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Small town life — bucolic relief or isolating hell?

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had that fantasy too.

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

Yes, please!

Yes, please!

I barely lasted another year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On our main street, a terrific concert hall

On our main street, a terrific concert hall

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

How about you?

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

Have you tried it and abandoned it?

What exactly is college good for, again?

In behavior, culture, education, life, travel, urban life, US on September 12, 2014 at 12:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

Have you followed the “debate” begun (again) about the putative value of an Ivy League education?

Here’s former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, in Salon:

In his new book, “Excellent Sheep,” Deresiewicz expands his argument into a full-on manifesto about the failures of the meritocracy. His timing is good. Ambitious families continue to arm their children with APs, SAT prep courses and expensive admissions advisors. At the same time, despite big financial aid packages, the student bodies at elite schools remain staggeringly affluent.

So do the schools. Yale has an endowment of some $20 billion; the University of Connecticut, 90 minutes down the road and with a student body three times as large, has an endowment one-sixtieth that size. As public institutions suffer round after round of cuts, Ivy League endowments keep swelling. When we speak of inequality, it’s not just in individual income where the disparities have grown starker.

And here’s a powerful op-ed  about the value of college from The New York Times’ Frank Bruni:

I’M beginning to think that college exists mainly so we can debate and deconstruct it.

What’s its rightful mission? How has it changed? Is it sufficiently accessible? Invariably worthwhile?

As the fall semester commenced, the questions resumed. Robert Reich, the country’s labor secretary during the Clinton administration, issued such a pointed, provocative critique of the expense and usefulness of a traditional liberal arts degree that Salon slapped this headline on it: “College is a ludicrous waste of money.”

Meanwhile, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa were out with a new book, “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” in which they assessed how a diverse group of nearly 1,000 recent graduates were faring two years after they finished their undergraduate studies. About one-quarter of them were still living at home. And nearly three-quarters were still getting at least some money from parents.

But Bruni goes on to make some interesting (to me) arguments in favor of mixing things up on campus, as one of the increasingly few places left (in an economically and racially divided United States) where people can — and should, he argues — meet “the other”.

That might, for the first time, mean meeting someone covered with tattoos and piercings, or someone wearing head-to-toe designer labels.

It might mean working in class on a project with someone transgendered and/or someone happily married, even with a few children. Or someone deeply devoted to their religious life  — or someone fervently atheist.

I remember a preppy blond guy named Chris who was even then active in the Conservative party — my first (and useful) exposure to someone with strong, opposing political views.

Bruni writes:

We live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization. And I wish we would nudge kids — no, I wish we would push them — to use college as an exception and a retort to that, as a pre-emptive strike against it, as a staging ground for behaving and living in a different, broader, healthier way.

As we pepper students with contradictory information and competing philosophies about college’s role as an on ramp to professional glory, we should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency fuels the little and big misunderstandings that are driving us apart. It’s at the very root of our sclerotic, dysfunctional political process.

And college is the perfect chapter for diversifying friends and influences, rummaging around in fresh perspectives, bridging divides. For many students, it’s an environment more populous than high school was, with more directions in which to turn.

I also found this Times story – about how much effort selective American colleges are actually making to attract and retain lower-income students:

I think college-as-sorting-mechanism, as it often ends up being — at least in the U.S. — is a sad misuse of its potential for personal and intellectual growth.

I’m not embarrassed to admit how much I learned by attending the University of Toronto, a huge (53,000) and highly traditional university.

Not only about my subjects of study, but about Marxism, soul music, what it’s like to be married young. I learned it over coffee or at frat parties or while working on the student newspaper, from the people I met, the men I dated, the friends I made and my classmates.

I met the first gay people my age, male and female. (My high school may well have had some, but none were out.) Toronto is an enormous, diverse and cosmopolitan city, but even then I knew who I knew….and not much more than that. As it was meant to, college opened my eyes to other realities and ways of thinking and behaving.

My classmates arrived from homes wealthy and poor, from elegant estates and shared, battered downtown housing.

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In my mid-30s, after moving from Canada to New York, I attended another school, The New York School of Interior Design. That experience was wholly different and I loved it. Teachers were demanding and wise, but also nurturing. Classes were small, making my experience pleasant and intimate in comparison to overwhelming and impersonal undergrad.

