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Lean this! Many women already feel like pretzels — (maybe bonsai)

In behavior, books, business, culture, domestic life, life, US, women, work on April 18, 2014 at 2:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Are we there yet?

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Every day someone new, usually another highly-educated white HNW woman, is exhorting us to lean in, or lean out, or duck and cover or…something.

Mostly, I just want a martini and a nap.

I hate this barrage of “self-help” books telling other women to lean in, (i.e. work your ass off for a corporate employer and climb that ladder stat!) — or to lean out (bake brownies and say Om!).

Or, even better — from a millionaire who gets writers to fill her website free – on how to thrive.

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Maybe because I grew up in the 1970s, in the era of second-wave feminism, in Toronto. We thought — really, we did! — it would be a hell of of lot better than this by now.

Ms. magazine had just launched and my late step-mother used to dance around the living room singing along to Helen Reddy’s 1972 anthem of female empowerment: I Am Woman:

“I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore…”

From Wikipedia:

In the year that Gloria Steinem‘s Ms. magazine was launched in the US and Cleo in Australia, the song quickly captured the imagination of the burgeoning women’s movement. National Organization for Women founder Betty Friedan was later to write that in 1973, a gala entertainment night in Washington DC at the NOW annual convention closed with the playing of “I Am Woman”. “Suddenly,” she said, “women got out of their seats and started dancing around the hotel ballroom and joining hands in a circle that got larger and larger until maybe a thousand of us were dancing and singing, ‘I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.’ It was a spontaneous, beautiful expression of the exhilaration we all felt in those years, women really moving as women.”[4]

So we all rocketed out into the world, excited and determined it would all be different now.

 

(Insert bitter, knowing laugh.)

 

Then we grew up.

So I’m weary of this latest panoply of corporate-suck-up advice and endless set of prescriptions — all of it coming from wealthy, educated, powerful and connected women — on how we should live.

I did like this story in Pacific Standard:

I intentionally lean out of my career. A lot. I do this because there are only 24 hours in a day, and when I ask myself, “If I died tomorrow, what would I want people to remember me for?” it isn’t anything I’ve published, any TV appearance I’ve made, or anything like that.

I’d like my son to remember that, almost every morning, I snuggled with him for 15 minutes before we finally got up together. I’d like him to remember that I had the door open and a hug ready for him when he ran home from the school bus, almost every day. I’d like him to remember that I took up the clarinet, and started lessons with him with his teacher, so we could play duets together and so that he could be my secondary teacher. I’d like him to remember all the after-school walks we took to the river. I’d like him to remember how happy I was when he had a snow day and could stay home with me.

I’d like my mate to remember all that, and to remember that I became a gardener, reluctantly at first, and that I did so because he loves planting but hates to weed. I’d like him to remember all the dinner parties with friends I arranged for us. I’d like him to remember the house concerts, like the one last night.

And I fully agree that we need to carefully consider the real economic costs of when to chase (more) income instead of enjoying a less-frenzied private life, non-stop careerism versus time lavished on family, friends or just…sitting still.

The real problem?

This is such a privileged conversation.

You can only “lean out” if you have:

savings; if you and your partner and/or your dependents remain in good health and if your housing costs are free or fixed, (i.e. rent controlled or stabilized or you have a fixed-rate mortgage, all of which rely on luck or a steady income from somewhere. Which is…?)

If you lean out, away from well-paid work, you also need someone else with a reliable, decent income to subsidize or wholly support your reduced paid workload — because fuel, food, medicine, insurance, education, clothing, and specialized skills like dentists, all cost real money.

Not everyone can live in a hut or barter for everything.

And too many women are just worn thin, millions of them working in crappy, dangerous, depressing and exhausting low-wage jobs with no hope of raises or promotions or benefits.

They aren’t wearing Prada and angling for a corner office — but something as simple and unachievable as a steady schedule that actually allows them to plan doctor visits or meet their kids’ teacher(s) or take a class that might propel them out of that enervating low-wage ghetto.

I see little communal concern (Hello, Occupy Wall Street?!), and no shared outrage at massive corporate profits/stagnant hiring/excessive C-suite compensation, and the lowest union membership — 7 percent private, 11 percent public — since the Great Depression.

I don’t think unions are the only solution.

But focusing relentlessly only on our individual needs isn’t going to do much either. Too many workers, too many women, are still getting screwed economically and politically.

How about you?

Which way are you leaning these days?

If one more privileged white woman tells me to be confident…

In behavior, books, business, culture, life, women, work on April 16, 2014 at 4:10 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you noticed the recent spate of wealthy, white, powerful women — Arianna Huffington (who refuses to pay writers at HuffPost), Sheryl Sandberg and now Katty Kay (BBC anchor) and Claire Shipman — selling books telling the rest of us to, you know, man up already?

