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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s an excerpt from the first instalment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader reactions, predictably, are mixed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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

Letter to a young journalist

This is what we do.
This is what we do.

By Caitlin Kelly

Inspired by a post on Small Dog Syndrome; a great anonymous letter from a nurse with 12 years’ experience to one studying for the exam to nursing school.

Here — H/T to Amber Hargroder — is a terrific 8:45 video of artist Marina Abramovic with her advice to young artists, much of which can equally apply to any ambitious writer.

The original is a series of letters between a young military student, Franz Kappus and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke between 1902 and 1908, when Kappus was deciding whether or not to become a poet.

I’ve been writing journalism and non-fiction books for a living since my third year of university, when I began selling stories to national newspapers and magazines in my native Canada. I’ve since written for dozens of publications in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, with staff reporting jobs at three major dailies. Freelance, I write frequently for The New York Times.

I’ve never studied journalism, but have taught it at several colleges; my class, “Legal and Ethical Issues in Journalism”, which I created in 1995, is still being offered by New York University to its adult students.

Here’s what I think every young/new journalist really needs to know as they enter this chaotic industry:

Dear YJ:

You’ve decided to enter a profession that actually isn’t one — we like to think of ourselves as professionals, but we have no licensing exams or board certifications or CEU credits.

Today, thanks to the Internet, anyone, anywhere, can call themselves a “journalist” and hit publish.

This is both a great equalizer and a dangerous challenge. It’s great that anyone with ideas and passion and access to the Internet can share them with the world, allowing people with minimal political or economic power to tell their stories directly. It’s a dangerous challenge because the fundamental essentials of journalism, however naive and idealistic they sound, are accuracy and trust. Trust that the information being shared is accurate, has been checked and vetted and is not just some sexy promo for a new product or service disguised as “news.”

Don’t work without getting paid for it. Just don’t — unless it’s your choice, done for strategic reasons and/or a cause you deeply believe in. People still value most what they have to pay for.

There’s no clear career path anymore. Be fun under stress, optimistic, well-groomed, 150 percent reliable, polite and super-helpful. Your emotional inteligence will go a lot further in creating and sustaining the essential professional contacts you’ll need for decades to come than the fanciest degree from the fanciest school(s.) Very few people you’ll work with care much where you went to school. We care what you can do (really well) for us today.

Ask so many questions you risk being annoying. Your job is not to be liked or admired or welcomed at the dinner parties of the powerful but to hold them to account. Your readers expect and deserve it. Journalists, however badly paid and professionally insecure, still hold tremendous power to shape public opinion, a responsibility to take seriously.

Don’t be seduced by your job title or that of your employer. You can lose both tomorrow — 24,000 journalists were canned in 2008. Never assume it makes you better than anyone without it, since you have no idea where they’ve been or what they’ve accomplished.

This is a team sport. You’ll be working with fellow journo’s and editors, some decades older, who bring tremendous knowledge of this game and how it’s played. Don’t dismiss those with gray hair, assuming we have no clue about technology or how to communicate stories effectively in the 21st century. It’s called experience.

Don’t be a diva. See above.

Don’t privilege one medium (OK, on-line/digital) over another (snoozy old print.) The point of what we all do is finding and telling compelling stories, regardless of the way they’re offered to readers. Freelancers who still focus primarily on print are focused on earning a living, something digital journalism has yet to offer anyone without a salary within its ranks.

Break social rules and ignore polite expectations. Women are often socialized to be nice, to get along, to make everyone feel happy and welcome. That’s not your job! Many of the questions you’ll need to ask are going to piss someone off. You’ll get yelled at, thrown out of meetings, receive angry phone calls and emails. People might call you names. None of this matters. It’s part of the territory. Your job is to tell a story well.

