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Archive for the ‘life’ Category

What will they remember you for?

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, men, parenting, seniors, women on October 20, 2014 at 2:14 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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A few days ago, we attended a memorial service in suburban Maryland for a family friend of my husband’s, a handsome, distinguished architect whose work spanned New York City and Detroit and who helped design JFK Airport.

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but what a glorious service!

What a powerful reminder of the complicated, messy, loving lives we lead.

How we are often both reticent and expressive, if perhaps not when, where and how others might most have needed or wished for.

How our smallest words and deeds can, unwittingly, leave a lasting mark.

How much we crave connection, even as we blunder and stagger and do it so imperfectly that forgiveness is sometimes the greatest gift we are given.

How, for some fathers, their children are their greatest joy.

What did his friends, children, grandchildren and colleagues remember?

– He baked bread in clay flowerpots

– His amazing home-made pizza

– He loved classical music — and Rodrigo’s exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez was part of the service, played simply and beautifully on a gleaming black grand piano. A lone trumpet also played the Navy Anthem and My Funny Valentine.

– His service in WWII, inspiring a young seaman, a grandson in his medal-beribboned uniform, to tell us that’s what inspired him to join the Navy as well

– His midnight rescue, done calmly and gently, of his niece — out on a first date — who had locked the car keys in his borrowed car, with the engine running

– The day, as a Columbia School of Architecture student, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel. He jumped into a car, drove downtown to the Plaza — and, with no formal introduction, invited Wright back to campus for their 4:00 ritual tea. Wright, who then was paid $30,000 per lecture and had a New York Times interview scheduled that day, spontaneously agreed. (Now that’s chutzpah!)

– His three marriages; (as one female relative said, to loving laughter, “I kept hoping…”)

My husband clutched the late man’s brother’s hand, our dear friend, while I held Jose’s, knitting a fierce rope of love, something rough and strong to hold fast to.

We exited the church into brilliant fall sunshine to discover a raft of cellphone messages from Texas; my husband’s own half-brother, a man 24 years his senior, had suffered a major stroke and would likely not survive. He died a few hours later.

This, barely three days after Pratt Institute, where I now teach two classes, lost a female student to suicide, on campus.

It has been a week of death, of mourning, of loss, of remembrance.

Of our impossible, inevitable, inescapable fragility.

What will they say of you?

Is it what you hope?

From joyful community to fearful chaos

In behavior, blogging, culture, life, women on October 18, 2014 at 12:49 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Only a few short weeks ago, I blogged here about a community I had found on-line, one filled with women of all ages and races and income levels, from Edmonton to Los Angeles to Dubai to Mississippi. It was secret, and had, at the outset, almost 600 members, many of whom weighed in daily to share their triumphs — (work, dating, family) — and tragedies, (dead or dying pets, work frustrations, break-ups.)

They are mostly women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, gay and straight, polyamorous or monogamous and many looking (with little success) for love. I was, being older than many of these women, astonished and often appalled by the intimacy of the many details they chose to share there, with women many of them had never met and never will, women whose character and morals and ethics they have no knowledge of or experience with.

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The chickens soon came home to roost…

I was, naively, hopeful that this would be a place for fun, friendship, shared wisdom and a dozen of us living in New York met for brunch in early September and had a great time. The women were funny, lively, creative and I looked forward to seeing them again.

Not going to happen: I was kicked out this week.

It’s been a fascinating lesson in political correctness, tone policing and definitions of “derailment” — taking a comment thread off-message. I won’t bore you with all the details, but what a shitshow!

Talking about issues is important -- but when are you over the line?

Talking about issues is important — but when are you over the line?

The group’s small handful of volunteer administrators decided I should be banned for insensitivity. Which is, of course, their right.

I do express my opinions vigorously.

But how amusing that women there could rant for hours about others’ being mean to them — yet turn in a flash on anyone they felt wasn’t being sufficiently sympathetic to their cause(s.)

It soon — why? –devolved into a rantfest. Women raged daily about their oppression and others’ privilege, swiftly chasing down, or simply banning, with no notice to the larger group of their actions or why they took them, those who dared to disagree with them or whose opinions were deemed…unwelcome.

One woman I liked very much was dismissed from the group for her allegedly racist remarks.

Then another — anonymously, of course — took a screen-shot of someone’s comment and sent it to her freelance employer, costing her paid work and a professional relationship. Members legitimately freaked out at such a creepy betrayal of their mutual trust.

But, really!

Why on earth would you even trust a bunch of people you do not know?

For a group of women so oppressed by patriarchy, it was too ironic that one of their own proved to be such a vicious and cowardly bitch.

Membership had dropped, rapidly, by more than 40 people last time I looked.

I’m glad to have made several new friends through the group and look forward to continuing those online relationships, several of whom I’ve also met, and enjoyed meeting, face to face.

But it’s been a powerful and instructive lesson in group-think, competitive victimhood and endless, endless draaaaaaaaama.

