Tag Archives: living

Getting it right: Writing your own obituary

When Edna Briggs dies, she doesn’t want a well-meaning loved one to whitewash the ups and downs of her life. To avoid that, she is writing her own obituary.

Briggs, who is 69 and lives in Los Angeles, wants her farewell to offer insights into why her life turned out the way it did. Her two children might not understand how certain events — her father forbidding her from trying for a scholarship to Howard University, for example, or the pride of earning a prestigious internship — affected her path, so she’s handling it herself.

“I will describe my life the way I want it described,” says Briggs, a health care administrator and passionate genealogist. “I believe in having the final say.”

It’s an idea with which many Baby Boomers can identify, says Katie Falzone, spokeswoman for Legacy.com, a website that partners with newspapers and funeral homes to publish obituaries.

“Baby Boomers are comfortable talking about themselves in a way that previous generations never did,” says Falzone. “They’re used to defining their lives,” and to challenging the status quo.

While less than 1 percent of the obituaries on the site are self-written, the number is growing, she says.

Last year, the site ran about 525 self-penned obits, compared to only about 165 a decade ago.

The number has doubled in the last five years.

Who better to recount your story than yourself, says Sarah White, a writing coach in Madison, Wisconsin, who teaches a “selfie obituary” writing class online and at senior centers and libraries.

“Who knows all the parts of your life? Your children know you as a parent. Your co-workers know you professionally. Your spouse probably knows very little about your life at work. They say your siblings are the people with you your whole life,” she says. “I wouldn’t leave this up to my siblings. They don’t know anything about me.”

Kerry Kruckmeyer, who died unexpectedly in April, wrote the obituary that recently appeared about him in the Arizona Daily Star.

“I thought this would be different, amusing and enjoyable,” he wrote. He concluded that he had lived “a very good and blessed life for which I am most thankful.”

Kruckmeyer had distributed the document to his family about a decade ago, says his brother, Korey Kruckmeyer of Tucson, Arizona. “It’s typical of him,” Korey says. “It reflects his sense of humor.”

And the self-written obituary struck a chord with readers. “I’ve gotten a bunch of calls from people who don’t know me or Kerry just wanting to talk about it,” Korey Kruckmeyer says.

Writing such an essay — whether or not it’s actually published someday as an obituary — can be “very affirming,” White says. “It always seems to add up to more than the person realized.”

The writing process got Jim Weber of Tumwater, Washington, thinking about his future as well as his past.

“You may find you have some unfinished business,” says Weber, 60. “It may cause you to make decisions about how you want to spend the rest of your life.”

In his self-written obituary, he notes a strained relationship that he would like to see healed. He also pokes fun at his life, connecting his pursuit of a law degree to hours spent watching “Perry Mason” with his mother, and pointing out that he met his “third and final wife” in the freezer section of the local grocery.

White’s own selfie obituary highlights her love of traveling with her husband, her career as a commercial artist and writer, and her passion for her pets and the outdoors. “She also camped frequently in Wisconsin’s north woods,” she writes, “but would not reveal her favorite campsite even upon her deathbed.”

Putting your life down on paper is also an opportunity to share family history with future generations, she said. “I think people should leave a record of their life,” she says. “Be the ancestor you wish you had.”

Taking White’s class made Pattie Whitehouse of Victoria, British Columbia, realize she had a lot she wanted to say. She ended up with a document of more than 900 words, and intends to continue editing until she meets her ultimate deadline. Whitehouse injected some humor in the piece, which focuses on her passion for the environment. For now, the final line reads: “As she wished, Pattie’s remains were chipped and used as mulch.”

“Which tells you a lot about me,” the 65-year-old says. “The people who know me will recognize me in it.”

She plans to give the document to her partner, Robert, and her sisters to distribute upon her death.

Briggs, a widow, is putting everything in writing because her daughter doesn’t want to discuss the matter, she says. As a genealogist, Briggs says, she has seen too many erroneous obituaries. She also knows that handling the task now will make things easier for her daughter when she passes.

