Stay or go?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been very lucky of late to find an editor who likes my essays, so she bought this one on the  topic I have come back to many times — too many! — on this blog: whether to remain living in the U.S. or return to Canada.

Here’s a bit of it:

And so I left behind a perfectly good country, one with excellent and heavily subsidized university education, cradle-to-grave healthcare, a wide, deep social safety net, and a Constitution that promised “peace, order and good government” rather than “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

For years, Canadians had often guessed I was American, which is a veiled insult that means too bossy, too direct, too nakedly ambitious. I wanted faster decisions and a wider playing field, not the endless foot-shuffling of risk-averse fellow Canadians and a career limited to a handful of major cities.

I’d thought American was more egalitarian than it is, but that turned out to be silly idealism. When I dared suggest to someone at Dartmouth that I audit classes there, since we were in the middle of nowhere for the next four years, pre-Internet, the university administration refused. How about part-time study? Also no.

As I began to try to make sense of my new home, I read two seminal works of the early 1990s that explained the shadowed side of John Winthrop’s 1630 vision of America as a much-admired “city on a hill”: the first was Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, about two boys growing up in a decrepit Chicago housing project during the 1980s; the second was Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, a study of two school districts, divided by wealth and class, which were allotted wildly unequal resources by the American way of funding education through housing taxes. This was a key difference between my experiences in Toronto and Montreal.

In Hanover, a local social worker told me about the grinding poverty she saw on muddy backroads, the battered trailers with plastic on the windows, while Dartmouth’s most privileged students raced their shiny sports cars through town and dropped enormous sums in its few stores. There is poverty in Canada; this is particularly true for the shamefully neglected Indigenous people. But the shocking inequality of the United States, where the three wealthiest Americans collectively own more wealth than the bottom half of the population (while the middle class struggles to pay for healthcare and university tuition), is absent; Canada has its billionaires and millionaires, but they tend to be more discreet about their good fortune.

First American lesson: Prove you’re rich! Income inequality be damned.

 

I really enjoy the quality of life and the kind of professional opportunities that living in the U.S. — near New York City — has given me.

I would never have had these things had I stayed in my home country.

Canada is both geographically enormous — and really small!

 

 

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Montreal harbor — with the legendary housing Habitat, from Expo 1967

 

If you have (as I have) lived in a few of its major cities and have no wish to keep moving just to find a new job with a slightly different perspective, then what? I had lived in Toronto (a really ugly and expensive city) and Montreal (a charming city but with very limited prospects for an ambitious Anglo journalist). Vancouver was too far away (and also has very costly housing) Ottawa and Halifax and Calgary too far away or too small.

My half-brother, 23 years younger, married an American and has long lived in D.C. and recently became a first-time father, of twins — so now we have American citizens in the family.

And my husband, Jose Lopez, is also American, as was my first husband.

I know it hurts my Canadian father, who had a very distinguished career as a film-maker there, that we both have professionally and romantically dismissed Canada, even though we visit. I suspect many immigrants to the U.S. feel some of what I do — pride and pleasure in our accomplishments here (it’s HUGE) — but also something of a tug to our homeland.

It is an utter nightmare for many Americans to have a President like Trump. It is very frightening to imagine four more years of him, while also having little optimism about how much better Joe Biden would do.

 

 

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I love old diners, anywhere! This is on the North Fork of Long Island, NY

 

You choose to leave your home country, initially, for all sorts of reasons — education, marriage, adventure, a job, a fellowship.

You choose to stay elsewhere for a host of others.

I lived in Mexico at 14, in France at 25, and moved to the U.S. at 30.

Moving away is always a little scary, but — for me — so was the prospect of spending my life in a city I didn’t like much, and which still is the professional hub of my industry.

And the truth is that, being gone for decades, means re-entry can make you feel like a stranger in your original homeland.

 

Have you lived outside of the country of your birth?

If you returned, what brought you back?

 

And if you would never go back — why not?

Where will you go?

“Trapped” — perfect pandemic TV!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Thanks to a Nordic pal here in the U.S., we recently discovered Trapped — and loved! — this Icelandic cop show.