Katty Kay, BBC presenter and author

Katty Kay, BBC presenter and author

Great post from Amanda Hess at Slate:

The Confidence Code is a kind of Lean In: Redux, and like Sandberg’s book, its mission is to vault America’s most ambitious women into even higher echelons of power. Also catering to this set: The 10 Habits of Highly Successful Women, a new collection of testimonies from powerful gals, and the just-released Thrive, in which Arianna Huffington advises readers to focus on the “third metric” of success, well-being. (This one’s for women who have already read about securing the first two metrics—money and power, obviously). The Atlantic also took time this month to ask why female CEOS are holding themselves back in comparison to their male peers. (Can you believe Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles made only $403,857 in 2012? Sounds like somebody needs to “lean in.”)

Why is this genre enjoying such a moment right now? A few years ago, in the wake of the financial crisis, the think piece du jour centered on how overconfident men were a danger to themselves and their country. Now, women are being told to ape these poisonous personality quirks for feminist life lessons. Buy these books and you, too, can become a successful blowhard.

Now it’s a cover story in The Atlantic:

We know the feeling firsthand. Comparing notes about confidence over dinner one night last year, despite how well we knew each other, was a revelation. Katty got a degree from a top university, speaks several languages, and yet had spent her life convinced that she just wasn’t intelligent enough to compete for the most-prestigious jobs in journalism. She still entertained the notion that her public profile in America was thanks to her English accent, which surely, she suspected, gave her a few extra IQ points every time she opened her mouth.

Claire found that implausible, laughable really, and yet she had a habit of telling people she was “just lucky”—in the right place at the right time—when asked how she became a CNN correspondent in Moscow while still in her 20s. And she, too, for years, routinely deferred to the alpha-male journalists around her, assuming that because they were so much louder, so much more certain, they just knew more. She subconsciously believed that they had a right to talk more on television. But were they really more competent? Or just more self-assured?

This is simply too rich.

The majority of women living in poverty, working and in old age, never made a decent wage and/or took time off to raise children. Many of the millions of low-wage workers in retail and food-service earn crap money for exhausting work. I worked low-wage retail for 2.5 years and wrote a book about it.

I confidently asked my bosses for a promotion — from $11/hour to $45,000 a year as assistant manager — but never even got the courtesy of an interview, despite a track record of consistently high sales and praise from my customers.

They hired a 25-year-old man from another company instead.

 Many women don’t lack confidence.

They lack income. They lack opportunity. They lack internal support. They lack the fuck-you savings fund that allows us to walk away quickly from a toxic boss or environment to find a place that will reward and value us.

Here’s a breakdown of what American women are earning, from Catalyst, a source I trust — the average American woman working full-time makes $37,791 — compared to a man’s $49, 398.

I don’t buy the argument that discrimination alone makes the difference, nor self-confidence. Skills, education, access to networks of people who are ready to hire, manage, promote? Yes.

I’ve met plenty of women — like the 75-year-old designer I interviewed this week — who don’t lack a scintilla of self-confidence.

It’s a difficult path for women to navigate, that between annoying asshole and demure doormat. Yet we all know who walks away with the best assignments, income, awards and promotions.

I judged some journalism awards last year, with two men 20 years my junior. One, driving a shiny new SUV, made sure to tell us he had two $8,000 assignments in hand.

Excuse me?

I’ve yet to win an $8,000 assignment. Not for lack of confidence, that’s for sure. But maybe because (?) I don’t yelp out my income to a stranger.

I reality-checked this guy with a few former female colleagues who rolled their eyes. Good to know.

My favorite book on this subject is not a new one, but a useful and practical one — Women Don’t Ask – because it addresses not some faux foot-shuffling but the very real nasty pushback women often get, often from other pissed-off women, when we do assert ourselves with very real confidence.

How dare you?

Do you struggle with feeling confident?

How do you address it?

 

What do you carry daily?

In behavior, culture, History, Style, life, beauty on April 16, 2014 at 12:27 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Are any of you fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones?

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As someone who was for four years a nationally-ranked saber fencer, I do love the idea of a freshly-forged Valyrian steel sword, personally.

How powerful men must have felt in the days when your skills with a rapier, dagger and sword mattered more than…whether you had the latest Ipad or smartphone. When damascene steel or a trusty musket were of highest value.

I’m nostalgic for the days when women carried a chatelaine attached to their clothing; (Canada’s largest and oldest women’s magazine is named for it.)

When men carried, and consulted, a pocket watch or spyglass, a compass or astrolabe.

When a kid’s most prized carry-everywhere item was a set of baseball cards or a bag full of marbles.

Stuff that worked.

Stuff that engaged you with the physical world — even if it was a duel at dawn.

I loved carting my fencing weapons on the Manhattan subway in their big, saggy bag slung over my shoulder. People were always trying to guess what what was in it — an oud? Um, no.

I dislike cellphones and hate carrying much of anything with me even though, instead of sensibly putting things into a purse or bag, I usually leave home with my arms overflowing: magazines, books, the dreaded phone, wallet.

During our recent working trip in Nicaragua, the greatest luxury of all was not carrying a damn thing  — beyond a notebook and pen — for the entire eight days. Meals were provided and we literally didn’t have to touch money until we got back to the U.S.

Such a relief not to have to think about any of it.

