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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!

Nicaragua, Days One and Two: Coconuts, Wells and a 16 Year Old GC

In blogging, books, culture, education, Health, journalism, life, travel, women, work on March 19, 2014 at 1:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It began with a flight from Atlanta to Managua — that was turned back 40 minutes in for mechanical problems, circled for 60 minutes in turbulence to burn off fuel — and had everyone rush into a waiting aircraft to get going, fast, before the Managua airport shut down for the night at midnight. We arrived at 12:30 and got four hours’ sleep because we had to catch a 6:00 a.m. flight to Bilwi/Puerto Cabezas, a town of about 40,000 on the edge of the Caribbean.

Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arricving.

Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arriving.

Our team: Mexican photographer Rodrigo, Maine mom blogger Jennifer, media director Alanna and I crammed into a plane with 12 seats. After 90 minutes we arrived, met by Josh, the Vancouver-born country director, and a borrowed van — that wouldn’t start until it was pushed.

Within an hour, we were all off and running in 95 degree heat, driving due west along washboard red dust roads that jolted us every few feet. Our destination? A house whose 48-year-old owners had decided would finally have a toilet, and we were going to watch them digging the trenches and drilling the gray PVC pipe that will serve as drainage.

Our journey took — to go 40 miles — about two hours, and included crossing the Wawa River on a barge. The road was jammed with chickens and pigs and dogs and small children. Cooks boiled food in pots on charcoal braziers. Enormous colored buses pulled up with men sitting on the roof.

We visited a primary school, where the boys were learning Spanish homonyms.

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The landscape changed, from scrubby low pines in sandy soil, to lush green hills. The house where we stopped was painted wood, as most are here, and on stilts, with lemon and mango trees on the hill. We watched the team working, spoke to them and to the family, then drank fresh coconut milk from the nuts on their tree, hacked open with a machete.

The rooster finishing my coconut

The rooster finishing my coconut

It’s very hot here, at sea level with the Caribbean ocean nearby — about 95 degrees during the day, dropping to about 82 after the sun sets at 5:45.

Much of our work interviewing and photographing people means we’re standing around outside in the sunshine for a few hours, sweating buckets.

By noon, my hair and clothes are drenched and dripping with perspiration so I cover my head, pirate-style with a kerchief. It looks a little goofy, but it works, keeping the sweat from my eyes and face; my notebook today at noon was so sweaty I couldn’t even use some of the paper.

We drink a lot of water! I also brought a bag of peppermint Lifesavers, which offers everyone a nice blast of sweetness and flavor in noonday heat.

Last night in the WaterAid office in Bilwi -- it has AC!

Last night in the WaterAid office in Bilwi — it has AC!

On Tuesday we met and interviewed Cora, a 16-year-old girl who’s acting as GC — a general contractor — building a bathroom for a local man whose house is under construction. Cora is a high-school dropout who WaterAid is helping, (the group sponsoring my trip), teach technical and life skills.

It was amazing to see her self-confidence supervising her team of four male workers. Like any 16-year-old, she wore a sparkly butterfly hair clip, tight blue jeans and a red cellphone she likes to check.

We visited an extremely poor neighborhood near the beach; that’s saying a lot in a place where poverty is endemic, where 0nly 20 percent of Bilwi’s residents have access to running water or any form of toilet in their home.

There we saw a community well and spoke to Nelisha, a shy, freckled 12-year-old living down the street in a bright green wooden house — who used to carry two heavy buckets of water every morning and night for a mile. Now she only carries them about a two-minute walk.

When you’re reporting in the field, the best thing you can do is get away from the official story, in this case, the well we had come to admire.

Jennifer and I wandered a block away toward the beach, where we found a long row of wooden latrines — their sewage emptying into a ditch barely 100 feet from the ocean. This was no tourist beach. This was squalid, dirty and unhealthy.

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

We ate lunch together at a local restaurant, then drove to Cora’s home to see how she lives.

We walked up a slight incline, red dust clogged with fallen palm leaves and coconuts, the walkway shaded by leaning palm trees. On either side were wooden houses on stilts, some patched with corrugated metal, some raw wood.

Her house is barely a few yards from a chain-link fence, the outer perimeter of the Bilwi airport.

Cora has lived here her whole life and shares her home — 15 by 20 feet, wood, no windows — with eight others, including three children, her nieces, ages 1, 3 and six. They have no running water or toilet. To get drinking water, they turn on a white plastic faucet in their small dirt yard.

But, despite the scorching heat and the thirst of a large family, it offers nothing, as the city only opens its taps a few hours a day, and not every day.

Their well, which her father dug, sits about 20 feet from their house’s open doorway. It has no cover or railing and is about 50 feet deep.

Easy for a tiny child to fall into — which apparently one or two a year do.

