After 99 years, dismantling a life

By Caitlin Kelly

An auctioneer and her assistants scan the crow...
An auctioneer and her assistants scan the crowd for bidders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She moved onto our top-floor apartment hallway five years ago, forking over a cool $500,000 for a three-bedroom home. She dressed well, had her hair done, and had a ferocious grande dame quality to her.

She was then merely 95, a former interior designer and survivor of two marriages. She had, as they say, “married well.”

I knew her name. We all did. We also knew her live-in nurses, forever scurrying to the laundry room.

While we were away recently for two weeks, she died.

This week the auctioneer came from the Bronx and his men started packing up the remnants of her life into boxes for sale to strangers: china, crystal, oil paintings, chairs, tables, rugs.

I knocked on the apartment door and asked if I could take a look, as it’s now up for sale and one of the building’s most coveted, large and light, with terrific Hudson river and Manhattan views.

Small world — her grand-daughter-in-law was there and turns out to be someone I see at my jazz dance class every week.

It was a sad, odd thing to watch someone’s belongings being carted away, to be sold at auction in — of all places — Atlanta. She had some lovely things, especially the paintings. There were early photos of her.

One of the many challenges of having no children and no nieces or nephews, is whom, if anyone, to leave our things to — or the proceeds from the sale of those things — when we die. I’m at an age when I still very much appreciate beautiful objects and acquiring them here and there.

But, having had to move my own mother into a nursing home directly from the hospital with only a week to ditch  all her lovely things, (or store them, or move a fraction of it into her small new room), I’ve lived the horror and sadness and snap decision-making of selecting/tossing/selling stuff it’s taken decades of taste, income and pleasure to acquire and enjoy.

The marble bust of her grand-mother? Kept. All her many textiles, collected across the world as she traveled alone for decades? In my garage now.

It meant chattering away to her local auctioneer picking through her stuff as if this was not exquisitely uncomfortable and painful. To him, it was just another day of work. To me, a situation unimaginable barely six months earlier on my last visit to her home, a six-hour flight away from mine.

It also meant going through things with my mother, one of the most private and uncommunicative people I know  — holding up for her decision everything from a black Merry Widow corset to her gorgeous red leather knee-high Cossack-style boots. Her Greek texts and travel souvenirs.

My garage now holds her collection of beautiful Peruvian and Bolivian mantas and Indian cottons and silks, her molas from the San Blas Islands.

A Kuna woman displays a selection of molas for...
A Kuna woman displays a selection of molas for sale at her home in the San Blas Islands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When her mother died, having simply ignored the tedious task of paying income tax on her significant wealth to any form of government for decades, there was very little left. I will not be inheriting anything from my grandmother’s estate. I can visit a museum in Toronto to see her former armoire.

Nor will I inherit from my mother, I suspect, for reasons too grim and arcane to discuss here.

I’ve told my father the few pieces of his art and furniture that I hope he’ll leave to me. But who knows?

It’s all stuff, in the end.

Unlike Egyptian kings, we’re not going to be buried with it.

Have you been through this process?

How do you plan to dispose of your stuff when that day comes?

You have/are an only child — selfish, lonely, spoiled. Really?

By Caitlin Kelly

If you really want to see, or provoke yet another hair-pulling catfight, write a book about any aspect of American motherhood.

I dare you!

Sibling!
Sibling! (Photo credit: Gus Dahlberg)

The latest entry in the spittle-flecked self-righteous-fest known as The Mommy Wars, (wouldn’t Mummy Wars be so much more…Egyptian? But I digress) is this new book, One and Only, about being an only child and choosing to have only one child.

(She also tosses in a fairly astonishing to me — and unattributed statement — that mothers are the women most likely to have an abortion.)

Here’s some thoughts from its author, Lauren Sandler:

If you only have one child, you’re inevitably asked, “Another one
coming soon?” Despite the overwhelming evidence that only children are
no different than those with siblings—not to mention it’s better
environmentally and fiscally—I’ve found that a lot of people only want
to have a second child for the sake of their first child. There’s a
notion that you’re not a good mother if you don’t give your child a
sibling. Why can we debate ad nauseam about tiny minuscule things like
diapers, schools, and organic T-shirts, but not about the number of kids
we have?

To me, U.S. family policy is a failure. We are one of the only
countries on earth that does not have structural family-support system.
This failure is due to our ideological individualism, our lack of a
labor movement addressing parents’ rights as workers’ rights, and the
fact that we’ve never had a population crisis. It’s completely different
in Europe and Asia. In Italy, you can’t even Google “family time”—the
term doesn’t exist. Instead they have an integrated way of living, with
parents and their children mingling with family and friends as a
community—and adults are actually allowed to focus on themselves.