As soon as I got home, I promptly lost my driver’s license.

One of the best books ever written about the Viet Nam war is called The Things They Carried.

Now that cellphones are apparently dangerous for us, what status signifier will we substitute?

 

 

He worked himself to death

In behavior, business, Health, journalism, Medicine, men, news, travel, work on April 13, 2014 at 1:25 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The world of journalism is full of competitive, ambitious, driven people. I’m one of them.

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But a recent death — that of 39-year-old New York writer Matthew Power — raises questions for me that remain troubling and unanswered. He died in Uganda while on assignment of heatstroke.

On Facebook I read, and joined, a discussion with other journalists why his decisions seemed normal. Not to me.

From Bloomberg Businessweek:

And yet there was something else, too. Matt may have been a free spirit, but he paid a New York mortgage and worked hard to afford it. Reviewing Matt’s itinerary—red-eye, trans-Atlantic flight followed by a seven-hour drive to the trailhead the day of his arrival, then joining the expedition on his second day in country—I got a shiver of recognition. I’d have made the same mistake. Not just failing to give heat the respect I do altitude. Failing to give it more time. Departing from New York, where there is never a moment to lose, there’s no way I’d think to schedule an extra couple of days—much less the week Casa recommends to top athletes—to let my body adjust. No one has that kind of time….

It took Wood, Beka, Florio, and the rest several hours to get Matt’s body to the village of Arua. They lost most of Tuesday trying unsuccessfully to secure a helicopter to transfer his body to Kampala. By the time of his postmortem exam on Wednesday morning—36 hours since he’d passed away early on Monday afternoon—his body had begun to decompose badly, making it difficult to determine whether a preexisting condition or other factors had contributed to his collapse. To Florio, at least, his death poses no great mystery. Matt, he says, failed to acclimate to Uganda. The temperature as his flight departed New York was roughly 20F—had been, it seemed, for months.

“No one has that kind of time.”

This was not a breaking news story. He was not covering a war or conflict or election, nor competing head to head against dozens of other reporters on deadline.

If you’re working for so little money or on so tight a budget or feel so frenzied that you can’t afford even an extra day or two so take care of your body’s very real needs, what purpose does this faux frenzy actually serve?

To save your editor’s magazine $100 or $200?

I didn’t know Power or his work or the person who wrote this story about him. Power seems to have been universally loved and admired, so my comment is not meant to disrespect him or his skill. Let’s be clear about that.

But his judgment — and the encomiums of others mourning this set of decisions to race ahead at all costs — is not something I wish to emulate.

In the vastly diminished world of journalism, in which pay rates are lower than a decade ago and well-paid assignments rare for many, pushing back to defend your needs is now seen as suspect, grabby and weird; I was recently offered a contract that would only pay me 25 percent of the original $4,000 fee if it didn’t work out as we all hoped.

It didn’t, after two full revisions.

But, knowing this can happen on certain sorts of stories especially, when I asked for a better deal, I was called “difficult.”

I hate this.

Freelancers live in a state of perpetual professional and economic vulnerability. Caving immediately to editors’ “needs” — typically for more profit — is considered normal behavior.

Power died a few days before I left for Nicaragua to work in a five-person team, interviewing locals in 95-degree heat in 12-hour days, sometimes in the remote countryside. We often worked in full sun, drenched in sweat, frantically seeking whatever shade we could find; there was little to be had.

One morning, after walking and climbing in full sun for a few hours, I told our group leader I needed to soak myself at the well to cool down even though we were supposed to leave right then. I refused, politely but firmly, and told him I needed to lower my body temperature. We left 30 minutes later, and didn’t miss anything we had planned to do.

Of course I felt embarrassed being so demanding — no one else asked for this. But I’d almost gotten heatstroke when I was Power’s age, while hiking alone in the Grand Canyon. I’d written about it and knew how serious it is.

It killed Matthew Power, a young, healthy man who had done many tough overseas assignments before.

We are human beings — not machines. We are fragile. We get ill.

We can die from making the wrong choices.

Pretending otherwise, that we are somehow invulnerable — that an extra few hours of rest or an additional night in even the most basic hotel to acclimate — is an undeserved or greedy sort of luxury is madness.

His death appalls me.

But reinforcing the idea that ignoring your own needs is the wisest and most admirable choice is even worse.

 

A few thoughts on the Oscar Pistorius trial

In behavior, Crime, journalism, news, urban life, world on April 12, 2014 at 12:44 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you been following this story?

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My Twitter feed includes the BBC reporter sitting in the courtroom, so I’ve read a lot of detail, some of it horrific, and reading about it in The New York Times.

The South African runner Oscar Pistorius stands accused of murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, shooting her through his bathroom door when he mistook her for an intruder.

As someone who spent only one day — an unforgettably frightening one — covering two criminal trials in an Ontario courtroom decades ago, the coverage is making me crazy, because:

We don’t know if he is guilty. Endless speculation by journalists, almost all of which assumes Pistorius is guilty, appalls me.