Alan Gelb, 66, of Chatham, New York, began thinking about preparing his final words when he started attending more funerals.

“When I would go to services, I found myself missing the voice of the person who was not with us,” he says.

Gelb, who helps high school students draft college entrance essays, decided that older adults could benefit from a similar task. In his book, “Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story” (Tarcher Books, 2015), he encourages readers to write a story that captures some of their core values, to pass it on to future generations. Gelb recommends having the story read at your funeral. The exercise is a good segue into obituary writing, he says.

“Writing your own obituary is sort of like voting for yourself whenßyou run for office,” he says. “It may be a bit self-serving but it is fully warranted, and it can make all the difference.”

How midcentury modern classics adapted

In the years after World War II, when suburban towns were still “the country,” the unassuming village of New Canaan, Connecticut, just an hour north of Manhattan, became an epicenter of modernist architecture, and a birthplace of then-radical concepts like family rooms, floor-to-ceiling windows and open-plan living.

Since then, the surviving homes have continued to evolve, a transformation explored in a new book that looks at 16 of New Canaan’s 91 remaining homes from this influential era.

“These homes were meant to be truly modern, to adapt. Preservation is about keeping the character while allowing these homes to move on,” said architect Cristina A. Ross, who with architect Jeffrey Matz, photographer Michael Biondo and graphic designer Lorenzo Ottaviani produced the book, “Midcentury Houses Today” (Monacelli Press, 2014).

In New Canaan, she said, “the concentration of homes and the number of surviving houses to this day is incredibly unique.”

Through photos, detailed floor plans and time lines, and the voices of architects, builders and occupants, the book traces the original structures and subsequent additions, devoting a full chapter to each home.

Unlike the modernist architecture of the Midwest, New Canaan’s modernist homes directly reflect the principles of the Bauhaus school of design in Germany, established by architect Walter Gropius. When the Nazi regime closed down the Bauhaus in the 1930s, Gropius became chairman of the architecture department at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. He was later joined by Marcel Breuer. Together, the two passed on their aesthetic — emphasizing volume; large areas of glass juxtaposed by blank walls; flat roofs; freedom from architectural ornamentation — to students and associates.

Breuer, Eliot Noyes, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and John Johansen, all early promulgators of modernism in New Canaan, became known as the Harvard Five. They moved to New Canaan, near the last stop on the commuter rail line and near the newly constructed Merritt Parkway. Land was cheap and plentiful enough to allow for new experiments in architecture. They were soon joined there by architects Victor Christ-Janer, John Black Lee and others.  

“They were experimenting, and they were fast and furiously creating the way they felt people should be living,” said Ross. “They were designing the offices for IBM, for big corporations, and people became so enamored of the work environment that many CEOs wanted to bring that streamlining and flow to their home life.”

Although these architects’ work is well-known, the ways their structures have been transformed over time is not. The book offers ideas and a rough roadmap for those looking to adapt modernist-inspired homes throughout the U.S.

“Some of these homes now have a second story, and some were expanded in other ways, while others were restored and updated and not expanded at all. There are many different approaches that allow the original house to continue to shine while moving on,” Ross said.

Both Johnson and Black Lee, when invited to see changes made to homes they had designed, said they thought their works had been improved, the authors say.

In fact, the evolution of homes of this era seems crucial to their survival. The original homes tended to be modest by contemporary standards, with interior areas of around 2,000 square feet. Their designs reflected European sensibilities and so tended to have small bedrooms and minimal closet space.

To adapt to changing expectations of comfort in affluent New Canaan, many of the homes were expanded, with larger bedrooms, en suite bathrooms, media rooms and wine cellars. Also, higher energy costs meant that glassed-in areas had to be upgraded and homes refitted with state-of-the-art mechanical systems.