I’m well out of it, sorry to say.

Have you been a part of an on-line group like this?

How long did it last and how much did/do you enjoy it?

A sudden chill

In aging, domestic life, family, life, love, men, seniors on October 11, 2014 at 12:01 am

By Caitlin Kelly

His bicep still feels like a wall, solid and strong.

His energy and curiosity have long since out-paced that of his peers.

He just spent a month sailing in Greece with a friend.

That's him, helping me into my heels before my second wedding

That’s him, helping me into my heels before my second wedding

But, for the first time, during a recent visit, my 85-year-old father finally, suddenly, felt old to me. And, to his clear dismay and surprise, to himself.

We’ve never had a smooth, easy relationship. He’s missed many of my birthdays and we rarely do Christmas together. He made it to both my weddings and walked me down the aisle.

We’ve had arguments so loud and ferocious I debated cutting off all contact with him.

But he’s my only father.

And I am, in many ways — competitive, stubborn, voraciously curious, a world traveler with a host of interests, artistic — very much like him.

A film-maker and director of television documentaries, he rarely hesitated to piss people off, preferably on their dime, a trait I’ve also inherited in my work as a journalist. Gone for months working while I was growing up, he’d bring home the world — literally: a caribou skin rug and elbow length sealskin gloves from the Arctic, Olympic badges from Japan, a woven Afghani rifle case, a hammered metal bowl from Jerusalem.

In the 60s, when I was at boarding school, his gold Jaguar XKE would pull into the parking lot and whisk me away for a day of fun., often a long walk through the countryside.

We’ve since driven through Mexico and Ireland, shared a tent while driving across Canada the summer I was 15  and drove from Montreal to Savannah, admiring the Great Dismal Swamp in the rain. Much of our time has been spent in motion.

We rarely, if ever, discuss feelings. It’s just not something we do.

But it’s sad, frightening, disorienting — inevitable — to suddenly see him tired, limping, sobered and chastened by mortality after a lifetime of tremendous health, good luck and international adventure.

I’m not used to him being human.

But what if you hate the characters — a la “Gone Girl”?

In art, beauty, behavior, books, culture, entertainment, film, journalism, life, movies, television on October 7, 2014 at 12:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Ben Affleck as Nick in the 2014 film, Gone Girl

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in the 2014 film, Gone Girl

Have any of you seen the new film “Gone Girl”?

Or read that best-selling book by Gillian Flynn?

Some readers loathed “Gone Girl” once they realize what appalling people Nick and Amy really are. We discussed it in our small book club and I was the only person to have any feeling for these two, and only really because both are such deeply damaged people.

But I came home from the film, which is 2.5 hours, worn out from how terrifyingly toxic Amy became on screen, played by Rosamund Pike, a British actress who usually plays gorgeous, flirty ingenues (as in “An Education.”) Not here!

Have you watched the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “House of Cards”? It stars Robin Wright, as a tall, lean, stiletto-strutting, icy, power-mad NGO director, Claire Underwood. She lives in a red brick townhouse in D.C. with her husband, Francis, whose own ambitions are jaw-dropping, and which — over the first two seasons — ultimately prove successful.

I watched House of Cards again recently, after binge-watching it in one bleary-eyed weekend a few months ago. It’s a real struggle to find even one character you’d choose to spend five minutes with, let alone marry, have an affair with, promote or manage. I can think of only two, really: Adam Galloway, a talented New York-based photographer and Freddy, whose hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint is Frank’s secret escape hatch. Both are used whenever helpful to Claire and Frank, and their essential humanity and warmth offer a needed counterpoint to their nastiness.

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So, what’s the appeal? Some people like to hate-watch, eagerly awaiting the downfall, literally, of that scheming, ruthless young reporter, Zoe Barnes, or the drunk young congressman, Pete Russo, or the naive NGO director Claire hires, then soon screws over.

I can’t think of many books I’ve read where I’ve been able to sympathize with or remain compelled by a difficult, nasty, ruthless character — and there are plenty out there!

Oddly, perhaps, one of my husband’s favorite books, and mine, is non-fiction, “My War Gone By, I Miss it So,” by British journalist Anthony Loyd, who spends much of his time in that narrative addicted to heroin — but the rest of it covering war, and doing so brilliantly.

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I also loved, (and these are very dark books!), the Patrick Melrose novels, whose characters are almost all truly horrible. They’re written by Edward St. Aubyn, also British, and offer some of the most powerful and best writing I’ve read in ages. He, too, was addicted to heroin, and one book in the series — impossibly grim — details his life in those years.

Can you read or watch — or enjoy — fictional or non-fictional characters who disgust and repel you?

Under stress, are you a cookie or a teabag?

In aging, behavior, culture, domestic life, life, women on October 4, 2014 at 11:24 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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In other words, do you shatter like a cookie/biscuit into helpless crumbs?

Or, like a teabag, as hot water surrounds you, gain strength?