Now I’m teaching two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, rated one of the 20 best schools in the Northeast U.S. I’m intrigued by the mix of students I see there, all of whom have chosen to attend a school focused on specific crafts and skills, from industrial design to fashion to writing to architecture. There’s a lot of green and purple and blue hair. Many of the women smoke.

One of the issues that I find really shocking is the skyrocketing cost of an American education; Pratt’s tuition is more than $41,000 a year while my alma mater, U of T, is now only $6,040 for my former course of study.

(I paid $660 a year. Yes, really.)

Colleges look so serious and authoritative. They can fail you in life-altering ways

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

If you are a student, what do you want or expect college to “do” for you?

If you’re a professor, how do you feel about the expectation that a college degree is meant as a ticket to a job?

 

Where’s your community?

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, education, family, immigration, life, love, travel, urban life, US on September 3, 2014 at 12:24 am

By Caitlin Kelly

With the New York Times trivia team --- the year we won!

With the New York Times trivia team — the year we won!

So I’m a member of an on-line women/writers’ group, now my go-to site, a place I waste spend wayyyyyy too much time.

It’s a place where women across the U.S. and Canada, from the UAE to India, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, with varying views on sexual preference, ranging in age from 20s to 50s (very few of us!) rant, rave, laugh, weep, share, support and are forging some powerful emotional bonds.

There are women with multiple tattoos (I have none); women in graduate school and women teaching college; women working on some of the biggest television shows out there (!), those happily pregnant and those who never want to have children, and women frustratedly un or under-employed.

In American culture, at least, it’s rare to find a group of women who both raucously and respectfully disagree, let alone share stories and support that are not exclusively focused on one issue.

We talk about everything: work, men, women, family, drunken misadventures, marriage/divorce/dating, how to navigate new situations…Interestingly, we rarely talk about the mechanics of work. We have plenty of other places to do that.

Some of us finally met face to face last week. What a joy!

It was such a pleasure to just sit for hours and get to better know an eclectic, smart, funny, passionate group of women.

A view of my town, Tarrytown, NY

A view of my town, Tarrytown, NY

The one thing I’ve always craved, sought and struggled with is a sense of community.

Most people think of a geographic location when they use that word, but today, thanks to social media, we’re often much more connected — emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, professionally — to people we have yet to meet IRL (in real life), yet who passionately share our convictions, values and/or interests.

As I’ve written here before, I live in a place — the wealthy suburbs north of New York City — where I typically fail to connect meaningfully with many people. Women my age are corporate warriors with high six-figure salaries and husbands to match or stay-at-home mothers in enormous mansions grooming perfect children.

I don’t have children and we are not wealthy.

Not my crowd, for sure!

I began attending a local church in 1998 that Jose and I still visit every few weeks or so. But it, too, is too safe, white, wealthy and non-political for my tastes.

I also have been working alone at home, with kids or pets, since 2006. That solitude and isolation can start to feel claustrophobic without the company of others.

So community matters deeply to me.

I also left behind my country, culture and friends when I moved to New York in 1989. As a professional writer, I belong to several groups, on and off-line, that revolve around our work. But they are often simply transactional — Who’s the editor? What do they pay? — not social.

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 recently began teaching at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and have already attended a four-hour orientation session, where I met a fellow instructor, a lively, friendly young woman. The school’s president invites us all to his home in mid-September for a reception, and I attended a celebration of their new MFA program, a two-hour affair (after four hours of class that day!)

It feels good to be welcomed, even as an adjunct, into a new, thriving and creative community.

Where, when and how do you find or build a sense of community?

 

Back to school!

In blogging, culture, education, life, urban life, US on August 28, 2014 at 2:24 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

Guess what Robert Redford and I have in common?

The Brooklyn-based school where this week I start teaching freshman writing and a small mixed-year class on blogging, Pratt Institute.

The college, ranked in the top 20 in the Northeast U.S., occupies its own campus, a long rectangle in Clinton Hill, whose collection of handsome buildings made it, in 2011, named by Architectural Digest as one of the nation’s most attractive campuses.

When I went there for my interview, I was running through thick snow. I’d never been on campus and wasn’t sure which building it was, so I asked a passing student.

“It’s the one with the goats in front.”

And it is…a row of goat statues stands in front of the building, itself, designed in 1955 by the legendary firm of McKim, Mead and White.

