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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.

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A beautiful home nourishes us — 10 ways to nurture yours

In antiques, art, beauty, business, culture, design, domestic life, life, Style, urban life on November 30, 2013 at 12:18 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it:
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe
to be beautiful.”―
William Morris
Chinese Jade ornament with flower design, Jin ...

Chinese Jade ornament with flower design, Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 AD), Shanghai Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the few architecture blogs I read is from Alabama firm McAlpine Tankersley. I love their designs, even though the mega-mansions and second homes they are hired to create are far beyond my reach financially.

A recent post:

Architects and Interior Designers are in the business of affecting the physical plane of our world by producing a scape that can be seen and touched – lived in and on.  Integral to its success is the layering of texture, tones, and the reflection and refraction of shades of light and dark.  Depth and scale of shape in measured doses to elicit a calculated response…

Our sensual experiences have a physiological response by stilling our minds, calming our hearts and relieving stresses.

Great beauty has the power to relax and center our energy and emotions.  Lowering our internal pressures free us to see more clearly and calmly.  It is always a goal to create a meditative space that is restorative in nature, a space that you feel better in and are compelled to linger through.

…Beauty can be a retreat for healing.  Luxury is a tonic for the soul.

As someone who has seriously studied antiques, art and interior design, these words deeply resonate with me.

I spent much of my childhood at boarding school — brown metal beds, chenille bedspreads, weathered floral wallpaper, linoleum floors — and summer camp. Living with other people’s institutional aesthetic choices has left me with a fairly ferocious desire to make every place I live in lovely, welcoming and, as Susan writes here eloquently, a retreat for healing.

Journalism is also a business often conducted in atrocious working conditions: noisy, filthy, crowded and/or filled with stress, whether financial or professional. By the time my husband staggers in the door after a long day and a long train/taxi commute, he’s ready to be soothed!

I loved studying design seriously, understanding why some colors and proportions are inherently beautiful and others jarring and wearying. In our color class, we were taught the color scale and how to use shades and tones. In our materials class, we learned the relationships between textures and how to use them safely and elegantly.

It doesn’t matter if “home” is a small dorm room or a trailer or an apartment or a house. It’s what you make of it.

Here are some ways to create beauty in your home:

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The bouquet above cost $30 — a splurge, for sure — but provided enough material for bouquets in three rooms that will last for at least two weeks.

Fresh flowers, a plant or some branches

Unless I’m totally skint, every week includes a bouquet of fresh flowers or greenery from my local florist. No, it’s not a necessity, but what a lovely touch to have even one bright pink gerbera, the tart scent of eucalyptus or some branches of curly willow. I also stock up on Oasis (florists’ foam) which can turn any water-tight container into a vase and frogs (glass and metal holders that fit into a low or flat container), easily found in thrift shops and flea markets. Or — take your kitchen shears and find some bittersweet or holly growing wild.

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I found these pierced-metal lanterns for an unlikely $13 each in a cafe in Minneapolis.

Candles, votives and/or tea-lights

Not a day goes by that I don’t light a candle, or several, usually as we sit down to dinner. It creates a totally different mood from any other sort of illumination. Instead of leaping out of bed on a cold, dark winter’s morning, take five minutes to light a small bedside candle.

Fresh towels or linens

Even a new $5 dishtowel, in a fun pattern or color, can cheer up your kitchen. I find unusual shams, sheets, coverlets and pillowcases like this gorgeous floral duvet cover at Anthropologie and these super towels in a blue and white pattern from Zara Home.

Three or four sources of light per room — and overheads only in bathroom, hall and kitchen

Think about the most soothing and beautiful interiors you’ve been in. They may have been in a hotel or restaurant, where professionals have seriously considered how to create a mood using light and darkness. There are different kinds of lighting, (task, overhead, floor lamp, table lamp) as well as different colors of bulb. Three-way bulbs allow for different levels of brilliance. Overhead lighting — especially fluorescent — is often depressing, unflattering and too dim to be useful. If you can afford it, consider adding dimmers to every overhead light.

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On my desk, I’ve layered a 19th-century woven wool paisley shawl underneath a Peruvian manta.

This hand-embroidered vintage linen tablecloth perfectly covers our headboard.

This hand-embroidered vintage linen tablecloth perfectly covers our headboard.

Vintage textiles

My passion! Few items add as much character and warmth to an interior as an early hand-made quilt, gently worn vegetable-dye rug, embroidered linen napkins or pillowcases. You can easily find vintage fabrics on-line through EBay and Etsy, as well as flea markets and antique shows. If you know how to sew, whip up some throw pillows or a tablecloth.

Scent

It might be a scented candle or lavender sachets tucked between your linens or your sweaters. I love making sachets from vintage textile scraps. (Also great to toss into your suitcase!)

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Lovely flatware

You can find great old things for pennies. We use mis-matched silver plate I’ve found in flea markets everywhere I travel. A bottle of silver polish will restore them to a soft gleam.

