Category Archives: America

Dreaming of Italy

Outside, the Tyrrhenian Sea had disappeared into darkness. I could see this from my seat at the dinner table; one side of the restaurant was all windows looking out, but at the moment, there wasn’t anything to see except specks of light coming from neighbors’ windows. Nightfall in Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, is at all not like nightfall in suburban New York City—it’s a true, deep, inky dark, not that hazy, pink dark that clouds Manhattan and all its neighbors from sundown til sunrise, giving you the false sense the sun never slipped away at all, it simply changed colors. We were enveloped by the blackness curling around the coastline while inside the restaurant, hundreds of candles glowed, what felt like the safest place to be on Earth that night. At the table next to me, a woman from Texas, a writer who now owns an artisanal wine and spirits shop in Los Angeles, stood up, and in her soft Southern drawl, delivered an impromptu buzzed speech about the importance of writing, the commitment to the process. She then raised her glass and said loudly and passionately “Fuck money!”

Cheers and applause followed. She was speaking to a restaurant filled with writers, some published, some not, some quite notable, and others who were trying to carve a name for themselves, like myself. And it was easy then, just two weeks ago today, to lift my glass and chirp “Fuck money!” in response. I was surrounded by supportive peers at a five-star hotel for a writers’ conference. I was someplace ancient and magical. I had redeemed frequent flyer miles to get there, and had flown business class for the first time in my life just to make the claustrophobia I feel on planes more tolerable. I couldn’t really afford the event, but I was there. “It’s an investment in your writing,” my husband said in the months leading up to the conference, and there I was saying “Fuck money!”

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Most writers I know don’t earn much. The US Department of Labor says that in 2014, writers averaged about $58,000 per year. I’ve been on both sides of that figure in the last few years. My husband just finished edits on his fourth book, and tells anyone who asks—and it’s been asked several times—that he will never leave his day job as a writer for a mutual fund company. He loves what he does, and the company he does it for, and his job has changed our lives in ways we never thought manageable, allowing me to leave my office gig four years ago and return to full-time freelance writing and, more importantly, return to creative writing, something I hadn’t touched since college.

Three days after that candlelit toast, I was happy to be back home after 12 days in Europe, though, truthfully, I would’ve much preferred my family to fly out to Italy to be with me. I have no love for New York City. It’s the financial capital of America, and this toiling for coin dominates life here. In my leafy, snobby suburb, it is assumed everyone has a ton of money. I did not grow up with middle class comforts, yet years of working hard, paying off debt, and job promotions led us to a town of bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, human resource managers, engineers, and one neighbor who is a senior administrator for the United Nations. It’s a town of 60-hour work weeks and big paychecks. It is not a town where freelance writers live. But we were able to afford a small, aging house here because it offered the best education for our daughter, and an opportunity to build equity quickly, for houses in this town sell well. At home, busy not fitting in, I try to think of living here like I think of the conference in Positano or my writing in general, an investment. And investments are about time.

Meanwhile bills roll in, and the stress of not getting paid kicked in as soon as the jet lag wore off. I spent my first week home following up with clients, a daily constitution for most freelance writers I know. When I wasn’t doing that, I worried, which I’m very good at. There are often financial dry spells when working as a freelance writer, but it was difficult to have it follow such a luxurious week. Just days earlier, I sat inside a dreamy hotel sipping luscious red wine, nibbling on tuna carpaccio and talking with a Canadian writer about the restaurants down by the beach. Difficult clients, ignored emails, piling bills, and the snobbery of an overpriced, award-winning school district community were all four-thousand miles away.

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Perspective was easier in Positano, not because of five-star accommodations, but because of Positano itself, with its Easter-egg colored houses clinging to a cliff, its lemon trees in between homes, twisting toward the sun, everything appearing so old and still and lovely. Fewer than five-thousand residents live there. I saw some of their undergarments drying. Laundry lines crisscrossed several households; just outside my fancy hotel, someone hung men’s briefs and a large bra from a clothesline strung across a front balcony.