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If I get the enrolment we hope for, I’ll also be teaching students at the New York School of Interior Design, in Manhattan on East 70th. Street. I’m excited and honored to return to the school, where I was a student myself in the 1990s, hoping to leave journalism for a new career; my marriage ended abruptly and I decided to stop my studies.

I did very well there, learned a lot I’ve used ever since in my own home and helping others design theirs. I loved the school and its small, rigorous classes and passionate instructors. I had only happy memories of my time there.

One of their foundation classes, Historical Styles, required memorizing every element of interior design from ancient Egypt to the year 1900. What did a 16th century Italian bedroom look like? What fabric would you find on an 18th century Swedish chair? Would an English floor in the 14th century be tile? Earth? Wood?

Nor would I ever again confuse Louis IV, V or VI again! (We called it Hysterical Styles. It was tough!)

I still remember the passion of my English professors from my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, especially our Chaucer prof, who has us all reading Middle English aloud. Practical? No. Amazing and fun and a great lesson in the power of language? Yes.

It’s been an interesting challenge to find and choose readings for my syllabi, and I’ve got everyone from David Finkel (on war) to Rose George (on the shipping industry.)

I enjoy teaching and know that a terrific teacher can forever inspire a student and alter their course, just as a rude, dismissive one can crush young idea(l)s very easily. It’s a challenge to balance cracking the whip for excellence with scaring the shit out of everyone; one friend, who teaches journalism in Arizona, has been called “tough” and “difficult” in her student evaluations.

Both of which are really code for “demanding.”

If you aren’t required to produce excellence in college, it won’t magically occur to you when you’re competing to keep and get a good job. College is about much more than graduating and “getting a job”, certainly, but understanding what it means to meet high standards — to me — is as much a part of the experience as any specific subject matter.

My English degree from U of T never won me a job. No one asked for my GPA nor about Chaucer nor my understanding of 16th. century drama or Romantic poetry. But the ferocity and passion of my profs in those four years made very clear to me, from my very first freshman class, what excellence looked like, and what it takes to achieve.

That has proven valuable.

My college experience wasn’t one of partying and drunken escapades. I was far too busy freelancing every spare minute, for national newspapers and magazines after my sophomore year, to earn the money to pay my bills, living alone in a small studio apartment. So I have only a small handful of college friends, never had a college room-mate and, when my alma mater calls me for donations — as it did recently — I decline.

College was helpful to me, but it was also often a lonely time with a lot of financial stress; U of T is huge (50,000+ students) and, then, paid little to no attention to undergraduates as individuals. So I don’t have the sort of gauzy nostalgia, or deep gratitude for a lucrative later career, that would prompt me to open my checkbook.

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

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

Are you headed back into the classroom?

If a student, what year and what are you studying?

If a teacher or professor, how about you?

 

The (once) hidden art of street photographer Vivian Maier

In antiques, beauty, cities, culture, journalism, life, photography, US, women, work on August 10, 2014 at 12:13 am

By Caitlin Kelly

20120415141416My photo, not hers!

Have you seen the terrific documentary “Finding Vivian Maier”?

I finally saw it, and it’s an amazing true story of a French woman who spent most of her life working as a nanny for wealthy Chicago families, all the while shooting film and video, as — self-described — “a sort of spy.”

She lived in a tiny French town and in New York City in earlier years, but mostly lived in her employers’ homes as a way to live more frugally and to partake in family life. She never married or had children of her own and, it seems, was not at all close to her own family.

The film traces her history and interviews many of the people who knew her, from the children she cared for (and sometimes poorly) to their parents to a few of her friends. She was intensely private, insisting that everywhere she lived there were multiple locks on the door to her room.

And it all started with an auction, when the film-maker, John Maloof, bought a box of negatives:

After John Maloof purchased his first home and pursued a career in real estate in 2005, he began to get more involved in the community where he lived. He delved heavily into historic preservation and eventually became the president of the local historical society on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Given that this part of the city is often ignored, he came to believe that by writing a book on the neighborhood, he could work to promote awareness of its often overlooked charm. It was this decision to co-author the book Portage Park that would change his life forever.

The publisher required approximately 220 high-quality vintage photos of the neighborhood for the book. To gather enough images for this project, John and his co-author, Daniel Pogorzelski, were forced to look everywhere for any old photographs good enough to make the cut. The result was a nearly year-long scavenger hunt where they followed lead after lead to compile the pictures needed for the book. It was during this process that John visited a local auction house, RPN, to see if by chance, they would have any material for the book up for auction. Sure enough, he found a box of negatives depicting Chicago in the 60’s. Unable to get a thorough look at its contents, he took a gamble and purchased the box for around $400.