And yet, your job is not to be a robotic bulldozer. Interviewing well demands the kind of combined listening skills, empathy, sensitivity and compassion of the best nurse/minister/teacher/bartender. It’s one of our greatest challenges — knowing (and no one teaches you this; it’s an instinct) — when to be ruthlessly tough and when to be gentle and present as someone shares the brutal facts of their story, a rape or their child’s murder or their loss of employment.

You are not the story. Your subject is. Let them tell it in their words, at their speed. Whenever necessary, find a translator or interpreter to make sure you are able to get that story accurately.

The story isn’t only what the PR people tell you it is. Their job is to put their clients in the very best light, whether they’re a PIO for a government agency, head of corporate communications for a Fortune 500 multinational or the spokesman for an NGO. They’ll sit beside you and tape you and limit how much time you get. They might ask to see your story before it appears. Never allow their agenda to intimidate you.

Some assignments will make you cry.  Don’t let your emotions rule you on the job or during the interview, but never be ashamed of your feelings. Some assignments will provoke powerful emotions. If they don’t, take a vacation or get a different job. The day you fail to feel compassion for those who struggle is the day you’re headed for burnout.

It’s not “just a story” — often we are hearing and then publicly sharing the most intimate and unforgettable (to them) details of someone’s life. This is a privilege and an honor. Never forget that.

Pulitzer
Pulitzer

You may experience “secondary trauma” if you do a lot of this kind of work; listening to and witnessing traumatic material can cause a sort of PTSD that is very real. Check into the programs of the Dart Center for help and guidance.

Run away from the pack whenever possible. This is much easier if you’re freelance and not facing hourly or daily deadline pressure to match whatever’s on Twitter. But pack journalism will easily consume your days, and your life, until or unless you can carve out a beat or a way to work that allows you the freedom to (also) pursue deeper, more thoughtful stories.

You will probably burn out. The pace, the stress, the competition, the crummy pay, the job insecurity. It adds up. There are six major components to burnout: work overload; lack of control over the work; insufficient rewards; rude or unhelpful co-workers; unfair treatment and a conflict between your values and the job requirements.

Which is why veterans keep a f**k-you fund, enough savings to allow you to quit a position that’s toxic and unworkable, take a breath and take some time to find a better fit somewhere else.

Will these doors still lead you into a long or lucrative career?
Will these doors still lead you into a long or lucrative career?

You may choose instead to freelance, for a while or forever. If you’re in a position to assign them work, treat freelancers as the hard-working small business-owners (and colleagues) they are. Don’t abuse them with no/low pay or endless rewrites or delayed or “forgotten” invoices. It may well be your turn one day.

A few of the challenges you may face along the way, (from an earlier post of mine):

Missing a deadline, getting someone’s name wrong (or several), getting the name of the company you’re covering wrong, losing your press credential, “forgetting” to turn in your official credential(s) after you’re canned or quit because you can’t bear to lose it, missing the bus or train or plane that will get you to the place you need(ed) to be to cover the story, not having enough money to get the next one.

Misunderstanding a foreign-language word or phrase, translating it, and mis-quoting. Having 10 minutes to file. Doing a stakeout, being scared to pee for hours — and being scared to drink anything because then you”ll really have to pee — and possibly missing the exact moment you’ve been waiting 15 hours for.

Have fun!

Fight for the weak and challenge the powerful.

Eschew dogma, (and remember karma).

Find and tell the truth.

Make us proud.

THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR — THE LAST OF THE SUPER-SUCCESSFUL FALL SERIES — IS “YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING”; 4:00 p.m. EST DEC. 14. (THE 8-PART SERIES REPEATS IN FEBRUARY.)

I HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US!

DETAILS AND SIGN-UP HERE.

33 fab holiday gift ideas

By Caitlin Kelly

For some people, holiday gift shopping is hell — you have no idea of your recipients’ sizes or favorite colors or you’re on a super-tight budget and/or the thought of a crowded mall makes you want to give up before you start.