At the same time, additions demanded a creative approach so as to retain the aesthetics of movement, simplicity, openness, and sensitivity to site and nature, while respecting zoning regulations limiting the structures’ footprint.

One of the more striking additions is a glassed-in staircase and cantilevered master suite by Toshiko Mori, a sort of transparent floating tree house that extends out into the woods behind a 1951 Breuer house.  

“Additions to midcentury modern buildings do not necessarily harmonize with existing construction. Instead, they may introduce a different, more contemporary interpretation of modernism,” writes John Morris Dixon.

Adds Ross: “Preservation doesn’t mean stagnation. These houses were meant to live and breathe with families, and not end up like museums or time capsules.”

***

For a firsthand look at midcentury modern architecture in New Canaan, visit the Glass House, Philip Johnson’s well-known 1949 residence and surrounding structures, which became a National Trust Property in 2007. (www.theglasshouse.org )

Also, the New Canaan Historical Society features a detailed survey of the town’s midcentury homes, and runs tours of the 1957 Gores Pavilion (Irwin Pool House) and, every couple years, tours of some of the modernist homes in the town. (www.nchistory.org )

Ask a Designer: 2014 decor trends

With a new year come new trends in home design and decorating. Among them: paler walls contrasted with colorful furniture, and plenty of personal expression, design experts say.

COOLEST COLORS

Whisper-soft, ultra-pale shades of pink _described by designers as “blush tones” — are back. But the 1980s haven’t returned, says designer Brian Patrick Flynn says, at least not entirely.

“What’s different about blush this time around is what it’s paired with. In 1985, you’d find it paired with mauve and black with tons of shiny brass accents. Flash forward to today and blush is likely to be paired with preppy, masculine tones,” says Flynn, founder of Flynnside Out Productions.

His favorite blush paint is Barely Blush from Glidden, which he contrasts with navy blue: “The deep, rich personality of the navy actually washes out the blush, almost causing it to look white, and the overall effect is fresh and gorgeous.”

Speaking of white walls, Los Angeles-based designer Betsy Burnham sees those coming back in a big way.

“I used to think white walls looked unfinished,” she says. “But I’ve completely come around on this one, because white is the ultimate palette cleanser.ßIt gives every space — even the most traditional — a modern edge, and sets the stage wonderfully for layers of color in upholstery, accessories, area rugs and art.”

But while wall colors are getting softer and paler, the opposite seems to be happening with furniture.

“Strong colors on upholstery are becoming more of the norm,” says Kyle Schuneman, founder of Live Well Designs, who spent a chunk of 2013 designing his first line of furniture, in collaboration with retailer Apt2B.

He opted to create sofas in bright blues and shades of orange because “a bright sofa is no longer just for a creative office waiting room,” he says. “People are bringing them into their homes.”

One bold color to approach carefully this year: red-violet. “Red-violet is the Pantone color of the year for 2014,” Flynn says. “As a designer whose specialty is using color, let me tell you something: Red-violet is about as complex as it gets.”

“My trick for using it right is pairing it with black, white and brass,” he says. “It’s not all that overwhelming, since it’s balanced by the neutrality of the black and white, and made a bit more chic and regal with the brass.”

TOP TEXTURES

“For accessories, the trend seems to be getting away from color and going more into rich textures like horn, aged metallics and linens,” Schuneman says. “The absence of color is becoming chic for smaller items.”

One texture Flynn says will have a big moment in 2014: felt.

“Have you looked at Pinterest lately? It’s like every fifth photo you see involves felt! Ever since the handmade movement kicked in back in 2010, felt has been used in unexpected ways and in a modern fashion,” Flynn says. “What makes it such a favorite for designers is how easy it is to work with. It’s amazing for door upholstery due to its stiffness. It makes for awesome craft material, since it’s easy to cut and stitch, and it’s awesome for kids.”

An easy project for even the DIY-challenged: “I modernized the classic kindergarten felt wall in a boy’s room by covering a wall with batting, then literally upholstering it with white and blue felt, then cutting tons of felt into random objects and characters to give the kids something interactive and stylish.”

