Life-Changing Art: Carol Shields

This photo shows a pile of stones in all different sizes and colors

In December 2012, I finished grad school and, months later, was still astonished at my newfound free time. Evenings and weekends were now mine; gone were the days of syllabi and required reading, papers, and the dreaded thesis.

By June, my student loans had kicked in. The bills were anticipated, but it was still a shock to my early-twenties salary. Budgeting was essential. So reading–as entertainment, as community, as mental stimulation in the absence of regular classes–became more important than ever.

After years as a student, I now had the freedom to read books of my own choosing. So I eagerly re-entered the “reading as pleasure” world, taking time with each new book, feeling a bit stunned on reading each one for its own sake, and not being required to dissect each one for a grade or presentation.

At my non-taxing day job, I often had NPR’s “Fresh Air” on in the background. On July 18, they re-aired an interview with writer Carol Shields from the previous year. The occasion? Shields’s passing, the day before.

Shields’s voice grabbed me first–her assured timbre, her authoritative eloquence. Within a minute, I had stopped working and was completely under her spell for the entire half hour.

I had found a new subject for independent study.

That evening, I went to the library and took out The Stone Diaries, and tried not to devour it. It was more than I could have hoped for, a quiet yet sweeping whole-life story with exquisite prose. The interview had been just a prequel to Shields’ fierce intelligence and insightful perspective–and I now had a whole stack of Shields’ books to get to know her better.

Thirteen years later, I’m still working my way through her canon, slowly and deliberately, knowing it’s finite.

And yet, I always and repeatedly go back to the “Fresh Air” interview. Perhaps the enduring appeal lies in Shields’ vulnerable and honest answers throughout the conversation; perhaps it’s the warm and engaging match of intelligence between Shields and interviewer Terry Gross. But it’s not an exaggeration to say I consider this conversation my master class in writing, work, and a well-lived life. I listen to it several times a year–whenever I need inspiration, feel discouraged with my own writing, or just need to be grounded.

I don’t have many regrets, but one is that I discovered Shields after she died, and never got to attend a reading.  And so with that, this interview (and her books) will have to do.

Listen to the full interview here:  https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1340226/1340227

Photo courtesy Carol Van Canon via Flickr Creative Commons

Being a Bridesmaid is Really Expensive

This photo shows a floral arrangement of pink roses

I’ve been a bridesmaid nine times.

Nine.

Times.

That’s a lot of dresses, made-to-order dyed shoes, bridal showers, bachelorette parties, updos, travel, and gifts. And while I’d love to tell you I was able to do each on a budget, that wouldn’t be the truth.

A few years back, I started calculating what I had spent on other people’s weddings, hit a certain nausea-inducing threshold, and just stopped.

So, real talk: Weddings are notoriously expensive, even (maybe especially) for the wedding party. But like any Grownup milestone, you can keep costs manageable with proper planning—or some tough conversations.

Read the whole story over on the Society of Grownups blog.

Yes, You Can Afford a Vacation

This photo shows a surfer heading out to the beach

Whatcha up to next Thursday? No plans for Cinco de Mayo?

Come join me and the brilliant Karen Carr at Society of Grownups for a class on planning your next vacation. We’ll talk about the benefits of travel, how to track down travel deals, and how to budget for trips both grand and low-key.

After all, next Cinco de Mayo, you could be sipping a margarita on a beach in Mexico. (We’ll talk about how to save for that.)

Save your spot here: Yes, You Can Afford a Vacation

See you soon, travelers!

Quotes I Like

This photo shows a woman sipping coffee against a red wall and red booth

I was going through some old Word documents and found a file with the same title as this blog post. When I opened it up, I found the quotes below.

I’ve collected quotes for as long as I can remember. I love the following quotes still, and think I had saved them for future inspiration. I’m sharing them here to get the creative juices flowing again.

“The pause is as important as the note.” – Truman Fisher

“I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.” – Roger Ebert

“We hold it all for a little while/Don’t we/Kiss the dice/Taste the rain like little knives upon our tongue/We can do no wrong when the lights go on/And the music plays/And we take the stage like we own the place/As if time were cheap/And the night forever young.” – Seven Shades of Blue, Beth Nielsen Chapman

“If we are to ever evolve into a peaceful society, we must be at peace with many things we disapprove of or cannot fathom.” – Cary Tennis

“The basic idea of the film is that what identifies people is not necessarily their bodies anymore; it’s all the relationships they maintain with others. You are your area, rather than you are yourself. If someone describes you, that description becomes part of your area, whether you like it or not.” – Ryan Trecartin, quoted in “Experimental People” by Calvin Tomkins, The New Yorker, March 24, 2014

Do you collect quotes, too? Which are your favorites?

