Debt, Milennials and me

I recently read an essay by a woman whom I assume is in her thirties. She had burnt out, saved money to move back to the city where she had been happiest, and spent several months to recover at leisure, pursuing her creative writing, sleeping, and hanging out with the friends she had missed.

She is funding this hiatus primarily by credit card debt, and lives frugally. She feels much better, deeply enjoys her freedom, and wonders how long she can continue this R&R. ("To the moment when you ask yourself that", I thought.) 


This is the first time in her life that she has lived beyond her means, and she asserts it is necessary.


She received affirmation from commenters. One wrote, "Part of being 'good with money' means knowing the difference between 'I am using my credit card to buy things that don’t really matter to me and don’t improve my life' and 'it is worth paying $X in interest charges if it means I get to spend time with someone who is important to me.'” 


That logic made me feel every year of my age. 
I'm on the other side of a Great Divide; reared by Depression-era parents, I was taught that only a dire circumstance would justify debt for a visit. I thought, What about Skype? Or waiting to visit until you've saved enough? 

I agree it's important to know your priorities: if you know what you value, you make better decisions about money. But just because you value something doesn't mean "'it is worth paying $X in interest charges...'". It sure does help you rationalize the expenditure, though.

Both writer and commenters distinguished between buying things and buying experiences, and expressed a preference for the latter. That is where their generation has been snookered. Whether you spent $3,000 to go to Coachella or buy a Prada coat, if when the bill comes you can't pay it, you are burdened.


I thought back to that age; I was hardly the model of responsible spending. My head was easily turned by 'things'; I remain grateful to the boyfriend who talked me out of buying a rattletrap sports car on my Visa. I also bought 'experiences'. After one girlfriend getaway, I tacked the bill on my fridge door (fortunately the folks were not around to see it), chipped away at the balance for months and never went the fly now/pay later route again.


Two factors contribute to the debt-accepting attitude of such commenters: if, like many Milennials, a recent university graduate carries a five-figure student loan debt, the thinking goes, what's another six grand?  


The second factor is that some regard banks as capitalist standard-bearers for greed. However, if you signed a credit card, you made the deal: I go to Becky and Pete's wedding in Baja on the plastic, and Chase gets to charge me nearly 20% interest—whatever, you bastards.

I saw I was about three thousand times more debt-averse than the commenters, most of whom are of my sons' generation. I hope my boys have inherited my deep suspicion of easy credit. I know one has kept his card frozen in a hunk of ice. 

During the morning rush hour on the métro, I heard a woman in her early thirties on her phone. "I mean", she said indignantly, "why am I working my butt off now, so that when I'm old I can do stuff? What's the point of that?"


Oh, the elder next to her yearned to pluck her sleeve and say, Hi, can I buy you a coffee? I wanted to tell her that she would still want to "do stuff" at seventy. Would there be money for that? Would there be money for even the necessities? I would hope to not sound like a scold when I asked whether she was saving anything now.


You will not, I would have said, lose your wanderlust and curiosity; the door to discovery doesn't slam shut. Art, ancient temples and soaring hawks will still move you, seeing those friends will mean ever more.


With some basic budgeting and a bit of luck, she could "do stuff" at thirty and at seventy, but there will be choices, limits. Debt for her generation is too often presented as an undesirable but necessary tool for personal freedom, when it is actually slavery. 


But I just boarded the train with my thoughts, and she went to her job.






Taking the shortcut to style

I just donated a stack of personal style guides I'd accumulated over the past six years. All of these advised the reader to begin with "Who am I?" and "What am I trying to say (in my visual presentation)?" in order to guide wardrobe choice, career success, eternal bliss.

One contained worksheets of questions that, if diligently answered, would take many days of analysis. I loaned that to Moira, who tried to skip to the end—she was impatient. "Isn't there a shortcut?" she asked with asperity.

Like her, women in the Passage do have a good idea of who they are, but are interested in an occasional tune-up, or want to handle a shift when retirement, career change or other transition happens.

When I saw those dusty guides, I thought about what I've been doing instead. Turns out three activities have replaced the books:


1. Read selectively

If you are what you eat, you also look like what you read. Even if idly grazing, the images go into the Shop Compartment of your brain.