FRESH INSPIRATIONS

“The idea of personalization is becoming stronger and stronger,” Schuneman says. “People are wanting their homes to reflect a more unique perspective.”

So rather than assuming that everyone will be buying the same popular items, “stores are doing limited runs on items more often, like art in series or a special brand collaboration for just a season,” he says.

Burnham agrees. Homeowners are increasingly looking to “large-scale wall hangings” and other pieces of art to express themselves, she says, rather than doing it with bold wall color.

“Boy, am I sick of accent walls.ßI really believe that trend is out!ßI vote for art every time,” Burnham says.ß“If you’re looking for something to cover big, blank areas,ßshop on Etsy for macrame pieces. They add such wonderful texture to your walls, and artists like Sally England have brought them back into vogue.”

She also recommends hunting for vintage posters that speak to you. Find them through online dealers and auction houses, and then frame them in a group.ß

“While the vintage ones are a bit of an investment,” Burnham says, “they can be a lot more reasonably priced than large-scale paintings and photographs.”

Another way Americans are increasingly customizing their space, according to Flynn: Western-inspired dΘcor.

“For years I’ve seen taxidermy make its way into mainstream design, yet reinvented in new ways. Lately, I’ve been looking to Ralph Lauren-like cabins of the Western United States for inspiration in my own home. I think a lot of cabin-inspired colors such as pea greens, hunter greens and camouflage-inspired prints will become super popular.”

Flynn’s cabin in the north Georgia mountains is currently decorated in pea green and accented with heavy, masculine fabrics, Western hats and antlers.

TACKLING AWKWARD SPACES

“Tons of new-construction homes have awkward bonus rooms” that homeowners aren’t sure how to furnish, Flynn says.

One suggestion: “Why not turn that space into an extra sleeping area that can accommodate multiple guests, but in a super-stylish, architectural manner? That’s where the art of built-in bunks comes in,” Flynn says.

“I turned a dated attic into a bunk room and play space for two young brothers by using one wall as floor-to-ceiling, mid-century-style bunks. This isn’t exactly cheap to do, but it’s well worth the investment since it maximizes space and adds an architectural focal point, albeit one that’s functional, to otherwise dead space.”

Workers at Milwaukee fast food, retail chains walk off jobs

Hundreds of workers at some of Milwaukee’s largest fast food and retail chains walked off their jobs on May 15 as they demanded the right to form a union without fear of retaliation and wages of $15 an hour.

A news release from the Milwaukee Workers Organizing Committee said employees at some McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Simply Fashion and Taco Bell operations walked off the job. Milwaukee is the fifth city hit by low-wage worker strikes in five weeks. Workers at fast food restaurants and retail stores also have gone on strike in New York City, Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit.

Also, workers nationwide have demonstrated recently against retail giant Walmart in a campaign called the Black Friday Strike.

“We’re on strike because we’re tired of struggling just to survive,” said Kenneth Mack, a McDonald’s employee. “There is no reason why I should go to work every day and not make enough to take care of myself and my daughter.”

“Jobs that pay $15 an hour can save lives in Milwaukee,” said Javon Walker, an employee at Old Country Buffet. “Too many people – youth especially – turn to crime because they don’t make enough to make ends meet. Good paying jobs will change lives in this city for the better.”

The Milwaukee Workers Organizing Committee estimates that about 100,000 family-sustaining manufacturing jobs have been lost in metro Milwaukee since the early 1980s. This has left some workers to rely on low-paying jobs in fast food or retail.

Yet, the workers maintain, there’s no justification for such low wages – minimum wage is $7.25 an hour – since fast food is a $200 billion a year industry and retail is a $4.7 trillion industry.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology report stated that a single adult in Milwaukee with one child needs to earn nearly $21 an hour to get by.

On the Web…

http://raiseupmke.org