The futile search for “safe space”

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s a shriek of outrage/grievance/shock that happens when:

 

Someone says the wrong thing.

Someone touches you in a way that feels aggressive.

Someone disagrees with you.

 

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Among  some younger and apparently ferociously ambitious women, I’m seeing a kind of mass fragility I — and my peers — find astonishing:

 

Every day, someone shrieks in fury that someone has been racist or sexist or mean to them — which they might well have, but not actually have intended as a personal attack.

Every day, someone says “You’re shaming me!” when all you’ve done is politely, if firmly, disagree with them or share an alternate view, which is now, for some, unforgivable.

Every day, though, I also hear pleas for advice, insights, mentoring.

Every day, the demand to march into HR and get them to fix it, right now.

Every day, the need to school others in how to speak and behave, including those who have the ability to hire — and fire — them.

Every day, a chorus of virtue signalling; dare to challenge or contradict the group, and you’ll be banned, shunned, blocked and bullied  — for your lack of sensitivity.

 

This, often arising from women who have already acquired the relative privilege of a college education and/or paid employment, has rendered me and other women at the top of our professional game, women who have spent years teaching and mentoring, both mystified and repelled.

Because women who have already spent decades in the working world didn’t harbor, or share in fury, the naive fantasy that life would be easy or that it even should be.

 

The world is full of very sharp edges!

 

Anyone you meet can challenge or even threaten you, economically, politically, emotionally or physically.

Yes, life is often much more difficult when you’re a person of color, transgender or LGQTBA and the daily fight for social justice is still a necessary one.

I’m speaking of something different, something that feels both more privileged and more unlikely because of that innate power.

Many older women are second or third-wave feminists, every bit as filled with righteous indignation as anyone today ranting and raving about how terrible everything is.

Yet we’re now being lectured to by finger-wagging neophytes on how to speak and behave.

We already know that moving ahead through a male-dominated world could be hard and it still is.

We already know that situations one expects to be civil can get weird, even frightening, and they still do.

We already know, no matter our skills, credentials or experience, we’ll probably have to listen to some absolutely appalling crap and we still do.

These depressingly shared experiences could create powerful inter-generational links, but that’s not what I and my peers are seeing; instead it becomes a dialogue of the deaf and one that older women like myself eventually just walk away from.

No one deserves to be mistreated, overlooked, underpaid and ignored.

We get it!

But older professionals never enjoyed the luxury of a “safe space”, nor would it even have occurred to us — while weathering three American recessions in 20 years — to expect or demand one.

My husband, of Hispanic origin, has heard shit, socially and professionally, I can barely believe. Yet we’re both still working and achieving our goals. If we’d stood up, (as we very much wished to each time someone was rude to us), and shouted “How dare you?!” — we’d possibly have lost a well-paid, hard-won job and probably damaged our careers.

The only safe space I know of is a locked room to which only you have the key.

Talk to people living in Syria or Myanmar or Mexico — where heads literally roll in the streets — about what a “safe space” looks like to them.

 

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There’s a phrase from the Bible, (even though I’m no ardent Christian), that I find powerful and moving: “Put on the armor of light.”

 

Armor up.

Two September days in Montreal

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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My hotel room on the 15th floor faced north, to Mount Royal — aka the Mountain. It’s really a very large hill, with a very large cross on top that glows white in the night, but a great landmark.

I used to fly kites there when I lived here at the age of 12 and took the bus along Sherbrooke Street — a major east-west thoroughfare — to school, a place that felt exotic and foreign to me because it was both Catholic (I’m not) and co-ed (I hadn’t shared a classroom with boys in four years.)

Half a block from my hotel is where I used to live, 3432 Peel Street, but that brownstone is long gone, replaced with a tall, new apartment tower.

Montreal is a city unlike any other, a mix of French chic and staid British elegance, of narrow weathered side streets and wide busy boulevards named for former politicians. One distinctive feature are the spiral or straight metal staircases in front of old three-story apartment buildings, which are hell to maneuver when they’re covered with snow and ice.

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Street names reflect the linguistic mix: Peel, Mansfield, Greene, Drummond — and St. Laurent, St. Denis, Maisonneuve, Cote Ste. Catherine.

It’s always been a divided city, between the French and English, and at times deeply hostile. Signs, by law, must be in French. Everywhere you go, you’ll hear French being spoken or on restaurant and store playlists.

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Sidewalk closed; use other sidewalk….a common sight there now!

 

I worked in Montreal as a reporter for the Gazette for 18 months, enough for me. The winter was brutally cold and two months longer than Toronto. (Two of my colleagues from the 80s are still at the paper, now in senior positions.)

