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.


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!" (", 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.

Comfort shoes step up

Today, the Passage dedicates its window to those who respond to shoes in former posts with, "Nice, but I have problem feet."

They are not alone. A stealth movement is underway; women who could be my granddaughters express dismay over shoes that come with an unwritten guarantee of pain. The categories of comfort and orthopaedic shoes, formerly limited to neutrals that looked more like the box than the shoe, are looking better all the time, and being worn by all ages.

Two caveats: First, because foot problems like bunions, arthritis, plantar fascitis and other conditions are not uniform, and everyone's anatomy is different, there is no one magic shoe. You will have to try them; few are lucky enough to find "that pair" on the first excursion.

If you have stores in your area, go early in the season, which for summer is right now. Though I can find shoes in my city, I will also order online to get the model and colour I want, and consider the shipping an investment in my health.

Second, these shoes are not going to be cute, ever. Cute is the province of the paper-thin ballet flat or delicate, whimsical sandal—nor will they be the breathily sexy Louboutin stiletto.

Many women put off buying specialty shoes till they limp into a podiatrist's and are read the riot act. How universal, sturdy and affirming vanity is! I find it one of the most endearing things about being human.

The level just short of orthopaedic has adopted the cozy label, "comfort". These shoes often accommodate orthotics (some replace the need altogether), have above-standard arch support and provide other stabilizing features.

Of such makers, Hopp (an offshoot of the venerable SAS) are the upstarts, and offer a sophistication not consistently found in the category. I featured their nerdy-in-a-good-way debut model, the Essential Oxford in an earlier post; they have expanded the line to other styles.

The python collared mule has the SAS insole, padded upper lining and a special shock-absorbing sole. Sizes up to 11; other colour options; price $215.

Cole Haan offer many super-cushioned styles in luscious colours, so if you can wear their last and have limited patience for looking around, start there. My friend Rachel just bought a pair of Ultralite Stitchlite Oxfords, price $215, for an upcoming tour of Italy that includes lots of walking, because the stretch knit uppers accommodate her two-different-height insteps. The soles are flexible and articulated like an accordian, designed to mimic natural foot movement, and have 'pods' at the forefoot and heel for increased traction.

Women with plantar fasciatis search for shoes with some stretch, but also with solid support. If they also need a specialty width, the field narrows but good-looking shoes are out there.

Left: The Softwalk "Hanover" looks like a fashion boot but has serious cushioning, and comes in wide and medium widths. Price, $US 129.

Right: Propet's "Ladybug"will work with both jeans and skirts and comes in narrow and wide widths as well as medium, and at $US 70, is a good price.

Some makers just say it right out that their shoes are orthopaedic. There is no single distinguishing trait; the footwear often has multiple points of cushioning, firm heel counters, and removable liners for orthotics. They're like compression hose: you hope they keep their assistance on the down low.  Now, such shoes are often indistinguishable from "regular" shoes or boots.

Left: Heels are available, even if you prefer to save them for special occasions; check out the Spring Step L'Artiste Bardot ankle boot, $130.

Right: Especially designed to address arch and heel pain and plantar fascitis, Naot's cork-footbed Sirocco boot, $220, has chic piping that hitches hip to healthy.

Sometimes, foot problems are so bedevilling you think, I want someone to make me shoes that really fit. Bespoke is an answer; several of us in the family have them, just to get shoes that fit perfectly. (One of my feet is nearly a half-size bigger than the other.)

I am not talking about a pair of board-flat gladiator sandals you pick up when you're on an island vacation; this is a full shoe built for you.

Not all bespoke shoemakers will address therapeutic needs, so check that before an appointment.  Researching this post may turn out to be dangerous to my financial health; when I found Daphne Board, a certified pedorthist in Massachusetts, I hit shoe heaven. (She makes all kinds of bespoke shoes.)

Two of her striking orthopaedic styles, below: a boot and a two-tone flat. Daphne Broad shoes are available by visit to her studio in western Massachusetts, but also by mail. Her  FAQ page provides excellent advice.

Bespoke orthopaedic shoes start at about $700, and climb rapidly, but like any expertly-made bespoke shoes, they last for decades with care, unless you fall for exotic skins.

Oh, I'm dreaming of her shoes! I'll make these turquoise boots my spring screensaver.

Which craft?