A piece of pottery

It might be a spoon-rest or a teapot or a bowl. Having a useful object made by someone’s hands is a great reminder that not everything in our homes has to be made cheaply by overseas labor. I recently wrote to the Ontario potter who made this teapot, which Jose bought for me in Toronto years ago, just to thank him for adding such beauty to our lives.

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Vary the shapes and sizes of your objects and furniture

Is everything you own shaped like a square or rectangle: (sofa, tables, rugs, bed)? Add some curves! A round or oval mirror, a round or demi-lune side or console table, even a long, narrow runner in the hallway will mix things up. An over-sized round lantern or bowl can change the look of a table or chest of drawers.

Pools of darkness, to add mystery

Obviously not in places that need to be very well-illuminated for your safety, like stairs, kitchen or bathroom. But the most alluring spaces have a feeling of discovery or mystery. I found my small, dimmable uplighter lamp at Home Depot for a big $13.05.  This once-dead corner of our living room now contains a round covered table, on it two marble garden ornaments, an antique planter and a pierced metal lantern found on sale at Pier One. The Victorian mirror was an antique store find in small-town Ontario.

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Loneliness — the new epidemic

In aging, behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, family, life, urban life, US on November 27, 2013 at 12:24 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Loneliness

Loneliness (Photo credit: FotoRita [Allstar maniac])

 

Powerful piece in The Globe and Mail:

In Vancouver, residents recently listed social isolation as their most pressing concern. More Canadians than ever live alone, and almost one-quarter describe themselves as lonely. In the United States, two studies showed that 40 per cent of people say they’re lonely, a figure that has doubled in 30 years. Britain has a registered charity campaigning to end chronic loneliness, and last month, health secretary Jeremy Hunt gave a speech about the isolated many, calling attention to “a forgotten million who live amongst us ignored, to our national shame.”

It is the great irony of our age that we have never been better connected, or more adrift.

The issue isn’t just social, it’s a public-health crisis in waiting. If you suffer from chronic loneliness, you run the risk of illness, and premature death.

“This is a bigger problem than we realize,” says Ami Rokach, a psychologist and lecturer at York University in Toronto, who has been researching the subject for more than three decades.

“Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability to health problems, and even to suicide.”

The holiday season is a time of year when feeling unconnected, or disconnected, can be more painful than ever.

As someone who’s been working alone at home — with no pets or kids for company or distraction — since 2006, I know how isolating this form of employment can get. Yes, I can go to the library or a cafe to be surrounded by people, but that’s not the solution. They’re not friends.

I realized the other day where my community lies, and it’s not at all what I would have answered if you asked. It’s the YMCA in my small town. I go there three or four times most weeks, taking classes in jazz dance and choreography or using the work-out room. I also sometimes take pool aerobics. So every visit now means running into one of my teachers or a fellow student or a neighbor.

It feels really good.

Loneliness is something I’ve fought for years since I moved to New York in 1989, jobless, knowing only two people, my fiance (now my first husband) and a high school friend of my mother’s. To my dismay, she never bothered to invite me for coffee or, even though she worked in the same industry, make an introduction to anyone. It was very tough indeed.

Getting divorced five years after arriving here was also difficult. I had only one deep friendship, with a woman (sadly) since gone from my life.

Only in the past four or five years have I felt at home here, thanks to finally having found several good friends. No matter my professional achievements, it was a long, long time of feeling disconnected and unwelcome. When you live in a suburb, and don’t have kids or hobbies, it’s tough to find and nurture new friendships. And New Yorkers endure the nation’s longest commutes, their spare hours devoted tend to work or family.

This year, Jose is working on Thanksgiving but I’ve been adopted for the holiday — strolling only three doors down a warm, dry hallway on my floor to join friends for their Thanksgiving meal tomorrow.

I love this smart, creative solution. (Yay, Canada!)

The Vancouver Foundation has another answer: It is giving out grants of $500 to people who will organize a community event that brings strangers together – a knitting circle, an origami workshop, a pumpkin-carving jamboree. Mr. McCort attended one gathering recently, and was struck by an unfamiliar sight: “No one was on their phone, or checking email. There were a hundred people, just talking and making new friends.”

Do you feel lonely?

What do you do to try and alleviate it?

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Three Manhattan streets, three different worlds

In beauty, cities, culture, design, life, travel, urban life, US on November 16, 2013 at 12:30 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Manhattan, an island 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles at its widest, contains — as American poet Walt Whitman wrote in 1855 in another context — multitudes.

English: Grand Central terminal in New York, N...

English: Grand Central terminal in New York, NY Français : Vue extérieure nocturne de la gare Grand Central Terminal sur l’ile de Manhattan, à New-York (États Unis d’Amérique). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I visited three of them this week.

Midtown/49th Street:

Anchored by several iconic buildings — the New York Public Library, Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building — this is a neighborhood devoted to sober-suited commerce. GCT, opened Feb. 2 1913, is the commuters’ cathedral, thronged daily by thousands of workers streaming in on Metr0-North Railroad from the northern and eastern suburbs of Westchester, (including my husband, Jose), and Connecticut.

The station — which every tourist must see! — is a magnificent bit of Beaux Arts design, with enormous gleaming metal chandeliers, marble stairs and the famous central information booth topped with a clock.