As someone who began her career as a photographer, and whose husband is a career photographer and editor, this story was even more compelling to me. Her images are truly extraordinary, and also now for sale — how sad and ironic that this has happened only after her death.

But Vivian’s story also intrigues me because we know someone personally whose trajectory is somewhat similar — a single European woman who nannied for wealthy families and who is also an artist. Even her first name initial is the same.

If you haven’t watched the film or seen any of Maier’s photos, I urge you to take a look.

Powerful stuff — and a sad, mysterious and memorable story.

Living on next to nothing…while we shell out $6.2 billion to broke Walmart workers

In behavior, blogging, domestic life, life, Money, urban life, US, work on July 31, 2014 at 1:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

No travel...too expensive!

No travel…too expensive!

Have you lived in poverty?

A recent 150+ comment thread at, of all places, Apartment Therapy — a design blog usually devoted to featuring people’s fun, cool homes worldwide — offered a painful, insightful, timely conversation on how some of its readers survive(d) on low or minimum wage jobs.

A few of them:

Charities can only do so much for people, and frankly, when I was living below the poverty line, I chose not to take advantage of a lot of those programs, even though I likely could have, because there were other people who needed it more than I did, and I was getting by, if only just. I was lucky to have no car payment, and a car that was in good condition so the maintenance costs were relatively low. I did, however, end up with pneumonia, because although I had health insurance (I was paying out of pocket for it) I couldn’t afford the copay to go to the doctor and get my Prevacid (not OTC at the time) and as a result I got sick, because untreated acid reflux can do that to you.


 

Even though I pared down to the absolute bare minimum and had a roommate, I was constantly worrying about my car (but couldn’t manage without it), and paying for food, heat, and health care. Any time I got a few dollars ahead, I had some money-sucking but necessary expense. Living on the edge of poverty wore me out. The kicker was that making minimum wage, I made too much to get food stamps and other “help for the poor”. (Adults with children could get help, and adults with disabilities, but the thinking was that if you could work, you didn’t need “hand-outs”.)


For many years, I made more than enough money so I could comfortably afford a house, buy food & necessities, invest and have some fun, too. Approximately two years ago, my position was eliminated from a very reputable company in the area where I live. I can say that I have never fully “recovered”, financially and emotionally speaking. I’ve run the gamut from tearing through my 401k, applying for assistance, working my share of odd jobs and asking family for help. I’ve been forced to learn a new way of living and the bottom line is that living on minimum wage is DIFFICULT…period. Navigating assistance applications can be daunting and because of my assets (owning a home-by some miracle-still) it just wasn’t happening. I can tell you that I have learned to live simpler, though, w/less trips to the clothing store, no more manicures/pedicures every two weeks, etc. Is it such a bad thing? Not really, but “living simpler” ends up going hand in hand with “what do I do now” in reference to the next utility bill, grocery bill, financial emergency, etc. I do believe the sad thing is that individuals that “do the right thing” such as going to school, working hard, etc can still find themselves in this situation. It constantly makes me think “what did I do wrong” and “what do I do now?”

Having lived in five countries — my native Canada, Mexico, France, England and the U.S. (since 1988) — I’m never clear why Americans, some of whom protest that they have “played by the rules,” are so stunned to find their laissez-faire capitalist system has turned against them.

The rules are not made for their benefit!

People who sneer at the idea of accepting (or asking for) government assistance may never have struggled in utter desperation, saddled by illness, disability, injury and/or the collapse of their industry. And many people can never hope for a penny from their friends or relatives.

You can’t bootstrap without bootstraps.

Nor why some of them feel ashamed even asking for help when they have done everything possible to help themselves.

According to this National Geographic story, (August 2014), a staggering six percent of Americans are now “food insecure” and the number of those needing help paying for this food in the suburbs has doubled; here is a radio interview with the author, Tracie McMillan.

While some people can move in with a friend or relative, many don’t have that option and have to figure it out on their own. New York pays a maximum of $410/week in in unemployment benefits, taxable income. Yet in New York City, very few people of any age can find housing for less than $1,000/month. Do the math!

