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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?

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?

 

What duty of care do we owe to other people’s children?

In behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, immigration, life, news, parenting, politics, US on July 9, 2014 at 2:59 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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If you have been paying any attention to U.S. news, you will know that the southern border of the United States has been pelted with desperate would-be immigrants heading north from Central America. Many of them are children and teens arriving alone.

(And the crisis is hardly unique — a recent follower here at Broadside blogged a similar story about the immigrant crisis there — in Italy, {and written in Italian}).

In the past few weeks, the California town of Murrieta has become a flash point, with some people physically blocking the road as buses enter their town for processing by federal authorities. Others welcome them.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Hundreds of people gathered on the road to the Murrieta processing center, anticipating another convoy of vehicles containing immigrants.

The number of protesters swelled Friday despite the summer heat, the Fourth of July holiday and a police strategy that mostly kept the groups apart and away from the processing center.

In a reversal from earlier in the week, there were substantially more demonstrators on the immigration-rights side.

Authorities kept the road to the center clear and the protesters in check, although scuffles did break out. Murrieta police arrested five people for obstructing officers during an afternoon altercation. One other person was arrested earlier in the day.

The group protesting the transfer of the immigrants to California waved American flags and chanted “USA,” while across the street demonstrators responded with, “Shame on you!”

The current flood has promoted President Obama to request $3.7 billion to address the crisis; from USA Today:

As thousands of children continue streaming across the nation’s southwest border, the White House asked Congress on Tuesday for $3.7 billion to improve security along the border, provide better housing for the children while they’re in custody and to speed up their deportation proceedings.

The White House also wants to increase assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where most of the children are coming from, to help them stop the rush of people leaving there and to improve their ability to receive the expected influx of deported children.

Stephanie Gosk, a reporter for NBC Nightly News, traveled to a Honduras town plagued by gang violence to find out why this flood continues — and will do so.

It’s interesting to note which children are welcomed into the U.S., where and why.

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Here’s a story from the Deseret News of Utah about the patriotic thrill one writer felt in welcoming children from Burma, Somalia and Uganda:

Children of all ages swarmed my daughters as they searched through the bin of donated soccer cleats trying to find the right sizes. It was simultaneously heartbreaking and exciting as the girls slipped cleats onto bare feet but more often than not had to repeat “too small” or “all gone” or “I’m so sorry.”

The rudimentary apartment complex is adjoined by a soccer field where organized games for children of all ages are played. They form teams according to age and nationality, creating a mini World Cup right in their own backyard.

Most of the refugees from this particular apartment complex are from Somalia, Uganda and Burma and are assisted by Catholic Community Services of Utah.

A one-time LDS Church meetinghouse in the area has become a bustling refugee center where many gather every afternoon for English lessons, health screenings and assistance with finding a job. I was told the immigrants received vouchers for food and clothing as well as home visits for the first six months. Soon after they are required to pay back the costs of their airfare to the sponsoring agency and try to be self-sufficient.

And, in a move of total desperation and naivete, a young mother, 20-year-old Frankea Dabbs, from North Carolina recently abandoned her 10-month-old baby girl in her stroller – on a smelly, hot New York City subway platform, telling police after her arrest she thought it was a safe public place to do so.

I wrote about these unaccompanied minors when I was a reporter at the NY Daily News, back in 2005 — it is not a new issue, but one that has suddenly exploded into national consciousness.

Here — for those with a deep interest in the issue — is a long and deep (17 page) analysis of it from 2006 in the Public Interest Law Journal, which cites my newspaper piece in the footnotes.

These stories push every button within us, as readers, viewers, voters and taxpayers: compassion, outrage, frustration, indignation,  despair.

What do you think Obama should do?

 

 

The elusive mother

In behavior, blogging, children, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting, women on June 23, 2014 at 12:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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I loved this recent, powerful post by fellow journalist/blogger candidkay:

Those of you who told your mother all your secrets–and reveled in stories of her youthful escapades before you came along–will not understand what I’m about to write.

I didn’t really know my mother.

I was born to her and lived with her for many years but I was not privy to her essence. By the time I came along, I think it was long buried under disappointment, sadness and a sense of propriety.