It’s the most expensive series ever filmed there, two seasons of 10 episodes each, from 2015.

I might be the only person left in the world who has yet to visit Iceland, but I can now really see why people go. What a spectacular and dramatic landscape it is!

It only has 364,000 people, and 60,000 in the capital, and is the most sparsely-populated nation in Europe.

The characters in Trapped are all very human, often confused, working either in Reykjavik or an isolated small town on a fjord — where the evil runs mighty deep and sometimes for generations.

There’s Andri, the police chief in Season One, who’s a tall, hefty guy with a thick brown beard and hair that always needs brushing, His assistants, Hinrika and Asgeir, are small town residents, and a real contrast — Hinrika is tough, smart and cynical while Asgeir is always vaguely goofing off and playing chess on his computer.

Their police station is small, and, like everything here, absolutely dwarfed by snow-capped mountains.

The sense of being trapped in this show has many layers: by small town life, by family dramas and secrets, by unsolved murders and disappearances, by ambition. Mostly by weather! So much snow, rain, ice! Roads get shut down and planes and helicopters grounded.

The opening credits are visually very strong and the music very good, initially composed by the late and very talented Johann Johannsson.

By Season Two, Andri has moved back to big-city Reykjavik, and Hinrika is now police chief. But her marriage to Bardur, 20 years her senior, is ending and Andri’s oldest daughter has become a rebellious 15-year-old in a lot of black eyeshadow, living with an aunt.

The pace is slow, but there’s plenty of plot development and it takes a while to finally reveal who’s the true baddie.

Along the way, we get to see Icelandic sheep farmers and ponies and an enormous ferry that is key to the first season plot. There’s a female minister whose formal collar is a white ruffle that looks positively medieval.

Several people die in gruesome ways — consumed by flames, and one with a bolt gun used to kill sheep.

But it’s really compelling and the murder of one character left us on the the verge of tears.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry about Baltasar Koromákur, its creator.

 

Have you seen it?

 

 

Rituals and routines

 

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Bingeing on fabulous shows!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In a time of basic chaos — pandemic life — it feels even more essential to have some rituals and routines to help us feel grounded and vaguely normal.

I liked this New York Times column on the power of tea and toast:

My go-to comfort food is toast with butter and flaky maldon salt (I could eat this all day long!), and I didn’t hold back from sharing this with the team. Inspired, producer Julia Longoria made some calls to food writers at The Times to ask about their favorite comfort snacks.

Lo and behold, Kim Severson’s comfort food was also toast — specifically, cinnamon toast. Kim is a food writer based in Atlanta. She was eager to share her method, which involves toasting a slice of bread, buttering it “to complete abandon,” and coating it with cinnamon and sugar. “One bite of this and I’m exactly back in my mom’s kitchen after school,” she says in the episode.

But as we got to work, I realized that an episode about toast felt incomplete. What goes with toast? Tea, of course.

 

My typical routines include (and how I miss it!) a spin class at 8:30 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. It was a perfect way to start my day energized, social and feel a bit less guilty about what I would later consume.

I still make a pot of tea almost every day around 4:30 or 5:00 pm, in a small pea-green teapot, often PG Tips, Constant Comment or Irish Breakfast. I love tea, and it’s a great break from one more boring bottle of healthy water. I like it strong enough — as an Irish neighbor once told my Dad — for a mouse to walk across.

 

 

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My other routines and rituals:

— reading two newspapers a day, in print, The New York Times and Financial Times

— watching New York Gov. Cuomo’s daily press conference on CNN at 11:30 a.m.

— lighting tapers and votives when we sit down to dinner

— setting a pretty table, even just for us

— a nap

— listening to NPR talk shows like the Brian Lehrer show, The Takeaway (not food!) and All Things Considered

— whatever TV shows are my current favorite. I was loving my Sunday line-up on PBS: Call the Midwife, World on Fire, Baptiste, Endeavour….and all have ended their seasons.

— blogging! This keeps me engaged when not writing for income, and allows me to connect with you

— Twitter. I confess to spending much more time there than optimal, but it also brought me my two latest clients, so it works in that regard.

