I’ve spent most of my life — basically until 2018 — behaving in ways that start with the letter B: bold, brazen, brash, ballsy, bumptious.
I was, or looked, fearless. At 25, I jumped into a truck in Perpignan with a French driver 10 years my senior and spent eight (amazing!) days crossing southern Europe to Istanbul with him, for a story. I’ve interviewed people across the U.S. who own a lot of guns. Have traveled alone in some funky places.
Not so much.
My health, as far as we know, is fine — after completing 20 days’ radiation treatment November 15, 2018 for very early stage breast cancer, no chemo — I’m now taking medication for five years.
But I feel so much more fragile.
Like, oh yeah, I can be broken and weak, My body can/did surprise me and not in a good way.
It’s a challenge to manage fragility — as anyone (not me) who has had and cared for very small children or very old/ill people or animals.
We live in a culture of haste and acquisition and competition and relentless shows of strength and prowess. There’s little useful discussion of how to be slow and gentle and take very good care of ourselves and others. The lack of compassionate American public policy makes brutally clear that being ill and “unproductive” are taboo.
So we don’t talk much publicly about what it’s like to be fragile and to navigate life and work and friendship and family when we feel like wet bits of paper instead of big strong ferocious creatures.
I don’t like feeling vulnerable. I suspect others don’t like that feeling too much at all.
But my new MO is to tell people —- hey, I just can’t do X right now. I don’t explain. I just withdraw from demands, social and professional, even for a few hours or days until I can bring my A game and respond fully.
I grew up in a family that had little interest in my times of need and weakness and fragility — so I learned to suppress and ignore and deny those feelings.
But those needs were always there and are now, Jaws-like, re-surfacing with some serious insistence.
We live — in the U.S. anyway — in such cruel times. Money is tight for far too many and compassion for those struggling in increasingly short supply. It can feel overwhelming and dis-spiriting to even glance at the news: racism, sexual violence, terrorism, etc.
Which is why the Netflix reality TV show “Queer Eye” is such a treat, now in its third season.
It features five gay men — Antoni Porowski (food expert — and fellow Canadian), Bobby Berk (decorator), Jonathan van Ness (grooming), Tan France (fashion) and Karamo Brown (culture.) If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out.
In every show, the fab five — setting out in a shiny black minivan — choose a man or woman (in one case, a pair of African-American sisters whose barbecue shack is a local legend) to help pull together their life, whether a cramped kitchen, shredded self-confidence or someone just feeling really lost and overwhelmed.
We’ve all been there!
The men are funny, loving, insightful and there to offer the soul balm everyone needs so desperately — empathy, compassion, wisdom, advice, hugs and a lot of kind laughter. Just watching them swing into action is inspiring. Reality TV can be gross, but this feels lovely.
We watched a few episodes this week and one featuring Jess, a 23-year-old African American lesbian living in Lawrence, Kansas, was astonishing. She was adopted — and thrown out by her conservative Christian parents when she came out as gay at 16. She had lost touch with her sister and baby niece. Working as a waitress, she struggled with a host of challenges — but with energy and good spirits.
When the Fab Five show up, Jess is trying to figure out how to be fully who she really is — not uncommon at 23 — with no parental support or love. Karamo, 38, who worked for 10 years as a social worker, is of tremendous help to her, both as a gay American but also an African-American; their scenes together are really powerful.
I love Tan, whose is of Punjabi Pakistani descent — and (!?) speaks with a thick Yorkshire accent.
If you’re simply craving some feel-good entertainment, with a healthy side dose of inspiration, grab the tissues and settle down with me on the sofa!
There’s no question that women face unique risks when traveling solo, experts say.
“We have evidence that shows that women face risks that men don’t face in public spaces, at home, wherever they may be,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, an organization that promotes female equality. Increasingly, “wherever they may be” includes alone in foreign countries.
I’ve traveled alone, most recently in the fall of 2018, driving alone for hours through upstate New York on my way to Canada. For many hours, I was out of cellphone range (although comforted by a system in our car that tracks it and had a way to communicate) and far from ready access to police or a hospital.
I drove only in daylight, as is my habit when going solo, whenever possible.