I was born to her in her early forties, the last of six daughters. She was, by her own admission, more interested in her career by then than in birthing more children.

Of course she loved me. She loved all of us.

But I was always stymied by her lack of disclosure. I knew only about the “safe” stuff. Her parents losing their house during the Depression. Living on her grandparents’ farm. Editor of the school newspaper. Navy nurse during WWII.

I could piece together a patchwork quilt of her life but it was quite threadbare.

This rang so true for me.

Earlier this year, I pitched a story to a major women’s magazine about how women with distant or elusive mothers find other women, throughout our lives, who nurture us — whether friends, neighbors, a professor, a co-worker or boss — instead.

Then the editor asked me to write, instead, about my own relationship with my mother.

I couldn’t.

In some ways, I didn’t want to, as she is still alive and the story is complicated. I chose to leave her care at the age of 14 and moved in with my father; between the ages of eight and 13, I had only lived at home with her for two years, most of my time spent in boarding school and summer camp.

But also for the same reason as candidkay.

I just don’t know enough.

My mother and I — her only child — haven’t spoken in three years, nor have I seen her, as she lives in a city that takes me an entire day to fly there. We exchange no cards or flowers or emails.

She is in a nursing home, a sad ending for a woman with brains, beauty, a huge sense of adventure and the private means to enjoy all of these.

A photo taken when my mother was food editor of  a national magazine; me on the right

A photo taken when my mother was food editor of a national magazine; me on the right

But I know little of her life and she rarely offers details.

I keep putting off a trip out there, for several reasons. But I know one of them: my fantasy that we’ll suddenly get close, after all these years, is unlikely and quite sure to end in my disappointment.

Like candidkay I became a journalist, and, like her — like many journalists do — I have made my living for decades asking total strangers extremely detailed and intimate questions, about money and sex and death and struggle and family.

And they answer me.

So I finally realized, it’s her, not me.

Do you know your mother (well)?

Do your children know you?

I loved summer camp; she hated it. How about you?

In behavior, children, domestic life, family, life, nature, parenting on June 18, 2014 at 12:23 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It's hard to appreciate nature if you never spend much time in it

It’s hard to appreciate nature if you never spend much time in it

Here’s a recent rant from The New York Times by a woman who hated her time at summer camp:

Here is the truth: I hated camp. I hated camp so much, and continue to hate it and to resent the fact that I hated it, that I’ve come to develop a grand, if wobbly, theory about it. The world divides into those people who despised camp and those people who loved it. What about those who never even went? They would probably fall into either camp if they had.

People who like camp, naturally (that’s a key word in this divide) are different from me in every way. Campers are outgoing; they are out-everything, really — outdoorsy, outward bound. They dart through bushes without worrying about ticks or slugs or sharp metal objects hidden in the undergrowth. They enjoy getting undressed in front of large groups of strangers. They know how to throw and catch Frisbees. They don’t mind bologna.

I loved it, and here’s some of my first blog post about why, from 2009:

You learn to pick your bunk, preferably the lower one so you can draw your knees up and kick the bum of the kid above you. You hope the kid above you does not wet the bed, snore or have an epileptic fit.

You learn to hoist a sail, build a fire, portage a canoe, gunwhale bob (and pronounce gunwhale, “gunnel”), twang a bow, pitch a tent, collect firewood from the highest branches (using a Melamine mug and long rope swung like a lasso.)

You get homesick, and get over it. You discover you’re really good at the J-stroke or singing Broadway show tunes in the summer musical. You learn how to cup your hands and imitate a loon call.

You learn how to spot a loon across a lake before he dives deep and disappears. You learn to find your place in a new community, amid the bed-wetters and thumb-suckers, the jocks and the artistes.

You realize, no matter how poorly you might fit into your class or your school or your neighborhood or town or your family, these people are genuinely happy to see you. The best counselors, and they are gifts indeed, want to see you thrive and grow. Your shoulders drop a little with relief.

Camp is definitely a North American thing, and usually for people whose families have healthy incomes.

For me, it was also the place I put myself back together again — emotionally and intellectually — after yet another year in boarding school being yelled at by old, fat Scottish housemothers and competing all the time for grades. There, I was often in trouble, being messy and scoring low marks for our room’s neatness, which then required that I memorize Bible verses (yes) in order to even be allowed off campus for the weekend.