My friend Alyson asked me earnestly, "Do you knit?" We were standing in Coeur de Mailles  in Quebec City, ogling luscious skeins. I felt a magnetic pull to return to knitting, the same avidity I felt when another friend invited me to sew, with her help.

I have not knit since the 1960s, when I produced a turtleneck sweater that strangled my boyfriend. (My mother reknit the neck.)

For nearly twenty years, I was deeply into sewing, the only way to have a yellow seersucker bellbottomed jumpsuit with a matching shawl in small-town Northern Ontario. But I quit in my mid-thirties, when, my taste outpaced my skills, and I wrecked too many lengths of opulent fabric.

I drop by sewing blogs, critiquing (without comment) various projects. Each time I think, Why don't I begin again? Mainly, it is because of the room required for the gear. I'd be buried in buttons, yardage, maybe even machines. It takes a sewing room to raise an outfit.

Knitting is somewhat less demanding of space, but when my heart beat like a hummingbird in that yarn store, I knew, Look out.

So I thought, what hobbies take little space? Some years ago I made pop-up cards and custom-carved rubber stamps; supplies for both will fit into a small box. I enjoy doing some low-key calligraphy, too.

Another criteria for retirement crafting is that the product have some utility, either to me or to the recipient. A handmade object is a form of expression, but also a product. Over the years I have made kites, quilts, enamelled pendants and pins, soft furniture, a cherrywood spice rack. My embroidery enhanced the patched denim of dozens of friends. You could not pay me to house any of it now.

Crafty persons tend to give their creations as gifts. Someone will always appreciate hand knit socks (hint, Alyson), but other times, it may be a matter of pass-the-clutter. (I have many crocheted doilies, thanks to a friend's mother.) Never mind that some efforts aren't perfect; when the item is made by a dear friend or your kids, it's a treasure. But even treasures need house room, so I am reluctant to contribute to that.

Even if you sew your own clothes, you can still overload. I made one skirt in so many fabrics that I can still see the Simplicity pattern in my sleep. Because crafters are enthusiasts, enthusiasts produce, and then the stuff takes on a life of its own.

The other criterion is enjoyment: What delights, engages, and (at least some times) gives a sense of accomplishment?

My present 'craft' is writing: words take no house space. This blog produces a similar ratio of false starts and unsatisfactory results as making clothes. The product is ephemeral; like environmental art, it has its moment, then vanishes. But anyone subjected to an entire apartment full of someone's flower paintings may conclude that is not a bad thing.

And you? If you are a maker, have your avenues of expression changed?  If you've taken up something new, how is the novice stage going? And if you've continued a lifetime of craft, what are you making now?

I'd love to offer a free macramé plant holder as a draw, but all of mine have long gone to pot heaven.

Montréal, Easter weekend

At the market, Easter weekend. We go to get fat artichokes, live crabs, maybe a pot of hydrangea—and of course, to people-watch. The mood is buoyant, the shopping perhaps a bit extravagant; the first long holiday weekend  of the year does that.

A young woman in striped pants, green shell, and a smile as brilliant as the day:

Nearby, a different green palette, khaki, a striped shirt and a floral scarf combining greens and earth tones:

One of my favourites is mint, a colour you don't see often in a coat!

The first florals are out: soft-shell pants on an expressive platinum blonde:

Her vibrant scarf caught my eye; what an effortless way to bring a grey sweater into spring. A closer look shows why; it is a museum scarf from a Picasso exhibition. We both wanted one!

Another touch of grey, a wool flannel blazer with elbow patches, accessorized by a red bundle buggy:

Scarves makes sense when the early morning is still chill, the mid-day mild. (But monsieur et madame will wear them when it's full summer, too; welcome to Montréal).

We admired her meltingly soft, straw-coloured leather jacket, such a welcome sight after the blacks of winter, and worn beautifully, with a slash of poppy lipstick:

The market makes us hungry every time! You mention ice cream; my head is turned by a couple about to enjoy a dozen oysters:

We bought a few blood oranges each, and talked about what to make with these edible jewels. A blood orange tart with cardamom pastry cream would show them off.

Our first outing after a long winter; thanks for coming along!

Retailers, please stop trying to get me into these

I am a major boat-misser of trends. Wasn't always so; one of my friends, recalling our thirties, said, "You always had the latest thing, even if it looked godawful". She was probably thinking of a fake wolf-fur chubby that made me look like a Muppet.