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The Amalfi Coast seduces. I get it now. This was my second trip to Italy (the first one being in March 1996), but my first trip going beyond Italy’s cities and to the smaller places. Our hotel, Le Sirenuse, is an exceptional place that deserves all the praise that’s ever been said or printed about it. And it has a magnificent outdoor swimming pool. On the Saturday morning I had to check out, I finally had a chance to try the pool. It had been a chilly, wet week in Positano, the sun often coming out when I had to be inside for a writer’s workshop. But a few hours before check out, the sun was strong; morning felt like early afternoon. I changed into my bathing suit and slipped into the pool. Many of my colleagues were still enjoying breakfast, and while they finished their eggs and cappuccinos, I had what now ranks as the best swim in my life.

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As a hotel pool junkie, this is a notable claim. I have swum in many fine hotel pools around the world; I have gone into debt to travel and experience these places just like I went into debt to travel and experience Positano. The conference and the people and the learning were unparalleled. I hope to attend again. But that swim—the warm water, the smell of the beach just a few steep staircases away, the sounds of the cliff waking up and beginning another weekend. Wow. Just wow. That’s the best I can come up with because you really had to be there. What else can I say other than I had the pool to myself for about 20 minutes, that gliding across the water, I realized Italy was letting me in on its secrets, and that was when I knew I had been completely seduced. I no longer felt guilty about the expense of being there. I wanted to swim until my skin pruned. I wanted to tell the taxi driver taking me to the train station that I had changed my mind.

Positano will balloon with tourists this summer. I was grateful to enjoy the region in early spring, when things are quieter and slower. Many shops were still closed for the winter; a gelateria across the street opened for the season during my week there. Other shops began to unlock its doors and hang their shingles. Poverty used to plague this area during the early twentieth century, and by mid-century, Steinbeck and movie stars were showing up. Being a charming fishing village wasn’t enough anymore. Positano depends on tourism, it needs travelers to be swept away by its beauty, and to keep coming back.

Steinbeck is right: “it’s a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” I thought I arrived with all my practicality in check, and since leaving two weeks ago, I feel haunted by the place. I think about how vertical Positano is, how you ascend or descend to see things. Everything is up or down. You climb stairs carved into homes or the cliff itself or make your way along exceptionally narrow stone roads you share with Vespas zipping by, and if the stairs and roads have been washed by the day’s rain, you pray there’s a railing nearby to steady you. Public buses use these same roads, which blew my mind as I watched drivers handle hairpin turns with familiarity, not slowing down when I thought they should, but they knew Positano’s curves. I did not.

I hope to earn enough money to go back. Writing has been cheapened. Freelance gigs are harder to come by. Book advances are shrinking. Everyone jokes how there’s no money in publishing. Meanwhile, the cost of housing, health care and education have all gone exponentially up while salaries have flattened, editorial salaries being among some of the worst. It’s hard to make things work in the United States. In this election year, I hear many people say the American dream is dead. I want to say “Fuck money!” that I write for the love of language, that I write for the same reasons Steinbeck wrote, that I am compelled by passion, not income or status, which I’ve never really had anyway. And when I was in Positano, it was easier for those things to feel true. Now back in suburban New York, I fret constantly about money. I feel defined by my lack of it. New York is so expensive, and even robust paychecks don’t feel like enough. No one here hangs their laundry outside to dry. Landscapers are always around tidying up people’s gardens and yards. We own one car where most driveways have at least two, sometimes three, and often newer models. What your kid wears and where your kid goes to summer camp reflects how well you are doing. Here in my 1926 Colonial, around the corner from some newly-constructed McMansions, I am writing in my pajamas—as freelance writers do—and I’d like to lift my coffee cup and loudly proclaim “Fuck money!” but the silence that would follow would overwhelm me.

Reluctant Hibernation

I act like a bear in January. I cocoon on my sofa far too much and leave it reluctantly, unless, of course, I’ve got a salsa lesson, which is the best half-hour of the week. When not at salsa class (yes, some bears do dance), I skulk about our house looking for snacks—often, and I’m not joking here—smoked salmon. Fish is good for the brain and in the winter, my brain chemistry needs all the help it can get. January slays me every year (February, too, but I perk up knowing Daylight Savings and spring are just around the corner). If I could sleep away winter like bears do, I might, though I know no one would scoop the cat litter box while I hibernated. (I was disappointed to learn bears actually don’t hibernate as much as urban myth would have us believe. They’re out there in the woods, putting in the hours, which makes me think I need to get off the sofa more.)