I loved my enormous downtown apartment with a working fireplace and huge top-floor windows, but I hated that our building was broken into regularly and that shattered car window glass littered our block almost every morning.

On this visit, I met up with a younger friend at Beautys for brunch, (in business since 1942), and got there at 10:00 a.m.,  before the Sunday line formed outside. The food was good, but hurried, and we were out within an hour, meandering in afternoon sunshine.

 

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We ended up at Else’s, a casual/funky restaurant named for the Norwegian woman who founded it and died, according to her bio on the back of the menu, in 2011. It’s quintessentially Montreal, tucked on a corner of a quiet side street, far away from bustling downtown where all the tourists go. Its round table-tops were each a painted work of art, signed, and covered with layers of clear protective gloss. We stayed for hours, watching low, slanting sunshine pierce the windows and hanging ferns.

 

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The city’s side streets, full of old trees and flowers and narrow apartment buildings with lace-covered glass front doors  — Duluth, Rachel, Roy, Prince-Arthur — remain some of my favorite places to wander.

Montreal, (which this visit had too many squeegee guys at the intersections, never a good sign), always has such a different vibe from bustling, self-important Toronto, where I grew up, and where ugly houses now easily command $1 million; In the Gazette this visit, I saw apartments for rent for less than $800, unimaginable in most major North American cities now.

I visited my favorite housewares shop, in business since 1975, Arthur Quentin (pronounced Arrr-Toor, Kahn-Tehn), on St. Denis, and bought a gorgeous burgundy Peugeot pepper grinder. Everything in the store is elegant, from heavy, thick linen tablecloths and tableware to baskets, aprons and every possible kitchen tool.

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Downtown has many great early buildings with lovely architectural details —- this is the front door of Holt Renfrew, Canada’s top department store, in business since 1837

 

I went up to Laurier Ouest, a chic shopping strip frequented by the elegant French neighbors whose homes surround that area, Outremont. It has a great housewares store, (love those brightly colored tablecloths!) and MultiMags, one of best magazine stores I’ve ever seen anywhere, with great souvenirs, pens, cards and notebooks; (it has multiple branches.) A great restaurant, Lemeac, is there as well.

I savored a cocktail (OK, two) at one of my favorite places, the Ritz, where we used to dine every Friday evening the year I lived here with my mother. On our visit after 9/11, when hotel rates plunged enough we could afford to stay there, my husband and I noticed a group sitting near us at breakfast — Aerosmith!

Montreal is also a city of students, with McGill’s handsome limestone campus starting on Sherbrooke and climbing Mt. Royal from there; UQAM is just down the street and there’s also Concordia, (where I first taught journalism.)

 

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Great reflections in the window of a tearoom on St. Denis — the words above the window say: Drink, Laugh and Eat

 

I’ve visited in glorious 70-degree sunshine — like this past week — and bitterly cold, snow-covered February.

It’s a fun, welcoming city in every season, with great food, cool bars, interesting shops, small/good museums and 375 years of history.

And 2016 saw more visitors than any year since 1967.

If you’ve never visited, allez-y!

 

The writer’s week — mine anyway

By Caitlin Kelly

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Asked by journalism students for writers I admire, I named this great book by a British Airways 747 pilot

 

WHEW!

 

So much for the Labor Day weekend; a client expected a full revision of a 3,000-word story due first thing Monday. Holiday? What holiday? Good thing I had no plans.

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One of my sales this summer was my first story for House Beautiful

 

Chased a story all week that I think could be a terrific one, but will also require an editor to pay some travel expenses, which many hate to do. It’s not, like most stories I work on now, something I can report by phone or email, and will be in a different U.S. city. The process of getting to a story is rarely linear; this one involves someone I know who made an introduction to the publicist for the event who will decide if I can have access to it. If she says yes, then I still have to write up a persuasive pitch and sell it to an editor who can pay me enough money to make the story even worth doing financially. It’s a fun story, but I have to make money at this.

Journalism is my business, not a hobby!

 

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

 

I was invited to address a room full of graduate journalism students at CUNY, in midtown Manhattan. I joined a sports reporter/editor and a radio news reporter whose voice I’ve heard on-air for many years. That was cool! The host of the event is a man who lives in D.C. who I “met” via Twitter and had only spoken to once by phone. So much of our industry is finding like-minded souls with solid credentials. He and I met for breakfast and had a great time getting to know one another.

I found it amusing and telling that — when he asked all three of us to offer three pieces of advice to new journalists  — we all agreed that get some sleep was key.