— In summer, long lunches outdoors with my softball team

 

 

And I wouldn’t call it a routine, I really miss having friends over for a meal, something we usually do at least once a month, often more. We will often do a Sunday lunch, lazing for hours over conversation, rather than a Friday or Saturday night.

Do you have rituals and routines you enjoy?

 

Has the pandemic altered them?

 

Listening well

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I listen for a living.

Most people think I write for a living, and, yes, the product I sell is an article or story or blog post for publication, for a company or for a journalism outlet.

But before I have anything to write about, I’ve listened carefully to strangers who have to place their trust in me to get it right, make their views known without distortion and communicate it all compellingly to even more strangers.

It’s a challenge!

I really enjoy it, but it can be difficult. My current project means speaking to a source in Europe and using a video interface, which can freeze or drop words or whole sentences. Add to that an accent and a complex topic, and away we go!

My interviews have sometimes been extremely delicate, like the young black women I spoke with for my first book about American women and gun use. Each had been arrested for a gun-related crime (not murder) and each had her own reasons for owning and using one.

My job was simply to listen quietly, non-reactively, kindly, without judgment.

I suspect it may have been a rare occasion for them to simply tell their story and just be listened to — not to a cop or a judge or a social worker, let alone a middle-aged, white stranger.

The photo above is fairly typical of me when I’m really focusing hard; I’m not looking at the speaker (not to be rude!) but really thinking.

 

An interview, journalistically, is a terrific experience but it’s not conversation in any conventional sense. It has elements of that — nods, laughter, echoing back what someone just said, asking a clarifying question, even swearing — but it’s also a controlled interaction where the writer must stay in the driver’s seat, even if done delicately and invisibly.

 

I recently did my first transcription for a fellow journalist, whose interview was with a major pop musician. Oh, I felt for them! The replies were often mumbled or mono-syllabic. I was as tired at the end of making sense of it as they probably were as well.

To conduct a really good interview requires both intellectual acuity (make it interesting for them! ask smart and incisive questions and follow-ups) and emotional sensitivity (don’t rush them!) 

 

 

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I did a series of interviews in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, years ago, for Chatelaine, a national women’s magazine, which meant asking sources — all women — to revisit an extremely painful experience, a side effect of a drug, Mirapex, all had taken for their Parkinson’s disease or for restless leg syndrome.

The side effect was an excess of dopamine over-stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, and the women had unwittingly become compulsive gamblers, terrifying their families and confounding their physicians.

Between their emotion and the disease, they shook and/or cried through the interviews and one’s family raged about her behavior — without really understanding, medically, what was even happening or why. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported and I apologized to each beforehand and thanked them afterward for how exhausting it was for them to share their stories.

Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than a journalist.

 

When I listen for work, I bring tools to the table with me:

 

empathy

compassion

curiosity

cultural sensitivity (what’s taboo, what’s likely to elicit passion or emotion or silence)

prior research (to know what to ask)

patience (not every word or sentence is riveting)

editing as we go (see above!)

attentiveness to their pauses, hesitations, laughter, emphasis, repetition

Here’s a recent and interesting New York Times piece about how to listen well:

 

Start out by talking about something the other person likes, or maybe doesn’t like, and finding out why that is. It could be music, art, books, films, food, favorite childhood toys or even other people. The point is to explore one another’s affinities, attitudes, beliefs and opinions — but never argue about them. As the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.”

Likes and dislikes develop through experiences, and those back stories are willingly told if you ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. These don’t necessarily have to be long, drawn-out conversations.

 

Even when I interview super-smart eminent scientists, as I did for a recent story, I make time for some casual personal conversation as well. I discovered that one of the leaders in water treatment shared my experiences of flying Nicaragua’s domestic airline — and eating at a great Indian restaurant in Montreal (where he attended McGill, across the street.)

Those fun, personal, quirky moments make even the most serious interview more human and playful.

We talk most easily to other human beings, not robots.

Jose and I talk to one another a lot.

It’s one of my favorite elements of our marriage — because really listening to someone is an active form of love.