What keeps me afloat this January is that starting in March and going into mid-May, I’ll be visiting some very gorgeous, warm places. I’ve been accepted to Sirenland, which still blows my mind, and despite a hatred (yes, hatred) of flying, I’m flying to Italy because no one has yet invented the technology to beam me there. Since I redeemed miles to make the trip, my journey is anything but direct. First I’ll be flying into Zurich, Switzerland, where I’ll spend a few days walking off a sedative hangover. Then I take a train through the Swiss Alps to Naples, Italy, which, honestly, I’m pretty stoked about. The distance is like training it from New York City to Buffalo; the idea of sitting on a train snaking through Europe will make me feel 25 again. I’m okay with this. Once in Naples, I join my fellow Sirenlanders and we pile into cars and make our way to Le Sirenuse in Positano, a jewel along Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Here, I’m expecting symptoms of Impostor Syndrome to strike—and to hit hard. Italian wine consumed in socially-acceptable doses will help.

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Then in April, a four-day family spring break to Exuma, the Bahamas, because last spring break, we skied in Vermont and froze our butts off, making it feel like a repeated winter break as opposed to a true spring break. There’s a place in Exuma where we can swim with wild pigs. The pigs in Vermont are either rolling in cold mud or are transformed into charcuterie. The pigs in the Bahamas are clearly having more fun. I decided on a house rental here instead of doing the classic Caribbean-style resort. I spent four days at a resort in Mexico this past October (more on that another time), and I’m resorted-out. If I have to forage for meals every day with a house rental, so be it.

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Which brings us to May, when I leave for Havana. Oh my gosh…people, I am giddy about this trip.

Thanks to President Obama relaxing some travel restrictions, among other factors, Havana is a city in flux right now. I’m going as part of the Cuba Writers Program. In November, I started salsa lessons because I decided I can’t go back to Cuba (I was there on assignment in 2003), and not dance. When I was there 12 years ago, music was everywhere; people danced in streets, in bars, along the Melacon. I’m not a keep-the-barstool-warm kind of gal anyway. I’ve had five lessons so far with a young Colombian-American guy who is sunshine in shoes. Salsa is a mood-lifter, better than Xanax, tequila, walking in sunlight or mocking bad poetry. It is the perfect antidote to January. What I’ve learned from signing up for dance lessons is that I need to keep dancing.

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I’ll be home May 19, and after that, not really going anywhere for a while. Yes, maybe back to California in August, and always back to the Adirondacks. We can’t really afford all this travel—it’s not cheap—but when you get accepted to prestigious writing conferences, you pull out the plastic and go. And then you get the bill and spend your summer living off library DVDs and eating spaghetti knowing it was all worth it.

While eating cheap and mooching off the local library, I’ll spend the rest of the summer thinking “Was I really there???” And that’s why you take photos when you travel. It’s not to show off or maintain your perfect life via social media. It’s because the Earth is an extraordinary mix of contradictions; it is beauty and struggle; it feels large and small at the same time; it has rhythms that we’ve learned to predict and behaviors that continue to confound; it is hot and cold, harsh yet serene. The places we visit and love change like people, so to remember these places, you need a camera. Photos thread who we were then with who we are now, allowing us to look back and see ourselves sunbathing on that beautiful beach, hiking that huge mountain, posing in front of that yellowing, historic building, so we can say “Really, I was there.”

(PS: I didn’t take these photos. They came from that fascinating Black Hole known as the Internet.)

There’s No Pill for Being Bicoastal

Being bicoastal refers to a dual allegiance to East and West coasts, specifically, New York and Los Angeles. The running joke is that one is so bicoastal, she “doesn’t know whether to root for the Yankees or the Dodgers.” Furthering this bifurcated thinking is a recent New York Times article that appeared in the Style section (you know as soon as it appears in the newspaper’s style section it becomes instantly uncool) lamenting on the exodus of New York City’s creative class to Los Angeles (we hope to be among them in a few years). Following that article was a really funny, snarky reply to that piece, as if being being acknowledged by The Gray Lady and The Big Apple was akin to being liked by the cool kid at school.