After reading a stack of a daughter's British Vogues, Joanie bought a black faux-leather moto. It didn't breathe, resulting in sticky, sweaty misery—and, though Vogue editors endorsed "'tude past 50" , the jacket wasn't really her.

An image consultant told me to consult InStyle magazine to "keep my look contemporary". I have a deep aversion to the brand-screaming, celebrity-pandering, anodyne InStyle look.

I prefer to see what real women with highly-tuned aesthetics (rather than highly-paid stylists) wear, so shell out twice a year for a copy of "The Gentlewoman" to see a scientist or playwright in crisply beautiful clothes, even though I grumble that the pieces are so costly.


2.  Move beyond "body type" taxonomies

Most guides instruct you to identify you body shape. I have concluded I am either an hourglass, H, or pear.  On some days I feel like a trapezoid.

The Do/Don't Wear lists attached to the shapes are horribly prescriptive. I say, if you're voluptuous and want to wear a chartreuse satin blouse with a black and white polka-dotted pleated skirt, enjoy!

Despite their advice, I don't like to wear two items on top, such as a vest over a blouse. I'll bet you have a similar "Yes, but...", and I'd love to hear it.

At this point in life, you surely know, for example, that you're a different size on top than bottom. You're likely coming to terms with physical changes, though, and that takes honesty. Women would rather jump into a pool of starving piranhas than go up a size. So what? We need to pay more attention to fit and less to the size on the label.

Find what suits your life, fits well and makes you happy.


3. Find exemplars, not models

An exemplar is someone to whom you connect because you are like that too, not because she looks so fabulous. Helen Mirren in a bikini: estimable, but she is not going on my board because there is no way I could do that.

That's the difference between a model and an exemplar: the model is aspirational, and the exemplar is you on a good day. You have an identity, worked hard for it. You can't make a Grace out of a Frankie.

Your exemplar is the sage second opinion when you shop. I considered a J. Crew midi skirt with a ruffle. Right length for me, but I have nothing ruffled and... WWJD? (Jane Birkin; no sale.)


Those are the shortcuts, but just like cooking, some women enjoy spending more time and effort. My guides, placed on the bench in our building's lobby, vanished overnight!

There may be books you do want to keep; mine is  "A Guide to Elegance" by Geneviève Dariaux. I don't mind that it's dated (a "must" is a mink ascot!); Madame Dariaux writes from a unique, sometimes tart perspective. Besides, I paid $50 for a used hardcover first edition. I had first encountered the book in the library of a charming old summer home, in 1991, and had to have it. Now you can get that book for a penny.


So I am curious: What wisdom have you accumulated, with or without those guides?

I'll go first: Look in the mirror before you leave the house; don't forget the back view. Thanks, Mom.















SaveSave

Saying goodbye in colour

My mother-in law died in her sleep last week, after a fall that fractured her hip. Her death was as gentle as one could wish for a loved one, though unexpected because she was recovering well in the hospital.

We are plunged into the emotions and necessities of a funeral. Though grief has a different tenor when the loss comes after a long life, it is still a profound event. "To lose a mother", a friend wrote, "is something, whether it happens to you at ten or at seventy."

The family will gather on Friday for a simple service and luncheon, where we will share memories. The most vivid for me is our first meeting, when her son brought me, his fiancée, home to meet his parents. They had barely heard of me—our courtship spanned mere months. Her welcome was warm, unreserved and wholly accepting, and remained constant for over thirty years.

This will be an informal event, so I do not have to buy something suitable, but I have learned that the clothes chosen on such days are forever infused with tender sadness. I could never wear the dresses I wore to my parents' memorials again.

 Christmas, 2004

Mrs. P. was a textile artist; she made woven and hooked tapestries, and knit and sewed expert, immaculately-finished treasures. She had a sophisticated sense of colour and design, so it feels wrong to wear the traditional black, which she refused for herself, because to her it meant only mourning.

I will choose something that expresses my admiration of her gifts, my gratitude for her love and trust. I'll stand before my closet and ask to be inspired by her. My hand will find a bit of colour—perhaps a scarf—to honour the beauty she created thorough her long life.

