An unironic Christmas

First, if you have not read Christy Wampole's New York Times op-ed piece "How to Live Without Irony", it is here, and worth your time.

The piece elicited the counterargument that young adults are in fact sincere, altruistic, empathic contributors to a gentler, more inclusive culture. ("What age group were mostly in those Occupy Wall St. camps?", they ask, reasonably.)

Wikipedia Dictionary defines verbal irony as "The expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect."

A more thorough dissection of the term, including irony in clothing, is here.

I don't see the ubiquity of verbal irony as the purview of the Millenials, as Walpole does, but they do rock some amusing inside-joke tees, like the one at left, from Busted Tees.

The ironic elder exists as well; she forged her sarcasm, sharp observations and sardonic wit on the anvil of superior verbal skills and often has achieved a notable career. 

She can be witty, provocative and stimulating. If you knew her since your school days, however, you might sense a growing brittleness, and think, "Has her humour changed, or do I just not find it funny anymore?"

Yeah, right

I ask myself what's happening when I opt for verbal irony. 

Recently, a former colleague exited an abusive marriage (her term), then abruptly returned, completely reversing her decision. "Congratulations", I said, "I hope you're very happy." 

My sarcasm was a screen for my fear. I eventually expressed my worry and dismay, but, as Walpole notes, that took more effort, attention and risk than firing off a zinger. I reach for sarcasm in frustration and pique, and expression rooted there cannot build bridges.

Facta Non Verba: Deeds, not words

I believe it's what we do that counts.

Sometimes the sarcastic friend is the very woman who shows up your house with a box of cookies and bottle of wine when you didn't get that job, mops up your kid's bloody nose while wearing her new white wool jacket (and refuses money for drycleaning) or takes your keys if that's your fourth Amaretto Sour.  There can be a big heart beneath that wisecracking shield.

Another woman might send sentimental cards on your birthday, writing of how much you mean to her, but when the chips are down, she's busy elsewhere. You just don't know until you see some behaviour.

So, though I consider irony and it's snarky little sister, sarcasm, to be an easy way out of truly speaking one's mind and heart, I will indulge it and even indulge in it from time to time, knowing it's often a veneer.

Irony is the Red Bull of communication, a satisfying initial blast but no staying power. I can do better, and strive to be straightforward and sincere– most of the time. A complete absence of irony courts earnest, humourless certitude, which is another real drag to be around, or to live with in one's self.  

As far as the desire to wear clothing ironically, I'm out of it. Why would I haul a stuffed animal as a purse, wear a 1975 baseball jersey with a ball skirt, or appliqué my nails with lightening bolts even if you and I are in on the joke? 

That's why this Balenciaga "Egyptofunk" Glitter Girl tee baffles me even before checking the price, $285.

I neither understand its stance nor does it summon desire. It's outside my ken; I feel like Dr. Who contemplating a hula hoop.

Would the buyer be a fully-feathered ironist or a victim? Is it possible to be both?

Happy holidays!

This is the last post for a few weeks, as the season to be merry is here

I wish you– with absolutely no irony–a restorative and warm holiday, and hope you'll return to the Passage on January 3, 2013. Thank you for stopping by.

PS. In case the world really does end on Dec 21: OK, Marilyn, you were right. 

Grace notes at Ogilvy

"Jessie" visited for a few days last week; we browsed through a large craft show, indulged in hot chocolate, and attended a late-morning concert of tango music in the hall atop Montréal's luxury department store, Ogilvy.

My friend of forty years has long preferred to spend on travel, her house or good causes. She buys inexpensive-to-moderately priced clothes deliberately, keeps her hair and makeup current, and pays little attention to which designer's doing what.

That approach works for her suburban, mostly-retired life, but when women entered the hall in chic coats and luminous scarves, she noticed, and murmured something about feeling underdressed.

Les Montréalaises d'un certain âge are a soignée lot when out for an I Musici concert, not a pair of running shoes or tired jeans in the crowd. We admired an artfully-seamed featherweight leather blazer, a furled butterscotch cashmere wrap and the quirky flair of a dusty rose sheared-beaver jacket, worn by a white-haired woman of about seventy.