English: Gift ideas for men - wrapping paper e...
English: Gift ideas for men – wrapping paper example. Please source http://www.giftideasformen.com (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take heart, Broadsiders!

Every year I make a list for you of fun, lovely practical gift ideas for men and women of all ages. A few are big splurges, but I’ve sought out a variety, many chosen for their combination of charm and affordability.

Enjoy!

From Plumo, one of my favorite fashion online retailers, this watch, with an owl on its face, $122.  And these great socks, with chartreuse hares on a field of blue, $38.63; they also come with foxes or crows.

I didn’t expect to find housewares at this new site, Saturday by Kate Spade. But this simple, black pitcher is gorgeous and large enough to hold a bunch of tall flowers or a lot of martinis; $75.

And, maybe for the same kitchen or dining room, here’s a great little black and white cotton rug, in an array of sizes, starting at $33. This site, Dash & Albert, has a huge selection of terrific colors.

Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

O’Brien’s boots! Any of you who are addicted to Downton Abbey will crave these terrific Edwardian-era black leather boots; $298.

Love these ceramic, printed measuring spoons, with imperial and metric; $25; add this gaggle of gold-edged geese — ceramic measuring cups. Adorbs! $36

It is a sad fact that many American schoolteachers — and their students — don’t have enough of the supplies they need. This site allows you to choose what to give and where.

As someone who loves to entertain and set a pretty table, I love this colored flatware, in a variety of colors, from tortoise to deep blue; $150.

Love this linen tea towel — made by a Broadside follower, Edinburgh-based designer Niki Fulton — of an industrial crane in the harbor, bright pink on black; $13.26.

You probably know Zara, the fast-fashion Spanish retailer. But do you know Zara Home? I love their unusual designs and colors, and splurged this year on a duvet cover and shams on sale. The quality is excellent! I adore this duvet cover, in a dusty grey and soft red paisley, (the sort of thing you’d pay three time as much for an antique version if you could even find it), $89-109.

The worst thing about flying? Tough to choose! But an overweight bag is a nasty surprise. Here’s a portable luggage scale. (We have one. It works!) $12.

I use Windex and Q-tips, but here’s a computer keyboard brush that looks like something from a Victorian hotel. Steampunk! $24.

I use candles and votives in every room of our home. I love their gentle, flickering light — a lovely way to wake up slowly on a cold winter’s morning or soothe yourself during a long bath or illuminate an intimate meal. This set of three, in white ceramic, resemble sea urchins, from one of my favorite catalogs, Wisteria; $19.

Oh, admit it…you’re dying for a little (maybe a lot of) cashmere. Feel less guilty if you buy it for your brother/father/sister/bestie (after getting one for yourself.) This V-neck sweater, a classic, is a delicious heathery teal; $225.

Speaking of cashmere, they call this thing a snood; I call it a cagoule. Either way, it’s a cozy, gorgeous way to wrap your throat from chilly gusts; in three soft colors, $108.

Can you resist a small fox door knocker? I can’t! $24

Do you know the Moomins? They were one of my favorite children’s books, by Finnish author Tove Jansson. A Moomin mug is sure to start your day with a smile; $22.

I love my Lamy fountain pen; this one is a sharp, matte black. $28.

These gold-plated Herve van der Straeten clip-on drop earrings are divine! Bold but organic. $376.

I serve on the volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, and am proud that we’re able to help non-fiction writers facing financial crisis. We have absolutely no administration costs so every penny goes directly to the people who need our help. We can give up to $4,000, which we send out within a week of receiving and approving an application. Writers, no matter how talented or experienced, often live a somewhat precarious life financially. Please keep our culture thriving with a donation to WEAF!

If you’ve ever been to the Paris flea markets, you know what fun (and madness) they can be. I always score a few fab finds. Here’s  the next best thing – a hardcover book with lots of photos and stories about them, from the elegant publishers Assouline; $75.