Certainly by my mid-forties, I had become leery. At first it was because I wondered, Can I wear this? Then, I began to resent the unending attempt to flog clothes that were not attractive on most women. This doesn't mean I can't admire the same item I sidestep on someone else, but, just between us chipmunks, usually I don't.

The button-back sweater

Other than the option to reveal a little skin at the top, what, really, is achieved by breaking up the back with a detail that is neither interesting nor functional?  I get that sometimes we want to change it up, but this clutters the sweater.

The "cold shoulder" top

This cut does not make sense where I live; our extremities are plenty cold for a good five months. In both woven and knits, these tops are already stuffing the sales racks, because the worst of them are cut out deeply so that the sleeve ends halfway up the arm in a graceless gap. The best will look current for ten minutes, which are already up.

Wide, cropped trousers

I like my pair (a good three inches longer than these to accommodate my height), but finding them in the right the proportion was difficult because retailers don't offer them in varying inseams.

Everlane say theirs  (shown above) are "the most flattering pant you'll ever try", but unless the length on her is one she likes, the rise is comfortable for her torso, and she has average to narrow hips, the pants are not that woman's best choice. Some women look great in narrow cropped trousers, and not in wide legs, and vice versa.

Falling-off outerwear

This trend is not the garment, but how it't worn: I sliding off.  Is this a fashionista version of the streetwear sweatshirt, worn with only one arm stuck through a sleeve, the rest draping on the torso like a blanket? Isn't outerwear to protect against the elements? A pretentious effect if ever I saw one, but then I think half-tucked shirts look like the wearer was distracted while dressing.

Ultra-long cuffs

Now this one gets my Irish up: don't they think we do anything with our hands? I saw a woman in a chic blue and white striped version of this, dabbing at the sleeve she had just dragged though her salad.

Many trends are either classic items anointed this year's must-have (pea jackets, white jeans, patterned tights) or sartorial novelties, mostly taken up for a season by the young.

If you have your head turned, ask yourself if you'd love it even if it wasn't in every window—and make sure you will feel that way for a few years, unless you have money to shred and a deep interest in having "the latest thing."

Postscript to you avid fans of the ça va de soi coatigan for which I lusted: tried it on.  The "framboise" is an intriguing pink mixed with a tiny fleck of grey, but it was too washed out on me. It also comes in light grey and black, but I have a nearly identical one in navy, so no.

Carolyn's pearls

Carolyn from Oregon bought a spectacular 11mm x 14mm  natural-colour auburn Kasumi pearl (Kojima Company), then e-mailed to say she was thinking of having a pendant made, and wondered if I had any ideas.

Does the Queen have corgis?

Carolyn considered recycling her old pearl studs and also said, "I have a great goldsmith but not necessarily a great jewelry designer. I like very clean lines, so maybe just beads/pearls on a chain. I was even thinking of trying a good bead store..." 

I wrote back:
"A classic mistake (I have made it too) is to take bits and pieces to a jeweller and say, 'Make me something from this', because it can look cobbled together. The question to ask is, “What are the best pearls or stones to combine with my new, glorious pearl?' ”

Even though I'm all for recycling, sometimes the result is a forced fit that is less than thrilling. And in a pearl project, you want a jeweller who specializes in pearls, especially if thinking of adding some. I suggested she talk with Sarah Canizzaro, owner of Kojima, to explore what she could do. (I also sent closeups of a pendant that seemed close to what Carolyn described, for reference.) 

Carolyn made the leap of faith to work with a Sarah via photos and phone calls. Now on the right foot, Carolyn also gave her a budget and a realistic time frame.

They went through a number of ideas:

1. Carolyn at first was interested in accenting the big Kasumi with a smaller grey and black pearl; they tried various varieties. Sarah sent Carolyn a number of combinations; here's one:

Sarah then said, "I think that having the dark bead takes away from the autumn colors of the pearl but I'm happy to make it to your specifications." She made mock-up of the Kasumi with a small pink keshi pearl, which shifted the accent from cool to warm:

When you have a showstopper pearl (or gemstone), doing just a little, but doing that little right, is essential.

The pendant has a snap bail so Carolyn can add it to a her other necklaces or her gold chain, but she also thought about another idea I've shown here, small pearls as a 'chain'.