I attended summer camp for all eight weeks ages eight to 16, and went to three of them, all in northern Ontario, each about three hours by bus from my home city of Toronto. Each camp was all-girl, and one of the things it taught me is that smart, athletic, kind girls rock.

The counselors who took us out on 10-day canoe trips through Algonquin Park, battling rain and black flies, were female. They kept us alive!

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

I doubt I’d have been as comfortable in a Nicaraguan dugout canoe without it!

Competence was expected and excellence often the norm. Those are powerful lessons for any young girl.

If you come from a happy family, and/or have a safe, calm and lovely place to escape city smell, noise and humidity during the summer, camp isn’t probably very appealing.

But if you don’t, and also hunger for a place where all your talents can thrive — and the best camps do — it can be such a refuge.

It was for me. One reason I’m still so deeply comforted by nature is having spent so much time in it there: canoeing, hiking, sailing, swimming and living in a wooden cabin with the sound of the lake lapping on the rocks below. Sharing space with four or five or six girls I didn’t know was normal after boarding school.

And only in the safe harbor of camp was I able to fully become all the things I wanted to be: a singer, actress, sailor, friend, and even a leader of my peers. No school or classroom, anywhere, ever, allowed me such freedom, or gave me access to so many people who loved me, every year, for the quirky and creative kid I was, and would remain.

Camp gave me the confidence I might never have found elsewhere, and the guts to survive three years of high school bullying. I am grateful beyond measure for having had that experience.

Have you been to summer camp? Or your kids?

Love it or hate it?

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?

When your family holidays….aren’t

In aging, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting, seniors on December 14, 2013 at 12:45 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Christmas card, ca. 1880 Featured on the Minne...

Christmas card, ca. 1880 Featured on the Minnesota Historical Society’s Collections Up Close blog. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a beautiful post by a young woman, chosen for Freshly Pressed, about how she’s spending the holidays, without the traditional closeness of family:

We were browsing the greeting card aisle at Target the other day, looking for something to send my parents for Thanksgiving. The more I skimmed the contents of each card, the more discouraged I became.

Because it hurts to know millions of people all over the country will be sending cards that say things like, “Holidays are a time to appreciate loved ones…” or even better, “I’m so thankful to be spending this day with you…”

But I didn’t pick a card like that. I was relegated to a small selection of cards that read more along the lines of “Hope your holiday is __________.” Fill in the blank with words like blessed, enjoyable, and joyful. These are the neutral cards meant for acquaintances, distant relatives, or coworkers. All of the formality but none of the tenderness.

I just want to talk about this. I want to speak into the hearts of the people who struggle during the holidays as much as I do. Whether you’re estranged, cut off, or alienated the endless routine of the holiday season can sometimes be too much to bear.

That post cut me to the heart — as I, too, had just searched the card racks in vain for a birthday card for my mother, one without all the glitter and butterflies and saccharine emotion that has no relevance to our relationship.

We no longer even have a relationship.

My mother’s last card to me was several years ago, filled with anger. She now lives in one small room in a nursing home in a city that takes me 7 hours flying time to reach. I’m her only child, and she wants nothing to do with me.

The details are too complicated and grim and personal to get into here, although long-time readers of Broadside read a post that once explained some of it.

Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu.

Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are fortunate enough to have a family that looks forward to spending time with one another, happy selecting gifts you know will please them, eager to cook festive meals and welcome them to your table — be thankful.

And please include those of us who don’t have a place to go to, as one friend did for me, one brutal Christmas Day some 15 years ago. My mother had come to New York to spend it with me, but Christmas Eve, (which already had some old and very painful memories for us both), had once more turned into a holocaust.

On Christmas Day, alone, I had nowhere to go and no one to be with.

My friend Curt, home from California visiting his parents in Pennsylvania, said: “Come!”

This season is a painful, aching one for many. We may be too shy or too proud to explain why we’re not going “home” for the holidays, the nasty details a thorn in our souls every day as it is.

And some people are grieving, this being their first Christmas without someone they adored — like this blog, written by a talented artist whose wife Leslie died six months ago. This post is heartbreaking, but describes what it feels like to approach Christmas for the first time as a widower.