Scarf mavens, unite! I want this one, quite desperately, a mineral print in tones of blue, turquoise and brown, on silk, exclusively from one of my favorite shops in the world, Liberty of London; $120.

Beautiful department store.
Beautiful department store. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do love the elegance of a silk pocket square; this one, in deep blues and blacks, is also from Liberty; $56.

Have you ever tasted tamarind? Here’s one of the world’s best gourmet/spice shops, Kalyustan’s, on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Delight your favorite foodie or cook with a basket filled with exotic, hard-to-find ingredients — and hope for a dinner invitation!

Y’all know I’m a big fan of sending lovely thank-you notes. Check out these letterpress thank-you cards, made by a woman in Silicon Valley; $15.50

This creamy, dreamy soap, with a tangy citrus-y smell, is the signature fragrance of the five-star hotel Le Sireneuse on Positano and…swoon! We’ve been using it for the past month in our bathroom and the whole room smells divine. Eau d’Italie, a box of three bars; 36 euros.

And speaking of lovely scents, my favorite is Blenheim Bouquet, a man’s fragrance created in 1902 by the British firm Penhaligon’s. It’s crisp but rich, and I wear it year-round. “Reserved Victorianism, telegraph style. But fresh. Colonial lemon/lime meets Scarborough fair. Splendid, old boy,” says one reviewer; $136.68.

Shameless plug here; my latest book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, or a one-on-one coaching session on any aspect of writing, journalism or publishing — or perhaps a headshot by a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer who has photographed three Presidents (aka my husband, Jose)? Just the ticket for an ambitious pal (or one for yourself.)

Who doesn’t want a baby elephant? Sponsor an orphan through the Daphne Sheldrick Foundation. From $50.

This squid’s dangling arms — designed by a Swedish kite-surfer — offer a fun, funny way to gather and keep your shampoo, conditioner and body wash in one place; $36.

Creative success — grinding it out one play at a time

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a wise post about how to sustain a creative or artistic career.

Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is from American writer, actor and director Greta Gerwig, whose most recent film “Frances Ha” I loved and blogged about:

I have gotten into baseball recently, and whenever I have trouble writing, I think about the pace of baseball. It’s slow. You strike out a lot, even if you’re great. It’s mostly individual, but when you have to work together, it must be perfect. My desktop picture is of the Red Sox during the World Series. They aren’t winning; they’re just grinding out another play. This, for me, is very helpful to have in my mind while writing.

I play softball, and it’s taught me a lot, as sports will do, about how I handle or manage my emotions and failure, on or off the field.

Many new writers, quivering (Rocky Horror Picture show-style) with anticipation, are quite firmly persuaded that they are going to be become rich, famous, adored by millions. This lies in distinctly naive/annoying contrast to the lived experience of thousands of talented, accomplished, award-winning writers who have never had, and never will have, a best-seller or a movie made of their work.

Working artists get up every day and step up to the plate, as it were, and swing. We might hit a single, or a double. On a very good day, we’ll hit a triple.

A home run? If we focused on achieving that, and only that, we’d probably stay in bed in the fetal position.

Writer's Block 1
Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: NathanGunter)

The creative life looks so alluring — wake up at noon, sip an espresso, read, do your artistic thing for a few hours. You know, be creative.

A recent NYT obituary of publisher Andre Schiffrin was blunt about the cost of his principles:

…one of America’s most influential men of letters. As editor in chief and managing director of Pantheon Books, a Random House imprint where making money was never the main point, he published novels and books of cultural, social and political significance by an international array of mostly highbrow, left-leaning authors.

Taking risks, running losses, resisting financial pressures and compromises, Mr. Schiffrin championed the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Anita Brookner, R. D. Laing and many others.

But in 1990, after 28 years at Pantheon, Mr. Schiffrin was fired by Alberto Vitale, the chief executive of Random House, in a dispute over chronic losses and Mr. Schiffrin’s refusal to accept cutbacks and other changes. His departure made headlines, prompted resignations by colleagues, led to a protest march joined by world-renowned authors, and reverberated across the publishing industry in articles and debates.