Was I scared? No.
I’ve also traveled alone in rural Sicily, Istanbul, rural Portugal, Thailand, Mexico and other places where bad things can happen and where “decent” women are generally accompanied by one of three people — their mother/father, their husband or their child(ren) and thus left unhassled.
Yet the worst things that have happened to me have always happened at home — in Toronto, Montreal and suburban small-town New York.
All were robberies, none assault or worse.
Also alone, albeit in my hometown, a place filled with friends
I plan to spend some time alone again this summer, albeit in the cities of a Western European country, more worried about an act of terrorism now than personal attack.
I really love being outdoors and wish I could just go camping alone, but I don’t. I hate that I’m afraid of others, but I think it’s prudent. Last time I did it was about four years ago in a crowded campground at the Grand Canyon.
My mother traveled solo for years, an attractive woman in places where women don’t really go out alone, and was fine. She also taught me how put a chair beneath the door handle of my hotel room to prevent someone opening it and to dress modestly and remain hyper-aware of my surroundings and culture.
I’ve only gotten drunk once while traveling alone (in San Francisco, a few blocks from my hotel) and I don’t take drugs nor dress provocatively. I don’t walk around wearing headphones or staring into a phone or wearing expensive jewelry.
I try to be extremely aware of local customs and dress and behave accordingly.
I think it’s one of the best things a woman can do — to travel alone and know how to trust her instincts. It has, so far, given me tremendous self-confidence and brought me new friendships.
Venice — alone, July 2017
But one of the challenges of solo female travel is knowing that we’re often being closely observed and — yes — sometimes considered vulnerable prey by the wicked. That’s frightening and I know of no very practical solution for it.
Here’s part of a wise comment (722 of them!) on the Times story by a woman in Montana:
solo travel teaches intense situational awareness, reliance on gut instincts, and a willingness to run rather than trying not to offend, as women often do to our detriment.
Had a conversation this week with a friend facing some serious health stuff. She’s not getting the support she needs and someone who should be there for her is instead adding to her very considerable stress by not being useful and making needed changes.
No one wants a backpack filled with stones.
I won’t be more specific but it was clear to me — as someone who’s had health issues (that oh-so-American euphemism for cancer) since June 2018 — that the minute you get a shitty diagnosis (or lose your job or face the loss of a loved one), your life is now weighted down in ways that may appear invisible to others but are very, very heavy and something you (mostly) alone are carrying.
Shame — especially in the U.S. where being “unproductive”, ill and needy is somehow taboo — adds yet another damn boulder.
Unless you can drop the backpack — and ask for help and count on getting it — having to listen to anything stupid, thoughtless or callous (and there’s plenty of it out there, from friends, family and medical staff) only adds another few stones.
No one wants that pack.
No one wants to carry it, sometimes for months or even years.
In tough times, their pack is already filled with grief and fear and physical pain and exhaustion and guilt and anxiety.
Carrying it isn’t much of a choice, even as others call you “brave” and “tough” and call out “you can fight this.”
If you know someone facing tough times, please do anything you possibly can to lighten their load.
Vancouver, Canada. Lived in London ages two to five, Toronto five to 30, (with brief stints in Mexico, [6 months] Montreal [1 year] and Paris [one year.])
Happiest childhood memories?
My parents split when I was about seven, and I was their only child, so summer camp was my happiest place. I loved canoeing and sailing and making close friends and being outdoors all the time. I felt welcomed and valued.
Where did you attend college/university?
Victoria College at the University of Toronto.
Just because….Yes, it’s Mike Myers and it was Fleet Week 2017
What did you study and why?
I was an English major (surprise!) but also studied French and Spanish for many years there.
Did you enjoy it?
Not that much. I was broke, living alone in Toronto and also freelancing to stay afloat. The school is enormous and pays little attention to undergrads so I had to be very self-reliant. The campus is beautiful and our professors were top-notch so I did get a good and demanding education. I appreciate that rigor and this prepared me well for the world of work.
Where do you live now — and why there?