Let New York and Los Angeles duke it out for popularity. My state of bicoastalness isn’t so urban-centric and runs deeper than that, and I’m willing to guess it does for other folks, too.

This past weekend, I felt like I had a foot on both sides. I attended a pool party and was passing around photos of my trip to Big Sur where we stayed at the giant human nest at Treebones, a glamping resort. Fellow pool party attendees were not the camping, outdoorsy type. (I’m not very good at being outdoorsy either despite having slept in a yurt in the Adirondacks, some camping on the beach in California and Maryland and in the woods at Shenandoah National Park—I stunk at all of it and was either eaten alive by bugs or froze my butt off at night.) Friends made jokes about being in a nest and how I got to the bathroom and why would I want to be exposed to the elements like that. At Treebones, we met some of the folks staying at the yurts, and they commended us for nesting. The yurts there are heated and beautifully furnished so by comparison, they were glamping while we were actually camping, one Californian native said to me. I hate pitching tents and cooking food over campfires, so the nest was perfect, and in late August, we didn’t have to worry about cold. Shelter was already provided and I could drag myself uphill to the main lodge for frittata at breakfast or sushi for dinner (yes, Treebones has a sushi bar). I did tell my friends that Mike and I didn’t sleep well in the nest, which is okay because we weren’t paying $150 a night to get a good night’s sleep but to experience the outdoors in an entirely different way. That was the intent of artist Jayson Fann, who builds nests for resorts, zoos, children’s hospitals, women’s shelters, and private residences.

And we did experience our surroundings like we never had before. Cocooning in a nest by a tree overlooking the ocean is not like balling up in a tent in the forest or on a beach—you lose the view once you go inside your tent. From the nest, you see everything. I wondered, “Do birds really have it this good?” I never saw moonlight move over water like I saw while in the nest, that late-summer gibbous moon and its intense white light gliding over the Pacific. It was incredible beauty. It made me think this was how the world looked before governments and television and smartphones and corporations. Sky and sea cycling through a rhythm that predates most of what fills our days now. I was witnessing something very old and sacred, something many miss out on, and all because I had to use the bathroom at three a.m. The Big Sur sky was so clear that moonlight filled our nest and it felt like a light bulb was on. Later in the morning, tendrils of fog circled between the branches of the nest and we watched minke whales breach nearby—observing whales from a tree! A bucket-list first and I don’t even believe in bucket lists.

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(Watching whales from the nest)

My Labor Day weekend poolside party chat might not have happened in Seattle, where I used to live, or perhaps in California or Oregon either. During my three years in Seattle, I learned that everyone camped. Everyone hiked. Everyone mountain-biked on trails at the base of actual mountains. It’s no exaggeration to say I’d come into work on Monday morning and people would talk about where they camped that weekend. Co-workers camped the way I went out to the movies; you just got in the car and did it. I felt like the outsider lacking cool REI gear and tales of reconnecting with nature. I even noticed this from some of my West Coast friends’ and colleagues’ social media feeds—over the Labor Day weekend they were hiking and camping all over the place out there, posting to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook lovely shots of trails and campgrounds and other magnificent scenery. And I get it. Why wouldn’t you constantly camp and hike when the world looks that goddamn awesome 24/7???

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(The nest at Treebones in Big Sur)

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(Morning view from the nest)

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(Big Sur country)

Nature-loving East Coasters do exist (we’re related to one who happens to be a tree scientist for the U.S. Forest Service, but he lives in rural Vermont). And there are parts of the interior Adirondacks that is deep mountain country and off the grid (we discovered this when almost running out of gas and being 16 miles from the nearest gas station). However, nature lovers don’t exist in abundance in the greater New York metropolitan area or along the Boston-New York-Washington, 1-95 corridor. New Yorkers—who often believe Manhattan is truly the center of the universe—spent Labor Day weekend by chlorinated pools, not mucky lakes. I sat by a pool recounting my two nights in a nest, and had to explain to folks where Big Sur was located. Unless you visit Big Sur, you have no frame of reference how truly wild the United States once looked. Yes, there’s a highway there thanks to convict labor, but some East Coasters have never seen a vacant, pristine beach like the ones in Big Sur, the empty kind where the surfers like to go; every inch of oceanfront from Maine to Florida is pretty developed (New Jersey is among the worst in terms of development whereas Maine still has some gorgeous, rocky, wild coastline left but you don’t have to go far to find a hotel or lighthouse). I imagine there are some places in Big Sky country that share that same, somewhat-unadulterated look as Big Sur, but again, that’s out west. The East Coast is quite built up. For a number of East Coasters, you say beach and they think Asbury Park or Ocean City. Vermont is an exception to the rest of the East Coast because the Green Mountain State has such strong zoning regulations and a fierce protection of its landscape—they outlawed billboards. New Jersey doesn’t seem to care about environmental protection and zoning, having said yes in the name of economic growth to anyone with enough money to build; just look at Atlantic City and all the countless billboards along the roads it takes to get there.