Grand Central Terminal (Manhattan)

Grand Central Terminal (Manhattan) (Photo credit: Nouhailler)

The ceiling is a stunning peacock turquoise, studded with tiny lights and painted with gold constellations.

English: The ceiling of the Grand Central Term...

English: The ceiling of the Grand Central Terminal in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This time of year, it also contains an indoor holiday market, whose vendors are carefully vetted and chosen. I look forward to it every year, and have gotten (and received) terrific, budget-friendly gifts from them.

New Yorker Chrysler Building, oberer Gebäudete...

New Yorker Chrysler Building, oberer Gebäudeteil, vom östlichen Teil der 42. Straße aus gesehen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walk up Madison Avenue and it still feels like the 1940s, as you pass every possible iteration of elegant male garb: Brooks Brothers, Paul Stuart, J. Press, Mens Wearhouse, Pink shirts, Alden shoes.

I love Brooks Brothers, and have been shopping there since my early 20s when I’d fly in from Toronto and stock up on their cotton shirts. It has  the prettiest ladies’ room I’ve ever seen. Paul Stuart clothing is mostly for the wealthy/creative crowd — network television producers or the heads of ad agencies, but it is spectacular, with shoes like these men’s bitter chocolate suede loafers ($625) or these wool socks, in 10 terrific colors, for $44.50.

A picture of a display in Brooks Brothers

A picture of a display in Brooks Brothers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those few blocks have changed dramatically, not in outward appearance, but in their inhabitants — I once worked for the magazine in what was then the Newsweek building, a venerable magazine now dead. The headquarters of Conde Nast publishing were at 350 Madison when I first met editors there; now in their own building at 4 Times Square, they will move downtown to the newly-finished Freedom Tower, (built to replace the Twin Towers destroyed on 9/11.)

This is a part of town where the powerful meet one another in their private clubs, these few blocks a tightly-knit world of wealth, power and restricted access.  Those open only to graduates of Yale, Princeton, Harvard and Cornell all lie within steps of each other.  The Harvard club spans an entire city block, north to south. Step inside its doors (if you dare!) and you’ll viscerally understand the meaning of entitlement.

But walk along West 44th. Street to marvel at the windows of the New York Yacht Club, which resemble the rear windows of a galleon.

Two landmarks face one another at 49th and Fifth Avenue — St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Saks Fifth Avenue. Saks’ shoe department even has its own zip code, and offers a dizzying array of high-priced footwear. One pair of gem-encrusted, six-inch stilettos by Louboutin were offered at $3,200. The people-watching is great, from Russian oligarchs picking up multiple bags-full to the bare-legged beauty in her leopard coat and Gucci heels.

Uptown/70th. Street

The Upper East Side is a sphere of unapologetic wealth, law firm partners who use “summer” as a verb, (on Nantucket, the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard or Rhode Island,) of gleaming black Escalades ferrying hedge funders south to Wall Street and their quiet blond children to private school and their size 2 mothers to yoga or a hair appointment.

The streets are quiet, clean, manicured, filled with elegant townhouses, including that of soon to be ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, at 17 E. 79th.

My former school, The New York School of Interior Design, is on 70th. street, and Neil’s Coffee Shop, 50 years old, sits at the corner of 70th and Lex, a great place for a burger or a cup of coffee in a classic china cup.

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I loved NYSID. Classes were small, mostly female and the rigor of studying interior design seriously was sobering indeed. We had to memorize every floor, wall and furniture style from ancient Egypt to 1900 for a class called Historical Styles. (We, of course, nicknamed it Hysterical Styles, as we struggled to remember the difference between a cassone and a bergere.)

I whiled away a sunny afternoon among the one-per-centers — the woman calling Fed Ex to price the cost of overnight shipping her workout gear from San Francisco, the bright blond in a black mink shawl with a too-tightly-stretched face, the father and son carrying lacrosse sticks into their $114,000 Mercedes SUV, the weary sigh of a woman waiting a second too long for the valet to bring around her car.

I stopped into Creel & Gow, which sells quite extraordinary objects — like this diorama of a walrus.

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Love this description of the UES, from the blog, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York:

One of the things I like about the Upper East Side is that it remains so much itself. It’s not trying to be another neighborhood and it’s not trying to be cool. It’s filled with all kinds of tacky, expensive shops, and none of them are ironic. The rich people there, walking around in full-length furs, look like New Yorkers, and not like Europeans or Midwesterners trying to look like Europeans in New York.

There are also lots and lots of ancient white ladies toddling around, complaining about life, with their hands heavy with diamonds and their eyelids painted pink. They have great faces, and you can watch them go by from the window at Neil’s.

Essex Street

This is where it all began, where wave after wave of European immigrants landed in the narrow streets and crowded tenements of the Lower East Side.

Graffiti, Lower East Side, NYC

Graffiti, Lower East Side, NYC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the LES is hipsterville, dotted with places like Babycakes, which sells vegan, gluten-free cupcakes, cookies and madeleines (made beneath the original pressed-tin ceiling) or candle-lit restaurant Dudley’s, where I perched at a curved marble-topped bar and enjoyed a tart cocktail made by a handsome red-haired bar-tender from small-town Ohio. There is even a small hotel here, The Blue Moon.