Here’s a radio interview with her.

I grew up as an only child, so this is familiar territory. Onlies are told, all the goddamned time, how spoiled we are. How lonely we must be. How selfishly we behave — everywhere!

I call bullshit.

Here’s some of what was true for me, and still is, as someone raised as an only, (and now with no kids):

You often spend a lot more time around adults than kids with siblings. You get used to actually being listened to attentively, (a nice start in life for little girls, especially), and feeling at ease around people much older than you. You learn young it’s polite to refresh a guest’s drink or pass the hors d’oeuvres. These are valuable life skills, people!

Booooooored?  Deal with it. With no siblings to torture play with, we’re left to our own devices to amuse ourselves. Back in my youth, cave drawings filled up a slow Sunday. Kidding! But even without the Internet or apps, etc., I was fully able to have a lot of fun alone. Trolls, Legos, stuffed animals, books, drawing, sports. Who needed a sib?

— Less competition! Whether Christmas pressies or dessert or adult attention, it’s all yours, baby!

— No odious parental, relatives or teachers’ comparisons to your brothers or sisters. I never had to be “the smart one” (instead of the pretty one). I could just be me.

— Lots of travel. With only one kid to finance, your family can easily pick up and go somewhere, for the day or a month or even a few years. I knew from the very start how damn lucky I was to have visited England, France, Mexico and the Caribbean, all by the age of six.

— Decent social skills. If you have no sibs to hang out with or socialize you, you better figure it out, stat. Once you realize that the world is filled with cool, fun, interesting people to hang out with, you’re ahead of the kids still terrified to talk to anyone in authority post-college. Friends become your family, and often much nicer, too!

Of course, yes, there are downsides. Like:

— No one has your back when things get scary. I used to cower behind the living room curtains when my parents fought, which was often and loudly, before they divorced. I could really have used some back-up.

— In a split family, there’s just not enough of you to go around. Christmas was crazy — divided between my mother, maternal grandmother and father.

— It’s all on you to win the Nobel prize/MacArthur/Pulitzer/cure cancer/create world peace. People with siblings can fob off these absurd expectations/hopes onto someone else and go watch (some more) TV.

— When your parents get sick and old, it’s all on you. Serious issue. A smart, kind spouse or partner helps!

When you get sick and old (and God forbid, broke), and if you have no partner or very close friends, what happens? (Note terrified silence here.)

Are you an only?

How was it?

If you — as several Broadside followers did — had a bunch of kids, what kept you going past one?

Just pay them, dammit!

By Caitlin Kelly

So, imagine you finally get  a shot at the industry/job/company you’ve been dying to work for forever.

Imagine you have even spent the time, energy and hard work to acquire an MBA.

But, hey, sorry, we would love to have you come work for us, but we just don’t have a budget for interns.

As if.

Black Swan (film)
Black Swan (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A court decision made this week, I hope, will strike fear into the greedheads who keep offering work without payment:

A Federal District Court judge in Manhattan ruled on Tuesday that Fox
Searchlight Pictures had violated federal and New York minimum wage laws
by not paying production interns, a case that could upend the long-held
practice of the film industry and other businesses that rely heavily on
unpaid internships.

Should the government get tough to protect unpaid interns, or are internships a win-win?

In the decision, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that Fox Searchlight
should have paid two interns on the movie “Black Swan,” because they
were essentially regular employees.

The judge noted that these internships did not foster an educational
environment and that the studio received the benefits of the work. The
case could have broad implications. Young people have flocked to
internships, especially against the backdrop of a weak job market.

Employment experts estimate that undergraduates work in more than one
million internships a year, an estimated half of which are unpaid,
according to Intern Bridge, a research firm.

Few things piss me off quite as much as people with money who keep insisting to those without it that they’re broke. Sooooooooory!

In my entire career as a photographer and journalist — including high school when I was paid $100 apiece for three magazine cover photos — I’ve very rarely given my skills unpaid to people who still themselves are collecting paychecks and paying to rent office space and keep their lights on —  yet somehow can’t scrape together enough shekels to pay for the hard work of people too young/poor/vulnerable/desperate who are willing or able to work without payment.

The larger issue, equally unfair, is that asking people to work for no money means that only those with money already (parental subsidies, usually) can even afford to take an unpaid internship.

You value their labor or you do not. Every penny you save on their free work is a penny added to your profits.

Fair? Really?

No one else in this economy gives it away! Not my plumber or electrician or physicians or dentist or massage therapist.

My husband was born into a family with very little money; his father was a Baptist preacher in a small city in New Mexico. He attended university on full scholarship and started working — for pay — right out of college as a news photographer. He would not have had the means to afford to work in his desired field without payment.