Looking back…

By Caitlin Kelly

With so much more time at home to reflect, it’s been interesting to flip through old photos, enjoying happy memories.

A few of these:

 

Jose and I, now together 20 years, married in 2011, met through an online dating site, which I was writing about for a magazine story. His was one of (!) 200 replies to my profile, whose candid headline was Catch Me If You Can. He did!

Not one to hesitate, he pulled out the big guns and, within two months of meeting me, invited me to the White House News Photographers annual dinner, a black tie affair in D.C. seated with senior photo editors of his employer, The New York Times. No pressure!

And, showing off his extraordinary access as a former NYT White House Press Corps photographer, we were allowed into the Oval Office.

 

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Two of my proudest moments: Malled (2011) and Blown Away (2004.) I loved writing both books and have two proposals I’m slowly working on. Journalism has been so decimated in the past decade and there are very few places that still offer room to tell a story in depth — and pay enough to make it worth doing.

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

 

September 2019, Ontario, doing one of the 30 interviews for my story on Canadian healthcare, interviewing a physician. Jose and I traveled around rural Ontario for three weeks that month and had a fantastic time — I interviewed plenty of people but we also stayed with old friends, like a woman I hadn’t seen in 50 years (!) I went to private school with. So fun!

 

 

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Jose thought it would be a good idea to photograph the judging of the Pulitzers, so he did! When you work 100 percent freelance, as we both do, you’re constantly drumming up ideas to sell. No ideas, no income!

 

 

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The fab team of radiologists and physicians my on my final day of radiation for early stage breast cancer, November 15, 2018. They were so kind and compassionate.

 

 

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We love visiting Montreal. Such charm! It’s about a 6.5 hour drive from our home in New York. I love speaking and hearing French encore une fois and we have some friends there to catch up with. We even now have a favorite room at the hotel we like, the Omni Mount Royal — which overlooks the exact site of the (torn down) brownstone I lived in at 12 with my mother. We used to fly kites on Mount Royal — and when I met my first husband in his final year of med school at McGill, took him up there on a ffffffrrrezzzing caleche ride. So many memories!

 

 

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Summer 2017, a glorious Budapest cafe. I treated myself to an unprecedented six weeks’ travel through six countries: France, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, England. It was worth every penny. Dying to travel again! Unlikely — I met up there with my best friend from university, who lives in Kamloops, B.C., whose daughter had been studying in Eastern Europe. 

 

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Yup, that’s fellow Canadian, actor Mike Myers, who I met at Fleet Week in NYC a few years ago, at a Canadian consulate event. He was a lot of fun.

 

 

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Our wedding, September 2011, on an island in Toronto. A tiny church, with 25 friends/family in attendance. It was a perfect fall afternoon.

 

 

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This would have been pre-1994, when I was competing as a sabre fencer at nationals.

 

 

 

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The view from across the road. Can’t walk down to the sea very far — thorns and bog!

 

June 2015, Co. Donegal, where we rented a cottage

 

 

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe

 

I’ve been so fortunate to have paid adventures like this one! March 2014. My first ride in a dug-out canoe.

 

 

 

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I had planned to leave journalism and become an interior designer so I studied here in the 1990s — and loved it! Then I taught writing there for years.

 

 

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.
The Grand Canyon — whose profound silence makes your ears ring

 

I’ve been twice. What an amazing place! This is from 2013

 

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What a hoot! This would have been 2011 or earlier, before my hip replacement. They gave me the clothes to keep! And the photographer (small world!) came from Atlanta to New York, the husband of an old friend.

 

 

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This is probably my proudest writing moment — a National Magazine Award for an essay (humor!) about my divorce. I wrote it and sent to a national Canadian women’s magazine who sat on it for a few years (I got divorced in 1995), but they did a great edit — and voila!

Looking forward…

By Caitlin Kelly

 

We’re all living in the subjunctive now.

From Wikipedia (for Spanish):

The subjunctive is used to express desires, doubts, the unknown, the abstract, and emotions.

 

Americans, especially, are a nation accustomed — beyond those in the worst poverty — to a specific sort of aggressive optimism, the “American dream” that life will, through lots of hard work, get better.