There will be no post on Thursday, this week.


Is Mother's Day necessary?

Maybe that's the wrong question. Do you enjoy Mother's Day?

The event is a dual celebration: of one's own mother, and, for women who are mothers, of their motherhood. The general idea is to give the role some props; for many days—hell, probably the rest of the year—a mother is appreciated amid a blur of runny noses, I-need-a-costume-for-the-spring-pageant and "He started it."

It is also, of course, a marketing weapon; beginning a month ago, my inbox delivered the imperative to buy Mom a scarf or monogrammed tote bag.

I like it anyway.

Typical Gummy Lump

The sweetness of small children presenting what Robert Ludlum called the Gummy Lump—an art project notable mostly for its heartfelt effort—eyes shining with pride and love, was a fine moment.
In a different manner than the hysterical excitement of Christmas, Mother's Day engages the young in giving, and there is no bouquet as touching. Children tend to overlook our flaws.

By the teenage years, Mother's Day celebrations devolve to maybe a brunch out, if the kid is awake by noon, but Mom is fêted just the same. Or not quite the same; adolescence is another planet.

A mother in the thick of child-rearing might prefer a gift certificate for nine consecutive hours of sleep, but in reality, is offered handmade cards, and that's just fine. I am embarrassed to recall that one of my school Mother's Day projects was a clay ashtray stencilled with our mother's name, but times have changed, as have family units.

Modern families have found variations (and some skip the whole thing). A lesbian couple I know celebrate Mothers' Day, with the appropriate punctuation. Others have expanded the celebration to include stepmothers, aunts or "honourary mothers", to thank women essential to their children, no matter how they came to the family.


Women near my age lucky enough to have a mother still here give an extra serving of affection, which is harder for some mother-child relationships than others. Marilyn's mother was definitely lax, and even absent, for many of those years; the relationship is still under construction. Marilyn arranges for the delivery of pink baby roses (Mum's favourite) when the second Sunday of May rolls around. The accompanying card does not call her "#1 Mom", but conveys good will. Compassion is a precious gift.

Other graceful gestures may mark the day. For years, when we lived in the same city, I would find a small gift—a few daffodils, or a copy of a poem she liked—on my doorstep every Mother's Day morning. Ruth would do the same for at least a dozen other friends.

The child of a single mother, and a single mother herself, Ruth wanted to celebrate friends who had by choice or chance become mothers, to encourage us in our efforts, and to remind us to sleep...eventually.

As Mother's Day approaches, I think about my mother more than usual, of the years when I gave (and sometimes withheld) that appreciation. My father always gave her a gift, too; one year, it was a box of Cuban cigars. (She did not smoke by then.)

On the following Father's Day she gave him a set of china.








Secondhand: Full circle shopping

The closet asked for a seasonal top, but because spring here is fleeting, buying much in spring colours is not the best value you'll get out of a budget. When I flipped some boutique price tags, I saw that I'd pay more tax on a new sweater than I'd spent on the pristine, hip designer shirt I'd found in a thrift for a son's job interviews.

Thrifts had not offered much for me, though; a riffle through the women's racks was a dispiriting tour of the limp, damaged or outdated. But I saw women there with brimming carts; what did they know that I didn't? I figured, It's a numbers game, and vowed to look more thoroughly.

I stopped by the usual suspects on my FitBit walks, left empty-handed many times, but kept at it. I also checked consignment shops, where someone else had done the picking, and designer labels bloomed. If you're a regular, staff may be willing to call when special pieces come in.

One day, I found two 100% cotton sweaters in perfect, unworn condition: an apple-green Tommy Hilfiger pull, and an aqua Olsen cardi, and struck by my luck, bought both. Total cost, $CDN 12.


Both were laundered immediately with Orange-a-Peel to purge that thrift store deodorant smell.

I imposed the one in/one out rule, and donated to the same organizations. When I found a floaty kimono top from a luxury plus-size brand, a friend got a surprise package. I could really get into picking for friends!

The "full circle" in the post's title refers to the full circle of consumption, from the early days when my friends and I hit the thrifts and vintage shops to stretch our first paycheques, and because we loved the workmanship and fabrics.