It’s not a question I ask lightly, but one that seems to separate those able to find life pleasurable — even  as it’s filled with inevitable stresses: illness, the death of loved ones, divorce, miscarriage, job loss/search, un/underemployment — and those who choose to sit in a corner, wailing in the fetal position.

I’m aware I may here sound heartless, lacking compassion or understanding.

It’s not for lack of facing a pile o’ stuff in my own life, starting before my teens, that included parental mental illness and alcoholism, abandonment, an often cruel and competitive step-mother, blablablabla.

I’ve been the victim of four acts of criminal behavior. Had four orthopedic surgeries since the year 2000.

I didn’t love getting fired from several jobs and surviving three recessions in 25 years after leaving Canada for the gilded streets of New York.

Blablablablablabla…..

But I’ve reached the limits of my tolerance for whining, moaning, hand-wringing and helplessness.

If you’re addicted and/or mentally ill and/or barely surviving on poverty wages and/or suffering chronic illness….life can be hard as hell! Anyone facing a serious illness also faces multiple issues at once, and just getting through a day can be an ordeal.

But if you’re blessed with health, strength, saleable skills, (even if they don’t always add up to a well-paid or secure job, the Holy Grail of a crap economy), let alone a family who supports you financially, emotionally or intellectually,  do you step up and do whatever’s necessary to improve your situation?

I do support public policies that help — unemployment insurance, disability pay, and more — and the taxes that pay for them; good people do land in terrible straits.

But…

I recently joined an on-line women’s group that I celebrated here a few weeks ago as a pillar of on-line community. Most of the women in it are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, all decades now behind me. I was excited to find a group filled with fun and interesting people.

It has evolved into something else, a minefield of hurt feelings and expected apologies. Plus, the draaaaaaama! The angst! The unhappiness!

So, whether it’s an issue of age and experience, or personality, or my putative white/middle-class/heterosexual privilege, I just don’t have time.

How much patience do you have for others’ dramas — or your own?

How do you get through tough times?

Columbia student turns her campus rape into performance art

In behavior, Crime, education, life, men, US, women on October 1, 2014 at 3:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Artist, and Columbia undergrad, Emma Sulcowicz has been dragging a 50-pound mattress around the campus of Columbia University for the past few months – to protest a fellow student rapist she says has not yet been disciplined or expelled.

From The New York Times:

Ms. Sulkowicz spoke of her interest in the kind of art that elicits a powerful response, whether negative or positive. Freshly painted on the walls around us loomed big black letters spelling out the “rules of engagement,” the guidelines to her performance: One states that she will continue the piece until the man she accuses of attacking her is no longer on campus, whether he leaves or is expelled or graduates, as she also will next spring. (If need be, she plans to attend commencement carrying the mattress.) She said the performance is giving her new muscles and an inner strength she didn’t know she had, and is attracting many different kinds of attention, some of it hard to take.

“Carry That Weight” is both singular and representative of a time of strongly held opinions and objections and righteous anger on all sides, a time when, not surprisingly, political protest and performance art are intersecting in increasingly adamant ways.

Her decision to make the alleged attack public, ongoing and physically demanding — of her and her bystanders — forces others to engage with her, intellectually, emotionally and physically. Many rape survivors choose to remain silent and hidden, fearing insensitive response from friends, family and authorities.

Her protest, having made the front page of the NYT arts section (a spot many established artists would kill for!) also won her the cover of New York magazine:

A few years ago, an Ivy League student going public about her rape, telling the world her real name—let alone trying to attract attention by lugging around a mattress—would have been a rare bird. In America, after all, we still assume rape survivors want, and need, their identities protected by the press. But shattering silence, in 2014, means not just coming out with an atrocity tale about your assault but offering what Danielle Dirks, a sociologist at Occidental, calls “an atrocity tale about how poorly you were treated by the people you pay $62,500 a year to protect you.” By owning those accusations, and pointing a finger not only at assailants but also the American university, the ivory tower of privilege, these survivors have built the most effective, organized anti-rape movement since the late ’70s. Rape activists now don’t talk much about women’s self-care and protection like they did in the ’90s with Take Back the Night marches, self-defense classes, and cans of Mace. Today, the militant cry is aimed at the university: Kick the bastards out.

According to this HuffPo story, 10 Columbia undergrads were accused of sexual assault  in 2013-14 — and none have been disciplined:

Columbia released the data following months of pressure from student leaders and activists. Meanwhile, a federal complaint accusing the school of mishandling rape cases has grown to include 28 current or former students.

The Ivy League university announced in January that it would release the aggregate data, starting with the 2013-14 school year.

“Over the past year, the issue of sexual assault has gained a new level of attention and engagement on campuses around the country,” Columbia Provost John Coatsworth said in an email to students. “We are committed to providing a national model of the best policies and practices to help ensure that members of our University community feel safe and respected. As one part of that commitment, we are publishing Columbia’s first annual Report on Gender-Based Misconduct Prevention and Response.”