A pandemic killing thousands every day has shredded this.

 

How can anyone look ahead with optimism?

How can anyone plan?

How can we make rational decisions without reliable information?

Can we stay healthy?

For how long?

 

It’s a challenge to keep moving ahead when you have no idea if you’ll get your job back or your health insurance or if your children will be back at school or college or university.

German schoolchildren are back in their classrooms.

My French friends are celebrating the end of “le confinement” — while a feckless America lurches deeper into recession and chaos and morons carrying guns storm a…Subway sandwich shop.

How are you coping with this uncertainty?

The pain of Mother’s Day — not what you think

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By Caitlin Kelly

Tomorrow in North America, the annual paeans to great mothers begins again.

It doesn’t resonate the same way for others, like me.

I wrote about this once in detail, here, and it spurred one of my most valued friendships, since that person and I finally saw the effect of having really difficult mothers on our lives and life choices.

It does change you.

It’s also deeply taboo to not like your mother — and it’s extremely painful to have your mother not like you, especially if you’re their only child.

So, at the request of an editor, I wrote this essay about how my mother and I became estranged, and still were when she died this February, in a nursing home very far away from me.

I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her in a decade.

I did love my mother, even as I was fed up with how she chose to squander every gift life can offer: physical beauty, Mensa level intelligence, curiosity, open-mindedness, inherited wealth, deep and abiding friendships.

Between her bipolar illness and alcoholism, her behavior was often erratic and selfish. It deeply hurt and really scared me, as my visits to her were usually alone, with no one to turn to for moral support or help. I had no siblings to commiserate with — or strategize.

I couldn’t turn to one of her friends. She was someone who eschewed close relationships unless with very old friends, most of whom lived in other countries. She didn’t know her neighbors, so neither did I. When she attended church, she never went to coffee hour and,  when I forced her to on one of my annual visits (selfishly desperate for someone else to know her), she was furious with me.

When she left my father, and she was 30, she had plenty of suitors, and one was very kind to me — oddly, decades later, that man’s daughter, living in England, contacted me (or vice versa) and we renewed a friendship we’d had at 12 in Toronto.

So I miss the best of her, as it was lovely.

But I don’t miss the worst.

Here’s some of the essay:

 

I hadn’t seen her in years nor tried to re-connect. I knew better, even though others repeatedly urged me to, including my father, 50 years divorced from her but lately back in touch.

“You’ll regret it!”

“What if she dies?”

“Just go!”

“You never know…”

But they didn’t know the full story.

Every year I sent her a Christmas card filled with the past year’s news, but never received a reply, not even in 2018, the year of my early-stage breast cancer, surgery and radiation. When she had had a mastectomy decades before, I’d flown from New York to Vancouver to get her back home and re-settled.

A few years ago, she told my best friend, a local who went to visit, to tell me to stay away.

How does one end up so estranged?

More easily than you’d think.

I hope you’ll read the rest — and if you, or someone you know, is also estranged from a parent, this may comfort them.

It’s an oddly secret society.

Headwinds, tailwinds

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As an official #avgeek, who thrills to the sight of any aircraft and loves the smell of JP4, aka jet fuel, I often think in/use aviation metaphors.

Last week I had a long heart-to-heart with a dear friend, a much younger woman still in her 20s. She’s feeling stuck and frustrated, and has had a family tragedy hit her as well. It’s a lot!

When all those around you look like they’re making much faster progress towards personal and professional goals — marriage, kids, buying a home, getting a job or a promotion — it’s so easy and so demoralizing to feel left behind. Even at my age, decades into a good journalism career, I still gnash my teeth and rend my garments when I see other writers winning big awards and fellowships and fancy book and movie and TV deals.

Envy is also a fairly human emotion.

But…

I also subscribe to the belief that, just as some flights go much more quickly thanks to a tailwind and some more slowly thanks to a headwind, so do our lives.

And many of the obstacles and many of the privileges (head/tailwinds) also remain invisible. 

And in American can-do, individual, no-social-safety-net culture, it’s completely normal — and really bad for your psyche — to blame only yourself. If only you had done X! Or didn’t do Y! So and so did Z and look at their success!