He has risen to a terrific job, with a pension, and helped The New York Times win a Pulitzer Prize for their 9/11 photos. What if he’d been shut out from the very start?

I have an assistant, part-time, who helps me with my writing — doing research, setting up interviews and meetings, whatever I need. I pay her. I pay the woman who cleans our apartment. I wouldn’t dare insult either of them by suggesting they work for free, because, “Hey, it’s great experience!”

I don’t make a ton of money, either. But if I want someone to work for/with me, I will pay them. The opportunity cost is another burden every intern faces if they give their time away to a cheapskate when they could be making money in those same uncompensated hours.

In a shitty economy where millions are desperate for work, for a job, referral or credential, I think requiring someone to work without payment is obscene.

Have you done an unpaid internship?

Was it worth it?

Plan B — the morning-after pill — soon available over the counter

By Caitlin Kelly

English: A woman swats away the stork which ha...
English: A woman swats away the stork which has brought her her child. Caption: “And the villain still pursues her”. (a turn-of-the-20th-century postcard). Русский: Женщина отбивается от аиста, который принес ей ее ребенка. Надпись: «Злодей по-прежнему преследует ее». (открытка на рубеже ХХ века). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was debating whether or not to blog this major news, but decided to do so anyway:

The Obama administration has decided to stop trying to block
over-the-counter availability of the best-known morning-after
contraceptive pill for all women and girls, a move fraught with
political repercussions for President Obama.

The government’s decision means that any woman or girl will soon be able
to walk into a drugstore and buy the pill, Plan B One-Step, without a
prescription.

The essential issue, which never changes for women, is control of our bodies and their reproductive ability.

Our lives, in short.

The most fortunate of women have a few choices, many of them culturally pre-determined:

Never have sex unless or until you want to become pregnant

Never have sex unless or until you are married and have a partner to help you raise a child

Never have sex

Have an abortion

Put your unwanted child(ren) up for adoption

Many of us have, or will have, a sexual life beyond the boundaries of marriage or the explicit, specific desire to become someone’s parent. For some of us, it may result in an unplanned pregnancy — or pregnancy scare.

Ready access to Plan B means any woman who fears she might face an unplanned pregnancy has the option to forestall that terrifyingly, permanently life-changing event.

It is not an abortion. Plan B’s exact method is unclear — except that it does what it promises. It makes sure you will not become pregnant.

Those of us who delay marriage — or may never even choose it — and wish to have a sexual life without the result of children must have access to safe, affordable, accessible choices beyond the Religious Right’s favorite method — snapping our knees safely shut from puberty to menopause.

Managing one’s sexual impulses and desires, let alone those of our male partners/husbands, is sometimes challenge enough. STDs are rampant and add another layer of worry or concern, as they should.

Then there is the matter of one’s fertility, for some a coveted gift, for others a burden. Shit happens. Condoms slide off, or break or, yes, sometimes never get used at all.

And I am speaking only of consensual sex, not the many women suffering rape and its aftermath, emotional and physical.

Plan B is a much simpler choice — on ever level — than abortion for many women.

This is huge step for American women’s reproductive rights, and one that’s only — really — about 40 years later than what Canadian women took for granted when I was in college and needed access to Plan B. There, it was an easy, quick, non-political issue.

I moved to the U.S. when I was 30, still unmarried. I have been nauseated, enraged and wearied ever since by the relentless, ferocious, get-the-the-fuck-away-from-my-uterus political battles in this country over when, where, or even if a woman should have ready, safe, affordable access to birth control information, birth control and/or abortion.

It’s my body.

I do with it — tats, piercings, hair color, shape and size, clothing (or lack of it) — as I wish.

Those who  remain utterly determined to control and manage women’s sexuality, by trying to demonize and/or politicize our most personal and private decisions, are anathema to me.

Where in the world to go next?

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been lucky enough, from infancy, to travel the world. My parents, then living in Vancouver, B.C. where I was born, removed a car’s back seat, put in my crib, and drove to Mexico. Raised as an only child, I was also lucky enough to be affordably portable in later years.

Aqueduct City of Mexico
Aqueduct City of Mexico (Photo credit: SMU Central University Libraries)

No wonder I’m at my happiest when traveling and/or in motion! One of my favorite smells is the distinct aroma of jet fuel. Takeoff!

I took my first solo airplane flight at seven, meeting my mother in Antigua.

Since then, I’ve visited 37 countries, some of them alone.

I’ve visited some with my mother, father, friends or boyfriends/husbands: England, France, Mexico, Sweden, Montserrat, Jamaica, Colombia, Peru, Fiji, Ireland, Thailand, Venezuela.