I stopped secondhanding in my thirties—busy with family and career, I found it easier to get it now, in my size. I missed the hunt, but couldn't spend Saturday afternoons trolling Kensington Market anymore. I'd occasionally accompany canny friends who had never left Courage My Love behind, but for decades, I was only a donor—and a star one, thanks to overbuying and cycling up and down in size.

At work, plenty of women were shopping in resale boutiques, but it was a secret society. Only if you were a trusted confidante would a colleague reveal, over a white wine spritzer, that her Calvin Klein suit was secondhand.

Now, I find many women are buying secondhand because they want to consume differently, and they are not only open, they are proud to say so.

My chic friend Jude, whose work requires frequent attendance at high-profile events, buys all her business clothes secondhand; Roberta, a committed environmentalist, will wear only used (except shoes). My grandson's other grandmother is presently rocking an Armani raincoat for which she paid one-fifteenth of the retail price; the tag was still on in the consignment shop!

Even if you would never wear someone else's clothes (I'm thinking of Lynn, who believes the emotional energy of the original owner is forever embedded in the garment), you can find other treasures. I bought housewares for our kids' apartments, baby toys and clothes, and art supplies.

"It's addictive", a man who scouts regularly for crystal told me while we waited in line. He is right, but I'm resisting the habit. I left behind some estimable finds: a current Rodier tweed blazer, a black cashmere crewneck—that weren't needed. But I'm pretty pleased that I've crossed those tops off my list for twelve bucks.

 Will I see you there?







Because the night

There's this evening that I love in Montréal, which happens sometime during first weeks of fine weather, as if everyone in the city says, It's here; we're going out!

You never know when it will strike, so you can't call a friend and say, "Let's go out Wednesday." This year, the evening was last Thursday, which coincided, to my delight, with the vernissage for Janis' Kerman's 45-year retrospective show of her jewellery, at The Guild of Canadian Crafts.



My friend and co-grandmother Natasha and I met there; Natasha was a high school classmate of Janis'.

The mood had built during the day, the fizzy sunshine and warmth (26C) caused the young women to cast off not only coats but a good deal of everything else; this year, I can tell you, will be about satin shorts.

Janis' show was a wonderland; come to Montréal between now and May 28, to see for yourself! (Several readers are planning to do just that, and I'm delighted.) This was Natasha's first encounter with Janis' signature "balance, not symmety" approach; she was captivated, and immediately thought of her unworn pieces, presently in a bank box.

Photo courtesy Janis Kerman

We had as much fun admiring the jewellery many women wore, as viewing the exhibit. I stalked a brunette in white baroque pearls with a long, cylindrical clasp Janis had pavéd in fuchsia sapphires.

Natasha wore a Janis Kerman/Nicole Lachapelle belt, with a large brass buckle that dated from the '80s; Janis' mother wore a similar one. "Mrs. Kerman", Natasha told her, "you were the most elegant of all the mothers."

That in itself would have been a star outing, but The Evening must not end at barely 7 p.m.! We ducked around the corner for soup dumplings, snagged a window table to see the passing show. Couples kissed in the street, a smiling dog waiting outside Café Myriade accepted scratches. As the sun set, the warmth barely left, the collective mood built. We could feel the city hum.

One does not deny this sensual pleasure after our winters. A glass of wine, perhaps? We walked over to Alexandre, a champagne bar with its front wide open, and sat side by side on a banquette from where we could absorb the scene: serious décollete on many women (and not just youths), men in sleek suits.


Coming home some time later, I walked by another bar. A handsome young man stood on the sidewalk chatting with his chums. I heard him say, "...fait que j'ai conduit à Montréal!" ("...so, I drove to Montréal!") The sense was clear: He saw that this would be The Evening, and had to be here.

Le Duc had gone out for an espresso earlier, but by the time I arrived was contentedly reading David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster". He admitted he had noticed the girls and agreed that it had been The Evening.

For the next five months, that particular electricity will strike again at unsummonable moments. Everyone will sense it; they'll throw together a picnic in the park, where surely someone will play a guitar, or hang out on the balcony, have a beer.


Parents will let kids stay up later even on a school night, take them for ice cream. Young bucks will begin their weekend, no matter that there's work tomorrow.