Sarah showed her 3mm CFW white ovals, and small white keshis; Carolyn chose the ovals. The cost for those was only about $135.

She now has three elements (pendant, snap bail and pearl 'chain' strand) that extend her jewellery wardrobe. She said, "I can use all three components with other pieces; might be fun to get a vintage charm to snap on the clasp and wear with the pearl strand."

Here, Carolyn wears the piece as shown above with her baroques:

When I thanked Carolyn for sharing these photos, she said, "I think it's good for readers to know the mistakes I almost made. I ended up asking Sarah for her frank advice and predictably ended up with a much better piece by trusting her—she has a wonderful sensitivity and design eye."

When a designer and her client share a sensibility, and the designer takes her time, the piece is absolutely in harmony with its wearer—and hers alone.

I want to dress like Patti Smith

I've loved Patti Smith since the late 1970s. It hasn't helped that one of my longest-time friends looks eerily like her: the long face and lithe figure, the penchant for paper-thin soft tees and pegged jeans, the ability to take a huge black coat and make it look like a runway item. (But in Smith's case, it probably is.)

Even though she wears a uniform: the shirt or tee, the jacket, the jeans, I still look at her, onstage and off, and think, "Oh, Patti!" Some women find their look young and stick with it.

You can close your eyes and conjure Smith from any decade, and it's her attitude today, at seventy: Anne Demeulemeester (Smith calls her "a sister"), Prada, a tailored suit jacket, a white shirt, old silver crosses. It's not that I want her exact clothes, but I want that no-nonsense simplicity, an approach forged with purpose.

This is hardly a haphazard throw-on-anything style. Smith has often spoken of how much she enjoys clothes: her joy in finding thrifted mens' shirts of beautiful cotton, or the pleasures of a silk raincoat, good boots, a beloved Persian enamel necklace.

I could post another six photos of Patti Smith but they are quite similar—maybe the jacket is tweed, or cut longer. Below, performing in Chicago on her seventieth birthday, last December 30:

She did not fall into her style haphazardly. In "Just Kids" she talks about deciding how she wanted to look, scouring hole-in-the-wall shops for perfect tee, black capris, Breton shirts. She credits her androgynous image to her desire to imitate Keith Richards, down to the eye makeup:

She set her course (with forays into Victorian dresses for occasional party wear) and held true. I sifted through many decades of photos: Patti Smith in a floral? Not there. "I wouldn't call my style 'gender bending'", she remarked once. "It's gender ignoring. I know I'm a girl."

She whittled down to her black and white jacket-and-jeans when she resumed her career as a touring musician in the late '90s, after nearly two decades spent near Detroit, writing and raising her family with her late husband, Fred Smith.

She grey her hair to grey in about 2014:

Smith knows we're looking at her ensemble, but she is an artist first.  "I just do my work, and I work everyday", she says. 

If you too are a Patti Smith fan, you'll enjoy this Refinery29 piece by Rachel Syme; if not, first, simply reflect and appreciate the personal touches you have not been without for twenty five or more years, and second, release any worries about being in "a rut". Think of it instead like a well-honed groove.

As she writes, "In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth."

Athleisure: Performance meets polish

My friend Alyson and I went to language school in Québec City last week, and amidst all the brain-aerobics, we got to people-watch. The initial days were also a micro-lab in first impressions. Who was the reserved woman in a skirt suit? Why did another woman of around fifty wear denim bib overalls... every day?

Alyson, a university prof, occasionally talks to her graduate students about the message their appearance sends; when they are employed, they will be in front of the public. But she feels that she's not a consistent role model; she says she "sinks to the level of my students".

Her shoe of choice the hiking boot, her favourite fabric, GoreTex. She had planned a little spree at the Québec City MEC, and was disappointed to find it had just moved from practically next to the school to a far suburb.

She asked me, what is the next level up from performance wear? She had never heard the term "athleisure". I promised to go shopping with her to explore such items. She may be shocked at the price, because well-made clothes in that niche use innovative, costly fabrics. Still, she could wear them on and off campus, so I will encourage her to pay the premium.

Examples of these versatile, cleanly-styled clothes:

Above, pieces from Kit and Ace, a LuluLemon subsidiary whose line goes only up to a US 10—just like the parent company. I wish they made larger sizes (including plus).