The prosecutor, and Pistorius’ defense attorney, are not there to offer the truth. Their job is to present the most polished and impregnable version of whatever facts they have been able to assemble.

Mocking a defendant is cheap and nasty. Even the judge — as there is no jury system in South Africa — felt compelled to point this out to “Pit Bull” state prosecutor Gerrie Nel:

At one point during his testimony, Mr. Nel snickered. That prompted a rare interjection from Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, who seemed to be addressing the prosecutor and the gallery but whose comments could be heard far and wide, as the trial has become a global spectacle.

“You possibly think this is entertainment,” the judge said. “It is not.”

The trial is grisly and terrifying in its detail. I feel for the reporters who must listen to it and look at photos.

Why is it so impossible to imagine Pistorius’ very real terror if he thought an intruder had entered his home?

How would any of us feel or react if we awakened fearing an intruder — and we did not have quick, easy movement without prosthetics?

People who have never fired a handgun (as I have), have no idea — none — what that feels, smells and sounds like. To do so, as he did, half-asleep, in a small and enclosed space, would have been extremely loud and disorienting.

There is tremendous dislike and contempt for gun-owners by those who do not own a firearm — which includes most mainstream journalists covering this story. I know this, having spent two years researching gun use in the United States, interviewing 104 men, women and teens for my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

Like this New Yorker story.

I don’t own a gun but I get why some people make that choice. No matter how repugnant to others, their firearms are as normal and unremarkable a part of their life as a frying pan or car.

Prosecutor Nel demanded to know why Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp had never emailed or texted the words “I love you” to one another. Really? Relevance? Not everyone is verbally effusive with their affection.

One piece that does confuse me — why Steenkamp would have locked the bathroom door in her lover’s home.

Have you also followed this trial?

What do you think of it all?

Do you live in, or know what life is like in, South Africa? I’d love to hear from you especially.

Want a free speaker? Eleven reasons authors might say no

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, Money, work on April 11, 2014 at 12:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of you dream of becoming a published author — and some of you already are.

It’s a very cool accomplishment and one to be proud of.

I’ve published two well-reviewed non-fiction books and I still love sharing them with audiences. I really enjoy public speaking and answering readers’ and would-be readers’ questions and hearing their comments.

malled cover HIGH

But, while it’s terrific to get out there and share your story, and that of your book, you’ll also get a pile ‘o invitations to speak for no money.

A new service (and I’m not A Big Enough Name for them to want me, sigh) is paying NYC-area authors $400 (and pocketing $350 of the $750 fee) for bringing authors to local book clubs.

Says Jean Hanff Korelitz:

“There were so many writers I know and admire who I also knew would appreciate any income at all,” she said in an email. “Most of us, whether or not we are ‘successful,’ really struggle financially in this city. Also, we’ve reached this point at which we’ve come to assume art should be free, and copyright is under assault, etc., and the bald fact is that the artist has to live, too. So I really liked the idea of creating (or at least extending) a new income source for writers.”

Here are some reasons I now say “No, thanks” to most of the people who want my unpaid time, some of which might apply to you as well:

Your audience isn’t going to welcome my ideas

I learned this early, the hard way — speaking unpaid, to boot. Someone I’d interviewed for my retail book, “Malled”, asked me to address his annual conference. He, the CEO of a wildly successful software firm, had about 75 people flying in to Las Vegas, expecting to hear updates on the labor management software they buy from him. They weren’t — even though the CEO cared as passionately as I — the least bit interested in how to better hire, manage and motivate retail associates, my central message. The room was distinctly frosty.

Yes, I got to stay at the Bellagio. But this proved to be a serious mismatch. Next time, I’ll take the psychic hit, but only softened by a four-figure check.

I’m not fond of flying, especially turbulence

Are you eager to jump on a plane heading anywhere, unless it’s a business or first-class ticket with a car and driver waiting at the other end? It rarely is for midlist authors.

I make no money selling books

Non-authors have no clue how the publishing world functions, and assume that every book we sell means money in our pockets. It doesn’t! If you have commercially published a book, you have been paid an advance. Only after you have paid off the advance, (and you’ll make maybe 10% of the cover price of each book you sell), will you ever see another penny. Most authors never do.

A “great lunch” is really not an appealing offer

Seriously. I know you mean to be kind, but I can buy my own food and eat it on my own schedule.

Some of us loathe and fear public speaking

I don’t, but many authors do. Ours is a solitary business, one spent alone at home huddled over a notebook or computer. We spend most of our time thinking, writing, revising. We chose this business because it suits our nature. So standing up in front of a room filled with strangers — whose comments and questions can be quite weird or rude — can be stressful. Why bother?

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Your audience is too small

Here’s the math. On a good day, I can sell my books to one-third of the room; i.e. if there are 30 people attending my presentation, 10 will usually buy my book, if 100, 30. Most audiences are small, fewer than 50 or 60 people.

The odds of someone in the room being willing and able to pay me to do the next gig? Slim to none. And I’ve still lost half my workday.