Jessie began to develop avidity, especially when she saw the 40% off sales signs posted in every department. She agreed to a spin through the fashion floors.

She reminded me of another friend, R., who told me of traveling decades ago from Toronto to New York to spend the weekend with her chum Anne, a dancer in the chorus of "Cats". R. hit town thinking she looked pretty damn good. 

Anne was performing, so R. had most of Friday evening to kill. As she sauntered up Columbus (then home to hip boutiques) she began to adjust her judgment: "pretty good" slipped to "out of it". At first she filed observations for future reference. Then, she wanted that.

By the time the houselights dimmed, "Memories" referred not only to the finale, but to R.'s bank account.  

"When I met Anne at the stage door, I looked fabulous even by New York standards", she recalled. She got tout le kit: coat, dress, shoes, bag and earrings. R. wore those pieces for years–and paid for them for at least one.

R.'s story illustrates how, plunked into a different setting, you can be inspired to up your game. The key of course is to buy what you can also wear back home–otherwise you're hauling a very costly souvenir.

Jessie found a pair of sleek pants, an Italian sweater with more detail and verve than the one she'd been wearing, and finally, the pièce de résistance, this slightly iridescent Steilmann vest with a blurred python-print front and boiled wool back and sleeve. 

(It looked far better than in this shot, matte and supple, with a subtle mauve undertone. Trust me, made for her.)

She slipped it over her grey longsleeved tee and suddenly her charcoal jeans were vaulted up several notches. The price point was about double her usual (but with the sale only about 25% more). 

Jessie's a beauty in any brand, but I see once again that as we age, the lower end doesn't do us any favours, especially if a woman likes to wear colour. The dyes of the German and Italian tops she tried were richer, the colours more nuanced, the fabrics soft yet substantial.

The overall effect was that of a well-dressed woman who was not sacrificing style for comfort. I was delighted to see my friend in clothes that highlighted her enviable figure, taking her from "nice" to "wow". 
I worry about the shape of the store, though. Two weeks before Christmas and all clothing 40% off–what's up? Founded in 1866, Ogilvy was bought in 2011 by the Weston family, who own Holt Renfrew, another luxury retailer. Rumours of a merger continue.

Ogilvy's famous piper skirled through at noon; Jessie tucked her iconic tartan shopping bag under her arm and headed for the train trip home.

Unlike R., she wasn't broke after her foray; she spent $300 on three pieces, in which she felt like a million bucks. I guess we've learned something as the years have passed!

Weight and health: Pressure's on

Last August, I had my first checkup with my new family doctor, a thorough, warm woman just out of school.

I, a frequent exerciser, moderate drinker and lifelong non-smoker had high blood pressure for the first time ever. Given my  family history of heart disease and diabetes, I took the news seriously, and determined to lower it. That meant dropping some weight, among other measures. 

I was smack in the middle of the BMI overweight category, but since my weight has been stable for a decade and I felt energetic and strong, had not been concerned. (BMI is not the be-all, but I lack the notable muscular density that distorts the accuracy of this measure for some. I was also too heavy using another measure, the waist to hip ratio.)

In 19 weeks I've lost over 20 lbs. by reviving old Weight Watchers habits (record intake, measure portions, excise empty calories) and tracking food and exercise on the free site recommended by reader Eleanorjane, MyFitnessPal.

I created my profile, then ate to the MFP calorie allottment. I've kept bread and pasta, and enjoy (hell, count the minutes to) one square of Lindt dark chocolate most evenings, which is actually good for lowering blood pressure!  

Though my bp is now consistently normalfar more meaningful to me than my smaller dress size–I don't feel any different, and isn't that why they call hypertension The Silent Killer?  

This is the first time I've shed weight motivated by health rather than vanity (class reunion coming up!) or economics (not wanting to replace my wardrobe).

I had to reduce, and must maintain that loss. At the gym, hoisting a 20 lb. barbell, I think, I was carrying that around all the time, and am better off without it. 