Left: The Go-To Pant 2.0 is a washable blend of wool, spandex, cashmere and silk: yum! Price, $US 128. Right: The Long Haul Cardigan, $218, a blend of wool, cashmere, and a tiny bit of nylon and spandex. I love the pockets, and the slashed hem that raises it from the sacklike silhouette of many long cardigans.

Another brand I'll take her to, Lole, offers transitional pieces among its more athletic items.

Left: I am a fan of Lole's Travel Pants (up to size 14), which look polished enough for all but business formal settings, and dry wrinkle-free, in a flash. They are made of nylon, a mixed fiber that contains some bamboo, and a good shot of spandex, so they don't bag. Sometimes, they make them in other neutrals than black.

Top right: The Sammy sweater is a blend of two-thirds linen and one-third cotton; shown, lichen. Price, $CDN 100.

Bottom right: The Essential Cardigan ($CDN 115) can be worn indoors or out, and dressed up with a pendant or scarf. I like the subtle stripe, too.

With athleisure, you have to be judicious. Much of it will go from a yoga studio to your supermarket, but not to a committee meeting. I'd avoid fabrics described as "ripstop", drawstring pants, or things with Sanskrit on them.

Certain outdoor suppliers make pieces that are not athleisure, but work well with them. Below, from Eddie Bauer:

Left: It's hard to find a cardigan with this sleeve length, perfect for classroom lectures. The Christine Elbow Cardigan in a washable cotton-nylon blend is on sale for $30, and comes in sizing up to XXL.

Right: Many women like outdoor wear because it's low-maintenance. Eddie Bauer's navy print wrinkle-free shirt gives that ease, but looks more polished than a tee.

Iris Apfel says, "If you have a good haircut and good shoes, you can get away with anything." Off with the trekking boots, but my friend still wants arch support and a heel that is not pancake flat, but low.

Two options: Reiker #52667 in denim blue ($CDN 120 at Leclerc Chassures) is a smart segue from the hiking boot. I was charmed by the pale grey and flowers on a pair of oxfords by S. Oliver, $CDN 120— more "me" than her, but I also think sometimes athleisure needs a little softening.

Athleisure has been called the fastest-growing apparel niche so expect to see more of this hybrid on offer. It still takes some thought, but it's well worth some closet space for such versatile, wearable clothes.

Learning later in life

I am away next week, on an intensive French course in Québec City, so the next post will be April 4.
This is a thinly-disgised girlfriend getaway; I am going with my friend Alyson, and we intend to be good students not only of our second language, but of the culinary delights of this scenic old city.

So, I should not say "thinly! But we hope that walking back and forth to class will mitigate a few teatimes with macarons and a celebratory big dinner at Le Pied Bleu.

I am not worried about my waist, but I am worried about my brain, and therefore my ability to get the most out of the course. As I age, my thirst to learn is mitigated by noticeable and highly frustrating memory erosion. Oh, it goes in, and comprehension is fine—but retention is not what it once was.

When I read on Kindle, the pages do not show a header—so I responded to a recent inquiry about what I was reading by saying, "I have no idea but it is by Annie Proulx. " ("Barkskins"; I had to look at the title page.)

I get the 'click' I have always felt when a concept or pattern settles into my brain, except in several days, without continual repetition, my new nugget of grammar or vocabulary goes the way of the geometry theorems I learned in 8th grade: familiar, but not retrievable.

Alyson's wife does Brain Gym exercises to continue mental stimulation, and takes Great Books courses. I admire that; you have to do something, and just like physical exercise, if it's an activity you enjoy, you'll stick to it.

My current brain stimulation comes from those year-round classes, the choice of "harder books", and my annual July-August vacation from the Internet. During that time I make a particular effort to dig into long essays, explore genres and forms outside my usual, and spend more time in nature, usually on foot.

I already count the weeks toward my unplugging because I suspect the blurry barrage doesn't help my retention. Ross Douthat, in his op-ed piece, "Resist the Internet" says, "The internet is not the opioid crisis; it is not likely to kill you... But it requires you to focus intensely, furiously, and constantly on the ephemera that fills a tiny little screen, and experience the traditional graces of existence—your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art—in a state of perpetual distraction."

Nor is the Internet a sterling way to learn, because it places a low demand on cognition, delivering the vast majority of its material as small, declarative chunks that require a low level of mental processing.