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(Sand Dollar Beach in Big Sur, a favorite among surfers, where there were more seagulls than people that day.)

The West Coast learned from East Coast mistakes. And when I think of being bicoastal, this is what I think of: a love for the natural world coupled with colonial settler ambition; a need for open space coupled with the Northeast’s cycles of four distinct, sometimes harsh, seasons; a preference for taking things slow coupled with an eagerness to do more. I feel that same sense of awe every time I see Mount Rainier peak through the clouds or the Manhattan skyline light up the night, both showing off their own distinct towering glory. Bicoastal is not a New York versus L.A. thing—it’s more nuanced. It’s finding different elements of America’s two very different coasts, realizing you belong to them both, and wishing you could physically be in two places at once.

The Adirondacks: A Small Place With Big Allure

On September 12, 1901, when there were maybe just a few hints of fall color touching the Adirondack Mountains, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt went for a hike. Vacationing with his family in his beloved North Country, he decided to climb Mount Marcy, New York State’s tallest peak at just over 5,300 feet. While hiking, some local man named Harrison Hall was trailing Roosevelt, carrying probably the most important piece of paper he’d ever held in his hands—a telegram with news of President McKinley’s life-threatening injuries. The Vice President got down the mountain, boarded a wagon and made it to a railroad station where he inched his way across New York State to get to Buffalo where McKinley had been shot. McKinley died on September 14, and Roosevelt was sworn in as America’s 26th president.

I think of this story every time I’m in the Adirondacks, which is where I spent this past weekend. Why this story? Because I think of how this understated 6.2 million acres of landscape used to attract some of the biggest names and most adventurous people. I mean Theodore Roosevelt chose to spend his down time here, where, 114 years later, I was spending my down time. This got me thinking how the Adirondacks’ timelessness appears indefatigable despite forest fires, global warming, and industrialization. Thirty-one years after Roosevelt became president, Lake Placid, the region’s biggest hub, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and did such a good job hosting that they got the gig again in 1980, drawing some of the world’s best athletes to this tiny town surrounded by blue peaks. The area, once known for back country lumberjacks and rural poverty, was now under the global spotlight entertaining some of the best of the best who had crossed sea and sky to reach this place. Today, the Olympic Games tend to go to bigger places with bigger budgets, and presidents vacation in luxurious locales like Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii. The Adirondacks is not Aspen or Jackson Hole; there are some four-star accommodations and awesome eats, but it’s still mountain country where grizzly guys are out in the open driving their rusting pick-ups. Outside of the American Northeast, people have heard of the Rockies and the Ozarks and maybe even the Smoky Mountains and the Olympic Range, but few people seem to recall the Adirondacks unless you specifically say “Lake Placid, where the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union” and then you get a nod of recognition.

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On the ground, Lake Placid obviously looks quite different than it did during Roosevelt’s visits or even the 1980 Olympic Games. Towns, like lakes and mountains, are their own ecosystems, always evolving and adapting, as they should. But while kayaking alone on Mirror Lake yesterday morning, I looked around the mountains and sky reflecting off the water’s surface, Mirror Lake living up to its name, and thought of how much nature still manages to move us even while we’re all IV’ed to our smartphones. The buildings and roads in between the Adirondacks’ peaks and valleys change, but the impact the region has on those who live here and visit has not. There are still many, many places throughout the Adirondacks where you can’t get any cell service, and as long as there’s no emergency, this feels like a wonderful thing. To kayak alone on a serene lake without my iPhone on me, to be out there early enough before all the paddleboarders and boaters woke up, and to feel like I had the sky and lake and mountains all to myself, was intoxicating. And I imagined this was the pull that Theodore Roosevelt felt when he hiked Mount Marcy nearby. Maybe, like me, he thought “This is mine,” even though we knew otherwise.