I've dropped a bundle at the tailor's, but that's allowed me to hold off buying clothes till the spring.

Thank you, Eleanorjane, from the bottom of my healthier heart; the project is even fun with MyFitnessPal.

New life for an old mink

I came to Montréal with a secondhand sheared mink duffle coat bought on eBay in 2000 for about $1200. It was probably made in the late '80s or early '90s at latest, judging from the boxy cut and very full sleeves that gather into a pleat at the wrist.

I bought it in "as new" condition (except for someone's monogram in the lining), wore it only in the harshest Toronto weather and sent it to cold storage each spring, so it was in good shape– but, as you can see in the shot above, it had not really been à la mode since Celine Dion sang in French.

A reno seemed a good idea, but I sought an expert opinion about whether that was worth undertaking. 

Browsing and thinking

There are so many furriers here! My inquiries led me only to references far from where I live. One day last spring, walking down a quiet block on Laurier St., I noticed the salon of Dominique Ouzilleau, a third-generation furrier. He was welcoming, patient with my shaky French, and best of all, seemed intrigued by the project.

I took a long time checking out his designs (the only pieces he sells.) He's known for edgy, glam furs, and is especially proud that his team can produce colours seen nowhere else. My taste is far more conservative, but still, I was attracted by his flamboyance and innovation. Like the shy-guy accountant who meets Carson Kressley, I wanted that little zhuzh.

I dropped off the coat; he called to say the skins were in great shape, and gave me a quote.

Design meeting: Yves of construction

Since Mr. O. and I were both dealing in our second languages, Le Duc accompanied me to ensure the words "sober", "strict" and "quiet" were transmitted loud and clear.  

Le Duc told him that the duffle was St. Laurent's preferred topper, day or night. I bought a photo of a YSL woman's model, which he stuck to the work order.

Feeling certain he understood my preferences, I paid a 30% deposit and–game on! 

Fitting #1: Toile and trouble

I left the first fitting feeling flatter than a beaver's tail; the toile looked dowdy and uninspired, and nothing like the YSL coat. But Mr. Ozilleau took at least two dozen measurements and markings, so there seemed to be some point.  Writing the cheque for the next 30% was not fun. I worried that I'd end up with a stiff, stodgy coat, maybe even worse than the original.

This is the risk of custom work.

A month later a friend who works on the street told me the shop had closed, but it turned out to be only for summer holidays. ("He's a furrier, it's August, relax", Le Duc said.) Still, I fretted. 

Fitting #2: Recut and reassured

Mr. O.'s team had entirely recut the body and he was quietly confident at our early October meeting. Reunited with the supple glow of the newly-conditioned pelts, my mink mojo returned. I was prepared to replace the lining, thinking about a tartan or ruby satin, but Mr. O. said the existing chocolate-brown fabric was in perfect condition–it would be removed, cleaned and recut. How many couturiers would do that?

At this fitting, we discussed buttons and closure. I brought vintage buttons from Tender Buttons in New York; Mr. O. approved. (He advised against a toggle-and-loop fastening due to that closure's repetitive friction at the front placket.) This is the only fur coat I plan to own, and I agreed. He also suggested the more streamlined set-in pocket, instead of patch version on the YSL coat.

Three weeks passed, but this time, calmly.

The reveal: A sleek, discreet duffle

The new coat has a much slimmer, semi-fitted body, higher armholes and sleeves that no longer resemble muffs. The hood is edged with a swath of long-haired mahogany mink, for that tweak I sought. The few incipient balding spots at the corners have vanished. The coat hangs beautifully and fits, well, like it was made for me.

I was also impressed by his attentiveness and focus. He said he likes to meet clients more often than necessary to gain a clearer idea of their vision and preferences.

Cost for the reno: $800, as quoted. Given the work and the cost of several friends' fur renos, this was a reasonable price. Two weeks later I brought in a friend who had a chic fur vest made from an old coat.

The new label reads "Dominique Ouzilleau Haute Fourrure" and I'm a delighted client. Let it snow! 