Many in publishing spoke against the dismissal, calling it an assault on American culture by Random House’s billionaire owner, S. I. Newhouse Jr., who was accused of blocking a channel for contrary voices in favor of lucrative self-help books and ghostwritten memoirs for the sake of the bottom line.

The truth?

You have to want creative success (let alone a livable income), quite badly, as this recent New York Times piece reminds us:

The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive.Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the
material rewards it brings…But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic
system has almost nothing to offer…

The situation is even worse for those who want to produce the literary, musical and artistic works that sustain our humanistic culture. Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able earn a living from their talents. The very few who become superstars are very well rewarded. But almost all the others — poets, novelists, actors, singers, artists — must either have a partnerwhose income supports them or a “day job” to pay the bills. Even writers who are regularly published by major houses or win major prizes cannot always live on their earnings.

Even New York magazine, which birthed the careers of some stellar writers and editors since it began publishing in 1968, just announced they’re cutting back from a weekly publishing schedule to bi-weekly.

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker

I spent 8.5 hours yesterday at a conference held in the august halls of Columbia Journalism School, traditionally one of the country’s most prestigious gateways into the writer’s life.

The entire day was devoted to the future of digital longform journalism — how to create, produce and promote work on the web.

Payment for writers — or persistent, bald-faced lack of it — was the huge elephant in the room. No one dared challenge the confident 20 and 30-somethings up on the stage, with their ponytails and costly new shoes, about their insistence they need great writing to actually fill up their sites.

While offering little or no money to writers.

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I found this sad, infuriating and highly instructive. I spoke to a few young journalists in the hall — who shared stories of a life without health insurance, flitting desperately from one freelance, part-time or contract job to the next, their hunger for some handhold palpable and often financially unresolvable.

Ironically, the only people who didn’t reek of desperation were those still writing freelance for old-legacy print media (as I do) or those with coveted, rare full-time jobs inside someone’s corporate newsroom where — as one legendary editor suggested from the stage — “find the formula and mimic it. That’s half the battle.”

If you hunger for creative success — what are you willing to give up to get it?

THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR — THE LAST OF THE SUPER-SUCCESSFUL FALL SERIES — IS “YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING”; 4:00 p.m. EST DEC. 14. (THE SERIES REPEATS IN FEBRUARY.)

I HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US!

DETAILS AND SIGN-UP HERE.

Helping writers in financial crisis: please donate to WEAF!

By Caitlin Kelly

As some of you know, many journalists now work full-time freelance. Some do so by choice, while many have been shut out of an industry going through almost daily re-invention; 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and many of us did not find another.

Add to that a difficult economy in the U.S., and some writers — even the most talented and productive throughout a long career — can find themselves in a terrifying financial crisis, with no alternate source of income and few savings if your anchor client shuts down or a few reliable editors suddenly leave and/or you get a bad medical diagnosis and you’re too busy getting surgery and treatment to keep working.

Typically, it’s a medical emergency, theirs and/or that of a loved one, and its out-of-pocket costs that shove a writer into fiscal desperation — in the U.S. (a sad and ugly truth), most bankruptcies are the result of overwhelming medical bills.

Writer Wordart
Writer Wordart (Photo credit: MarkGregory007)

I serve on a volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund. Since 1982, we’ve given out more than $400,000 to help qualified, deserving non-fiction writers through tough times. Our board is made up of veteran writers and editors, current and former, including Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Caputo and novelist Betsy Carter.

Books behind the bed
Books behind the bed (Photo credit: zimpenfish)

Unlike most charities, there are no administrative costs, so every penny you give goes only to the writers who seek our help.

When a needy writer asks for a grant we quickly read their application and — within a week — send them what we agree is a fair amount, usually the maximum, up to $4,000.

The money you give us is also tax-deductible, as WEAF is a registered charity.