But come here for one of the city’s most moving recreations of urban life, the Tenement Museum, which powerfully explains the daily experience of the immigrants who lived here at the turn of the 19th. century.

Now that the temperature here has plummeted, the connective tissue between these disparate worlds — the status-agnostic subways and buses — is filling up with the homeless, of which New York has a shocking 50,000. They sit with their cardboard signs, pleading silently or asking out loud, apologizing or not.

In the eight years that billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg — who often weekended in the Caribbean — was in power, the number of homeless New Yorkers rose by 65 percent; 21,000 children slept in shelters in January 2013, a new and sorry record.

It has become, increasingly, a city divided.

Cubicle, bullpen, office, cafe or kitchen table — where do you work best?

In behavior, business, cities, culture, design, journalism, life, urban life, US, work on November 15, 2013 at 12:09 am

By Caitlin Kelly

English: cubicle

English: cubicle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a heartfelt plea for the end of open-plan offices, from Fast Company:

Every workspace should contain nothing but offices. Offices for everyone. Offices for the junior associate and the assistant editor, and offices for the vice president and the editor-in-chief. Take those long tables, the ones currently lined with laptops at startups, and give them to an elementary school so children can eat lunch on them. We’ll have to do away with all those adorable communal spaces, but they were always a little demeaning, a little not-quite-Starbucks. We won’t need them now that we all have our own meeting place.

Peace and quiet and privacy and decency and respect for all. We people who spend more waking hours at work than we do at home, we people who worked hard to be where we are, we deserve a few square feet and a door…

Employees in cubicles receive 29% more interruptions than those in private offices, finds research from the University of California, Irvine. And employees who are interrupted frequently report 9% higher rates of exhaustion.

As someone who has worked in huge, open newsrooms with zero privacy — the New York Daily News, the Montreal Gazette — in one with cubicles, The Globe and Mail and in (yay!) several magazine jobs with a real, private office with a door that I could (and did) keep closed, this is an issue dear to my heart.

When New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio takes office, he’ll be re-structuring the famous bullpen created by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

English: The RedBalloon office - an example of...

English: The RedBalloon office – an example of an open plan ‘Bullpen’-style office. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We all know what powerful effects our workspace can have on us, for better or worse. At best, they offer plenty of natural light, clean and attractive decor and furniture and spaces for public and private communication.

Newsrooms, sadly, are often the ugliest, dirtiest and meanest places imaginable.

I worked at the Daily News for a year. The newsroom is impossibly large — with one section of it stretching an entire city block, between 33d street and 32d street. The only daylight came from a high row of clerestory windows.

I arrived on my first day to be greeted by a computer keyboard so encrusted with food and drink I could barely stand to touch it, a broken, dirty chair and a desk drawer filled with a smelly, dirty pair of men’s sneakers.

My desk was jammed up against those of three other reporters, those on the I-team, the investigative reporters.

In the first few months, three of those reporters managed to avoid saying hello, smiling or pausing to chat with me. I once made the fatal mistake of trying to chat up one of the paper’s stars, who stared resolutely ahead and pretended I didn’t even exist. The photo editor, a legendary bully, dressed me down there at full volume, knowing a new reporter would hardly welcome everyone in earshot knowing she was in trouble.

And a reporter who sat behind me was so routinely toxic and inconsiderate of everyone sitting around him that a red-faced, irate co-worker sitting next to me once came close to punching him.

Not exactly a calm, supportive work environment.

My husband works at The New York Times, whose offices are eerily quiet. Most reporters and editors have small cubicles, with small glass-doored private conference rooms available when needed, and round tables for impromptu meetings.

English: Newsroom of the New York Times

English: Newsroom of the New York Times (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I now work alone at home in our one-bedroom apartment, typing at a desk or a table, and have done so since June 2006. We have no kids or pets, so it’s normal for me to spend the entire day not speaking to another soul — unless it’s for work. Lonely? Yes. Focused, certainly!

I often write with music in the background or NPR’s talk shows. Even during our recent kitchen renovation, having missed the demolition part, I found it easier to be home and working (available for quick consultations with the workers) than to go elsewhere. I actually enjoyed the company.

I rarely work in a public space like a cafe (noisy, crowded, the electrical outlets usually already claimed) or restaurant (if the food is good, let’s focus on it.) I occasionally head to the library for a change of scene but, after school gets out and the teens pile in and chatter loudly, I flee home for silence.

The one cool helper Jose bought me is a MiFi, a credit-card-sized personal Internet hotspot. With it, I can connect from anywhere — a moving Amtrak train, inside the car, on a park bench.

When I worked for others, I loved having an office with a door. I hate fluorescent light so I always turned it off and used a desk lamp instead. I got a lot done without interruption, as I do today.

Each workspace offers its own challenges, though. I really miss the buzz of a productive newsroom, chatting with smart, fun colleagues, learning from tough editors.