The coat came back

If you're Canadian, you might remember the 1988 National Film Board animation, "The Cat Came Back". If not, it's here, just over seven minutes of Wallace and Grommit-ish whimsey.

Perry Ellis
The chorus, "The cat came back/we thought he was a goner" scampered through my mind because after the move, I'd been thinking that I should not have given up my old caramel Perry Ellis lambskin car coat, which I had placed with a vintage store in Toronto.

It was bought in 1992 at Saks in Boston, deeply on sale. This is when Marc Jacobs designed for the company; Ellis died in 1986.

Probably made it to the sale rack because, though marked a 6, it would swamp anyone truly that size. Think I paid $200-something, at 70% off.

I wore it lightly for some years. When I moved, the Toronto vintage store Thrill of the Find, which accepts the very occasional consignment piece, took it to sell.

Flash forward 16 months, and I thought, That coat... especially when I flipped price tags for a new one. I figured it had gone to a good home.

When visiting Toronto at the end of the summer, I dropped by to see Mireille, the owner, and asked about it. "I was putting that on the floor this week", she said, "it's the season." I tried it on; she marveled at its quality and said, "It's yours!"

Here it is; it's weathered the last nearly 20 years with fewer nicks than I have! Fortunately, Jacobs rejected padded shoulders; I'd try it on in a shop today.

I especially like the generous, caped back...

... and the blouson hem fastened by working horn buttons, an expensive detail.

The current company, Perry Ellis International Inc. (who own Jantzen, and Laundry by Shelli Segal, among other brands) have mislaid both the wit and quality that made women save their pennies to be "Very Perry".

Come back to the Passage next week–another old coat, another story! 

Sometimes the "great vintage find" is your own!


Jewelry: Bauble for a birthday belle

One of my dearest friends, "Sarah" turns 60 early in the new year; I'll attend her birthday luncheon. She's inviting a group of women friends to sit around a table, tell stories, dine. And we have something else to celebrate: after a layoff three years ago, she just got a juicy job.

I'm already gift-scouting. Sarah adores jewelry, especially agate, carnelian, pearl and lapis, and wears it with her customary verve.

I discovered Simon and Ruby, the Etsy shop of Lindsay Farrer of Nashville, Tennessee, on Etsy. Impressed by her trove of natural materials, colour sense, technique, and contribution of 5% of the price to World Vision, I bought this Park Slope necklace, love at first clasp.

It's the nicest (new) necklace I've found for the price ($70), a vibrant mix of smoky quartz, turquoise, riverstone and crazy lace agate (that name alone!), among others. The wire-linked beads drape beautifully. Below, the Park Slope (turquoise version) in detail. The big chunk at 3 o'clock looks white but is fact mint green, a quirky surprise. It adjusts from 18 to 20 inches, a relief since so many pieces I've looked at elsewhere are made at a too-short 15 or 16 inches.

And here's my lovely friend. Sarah is an ebullient brunette who dresses in a classic, feminine style, for example, a Liberty shawl and crisp striped cotton shirt with jeans.

Her underlying skin tone is peachy-warm. She wears white, but I rarely see her in very dark hues or black near her face. Sarah chooses the livelier earth tones (camel, khakis, rust) but also blues and greens from light to mid-range. She's wise and witty; colour is her tonic. (Well, there has been known to be gin involved, too.) 

Before you ask: I have already given her pearls and do not want to repeat myself. My budget is $100.

Live, from Nashville, the nominees are...

1. The Foxwood 

Made of serene sea green jade, clear quartz, pyrite, tourmalinated quartz, picture jasper, prehnite and hematite, this has colours she'd love and a bumply, organic presence. It is wire-linked only near the clasp. Price, $88.

2. The Valentina

This earthy cornucopia includes green rhyolite, citrine, smoky quartz and one of her favourites, ocean jasper. A longer necklace, 26 inches, it gives a woman the joy of seeing the stones. It's a smidge above my budget ($120) but what the hey.

