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Traveling between worlds can give you whiplash

In animals, beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, food, journalism, life, travel, world on March 27, 2014 at 1:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The first thing I did upon my return from a working week in Nicaragua — the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti?

I took a long, deep, hot bath. In our time there, we only encountered heated water once, in the Best Western Hotel in Managua.

It was the first of multiple culture shocks…

The morning after my return to suburban New York, I got into our 12-year-old Subaru and drove; I hadn’t driven once, as we had drivers there, or took taxis in Managua.

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader -- and our push-to-start-it van

Jose Luis, our driver; Alanna, our team leader — and our push-to-start-it van

The road at home was smooth and paved. I had never thought to question, or appreciate, that.

Our old car started smoothly. That, too. Here’s a push, in 98 degree noon-time heat:

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I drove quickly and easily to my destination, with no bumps or potholes to dodge.

Here, I travel by foot, public transit or car. The bus ride from Bilwi — a 90-minute flight by Cessna — takes 24 hours.

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Here’s the dugout canoe in which we crossed the river to watch Linda work her fields.

 

 

Now that's a commute!

Now that’s a commute!

Here, I walked into a white tiled bathroom, with metal stall walls; this is the toilet at Linda’s home in the countryside.

 

Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp!

 

Normal work for me, and many of you, means sitting at a desk, indoors. Here’s our photographer Rodrigo Cruz working in the Wawa River:

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I got into the elevator at my destination this week to ride up five floors — I hadn’t used an escalator or elevator in a week; most Bilwi buildings were made of wood, and two storeys high at most.

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi

Across the street from our hotel in Bilwi

 

The streets here in New York have no animals on them, unless they’re road kill; on our final morning in Bilwi, a brown horse ambled past our hotel, riderless, unaccompanied. At Linda’s house in the countryside, we were always surrounded by them: a gobbling turkey, a contented, muddy pig, a flock of cheeping chicks, the Brahmin cow who wandered over to the well at sunset and kept me company while I bathedand many piles of fresh dung!

We saw very thin dogs everywhere, but only two cats. Life without the companionship of animals feels lonely!

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Buildings and houses here in New York are black or white or gray or brown, a sea of blandness. The houses we saw, everywhere, in Bilwi and the countryside of RAAN were painted in glorious colors: turquoise, emerald green, fuchsia, brilliant yellow, often using wood cut into patterns or laid on the diagonal for visual interest on a verandah. Beauty relies on imagination, some tools and a can of paint.

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Instead of breakfast alone at my dining table, we ate together from containers on our laps. Here’s a typical lunch:

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Here are Joshua, WaterAid’s country director, Jennifer Barbour and Alanna on Linda’s porch; she has a separate building next to her sleeping quarters for the kitchen.

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Here’s Linda’s (typical) stove/oven:

 

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Because it is still winter here in New York, the landscape is dull — still brown and sterile. The morning we left Bilwi, the town on the Atlantic coast we stayed in, brilliant red hibiscus glowed in the morning sun, as did wide, green palm fronds and lilac bougainvillea. Pale yellow butterflies flitted past us.

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The tropical rain forest glows green with towering banana and coconut palms and curved, feathery bamboo. It felt like walking into a painting by Henri Rousseau.

This painting in a Managua museum captures it

This painting in a Managua museum captures it

On our final night in Bilwi, the team went out to a disco, where men and women – 80 percent of whom live with no running water in their homes — arrived in stilettos and make-up and sequined tank tops. As we stood on the sidewalk afterward, a young man, clearly high and ill, drooled and begged and dropped to the pavement to caress Joshua’s shoes. The national police, rifles slung over their shoulders, cruised past us in a black pick-up truck.

My breakfast blueberrries in New York came from (!) Chile. One afternoon our rural RAAN hosts chopped open some coconuts from their tree with a machete — fresh juice and meat!

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Our view here is of other buildings and the Hudson River. Here’s the view from Linda’s home.

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We ate lunch in Managua in an upscale cafe, its prices marked in U.S. dollars, ordering food common in the U.S. — panini and cappuccinos. After a steady diet of Nicaraguan food: rice, beans, plantains, fish, a bit of meat — no green vegetables and very little fruit — it was disorienting. There was a case filled with cupcakes and cheesecake and cookies; no restaurant we had been to, in a poor town, had ever offered dessert or sweets on the menu. I’d never considered fruit, vegetables or sweetened foods a luxury or oddity. They are, for many people.

At home I work alone, all day every day. Here are Dixie, our translator (in the hammock) and Laxi, WaterAid’s community liaison, on Linda’s porch in the village we visited. Working with a dedicated and easy-going team is a blessing.

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As we canoed the Wawa River in a dugout, we sat on seats freshly-hacked from a piece of bamboo by Ailita’s machete. How refreshing to watch her casually, quickly — and generously! — make it herself. That sort of self-sufficiency is something so many of us now lack.

Every day, The New York Times — even as it runs front-page stories about poverty or income equality — runs ads from luxury purveyors like Chanel ($1,500 shoes) or Tiffany or Seaman Schepps, an old-money jeweler; recently offering a gold bracelet at $18,750.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

The currency is the cordoba; 25 = $1 U.S.

That’s eighteen years’  of an average Nicaraguan’s annual income.

The head spins…

 

 

A week working in Nicaragua: Lessons learned

In behavior, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, travel, women, work, world on March 25, 2014 at 12:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Have you ever been to a place with no electricity — or refrigeration or candles or kerosene lanterns?

No running water?

No postal service?

A place where ham radio or a transistor radio are the one reliable link to the rest of the world?

A place where the bus comes past twice a day, and a trip in it to the capital takes 24 hours — a 90-minute prop plane 12-seater flight?