Few universities disclose such information. Some Ivy League schools, including Yale University, Brown University and Dartmouth College, release data on sexual assault punishments in some form.

College offers students a wealth of exciting opportunities — to learn new subjects in depth, try new sports and activities, take on leadership roles, gain intellectual confidence and emotional maturity.

For some, it becomes an overwhelming maelstrom of sexual assault, often in concert with consciousness, memory and physical condition altered by drugs and/or alcohol.

This Slate piece, from 2013, raises some powerful questions and received 60,000 Facebook shares:

A 2009 study of campus sexual assault found that by the time they are seniors, almost 20 percent of college women will become victims, overwhelmingly of a fellow classmate. Very few will ever report it to authorities. The same study states that more than 80 percent of campus sexual assaults involve alcohol. Frequently both the man and the woman have been drinking. The men tend to use the drinking to justify their behavior, as this survey of research on alcohol-related campus sexual assault by Antonia Abbey, professor of psychology at Wayne State University, illustrates, while for many of the women, having been drunk becomes a source of guilt and shame….

The 2009 campus sexual assault study, co-authored by Krebs, found campus alcohol education programs “seldom emphasize the important link” between women’s voluntary alcohol and drug use “and becoming a victim of sexual assault.” It goes on to say students must get the explicit message that limiting alcohol intake and avoiding drugs “are important sexual assault sex protection strategies.” I think it would be beneficial for younger students to hear accounts of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault from female juniors and seniors who’ve lived through it.

Of course, perpetrators should be caught and punished. But when you are dealing with intoxication and sex, there are the built-in complications of incomplete memories and differing interpretations of intent and consent. To establish if a driver is too drunk to be behind the wheel, all it takes is a quick test to see if his or her blood alcohol exceeds the legal limit. There isn’t such clarity when it comes to alcohol and sex.

This group, End Rape on Campus, offers nine additional resources; these women are fighting several prestigious schools — UNC Chapel Hill, Columbia, Berkeley — for sexual assaults against them while they were students.

Columbia Journalism School

Columbia Journalism School

Gratefully, I never suffered any such assaults while an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, and, yes, I did attend some parties at male fraternity houses. But there was not, then, (and I suspect still), a culture of female binge drinking.

For a variety of reasons – maybe coming of age during second-wave feminism? — drinking myself into vomiting, staggering oblivion, let alone while surrounded in a large house by young men whose morals, ethics or sexual notions of decent behavior were unknown to me just never appealed to me in any way. So I just didn’t do it.

For me, and my friends, sex was fun, plentiful — and best enjoyed while sober. And, as someone who lived all four years off-campus living solo in an apartment, I was also acutely aware that whatever (lousy) choices I made were mine alone, as were the consequences of same.

I had no RAs, nearby friends or room-mates or campus security to turn to for advice or possible protection. Cellphones — and an emergency text or IM — did not yet exist.

California has just passed a bill, “yes means yes”, to make drunken campus rapes (one hopes!) a thing of the past.

I often wonder how much of young women’s “need” to drink themselves into virtual unconsciousness is a quick, easy and socially-sanctioned way to dodge the many complicated feelings and negotiations around safe, enjoyable, consensual sex.

Is this an issue that has touched you or someone you love?

Some of my favorite places in the world

In cities, culture, life, travel on September 28, 2014 at 12:15 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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I started traveling young — when my parents removed the back seat of our family car and drove from Vancouver, my birthplace, to Mexico, a country I’ve since visited many times. I was two.

So constant motion and long-distance travel just feel normal to me!

In the next few weeks, we’ll be in Pennsylvania, near New Hope; in D.C. and suburban Maryland and on the Delaware River, each time visiting with friends who live there. I love getting away, even for a few days.

In December, Jose and I fly to Paris for Christmas, where we’ve been loaned an apartment. I then have five days in London alone visiting another friend, then another week alone there to do….I have no idea!

Which is my definition of bliss.

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Berlin? Amsterdam? Antwerp? A quick flight to my new friend in Bahrain?

Nothing in the world makes me happier than a travel adventure.

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Here, in no special order, are some of my favorite places around the world:

Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC

Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC

 

A battered railing on East 9th Street, NYC

A battered railing on East 9th Street, NYC

 

The West Village and East Village of Manhattan

Having lived in a suburb of New York City for more than 20 years, I never tire of wandering these two quieter and residential edges of the city: battered 19th-century doors and weathered stone steps, enormous 18th-cenury churches, cobblestoned, tree-lined streets and elegant brownstone houses with their ornate black metal railings and tall, narrow windowed doors. The area’s many cafes, restaurants and small shops include Porto Rico for coffee and tea, Bosie’s or Tea and Sympathy for a seated afternoon tea and Morandi for spaghetti carbonara. The best perfume shop in the city is on Christopher Street, Aedes de Venustas.