There are countless beautiful places on this earth—the Adirondacks and Mirror Lake being among them—and it’s getting harder to keep them beautiful. Lesser-known corners of our planet struggle to hide from capitalism, climate change and population growth. Globalization means just that, where everyone’s backyards are connected even if it doesn’t feel so. When I kayaked across Mirror Lake, I thought “How much longer?” The state-protected Adirondack Park is home to 3,000 lakes and ponds and 30,000 miles of streams and rivers, including the birthplace of the Hudson River; Mirror Lake is shockingly pristine compared with some of the others. Powered boats aren’t permitted and no one is dumping cow shit into it unlike the farms surrounding nearby Lake Champlain, the almost-sixth Great Lake that divides New York and Vermont (equally stunning though not as clean as it could be). The clarity of Mirror Lake’s shoreline sometimes reminded me of the Caribbean. Yet the area deals with salt contamination due to aggressive salt use as part of winter road maintenance. Folks there shovel more than 100 inches of snow per year; 86 percent of salt and chloride buildup has been directly attributed to road salting to help keep roads as dry as possible. Pollution comes from neighbors, too: many of the Adirondacks’ lakes suffered depletion due to acid rain as a result of wind patterns mixing with Midwest plant emissions.

Thankfully, there are already signs of ecological recovery, for mountain folk are fiercely protective types. Because of their efforts, we had a gorgeous, lazy day on a pretty clean lake Sunday. No floating garbage. No slimy muck pooling at our feet. Locals and tourists apparently playing by the rules. I’m so grateful for this region and miss it the moment we leave. It’s a side of the American Northeast people don’t think of; our colonial history and that stress-junkie lifestyle that defines the Boston to New York to Washington, DC, corridor often overshadows the quiet, mountain interior that appealed to Roosevelt. But it’s still there, and if you have the chance, go and experience it before it changes into something I wouldn’t recognize.

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Thoughts on Money and Travel

Normally, I use this little online soapbox to talk about various destinations I’ve enjoyed over the years. But what was the journey like leading up to these trips?

Five summers ago, we bought our first house and moved into rooms that took forever to fill with furniture. About six weeks later, the recreational soccer season began and I registered our daughter, for the suburban soccer field has always been the go-to place to ingratiate yourself, the place to meet other parents, get the lowdown on the community, learn where to buy cheese, craft beer and organic produce and to find out who mows their lawns at unreasonable hours. This whole move was about our daughter. This was the town with the award-winning school district, so we took on a ton of debt to care for an aging colonial house in a neighborhood surrounded by McMansions so she could get the best public school education northern New Jersey had to offer.

It didn’t take long for me to feel out place. The town is populated by financially-stable families who are either second-generation middle or upper-middle class, not first-generation middle class as we are. The grandparents were educated entrepreneurs, not cafeteria lunch ladies or school bus drivers like mine. The parents are now lawyers, doctors, and managers in business with nice gigs at places like NBC and UBS. We know two people who are in the creative fields; they are both musicians and married to one another. Otherwise, we haven’t met many other creative types here and no one talks about the books they’ve read because everyone is too busy working hard to pay for this lifestyle.

I was at the soccer field in early September when it still felt like summer, watching my kid chase a ball. It had been about two months after we had unpacked. I began eavesdropping on a couple of moms sitting nearby on bleachers. One was complaining about her husband being late to some household renovation discussion. The lighting was being redone, she needed his input, their house was worth a million or two, the designer had a lot of questions, why couldn’t he be on time? These women had amazing manicures and their hands flew like agitated, coiffed birds.

I turned to my husband and said “I need to join someone’s revolution in South America stat otherwise I’m going to get stupidly soft here.”