I ended up in Tarrytown, NY — a town of 10,000 people on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, 25 miles north of Manhattan — thanks to my first husband, a psychiatrist then in residency; we transferred from New Hampshire. There were only 2 spots open that year, one a 10-minute drive from Tarrytown. I love it: economically and ethnically diverse, lots of restaurants and cafes, a 3rd-generation-owned hardware store, a great gourmet store, lovely walks along the river, a historic Main Street often used for film and TV, like Mona Lisa Smile (with Julia Roberts) and The Good Shepherd (with Matt Damon) and the HBO series Divorce (with Sarah Jessica Parker.) Also, 38 minutes by train into Grand Central Terminal.
We love to visit Montreal, a city I’ve lived in as an adult and as a child
What are some of your favorite ways to spend free time?
Reading — our apartment is filled with books, newspapers and magazines. Listening to music and radio (NPR, TSF Jazz). Some television, but mostly Netflix. Movies! Talking to friends, preferably face to face. Entertaining. Travel. Looking at old things at antique shows and flea markets. Many forms of culture — galleries, museums, ballet, theater, concerts. Being outdoors in nature. Paris!
Do you have any idols or role models?
Hmmmmm. Not really. There are some people I admire, but everyone’s fallible.
Why did you choose to become a journalist/author?
I love meeting new people from all walks of life — in my work I have met Queen Elizabeth, convicted felons, Olympic athletes, an admiral. I love telling stories. I enjoy knowing some of my writing has helped others.
Hokusai — The Great Wave off Kanagawa
Breughel, Odilon Redon, Egon Schiele, Klimt, the German Expressionists, the Nabis and Fauves. Some of Canada’s Group of Seven. I love Japanese prints by masters like Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Gerald Durrell, Thomas Hardy, Muriel Barbery, Tom Rachmann.
Best place you’ve ever been?
Tough call! Four-way tie: Machu Picchu, Corsica, Ireland and Thailand.
Worst place you’ve ever been?
A really nasty hotel in Granada and another one in Copenhagen.
A terrible illness. Losing my husband Jose.
Making others’ lives a little happier. I love connecting people.
What’s the view from your bedroom window?
Gorgeous! The Hudson River and its western shore.
Which of your friendships is the longest and how did you meet?
A friend from high school, but closer to my pal from freshman English class who lives very far away from me in Kamloops, British Columbia. There’s a great 1988 Michelle Shocked song, Anchorage, that eerily sums up our differences quite accurately but we still love one another.
How do you handle conflict?
Ugh. I’ve had a lifetime of it — between challenging parents, a tough step-mother, being bullied in high school and at work. It depends. Like many people, I may swallow my anger for many years — then explode. If someone’s driving me nuts, these days I just withdraw and fade away. If it’s an annoying freelance client, I find another. There’s always another.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
That people remember me — and some of my writing — with love, respect and a smile.
Attention is now probably the scantest resource on the planet. We’re all overwhelmed and distracted, so how can you get a room filled with (mostly) strangers to sit still and really listen to your speech or talk?
It’s do-able, but it’s also work.
I’ve given many public presentations over the years: to retail students at the University of Minnesota, to retail executives at the annual Retail Customer Experience conference, and many times at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Do I get nervous beforehand?
Unlike most speakers, I never use slides or any other visuals like PowerPoint. If I’m not compelling, slides aren’t going to help. (I get that, with lots of specific scientific or numeric data, these can be essential. They also make taking a cellphone image of them easy and quick for the audience.)
Some people in my audience had done conflict zone work, humanitarian work, newspaper work…
Know your audience and what they need most from your remarks
The single most important element. Until you know who’s going to be listening (or potentially, because at any conference — unless you’re the keynote — your session is competing head-to-head with others in the same time slot) you can’t begin to prepare your remarks.
At my recent presentation at the Northern Short Course, an annual meeting of photojournalists, I was told the audience would be mostly mid-career — yet a high school student and a college senior came up afterward. The ages ranged from 17 to 60s.
Prepare and practice
Never ever ever try to “wing it.” The best presentations may feel spontaneous and casual to the audience — but they are absolutely not. Write out your speech or your talking points, in order, and make sure there’s a logical flow to them. The more you practice, the more you’ll edit and refine. The voice can be casual and conversational but there’s a lot of structure behind it.