3. Park Slope in lapis and peach


Same style as mine, but with a blue and peach palette that suits her colouring. Made from a lush mix of lapis lazuli, autumn jasper, black agate, mother of pearl, gray agate, peach aventurine, peach quartz, cobalt blue jade, pyrite, and gray picture stone. Price, $70.

Dear and discerning readers, what would you  pick?

Finding real jewelry on a budget 

These pieces are examples of the jewelry category I call Relaxed Real: organic materials, simple yet graceful design, neither twee nor tough. They are ideal for the time of life when a woman no longer wishes to wear logos and me-too production pieces, yet craves beauty.

Relaxed Real may be serene as a pair of spring flower bulbs bearing pearls (by Amie Louise Plante; price, $160) or dramatic as amber chunks mixed with etched silver beads. The metals are silver or copper; gold, while beautiful and durable, elevates pieces and prices. (Lindsay Farrer will custom-make her pieces with silver wirework on request.)

This is the gently-priced tier of artisan-crafted jewelry, using noble metals and natural materials. 

"Real" jewelry need not break the bank. Pleasing choices at this level can be found at $100 or so, though some of the best jewelers command much more– and their design and technique should merit the premium. 

And so, a piece from Simon & Ruby for birthday girl, but which? Please advise–and I swear you to secrecy.

(I'm traveling this week and will respond to comments on Thursday.)

Lingerie: Secrets and spending

Victoria's Secret runway shows are legend; the catwalk Angels flaunt astounding physical gifts and great big...wings. The show, with models, music and spectacular sets airs on CBS next Tuesday evening, December 4th. (Happy to hear VS and CBS have donated $1M to victims of Hurricane Sandy, some of whom can probably use new lingerie, too.)

It's not often that unabashed sexiness meets whimsy, like the Crazy Horse, but here, you can buy the alluring ensembles!

Orchid wings, green opera gloves...

Flou meets tattoo...

...and a poppy walks the runway

But is VS a choice for grown women?

Years ago, I bought VS bras to coordinate with silk chemises. Then they discontinued the richly-coloured, reasonably-priced Second Skin Satin line, and I left. 

I logged onto the site to see if there might be anything to offer those of us who don't want a bra that feels like wearing a small stuffed animal on our chests. I found several saucy secrets, hiding among the push-ups and thongs.

Secret #1: A leopard can change its spots

VS might have done some scouting in Paris; the pyjamas are classic luxe. Deja Pseu has to have these! Pink and black leopard-print silk pjs; price $158. They also come in a refined grey/pink dot, subtle stripe and two solids. 

Secret #2: Lace for larger (and smaller) sizes

VS does skew toward asset growth, and if you like pushups, you'll be uh, amply served. Not needing to add two full cup sizes, thank you very much, I focused on the new full-coverage styles, because the intimates departments here never seem to have my popular size in both the bra and the panty. 

I adore lace, but if it stretches, a costly bra is in the bin. This Full-Coverage VS model is made with a thin, light Memory Fit foam lining that molds to the body, retains shape, and is seamless. Colours include classic black, soignée midnight navy, lemon-drop yellow, and piquant hot tamale. Women who usually can't find such colours in lace, like 32DDDs, can be caliente mamacitas! Price, about $50.

I also liked this Body By Victoria full-coverage bra in an elegant white lace on black, sized from 32-40, B to DDD, $50.

Secret #3: Longjohns and flannel in perky prints 

Seductive negligées dominate the sleepwear section, shown (barely) on lissome models. But women have lives beyond the boudoir, and a click on the "Snowed In" collection shows options for making pancakes in the kitchen or reading in bed.
I liked the Fireside Long Jane's colours and $50 price tag. Shown, red poppy print. 

And flannel!! Even my most-tailored friend can wear the red foulard-print flannel pjs for her family's Jammies Christmas brunch. Sized in short, regular and long lengths, too. Price, $50.

 What to buy: Luxe or mid-priced?

You can find more upscale lingerie online (Mary Green for luscious silks, Bare Necessities for hard-to-find brands like Freya, and luxury merchants like Fleur of England, who design raffish refinements like the high-waisted shortie with a leopard panel, shown above. 