Do you better tolerate isolation or interruption?

What sort of workspace do you work (best) in?

SPEAKING OF NEWSROOMS, I HOPE YOU’LL SIGN UP FOR MY NEXT WEBINAR — LEARN TO THINK LIKE A REPORTER — 4:00 p.m. EST SUNDAY NOV. 17.

DETAILS AND REGISTRATION HERE.

A NYC Saturday: Muscadet, an Irish play, a ship in the bay

In behavior, cities, culture, life, urban life, US on November 10, 2013 at 2:56 am

By Caitlin Kelly

photo(7)

Love those almond ears!

Perfect Saturday afternoon…

Lunch at La Bergamote, on West 52d: crepes, salad, a glass of my favorite white wine, a shared pastry for dessert.

photo(4)

Then we walked around the corner to see a play, “Maeve’s House”, a 90-minute one-man monologue about an Irish writer, Maeve Brennan, once known for decades for her work in The New Yorker.

Yet she died, after a decade of poverty and ill health, in 1993. So much for the writers’ glory we all strive so hard to attain.

The theater at the Irish Arts Center, at the western edge of Manhattan, is small and intimate, the barman wearing a shawl-collared Aran sweater and a linen shirt, his black hair pulled high into a small topknot. My last name is Kelly and my great-grandfather was a schoolteacher in the small town of Rathmullan, Co. Donegal. I rarely seek or claim my roots, but it was lovely, in Manhattan, to hear that lilt all around us.

The stage was set with only a wooden bench, divided like those in the subway, and another seat. The only backdrop was a tall painting that looked like city towers — but was made up of words, written vertically. Perfect.

The actor, Eamon Morrissey, is 70, and his focus and stamina were amazing.

As we walked to the car, at 3:45 p.m., we heard a loud horn sounded five times — from the Carnival Splendour, the massive cruise ship at anchor in the Hudson, literally at the end of a midtown city block. Imagine what it’s like to glide out of the harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, at sunset I’ve yet to take a cruise but I love seeing these behemoths docked.

As we drove home, north up the West Side Highway, kids were out playing soccer, handball, basketball, skateboarding. Cyclists and joggers braved the chilly November air. The trees are still wearing their fall colors of crimson, orange, russet and brilliant yellow.

In the middle of the river, a tiny black and white tugboat — six stories high — looked like a wedding cake, or perhaps a Chinese pagoda, its nose tucked into the back of an enormous barge.

Saturday in New York City…

The endless fight for a living wage: is $15/hour really too much?

In behavior, business, cities, culture, life, Money, news, urban life, US, work on November 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The federal U.S. minimum wage remains $7.25. Five states have no set legal minimum at all; six pay more than $8.00/hour.

(The minimum wage in Australia is already $15.00.)

In an era of almost $4/gallon gasoline and rising costs for food, health care and other necessities, the fight to win a living wage continues.

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The city of SeaTac, in Washington State, is fighting this battle today.

From bbc.co.uk:

Supporters of Proposition 1 say $15 an hour is a “living wage”.

Detractors say that it would see businesses close and lay off some of
the 6,300 workers who would be impacted by the raise.

SeaTac covers just 10 sq miles (26 sq km) and has a population of just 30,000, with only 12,000 registered voters.

But what everyone agrees on is that tiny SeaTac has suddenly become a battleground for one of the biggest issues confronting the US economy – income inequality, or the widening gap between the rich andpoor, which has risen to its highest level since 1917.

“Coming out of the recession, we’ve seen job growth come out of the low-wage service sector,” says Prof Ken Jacobs, head of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

The battle is pitched — desperate workers struggling to make ends meet against employers who insist they cannot possibly pay more.

Or that workers simply offer little to no skills, certainly none they value at that price.

The state of New Jersey — with 50,000 workers employed at minimum wage — will raise its lowest legal wage January 1 to $8.25/hour.

Like every argument, this one contains a blend of truth and perception, of assumption and received wisdom.

One of the issues is really thinking harder about what constitutes a “skill.”

Here are my thoughts, quoted recently in U.S. News and World Report, about what it’s like to work retail.

I worked a low-wage job from September 2007 to December 18, 2009 when the economy fell off a cliff and I desperately needed additional income. I sold costly outdoor clothing and accessories for The North Face, in an upscale suburban mall in New York, a 10-minute drive from my home. I earned $11/hour with no commission, few bonuses and a 30-cent raise in that time.

I typically sold $150+ worth of merchandise every hour; my best day ever, I sold more than $500 worth per hour.

And the company’s “reward” for selling $25,000 worth of its merchandise, virtually all of it sourced from low-wage factories in Peru, China and elsewhere? A gift card for the same merchandise worth $25.

You can exhort your workers and plaster mission statements to your walls, issue edicts, wave your hands…It’s tough for any worker to get excited — or “engaged” as the workplace gurus like to call it — when you’re toiling for pennies and earning significant profits for the person who relies on your labor.

Let alone a major multi-national corporation whose top executives now stagger home bent double with the bags of cash they’re netting — now typically 354 times the wage of their average worker.