Time your remarks
To the minute! Nothing is worse than a speaker who rushes and talks waytoofast or loses track of their allotted time. Listening is tiring!
How do you want your audience to feel when you’re done?
I always want people to leave the room inspired, not tired. I’m not perky or saccharine, but our work is difficult and, even when I acknowledge that, I want to offer practical help.
Breathe deeply, slooooow down and bring a glass of water (no ice)
Take a few deep breaths before you begin, to calm down. Always have a glass of water handy for dry mouth — and no ice! Nothing’s more embarrassing than a pile of ice suddenly shooting down your face and neck in front of everyone. I also think swigging from a plastic bottle is inelegant. It is a performance.
Share some personal stuff
Not confessional, of course, but choose carefully a few anecdotes fully relevant to the theme of your speech that the audience will be able to relate to. Being stiff and pompous is a huge turn-off.
Make sure to leave plenty of time for questions and comments
My most recent presentation was (whew!) 75 minutes…so I timed my remarks for 45 (which is long!) and allowed a full 30 for questions. I still had a dozen people lined up afterward to ask more. If you’ve been engaging, people will want to contribute their thoughts as well.
Don’t rush off afterward
If people want to chat with you one-on-one (a compliment, I think) listen to each one carefully (although keep it moving if the line is long!) and be sure to get their business card; offer yours to them as well if you want to follow up. I think being asked to address an audience is a real honor, so I always looks forward to the new connections we can forge as a result.
Watch other speakers to see how they hold and capture attention
There’s no shortage of inspiring material out there! Celebrities giving commencement speeches, people on YouTube and sooooo many TED talks. Watch how others do it well and get some good ideas for yourself. At the last conference, I watched other solo presenters to see how they engaged their audiences.
It’s rare I actually hate a film, but this one is added to my short list. Starring Julianne Moore — who does her best with a sad-sack role — “Gloria” is a re-make of a 2013 film of the same name and theme.
I hadn’t seen the previous one, but thought — OK, Julianne Moore (who usually makes good films) and who is also executive producer here — I’m in.
I came home and read a bunch of reviews to see who else thought…uggggggh. Every major media outlet loved it.
I just don’t get this film’s appeal.
Gloria, divorced, with two adult children (one with an infant whose wife has wandered off), the other pregnant by a Swedish pro surfer, lives alone in an apartment endlessly visited by a very ugly cat — maybe a metaphor I didn’t grasp? She lives in L.A., works as an insurance agent and has a noisy and aggressive upstairs neighbor.
Yes, her life is limited. But she’s also choosing to let it, which immediately lost some of my sympathy.
She’s 50-ish, and her one great joy is dancing to disco; at a club she meets Arnold (John Turturro) and (why???) falls in love with him — despite a bunch of his backstories that felt so false to me. (He’d lost a huge amount of weight, he was a former Marine, his endlessly demanding adult daughters.)
His character is just so weird and opaque and needy and creepy — yet she keeps ripping off their clothes for lots of sex and nude scenes.
Hey, I’m all for lots of great sex at any age. But with that guy?
I also get the appeal of a regular woman in her 50s living a life that’s just OK, not really happy in any meaningful way. But I found her resolute cheerfulness and passivity extremely depressing.
Maybe that’s just me. From the very first scenes, Arnold struck me as someone to flee.
I won’t reveal the film’s final milquetoast “revenge” scene, but it felt so cliche and so pathetic — this is midlife “empowerment”?! — I could barely wait to leave the theater, where a long line of people eagerly waited to enter.
Been standing on my own two feet for a long, long time
By Caitlin Kelly
I read this story and wanted to weep….at how crazy this is:
Bribing SAT proctors. Fabricating students’ athletic credentials. Paying off college officials. The actions that some wealthy [American] parents were charged with Tuesday — to secure their children a spot at elite colleges — are illegal and scandalous. But they’re part of a broader pattern, albeit on the extreme end of the continuum: parents’ willingness to do anything it takes to help their grown children succeed.