But…

We just don’t know, unless someone is completely candid with us, what tremendous advantages or disadvantages they have had to overcome or enjoy. It’s rare that we compete on a level playing field.

 

Headwinds can include:

 

Chronic illness

Mental illness

Serious illness

Acute illness/recovery — or any of these for a loved one

Disability

Caregiving

Grief

Miscarriage

Infertility

Unemployment

Underemployment

Lack of skills

Lack of access/income for training

Solo parenting

Poverty

Poor access, or none,  to transit/transportation

No medical care

Hunger

Lack of education and access to same

Race, gender, ethnicity, religious prejudice

Misogyny/chauvinism

Becoming a crime victim

Emotional or physical or sexual abuse

 

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Luxury itself is a tailwind

Tailwinds:

 

Inherited money

A high-earning spouse or partner

A safe, green and attractive home and neighborhood

Wealthy parents or grandparents offering money

Excellent health

Excellent education

Fluent English

Excellent work skills

Successful legal role models

Wise, kind, reliable people to turn to for help and advice

Secure housing

Secure employment

Secure non-work income, like a pension or other solid investments

Social capital, i.e. knowing people with power who will help you

A sense of self-confidence

A safe and reliable vehicle or ready access to safe, affordable, reliable public transit

People who actively love and check in on you

Solid, strong friendships

 

So I told my younger friend it was necessary to see her life differently, even though the tragedy is permanent and life-altering and no one seems to understand its effects, which also leaves her isolated.

I know the choices she’s made were risky and unconventional — and I admire all of them, for her guts and sense of adventure and all the skill and wisdom they have brought her.

And I told her how much I admire her.

 

 

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I worked retail for 2.5 years, a day a week for The North Face, and made $11/hour, from 2007 to 2009. It was a tiring, poorly-paid, emotionally-taxing and unrewarding job in most ways.

We needed cash. It offered steady, reliable cash. And I was not a teenager, far from it — in fact the oldest person of our 15-member staff.

How I felt about it was irrelevant to getting the damn job done.

It ended up becoming my second book, but none of that appeared likely to me until September 9, 2009 when we had a major publisher committed.

The 2008 crash was very much a headwind, and a shared one.

Now, 12 years later, we’re all screwed thanks to the pandemic — with only the wealthiest and healthiest feeling no/few headwinds.

 

The rest of us will have to fly onwards as best we can.

 

 

COVID’s challenge: moral injury

By Caitlin Kelly

I hadn’t heard that phrase until September 2019, when I sat down to interview an American physician, Dr. Emily Queenan , describing why she stopped working in her native country and moved to work in Ontario. It wouldn’t have been the easiest choice, choosing small-town Ontario with mixed-race children and having her husband leave a corporate job.

But it was absolutely the right choice for her.

From my 2020 story for The American Prospect:

 

Dr. Emily Queenan, who is American, also voted with her feet; after studying biology at Williams College, working for Americorps in Peekskill, New York, in community health, and attending medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, she did her residency in Rochester, New York. She opened a family medicine practice there in June 2009, closing it in May 2014—and moving to Canada.

After being recruited by an agency of the MOH, Queenan visited four cities selected from a list of rural communities needing a doctor, She chose Penetanguishene, a middle-class town of 8,962 in northern Ontario on Georgian Bay, a beautiful area that welcomes many summer-home visitors.

“It was a wrought decision to close my practice,” Queenan says, sitting in the 1920s-era red-brick house in small-town Ontario whose main floor is now her office. “I envisioned having my [U.S.] practice for decades. But I was really burned out by the burden of being someone’s family doctor and the moral injury of denying care versus the lack of payment versus dealing with your own medical bills. This is not asked of other professions.”

Still in New York, Queenan attended a local meeting of Physicians for a National Health Plan, an American advocacy group founded in 1985 by Dr. Steffie Woolhandler and Dr. David Himmelstein, “trying to decide what was next. I was on the cusp of turning 40 and saw a career of fighting stupid fights. Doctors across the country were going through exactly what I was going through. I am not unique.”