We spent one night in Ayhua Tara, a village of 10 families in a part of the country called RAAN; an autonomous region of isolated villages near the northern border with Honduras. To get there meant traveling a washboard road of red dust so thick I wore a kerchief every day to keep my hair clean. (It worked, sort of.) The road was in the best shape it had been for a few years, freshly graded with gravel, but still had multiple dips probably several feet deep for most of our journey, slowing us and jolting us all.

We rode in a small van: a team of five people and all our backpacks and video and camera equipment and lots of cold water.

The families we visited live on land granted to them as members of the Miskitu people. They live in wooden houses high atop stilts, their animals snoozing beneath and around them in the shade — a muddy piglet, a snoozing dog, a hen and and her tiny chicks, a goat or two.

We were welcomed as family. We brought our own food, which they cooked in the dark — with one small boy holding up a flashlight as they cooked on their small clay woodstove, waist-high at the back of the large kitchen.

A few moments:

We met new animals, like the coatimundi chained up at a Bilwi restaurant where we ate lunch one day. Or the turkey at Linda’s house who followed us everywhere, desperately showing off his fluffed-up feathers. And the pavon, an endangered species of bird  — with a brilliant lemon-yellow beak and what looks like a very bad black perm — that perched on the wall over the stove while Linda was cooking.

The pavon.

The pavon.

When traveling in hot/dusty places bring plenty of clean cotton bandanas: use as a napkin, towel, mouth-covering, (useful when we visited a live volcano in Managua and the foul steam started to hurt out throats), neck gaiter, blindfold, pillow cover, carry-sack, head covering, neck covering (soaked in cold water as often as possible) — and a bit of style!

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Lifesavers are the best! My bag of mint Lifesaver candies were the hit of the week when we were all feeling weary/hungry/thirsty/tired — offering a portable bit of sweet, saliva-producing relief.

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Kindness and generosity know no language. We stayed in a home where no one spoke much Spanish, only Miskitu. We worked through an interpreter, but their welcome to a bunch of strangers was warm and touching. We walked through the forest one morning with Linda, her mother-in-law and grand-daughter.

Jennifer was handed tiny orchids and some beans by Exelia, the little girl, while Ailita, 69, wearing rubber boots and a torn, repaired man’s shirt, gestured to me to wipe down my bare legs and arms in case I’d brushed against something noxious.

Water is heavy. Many people here carry buckets of it back and forth every day, multiple times, from a well or river. When you see a tiny child of four or five, (their growth stunted by chronic malnutrition, so they might well be seven or eight), with a filled plastic bucket in his head or in her arms, straining, you’ll never leave a tap running again.

Accessing water takes time and physical energy that might be better used for earning income or being with your family. When you need water in a place like this for any purpose, and you need to get it from a well, that means six cranks of the wheel to get enough to fill a small-ish cup. I watched a youngl girl straining just to reach and turn the wheel; I’m a strong adult and it still took energy — in 98 degree heat, direct sun and humidity.

Then you have to fill an entire bucket, if only for your own use. Now add the needs for cooking, bathing and cleaning clothes for a family of six or more who work in muddy fields and hot sun all day.

Traveling pleasantly and efficiently for a week in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-national team — two Americans, two Canadians, a Mexican and three Nicaraguans, (driver, interpreter and community contact), means being flexible, calm, gentle and fun to be around. I had met Alanna, the communications director, in New York but none of us had met before or worked together until we raced off together on our very first day.

Our team! Jennifer Barbour; blogger; Alanna Imbach; media director; me; Rodrigo Cruz, photographer

Our team! Jennifer Barbour; blogger; Alanna Imbach; media director; me; Rodrigo Cruz, photographer

I was happily surprised to see how quickly and easily we fell into a rhythm, sharing water, sunscreen, Lifesavers, nuts. Maybe because we’re all professionals. Maybe because we’d all traveled, and worked, in fairly tough conditions before. Even pushing the dust-encrusted van to get it started every time wasn’t a big deal as long as we were still laughing about it. I heard no whining, despite hot, 10+ hour workdays starting at 8:00 a.m. or earlier.

Focus is energizing. We never touched, or needed to touch, money: our week was sleep, work, eat, repeat. We wasted no time on shopping, laundry or cooking. If we wanted to Skype with our loved ones, we did so at 6:00 a.m., since they were all two hours ahead in time zone.

Passion is galvanizing. Journalism is a desperate business these days, rife with insecurity and peacocking, whining and competitiveness. To spend a week with a team of smart, warm people passionate about social justice, and wise in its folkways, was deeply inspiring to me.

Pre-industrial life has a rhythm we rarely, if ever, live. When it is dark by 6:15 and there is no light beyond a headlamp or flashlight, and your day has been hot and physically demanding, you go to sleep early because you’ll rise before, or with the sun. The soothing chatter of the transistor radio hung on a nail, or the indignant gobbling of a turkey are the sounds lulling you to sleep.

When you walk through the field to weed your crops, why wear a watch? The work itself will tell you when you are finished.

I read Facebook and Twitter, posting when we had Internet access — freshly struck by how many of our “conversations” are purely trivial. That was instructive.

There is beauty in simplicity. I will not romanticize poverty. But I appreciated the smooth, wide wooden boards of Linda’s scrubbed, swept hardwood floor beneath my feet, the children’s tiny stuffed animals hung from nails (no shelves), a bright yellow flower growing in a blue plastic tub, the region’s purple, turquoise, emerald green and mustard yellow painted houses.