When you can’t even pay your bills, no matter how hard you work, work loses much of its meaning.

And all of its dignity.

In January 2009, our store manager cut all our hours. I was only working one seven-hour shift, then cut to five hours, one of which paid for the cost of parking at the mall. We were told “the company can’t afford more.”

That month The Wall Street Journal reported that the parent company of The North Face was sitting on millions in cash — money it used in 2011 to purchase a competitor, Timberland for $2 billion.

The assumption being that no one working a low-wage job would notice this odd and striking definition of “can’t afford.”

I did, and wrote about this in my book about my time there, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published in China in July 2013.

malled cover HIGH

I do realize what happens when you pay workers poorly — they quit! I’ve been hiring part-time assistants for more than 15 years, when I paid a college undergrad $12/hour for her skills. Jess was amazing: smart, funny, a quick learner and a ferocious work ethic.

That was a lot of money then, and for some workers, it still is. I’d have simply felt embarrassed offering her less; I recently heard from an undergrad at a prestigious American university that a professor offered them $7.25/hour, which I find appalling and abusive.

When I pay $10/hour I can find smart and talented people  — but only for a few weeks, a month or so at most. They leave quickly, as they must, to make more elsewhere. At $15/hour I was able to keep the skills of someone else this year for more than eight months.

Hoping to replace her, (as she now seeks a full-time job), I recently interviewed someone who came highly recommended…and who wants $25/hour.

That’s my breaking point. So, for now, I am mostly assistant-less, and feeling that loss in my reduced productivity.

The pricing of our labor is a delicate dance. But tight-fisted employers who insist that low-wage workers have “no skills” are lying to themselves and to their weary workers.

They’re also short-changing their customers, who need, expect and deserve good service for their hard-earned dollars.

Here are some of the skills we used in our retail work:

– Maintaining a sense of humor (let alone having one to start with!)

– Listening carefully and for long periods of time to customers to discern their needs

– Speaking to customers in whatever style/tone/speed (even foreign language) best suited them

– Learning and memorizing a wide array of product knowledge: size/price/technical specs

– Lifting, carrying, stacking, folding and hanging goods

– Cleaning and tidying the entire store, top to bottom

– Ringing up purchases

– Watching the sales floor to deter shoplifting

No skill?

Snort.

Try calming a shrieking one-per-center threatening to “call corporate” if you fail to meet her demands.

Try helping a mentally disabled teen sort through all his jacket options to find something he loves that fits

Try explaining to a Saudi prince’s servant which down jacket will keep the princeling warm in his first New York winter.

walmart beijing

walmart beijing (Photo credit: galaygobi)

When Walmart employees suck up taxpayers’ money in food stamps ad Medicaid because their cannot earn a living wage...we’ve got a problem.

A 2004 study by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Industrial Relations found that, in California, the average Walmart employee required over $500 more in total public assistance than workers from comparable large retailers. Families of Walmart workers required 40% more health care assistance and 38% more in other kinds of public assistance (like food stamps, subsidized housing, and school lunches) than comparable families of large retail workers.

In addition, a 2006 report by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that Walmart had the highest percentage of employees enrolled in Medicaid in the state; one in every six of Walmart’s 48,000 Pennsylvania employees was enrolled. Finally, in January of 2012, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services found that Walmart employees and families were the top recipients of Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance in the state.

The American worker is being subjected to a fierce game of chicken — who will blink first? Who will cave most quickly to imperial corporate demands, like these, made to the mayor of a small, economically-strapped town in Idaho:

Another economic rescue with Hoku’s glamour and promise is not on the horizon. Mr. Blad, in an interview in his office, said a big employer had recently expressed interest in coming here, bringing perhaps 1,000 jobs. But the company, which he declined to name — a warehouse distributor that does most of its sales over the Internet — has said it would offer $10 an hour, only a few dollars above the minimum wage.

The company even had the audacity to ask for financial incentives, which the city has politely declined. “We would welcome them, and we would value them,” Mr. Blad said. “But I can’t justify taxpayer dollars for a $10-an-hour job.”

What say you?

Are you working for (or paying) minimum or low wages?

If you’re earning so little, do you have an exit strategy?

What makes someone a New Yorker? Are you one?

In behavior, books, cities, culture, domestic life, family, journalism, life, travel, urban life, US on October 24, 2013 at 1:31 am

By Caitlin Kelly

No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.

  • E.B. White, Here is New York (1949)
New York City

New York City (Photo credit: kaysha)

Few cities continue to have the gravitational pull of New York City.

A new book, a collection of 28 essays, all by women, reflects on when and why they came to New York City — and why some of them later chose to leave.

Here’s an audio interview with them from WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show.

I moved to New York in June 1989, alight with ambition, optimism, high hopes for a stunning career — yadayadayada. Take a number!

English: A 4 segment Panoramic view of the Gra...

English: A 4 segment Panoramic view of the Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, New York, United States. Taken with a Canon 5D and 24-105mm f/4L IS lens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, in conversation with an editor who once sat atop the masthead of a Very Big Magazine, she called me “so talented.” She’s a sweetheart and I may well be talented, but my years here have since toughened me up to well-meaning flattery. It’s lovely, of course, but it doesn’t pay the rent.