 

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My suburban New York train station, Tarrytown

 

I do a lot of this sort of thing — for no payment. My trainfare just to get into New York City was $31, plus cab fare plus lunch. The day was pretty much shot for getting any work done, but I really enjoy meeting new people and seeing my friends so it’s all a good investment of time and energy. I like working alone at home but it gets really lonely!

 

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Met a fellow journalist friend, (now job-hunting), for lunch, a late lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in New York City, Keen’s Chophouse, in business since 1885. I love its black and white tiled bar-room floor, the rows of 50,000 clay pipes wired to the ceiling, its frosted glass windows making the noisy, bustling city outside disappear. We each had a busy summer — she went to Israel and I went to Europe.

 

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Last year, a young friend of mine worked in Asia as a photographer and, in Thailand, met a young woman who read (!?) my blog. Unlikely, but true. This week, we spoke via Skype as we discussed a project she hopes to work on independently, now that she’s back in the U.S. and working at a newspaper in a western U.S. state. I love coaching other writers, so if you need help, check out my webinars and classes here.

 

Called the French farmer I’m going to interview, to confirm our meeting. I love being able to work in French but haven’t done it since I was a reporter at the Montreal Gazette. I normally don’t use a tape recorder but will take one this time for back-up.

 

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Spuyten Duyvil train station, as the commuter train heads north along the eastern shore of the Hudson River

 

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Took Amtrak from a station near our home to Montreal, a city I lived in in my late 20s and for a year when I was 12. It’s a fun city to visit, with great food and lots of charm. I went north to report a story, working in French, for an editor in Alabama. Met a new young friend for brunch at Beautys a classic Montreal diner, in business since 1942 — she’s someone I heard speaking at a conference in New York last spring and stayed in touch with. (FYI, Beauty’s should have an apostrophe — but Quebec language laws insist that all signage and names be in French.)

Found my little gray coin purse where I keep my Canadian money and my Canadian bank card; I grew up in Toronto and Montreal and we go back at least once or twice a year. I miss my home country, especially now when every day in the United States offers yet another political and/or environmental disaster.

 

Got an update regarding the late Kim Wall, a 30-year-old fellow freelance journalist, whose death I blogged about here:

The Kim Wall Memorial Fund was established by her family and friends to honor Kim’s spirit and legacy. The grant will fund a young female reporter to cover subculture, broadly defined, and what Kim liked to call “the undercurrents of rebellion.”

The funds collected will be directed to the International Women’s Media Foundation, a steadfast ally to women journalists, who have agreed to support and administer this grant

 

 

That trouble-making student? Ask why first

By Caitlin Kelly

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If you’ve ever been a “trouble-making” student — or have tried to teach one — this recent op-ed might resonate:

 

The Department of Education estimates that 7 percent of the student population — nearly 3.5 million students in kindergarten through high school — was suspended at least once in the 2011-12 academic year, the last for which these data are available. Despite the Checkpoint Charlie climate in many urban high schools, where students are herded through metal detectors when they enter the building, suspensions are rarely prompted by violence. Ninety-five percent are for “willful defiance” or “disruption.”

African-American students are hit hardest. They are more than three times as likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled. As a result, as early as middle school, many black students have concluded that when it comes to discipline, the cards are stacked against them. They stop trusting their teachers, and their negative attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fall behind when they’re suspended, and many drop out or are pushed out…

In short, this kind of discipline is a lose-lose proposition. What’s to be done? Enter empathy.

 

This one hit me hard.

I’m white, female and grew up with privilege.

None of which exempted me from being in a lot of trouble, and eventually asked to leave the private all-girl school I’d been attending since fourth grade, when I was eight, which was when I went into boarding.

I spent every summer at summer camp, all eight weeks, so my life between the ages of eight and 14 was largely spent, (except two years living with my mother at home), surrounded by strangers and subject to their rules.

At the end of Grade Nine, I was told I would not be welcome there again.

If you’ve ever been suspended, expelled or told to leave a school, you’ll also know the feelings of rage, shame, humiliation and possible loss I felt then.

I loved our uniform, (a Hunting Stewart kilt and tie), and the rambling Victorian buildings of campus, its ancient chestnut trees and long afternoons of playing sports in the sunshine.

I would lose contact with some close friends, girls whose names I remember clearly decades later.

I lost my place as someone whose intelligence, and writing, had been winning prizes, respect and recognition for years.

None of which, of course, was ever discussed.

My bad behavior never included drugs or alcohol or physical fights — it was all very WASP-y and Canadian.

Instead, I talked back to teachers.

My bed and dresser, (we were marked every morning on neatness on a sheet of paper at the entrance to our shared bedrooms), were always a mess.