This spring and summer, I want to select some new stimulation. I am curious about what you do to use your brain, especially its abilities of recall.

I have found anxiety about retention of new information makes my memory even worse, and, like anyone who saw "Still Alice", wonder if this is the beginning of dementia. Sometimes I can laugh, such as the time when I stood before a salesperson searching for the word for the coat I wanted. I'd used it most of my life, but it had tiptoed off just over...there. (Duffle).

Here's a joke:

Three women meet for coffee. The first says, "I think I'm losing my memory. I was standing in my kitchen with a jar of peanut butter in my hand, and I couldn't for the life of me remember what I was going to do with it."

The second woman says, "Oh, me too! I was on my landing, looking out the window for just a few seconds, and then I couldn't recall if I had been going up or down."

The third says, "Well, nothing like that has happened to me yet, touch wood."

She raps her knuckles on the table, then says "Oh! There's the door! I'll get it."

See you on April 4; I won't forget!

The kindness question

Continuing choleric Facebook posts in my feed are countered by requests for kindness and respect. I also am exhorted on most blogs written by women to "be kind", over and over. But when I think of real persons, not the pseudonym-protected snipers online, I see much kindness, or at least civility, in everyday life.

So why, I wonder, am I so often importuned to be kind? Perhaps because its opposite, meanness, is disruptive, painful, and when escalated, violent.

Kindness is a fragrant bough that sweeps away the pebbles on the path of life. Alain de Botton's site The School of Life calls kindness an art, and provides a primer, "Mastering the Art of Kindness". 

I am glad to find this free book, because I need help these days, what with those Facebook feuds and my suspicion that when some of those parties tell those who see it differently to "be kind" , they may be trying to stifle protest, to duck the hard and complicated questions.  "You're not nice!" is calling someone a "nasty woman" with sugar on top.

Somewhere, I realize, is a balance point as tenuously glued together as President Trump's hair. (Yes, I am being mean. Sometimes snark, which is diet-lite meanness, is fun.)

What's missing in these pleas for kindness is an examination of why why we continually request caring and consideration. We need it. Kindness helps us muster on, because it contributes to our safety and security.

Whether one adopts Maslow's hierarchy of needswhich places physical and emotional safety just after the physiological needs like air, water, and food—or other models, humans can govern themselves better when they are not in a continual fight or flight mode.

We appreciate meetings were differences are discussed without ad hominum attacks, we're grateful when a friend readily forgives us for forgetting a date, we enjoy even the passing generosity of a held door. Kindness serves life.

My friend Marianne is an intelligent, compassionate, warm woman. Seven years ago, she worked for a practiced bully who systematically undermined her work, despite her efforts to appease, problem-solve, and even confront his tactics. Because of her beliefs and her nature, she never fought fire with fire. Eventually he succeeded in having her fired; she spent from 2009 until last year struggling to get back on her feet.

During that time, Marianne lost her life savings and was often depressed, but received many kind acts. One of her friends moved her into her empty basement apartment in her home. Other friends provided low-key kindnesses: including her in social events that cost nothing, taking her out occasionally, giving her good clothes so she could go on interviews, and just keeping an eye on her. Even her bank was kind, helping her hang on to a family property that provided a tiny income from its occasional rental.

It's easy to be kind to a person like Marianne, and much harder to be kind to someone acting like a jerk, including ourselves. Sometimes the best we manage is a clenched civility.

In me, the milk of human kindness dilutes down to skim on a bad day. I prize the virtue, and wish to be thoughtful, generous, tolerant. Lately despair about the state of the world and our vulnerability can erode my stores. Then I hoover down a slab of endangered fish (when Le Duc is not around) and snap at someone I love. (I am hardly ever mean to strangers, but being kind to some persons whom I know well has taken deep effort, and I've often fallen short.)

When I attend the services of various faith communities, the promotion of everyday kindness is a universal topic—but, presently on leave from such affiliation, I'm hoping the School of Life provides guidance.

The beginning of the treatise quotes findings from a survey attributed to DoubleTree by Hilton, and I wondered, What is a hotel chain doing exploring kindness? But there is money to be made in delivering a nice plump bed, a kindness that earns customers' loyalty. A good hotel or restaurant (not necessarily a luxury one) cossets you; hospitality is really institutionalized kindness.