“Sweetie, everyone in New York is talented,” I replied.

What does make someone a New Yorker?

Do you have to be born and raised here? Some say yes, but I disagree. Millions of us have arrived here from distant towns, cities and countries, whether to study, take a job, marry a sweetheart, see how we stack up against the toughest competitors in our field.

New Yorker Hotel building from below

New Yorker Hotel building from below (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had worked in my native Canada in journalism for years and was doing well there.

But the thought of 30 more years doing the same thing amidst the same people? Not for me. One Toronto magazine editor, without exaggeration, held the same prestigious, powerful and much-coveted job for more than 20 years. That sort of stasis struck me as really boring. The place was just too small.

It’s an interesting experience trading your Big Fish-ness in a much smaller pond to the guppy-ness of arriving in a place where the greasy pole of fame and fortune looms into the stratosphere.

I admit it — I’ve never lived in the city itself but in a small town 25 miles north, a 38-minute express train ride. The sort of place snotty New Yorkers dismiss, incorrectly, as “upstate.”

I have a great apartment for a much lower cost. Would I live in the city if given an affordable choice? Maybe. Maybe not.

But I’ve seen myself change in some  basic ways since I moved here, as do many who choose to come here…

So, what makes a New Yorker?

— We’re direct

There’s a sort of conversational bluntness here that’s shocking to me, even today. I was at the movies recently and an older woman I don’t know snapped “Make sure no one takes my seat.” How about “Please?” Typical. For better or worse, strangers here often address one another as others rarely do in more formal/polite places, with the familiar tone of old friends — or despised relatives.

— We’re here to make money

Why else choose to stay in/near a city where the costs of living are so crazy-high? Where simply driving to the airport to pick someone up can snatch $13 from your pocket in tolls and parking? Surviving on ramen and free shows gets old after a while.

– We’re street smart

With people getting shoved onto the subway tracks more often than any of us would like, you learn fast to guard your wallet and your personal space and not to stare anyone in the eye. You learn not to engage potential psychos.

— We walk fast

When I visit other cities, everyone is walking sooooooo slowly. Tourists are the bane of our existence, clogging the narrow, crowded sidewalks, sometimes four abreast. Move it, people!

– You can cry in public and no one will notice

That’s possibly a mixed blessing, but I’ve cried in public here a few times and, just as we studiously ignore celebrities, observers will pretend everything is OK.

— We talk fast

If someone else has time to make small talk with the bank clerk or grocery store bagger, we’re tapping our foot and sighing.

— We’re not mean, just in a hurry

Being brusque doesn’t mean we’re cold or unkind, although it can certainly look that way to a newcomer or visitor from a slower-moving, more social place.

— Our bullshit meters are highly sensitive

We’ve heard just about everything in our years here. We watch our local and state politicians being sent off to prison for corruption or sexual crimes on a depressingly regular basis. So if something sounds soooooo amazing, we immediately look for the fine print.

-– We’re driven

People come here to succeed professionally. (You can do much better more quickly in many other places.) That means climbing over the thousands of other smart, ambitious, highly-educated people who also want that job/promotion/grant/fellowship. We know how tough it is. We’ll do whatever it takes to achieve our goals.

— We relish the mix of people here

Rockettes, cops, artists, editors, actors, Wall Streeters, lawyers, NGO types, UN diplomats. They’re all here.

– We put up with the longest commutes in the U.S., some up to two hours each way

The cost of Manhattan being sky-high for rentals or ownership, thousands of “New Yorkers” live far outside the city limits, traveling in every day to work by car, bus, bike, train or ferry. Some, like Mr. Rockefeller (yes, that one, the billionaire whose enormous estate lies 10 minutes drive north of me) come in by helicopter.

– Income Inequality ‘R Us

Indeed. Just stand at the corner of Madison and 42d at rush hour and watch the endless parade of gleaming, spotless, black Escalades taking the 1% crowd home to the Upper East Side. See the Town Cars idling outside the restaurants and shops. Then cross Park Avenue at its northern end and you’ll see a cliffs’ edge plunge from the plutocracy to deep poverty.

— We treasure anonymity

If you want to be left alone to just get on with it, whatever it is, you can do that here without small-town nosiness, gossip or scrutiny.

— We expect open-mindedness

Whatever your religion, (or lack of same), your gender or sexual preferences, (or combination of same), your political views (or lack of same), it’s all good. This is not a place where (most!) people will dismiss you for not attending church every Sunday or voting for a specific party.

-– We know what we want (even if we can’t afford it!)

The costs of living here are punitively high. This tends to focus you quickly on what you want and what you need to do to achieve it.

— We want to be here, no matter the (considerable) costs

Many of us came from smaller, quieter and far less expensive places. We chose New York.

Some of us are massively entitled

This recent New York magazine article about parents cheating in every way possible to boost their kids’ chances of success is sadly instructive.