Yorkville, Toronto

I’ve been visiting this chic spot since my childhood in Toronto. The Papery sells lovely stationery; the Craft Ontario shop offers terrific and affordable pottery, jewelry and Eskimo art a new store, Ca Va de Soi, recently opened there, selling the loveliest women’s sweaters. (Queen Street West gets all the attention. I like it a lot, but Yorkville is easier to manage, cleaner and safer.)

San Francisco

Such an elegant city! Spectacular views, great sailing, that bridge, the beaches and Marin County, a landscape of staggering beauty. I ate here, at the Presidio Social Club, in 2012 and loved every minute of it — a former military barracks set in a park. Sacramento Street has dozens of small, gorgeous shops.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Watching the sun rise, filling every valley in the Andes as it came towards us, remains one of the highlights of my life.

One of the eeriest and most memorable sights of my life -- a lunar landscape I saw, alone in the rain, while traveling alone by mo-ped

Corsica

Corsica

I spent five amazing days here, alone, traveling the north of this island by mo-ped, with a top speed of about 45 mph. It was  July and the heated maquis, the scrubby fragrant underbrush, smelled like very good pipe tobacco. Craggy mountains, deep valleys, steep oceanside cliffs. Great food, welcoming people. I wept so hard when the plane took off for Nice the poor flight attendant thought I was injured or dying. Few places have touched me as deeply.

Kenya and Tanzania

I saw both, on safari, in my 20s. The Maasai Mara in Kenya and Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania are unforgettably beautiful, filled with wild animals. It’s expensive to get there, but worth every penny to see a landscape that reminds us we’re only one late-arriving species. (Once you see animals in the wild, zoos seem sad and pointless.)

Mae Hong Son, Ko Phi Phi, Bangkok, Thailand

I spent 21 days in Thailand in January 1994 and remember every detail. MHS is a tiny town in the far north; KPP is a sliver of an island two hours by boat from the southern town of Krabi and crowded, humid Bangkok feels like an out-take from Blade Runner. I loved everything about my time there: food, people, flowers, astounding landscapes. If only it wasn’t 19 hours’ flying time away!

Stockholm

Oddly, we went there in November, a time of year when the sun barely rises at 8:30 and is gone by 3:00 p.m. It was staggeringly expensive, but worth it. The colors! The light! I loved the Vasa Museum — a ship launched with great fanfare in 1628, and which promptly sank in the harbor. It’s amazing — you climb a scaffolding so you’re literally face to face with history. I loved everything about this city, especially its attention to design, detail and light. I’m eager to return, preferably in summer.

Lakeside at Manoir Hovey, Quebec

Lakeside at Manoir Hovey, Quebec

The Eastern Townships, Quebec

We return every two years to Manoir Hovey, a five-star inn on Lake Massawippi. The area itself is lovely in every season, dotted with small towns and a gently rolling landscape. There’s skiing, horseback riding, winding roads to cycle, a stunning monastery — and Montreal 90 minutes north. If you’re a fan of best-selling mystery writer Louise Penny, this region will feel familiar, as that’s where she lives, and sets her stories.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

The Grand Canyon

If you make one journey in your lifetime, make it here. Seriously. And don’t just drive to the edge, snap a few pics and drive away…You must walk deep into it (twice as long to come back up! take plenty of water!) to best experience a place that so powerfully reminds us what a mere eye-blink in time our lives represent. The light, the silence, the hawks and foxes and fossils…Few places so richly reward sitting still for an hour just to watch the light shifting and the landscape changing every minute as it does.

Ireland

I’ve been, (so far), four times; my father owned a house near Galway City for a few years. Hard to name anything I don’t love about this small, friendly, gorgeous country….not to mention my heritage! My great-grandfather was a schoolteacher in Rathmullan, Co. Donegal. Get out to the Aran Islands top see shaggy cows the exact color of Guinness, or wander the streets of Dublin. For a bit of craic, try the annual matchmakers festival in Lisdoonvarna, which I wrote about for the Washington Post. Lots of shy bachelor farmers!

The window of Nevis House, 1843, Irvington, NY

The window of Nevis House, 1835, Irvington, NY

The Hudson Valley, New York

Home! I moved here in 1989 and love its history, landscapes, the Palisades, the Hudson River. The river towns — Irvington, Tarrytown, Ossining — line the Hudson, with quiet parks and access to the water. Lots of great restaurants and  cafes…ancient churches and graveyards…winding roads, fantastic views. Visit Olana to see a spectacular example of 19th century architecture and West Point to visit an American icon.

The view from our balcony across the Hudson River

The view from our balcony across the Hudson River

(all images, Caitlin Kelly)

What are some of your favorite spots?

The life of an adjunct professor

In behavior, education, life, parenting, US, work on September 25, 2014 at 12:09 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a while since I’ve taught college, which I’ve done at Concordia University in Montreal, Pace University in New York and elsewhere. This fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, I’m teaching a two-hour writing class to freshmen and a two-hour blogging class to seniors.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

I work as an adjunct, i.e. someone hired to work only part-time, with no benefits or security or chance of attaining a full-time position. I’m paid a set fee, negotiated in advance with the dean, paid every few weeks.