If you’re young, highly-educated, willing to move anywhere a job requires it, in excellent health and flexible — you’ll probably survive. But every one of those categories can shift, as does the labor market and the larger economy.

Nicaragua -- the second-poorest nation after Haiti -- where annual income is $1,080

Nicaragua — the second-poorest nation after Haiti — where annual income is $1,080

I struggled financially for all four years of university, even though my annual tuition was only $600/year. I was living on $350/month and the rent on my studio apartment was $160. I still had to pay for food, phone, books, public transportation, dental work, clothing, etc. My family had too much money for me to get student aid, yet were uninterested in helping me.

So I started selling my photos and writing freelance at the end of my sophomore year — and missed a lot of classes and other cute/fun college activities — in order to bring in additional income. My GPA is a bad joke, one reason I’ve never even considered graduate education. I had to survive!

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Luckily, I was able to feed, house, clothe and educate myself. I can still tell you exactly what was in my wardrobe during those years as there was so little of it. I lived in a rough neighborhood until I was attacked in my apartment and moved.

I never, ever want to feel that anxious about money again.

Low-wage or minimum-wage work offers wages so low and hours so few that some workers have to go on food stamps.

Walmart, reports Forbes, cost us $6.2 billion in public assistance to its struggling staff. They “can’t afford” to pay better, so it’s up to us to bail out a for-profit corporation. Don’t you love the irony of corporate welfare?

Have you struggled to survive financially? Are you now? How are you managing?

The freelance life: hustle or die!

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, US, work on July 29, 2014 at 1:40 am

By Caitlin Kelly

My story in July 2014 Cosmo!

My story in July 2014 Cosmo!

A recent survey by the Freelancers Union is interesting — the New York-based group asked 1,100 people what they think of their freelance life — 88 percent said they would not even take a full-time job if it were offered to them.

How do we know? Our new report we’re releasing today, “How to Live the Freelance Life — Lessons from 1,000 Independents (PDF)” surveyed more than 1,100 freelancers nationwide about their work, money, lifestyle, and values.

The report offers a remarkably clear portrait of America’s fastest-growing workforce.

The biggest takeaway: Nearly 9 in 10 independent workers (88%) would keep freelancing even if they were offered a full-time job.

With that level of freelancer pride, no wonder freelancing is booming. Half the workforce may be independent by 2020. Freelancers Union’s own membership is up 410% since 2007 — and the number of millennial members has surged 3000% in that time.

Here’s a useful 11-point checklist for those hoping to try the freelance life, by writer Laura Shin.

One of the things I find intriguing about freelancing full-time is how differently we each do it.

The basics — earning reliable income every month — never change. We pay the same prices for gas and groceries and clothing as people with paychecks — who may also get raises, bonuses and commission.

But editors sometimes kill a story and sometimes for capricious reasons, which costs us income; it grabbed $3,000 out of my pocket in the past nine months. Not fun!

We only get what we  negotiate.

I read Laura’s list and I don’t do several things she does:

– My only time measurements are a calendar and the clock, not the cool and efficient apps she and others use to track their time and rates.

– I use a line of credit when people pay me late, or stiff me, instead of relying on short-term savings, (although I usually keep six months’ worth of expenses in the bank for emergencies.)

– I also have no regular monthly gigs, so I start most months with no idea what I’ll make. I have to pull in $2,000 just to meet each month’s expenses — anything after that buys haircuts, clothes, entertainment, vacations. Nor does it cover costly surprises like last month’s $500 car repair bill or last year’s $4,000 (yes) replacement of the head gasket.

It’s also very difficult now to pull $4,000+/month within journalism when most digital sites offer $300 to $500 for a reported story so I seek out print markets paying $1,500 per piece or more instead.

The ideal, for me, is a $4,000+ assignment I can lavish a few weeks’ attention on exclusively but which also allows me some time for marketing smarter, deeper stories just like it. I dislike jumping constantly from one thing to the next, even though maintaining cash-flow  — i.e. a steady supply of payment — demands it.

Unlike Laura, I have a husband with a good job and steady income; he will also have a defined benefit pension, which reduces our need to save quite as aggressively for retirement. (We still do it anyway!)

Here’s a powerful and depressing story from The Wall Street Journal (aka capitalism’s cheerleader) about why Americans are unhappy with work/life balance — as they have so little of it!

And another story about why so many employers are choosing to hire freelancers.