Your audience isn’t my audience

Even if you’ve gathered 100 or 200 or 300 people, are they the people most interested in my topic? If not, I’m an annoyance, and their lack of interest in my work — let alone a passion for the issues  I care deeply about — creates a headwind I have no stomach for. It’s emotionally draining for me and it’s no fun for them. If you’ve scheduled me with several other authors, as is often the case, their audience may be completely different from mine.

It costs me time and money to do this for you

You’ve asked me to donate at least three or four hours of my workday — probably driving 30 minutes each way, (plus the cost of gas), to sit for several hours through lunch and socializing, speak, answer questions and sell and sign books. That’s a day’s paid work wasted. I’ve actually had a major commercial organization in another country insist they couldn’t pay me a penny, even travel costs, to speak at their annual conference.

If you perceive so little value in my time and skills, I’m staying home, thanks.

Your competitors pay!

I drive five minutes to my local library — where my friends and neighbors show up  by the dozens — and still get paid $50. Local women’s clubs pay. I was paid $8,000 to speak at a conference in New Orleans in 2012. Yes, really.

If you have to, sell tickets at $10 each, but your payment shows respect for my time, skills and experience. Whatever you feel, we don’t necessarily consider it a privilege or honor to talk about our books to people who don’t value our time.

Why exactly do you, and your audience, expect free entertainment from us?

I don’t believe in your cause, the one you’re selling my brand to win attendance

I already donate my time and money to causes I personally believe in. Unless I’m passionate about yours, and eager to help you raise funds for it, I’ve already made my pro bono commitments.

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I’m busy!

It’s that simple.

Stepping — or being dragged — beyond your comfort zone

In art, behavior, blogging, books, culture, film, journalism on April 9, 2014 at 12:07 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I enjoyed this recent book review, which the blogger Victoria Best, a former lecturer at Cambridge, admits she found both challenging and beyond her normal taste. Her blog, Tales From the Reading Room is always smart and thoughtful:

(author Susan) Nussbaum was a drama student in her twenties when she was knocked down by a car. Now nearing sixty, she has spent her adult life in a wheelchair with partial function in her arms, working as a playwright and a disability activist. Good Kings, Bad Kings is her first novel and it achieves the wholly admirable feat of giving a memorable voice to some forgotten members of society.

Good Kings, Bad Kings takes place in a nursing home for adolescents with disabilities, a grim institution…

So much fiction is for comfort or escapism, so much is created with pleasing and appeasing the reader in mind, that you have to love a book that has the courage to tackle a really difficult subject…

Books should raise our awareness of the vulnerable and forgotten, we ought to be jolted out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s one of the things we rely on writers to do, when most of us lack the courage.

Having recently visited a country of head-spinning poverty — average annual income is $1,080 — working for a week in Nicaragua, I’ve been thinking a lot about when, why and how any of us choose to leave or stretch our comfort zones.

The poverty there was stunning; in Bilwi, where we stayed, only 20 percent of people have access to running water. Most houses are made of wood and corrugated metal. Many people do not go beyond a primary school education as it’s not available in their village or they need the income.

It is profoundly — and usefully — unsettling to see how differently others live.

We often choose to create a cozy and familiar world for ourselves and then begin to think everywhere is like that or should be like that.

Just because we know and like it doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way to live, just the one we know and are used to. The one all our friends and family know and are used to.

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, where I lived at 14

I moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother when I was 14. I had lived my life in comfort in Toronto and didn’t especially want to go.

There, we lived in a simple apartment building with an empty field next door with cows in it. We had no telephone, only a pay phone on the street corner below. We got hot water by lighting a burner in the heater in the kitchen. We had no bathtub, only a shower. The floors were tile, cool and smooth beneath our feet — but not carpet or hardwood, which I was used to.

I walked up a short, steep hill to attend school and sat at a desk with two tall narrow windows facing south. One contained Popocatapetl, an extinct volcano and the other Iztaccihuatl, another. One of my school pals had a brother named Willie, who was suffering from intestinal worms. That, too, was new to me.

I only stayed there for four months before returning to Toronto.

But that experience changed me, for good, in many ways. Living, even briefly, within a wholly different culture — whether literally, or through art or music or design or a great book — will do that to you, if you let it.

My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe

My photo, from 1986, of the late Philippe Viannay, who founded Journalistes en Europe

Just before my 25th birthday, I received word that I’d been chosen, with 28 other journalists from 19 nations, to spend eight months in Paris and traveling through Europe reporting. I would leave behind all my dear friends, a thriving writing career, my dog, my apartment, my live-in boyfriend who wanted to get married. My identities.

I shrieked with excitement when I opened that acceptance letter, but the day my plane left I was weeping in a corner, unable to do anything but toss a few things into my suitcase. I knew, (as it did), that year would indelibly change and mark me.

I dedicated my first book to M. Viannay, shown in the photo above that I took of him on the balcony on Rue du Louvre, in gratitude for this extraordinary experience he created — one that shoved me abruptly out of my comfort zone and into an entirely new set of competences and friendships.

What a gift!