The first Christmas after my husband left, in 1994, was deeply painful, but I got through it thanks to a dear friend and (yay!) a terrific new beau who reminded me there might actually be life worth living as a divorcee.

Luckily, I’ve spent the past 13 Christmases with my second husband, who thoughtfully chose Christmas Eve, (at midnight, snowing, after church) to propose, so that evening would newly represent a happy choice, not frightening old memories.

Home is where someone who loves you welcomes you with open arms, no matter who opens that door.

Please let your home be that place for someone feeling lost and lonely this year as well.

Does Dasani’s NYT homeless story leave you angry? Sad? Indifferent?

In behavior, children, cities, culture, domestic life, education, family, journalism, news, parenting, urban life, US on December 12, 2013 at 1:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a story that took a year of reporting and writing to produce, prompting more than 600+ comments after the first day — by 5:30 p.m. yesterday, more than 1,713 readers had weighed in.

English: The New York Times building in New Yo...

English: The New York Times building in New York, NY across from the Port Authority. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The New York Times is running a five-part series on Dasani, an 11-year-old African American girl living with her siblings in a squalid New York city shelter that has sucked up millions of tax-payer dollars already.

Her parents take methadone, do not work and have seven other children sharing a 500 square foot room.

Dasani is smart, capable, liked by her teachers, and burdened by caring for her brothers and sisters. She, like them, has nowhere clean, quiet and comfortable in which to do her homework. Their room has no desk. One wall has a hole where mice run freely.

Here’s an excerpt from the first instalment:

Dasani is among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belongs to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America.

Nearly a quarter of Dasani’s childhood has unfolded at Auburn, where she shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and seven siblings. As they begin to stir on this frigid January day, Dasani sets about her chores.

Her mornings begin with Baby Lele, whom she changes, dresses and feeds, checking that the formula distributed by the shelter is not, once again, expired. She then wipes down the family’s small refrigerator, stuffed with lukewarm milk, Tropicana grape juice and containers of leftover Chinese. After tidying the dresser drawers she shares with a sister, Dasani rushes her younger siblings onto the school bus.

Dasani guards her feelings closely, dispensing with anger through humor. Beneath it all is a child whose existence is defined by her siblings. Her small scrub-worn hands are always tying shoelaces or doling out peanut butter sandwiches, taking the ends of the loaf for herself. The bond is inescapable. In the presence of her brothers and
sisters, Dasani has no peace. Without them, she is incomplete.

I spent more than an hour reading the comments, which came from social workers, past and present; from New York schoolteachers; from the formerly poor and homeless able to escape a difficult past; from the fed-up-with-generational-welfare crowd.

A few readers simply shrugged — the entire United States, not just New York City, is deeply pockmarked by poverty now, with the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world.

As one commenter said…wait. This story will soon be only one of many. She is hardly unique.

Reader reactions, predictably, are mixed:

outrage at the shelter’s squalor; dismay at the parents’ inability or unwillingness to work, earn money and set an example for their children; anger at the tens of thousands of tax-payer dollars supporting a couple of adults who have made repeatedly poor choices, including producing more and more children they have no way to support; disappointment that the U.S. allows children like her to live in such appalling conditions; confusion as to what can be done to alleviate this kind of poverty.

As I’ve blogged here before, I was a Big Sister in 1998 for 18 months to a 13-year-old child whose family was also deeply dysfunctional.  (For readers outside of North America, Big Sister/Big Brother is a national program that matches volunteers — usually middle or upper middle class, employed and well-educated — with struggling youngsters. The idea is to foster relationships that will help poor children and teens survive and thrive.)

I found the process deeply frustrating, as much because I expected far too much from it and because, I thought, the organizers expected far too little.

My “little sister”, like Dasani, was bright and very likeable, apparently eager to flee the clutches of poverty.

But, sadly also highly unlikely to do so. I saw frightening and destructive behaviors within her family I’d never before encountered en masse — abandonment, laziness, welfare dependence, neglect and passivity — that boded ill for her future.

The desire to flee poverty can also create an impossible choice — between the bosom of a chaotic family a child knows well, and a larger world they don’t. You’re not going to get very far saying “axe” instead of “ask” a question.