In return, I offer my skills, experience, wisdom and advice. I don’t have an office. I don’t have a locker. (I do have a mailbox.) I can make photocopies for my classes free.

I don’t live on, or anywhere near, campus, which means a two-hour commute each way and my physical unavailability to students between classes, held once a week.

If I want to meet with students — which, technically, I’m not paid to do — it’s on my own time and in the cafeteria. If they want additional advice, or just a chance to chat, it needs to be then, (when I also need to rest and recharge between classes!), or by email or phone.

I risk looking aloof and uncaring, yet my re-hiring, as it does for many adjuncts today, relies on student evaluations. So does my income.

Dilemma!

Should I hand out high grades like candy bars on Hallowe’en to placate them?

Grade harshly, if fairly, to prepare them for the reality of life as a working writer?

Minimize my time and energy out of the classroom to save both for other revenue streams, and for my own life?

Give them the most possible to prove my commitment to them; (see: student evaluations)?

Colleges look so serious and authoritative, don't they?

Colleges look so serious and authoritative, don’t they?

The irony?

Most undergraduate students have no idea what an adjunct is, or why we’re there — (cheap! lots of daily practical experience to share! plentiful labor supply!) — or why we might view them and their school somewhat differently than those with tenure or working towards it.

To them, we’re just another professor, someone they can shred, or praise, on Rate My Professors, even adding a chile pepper, (yes, really), to show  how “hot” they think we are.

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And, here in the U.S. where a year of tuition alone can cost $40,000 or more, we’re also fighting a consumerist mindset; I’m acutely aware that every hour I spend with my students represents a parental investment of  X-hundred dollars.

Am I worth it? Am I providing sufficient value? (Am I fun/likeable/relatable/helpful?)

And what are the objective metrics for those?

Unlike most aggrieved adjuncts, I don’t have a Phd nor multiple advanced degrees. I haven’t invested thousands of dollars and hours in acquiring academic credentials, in the hope or — worse — expectation that all this time and energy will produce a steady, well-paid income.

So, as much as working solely as an adjunct makes for a nasty, low-paid and tiring existence, as this Salon piece makes clear, it’s working for me.

“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage,” said Miranda Merklein, an adjunct professor from Santa Fe who started teaching in 2008. “Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”

Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course, anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage. However, a full-time adjunct works more than 40 hours a week. They’re not paid for most of those hours.

“If it’s a three credit course, you’re paid for your time in the classroom only,” said Merklein. “So everything else you do is by donation. If you hold office hours, those you’re doing for free. Your grading you do for free. … Anything we do with the student where we sit down and explain what happened when the student was absent, that’s also free labor. Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs. We have to do things we’re not getting paid for. It’s not optional.”

I was also fairly appalled to read this piece about how colleges are racing to blow millions on sexy, cool facilities like a “lazy river.”

I blog frequently about income inequality and the difficulty many Americans, even those well-educated, now have of finding well-paid work. It’s an odd and disturbing issue if professors who have invested their lives preparing to work in academia are, as the Salon piece says, on food stamps to survive.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

But my industry of 30 years — journalism, specifically print journalism — has also fallen to pieces and I now expect very little any more from the formal “job market.”

After losing my staff job at the New York Daily News in 2006, I had few choices:

1) return for re-training into a wholly new career (costly, no guarantee of work upon graduation); 2) keep trying to find a full-time job, with many fewer available; 3) learn a wholly new-to-me skill set (coding, HTML, etc) and compete with 25-year-olds; 4) remain freelance, but supplement/broaden my income with as many other revenue streams beyond print journalism as possible.

No. 4 is the course I took.

Have you had to re-tool or re-invent your career?

How’s it working out?

Are you an adjunct? Do you enjoy it?

Students….how do you feel about this?

 

The writer’s week: Skyping Holland, grading papers, waiting for news of….

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, life, work on September 21, 2014 at 12:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

For those of you new to Broadside, every six weeks or so I describe my working life as a full-time writer living in New York. I write for newspapers, magazines, websites, anyone whose pay is sufficient, whose work is challenging and can use my skills; details and samples here.

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com if you’ve got some!

Monday

Juggling three assigned stories, two for the financial website Investopedia and one for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing freelance for many years. Having a terrible time sourcing the Times piece though and have shaken every tree I can think of: my LinkedIn contacts, LinkedIn groups, Facebook friends and Twitter. I need to find couples living, or soon to live outside the U.S. and reach out to my many friends worldwide, from Austria to Germany to Bhutan to Britain.

Finally! I find a couple who fits the bill and schedule a Skype interview with them from Holland for next week.

An editor I’ve been working with for years, but have yet to meet face to face, offers me a rush job for a very nice fee. Luckily, I have a spare few days in which to take it on. Another story with elusive sources finally comes together as I find enough people and pitch the editor; we haggle over money and I now await the assignment.