I wish I’d been there when Nijinksy first danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, on May 29, 1913, when Paris’ bourgeoisie were well and truly epatee. From The Telegraph:

the Rite is the most over-documented premiere in history, and yet so many things are obscure. Was it the choreography that annoyed people, or the music? Were the police really called? Was it true that missiles were thrown, and challenges to a duel offered? Were the creators booed at the end, or cheered?

There were certainly plenty of good reasons for outrage, starting with the high, almost strangled bassoon melody that begins the work, soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds.

It’s often said that the pulsating rhythms of the Rite of Spring are what caused the outrage, but pulsating rhythms at least have an appeal at a visceral level (an appeal certainly felt at the Rite’s premiere, where according to one eye witness one excited onlooker beat out the rhythms on the bald pate of the man in front). It’s more likely that the audience was appalled and disbelieving at the level of dissonance, which seemed to many like sheer perversity. “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” wrote one exasperated critic.

The trick is being open, being emotionally porous enough to allow something new — and possibly frightening — to enter.

Here’s a blog post from Rewireme.com, a website I’ll be writing an essay for soon about my experiences in Nicaragua, about making a major life change.

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

- See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

Nancy wrote Jump as “one massive attempt to help you disengage from your inner stalemate and make the best decision you can.” She helps you do this by breaking the process of change into ten steps:

  1. Admit to yourself what you already know.
  2. Tell the truth to someone safe.
  3. Imagine yourself free.
  4. Make one different choice.
  5. Set your new boundaries.
  6. Ask for help.
  7. Honor your resistance.
  8. Jump!
  9. The graceful exit.
  10. Say yes…and then say it again…and again.

- See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/journeys/learning-jump-nancy-levin/#sthash.Wd1QKsAf.dpuf

I recently watched Australian film director Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby. Much to my surprise — as I love the 1970s version with Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, (much better cast than Carey Mulligan) — I really enjoyed it, even though it’s crazily over the top, as he usually is; my friends’ reactions on Facebook were interesting.

Some were appalled by the film and shocked that I liked it. Because, harrumphed some, it wasn’t true to the book. He had thoroughly messed with their expectations.

When did you last leave your comfort zone?

What happened — and what happened after that?

 

The writer’s week: tears, mild panic and the IRS (possibly related)

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, Media, work on April 5, 2014 at 12:13 am

By Caitlin Kelly

For those of you new to Broadside — welcome! — this is an occasional series in which I share the gory details of life as a full-time freelance writer in New York. Some of you hope to work in journalism or publishing, so this is a glimpse behind the curtain, as it were.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Monday

Back to the work world in earnest — I’m losing my Nicaragua tan. I need to find some elusive sources, people so broke they can’t pay any of the taxes they owe the Internal Revenue Service, people who wouldn’t normally want to speak to a reporter. That’s my favorite kind of story. I like difficult-to-impossible!

I Google the words “long term unemployed” and find an organization that might help. Its director calls me back and I learn more, including the fact no one in print has yet covered their fantastic work. I pitch the idea within the hour to an editor I know.

The challenge is deciding who to pitch — the biggest names don’t necessarily pay well or are easy to sell to, while a smaller outlet can pay more and make a faster decision.

I pitch ideas to Marie Claire, MORE magazine and a new website. I check in with my editor at Cosmopolitan — looks like the story I reported last summer is scheduled for the July issue. That will be cool; it’s a profile of a terrific young couple with a highly unusual love story.

MC and MORE pass on my ideas. At least I hear back quickly, usually within hours. I’d rather have a super-quick rejection and move on.

This is what we do.

This is what we do.

Tuesday

I write the profile of the Nicaragua country director, which isn’t due until April 11, but I have so many competing assignments right now that I’m having a mini-panic. Unlike many writers I know, I don’t work nights or weekends. I want a life! This month I have seven assignments in hand, another one possible and a short re-write due; until it’s in, the piece won’t get published and I won’t get paid.

I try to keep a steady workflow of a story or two each week, but it’s not always that tidy. A writer friend has agreed to contribute to a post here, but she’s got four assignments and a teaching job. It’s like that when you’re freelance.

That’s not even addressing the request for a long personal essay — the third version of it, none of it paid for yet, of course — from a large women’s magazine. Part of me just wants the kill fee in hand, and to move on to something simpler and quicker.

Still chasing down an overpayment of $2,600 that a client insists I never repaid them; I don’t want to pay one penny more income tax than necessary! Tax day here is April 15. Running out of time.

Wednesday

I take the train into Manhattan for a noon meeting at WaterAid, with whom I recently worked for a week in rural Nicaragua. I work alone at home, so getting out is always a treat. I drop off my battered four-year-old sandals at the shoemaker at Grand Central Terminal for repair — he wants $72 (!) for everything. I agree to $57 worth of repairs and wonder, once more, why everything here is so damn expensive.

I browse in Posman Books, one of my favorite indie bookstores, also in the station, and buy an Indian cookbook and thank-you card for the country director in Nicaragua who made our trip there fun and comfortable, even in intense heat and 12-hour days.

The view from the village house where we stayed; no electricity or running water. Heaven!