– We’re (outwardly) confident

This is not a great place for the tongue-tied, shy or self-deprecating. People assume that if you’re successful, you’re telling us about it and we’re read or heard about you. Or we will soon.

— We brought NYC-specific dreams

Mine was to succeed in journalism and to publish a few books with major houses. The bitterly cold winter’s day in 2002 I walked through the halls at Simon & Schuster, with my agent, surrounded by the framed covers of their best-sellers, felt like a dream to me. That afternoon, to celebrate the imminent acquisition of my first book, I went around the corner to “21″, another Manhattan institution, and ate profiteroles. I went to Saks and bought myself a silver ring to commemorate this huge milestone.

— The people we really need to work with are here

Depending on your field or industry, this still remains the place to be. It’s said that “writers can live anywhere” and while that is technically accurate, there are few other cities where you can so quickly and easily meet and work with the people who can kick your career into high(er) gear.

— 9/11 remains very real to us, not some random historical fact

We lost friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and our fantasy of invulnerability. Thousands of us heard the roar of those planes coming in, and the F-15s that followed, and smelled the bitter tang of the fires after the towers fell and saw the smoke filling the sky. I know Richard Drew personally, the photographer who shot the terrifying photo, Falling Man, of a man falling (or jumping)_to his death. I know people here who are forever traumatized by what happened to them that day. It was also the day my husband was to have moved into my suburban apartment. Instead, he turned his Brooklyn apartment into a photo lab, scanning and transmitting film images to the Times’ midtown offices. (They won the Pulitzer that year for those photos.)

Are you a New Yorker?

What makes you one?

Do you wish you were?

When trying your best to help just doesn’t work

In behavior, children, culture, domestic life, education, family, life, love, parenting, urban life, US on October 22, 2013 at 12:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Cover of "Dangerous Minds"

Cover of Dangerous Minds

Here’s a great/depressing piece from Salon.com by a teacher who worked in Texas’ worst school — burned out and gave up:

Before I came to Pearce I knew that many of its students scored poorly on standardized tests; the school was rated “Low Performing” the year before I arrived. The only other non-elementary school in Central Texas rated “Low Performing” was in the Travis County Juvenile Detention Center. I also knew that 80 percent of Pearce students received free or reduced-price lunch, and almost all were African-American or Latino.

Like many attendance-zoned high-poverty schools, Pearce was often a chaotic place where discipline issues, student absenteeism, low parent involvement and high teacher turnover were the norm. Why would a teacher with other options work in such a stressful, violent setting?  I chose Pearce because I was going to make a difference; I would do whatever it took to help these kids overcome classism and racism and escape poverty. Full of youthful enthusiasm and self-flattery, I could change the world by working at Pearce. Why not?

Here is the hard truth about my experience: I didn’t have much of an impact. Sure, I made a small part of the day more pleasant for some students, but I didn’t change the course of any of my kids’ lives, much less the nature of the school. A middle-class teacher coming into a low-income school and helping poor students realize their true potential makes for an excellent White Savior Film, but “Dangerous Minds” isn’t real life. Real life at Pearce is survival.

This piece hit me hard because I, too, tried my best — for 18 months in 1998 — to mentor a 13-year-old girl mired in multi-generational poverty and welfare dependence. Her family was noisy, chaotic, fractured; her mother had simply disappeared five years earlier, leaving C and her half-brother to live with their grandmother and an assortment of relatives.

I was matched with C — and a week or so later her mother turned up. Out of the blue.

The following 18 months proved an eye-opening, sobering and sad wake-up call. I liked C and admired her spirit; she was fun, affectionate, easy-going. I took her sailing, to play squash, to simply hang out at home and have dinner. We had some long frank conversations.

I had hoped — and tried hard through my connections there– to get her accepted on scholarship into a local prep school, a potential escape from the madness of her current life. She loved her visit there and said repeatedly she wanted to go to college.

But “college” seemed like Disneyland, a lovely far-off place she’d heard about and longed to visit, somewhere desirable that others went.

The slogging intermediate steps necessary to prepare for college-level work — consistent application, self-discipline, learning to study, acquiring and perfecting social skills — felt elusive, even invisible to her and her family. I heard no interest from her grandmother in how C might actually get there.

Instead, in front of me, she’d poke C in her belly, demanding: “Are you pregnant?”

My own privilege had, (embarassingly), been previously invisible to me. I didn’t realize that the gut-burning determination to climb the socio-economic ladder just didn’t translate or resonate with this child or her family.

The relationship ended abruptly and badly. We never even said a formal good-bye. No one ever called or wrote to me, and no one from the matching social service organization ever followed up to apologize or explain.

“Oh, that’s one of our most difficult families,” said her social worker, on one of the many times I called them, bewildered and exhausted.

C would now be in her mid-20s and I wonder if she ever did attend college, or graduate. Is she married? Working? Does she have kids? Is she happy? Thriving?

I also, selfishly, sometimes wonder if she ever remembers me.

Sadly, chastened, I haven’t volunteered for a similar role since.

Have you ever volunteered for a position where you’d hoped to make a difference in a child’s life — but burned out and gave up?

Do you regret trying?

Or giving up?

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