There's more to say, but what about you, friend? Is kindness important to you? How do you top up your capacity?

Note: Post removed, but will return!

I mistakenly published a post on a reader's pearls before it was complete. The subject of the post, Carolyn, is sending me a better photo.

Some of you will have this post in your readers now; it will reappear in early April, with the new photo.

And since I've popped by to say that,  here is a freeform Tahitian baroque stretch bracelet for a remarkable price, from Pearl Paradise:

Buying jewellery: A gift from Aunt Emilie

A year ago, on her 55th birthday, Annie's 84-year-old aunt sent a card and a cheque for $10,000. Aunt Emilie wrote, "Buy yourself something nice, dear." (Her twin brother Bruce received the same amount and immediately bought a share in a horse.)

Annie has held off touching the gift, determined to make the perfect choice. Aunt Emilie has inquired several times, only to be told, "I'm looking,"

Annie has not so much looked as fretted. She can buy a sofa in less time than it takes me to choose a melon, but is absolutely paralyzed in this sphere. Though she has no debt or pressing expenses, there are always practical things to do with a windfall; at the same time, she does not want to disappoint her aunt, and has long dreamed of a special piece of jewellery.

She asked me, "What do you think about when you are making a choice like this?" I told her that a purchase of fine jewellery is always going to involve a reconciliation between what captivates you and what you are willing to spend, but that you absolutely should not settle. If nothing speaks to you, keep your money in the bank.

I suggested four guidelines:

1. Can you see yourself in the piece at least several days a week? Does it complement what you already have?
3. Is it comfortable?
4. Is the piece beautiful and interesting to you?
5. Is it good value?

I have not put "Will it date?" on the list. About 80% of all jewellery eventually looks dated, just like your clothes. Buy something you will wear often, and enjoy it. You can recycle the precious metal or gems should the piece no longer suit you.

If you absolutely want to avoid the "dated" issue, buy well-designed antique jewellery.

Enough of the lecture,  let's go shopping! Annie had at least narrowed the field, and told me, "I like the classics: pearls, diamonds and gold." (All prices in dollars  are in $US.)

Luxe and rare

"What could I get if I spent it all?", she asked, thinking of Bruce's filly.

Left: She could go all in for a stunning Tiffany South Sea pearl and diamond ring. which includes both rose-cut and brilliant-cut diamonds. I bow before its opulence and discreet luxury. Annie could wear it for the next thirty years with pleasure, and for such purchases that is how one should think: long term.

Price, $8, 000. So that is about $3,300 per year in today's dollars and might be worth it.

Right: I wanted her to consider the resale market. At Beladora, I found an Edwardian ring with a .55ct Old European cut diamond and a natural pearl, set in platinum and 14k gold—I was crazy about that natural pearl (made only by the oyster, no human intervention)—and Annie was impressed by the price tag, $3, 250.  That's only about 30% of the gift, and it still would get her a special piece.

Mid-priced and pleasing

Sometimes jitters are nature's way of telling you that you are spending too much money. Several weeks after I sent her examples from $3,000 to nearly $10,000, Annie decided to dedicate only 15% of the gift to her ring, so our budget dropped to $1,500.

Left: Arts and Craft amethyst and blister pearl ring from Isadora's Fine Jewellery; price $1, 400.

Right: Diamonds, pearls and high-karat gold are still within reach. Edwardian 18k gold, pearl and diamond  ring from FineAntiqueJewellery; price about $850.

Relaxed Real: Under $500

For those of us who lack a bequest, there's still pleasing jewellery out there. I showed Annie some of these more modest pieces, partly to position the other examples in the value proposition. If you don't know what you can buy for $500 or less, you don't make good choices at higher price points.

Here, we say goodbye to gold and diamonds, but can still find genuine pearls set in silver. I love this level of jewellery because it evokes jewellers' inventiveness, and when you find an exceptional piece, you get terrific value.

Left: Tahitian pearl and silver ring by Dublin jeweller Eva Dorney; price, €195.

Right: Ring of pearl with inset aquamarine by Marc Gounard of Sausalito, California; price, about $190 . Other stones available by request.

Annie has not yet made her choice, but is leaning towards the Edwardian pearl and diamonds or something similar. Her aunt awaits her choice, but whenever Annie chooses, the memento will reflect the last line on her aunt's note: "I love you all."