I once thew an apple core across the room, aiming at a waste basket below — instead it hit ancient paper wallpaper, leaving a tell-tale stain. I was 13 at the time.

I was excoriated for my deliberate vandalism.

It was nuts.

I’ve since taught at four different colleges and have had a few tough students.

I’ve not had the challenge of fighting, shouting and blatant disrespect of me or other students — so I wouldn’t presume to say how to manage that.

But I will say this — if a child or young adult is behaving like a monster in class, they’re quite likely plagued by demons outside of it.

They might be being bullied.

They might have parents or siblings with substance abuse issues.

They might be being abused.

You can be sure they are deeply unhappy and may well have no one who cares enough to get past their rage and rebellion to find out why. I still wish someone had done that for me.

You will only know if you care enough to ask them, kindly.

In my case, it was parents who were rarely there, off traveling the world for work or pleasure, or just not particularly interested in knowing I was troubled, just as long as I kept winning academic prizes and keeping my grades high enough to get a bursary.

I was sick to death of being ignored.

Instead of empathy, I was shouted at by ancient, furious housemothers, increasingly disdained by fed-up teachers, shunned by scared fellow students, and moved from bedroom to bedroom to bedroom as punishment.

My worst punishment made me very happy — a room all to myself.

I was later bullied for three years in high school, and didn’t much enjoy my four years at a very large and deeply impersonal university.

As a result, I pretty much hate school.

Also not fond of (useless) authority figures, most of whom insist on obedience with no interest in empathy.

What a waste.

 

Have you been the bad boy or girl?

Have you taught one?

How did it turn out?

How has it affected you long term?

 

The challenge of making new friends

By Caitlin Kelly

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

This story hit home for me, recently reprinted:

After 30, people often experience internal shifts in how they approach friendship. Self-discovery gives way to self-knowledge, so you become pickier about whom you surround yourself with, said Marla Paul, the author of the 2004 book “The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore.” “The bar is higher than when we were younger and were willing to meet almost anyone for a margarita,” she said.

Manipulators, drama queens, egomaniacs: a lot of them just no longer make the cut.

Thayer Prime, a 32-year-old strategy consultant who lives in London, has even developed a playful 100-point scale (100 being “best friend forever”). In her mind, she starts to dock new friend candidates as they begin to display annoying or disloyal behavior. Nine times out of 10, she said, her new friends end up from 30 to 60, or little more than an acquaintance.

I like living in New York, and our town’s proximity to one of the world’s liveliest and more interesting cities.

But it’s one of the loneliest places I’ve ever lived.

I’ve found it tougher than I expected to find and keep friends here, maybe because…

 

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One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua — now still friends with these three

Not enough time together

New Yorkers face the longest commutes of anyone in the U.S., robbing them of leisurely moments for friendship. It takes time to get to know another person well.

Not enough spontaneous time together

Between work, family and commuting, all of which have rigid schedules, “Hey, let’s meet for a drink!” can take weeks, even months to plan.

– Few shared memories

I arrived in New York at 30, with my deepest ties back in Canada, to friends from childhood, high school, university, a newspaper job, freelancing. They remain, decades later, my most intimate friendships.

— Unresolved conflict

I lost three close New York friends within a few years. That still hurts. In contrast, I’ve had full and frank conversations with my Canadian pals — and they with me — and remained friends.

Here’s a list of 23 reasons (!) women can break off a friendship, from the parenting website Cafe Mom.

No wonder it can feel so tenuous!

 

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— Money differences

Journalists don’t earn much!

One casual friend finally told us his annual income was $500,000 and I was stunned; thanks to his humble style I had no idea. We live (modestly) in a very affluent region, and many people out-earn us by enormous sums. When one person, or couple, has to keep choosing pizza or ramen and the other can drop $200 a night on cocktails, how much can you enjoy together?

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— Political differences

Since the election of President Trump, many American relationships have been torn asunder.

— Professional differences

I’m nearing the end of a long and successful career, in a competitive industry, like my husband; I’m a writer and he’s a photographer and photo editor. Professional envy and competitiveness can, and do, make us cautious about what we share about our current clients and projects.

— Children

We have none. At our age, younger friends are obsessed with child-rearing and our peers with their grand-children, We’re never invited to join child-related events, even if we’d enjoy it. That cuts out a lot of socializing.

 

I do very much value my pals in far-flung places — L.A., London, Berlin, British Columbia, Seattle, Oregon, Alabama, Maine, rural Ontario. I just wish we could hang out more often!

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Are you finding it more difficult as you age to find and enjoy new friendships?