Ellen, a new Broadside follower, writes here about why she quit her job to go freelance — doing data entry — and is loving her new freedom.

And this, from The Guardian, about the absolutely desperate financial reality of being an author — only 11.5 percent of whom earned their living solely from writing. Their median income? A scary 11,000 pounds — or $18, 826 — which actually sounds high to me!

This New York Times piece — about how much freelance writers really make —  got a lot of traction:

That answer may be not be as much as some might hope, at least at the outset. Ms. Dieker, who also posts her monthly freelance income on her Tumblr, says that she’s hoping to make $40,000 gross this year, but that other freelancers routinely ask her how she manages to make that much when they’re bringing in much less. She also notes that she’s making a lot more than when she started out: “Like any other career, you grow it.”

I’ve had staff jobs and enjoyed them. I’ve had colleagues and enjoyed them. I do miss a steady, 100% reliable paycheck.

And I have yet to earn the equivalent of my last staff salary. I’m not sure I ever will, much as I try.

But you also get used to making your own schedule. You get used to seeking out clients you enjoy, not tolerating and sucking up to your coworkers or bosses, at worst, just to stay employed.

And watching so many journalism staffers lose their jobs? Not cool! When freelancers lose a client, and it happens, we just go find another one, or several.

Freelancers, as the survey proves, cherish our freedom to manage our time; while writing this blog post I also had time to make soup, marinate salmon for dinner and do a little light housework. My husband was working from home that day, so we also had some time to chat and enjoy lunch together.

I started my workday at 7:30 a.m., wrote and filed one story; started work on another and cold-called an editor I’d pitched last month. We had a great chat and — cha-ching! — she may actually have a $4,000 assignment for me sometime later this year.

I’ve already nailed down an assignment in England for January 2015 and am discussing one in Argentina. Few staff jobs offer that kind of range.

But you must hustle! As business guru Seth Godin writes here, on his blog, if you can’t sell what you do, you’ll never make a penny at it — no matter your education, hard work or talent.

Would you prefer to be freelance?

Or do you like working for someone more?

Freelancers can attend a mid-week matinee!

Freelancers can attend a mid-week matinee!

 

The curse of binary thinking

In behavior, culture, domestic life, education, life, politics, religion, US on July 17, 2014 at 2:39 am

By Caitlin Kelly

When we started dating 14 years ago my now-husband drove me nuts with the phrase he still uses, (and which I now just laugh at):

“We could do one of two things”…

I’m sure — Broadside readers being a smart, educated bunch — some of you surely know, and can explain to me, the underpinnings of such a narrow worldview.

american-flag-2a

It feels these days as though everyone has joined one side of another. Our worldview is binary:

All or nothing.

Black or white.

Right or wrong.

Gay or straight.

Liberal or conservative.

Pro-choice or pro-life.

Gun control advocate or “gun nut” (not my phrase!)

It feels absurdly and, to me increasingly, stupidly, American.

Hello…Congress?

When most of us know, or realize, that life is a hell of a lot more complicated than that. It is shaded and nuanced. And our most firmly and fixed beliefs can change over time.

I had two moments of this recently, both within an hour, one on-line arguing, (and quickly withdrawing from useless online arguments), with some woman I don’t know in a on-line forum, and the other at my local hardware store.

I was struck, hard, by the realization how easy it is to fall into a habit of thinking (why?) in terms of either/or, not both. Exclusion, not inclusion. Narrowing, not expanding, our notions of the possible.

People who speak several languages and/or have lived for long periods outside of their home culture and/or are married to or partnered with someone of a very different background often move beyond this limited thinking because it is challenged every day.

What we consider “normal” is simply normal for us.

The first argument was over work and its relative importance in our lives.

Americans — especially those who have never lived beyond their borders — often feel that working really hard all the time is the single most useful thing to do with one’s life. Being “successful” materially is the classic goal. And a very skimpy social safety net ensures that few can stray far from the grindstone because unless you’re debt-free, rich and/or have a shit-ton of savings, you will soon be broke and homeless and then, missy, you’ll be sorry!

The woman I was arguing with, a manager within my industry, kept positing two poles — marathoner/ambitious/admirable or useless/annoying/slacker. For fucks’ sake.

Very few people love their work every day until they die. If they do, awesome! But making anyone who doesn’t agree feel the same way somehow less than, or imputing slackerdom to their ambivalence, is bullshit.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Some people actually work for the money. Not passion.