As college has become more competitive and young adults’ economic prospects less assured, parents have begun spending much more time and money on their children — including well after they turn 18. Modern parenting typically remains hands-on, and gets more expensive, when children become young adults, according to a new survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times.
A significant share of parents, across income levels, say they’re involved in their adult children’s daily lives. That includes making doctor’s appointments, reminding them of school and other deadlines, and offering advice on romantic life, found the survey, which was of a nationally representative sample of 1,508 people ages 18 to 28 and 1,136 parents of people that age. More than half of parents give their adult children some form of monthly financial assistance.
I often wonder how I might have turned out if this sort of behavior was normal in my life.
Here’s my college experience:
— Lived at home in Toronto with father and his girlfriend, 13 years my senior, for my freshman year. No additional responsibilities, got terrific grades.
— In November of sophomore year, father announces I need to move out and find a place to live as they are selling the house to live on a boat in the Mediterranean. This is many decades before email or cellphones.
— I get $350 a month from my grandmother to live on. This pays my rent on a studio apartment ($160/month, terrible neighborhood), tuition ($660/year), food, phone and answering service, books. Everything, basically. The monthly income from my maternal grandmother wasn’t enough so I started freelancing at the age of 19 to supplement it.
— My mother was traveling the world alone for years, also far far away. I saw her maybe once a year when she flew me to wherever she was. Sort of fun, mostly weird.
— During my university years, I lived alone, was attacked in my apartment while taking a bath, moved, moved again, suffered some health issues, started writing for national magazines. And attended and graduated from the most demanding and least nurturing (53,000 students) school in Canada.
— In those three years, I had no relatives to check in on me. Just friends. That established a lifelong pattern for me; friends as family.
So, you know, this kind of intense parenting strikes me as completely nuts.
The only reason I was able to get people twice my age to give me ongoing well-paid assignments was being responsible, meeting deadlines, delivering excellence. Was I mature enough to handle all this alone? Well, I had to be. I had no choice.
The New York Times quotes a survey finding that 74 percent of American parents are making medical appointments for their college-age children, the same percentage reminding them not to miss deadlines for tests and classwork.
I mostly loved my independence in those years. I dated all the wrong boys, made some great friendships, wrote a lot for our weekly student newspaper, led a student exchange with UNC-Chapel Hill that was life-changingly great. Jump-started my career.
Workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.
What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.
Homo industrious is not new to the American landscape. The American dream—that hoary mythology that hard work always guarantees upward mobility—has for more than a century made the U.S. obsessed with material success and the exhaustive striving required to earn it.
No large country in the world as productive as the United States averages more hours of work a year. And the gap between the U.S. and other countries is growing. Between 1950 and 2012, annual hours worked per employee fell by about 40 percent in Germany and the Netherlands—but by only 10 percent in the United States. Americans “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later, than people in comparably rich societies,” wrote Samuel P. Huntington in his 2005 book Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity.
Working in a free-market, winner-take-all capitalist country like the U.S. is…instructive if you’ve lived in any other country that treats workers as slightly more than fuel. I grew up in Canada, ages 5 to 30, and spent a year in France at 25, so I have experienced (and enjoyed) life and work in two other nations that actually provide social safety nets, paid vacation and even paid maternal leave.
To arrive in 21st. century American work culture is to feel one’s been catapulted back to some feudal era — except even serfs got something. Women are still fighting every day for better wages. Age discrimination is rampant. Unions are the smallest and weakest in a century.
Wages remain stagnant for many of us despite record corporate profits.
Time….or money? If you want more private time, it’s likely to cost you income
Yet Americans are exhorted daily to work harder! Be more productive! Longer hours!
If you’re struggling financially — as many are — work is what you have to do, and a lot of it to just survive. But once you’re past survival, then what? Oh, right. Work more, because…
Because it’s the only identity many Americans are truly comfortable taking pride in.
Being a parent? Good luck with that! A fortune in childcare, daycare and skyrocketing higher education costs. Hobbies? Who’s got time? Private passion projects? Quick, turn them into financially profitable side hustles.
Being creative artistically or musically? Quick, get an Etsy site or YouTube channel. Monetize every breath!