In a poor country, concrete and glass are luxury materials. In a week of travel through several RAAN villages and Bilwi, I saw perhaps six houses with glazed windows and few homes made of concrete, let alone two-story ones. Ironically, the most pristine, spotless, freshly-painted building I saw anywhere — new red metal roof, fresh banana yellow walls — was a large church.

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

We all work. We all struggle. Watching Linda and Ailita head off to work in a dugout canoe, whacking their way through the fields with a machete, claiming the hard-won prizes of enormous white squash and sun-warmed cucumber, felt familiar, even though all of it was new to me.

Work is work.

Fear of economic loss — while theirs is truly dire, and means not even lighting a cooking fire in the worst months because there is no food to prepare — is not unique to the beleaguered American or European middle class.

The Mexican freelance photographer with us told me he’s waited up to five months to see his invoices processed. That, too, was familiar.

I spoke for an hour, in Spanish, to a woman whose 25 year old sister stopped speaking for 18 months. She sold two cows and went to a curandero, a traditional healer, whose ministrations didn’t help. Then they went to a psychologist in Bilwi, then to a psychiatrist in Managua; health care is free, but the cost of distant travel hammered their ever-fragile finances.

“If you want to eat,” she finally said, “you have to work.”

Managing your emotions — and the roller-coaster of beauty/squalor — is…interesting. It was a week of truly dire poverty, with many people living on $1/day with six or eight children in a one-room wooden shack with a rusted, patched corrugated tin roof or walls; Haiti is the only nation in this part of the world poorer than Nicaragua.

You want to cry, but you don’t. It will all be there the next day as well and you’re there to observe and interview, not indulge your feelings and reactions.

Then you stare into the deepest, darkest silent sky-full of stars and want to weep at its beauty, lost once you return to the town filled with light and noise.

A shy, tiny girl hands you an orchid as you tramp through a field of pumpkins with her. Another little girl lets you comb her hair into a ponytail.

You crawl into a narrow, muddy, tippy dugout canoe and pray you don’t tip out into the river.

You sleep under a mosquito net and hope it works; malaria is no joke and the region you’re in is the country’s worst for it.

Fear, joy, awe, anxiety, exhaustion, guilt, inspiration, confusion.

Yes to all of these, and more.

Trust is key. Trust that the van will start. That the water won’t make you sick. That those weird itchy bites on your ankles are nothing, really. That the food is safe to eat. That the very small plane won’t crash.

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That your outraged bowels will calm down soon. That all those long, hot tiring days filling our hearts and heads and notebooks and cameras have gathered valuable useful insights.

That your team is as smart, funny and professional as they appeared to be. That you won’t want to tear each others’ throats out after a super-intense week. (We didn’t, nor did we want to.)

Have you been to a place that changed how you see your world?

Tell us….

Nicaragua: Days 3 and 4: Stars, Goats and a Dugout Canoe

In behavior, blogging, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, travel, women, work on March 21, 2014 at 1:40 am
Jennifer and I in a dugout canoe on the Wawa River

Jennifer and I in a dugout canoe on the Wawa River

Our third day we got back into the van and headed to a small village — 10 families — living near the Wawa River, to stay in the home of Linda Felix, a woman who has been working on sanitation issues there, trained by WaterAid.

Linda, 41, has six children, the oldest of whom is 22, and has a year-old grand-son. She lives, like most Nicaraguans in this part of the country, in a wooden house standing on thick stilts, tall enough for an adult to stand beneath.

Under the houses, including hers, roam: goats, pigs, chickens, roosters, dogs, piglets. A large herd of cattle stands nearby and an extremely friendly turkey even followed us all the way through the forest to the river. We bathed there at 4:30 and enjoyed the relative cool that sets in around that hour.

Her house has two parts — a separate kitchen with a small clay woodstove — and the living and sleeping area, divided into separate rooms for her children. Our team, three women and a man, slept on cots beneath mosquito nets in what is, essentially, her living room — which is bare except for a table.

The spotless home has no electricity or running water and the toilet is reached by going down very steep wooden steps (no handrail) and up an even steeper set into the shack with the toilet in it. I had to dodge a tiny black piglet on my way.

The sun sets at 5:45 and the sky is completely black within 30 minutes, offering a stunning array of stars visible when there is no competing artificial light for miles.

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

LInda's home

LInda’s home

all photos taken by Jennifer Barbour

Jennifer and I traveled this morning by dugout canoe — our seats were bits of bamboo hacked with a machete by Ailita, Linda’s 69 year old mother in law. We scrambled up very steep sandbanks with them to visit their gardens where they harvested cucumbers, watermelon, squash, beans, tomatoes and pumpkins, which the family eats and which Linda takes into Bilwi to sell.

The heat is crazy — 98 degrees. It wipes you out, so we’ve been drinking a lot of water.

I bathed a few times using the well, and a cow came by to visit me.

We were welcomed everywhere with smiles and generosity and kindness.

We saw some of the baseball teams competing for the championship of the Indigenous League.

I chatted in Spanish today with a woman who tried to help her sister’s deep depression by selling two cows and visiting a “curandero”, a traditional healer. Instead, it took a Bilwi psychologist and Managua psychiatrist to diagnose and treat her.

Our multi-lingual, multi-national team has been working in intense heat, long days, translating into Miskitu. We’re having a blast.

Now back in town for two more days, then one final free day in Managua, the capital.

I hope you’re enjoying some of our adventures!

How to snag a husband — really?

In aging, behavior, education, life, love, women on March 14, 2014 at 12:24 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Our rings

Our rings

If there’s one obsession I will never really fathom, it’s rushing young women posthaste to the altar.

Let alone a long line of people — parents/friends/relatives/room-mates/newspaper columnists — shoving them there.

Can we say “heteronormativity?”