We have been here only two days, a group of people who were strangers to one another before that. It’s quite astonishing to join yet another five or six people — translators, staff, driver — and meld into a working, laughing, van-pushing unit.

Tomorrow we head into the countryside where we’ll spend two days, sleeping overnight in a village, using mosquito nets. There will be no electricity.

Imagine the stars!

Off to Nicaragua with WaterAid!

In culture, education, journalism, life, travel, women, work on March 16, 2014 at 2:44 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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The left shoulder got the polio shot, the right one got the hepatitis shot. I took my typhus vaccine orally, four pills over eight days, which made my head feel like a block of cement.

Next up, Malarone, for malaria.

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I leave today from my home in New York to fly to Atlanta, then on to Managua. Tomorrow morning, we fly in a plane so small we all have to get weighed, 90 minutes northeast to Puerto Cabezas, on the Caribbean coast, our headquarters for the week.

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From there, we’ll travel two hours inland to visit villages where WaterAid, a British-based charity, is helping to create better sanitation. The team includes Jennifer Barbour, a blogger from Maine, Rodrigo Cruz, a fellow freelancer, and photographer from Cuernavaca, Mexico, and two WaterAid staff; Alanna Imbach, who invited me, is listed here.

Jennifer’s post about the trip offers a lot of great detail about the country.

My role on this journey is to report and interview locals and in-country staff about their experiences with WaterAid, then write stories for the group that they can use in any way they find useful — sending them to the media or to potential donors.

Eighty per cent of the inhabitants of this region have no access to clean water or toilets.

I’ve never done anything like this, so I’m excited and honored to be given the opportunity and challenge of making a remote and unfamiliar place, and the work they’re doing there, into compelling narratives.

But the fundamentals of reporting remain constant:

listen, ask thoughtful questions, watch carefully, behave with cultural sensitivity in dress and demeanor, take photos for later reference, soak up the atmosphere so a reader thousands of miles away feels like they’re sitting beside us…

The other remote places I’ve previously been? Rural Kenya, Tanzania and an Arctic village of 500 near the Arctic circle, Salluit, Quebec — all in my late 20s, a few decades ago.

Alanna has warned us that the poverty we’ll see is quite devastating, and will likely affect us emotionally.

I speak Spanish but we’ll mostly rely on interpreters into the local language, Miskitu.

I’ve never been to Nicaragua before but was lucky enough to know a guy in Colorado who writes its guidebooks and referred to me a young woman in-country who gave me ace advice.

This will be the 38th country I’ve been to (so far!)

It’s a working trip, with long days; our one free day is the last one, in Managua.

I’ll be blogging from there, with images, so I hope you enjoy the journey.

 

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, domestic life, family, life, Money, parenting, US 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?

Readers — a decade later. This is why we write

In art, blogging, books, culture, journalism, life, Money, work on March 8, 2014 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A check arrived this week that left me so excited I burst into tears.

It wasn’t the amount on the check — $491.00 Canadian — but its source, a Canadian gift to authors called the Public Lending Right Program. If your books qualify, (only those published within the last 20 years), you can register your work and receive, in effect, a royalty paid out once a year for the public’s use of your books through Canadian libraries.

malled cover HIGH

The enrolment period is open now, until May 1. Maybe your works qualify!

I was also thrilled to receive a payment that didn’t feel covered with blood and sweat, the way so much of my work now does.

The publishing/journalism business today too often feels less like a creative endeavor than a protracted and wearying battle — rates remain low, publishers pay late and editors refuse to negotiate contracts that claw back 3/4 of your fee if  they decide they just don’t like your final product, even after multiple revisions.

One Canadian friend, with four books in the system, says she used to make a pretty penny from the sale of her intellectual property. A book’s advance, ideally, is only the first of an ongoing revenue stream from your work; with Malled, I also earned income from a CBS television option and multiple, well-paid speaking engagements.

Like most mid-list authors, I’ll never “earn out”, repaying my advance and earning royalties, so every bit of ancillary revenue from each book is very welcome.

Twenty-eight countries have a similar program to Canada’s, with Denmark leading the way in 1941.

Not, sorry to say, the United States.

It’s a sad fact that writers here are not considered successful unless they sell tens of thousands of copies of their books, a bar that very, very few of us will ever be able to clear. Not because our books are boring or poorly-written or sloppy. They’re too niche. They’re too controversial. They’re too challenging.

Or, more and more these days, with the closing of so many bookstores and newspaper book review sections, readers simply never discovered they even exist, which makes endless self-promotion even more necessary than ever.

Here’s a new website to help readers discover year-old books  — called backlist books, in the industry — they might have missed.

And another, focused on business books.

There’s a fascinating resource called WorldCat.org — do you know it? If you’re an author, you can search it to see where your books have ended up; mine are in libraries as far away as New Zealand and Hong Kong.  A friend once sent me a photo of three copies of my first book, Blown Away, on the shelf in a Las Vegas library. I felt like waving.