It’s a constant balance of how much time to invest in putting together a pitch (i.e. an idea for a story, not the finished thing) and when to hit “send” to an assigning editor.

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955

“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

Tuesday

I teach two classes this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and 3pm Tuesday is the deadline for my writing students. It’s interesting to see who sends their work in soonest and who waits til the very last minute. I’m really enjoying their writing, but it’s also strange to be so vulnerable to their subjective opinions of me and my teaching — their evaluations  will determine my fate.

Pitching more stories to Cosmopolitan, USA Today, More magazine. Reached out to editors I was last in touch with a few months ago to see if they have anything for me to work on.

Check in with a Toronto writer whose agent is supposed to pitch a collection of essays, mine among them. The book proposal still hasn’t gone out yet; it’s nice to be enough of a “name” that my inclusion might help sell it.

And yet…I share a name with a younger writer at The New Yorker. A Manhattan headhunter emails me to tell me about a job opportunity. Sweet! Several emails later, it’s clear the headhunter has no idea who I am and thinks (!) she has been emailing the other one. For fucks’ sake.

Our rings

Our rings

Wednesday

I hear about a terrific editing position — in Toronto. I live in New York. I apply for it and my husband says, of course; a great job is a rare thing in my industry these days. Most journalism jobs don’t pay enough to justify a commuter marriage, but you never know.

Awaiting the results of a fellowship I’ve applied for in Chicago. The topic I’ve proposed — to study gun violence there — interests me, as it was the subject of my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

I go for my usual Wednesday morning walk with a friend, who thinks there’s money in writing books. Sadly, there really isn’t for most writers.

Today is my third wedding anniversary, so Jose and I meet for drinks and dinner in Manhattan at The Lion, whose back room is gorgeous and welcoming. The room is buzzing, filled with 20-somethings.

In a table near the front sits actress Susan Sarandon — almost as pleasant a surprise as finding a free/unpaid parking spot directly in front of the restaurant, saving me $30 or so for a garage.

The New York subway is more....interesting...but driving is quicker

The New York subway is more….interesting…but driving is quicker

Thursday

It’s a good two hour drive from our home to Pratt’s campus. We live north of Manhattan, and I drive down the FDR, the highway on the East Side of Manhattan, intrigued by the city’s mix of poverty and wealth. Under one of the bridges, homeless people still sleep in their blankets and sleeping bags while helicopters arrive at the helipad, gleaming Escalades waiting to ferry the 1% crowd to wherever they’re headed. Police boats and barges and working vessels pass on my left on the East River.

I climb the four flights of stairs to reach my first classroom.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Lunch in the college cafeteria, meeting with a student, then 2.5 hours’ downtime before I teach blogging there at 4:30 to 6:20. Tonight is a faculty reception at the president’s home, which is spectacular, the original mansion built for the founder of Pratt, a 19th century industrialist. I chat briefly with two other professors then head off into the night — and get lost. I swing around Prospect Park twice in frustrated, exhausted horror. I can’t read my map, (the print is too small), and just keep driving until — finally — I find my way to the highway I need.

Friday

Into Manhattan for a meeting of the volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can grant up to $4,000 within a week to a non-fiction writer in financial crisis. We were getting many requests in the past few years but, luckily, many fewer these days.

Long discussion, with no clear resolution, as to what now constitutes a “freelance writer” — when so many people write for so little payment or even none at all.

I hop a city bus downtown to the East Village and discover that my Metrocard has expired; the driver kindly lets me ride anyway.

It’s a gorgeous sunny fall day and I wander East 9th Street, only to discover that one of my favorite shops has closed.

Gone!

Gone!

I drop into another, a fantastic vintage store where I scored big last winter, and decide against a chocolate suede hat for $88. In a sidewalk cafe, I watch European tourists and models and just….sit still for a change, enjoying calm, carrot cake and mint tea.

Fresh mint tea. Perfect!

Fresh mint tea. Perfect!

Finally meeting a source — an American woman living and working in Bahrain — for dinner. I interviewed her by email a few years ago, and we’ve been following one another on Twitter. We’re meeting in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street, once a legendary hangout for writers but now a more-polished upscale version of itself. I’ve been coming here for decades and have seen it through three (so far) renovations.

The evening is a bit of a blind date for both of us but we’re laughing like mad within minutes of meeting one another as we discover a raft of unlikely common interests. Like me, she’s a quirky, feisty mix of ideas and entrepreneurship.

It’s rare to become friends with a story source, but it’s nice when it happens.

 

Small town life — bucolic relief or isolating hell?

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, immigration, life, travel, urban life, US on September 16, 2014 at 12:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I love to visit them --- this one is in Florida -- but not sure I want to live there again

I love to visit them — this one, Appalachicola, is in Florida — but not sure I want to live there again

As a scarred survivor of 18 miserable months in a small New Hampshire town, this recent New York Times essay resonated with me:

In November 2012, I flew out to start work…We bought a house for maybe one-fifth of what we would have paid in San Francisco, less than what my parents paid for my childhood home in rural Pennsylvania.