Sure we can!

The latest slugest over how to find a decent husband is “Marry Smart”, written by a female Princeton graduate, advising women to get married while they’re still in college, surrounded by — she insists — their best choices; i.e. smart, driven, likely affluent men, (or women.)

Nor, she asserts, will women ever again be as attractive. Even better, kids, get plastic surgery to fix all those jiggly/weird bits while you’re still (yes, really) in high school.

Here’s feminist blog Jezebel’s take on it:

Marry Smart, the retrograde pile of garbage that the ‘Princeton Mom’ has sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard and called a book, drops today. That means Susan Patton is currently making the media rounds, questioning the notion of date rape and insisting that she is “not a provocative person.”

…all copies of Marry Smart will be banned from our separatist compound, and our turkey baster parties are just lovely.

And from Salon:

just exaggerated parroting of dominant and destructive cultural norms, she has styled herself as a cartoon mouthpiece for these ideas.

For a different perspective, here’s part of the favorable review from the socially conservative Wall Street Journal:

Since men, even young college men, distinguish between the women they want to have casual sex with and the women they want to marry and have children with, Ms. Patton devotes much of her book to telling readers how to fall into the second category. Avoid the campus hookup scene—it’s a waste of precious time. Don’t binge-drink—you will do stupid things. Realistically assess your looks and act accordingly: If you are only a “six,” that handsome “ten” knows he can do better than you and is probably out of your league. Lose excess weight. Act like a lady. Don’t swear like a fishwife. Learn to cook. Don’t be a whiny, moody, spoiled, entitled princess (“hothouse tomato” is Ms. Patton’s term). Cultivate a generous spirit and a readiness to forgive. Don’t chase after “bad boys,” especially if they display traits such as drug abuse and physical violence. Don’t be a gold-digger (“earn your own fortune”).

So bizarre!

– Not every woman wants to marry, ever

– Not every woman wants to have children

– Many women are too busy learning, studying and planning their lives to put a ring on it after four years on campus

– Who’s to say your “best choice” is a fellow student?

I’d love to see a similarly finger-wagging book aimed at men, but I’m not holding my breath.

I had a great time at university, double-majoring in English and boys. It was a lot of fun, certainly for a young woman who had been viciously bullied for 2.5 years of high school, and doubted any man would find her attractive. Many did. That was a pleasant surprise, and I took advantage of it.

One of my beaux, whom I dated in my freshman year after meeting him the very first week of school, was a lovely man five years my senior, a fellow journalist. A decent and well-raised man, he made marital noises, but I was having none of it.

We later married others — both of whom left us when we were living in foreign countries where we’d followed them — and we have since re-married, each very happily, again.

I loved him dearly and we remain friends, decades later. But I knew, even at 20, this was not the man for me.

Yes, some people are delighted to marry very young, and it all works out.

It struck me as terrifyingly claustrophobic, even as I had several proposals from handsome, smart, hardworking men when I was in my 20s. I just didn’t want to get married that young, and married only when I was 35, to a handsome, smart, Ivy-educated, hardworking physician I had already known for five years.

A doct-uh!

Who walked out barely two years later and promptly re-married a co-worker.

Ooops.

It took me a long time to find a man who is an excellent husband.

Would Susan Patton have told me to marry him? Hell, no!

My husband, Jose. photo: Caitlin Kelly

My husband, Jose. photo: Caitlin Kelly

We come from different countries, races, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds. He attended state school on scholarship funds through his father’s church.

He’s a gem. But it took the loupe of mid-life appreciation to see that.

We may not have a clue who’s our best match in our 20s, 30s or even our 40s.

How about you?

What advice — whatever your age — would you offer to a young woman hoping to find a good life partner?

Bossy?! Is that an insult?

In aging, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, education, family, life, parenting, women on March 12, 2014 at 3:19 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Did you see this recent piece in The Wall Street Journal?

Most dictionary entries for “bossy” provide a sentence showing its proper use, and nearly all focus on women. Examples range from the Oxford Dictionaries’ “bossy, meddling woman” to Urban Dictionary’s “She is bossy, and probably has a pair down there to produce all the testosterone.” Ngram shows that in 2008 (the most recent year available), the word appeared in books four times more often to refer to females than to males.

Behind the negative connotations lie deep-rooted stereotypes about gender. Boys are expected to be assertive, confident and opinionated, while girls should be kind, nurturing and compassionate. When a little boy takes charge in class or on the playground, nobody is surprised or offended. We expect him to lead. But when a little girl does the same, she is often criticized and disliked.

How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them there?

Much as I have very mixed feelings allowing corporate cheerleader Sheryl Sandberg to be the mouthpiece for women — hello, anyone else out there?! — I like this leadership and her new website, banbossy.com. 

Her goal, and one I admire, is to encourage young girls, and those who raise and teach them, to speak up and speak out, to claim and re-claim their voices, both literal and political.

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Here’s another take on this, from the consistently brilliant blogger Stacia Brown.

Did you see this wonderful collection of black and white images of five-year-old Emma, mimicking powerful, legendary women of the past? Amazing!

I think every young girl, especially, needs to know that her voice, ideas and opinions have value. Becoming a leader means stepping up, taking risks, speaking out and being brave.

Yes, she may end up bullied or called names or shouted at or booed for her daring. For being….herself.

Sticks and stones, kids.

One of my favorite beaux called me — affectionately but accurately — bossyboots.

Loved it.

Have you been called bossy?

Did you take it as a mark of pride?

Are you saving enough?

In behavior, culture, Money, parenting, US, life, domestic life, family on March 10, 2014 at 2:21 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal asserts that Americans spend way too much money:

You may overspend because you’re bored, you have no budget or you want to keep up with your neighbors.