There is a place for such gorgeousness, and some women are lucky enough to dwell there. But most of us are price-conscious, and if you crave a non-standard colour (VS' include dark charcoal, deep mint, arm-candy pink), live in an area not well-served by lingerie boutiques, or simply want to refresh your collection with a few clicks, VS provide a boost top and bottom for under three figures. 

Cheap scanties that fray and flop aren't worth the sales tax. At the other end of the spectrum, luxury lingerie can be fragile. (Don't save your best for special occasions. Time erodes elastics and spandex; perfume and deodorant degrade silk.) 

Like lipstick, you can pay a little or a lot, and sometimes a flirty treat for not too much money is just right. I believe in lingerie therapy, a mint green bra and tap pant lifts my February funk.

Whether a fresh 3-pack of cheery cotton bikinis or a sumptuous silk cami, slipping into fresh, pretty intimates is a particularly feminine pleasure.
Next Tuesday, I'll watch those angels sass the runway, and think not only of their heavenly perfection but also of VS, and whether to return for a few trial pieces.

What (else) retired women wear

I enjoy LPC's posts on her blog, Privilege, and, at her urging, eagerly clicked through to Pinterest some time ago to see contributions under the heading of "What to Wear When You're Retired".

That particular Pinterest board reflected the taste of the pinner, which runs to skinny jeans and equestrienne looks (left). I do see 60+ women here in the narrowest pants tucked into boots, but they are a tiny (in all respects) minority.

The clothes didn't represent the range of what I and other retired (or semi-retired) women in my large city are wearing. One reason is our age, rarely under 55. (The majority of women in Canada retire between 60 and 64, with many working longer due to the recession.)

Style differences aside, there seem to be several requisites–what women seek when they no longer have to "look the part" for whatever occupation they had, regardless of where they live.

The Non-work Wardrobe: What Women Want

1. We want to repurpose still-wearable work clothes, merging them with more casual wear when we can.

We're making a transition in our wardrobes but not our personal style. The preppy sales manager does not go all floaty boho, the crisply-tailored banker keeps her immaculate shirts. 

This ensemble, one of those pinned by Laura Lewis, shows a number of pieces that could have been in a classic dresser's career closet and are still going strong (though I'd donate the boots, too high for me).

Not everyone is this classic. Many of my cohort prefer the softer lines of ethnic inspired wear or Eileen Fisher-type pieces, like this woman's jacket (from the Denny Andrews web site):

Those busy with boards and committees find a cardigan like White and Warren's Cashmere Curved Hem supplies enough "dressing", but feels cozy and comfortable. However, for those meetings, they will pair it with pants they once wore to the office rather than pale-wash jeans. Price, $320.

2. Our bodies have changed from tip to toe. If it didn't happen at 50, it's happened after 60! We are not necessarily bigger, but we have different proportions

We seek the ease of stretch fabrics and knits, and don't want layers that bulk up the torso or the widest horizontal stripes. We avoid accessories that evoke pain: high heels, oversized, heavy bags.

We are museum docents, breakfast-servers at schools, hospital volunteers. We do not dress like a Kardashian for such activities. The holey jeans below won't  work, and few will choose a plaid untucked shirt.

This outfit from J. Jill, ponte pants and a silk/poly/cotton sweater with flats, goes out or stays home gracefully:

I have nothing against the discreet use of elastic used at the waist, as a flat-front or side insert, and don't understand the venom reserved for it: what do you think is holding up those yoga pants? (The J. Jill pants have a tailored waistband and zipper.)  

3. Maintenance costs count

Nearly all of the 60ish women I've polled spend less than in their working years and avoid added expense.

The pale ensemble below, while undeniably elegant, says hi to the cleaner's after every outing.

Give us a long sweater-jacket that will see us through three seasons, in a gorgeous ethereal shade, in washable cotton knit. (From Poetry UK; price £119.)

4. Retired women bump utility up a notch or two on our list of criteria, and are less blown about by the vagaries of fashion. But we know a standout piece is a good investment. We don't want only stalwart basics.