We were betting on the fact that we wouldn’t be alone in fleeing the big city for a small town. Urban living has become unthinkably expensive for many middle-class creative types. A 2010 study from the Journal of Economic Geography found a trifecta of reasons some rural areas have grown instead of shrunk: the creative class, entrepreneurial activity and outdoor amenities. In 2012, a University of Minnesota research fellow called the influx of 30-to-40-somethings into rural Minnesota towns a “brain gain” — flipping the conventional wisdom on the exodus from the boonies to the big city.

Predictably enough, they end up abandoning what initially looked like a great choice.

I know another writer, fed up with the cost and craziness of New York City life, who fled north to the Catskills for silence, low rent and creative freedom. She lasted two years.

Another writer friend recently quit her job and traded a major American city for….the Catskills:

It’s remote. The other day I had to drive 45 minutes (one way) and pay $2.00 in tolls to get to my bank. So much is done online these days, it might not be that much of an issue, but it’s definitely an adjustment. I’m thinking I’ll have to coordinate trips into the larger towns to coincide with other errands.

It’s clean. I haven’t seen one piece of litter or trash — which is not to say I haven’t seen junk in people’s yards, but that’s different.

It smells good. The air is pure and fresh. On rainy, chilly days like today the air was filled with the scent of burning firewood and wet grass. The other day I walked by someone’s house and smelled the sweet buttery scent of an apple pie baking. I actually paused in front of the window and when the lady inside looked at me, I waved. “Smells delicious!”

It’s really dark at night. The other night I drove home after dark and needed my high beams the whole time. I try not to think of slasher movies when walking at night. Actually, I try not to walk at night.

It’s friendly. Some people are quicker to talk to me than others, but those who have were extremely friendly. People have given me their phone numbers, invited me to events and introduced me to other folks within minutes of meeting.

It’s intellectual and creative. I’ve received more bookstore and library recommendations in the past five days than I have in 19 years living in Los Angeles, and heard there are many other writers and artists up here.

It’s cheap. Not only are the prices of necessities and services lower, but there are fewer opportunities to spend money. I’m not eating out, going to the movies, walking by stores or cafes. I literally haven’t reached for my wallet to buy anything in three days.

I had that fantasy too.

In January 1988, I followed an American man I met in Montreal, where he was finishing medical school and I was a newspaper reporter, and moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, a small town two hours north of Boston best known for Dartmouth College, one of the most elite and costly universities in the nation. I worked there for three months on a visa, then moved permanently, expecting to stay there for the next three years while he finished his medical residency.

Yes, please!

Yes, please!

I barely lasted another year.

Summer was heaven: sailing, hiking, canoeing, soaking up the beauty and silence of the Upper Valley. Fall, with the leaves turning color and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, was glorious.

By January, though, I was ready to shoot myself: completely bored, lonely, broke and isolated. Unlike virtually everyone around us, I didn’t have a job and wasn’t married, pregnant or already a mother. I didn’t jog nor have the slightest desire to do so.

We had a great apartment, the main floor of a big old house in Lebanon, NH. I loved our large kitchen with its deep wooden flour bin and 1950s stove. It was a beautiful part of the country, and I loved exploring its backroads and rivers. Every Friday I took a folding chair at a local auction house and got a great education in antiques.

But my boyfriend, (later husband), was gone most of the time working and when home was exhausted and withdrawn. We struggled to live decently on his $22,000/year salary and my meager savings. Oddly, for being in the country surrounded by open land, there was nowhere to go for a walk, because all that land was privately owned.

I hate to admit it, but I also had no idea how to connect with anyone there; my primary identity, then as now, was my work. Not there.

And rural economies, I quickly learned — having only lived in large cities like London, Paris, Toronto and Montreal — were two-tier: you were lucky enough to find a decent, solid job (teacher, nurse, government) or toiled for pennies in a low-wage position.

In utter desperation, I once called a maple syrup farm that had advertised for workers, but was dismissed out of hand for having no prior experience.

(Here’s a sobering piece about rural homelessness in Missouri.)

Our phone rang all the time, each time a wrong number, and each time with the same request: “I need a new windshield”; ours was the former number for Upper Valley Glass. No matter how many times I entertained his co-workers, almost no one ever reciprocated. Without a job or friends, life was grim and lonely. There was no internet then, no Skype.

We moved to a suburb of New York City in June 1989, to a Hudson river town, and I’m — very happily! — still here. I know the people who run our coffee shop and gourmet store and hardware store. I’m at our YMCA a few days every week so have friends there as well. Even though it’s officially a village, it never feels claustrophobic.

On our main street, a terrific concert hall

On our main street, a terrific concert hall

I’m not sure I’d ever live in a rural small town again. I can see Manhattan’s mid-town towers from my street and be walking among them within an hour. I know how badly I need that balance.

How about you?

Do you live in — and love — a small town?

Have you tried it and abandoned it?

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