Or you might be letting your emotions dictate your financial decisions.

Whatever the reason, you may be setting yourself up for a financial disaster.

But fear not: There are a few ways you can rein in your spending before it’s too late.

Tracking your cash flow and tapping into your feelings are two things financial advisers say you can do to curb your urge to spend.

“The spending choices you make now will greatly impact your quality of life later on,” says Patrick McDowell, a Miramar Beach, Fla., financial adviser.

Here’s an honest post by a new Broadside follower (welcome!), a college student, making minimum wage and struggling financially with college costs:

Although it can be annoying, I understand this is making me a better person.  It’s not just about the money all the time, it’s about a learning experience.

And here’s a dense and dry blog post, recently chosen for Freshly Pressed, about behavioral economics — written by a professor:

Certainly the evidence that people don’t typically behave rationally is quite compelling.  It’s easy to find examples of behavior which conflicts with economic theory.  The problem is that it’s not clear that these examples help us much. I’m pretty much obsessed by when, why, how and where we choose to spend our money. Or save it.

Given how little money most Americans save — here’s a blog post from The Economist about that — it’s a tough decision to postpone immediate pleasures (let alone the daily grind of needs), for groceries, housing and medical care in the future, possibly decades away. What if we never get there?

But what if we do live to be 80, 90 or beyond — and find ourselves broke and scared?

Here’s a frightening post from one of my favorite writers, Guardian journo Heidi Moore, about how older women — because we earn less and live longer — end up in poverty:

17.8 million women lived in poverty in 2012, 44% of whom lived in extreme poverty. Extreme poverty means “income at or below 50% of the federal poverty level”, which amounts to less than $5,500 a year…

What is surprising is that the slide into deep poverty is happening so soon, and in such massive numbers, among the elderly. It’s not clear what could have changed between 2011 and 2012 to cause it.

My mother went into a nursing home three years ago, paying — for a small room — $5,000 a month. Yes, really. That certainly made clear to me the very real cost of getting old, ill and needing costly care every single day. She saved, lifelong and ferociously, so she has the funds for it.

Most of us will not.

Our parents and grand-parents, and a few fortunate folk in specific industries, could look forward to a company pension; Jose will receive one from The New York Times, thank heaven. A few lucky people also get a company match to their 401(k) retirement savings from their employers.

But most of us are now expected and required to save and save and save and save, praying our investments retain and grow in value. I’ve been saving 15 percent of my income every year for a while; it’s finally adding up to a sum that makes me feel like the sacrifice is worth it.

It’s also simplistic to shame people who “spend too much” when millions have lost their jobs, often repeatedly, and have run through whatever savings they might once have had. Millions are also now earning far less than they once expected or hoped to.

Wages are stagnant or falling while the cost of living rises each year — and we’re still human beings who actually want to leave our homes and have some fun!

I splurge on four categories: 1) items or improvements for our home; 2) travel; 3) entertaining friends; 4) fresh flowers.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

How about you?

What do you splurge  on — and where do you keep your wallet closed?

He’s dead — and I’m relieved

In behavior, Crime, domestic life, life, love, men, urban life, US, women on March 6, 2014 at 12:58 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Time to let go, at last

Time to let go, at last

The world is divided into two groups: people who have become unwitting victims of crime, and those who have not.

It is further subdivided into those who have sought redress and action, from the police and their judicial system, and those who chose not to.

And, yet again, into those whom the judicial system offered recompense, in the form of an arrest, successful prosecution and conviction.

One description we all hope to avoid in this world is plaintiff.

In late December 1997, I met a man through a personal ad in a local weekly newspaper. “Integrity and honesty paramount,” it read. He said he was an athlete and a lawyer. He was slim, slight, dark-haired and dark-eyed, handsome and intelligent. He dressed well and wore crisp white button-down cotton shirts.

He had small teeth, like a child’s, and small hands, someone physically unimposing, someone you’d be silly to fear.

But someone you should.

He was, it became clear much later, a convicted con man who had wrought havoc in Chicago, defrauding local business — and several area women — before being arrested, convicted and serving time.

Then he picked up and moved to suburban New York, where he began again.

And found me.

I won’t bore you with the many arcane details of the four months this man was in my life, morphing , (or not, really), from attentive, generous boyfriend to threatening and emotionally abusive criminal.

When we met, I was planning to fly to Australia, alone, hoping to report a story for my first book, but I missed my connecting flight — costing me an additional $1,800 for a last-minute one-way ticket on Christmas Eve — then, as now, a huge sum for a self-employed writer. Purporting to be a wealthy and successful lawyer, he offered to pay my ticket — just as well, since his deliberate tardiness had made me late for that first flight from New York to Los Angeles.

Instead, it was the first of many traps he laid, his “kindness” a powerful form of entrapment-through-gratitude. He wove a web of obligation and connection, skilled from years of practice.

For years after I rid myself of him, and his ancient, wizened mother, Alma, who helped him in his schemes, I wondered who else he was targeting, cheating and lying to. I wondered if anyone would ever get him arrested and charged and convicted — my local police and district attorney literally laughed me out of their offices when I brought them evidence of the six felonies he had committed against me, including credit card theft and forgery of my signature.

I even wondered if another victim — as one friend also suggested — had killed him, as enraged as I had been once I realized how he’d manipulated and duped me.

So last week, I Googled him. And found a record of his New York City death, in 2007, at the age of 48.

I shook and slept very badly that night. Could it be that he truly was gone? How? When?

When I realized what he’d been doing to me — and to other women simultaneously, as it turned out — I confronted him. The man who had been proposing marriage and telling me “I love you” changed his tune with one phone call.