I’ve also traveled widely on assignment for magazine and newspaper stories and while researching my books. In those instances, I’m almost always alone, whether in a tiny hill town in Sicily, small Texas towns like Waco, San Angelo, Fredericksburg or Silver City (aka the middle of nowhere!) or navigating major cities from Bangkok to Rome to Istanbul.

Favorites:

I dearly love and miss Mexico, a place I lived for six months at 14, in Cuernavaca, with my mother. I love everything about the place and have been back many times, but not since May 2005, when we toured for three weeks to Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca.

English: View of Jardin Juarez in downtown Cue...
English: View of Jardin Juarez in downtown Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. This picture makes me homesick! I used to buy licuados here when I was a teenager! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I cry with relief and excitement when I return each time to Paris, a city I lived in at 25 for eight months on  life-changing journalism fellowship. I’ve seen a bit of the south — the Camargue, the Cote d-Azur — and Normandy. Corsica is one of the loveliest places on earth!

London, where we lived when I was little for a few years. I love Spitalfields, where silk weavers settled in the 17th century.

But there are still so many places I’m dying to see, including:

— Returning to Thailand, France, New Zealand, Ireland, Tunisia, Italy, England, Denmark, Austria and Sweden

— Exploring the fjords of Norway by boat

— Riding across the plains of Mongolia

— Budapest

— Gros Morne National Park, (A UNESCO site), in Newfoundland

— The Galapagos

— Bryce and Zion National Parks, Utah

— The Maldives, Seychelles, Madagascar and Zanzibar

Venezuela and Brazil: Stamps
Venezuela and Brazil: Stamps (Photo credit: Sem Paradeiro)

— The Hebrides

— Berlin

— Exploring Brazil

— Croatia, especially the island of Hvar

— The Greek islands, especially Paros and Corfu

— South Africa

— Morocco, especially the Sahara

— Japan — all of it! I love classic Japanese art and design

— Jordan (Petra)

— Lebanon

— Switzerland

Here is a round-up of reviews of eight new travel books — seven (sigh) written by men — from The New York Times.

And seven more, from their 2011 round-up, also with only one book written by a woman.

And, if you’re hungry for serious adventure, here’s an essay naming some earlier writers who really traveled far and wide, often alone, like Freya Stark.

What are some of your best-loved places and fun/interesting things to do there?

How dangerous is it for women to travel alone?

By Caitlin Kelly

Travel Guides
Travel Guides (Photo credit: Vanessa (EY))

And, the latest rape in India of a foreign tourist.

Is it safe for a woman to travel alone?

Maybe.

Depending where she is, and if she is aware of her surroundings, sensitive to the local/regional culture, stays sober and alert and exercises good judgment.

There is no defense, ever, for rape.

But this recent American victim — who was hitch-hiking and chose to accept a ride from three men — could probably have made a wiser set of choices.

I would never hitch-hike, alone, nor would I ever accept a ride from three men. Certainly not in India. Not anywhere!

It’s very tempting to simply turn off your brain on vacation.

We’re desperate to relax, to get away, to shed the daily routines of paying attention to everything all the time. We want to be taken care of, to “get away from it all.” Especially if you’re a single woman bored or frustrated by dating, travel alone can offer a chance to flirt, to test out our mojo, far from the tedious local talent or the disapproving stares of people we know.

But we may well do so at our peril.

I recently spent five days alone, traveling by car through Arizona. It included drinking alone in a hotel bar, staying alone in that small hotel and camping alone in a crowded campsite.

Was I scared? Never. Nervous? Only occasionally, late at night, wondering if the slithering sound of my tent tarp was, instead, some stranger who meant to do me harm.

And so, inside my tent, I also had a heavy rock, small enough to fit into my hand and heavy enough to inflict serious damage.

I was also terrified of locking the keys inside my rental car. I did bring a cellphone and charger, had a rudimentary first aid kit, always had water and a cooler full of fresh food. I had multiple flashlights and a headlamp.

I am strong and fit enough to run fast, if necessary, and unafraid to shout or scream if I truly feel threatened. I was also camping mostly around fellow Americans, whose behavior I could fairly safely predict.

Not the same for other places, and I am extra cautious there — i.e. countries where a woman in public is almost always accompanied only by a child, parent, male relative or husband.

But I’m also vigilant enough to try and avoid trouble in the first place. And one of the scary/creepy facts of life is that, as an open-hearted, curious traveler/tourist, observing and taking photos, we, too, may be observed, noticed or worse.

I traveled alone to New Orleans, rural Texas, rural Ohio and a rough town in Massachusetts while reporting my first book, about American women and guns. Some of the people I met were pretty sketchy, many of them male, some of them macho. Sometimes I had to keep my guard up to stay safe.