Fast-forward five years and I still hate it here, but the kid is getting that great education, she has a great circle of friends, we have equity, and I too-often book trips to escape. I always had a case of wanderlust. I daydream of driving around the West Coast in an Airstream—which always looked like a mega-metallic Twinkie to me—picnicking my way north or south, reading books, writing whatever, answering to no one or nothing, not even an alarm clock. My husband is on board with this idea once our kid finishes high school. He moved around a lot as a kid, hated it, and firmly believes (and I agree) kids should have roots. So maybe these are girlish dreams to have at age 42, for the suburban parents I’ve met here tackle their responsibilities with gusto, chauffeuring their children to the gazillion activities they think will give them that competitive edge for who knows what, and, if anyone resents this suburban parent rat race, no one is saying so out loud, not even after too much wine at backyard barbecues.

So I book trips. I booked trips before we moved to this snobby suburb, but now travel has become a kind of lifeline, my way of holding on to a me I still recognize and like. Since moving here, we’ve gone to France, Mexico, Japan, Iceland. We have gone to California almost every year (Mike’s company is based there), we visited Colorado twice, and Canada, five times. All these trips would have easily covered the cost of a major kitchen renovation as well as several other home upgrades, for our house is old and crumbling in some places plus we would increase our property value. But we have postcards, not an open-concept kitchen with granite counter tops. We have great cocktail party stories about getting lost in Tokyo and biking Quebec, not new bathroom tile. I sometimes wonder if the frequency of our travels gives the false impression that we are rich, and here’s where the thoughts on money come in.

Three years ago, I left a communications manager job in which I was held in high regard. It wasn’t fulfilling, I had always wanted to be a novelist, and I thought, if not now, when? I could’ve stayed, collected regular paychecks every two weeks, lean in, as Sheryl Sandberg suggests, say yes to everything in the hopes that I would get another promotion and/or bonus, build up my retirement savings, maintain a decent working gal’s wardrobe, continue to pay through the nose for after school care and commuting (my commute averaged about $8,000 per year; getting across that Hudson River every day is not cheap, folks), and go on family vacations probably twice a year while watching my dreams of writing a novel ebb away because I’m not the type who can scribble plot on deli napkins in between meetings.

Instead, I’m under-earning. Way under-earning during what should be peak earning years. Juicier, larger projects that used to be easier to come by as a freelance writer are now fewer and far between. Budgets get cut. Projects fall through. The Internet continues to cheapen everything related to writing and publishing. Experts always advise to diversify; I have more clients yet less income, which goes against the equation many of us were taught. Every freelance writer I know is being low-balled for his or her work, and we’re all working harder now just to grab those smaller assignments that perhaps a decade or two ago we could have afforded to pass.

Despite this drop in income, I still travel though sometimes I question whether I should chill out, ignore my suburban surroundings and just save more and spend less. Two days ago, I hid from the Canadian wind by curling up and reading inside a Starbucks at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec City. I read about Scratch magazine, a publication covering the writing life and money, or lack thereof, coming to an end after two years. Scratch didn’t paint a rosy picture of the writer’s life—no one makes any money, which made me wonder if my choices were too financially risky after all. And then I read this great article by Chelsea Fagan about money and travel. Usually articles about money and/or travel remind me of what I’ve done wrong, but this one was so validating I read it twice. Fagan writes: “Encouraging that person to ‘not worry about money,’ or to ‘drop everything and follow their dreams,’ demonstrates only a profound misunderstanding about what ‘worrying’ actually means.”

I almost stood up at Le Château Frontenac and applauded. Holy crap! Someone finally said it. Out loud. On the Internet.

But, hey, Katrina, you quit your job, you’re following your dreams now, and you’re thanking Fagan’s candor from the lobby of a four-star hotel where you once stayed. All true, Internet, but here’s the thing: I spent my teens, 20s, and 30s working jobs I didn’t like to dig myself out of debt. We should all do stuff we don’t like for extended periods of time because it makes us appreciate what we really do like. I had six figures of debt when my daughter was born in 2004. My parents didn’t have bachelor’s degrees or any money when they were married and then when they divorced while I was a teenager, there was even less money to go around, and let’s just say getting child support from my father wasn’t easy. Money was so tight I missed out on my high school French class trip to Quebec City because I couldn’t afford to go (and I was the only student who didn’t go). My mother occasionally borrowed $20 from me—my earnings from babysitting, strawberry-picking and bussing tables at the town country club—to fill her gas tank to get to work. Growing up, our financial situation was precarious, and the cost of this dysfunction would be mine to pay off for years. I had to borrow to go to college, as most of us do, and worked a number of odd jobs to continue to afford college. I used credit cards to buy groceries and make ends meet. I once borrowed $3,000 from an ex-boyfriend (obviously, a super-nice guy, whom I did pay back in full). I didn’t come from any means whatsoever. Low expectations were encouraged, verbally and otherwise. I sometimes think middle- and upper-class families, where the money just moves from generation to generation, don’t get this, that lack of a safety net, what it feels like to stretch $20 bills farther than they are meant to go. My parents didn’t grow up with any money so “making do” was what you did, but as a teenager I resented this hand-to-mouth living. The breadwinner of our household had a debilitating mental illness and made a number of bad choices that would follow me for a long time. I wanted to break loose from all of it, financially, geographically, emotionally.