My head is turned by a shearling cape by Poetry–it has what Janice of The Vivienne Files calls "whoppage". When I ask myself "What am I doing when I'm wearing this?" and the answer is "Oh, who cares? I would sleep in it!", I'm in trouble. 

Price? All right: £695. Feels better in pounds.

I might point out, too, that it will always fit.

Am I buying it? I think not, as where I live, those open sides would invite hypothermia. That's another joy of being more-or-less-retired: taking the time to think about a big purchase. 


A woman whom I shall call Anne was long in a discreetly unhappy marriage.
Several times a year, she, I and several other women friends would have dinner and often, after a few glasses of chianti, she would, in strict confidence, mention difficulties with her husband, James.

Hers, like a number of unions, looked successful. Anne and James had reared two remarkable daughters together, excelled in big, busy jobs, and cared devotedly for both sets of parents. They regularly welcomed us to their inviting home, where raucous evenings might end in dancing on the deck. But within the private life every couple has, where love is nourished or neglected, things didn't go so well.

James avoided spectacular marriage-busting behaviours like maintaining a second family elsewhere or dumping their life savings at the blackjack table, but had gradually devolved into a state of indifferent callousness. After years of hearing about Anne's increasing distress, I began to question the wisdom of sticking around.

"Why not leave?" I'd ask in that this-is-not-really-a-question tone. There were always reasons to stay, reasons anyone in that situation thinks about: children still at home, financial implications, the pain of a split for elderly parents.

Sometimes I'd question the validity of these excuses; Anne resented my pushiness and called me "opinionated". I retreated, same as the other friends, to a position of sympathy and support, feeling heartsick for her misery. Anne, stoic and contained, seemed in it for the duration.

One golden summer evening, Anne and James were invited to a friend’s home for dinner; appetizers were served in the garden. Anne lay back on a chaise, hand trailing in the grass.

She felt the unmistakable sting of a bee on her thumb. Blinking back tears, she fished an ice cube from her drink to apply to the spot– and that’s the last thing Anne remembers. The host, unable to elicit a response, wisely called 911. The EMTs who treated her severe shock reaction said she'd had a close call indeed.

Anne had no history of allergies and had been stung before without a reaction. 

By winter, Anne had moved out. When I asked why she finally acted, she said, "The bee. I realized, I can't live another 20 years like this."

That crisis evoked her will. Anne now lives an entirely new life. One daughter is completing graduate school in forestry, the other works in another city. (Anne is happy that she waited until the girls were old enough to live on their own.)  

The many details are being sorted out with James. Not all days are easy, but she's lighter, more relaxed. She has begun to see a man whom she first met over forty years ago, as a student, and with whom she's become reacquainted since the split.

Starkly, efficiently, the near-death experience shakes our sense of time. After potentially last moments, courage and clarity arise. As I said to Anne, "You went to dinner expecting a usual evening and your life changed forever."

Whether the difficulty is a marriage, job or other situation, there is a moment when everything shifts- but is has to be the right timing for you. Sometimes it takes a bee that finds your hand in the grass. Other times, it's just another day, but it's the day.

Gifts: For someone with everything

Those who give holiday gifts now enter into prime time. Though I give very few holiday gifts anymore, I enjoy that ritual–and ritual it is. Many readers worry; some send me e-mails. Rather come up with ideas for the 70-year-old aunt who lives on a ranch ("I was going to send her a gift card but I know what you think, so what are better ideas? She has everything."), let's revisit the principles.

I've mentioned Margaret Visser's book, "The Gift of Thanks" before; anyone wondering why a gift card is such a flat present is referred to her anthropological exploration. "We were a gift culture before we were a money culture" Visser notes, as she describes the mutuality of giving and receiving, across times and cultures. (The paperback is on sale on Indigo's web site for $16.50)

The gift card to someone who "has everything" is a truncated, dispirited gesture, a minor ennui of the heart. You are icing the cake, so, figure out the flavour. 