I’m proud to help others in my profession. I hope you’ll do so as well this year. Writers — whether we’re producing unpaid blog posts or paid books, articles, scripts or other media — enrich our shared culture, explain the world and help us all see things a little more clearly.

Here’s a New York Times story I wrote about funds like ours, including WEAF.

I hope you’ll consider giving even a small amount.

For every $50 donation to WEAF — and please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com to let me know you’ve made the donation, with your name and mailing address — I’ll snail mail you a signed copy of “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, my most recent book. USA Today called it “a bargain at any price” and Entertainment Weekly described it as “an excellent memoir.”

I’m happy to sign it to you, or to someone else for a holiday gift.

Thank you!

An early winter’s walk along the Hudson River

By Caitlin Kelly

The western side of the Hudson; the cliffs reach 800 feet in height.
The western side of the Hudson; the cliffs reach 800 feet in height.

This riverside park, just north of Nyack, N.Y.,  is barely 25 miles north of New York City, barely a 40-minute train or car’s journey from the traffic and noise and crush and crowds of Times Square.

Here is another New York, the one its residents equally treasure.

Here, the world is wild, a rare, refreshing place of silence. It’s an easy 15 minute drive from our apartment on the other side of the river.

I’m looking northwest at these cliffs as I write this post, and they’re our first sight every morning from our bedroom window.

I love living at the edge of a river, watching its moods change with the hours and the seasons. Sometimes you can see a rainstorm moving down the water like a scrim, like this legendary 1857 Japanese woodcut.

In the bitterest of winters, the river freezes, and if you stand at its edge you’ll hear the ice cracking and groaning.

These cliffs are 200 million years old, first described in 1541 by the map-maker Mercator. Today they’re called The Palisades.

The famous “brownstones” of Manhattan and Brooklyn? Quarried here.

The only sounds are a murder of crows squawking high atop the cliffs, waves lapping the stony shore, the scree of a soaring red-tailed hawk, the drone of a passing airplane.

Yet you can glimpse Manhattan — what locals call The City — shimmering 30 miles south, like some faint version of Oz.

On the eastern shore, the train carrying commuters to work in New York City, and all the towns and cities along the way, slides south like a slim, silvery snake.

The Hudson is still commercially highly active, with barges heading north and south every day carrying coal, gravel and other elements. They’re always guided by tug boats, stout little vessels with tremendous power.

I wonder if this brick was former ballast.

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I love seeing what’s washed up on the shores, like this oyster shell. The Hudson has 13 acres (!) of oyster beds in this area, recently moved at a cost of $100,000 from a mile north of the Tappan Zee Bridge (now under re-construction) to further south to protect them from harm during the work.

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The variety of foliage, even in winter, is amazing. I have no idea what this is, but isn’t it amazing? It looks like a messy horse’s tail.

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One of the sights I’ve grown accustomed to here are these vines, entwined. They’re a common sight — yet they never fail to mesmerize me.

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I love bittersweet. It’s one of my favorite sights in the parks and woods here.

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The base of these cliffs is also fascinating — the indentations remind me of the Canyon de Chelly, one of Arizona’s most ancient and mysterious indigenous sites. 20131129145214

This is the path. In the winter, populated only by walkers and their dogs, it’s a pleasant stroll. In the summer, when too many people stride across it, plus whizzing cyclists, I find it less enjoyable and safe.

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Here’s a terrific book about all the ruined and abandoned buildings along the Hudson. There are many, and they’re mysterious and beautiful.

Here’s a useful essay that explains the region’s geology and history.

Do you have a favorite place you like to walk near your home?

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

From NPR:

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

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

SHAPIRO: Describe the response you got.

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

From the AP:

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

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

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

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

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

Musselman made the invisible visble.

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

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

Here is one Manhattan shelter I’ve contributed to.

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

We could never ever become them.

Could we?

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

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

Please don’t.

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