When I recently announced on Facebook that I’d be addressing a photography conference — and had begun my career as a shooter — one friend expressed (admiring) astonishment that I had “another skill set.”
I have plenty! But this is so deeply unAmerican. Every thought, action, book, conference,meeting must — de facto — provide financial profit to someone or, it seems, you’re just wasting time.
American work culture leaves no room, no time and — most toxic and crucial — no respect for those things. Patting your dog or making a fantastic meal for your wife or spending two hours consoling a heartbroken friend?
In seeing his community, I became acutely aware of the feeling that I did not have my own. I had friends and a loving family. But as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And I spent my days focused on optimizing myself: Endlessly working and improving, on a permanent quest to do as much as possible in the unforgiving confines of 24 hours. It was the only way I knew how to be. Compete. Excel. Win.
I had never considered there might be a cost to a life of high-octane, high-reward competition.
I spent my own 20s making myself and many people around me nuts with my white-hot ambition and professional drive. By 30 I was fried. Since then, I’ve worked to live, amassing enough money to pay for the things we need (including retirement) — but also taking as much vacation as we can afford. Some years that’s a few months’ worth, albeit in two or 3-week increments.
Even that’s considered weird since even many Americans who get paid vacation are too scared to actually use it (OMG you’re….relaxing?!) or too broke to go anywhere.
Nor do I work nights and weekends or when we go away to rest and recharge.
I know most of my competitors do. I also know how tired and resentful they are.
The email arrived about two weeks before a major annual conference of news photographers. Someone had dropped out — would I come and speak?
I began my career in journalism as a photographer, selling images to Time, the Globe & Mail and others. I had three magazine covers while still in high school. But being asked to speak to others seeking wisdom and advice, while a terrific honor, is always scary. What if I had little or not enough?
So I did what I always do, I wrote out notes — never a formal speech — and started practicing and timing it to the minute. I had 75 minutes, and decided to fill 45 of it with my advice, and 30 minutes for questions. What if there weren’t any? What if no one came? I’m semi-known as a writer —- but not a known quantity in this world.
It was great to have Jose there (collecting an award and giving feedback on portfolios) to introduce me and smile from the back of the room.
Tables full of Canon and Sony and Nikon equipment for sale…
About 50 people attended my presentation — a wide range of ages, men and women at all levels of their craft — even some sitting on the floor. So that felt good.
We talked about how to pitch — the scary and inevitable process every creative person must face if they are to sell their work into a highly competitive marketplace. We talked about rejection. About how to find ideas.
Afterward, to my delighted surprise, a line of a dozen people waited patiently to say hello and ask more personal advice. One was a college student and one even a high school student — both young women.
It’s such a privilege and joy, certainly when I have no children, nephews or nieces, to feel my insights are valued and can help the next few generations.
I came away with fistfuls of business cards and, I hope, some new friendships. I was deeply moved by the talent I saw and met, like Moriah Ratner, a talented 23-year-old (!) who had already attracted major industry attention for her images. So inspiring! Of course, she’d already worked alongside one of our New York Times friends and colleagues.
The industry of journalism — whether words or photos — really is small, so creating and maintaining a good reputation from the start is essential.
I met a Canadian from Montreal, Andrea Pritchard, who made a documentary about three of the industry’s female legends.
New York Times photographer Michelle Agins (left) and Lisa Krantz, a staff photographer for the San Antonio, (Texas) Express-News, describe their work and offer insights into how and why and when they shot some of these images. Both are 2019 winners of the Sprague Award, the highest award offered by the National Press Photographers Association. The image above is by Agins.
Like all conferences, some of the best conversations happened in the hallways and the bar and the bathroom as we dug deeper into why we were there and what we each grapple with — whether health issues or money or lack of support or sexism or where to find ideas. The medium matters less than how we can excel in it.
To get ready to do my talk (and I’ve done lots of them), I read this great new book by client/friend Viv Groskop, a UK-based stand-up comedian, author and executive coach. The book is Own The Room and it’s full of helpful, smart advice for women who can feel terrified of public speaking — even as it can hugely boost our careers.