The next three words were somewhat different, after I asked him if he had stolen and used my credit card — as my issuer had alerted me.

“It’s not provable,” he said icily.

And it was not.

Since then, I refuse to visit the town he lived in, a fact I only discovered by hiring a private detective, a calm, gentle man in whose debt I will remain for life as only he  — a former New York City detective — truly understood the psychic devastation such vicious deception leaves in its wake.

My job as a journalist is discerning the truth in people, making intelligent judgments about their veracity.

For many months, I doubted this ability, terrified to trust any new man in my life. I lost any faith I once had in the police and judicial system to protect me from harm. I changed my locks and bank account numbers and got an additional unlisted phone number. My family and friends were furious with me for not figuring out who he was, quickly and easily.

It taught me, too, about my own vulnerability, how my isolation and sense of insecurity — like carrion in the road — had attracted his determined attention. I wised up.

It is hard to accept that he is no longer a threat to me or to anyone else.

But I am relieved.

The movies I watch over and over and over — Jason Bourne — and why

In behavior, books, culture, life, men, movies, travel, work on March 4, 2014 at 12:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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A great post from Slate about why we love Jason Bourne:

Why do we love Jason Bourne? Why does this brooding nobody command our immediate allegiance? Because his mission is not to take down a cartel, destroy an undersea fear factory, or cripple a billion-dollar interstellar weapons system. It’s not even to save a beautiful woman. His mission is the essential human mission—to find out who the hell he is.

Plucked nameless from the Mediterranean, a floating corpse, by the crew of an Italian fishing boat (water: mother-element in the Bourne movies); rebirthed on the wet deck, his twitching hand eliciting gasps of atavistic wonder; tended to—healed—with gruff inexhaustible charity by the ship’s doctor (“I’m a friend!” insists this heroic man, as a panicked Bourne rears up and starts choking him. “I am your friend!”); recuperating on board, at sea, strengthening, doing chin-ups, tying fancy seaman’s knots and asking himself who he is in French and German—indications of hidden skill sets, strange aptitudes and attainments …

Here’s the Wkipedia entry explaining Bourne and his backstory.

I’ve watched these films so many times now, I know scenes, dialogue and the theme song off by heart.

Why, exactly, are the adventures of a desperate black ops asset of such compelling interest?

I can shoot a Glock 9mm quite nicely, thanks to my weapons training while researching my first book, about American women and guns. But I’ve never been chased across the rooftops of Tangier or had to throttle someone on a kitchen floor or evade very determined and well-paid bad guys across multiple continents…

I have stayed in some really cheap and seedy hotel rooms, in Granada and Copenhagen, as Bourne often does.

I have had to fling myself into stranger’s lives for succor, as I did when rescued by Gudrun in Barcelona, dizzy and sweat-drenched when I arrived at her home after a train ride from Venice.

I have been alone, ill and afraid in foreign countries — Turkey, Portugal, Italy, Denmark — where only my wits, cash and passport kept me safe and sound. That theme, repeated in every Bourne movie, also resonates deeply for me.

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As Bourne does, I’ve also had some spontaneous romantic encounters in far-flung spots — Carlo in Sicily, Zoran in Paris, Pierre in Montreal; you’re never more open to such possibilities as when you’re single, traveling solo far from home and with no ties restraining you.

But you never see Jason Bourne having the sort of normal life most of us lead most of the time: waiting at the carousel for his luggage, (he never seems to carry any!); ordering another mimosa at brunch, (Bourne definitely doesn’t do brunch) or even waiting, really, for anything — beyond the arrival of the latest asset with orders to terminate him.

His life is one of urgency, forever using his lethal skills to save himself and whichever woman he’s with. He bristles with competence, switching passports and languages, finding whatever he needs as he rustles, injured and bleeding, through a Russian medicine cabinet or distract the Moroccan cops chasing him by tossing a can of hairspray into a brazier so it explodes.

“Real” life doesn’t exist for him.

I suspect all of us are, in some measure, running fast and away from something: a fear, a hope, an unrealized goal, an unrequited love, or racing toward a future we can’t quite see, but which we hope lies on the other side of a border we haven’t yet reached — whether the Greek island where Bourne re-finds his love, Marie  — or something closer to home.

Here’s a terrific movie-focused blog, organized by decade. This blog, Cinema Style, explores how films reflect, or lead, design and fashion.

I admit — I watched the Oscars last night, all the way to the end. I cheered for Cate Blanchett winning Best Actress, for her searing role in Blue Jasmine, a part that required her to be sweaty, disheveled and frenzied, on the verge of madness.

Is there a film hero or heroine with whom you somehow identify?

12 tips for creative success

In art, beauty, behavior, books, business, culture, design, journalism, life, photography, work on February 28, 2014 at 1:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this, from Slate:

Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience. While creativity at times is very rewarding, it is not about happiness. Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.

And this, from writer Myke Cole:

My sub­con­scious con­jured an image of a fab­u­lous party, filled with other writers and pub­lishing types. A place where I could walk in the door to a chorus of cheers, the “Norm” moment, where guard could be let down com­pletely, where there was only shared vocab­u­lary and a fluid ease that would make the jit­ters go away. There was a social circle that would be the payout for all the rejec­tion and worry and sweat equity I poured into my books. When I talked about it with my brother, I simply described it as “that.” I wanted to have “that.”

All I had to do was get a book deal. I would break out of the world I knew and set up in some secret corner of the social fabric, a back­stage pass to the world of writers that I just *knew* was out there, even though I had never seen it before…

There is no party. Not beyond the hour or two at a con or pub­lishing event where you get to show off for a shining moment, bask in the acco­lades for a few min­utes, fan boy gush face to face over someone whose work you admire but never hoped to meet.