Plan Ahead and Save: Book Next Year’s Vacation Now

This photo shows a camper van in the woods

Two years ago, my family and I took our annual summer beach holiday in a (then new-to-us) vacation rental on Cape Cod. We loved its huge and airy kitchen, the pool table off the living room, and the short walk from our favorite beach. In fact, we liked the house so much that, when I went to drop off the keys at the end of the trip, I immediately asked to book the house again for the same week the following year. I had the paperwork and deposits completed by the end of the month, securing our spot 12 months in advance.

Yes, booking a year in advance may sound a little extreme. But for budgeting Grownups, advance planning can really pay off. Here are just a few reasons when it can be beneficial to make your travel reservations (really) early.

Read the full story over on the Society of Grownups blog.

Planning a Vacation with Friends? Read this First

This photo shows three women jumping together on the beach

A colleague recently returned from a much-anticipated vacation, and on her return, I asked if she enjoyed her time off. She paused a little too long before her reply, and weighed her words carefully.

“It was just ok,” she admitted. “The hotel was gorgeous and the setting was really beautiful. But … my friends and I really got on each other’s nerves. By the end of the trip, I was so ready to leave.”

 Her post-trip report got me thinking – it’s awful to have a vacation feel like wasted time (and, not to mention, wasted money). And in my many years writing about travel, I’ve heard about so many vacations going sour because the group of travelers hadn’t quite gelled as anticipated. In addition, with Americans getting such limited time off each year compared to our global counterparts, it’s imperative that we make the absolute most of our downtime for overall satisfaction, rejuvenation, and well-being.

Part of doing so is choosing the right group of people to accompany us on our vacations – and if we can’t choose all of our companions, then we can still make sure that we communicate trip plans and expectations with the whole group well in advance. In this case, honesty isn’t just the best policy – it’s also an excellent way to manage assumptions, curtail miscommunications, and minimize disappointments – thus preserving your vacation time and money spent (and maybe even your friendships in the process).

The next time you plan a vacation with friends and/or family, here are three check points to address well in advance…

Read the full story over at Ecosalon.

Photo courtesy Parapluie via Flickr Creative Commons

New, Yet Familiar

This photo shows a baby hand gripping an adult's index and middle fingers

*Dusting off some old stories…the following is a family essay from 2012.

My niece is just about four months old, the newest member of our family and the first of her generation. My sister, her mother, has been sending daily photos, and we’ve all tracked her growth via our smartphones. Day by day, slowly but surely, a personality has started to emerge – playful and goofy, determined and opinionated, sweet and curious. We assign her these traits from these still images, and the occasional brief video, quick glances of how she interacts with her parents, toys, and dog. We see her intense concentration as she studies a new toy, a look of delighted recognition as she snuggles with her father. Inevitably, the comparisons begin, text messages exchanged in response to a particularly evocative photo:

“She looks like you here!”

“This one is a dead ringer for Grandpa!”

“Doesn’t she resemble Mom in this one?”

It makes sense, in a way – she is a reflection of all who came before her, made up of the same genetic material that shaped all of us. Her furrowed brow in one snapshot brings my father to mind, her wide eyes in another are a direct translation of her own father’s. I find myself wondering, too, if there are countless expressions and details that may be mirror images of those we never met – in-laws I’m not acquainted with, but also lost generations. Does she look like my ancestors who fled Gdansk? Or perhaps those who came from Naples? These are details we can’t quite assign, but still may be expressed – and now will be attributed to her directly. I like the idea of a trait, long dormant or diluted, now suddenly rearing back to life through her.

We look for patterns and the familiar with all we encounter, even (maybe especially) with a new baby, the physical collection of all we were and the aspirational determinant of what we are to come. These initial details get her story started, and help us explain the origins of what we can see – so far.

At the same time that we play this game of genetic Memory, matching her details to those we recall from others before, I find myself eagerly anticipating when she begins to assert the traits that are wholly hers without question, the qualities that are uniquely her very own and of her choosing. Maybe she’ll be a gifted athlete, unlike her aunts and grandparents. Perhaps she’ll be artistically inclined, like her parents, but in a medium neither has tried. Or, and most likely, she’ll surprise us all with an interest that none of us anticipate – something wildly off our radar.