It's true that many people, especially elders, don't want more clutter. We asked our sons to only give us things we can use up, and my friends and I give to our charities on one another's behalf. But we still give, and receive, with pleasure.

From modest to lavish, here are some suggestions for the aunt or other loved ones.  

1. Biscuits, plain and simple

Materfamilias posted a photo of a breakfast Pater made, and I thought, staring, "I would rather have those biscuits than a diamond bracelet". Nice to present in a basket (dollar store, $2). If getting fancy, you could throw in a tea towel or a jar of preserves. 

You'd make them just before leaving your place and sample only one. ( There's Mark Bittman's excellent recipe, courtesy of The Practical Cook's blog, or you may have one of your own.

2. A warm hug
You want to hug the people you love. If you live somewhere where winter brings a chill, a soft scarf is a classic gift, but, in an unexpected colour or material, rises above the cliché. 

Big Mess scarf by String Theory, of 50% baby alpaca and 50% cotton; price, $140.

For warmer weather, a reversible indigo and cherry hand-dyed natural linen scarf from Etsy seller Hiroko Japan, about $75.

3. Merry socks
Socks are back as a style accessory, but never go away if you live in a place where boots are winter gear. All of us buy the drug or department-store brands, but how about giving a pair or two of something special? Whether thigh-or-knee-highs or soft cashmere crews, the pleasure is in giving something beyond the basic.

Fair Isle camp socks, $18.50 from J. Crew:
or if splashing out, their Corgi cashmere colourblock socks, $88:

4. Glad rags
When Deja Pseu, who wrote of party pants' piquant possibilities, I thought, "There's another fun thing to give as a gift, say, to your sister or best friend." 

Talbot's Signature Fit velveteen pants come in Misses (including Tall), Womens and Petites, price, from $89.50; there's also a side-zip style with a narrower leg.

5. Good and plenty
This is a two-part gift:
1. A nice log of chevre, for your friend
2. The goat, for a family in need.

6. An unexpected treasure

Every once in awhile, we might thrill one another. Several years ago, Susan gave me a bracelet of multiple strands of big, translucent amber beads. It was over the top, and I felt truly special. I am touched every time I wear it.

Turquoise blue enamel half-hoop earrings from BeladoraII: tailored pools of perfection, set in 18k gold. Price, $395

 7. Lighten up

My Swedish friend Towe gave us a pair of these Orrefors "Ice Cube" votive candle holders, ideal on both casual and more formal tables, providing a low flame that doesn't require craning around the arrangement to see people. They mix well with other pieces, and hold those Ikea votive lights. $33.59 each from

8. Petits riens

Find a pretty box and fill it with treats: wrapped amaretto cookies, hip paper clips, a good  toothbrush, one of those tote bags that folds in your purse, a lipstick, a portable magnifier, a pair of emerald-green shoelaces, a new nail file... the ideas are endless. This is a version of the Christmas stocking, but need not be given at that holiday.

This gift can cost little; a friend gave me dozens of perfume samples she had collected, probably for several years, because she doesn't wear fragrance. Or the cost can soar; set a rough budget before you start assembling. 

(Shown, "French gift box 2" from Etsy seller HighTeaDesign.)

When do gift cards make sense?

It may be impossible for you to parse the deepest codes of teens or young adults: which surfer/goth/vintage/prep jacket is right, and which goes in the bin with an eye-roll?

Ask the parent for the name of his or her favourite local store and get a gift certificate there, rather than a corporate one. Similarly, one of my friend's goddaughters is studying at Juilliard; my friend will give a GC for the music store that strings and repairs her instrument.

Sometimes you need a little string along with that gift wrap. For example, you have an adult child living at a distance and know he and his partner are saving for a Pottery Barn sofa, but the dude has been known to  blast through gift cheques at the poker table. Give the GC until he handles money better (or ups his poker skills).

While that approach dilutes the open-handedness of giving, it's sometimes prudent.

But aunt-on-the-ranch? I think we could trust her. I'd send her a big, rich, oozy  toasted pecan pie in a wood crate, from Zingerman's; price, $50.