Being aware of the potential dangers of your surroundings — whether rape or rabies — is simply wise and prudent. Given how much information sits at our fingertips, through the Internet, there’s no excuse for remaining ignorant. Consulates and embassies can also offer plenty of current data before you leave. (I did not realize — ooops! — until I’d bought my airfare to Caracas that there was a Canadian embassy advisory out about how crazy dangerous the city was.)

One of the very best sources of real-time travel intel, in the most granular sense, is The Thorn Tree, part of the Lonely Planet; I used it when I went to Venezuela with a female friend in 1998. Ask its globe-trotters pretty much anything — no matter how unlikely and obscure — and you’ll probably find someone with a helpful, accurate answer.

If you have never ventured out alone, or do not know anyone who has, it can look fairly terrifying.

I’ve traveled alone — young, female, clearly alone, from my early 20s to today — in such far-flung spots as Kenya, Tanzania, Turkey, Mexico, Thailand and many European countries. Plus the United States and Canada. It’s totally do-able, and often highly enjoyable, as long as you don’t zone out.

For example, hotel and motel clerks have been trained now — and if not, yell at them — never to hand you your room key while announcing your room number out loud for others to overhear and note. No one but you should know it.

Don’t let fear keep you at home, or chained to family/friends/tour groups. Traveling alone can be a fantastic way to see the world and grow your self-confidence.

Here’s a recent fun essay about the many joys of solo travel — albeit written by a man:

I love a solo holiday. It tends to refresh the part of oneself that is most depleted by modern life — patience. I once went to Germany on a 10-city expedition…I was actually moving slower than I had when I was back at home. I was taking my time, giving things their due, and the solo holiday had in some way increased my reserves of contentment…My travels in Germany left me quite refreshed with thoughtfulness.

I’ve had solo pints of Guinness in the pubs of County Kerry and County Cork. I’ve walked across the sage- and juniper-scented maquis of Corsica on a spring day, where you can still find the world of Napoleon’s childhood. More than once I went to the Isle of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides, the burial ground of the early Scottish kings, and watched darkness descend on the Sound of Iona while evensong came from the old monastery. I wasn’t on these travels for visions or transformation, but simply to feel the force of the world, for a day, for a night, as it operates outside the chatter of commerce or media or mass psychology.

Some of my very happiest travel memories, like O’Hagan’s here, are from solo journeys:

— five days traveling through Corsica in July by mo-ped, (including a date with a local mason with a very large boars’ head mounted on his living room wall.) Here’s The Wall Street Journal story I wrote about it.

— dinner on the beach by moonlight in Ko Phi Phi

— picking strawberries in a Scottish field the summer I was 12

— jouncing for 12+ hours a day along rutted, dusty roads in Kenya and Tanzania, the dust so thick on my forearms by day’s end I could carve a furrow in it

Here’s a link to one of my earlier posts about traveling solo and female, with specific tips.

And another.

Have you traveled alone as a woman?

How did it turn out?

I miss our “kids”

By Caitlin Kelly

NYTSI2013_2clowres

They’re not really kids, of course, and they’re not ours.

They were, briefly, ours to teach and mentor and work with.

A week ago, Jose, I, and other veteran journalists, working as editors and web specialists,  from Tucson, Boston and New York, said a reluctant farewell to the 24 young men and women starting to work in journalism — scattered this summer to internships at CNN in Atlanta, the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Oregonian in Portland to name a few — that we met during The New York Times Student Journalism Institute in Tucson.

The Times has been offering the Institute for a few years now, alternating between Hispanic and African-American students, in Tucson and in New Orleans. It’s a terrific chance for students to come and be mentored, one-on-one, by veterans of our business.

It’s also, for Jose and I — who don’t have kids, or even nieces or nephews close at hand — a lovely chance to meet, mentor and get to know the next generation of journalists. Their passion, energy, smarts and excitement are invigorating. It’s so fun to watch them jumping headlong into difficult and challenging projects, helping their skills develop and their confidence grow.

We’re also deeply touched when, as happens every year, we’re each pulled aside and asked some tough personal questions by young people we have barely met, but who are hungry for candid answers from veterans a few decades into their chosen field:

How do you define success? Can I be a good journalist and have a thriving marriage? How? What about kids?

Can I get ahead and not be a total jerk about it?

How will I be able to handle the pressure? What if I can’t?

We offer them our insights, and hope they’re helpful.

Jose and I admit, though, that we would have breezed right past one another in our gogogogogogogo 20s, even 30s, desperate to carve out our niches within this hyper-competitive industry.