I expect this assertion will happen sooner rather than later. I’m reminded of my cousin, now in her twenties; she was such a memorable toddler that her young malapropisms and nicknames have been cemented in the family lexicon (e.g., “all bodies” for “everybody”, “can’t want it” for “no, thanks”). It was her unique worldview, and our delight in her presence, that shaped us, in a way, and how we communicated then and still.

I feel this mix of evocation and anticipation with each daily photograph, with each visit with my niece. It’s a privilege to get to know her, this unique little individual who will also show me and my extended family so much of, and about, ourselves. It is staggering to meet an infant and realize that we will be profoundly important to each other, for a lifetime to come.

Photo courtesy Frank Guido via Flickr Creative Commons

Should You Get a Travel Rewards Credit Card?

A free trip sounds too good to be true, right? In most cases, the promise of anything free requires a healthy dose of Grownup skepticism. But change “free” to “loyalty rewards”, specifically in terms of travel rewards credit cards, and we’ve got a different story.

Keep that skeptic hat on, though, because all cards are not created equal. And whether you can benefit from them depends entirely on you: specifically, your Grownup values, spending habits, and ability to pay off your balance each month.

If you’re interested in getting a travel rewards credit card, here’s how to get started.

Read the full story over on the Society of Grownups blog.

In Plain Sight

This photo shows a mountain along the Skogafoss river trail in southern Iceland

The soil is loose, and an unfamiliar metallic grey, as I proceed along the hiking trail. Although the sky is cloudless cerulean, the wind whips past, unfettered by trees or other vegetation. The glaciers loom in the distance, their snow-capped tops releasing a steady trail of vapor.

Like all of Iceland, the landscape we’re standing on is relatively young, featuring new mountains that volcanic explosions had formed pell mell. We’ve learned the country grows by two centimeters each year, as a result of the ever-shifting North American and European continental plates far below the country’s surface, and its active volcanoes above. The surrounding jagged skyline shows this tumultuous past, the mountains’ cliffs and peaks shaped by the uneven distribution of lava and ash, their crags further sculpted from the rushing water of glacier melt and glacier-fed rivers.

We continue along the trail. There is no tree line to surpass – no trees at all to speak of, actually. And while we can see for miles in any direction, the landscape, close up, changes as we walk, the terrain moving from gunmetal grey to brown to green to hay-yellow. The density changes, too – the grey soft and powdery, like talc; the brown muddy and suction-like in places, the green and yellow forgiving and firm. It does not occur to me, in the moment, that the grey “soil” is actually volcanic ash.

***

I was drawn to Iceland for its alien landscape, tales of fire and water and ancient explorations, and a sky that regularly put on shows of color and light. Its relative accessibility to my Boston hometown was an added bonus; I could be in Reykjavik faster than if I were to visit the West Coast. So, seeking the unfamiliar, my husband and I booked two tickets for a week in September, knowing that visiting late in the season would mean some compromises, weather-wise. Still, I am an optimist, and just the promise of visiting an entirely new-to-me place already gave me a thrill.

***

I’ve lost count of how many waterfalls we’ve passed along this trail, which follows the Skoga River in southwestern Iceland. Their roars are a constant companion as we proceed. We’re not sure how far we’ll go along the trail today – it’s the end of the hiking season, and while the day is picturesque, we’ve been warned the glaciers (and their effects) can change the atmosphere abruptly.

Planning for a day hike, my husband and I have only taken minor precautions – a few warm layers, a packed lunch with snacks, several liters of water for us to share throughout the afternoon. Our cell phones don’t work out here, or anywhere in Iceland at all, as we chose to forego an international plan in the spirit of a thorough unplugging and detaching while on vacation. As the terrain gets more remote, though, and we find ourselves alone for hour-plus stretches at a time, I wonder if that was the wisest decision.

The wind picks up, and I shiver in my fleece and thin hat. I still want to see more of what’s ahead, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that I’ve prepped for a leisurely afternoon waterfall walk, not for a glacial trek. The fact that both trail options exist, though, as neighbors in the same place, still fosters a deep sense of awe. The contrast is as impressive as the glaciers are worrisome.

***

It is only later, after the hike, that I put two and two together – that I was walking in the direct shadow of Eyjafjallajökull, the notorious spewer of 2010, whose billowing ash cloud shut down Europe for weeks on end. Back in the rental car, I marvel at the view of the glaciers from the road, and ponder aloud over the notorious volcano’s exact location. My husband looks at me incredulously and points to where we had just been.

I’m genuinely stunned. “But that’s right there,” I sputter.