I saw this play out with my “little”. The more I tried to find her better options, (even, yes, a scholarship spot at a private school barely 30 minutes drive from her family), the more they shrugged it off.

I admit it. After 18 months, I burned out and walked away.

Children need consistently healthy role models if they’re going to succeed and avoid the pitfalls of addiction and/or teen pregnancy. Dasani’s mother teaches her to fight — physically — which, as the Times reports, gets her suspended from school.

The series’ pathos has left some readers eager to “help” — but what, exactly, can they do?

Donate to charities? Pay even more taxes? Volunteer individually with a child on their own? Foster a child or several?

What do you think?

What — if anything — would change (for good/better) a life like hers?

A homeless man went to church, and this is what happened next…

In behavior, children, culture, education, life, love, news, parenting, science, urban life, US on December 2, 2013 at 12:05 am

By Caitlin Kelly

This is an extraordinary story, from a place that normally wouldn’t make the national news, and from the Mormon church, a faith that usually also receives little mainstream press.

English: Homeless man, Tokyo. Français : Un sa...

English: Homeless man, Tokyo. Français : Un sans abri à Tokyo. Español: Persona sin hogar, en las calles de Tokio. Türkçe: Evsiz adam, Tokyo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From NPR:

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Finally, this hour, a Mormon bishop in
Taylorsville, Utah, went to great lengths last Sunday to teach his
congregation a lesson. David Musselman disguised himself as a homeless
person with the help of a professional makeup artist friend. After
getting mutton-chops, a ski hat and thick glasses, the bishop waited
outside his church and wished congregants a happy Thanksgiving. To
describe what happened next, I’m joined by Bishop Musselman, welcome to
the program.

BISHOP DAVID MUSSELMAN: Glad to be here. Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Describe the response you got.

MUSSELMAN:
Well, I got several types of responses. I had some people that went out
of their way to let me know that this was not a place to ask for
charity and that I was not welcome and that I needed to leave the
property. I should also state that I had a number of people come and
were very kind to me. But I was most impressed with the children. The
children definitely were very eager to want to reach out and try to help
me in some way

From the AP:

Musselman, who told only his second counselor that he would be
disguised as a homeless man, walked to the pulpit during the service. He
finally revealed his true identity and took off his wig, fake beard and
glasses.

“It had a shock value that I did not anticipate,” he said. “I really
did not have any idea that the members of my ward would gasp as big as
they did.”

Ward member Jaimi Larsen was among those surprised it was her bishop.
“I started feeling ashamed because I didn’t say hello to this man …
He was dirty. He was crippled. He was old. He was mumbling to himself,”
she said.

It wasn’t Musselman’s goal to embarrass ward members or make them
feel ashamed, he said. Instead, he wanted to remind them to be kind to
people from all walks of life not just at the holidays, but all year
long, he said.

“To be Christ-like, just acknowledge them,” he said

Musselman made the invisible visble.

Here is a powerful blog, written by a television cameraman who himself was once homeless, his effort to make this population of the poor, struggling and suffering visible and audible.

The population of homeless has risen by 65 percent in the eight years of New York City’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg; 21,000 New York City children have no home to go to beyond a shelter or whatever space they can beg from a friend or relative.

Here is one Manhattan shelter I’ve contributed to.

As we gather with friends, family and loved ones to celebrate the holidays — those of us fortunate enough to have a warm, clean, dry place in which to safely sleep — remember those who don’t. They can be, for some people, a terrifying sight, slumped on the pavement or dragging enormous overstuffed metal carts. Their utter desperation reminds us what the bottom of the ladder looks like — that there very much is a bottom — the place we work so hard and save so hard and cling to our jobs to stay clear of.

We could never ever become them.

Could we?

So much easier, then, to avoid their gaze or studiously ignore their outstretched hands or cups or their signs, scrawled on cardboard.

I have, and it shames me when I make that choice.

Please don’t.

ONLY TWO WEBINARS REMAINING:

WRITING FOR A-LIST CLIENTS, DEC. 7, 4;00 P.M EST. AND YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING, DEC. 14 AT 4:00 P.M. EST

DETAILS AND REGISTRATION HERE.

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