We were lucky enough to meet in our early 40s, too late to have kids of our own, but have remained close with several Institute alumni and hope to do so with several of this year’s group as well. Marie de Jesus, an Institute alum now working at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, even shot our wedding in Toronto in 2011.

English: Star Tribune Assembly Process. Kiswah...
English: Star Tribune Assembly Process. Kiswahili: Star Tribune Mchakato wa uchapishaji. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But it’s hard to offer truly useful advice to newcomers to journalism these days, whether employed or not, intern or freelance. The euphemism used to describe our industry these days is “disrupted” — aka chaos, guessing and hoping for the best.

One of the Institute students, hired as a summer intern by the Sun-Times, was flabbergasted as we all learned that the paper had suddenly and abruptly fired all 28 of its staff shooters and is now teaching its reporters, instead, to take photos with their I-phones.

That seemed to suggest that Alex, our student, would be the only trained news photographer on staff, suddenly responsible for covering — you know — the entire city of Chicago single-handed.

Are you fucking kidding me?

Here’s what Fortune magazine had to say about that:

Reporters, it should be noted, are in general terrible at taking pictures. Photographs snapped on iPhones by photographically inept reporters who are also trying to gather information at an accident scene, for example, are not going to impress anyone, digitally savvy or not. Journalism schools (again, often working from the addled theories of certain tech pundits and consultants) have been pushing the idea of “multimedia journalism” — that is, having reporters take photos and shoot video. Many of them offer training in this area. Most often, this results in nothing more than one person doing three jobs poorly rather than doing one job well. It also tends to sabotage the notion that all of these are professional endeavors and to strengthen the false notion that anybody could perform any of them equally well. This reveals a shocking level of disrespect for both journalists and readers.

It’s as if your local hospital fired every staff surgeon — handing kitchen knives to the orderlies, with which to cut us all open.

Not.

What do we tell our “kids”, then, in the face of such naked greed and stupidity? That this is the quality of senior management of the profession they have chosen? Sometimes, sadly, yes it is.

Chicago Sun-Times Building
Chicago Sun-Times Building (Photo credit: MA1216)

So our “kids” — now connected to one another, and to some of us, through every possible iteration of social media — are off on their own. We’ve called our pals in every city they’ve landed to make sure someone local and helpful, usually a fellow journo or photographer, is offering them a meal and a welcome.

We look forward to seeing their photos and stories, to hearing their tales of woe and joy.

We miss them!

One brick at a time…

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s too funny that these bricks lie in the driveway of my apartment building in suburban New York, since Toronto is my hometown. I have no idea how they ended up here, but they have long been a comfort on homesick days.

20130605173026

Today is my birthday, and a time to reflect on the current state of the union, as it were.

Things are good!

I’m blessed with a loving husband, good friends and health, food in the fridge, money in the bank and work lined up for the next few months. I feel — for the moment! — really relaxed from a terrific two-week vacation in which I made a dozen new friends and colleagues, a bonus. I re-connected with old friends — two lovely women half my age in Tucson. I found some pretty new clothes and had a road trip alone.

But the brick thing is a good analogy.

It’s taken many years to assemble this little wall aka my life. Brick by brick. Short of a Harry Potter wand, you can’t simply will an entire wall, or building, into instant existence. It comes slowly, each brick something you choose (some are defective), lay carefully into place, chink with mortar, align with the others already there. It takes time, and devoted attention, and skill and persistence.

My life has been like that. My 20s were a terrific time for career and friendships and travel — but utter misery romantically.

I moved to Montreal, met the man I would marry (the first time), and had a fantastic apartment cheap — but hated the long frigid winter, missed my Toronto pals and didn’t much like the paper I worked for. The bricks just wouldn’t line up!

Then, after moving to New York, I checked a new bunch of boxes in my early 30s: get married, buy an apartment, re-start my career in journalism.

Then the husband bailed, three recessions hit journalism and I lost my best friend to…who knows what? Our friendship just blew up, never to be re-constituted.

It was a lonely, broke, frustrating few years. I thought they would never end.

Brick by brick.

But I made a few new friends, (and lost a few more along the way). I found a new agent, then another. I got two books published. Built up my reputation as a writer. Did a bunch of volunteer work. Met my second husband.

It is a much slower process than one might prefer. We live in hasty, impatient times — if a website fails to load, or amuse us, within seconds — gone! On-line dating offers us endless (we think) romantic options. When life refuses to race along accordingly, we get pissed and angry and whiny and resentful. We want it all now!

brick

I just hope the next year(s) continue to offer me bricks, mortar and the health with which to keep building…

My Grand Canyon photos — and some stories to go with them

By Caitlin Kelly

The Grand Canyon is 277 river miles long, a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide. It was declared a national park in 1919 — and today receives five million visitors a year. You can visit the South Rim, (the most popular), which is dotted with hotels and two campgrounds, restaurants and shops, or the North Rim, which is 1,000 feet higher — and therefore even cooler. Altitude is about 7,000 feet, which can leave you breathless from even simple activities.