The view from the village house where we stayed; no electricity or running water. Heaven!

The meeting is with the entire office staff, only one of whom I’ve met before, plus three people Skyped in — from Maine, London and Nicaragua. We’re there to de-brief about the trip. When it’s my turn to speak, to my horror and embarrassment, I tear up and can’t say a word for a long, long minute before gaining my composure; the journey was a deeply emotional one for me on many levels.

It was great to meet everyone and to talk to people who are smart, passionate and worldly. I enjoy my work, but after eight years alone at home, it’s lonely!

Thursday

20131114105242

I have to choose the dates for my fall classes teaching at my alma mater, The New York School of Interior Design, on the Upper East Side of New York City. I’ve suggested a two-hour session on creativity and an eight-hour series on writing. It will feel very odd to be back there as a teacher and not a terrified student; design is much tougher than it looks! I studied there in the 1990s, hoping to become a designer myself, but changed my mind. I absolutely loved my training and don’t regret a minute of it.

But I realized my vocation is telling stories in words, not color or space. We do have a great-looking home though!

I finally score three excellent sources for my tax story and set up three interviews for Friday.

I write a 1,300 word story for WaterAid, the second of three they have hired me to produce. I send several questions to the country director for fact-checking; he’ll be totally out of reach all next week as he heads back into the countryside.

Friday

I skipped my usual 9:30 a.m. jazz dance class — too tired from last night’s hip-hop class, my first. So fun!

Out to a local diner for lunch with a fellow writer who lives in town. I met him through his wife, another writer, who takes dance class with me. One of the pleasures of working for myself is managing my own schedule. I normally work a seven to eight-hour day, but can control when those hours are.

I do my interviews for a story about tax season for Quartz.com, a smart new website run by the same publishers as The Atlantic; the pay is decent enough for web work and I like my editor a lot.

I now know a lot about the IRS and have the makings of a very cool story I’ve never seen reported.

I check in with a few editors about possible assignments for May onward and finally tell one that I’m not going to keep working on a personal essay she assigned to me back in January. My heart is really not in it, and I’ve already done two revisions. I just want a kill fee and to move on. I hope this won’t hurt our working relationship, but I know when I’m not into a story and it’s a waste of time and energy to keep going.

Mailed off a cookbook, Indian spices and a thank-you note to the country director in Nicaragua, who admitted he loves Indian food and there are no Indian restaurants there; Jennifer and I want to express our gratitude for such a fantastic experience.

Sent Jose’s 20-year-old duffel bag back to its manufacturer in Colorado for repair, ($12 in postage!), which I shredded while dragging it on the ground in Nicaragua; excess baggage weight was such an issue, I preferred to bring three books instead of the weight of a wheeled suitcase. I ended up reading only one book, Claire Messud’s latest, The Woman Upstairs. I enjoyed it, but gave it to Jen when I was done.

How was your week?

 

 

 

Why radio is still the best medium

In behavior, culture, domestic life, entertainment, journalism, life, Media, news on April 4, 2014 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

reciva_net_radio

Some of you might be old enough to remember Radio Caroline, the British pirate radio station that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary — it began broadcasting, from an offshore ship, on March 27, 1964. It was the UK’s first commercial station and challenge to the BBC.

My earliest media memories are of lying in bed in the dark, around age seven, listening to — what else? — the Beatles on my transistor radio.

I’m bereft without the radio.

In Nicaragua, in the village with no electricity or running water, there was, even there, a transistor radio hung on a large nail. At night, it played a politician’s speech for hours, and, in the morning — in the native tongue, Miskitu — familiar Christian hymns How Great Thou Art and What A Friend We Have in Jesus.

Long before the Internet or television, radio linked us. It still does.

Here’s a review of the 2013 film, La Maison de la Radio, about Radio France, which I saw last year and enjoyed.

I’ve done a lot of radio interviews about the subjects of my two books, one on guns in America and the other on low-wage retail work. When discussing my gun book I was invited onto NRA radio as well as NPR; it was interesting explaining each side to the other!

I listen to a great deal of National Public Radio, especially topic-specific shows like The Moth (story-telling by regular people); The Brian Lehrer show (NY-area politics and economics), the Leonard Lopate show (culture); Studio 360 (ditto), This American Life (three segments on a theme), RadioLab, Fresh Air  and The Diane Rehm Show (smart, long-running interview shows hosted by women), and others.

This American Life, with 2.2 million listeners, is now considering handling its own distribution. I was heartened to read here, that I’m not the only fogey still using an actual radio:

While online and mobile listening are growing rapidly, particularly among younger listeners, “there’s still a lot of listening going on in radio,” said David Kansas, chief operating officer for American Public Media, whose other offerings include “Marketplace” and “Prairie Home Companion.” Distributors, he said, do not just provide technical support, they also work with stations to raise the visibility of a show in local markets: bringing in program hosts, creating content related to local issues and helping with live events.

I also like Q, an interview show from CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi.

When I have an hour in the morning, I listen to BBC World News and always hear stories I never would know about from American media. You might also try the Canadian evening national news show As It Happens; when I lived with my father in my teens, every dinner began with its theme music.