And then it’s over, and you’re left with the work.

My husband Jose recently passed a major professional milestone: 30 years as a photographer and photo editor at The New York Times. On 9/11, the day he was to have moved into my apartment in suburban New York from his home in Brooklyn, he instead unpacked his scanner, printer and computer — and helped his colleagues transmit their horrific images from his apartment. His grace under fire helped the paper win that year’s team Pulitzer Prize for photo editing.

photo: Caitlin Kelly

photo: Caitlin Kelly

He grew up poor, the son of a Baptist preacher in Santa Fe, NM, far from the centers of media power and influence. He attended state school on scholarship. He’s slight, quiet, modest. Everyone else in his family became teachers.

One day, shooting for the Associated Press, the White House press corps — accompanying then First Lady Rosalynn Carter, landed in El Paso.

“Someday that’s going to be me,” said Jose, as he saw its four or five wire service photographers emerge from the plane.

Several colleagues snickered at his hubris.

And then he was, during his eight-year career in the White House Press Corps, photographing Presidents Bush, Reagan and Clinton.

Here’s his brand-new blog, Frame36a, (which refers to the extra frame we used to be able to squeeze from a 36-image roll of film), which will offer advice, insights and fantastic back-stories to some of his best photos.

We all won’t have a career like his.

But anyone with creative ambition — musical, artistic, photographic, literary, choreographic — will face obstacles, whether you’re 17, 27 or 57: lack of funds, no representation, a lost prize or fellowship or scholarship.

After a decade or so, they’ll probably morph into different challenges, but it’s rarely easy.

If you think it should be, this isn’t the world for you.

Start small

You don’t have to start out by winning a major prize or selling your work for a lot of money. You just have to get started. I began my career as a photographer, and one of my first sales was to my own high school, an image they bought for the school library. Was I scared to pitch our principal? Hell, yes! But it worked. I also had a show of my images in a Toronto library, again, because I dared to ask. The smaller the ask, the less scary it should be. Those initial triumphs are essential baby steps to your self-confidence as a creative person able to find, and sell into, the marketplace of ideas.

My high school award. Anything to boost your confidence helps!

My high school award. Anything to boost your confidence helps!

Start young/early

Don’t wait for permission to create! You don’t need a certificate or degree from anyone, anywhere, to create interesting, challenging and worthwhile work. Don’t be terrified if your competitor graduated from RISD or has a Phd from Harvard or was a star at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If you have the passion and drive to find the toughest teachers out there — and they might be someone you meet at a conference or class — you’ll be on your way. I sold my first photos, three magazine covers, when I was still in high school. Jose was selling his photos while a freshman in college to the Associated Press; by the time we both graduated, we had large and impressive portfolios of nationally-published work. We were far, far ahead of our 22-year-old peers competing for work and jobs.

She didn't win, because her goat behaved badly. But she learned how to compete.

She didn’t win, because her goat behaved badly. But she learned how to compete.

Don’t give up if you fail the first (second, third) time

I’m amazed how quickly some people give up. I interviewed three times at Newsweek and was never hired there. No harm, no foul. I’ve had an awesome life and career without them. I’ve applied two (three?) times for the Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and was one of 14 finalists (of 347 applicants) last time. I’ll probably apply a few more times until I get it. In the meantime, I just keep improving my skills and strategies.

If you’re really aiming high, you’re always competing against highly-educated, smart, talented and well-prepared competitors. Expect it and arm yourself accordingly. If you want it badly enough — whatever it is — you’ll keep coming back to get it. Or you’ll find something more interesting instead.

Both of my non-fiction books, both of which were published by major New York houses to excellent reviews, were each rejected by 25 publishers first. Fun!

It’s too easy to watch others win awards and prizes and fellowships and hate them. Bandage your ego and get back in the game.

Find people whose work inspire you

This is essential. People who have succeeded in your field have likely hit (and surmounted) many of the same obstacles along the way that you’re facing. Read, listen to and watch them: at conferences, in TED talks, their websites or blogs or books. Follow them on social media like Instagram and Twitter.

If you’re feeling bold, reply to them or re-tweet their words. A relationship with someone who’s already carved their path is helpful. Don’t expect them to mentor you, though. Successful creatives are really busy!

Understand your industry or field: who has power and why?

The best way to get ahead creatively is not to shut yourself away in your studio or a hut in the woods, no matter how romantic that sounds. If you don’t keep up with the movements, controversies and players in your field, you’re too isolated and have no real idea how to access the powers-that-be, the ones whose choices are going to affect your ability to succeed as well.

Make sure to attend at least one conference a year in your industry so you can hear the latest and network with your peers. Showing up in person helps to prove your commitment; people see that and respond accordingly.

Self-doubt and self-confidence will perpetually war within you

It’s the ultimate paradox: to create means taking a risk, putting your skills and ideas into public view for possible rejection or criticism, but it also requires and demands enough confidence in your work to put it out there in the first place.

No creative person I know, or know of, hasn’t suffered — sometimes mightily — from this internal war.

Writers, even the most visibly accomplished, the ones we envy and admire, (who now have a reputation they might squander), lose their nerve or voice. Performers vomit and tremble before setting foot on stage. Artists burn work they’ve spent months or years to produce.

We’re human. It happens.

Make peace with your fears. Name and number them — “Oh, yeah, self-doubt 34a, how the hell are you these days?”

Then keep moving.