Measuring your worth and success as a writer solely by your financial income is unwise. But if you measure your books’ value by the number of readers reaching for them, even a decade after publication — as people clearly did with this statement, for my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns — you can enjoy a different sort of satisfaction.

That first book came out in April 2004, still finding readers. Certainly, gun use and violence in the United States is an ongoing issue  — I knew that when I chose my subject.

My second book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail came out April 2011 and in China last July. According to this PLR statement, it, too, is still being read; in this rough economy, many people have tumbled from well-paid jobs into low-wage, hourly labor.

Our books feel like dandelion seeds, something light and ethereal blown hopefully into the wind. Will they take root and bloom and spread, our ideas heard and discussed and maybe even remembered?

Beyond our sales figures, authors never really know who’s reading us.

Having proof of ongoing readership and influence?

Priceless.

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?

Prisoners and pelicans and bears — oh, my!

In culture, life, nature, photography, travel, US on March 2, 2014 at 12:09 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Many people will never visit the bit of Florida where we just spent a brief five-day vacation. Its white sand beaches have the consistency of fresh brown sugar, but it doesn’t have, blessedly, rows of condo towers or huge hotels.

Tucked between Panama City to the west and Tallahassee to the east, closer to Alabama than the rest of the state, it’s called the Forgotten Coast.

photo: Caitlin Kelly

photo: Caitlin Kelly

Jose and I had each been to Florida several times, for work and pleasure. I’d visited Key West, Miami, Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg. But we’d never been here.

My father and his partner rented a house — like most on St. George Island, set high atop stilts — and invited us; we flew on points, rented a car and drove the 90 minutes west from Tallahassee, sharing our small aircraft with South Florida University’s women’s tennis team.

The very day we arrived, carrying our usual pile of weekend newspapers, The Wall Street Journal ran a cover story on Old Florida, naming only a few historic towns, one of them the one we were heading to, Apalachicola.

The town is tiny, barely 2,000 people, but cars lining the main street bore license plates from Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, others, like us, desperate to flee winter for a while.

There are many small, one-storey houses and several enormous, beautifully-renovated ones, Victorian-style, with large windows and gingerbread trim, painted soft yellow or pale green, and clearly the second (or first) home of wealthy outsiders.

There’s a small, narrow bookshop, in a building from 1900 and a place selling home-made Turkish delight. You can buy a natural sponge or a jar of Tupelo honey, all very exotic to a Yankee.

It’s home to fisherman, whose daily catch of fish, scallops, oysters and shrimp made for a delicious, healthy change from the frozen lumps imported from Thailand that pass as “shrimp” where we live.

Can you imagine this many oysters?!

Can you imagine this many oysters?!

To reach the town, we passed Carabelle, Sopchoppy and Panacea, then saw Lake Morality Rd. — leading to a state prison. We also saw multiple road signs warning us of bears, then bears with cubs.

photo

In Florida?!

We also saw a neon-pink sign: State Prisoners Ahead.

Here are some of my images:

The biggest lichen I've ever seen: sponge-soft and hand-sized

The biggest lichen I’ve ever seen: sponge-soft and hand-sized

This lovely faded green seemed to appear everywhere; this is the door of an ancient barber shop in town

This lovely faded green seemed to appear everywhere; this is the door of an ancient barber shop in town

lizard

shadow

heron

shells

I loved driving across the causeway and having a pelican whiz past me, at eye-level, heading the opposite direction. The island is surrounded by marshland, filled with wildlife and birds: osprey, heron, pelican, bald eagles.

As we drove back to the airport, every pelican sat atop its own wooden pole at the water’s edge, and sunlight backlit the Spanish moss, draping from every tree.

Closer to Alabama than the rest of Florida, this region is definitely the South — with White Lily flour and pralines at the local grocery chain, named Piggly Wiggly, grits and biscuits for breakfast and hush puppies at dinner.

I stopped to photograph one of the town’s major industries — oysters — warned to stay far away from the loading dock by one of the workers. I felt like Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s film The Birds, as seagulls swooped past my head, diving into the growing mountain of discarded oyster shells dropping from the factory’s conveyor belt.

gull and oyster machine

We had poor weather — so cold one night we layered on multiple blankets — but it was still a brief relief to shed our hats, mitts, boots and coats for even five days, heading back to more bloody frigid winter for at least another month.

It’s too easy to forget how many other worlds are out there for the discovering. At the table behind us one night, a huge, burly fisherman, hands the size of plates, gently cradled his tiny baby, gurgling in her pink onesie. You don’t see that where I live, in manicured, overpriced, suburban New York.

Sunset, our last night. photo: Jose R. Lopez.

Sunset, our last night. photo: Jose R. Lopez.

How was your last vacation?

Or do you have one coming up?

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?

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