At the bottom lies the Colorado River, along which veteran boatmen take brave souls.

Many visitors, though, never venture below the rim, preferring only to snap a few photos or walk around the rim, which is easily done through a system of free buses allowing you to walk as little, or as much, as you like.

In 1994, I hiked down Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point — stupidly, doing the last, unshaded section, alone at noon — by then 100+ degrees. It was the first time I truly understood hyperthermia, how the body literally cooks. In desperation, I began pouring my bottles of water over my head. I sat in the creek at Indian Garden for 30 minutes, soaking my clothes completely and trying to cool my core temperature.

Then I looked up at the rim and thought, “Not possible.” Eight hours later, I emerged, the straps of my backpack crusted white with the dried salt of my sweat. I would urge every visitor to hike into the Canyon, intelligently. Nothing compares to the experience of being inside it, not just looking at it from a safe, noisy, crowded distance.

Note: all images here are mine, and copyright!

If you are afraid of heights, don’t stand close to the rim! The edges are rocky, slippery and unprotected.  People have fallen to their deaths.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

The canyon is the result of billions of years of erosion, with multiple layers of rock. The white layer is Kaibab limestone.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

This is Bright Angel Trail, on a nice, flat bit! It is the most-used trail and is also used by people riding on mules, so look out for fresh dung! Hikers must step aside when they meet a mule and give them right of way. I shot this image late afternoon, in late May, so there is some shade. Hiking in direct sun, and 100-degree temperatures — the temperature rises as you descend into the canyon — is doubly tiring. Drink a lot of water!

I didn’t take as many photos as I thought, but Jose and I like this one the best of all. Several challenges make photographing the Canyon difficult — there is often dust; the scale is enormous; it’s hard to pick a spot that includes some sense of scale (which is why I framed this with weathered, gnarled branches.) The small silvery curve on the left-hand side is the Colorado River, far below.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

This sunset image was taken from Hopi Point, one of the overlooks on the South Rim. It is one of the two most popular spots for people to congregate, and the views are excellent. But too many people are rude, noisy and distracting — if you really want to savor a sunset in solitude and silence, do not pick that spot! The sun sets around 7:30 (late May) and rises by 5:00 a.m.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

One of the most amazing and lovely aspects of the Canyon is the terrific abundance of wildlife. This shot was taken with a small Canon G7, not a telephoto lens — i.e. I was barely a few feet away from this squirrel. But — very serious warning! — the single most common injury here is squirrel attacks. If you are bitten, you will need five injections from the lovely folks staffing the GC Clinic: plague, tetanus, rabies and two others. Do not feed the damn squirrels!

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

A few post-vacation epiphanies

By Caitlin Kelly

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My hotel room in Flagstaff at the Hotel Monte Vista, completed in 1927.

Here are a few of the things I realized while away for two weeks:

I need to spend time alone

I work alone all day every day. How could I possibly need more solitude? What am I — a hermit manquee? But I also live in an apartment building filled with neighbors I have known for decades, work with dozens of editors and fellow writers and spend a tremendous amount of time and emotional energy, every day, interacting with the world, often doing my best to find, woo, please and keep paying clients for my writing.

It wears me out!

Silence!

Few things are as nourishing as total, profound silence: no beeps, buzzes, cars, kids, pets. A silence so thick your ears feel blanketed. Step below the rim of the Grand Canyon onto one of the trails and just sit still for minutes, even an hour, surrounded by milennia, in silence.

Aaaaaah.

Being in nature/the outdoor world is deeply and profoundly healing

I can’t explain why this is so deeply affecting to me, but it is. On this trip I saw: rabbits, deer, elk, ravens, condors, road-runners, jays, robins, lizards of several sizes, squirrels, chipmunks. I did not (whew) see a rattlesnake or mountain lion, both common in parts of Arizona.

My favorite natural sound in the world — the wind sighing through pine trees. My favorite natural scent? Dried pine needles. The ponderosa pine forests bordering the Grand Canyon are, in this respect, heaven on earth.

The hell with “the news”

I read no newspapers, watched no TV, did not listen to the radio for five days. No access to the internet unless I paid for it. When, in fact, so much “news” is not new at all and is often telling me something stressful, distressing and/or something over which I have absolutely no control.