You will have to hustle, self-promote and shout louder than you might ever prefer

If you are a modest, gentle soul — like my lovely Jose — you may find the creative path more difficult, surrounded by arrogant, shouty chest-beaters. If you truly crave Big Success, however you choose define it, you may have to toot your own horn loud and long, no matter how declasse your family or friends or native culture consider that.

Volunteer your time and skills within your creative community

I think this is overlooked as a key to long-term success.

You don’t have time? Make it. People most respect, value and reach out to help those they respect personally — not just someone whose work they read about or saw in a show or in concert. I was only 19, still in college, when I volunteered to interview lions of Canada’s journalism industry for a book. How else could I ever have met or spoken to them, let alone learned their wisdom? Then they also knew who I was. Win-win.

I’ve served for years on volunteer boards for writers’ groups. It helped to hone my people skills, (still a work in progress!), taught me about fund-raising and how to defend and explain my ideas to a skeptical group.

It also shows clients and colleagues my pride in, and commitment to, my larger creative community.

Find, or create, a group that meets weekly, or monthly. Create an on-line listserv or Facebook group. Mentoring others comes back in waves of generosity, for years.

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Make time to reflect, recharge and revive your spirit

No matter what you hope to create or produce, make time to recharge. Sit still in silence every day. Stare at the sky, no matter what the weather. Make notes whenever you get an idea. Keep them!

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Travel as far and as often as you can afford

There’s no better way to sharpen your senses than to step out of habitual behaviors and routines: taking the same subway line or bus route;  eating the same cereal at breakfast; seeing the same faces at work. Even a two-hour road trip to a nearby town or city or nature preserve can offer you new ideas and insights.

Have a clear vision of what you hope to accomplish, today and/or in a decade

You can’t get there, wherever there is, without a clear idea what it is. Only by naming it can you start to lay the necessary groundwork — whether admission to the best program of study, a fellowship, a job, access to a busy mentor, publication of your novel or a gallery show. It’s too daunting to stare only at the cloud-shrouded Everest of your final goal. Focus on the foothills!

I recently started a writers’ group and called it Story Sherpas — no one gets there alone, without the help and support of a team along the way.

Study the work of the very best in your field

Don’t assume the best are working today. They might have powerful lessons to offer from their endeavors — possibly centuries ago.

Bonus:

Save a lot of money!

Creative “success” can, and often does, evaporate overnight — and with it your ability to dick around and await your muse.

Read this cautionary tale, from a New York writer whose book advance was a stunning $200,000, way more than any writer I know has ever received. She blew it.

Don’t ever rest on your laurels. They can wither mighty fast.

What spurs you to creative success?

The man in the chair beside me at the hair salon

In beauty, behavior, business, cities, life, men, urban life, US, work on February 26, 2014 at 12:36 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Alex’s salon is smaller than our living room, barely 200 square feet, with a large window facing north onto Grove Street, a quiet part of the West Village of Manhattan. He used to be on Carmine Street, a few blocks east, but, as it always does in New York City, the rent went up.

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So he moved into this space — once a clock repair shop — and re-made it, adding black rubber flooring, a long, narrow metal bench and all the newest magazines.

His salon has three chairs. Such a tiny space, situated on an unusually short, quiet city block, with one assistant sweeping up hair or shampooing, creates a sort of immediate, comfortable intimacy. Strangers a few minutes earlier, clients often end up trading business cards, sharing jokes, laughing together at silly videos on our phones.

Here’s a young executive about to take his pregnant wife on a “babymoon” to the Turks and Caicos. Here’s a woman in her 50s scrutinizing the edges of her pixie cut. Here’s a woman in her 70s, regal and serene, her hair a mini bouffant.

Some men — like my husband (who used to go to Alex when Jose had hair) — prefer a barber shop: quick, in, out, cheap.

Some women prefer the girly refuge of an all-female salon, where they call you honey and bring you cups of tea and it feels more like a dorm room than a business. And some women really don’t like being seen by men, let alone men they don’t even know, with a head full of foils or their eyebrows slathered with dye, mid-tint.

Let alone running across the street looking like a crazy person in this deshabille to plug the two-hour parking meter.

I also like supporting a man who’s stubbornly stayed in business for decades, holding out against brutal rent increases and, this year, a bitter, snowy winter that kept many clients home instead. His shoulders, he once confided, ache every day from the physical demands of his job.

So much of quirky, small-business, independent Manhattan is disappearing beneath the boot of greed and real estate development; streets like nearby Bleecker — once filled with dusty, intriguing shops — are now jammed with tourists buying pricey crap from the Big Name Designers who have totally taken over.

Regulars like me — more than a decade — still ask after Alex’s earlier assistants, like Bree, who long ago moved to San Diego and got married, or Eddie, a gentle soul with bright blond hair, who now works at a salon uptown.

Everyone comes to Alex: gay, straight, Wall Street execs, fragile old ladies from Queens, museum curators, publishers, writers. Few places in New York City — where every zip code has its own tribal markings and style codes and few stray beyond the precincts where they fit most comfortably, whether in Dockers or Prada — bring together so many different kinds of people, generally happy to chat with one another.

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Last week, the man sitting beside me quoted Chaucer in Middle English, an experience (of course!) I loved and could identify with, as I’d read Chaucer in Middle English when I was in college.

Everyone is welcome here.

He has a young autistic client who freaks out if he sees the odd mask on the salon wall, so Alex makes sure to cover it up when he comes in. I’ve seen very old, very fragile women in wheelchairs, their patient attendant waiting for them, come to him for their color and style. I’ve seen him lean in and quickly offer one a gentle kiss even though he talks a tough game, and he brooks no bullshit. Make no mistake.

It’s New York City, filled with hundreds of more-glamorous competitors for my business.

I could get my hair cut and colored anywhere else.

But why would I?

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