There were no signs at any point indicating this landmark; no danger or warning signs urging caution along the trail. Andy had told me we would be “in the vicinity” of Eyjafjallajökull; I took that to mean within a ten- to twenty-mile radius, and had not asked for clarification. Toward the end of our hike, we had been at most a mile away. Even without truly knowing what I was seeing, I had still been intimidated, even humbled.

I think of the old adage about the differing mindsets contrasting travelers and tourists: “A traveler doesn’t know where she’s going, and a tourist doesn’t know where she is.” I feel both mindsets coexisting in me, on this day, much like the waterfalls and glacial volcanoes, improbably sharing the same space.

An Open Letter to the MBTA

The following is a letter I recently sent to the MBTA in response to their call for public comments regarding the proposed fare increases.
***

Mr. DePaola and the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board:

I had the pleasure of attending the February 2nd public comment meeting in Boston on the proposed MBTA fare hikes. It was a privilege to witness the high turnout and hear the opinions and stories of fellow greater Bostonians in regard to these unwelcome proposed changes at the T. Because I did not have a chance to speak at the meeting, I’m submitting my opposition to the fare increase in writing.

I have lived in the Boston area for nearly 16 years: 6 years in the North End, and nearly 10 in Somerville’s Winter Hill. I have always relied on the T as my primary form of transportation, and it connects me to school, work, and social functions. When I first moved here, the T was a financial necessity; as a limited-income graduate student, I could not afford a car. As my income increased, however, I still preferred to take the T, appreciating its wide network, affordable fares, and environmentally friendly benefits.

I must say, though, that I have become increasingly dissatisfied with my T-riding experience over the past four years in particular. Simply put, as the fares have increased, the quality of service has decreased. Buses are regularly erratic, late, or don’t show up at all; trains are frequently disabled. I often encounter turnstiles and escalators that are out of service, along with crumbling sets of stairs. The service interruptions during the winter of 2015 were deplorable, and need not be rehashed here.

Cumulatively, the T riding experience of late is one that is embarrassing, inefficient, and oftentimes unsafe. And with each passing year, the same ineffective solutions get proposed: more cuts in service, more increases in fares. The political will is, in a word, lacking.

I’d like to see some real, creative, and sustainable solutions to solving the continuing issues plaguing the MBTA.

  • To begin, the Commonwealth needs to forgive the Big Dig debt that the T has inherited, so future revenues can be allocated to much-needed capital and service improvements.
  • Second, an analysis of inefficiencies and dishonest practices should be undertaken with the goal of real accountability and reform, particularly in terms of expensive and egregious offenses (such as the 2,600 hours of overtime claimed by one employee) stopped cold. Such abuses should not be permitted to continue, nor should taxpayers be beholden financially for the T’s mismanagement.
  • Third, an income-to-increase proposal should be seriously considered, so the lowest-income riders (e.g., students, the elderly, and disabled) are not shouldering the bulk of the financial burden with each proposed increase. Those who ride the T and have higher income brackets should pay their proportionate share.
  • Lastly, we need to engage the full wealth of resources at the Commonwealth’s disposal to finally solve this continuing crisis. For example, we have world-class universities with budding engineers, economists, financial experts, and urban planners right in our backyard. Why not take advantage of them? The Commonwealth could kick off a public-private partnership challenge grant program, where groups of students could submit sustainable plans to fix the T, with criteria covering improving services and cutting costs over the coming years. The winning group could receive free tuition/student loan forgiveness and seed funding to kickstart their proposal, in partnership with key stakeholders at the T and branches of state and local governments. This certainly would be more cost effective, and more innovative, than the current same-old same-old proposals.

In closing, I’ll offer an anecdote. I recently was on a flight back to Boston from Tokyo, surrounded by scientists and engineers who were coming here for a conference. When we landed after a 12+ hour flight, the gentleman next to me asked whether he should take a cab or the T to his airport near Hynes Convention Center. I am almost always a T advocate, but I asked this man whether he lived in Tokyo and was used to efficient public transit. He was, and so instead I told him to take a cab. It pained me to do so. But I knew, based on consistent recent experience, that his T ride would be spotty at best, lengthy, and confusing. His first impression of Boston would likely be a very negative one.

I then thought of how many international visitors Boston receives every year, and how poorly our transit system must measure up when compared with other countries, places where public transit is valued, deemed worthy of investment, and recognized as a social good.

We are falling behind, but it is not because of a passive electorate. If anything, the public–if these comments meetings are any indication–is more engaged than ever. It is our leaders who are the real disappointment, for letting the T deteriorate this far.

So in closing, under current conditions, I strongly oppose the fare increase. But start showing some real civic commitment to the T, and the public will invest along with you.