It is wearying to listen as much as I do, try to process it and make sense of it, whether the latest tornado devastating Oklahoma or the riots in Istanbul.

No technology

I spend much of my time processing/refining/producing, and most of my time is spent staring at a screen or tapping a keyboard. Ca suffit! I was thrilled when I “lost” the bit of my cellphone charge cord that plugs into the wall — giving me days of being truly out of touch. (Turned out it was buried in my duffel bag the whole time.)

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Vanity is a time-suck!

In my tiny hotel room in Flagstaff, I dropped my Sephora brush, shattering the mirror. So much for worrying about my looks! A week without makeup, perfume, even deodorant — bliss! (I may be an 1860s rural bachelor in disguise.)

In dismay, I watched young women at the Grand Canyon showers flat-ironing their hair, applying mascara and generally fussing way too much about their appearance. You’re camping!

Traveling alone is key

I really like being out on the road by myself. I like relating to strangers as me — not “the wife of” or “the writer for” — and just roaming about spontaneously. I read maps, on paper, old-school. I like having to figure shit out on the fly, alone. I just love to travel, and it’s a great luxury to do exactly what I want, when and where and how I choose.

My husband is a protective sort of guy, forever worrying about me. If he’d seen some of the paths I was walking on…oy.

The Grand Canyon is missing (!) 1.5 billion years of geological time — called The Great Unconformity — which does rather put one’s own life into perspective

My brain shuts down trying to fathom a thousand years. Now, try a million. Now, a billion.

To walk across rocks and touch fossils 270 million years old is a terrific/sobering reminder how utterly insignificant we are, and what a blink we each represent in time.

I like learning new stuff

I love to learn new things — how old a cotton-tail is when it abandons its babies (three months, I was told); or how to avoid a mountain lion or what to do when you see/hear a rattlesnake. Or how to pitch a tent (and re-fold it. Hah.) All too often, at home, everything I learn is work/income-related. I am very very bad at hobbies. Travel, de facto, forces you onto a learning curve, especially solo and somewhat rugged travel.

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It’s good to remember, and use, a bunch of stuff I already know

As a new friend said — competence! I bought 40 feet of cord at a hardware store and a small, sharp knife, with no plan but a sense I’d need both. And I did — to string up a tarp over my tent, to attach to my glasses frames so they could not fly off while horse-back riding through the desert. To attach all those ropes meant making figure-eight knots and clove hitches, stuff I learned as a kid and used as a sailor.

Horseback riding meant remembering (ouch!) how to trot, how to guide a horse, how to not fall off and how to mount and dismount.

It’s great to leave the husband behind once in a while

It’s great to miss him — and be missed!

Most people are rushing-around-in-an-insane-non-stop-noise-producing frenzy. WTF?!

Tell me, please, the point of going somewhere as mind-blowing as the Grand Canyon, then never, once, not for a second, shutting the hell up and appreciating its beauty and mystery — in silence. Not sketching or drawing (which takes time and contemplation), but quickquickquick snapping tons of pix. It was exhausting listening to them all shouting at their unruly children or barking instructions at one another in French/German/Japanese.

It made me want to put Xanax in the damn water supply. Good God, people. Can you just sit still for 10 minutes?

Doing less, more slowly, is not a sign of weakness or defeat

This was a first. Sigh.

This week — June 6 — I hit yet another birthday and, for the first time, feel (ugh) a little bit my age. The last trip I made to the Grand Canyon I was 39, had just fenced sabre at nationals in Salt Lake City and had thighs of steel with stamina to match. I hiked four hours down and eight back up to the rim.

This time? Not so much.

With my left foot injured, walking a lot seemed unappealing. The altitude — 7,071 feet at the spot where I watched one sunset — left me a little breathless when ascending a steep trail.

So I just said the hell with it, something that would have been impossible for me to admit a few years ago. I watched everyone biking and hiking and striding with great purpose and intensity — and yawned. I sketched and took photos and sat still. I walked the rim, and did only one 1.1 mile walk on flat ground, albeit at noon, which was way too hot.

Pretty fucking geriatric!

Whatever. I had a great time.


There are some amazing women out there!

I’ve so enjoyed some of the women I’ve met in Arizona, from the nurse and doctor who treated my foot injury to the 27-year-old esthetician/ barrel racer who drives 18 hours one way with her horses and dogs and young son from her home in Wyoming to her childhood home in Tucson.

Talk about a skill set…

Then there were the two lady park rangers, in Stetsons with badges, patrolling the desert on horseback. What a neat job!

I miss being around women whose highest priority is not being thin/rich/powerful (New York) but being strong/cool/competent and fun. I like a woman in spurs! Maybe, one day, I’ll be one as well.