I love being able to iron or cook or clean or just lie on the sofa in the dark and focus on the music and words; television tethers me to a specific spot and steals all my attention.

Do you listen to the radio?

What sort of shows or music do you enjoy?

What are some of your favorite shows — and where can we find them (streaming on-line)?

On being (truly) honest about our feelings

In behavior, books, Crime, Health, journalism, life, love, Media, photography, television, work on April 2, 2014 at 12:19 am

By Caitlin Kelly

trust-torn

Here’s a recent post from Freshly Pressed, about the social dance of “How are you?” — and its expected, safe, reassuring antiphonal response of “Fine!”:

But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.

It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.

And here’s an honest blog post about how messy real life really is:

I consider myself incredibly blessed and lucky. For nearly a quarter of a century Lisa has been the center of my universe … and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But we are people, with kids as well as all of the normal stresses and pressures.

Here are some of the things we have had a fight of some type or other about: money, sex, having children, buying a car, how to spend a work bonus, having more children, using credit cards, buying a house, our jobs, who is cooking, technology, raising our children, shopping for groceries, stopping having children before Lisa died (which was what the doctor more or less said after #2), moving after my layoff, my parents, her parents, my brother, her sister, my sister, my friends, her friends, the woman (my friend) who stood in line at our wedding and pretty much said she couldn’t believe I was getting married (apparently I was more than one person’s ‘back-up plan’), pretty much every one of our nieces and nephews, computer games, TV, sleep, running, the gym, the kids’ friends, our neighbors at every house, trash, dogs, cats, food … and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Except about whether or not we loved each other.

And from A Transformed Faith blog:

Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. While our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “great,” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, to enter into a vulnerable space with God at our side.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was common in Jesus day, but it was the servants who washed the feet of guests, not the master of the house, or the master teacher.

For many of us the idea of letting someone touch our feet, let alone wash them, is uncomfortable. Why is that? Pause here and try to understand that in yourself.

For me, I think the discomfort comes from the radical vulnerability of letting a part of our body that we usually keep covered get uncovered. It’s hard to imagine letting someone touch and wash a part of our bodies that is less than perfect, possibly dirty and probably smelly. And I have one really messed up toenail, too.

I don’t want people to see that part of me that is messy and out of control. I don’t want to burden them with any discomfort they might feel about my feet. And I don’t want to feel the discomfort of my own shame.

Depending which culture you live in, some being far more discreet and emotionally buttoned-up than others, expressing your true feelings can create havoc, socially and professionally.

The United States values emotional self-expression and directness, (albeit with regional differences.) This can be quite unsettling if you come from a quieter and more discreet culture, where only your true intimates know how you really feel.

Being “honest” can outweigh being diplomatic or tactful.

They'll never tell!

They’ll never tell!

Even with friends, I hesitate to reveal a lot.

And yet, a candid Skype conversation with one Broadside’s followers, who lives overseas and is also a nervous flyer, led to a kind and comforting email to me — as I prepared for three flights in one direction to rural Nicaragua. (One of them was really bumpy. Shriek.)

A young friend, 23, came for lunch recently and we talked at length, discovering, to our mutual surprise, we had both been bullied  in high school, even as (because?) we assumed leadership roles there. We both blossomed, socially and professionally, while in college.

But many people see (only) who we are today — bright, attractive, super-confident women. They don’t know, (and nor would we be likely to discuss), the more painful and private backstory.

I’ve been told I’m intimidating in my self-confidence. My young friend sends off a similar vibe: assertive, comfortable in all sorts of new situations, willing and able to take charge…

No one would suspect, (and I had no idea about my friend’s experience until recently), that, when younger we’d both been so mistreated. We hide it well!

Not surprisingly, she’s also from a more reticent cultural background (British) , as am I (Canadian.)

But it felt good to discover that someone I admire and enjoy has endured, and thrived beyond, similar challenges.

Only if someone knows how we truly feel can intimacy and friendship root and blossom.

Over dinner with a young news photographer, he summed up a pathological issue for many news journalists:

“You can’t be a normal human being.”

By which he meant: for our work, we witness poverty and violence and death and listen to terrible tales of rape and incest and fiscal malfeasance. We cover fires and floods and the aftermath of landslides and car crashes and earthquakes.

Yet we can’t — at least in the moment — afford to feel much of anything, or we just can’t stay focused on doing our jobs. Nor can we cry or let our emotions show.

But then, to the people we meet and speak to and photograph, we often appear heartless and callous, because we’re not visibly reacting to what we hear and see. Some of us do have very deep feelings about our stories, but weeping at work is really not an option.

Then, later, maybe you sort out your feelings and process them.

Or not…

I’ve cried at my desk only a few times over the decades of my journalism career; once when interviewing a dead soldier’s father, once when listening to the most unbearable of all — 911 tapes from 9/11 and again after interviewing someone who volunteered to help in the morgue after 9/11.

How about you?

Do you tell the people in your life how you really feel about things?

Do you share your private feelings in your blog posts?

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