her mother's eye for textiles, and is an avid seamstress; I offered it to her. The dress fits perfectly. She's using its matching wide sash as a belt, I wore it around my neck à la Isadora Duncan.

A closeup of the florals and geometrics:

I'm delighted that the "English garden" has passed into hands that design (she even drafts her own patterns), and she's a lover of florals. Here's Tash in one of her own designs, in which she's mixed floral and stripe:

And she dyes; here, she's preparing shibori, a joint project with her artist uncle Nick:

You can see more of Tash's work at TashenkaSews.

And so, my adored English flowers have found a new home almost 40 years later!

A dress that transports you with joy is worth springing for. At the time, it was by far the most expensive item I'd ever bought (and probably still is, adjusting for inflation), but what a life that dress has had, and will now have, on Tash!