What changed? The first shift came in 1997 when we threw our few possessions into a small U-haul trailer and moved cross-country to Seattle, my first big life lesson that risk can indeed pay off. I came into a wave of dot-com money in the late 1990s and paid off $10,000 in student loans and a car loan (leaving about another $36,000 in student loans to go). A few years after being flush from our West Coast dot-com days, Mike and I both lost jobs and credit card debt went back up. Oh, and we had a baby. He was offered a job in New York City, and 11 1/2 years later, I’m still shocked we live here. We both did the nonprofit treadmill for a while and stayed afloat. I earned bonuses from exhausting office jobs and paid off what I could while Mike worked overtime. I got to the office early, Blackberried while driving home, arrived at daycare past closing, and watched a paycheck based on a 40-hour work week start to look small as the job consumed more of my life. Any windfall led to paying something off and, when we were lucky, a trip. First, small jaunts to the coast of Maine or back to Washington, D.C., where we used to live, and, eventually, trips to Belgium and England. Meanwhile, I contributed a meager 2 percent of my paycheck towards retirement—because daycare, credit card bills and other student loans ate the rest of my paycheck—and eventually that 2 percent grew to the point where we had enough for a rather laughable but legally-appropriate down payment on a house that was surprisingly accepted without issue. The real game changer, however, came in 2007 when my husband was offered a corporate gig that literally altered our lives. Nonprofit is called nonprofit for a reason, and folks can bash the corporate realm all they want, but the corporate realm helped us dig out faster, and I don’t badmouth the hand that feeds us. Because of one particularly awesome for-profit company that values my husband (and approves of work/life balance), I now have the freedom to attempt to write a novel while still being able to afford our daily expenses.

Which brings me back to the soccer field. The start of school and the new soccer season means the tail end of summer vacation. Sometimes I find myself chatting with a parent at the sideline and we talk about where we went and other trips we’ve taken. “Wow, you get around!” is usually the response, and I want to explain to this mom or dad how my mother, newly divorced, would yell at me for keeping my bedroom heat on too high because I was needlessly running up the utility bill when I could just throw on a sweater; how during my freshman year of college there was that discussion about whether I could afford to continue; how there would be a stack—a stack—of credit card bills on my desk; how I asked an ex-boyfriend for money.

But I don’t say any of these things.

When I meet others in our ‘burb, they ask what I do, the typical American chitchat filler. I explain how I stay at home and write freelance, and oh, yes, I’m working on my first novel, and yes, my husband writes for a mutual fund company, and really, you should go visit Iceland because the lava fields are beautiful this time of year, and I catch myself. But what can you really say on the sidelines of a kid’s soccer game? That it took you 20 years to dig out of debt, that you still worry about money even though the trips you take suggest otherwise because ever since you were stuck at home listening to your parents argue, you knew you wanted to see the world, that, yes, by all appearances you sound like a suburban corporate hausfrau but you’re focused on becoming a novelist and there are people in the publishing industry who think your manuscript is pretty good, that what you see standing before you here on this manicured soccer field isn’t always how it’s been, that you once counted pennies to buy spaghetti and butter, that when you were 23, your mother would call asking for money to help pay for your own health insurance because you were still on her plan and it was eating into her paycheck, that it was a long, weird, often difficult road, that financially, the woman you see before you is a late-bloomer compared with the neighbors, and that sometimes she’s surprised to be having this conversation at all?