For many people — and not simply “slackers” — their true passions and joys lie beyond the workplace: faith, family, travel, volunteer work, pets, and/or creative projects that simply make them, and others, happy.

My second “Duh!” moment happened while trying to buy gray matte-finish paint for our balcony railings. There was only white and black on offer. The sales clerk and I stood there staring at the cans, my frustration growing, his boredom blossoming.

I was pissed there wasn’t exactly what I wanted — when it was right there in front of me for the seeing of it, and making it myself.

Black plus white = gray.

How embarrassing that it took us so long to figure that out. I felt like an utter fool for not noticing that right away. It was a great wake-up call.

Do you find yourself trapped into this way of thinking?

What would it take for you to even consider the value of the other side of an argument?

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?

 

 

Buy my books! (The gentle art of self-promotion)

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, US, work on June 16, 2014 at 12:43 am

By Caitlin Kelly

malled cover HIGH

Here’s an interesting discussion, from The New York Times Book Review, about whether or not authors should run around promoting themselves and their products books.

Here’s James Parker on why it’s such a bad idea:

She must explain herself. He must sell himself. To a gifted minority it comes naturally; to the rest, it really doesn’t. Hence the tremendous awkwardness that often attends these sorties into the national mind. Author photos, for example, are invariably ghastly: pouting, bedraggled or staring down with blazing eyes from the spire of genius, the author is basically saying (or trying to say): “Trust me. I’m worth it.” As for media appearances, any interview in which the author doesn’t swear uncontrollably or break into loud sobs must be considered a public relations triumph.

Having written two non-fiction books, one before the age of social media – “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, published in 2004 — and Malled, in 2011, I’ve been around that block.

He’s right.

People who choose to write for a living generally prefer to withdraw into their own heads and work at their own pace.

If we were super-chatty extroverts, we would have gone into PR.

If we really loved having our photo taken or being witty in two-minute soundbites, we would have chosen a career in television. Trying to boil down nuance into seconds is difficult and scary as hell — and I’ve done a fair bit of television and radio promotion for my books, whether BBC radio and television, NPR or Al Jazeera America.

And “the public” can be brutal, (see: amazon “reviews”), ignorant and brutally ignorant of what it takes to even get a book commercially published. Authors often get asked to speak at someone’s lunch or alumni group or women’s club, unpaid.

Yet if your book sells poorly — fewer than 10,000 copies — your odds of an agent repping you, or any publisher touching  your next attempt shrivel very quickly.

So we feel compelled to sing and dance and do blog tours, even if that’s about as appealing as gum surgery.

Here’s Anna Holmes taking the opposite view:

Book promotion can offer a feeling of agency for authors trying to find their way in an industry that can seem otherwise fickle, opaque and unmeritocratic…

And the readers, really, are where it’s at. There’s nothing more rewarding than taking — or making — opportunities to connect with potential readers face to face or, thanks to the rise of the Internet, pixel to pixel. In fact, I consider book promotion as much of an obligation as proofreading a manuscript. Writing is, in itself, an act of engaging with others, of seeking connection over mere expression. If you were to put a book out into the world, which would you rather have — conversation or silence?

Holmes is being super-polite; “unmeritocratic” is Times-speak for:

How did that piece of shit ever find a publisher?!

I have two friends who head the publicity departments of two major American publishers. I love them as friends, but to hear their insiders’ view of this business is blood-chilling. One told me recently she read a proposal so incompetent she said, “Not a chance.”

Yet the house bought it for a lot of money, because the writer already has a huge following for her website — i.e. demand for her product.

I was intrigued when I started to follow writer Sarah Salway’s British blog, Writer in the Garden, and decided to follow her on Twitter — and read the bio’s of the many highly-accomplished UK writers she follows. Their self-presentation was almost uniformly witty and self-deprecating, a style I used to employ when I moved from Brit-inflected Canada to the U.S. — and to chest-thumping New York City, aka Braggarts ‘r us!

If you’re shy and quiet and reserved about your work here, hang it up kids, because you’re probably going to stay invisible and powerless.

In our noisy, crowded, you-only-get-six-seconds’-of-my-attention culture, introverts can have a tough time getting their books attention, reviews and sales.

I have to say, on balance, I side with Holmes. I’d rather initiate a convo with my readers than sit around waiting for someone to find my books.

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