As if we need further enticement, this year the city celebrates both the 50th anniversary of Expo '67, which brought the world to Montréal and vice versa, and the 375th anniversary of the city's founding. It's an especially auspicious time to visit, and stay out late when you do.

To learn more about the many events planned for these celebrations, go to Montréal375 and Tourism Montréal.


Buying clothes: The personal shopper

Janice Riggs of The Vivienne Files recently posted a terrific quote from Betty Halbreich, the famed personal shopper who for decades dressed Bergdorf Goodman's swank customers.

In her tart autobiography, "I'll Drink to That" (Halbreich favours the Mad Men era, libationally), she says that she refused to let a woman leave Bergdorf's in something that did not suit her. She even told compulsive shoppers that they already had enough.

How counter-cultural Halbreich's approach is today! Personal shoppers still exist in large cities, but they're endangered as the watercress sandwich. Where I live, Holt Renfrew have one (with a dedicated fitting room); Ogilvy (now owned by Holt's) too, if you ask, but most shops supply a sales person whose sole contribution is to ask, "What do you think?"

Pressure sales tactics are a major reason why I do much of my shopping online, and why retail stores are in deep trouble in the US.

The Big Three Persuaders that I hear on nearly every outing fall flatter than a Spanx-covered derrière:

1. "I just bought the same one"; or if the salesperson is twenty-five years younger than you, "My manager just bought that and she looks fantastic." Maybe—but I hear this line too often for it to hold water.

2. "They're flying out of the store." Why would that make it right for you? Designed to push the persuasive button of scarcity, same as "This is the last one in your size."

3. "You just need...". This is uttered if you express an objection. You just need to shorten it, wear it with a strapless bra, or sew the pockets shut.  I'll agree to the lingerie, but not major alterations.

Other persuasive tactics include "This is the best season from (designer) yet", and "You look better in this than anyone who's tried it on": perhaps true, but irrelevant to your decision.

In sales lingo, "flattering" is a euphemism for "makes you look thinner", the holy grail for many shoppers. (My friend Barbara would march into a boutique and command, "Show me every dress that will take 10 pounds off.")

Recently, a commenter said, "I don't think every item of clothing has to be "flattering" whatever that means..."

In the wider sense, "flattering" means the cut, fit, and colour highlight your best physical features. For example, if you inherited sloped shoulders, an unstructured jacket will make you look like an egg; a jacket with a discreet shoulder pad will give you a better line.

Stylish clothes may not be flattering, and vice versa. Though 'flattering' is definitely about vanity, it is also about wise consumption. Not understanding what suits you leads to the "stuffed closet but nothing to wear" situation.

I agree with the notion that not every item has to be flattering, to a point. If you're going camping, you might wear a Tilley "Wanderer" hat, the essence of unalloyed functionality.

And sometimes, what flatters you might not appeal for other reasons: red makes your skin glow, but you can't stand it; short skirts show off your legs, but you're a pants woman. But usually, I'd like a garment to ennoble, rather than just provide upholstery.

She may also have been thinking of certain professional roles, which take you to a classic, neutral suit, even though a vibrant print dress makes you look more energetic, or at least more fun.

Some of the specialty stores still offer a personal shopper, and not strictly for big spenders (but I concede that an appointment probably means a purchase.) A personal shopper, like an image consultant, might introduce us to clothes or accessories that make us feel wonderful, things we might have passed by, driven by habit. Should that happen, it's a learning experience, not just shopping.

Bergdorf's is a temple of luxury. The less-costly levels seem to offer only two speeds: hard-sell and no-sell. At COS, once you're greeted, they barely notice if you are alive.

Is it any wonder so many women depend more on the FedEx driver than the sales associate? We stand in our bedroom-dressing-rooms and enlist friends or partners as stylists, which may be an unfair burden. (Le Duc seems to see me unchanged after thirty years, which is sweet, but in truth my body shape and colour "season" are shifting as I age— or is it global warming?)

So, I raise a virtual martini to Betty Halbreich and her kind, visual artists first, sales associates a close second. If specialty apparel wants to survive, bring us more Bettys and pay them decently for their skill.