 

 

Maybe you are, or know, a physician or nurse or other healthcare worker; my first husband is a physician I met when he was finishing med school at McGill so I watched him through his residency and early practice — which brought him to some unpleasant realities.

Most healthcare workers choose their profession because it expresses their values — to help and to heal, whenever and wherever possible.

Covid has torn their world to shreds, as evidenced by the recent suicide of Dr. Lorna Breen, an ER physician who had worked in a New York City hospital under such terrible circumstances that her sister said she called it Armageddon.

Her father is also a physician, so she would have grown up with this moral code.

From The New York Times:

 

“She tried to do her job, and it killed her,” he said.

The elder Dr. Breen said his daughter had contracted the coronavirus but had gone back to work after recuperating for about a week and a half. The hospital sent her home again, before her family intervened to bring her to Charlottesville, he said.

Dr. Breen, 49, did not have a history of mental illness, her father said. But he said that when he last spoke with her, she seemed detached, and he could tell something was wrong. She had described to him an onslaught of patients who were dying before they could even be taken out of ambulances.

“She was truly in the trenches of the front line,” he said.

He added: “Make sure she’s praised as a hero, because she was. She’s a casualty just as much as anyone else who has died.”

 

When patients die in the ambulance, on stretchers, in waiting room chairs, or after appearing to be recovering, your skills, strength, speed and teamwork still aren’t enough.

 

You just can’t help.

You can’t comfort.

You can’t save.

 

You feel angry and helpless and overwhelmed — for doing everything you know and it’s not enough.

Let alone re-using PPE.

Here’s a definition from a PTSD website run by the VA:

In traumatic or unusually stressful circumstances, people may perpetrate, fail to prevent, or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations (1). Moral injury is the distressing psychological, behavioral, social, and sometimes spiritual aftermath of exposure to such events (2). A moral injury can occur when someone is put in a situation where they behave in a way or witness behaviors that go against their values and moral beliefs.

Guilt, shame, and betrayal are hallmark reactions of moral injury (e.g., 3). Guilt involves feeling distress and remorse regarding the morally injurious event (e.g., “I did something bad.”). Shame is when the belief about the event generalizes to the whole self (e.g., “I am bad because of what I did.”) (4). Betrayal can occur when someone observes trusted peers or leaders act against values and can lead to anger and a reduced sense of confidence and trust (5).

 

The end of My Brilliant Friend, season 2

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a series of four books that everyone I know rhapsodizes over, by Elena Ferrante.

I tried to read the first one years ago, and gave up.

But the HBO series has been extraordinary.

If you haven’t seen it, and can, I urge you!

It’s the story of two women, who meet as young girls in a rough Naples neighborhood, one extremely beautiful, uneducated, Lila, who uses her beauty over and over as her most powerful weapon — even though she ends up pregnant by one man and miserably married, at 19, to another. Suddenly she is wearing elegant shifts and enormous pearls.

While she’s wildly tempestuous and rebellious compared to her friend Elena, (Lenu), who is quiet, shy, bookish, Lila’s life is a rollercoaster.

Both women, even as very young girls, see each other as their “brilliant friend”, both admiring and envious of the other’s skills and talents and ways of navigating their world — a tough and insulated world always dominated by money and by men, who have all the money.

Their world, post WWII Naples, in a town without a single tree or flower, is violent and allows them only one legitimate choice — to marry young and well, if possible, and have children. To attend university, as Elena eventually does, is the only true escape.

It’s mesmerizing, although sometimes so painful to watch — to see two women grow up, sometimes deeply committed and sometimes in such fierce competition with one another, for male attention, for family respect, for work with any meaning, for a life they define as theirs in any way.

If you — as I have — have had a best friend for decades, watching one another grow and change, through joy and despair — this will resonate deeply.

Set in the 50s and 60s, the sets, locations, costumes are all perfect — Italy!

The music is beautiful and evocative, the themes totally relatable.

And here’s a link to a documentary about the two terrific actresses — who had never before acted…!

And a Vogue story about them and the show:

 

I’m surprised to find a quiet and even bashful girl. From a small seaside town south of Naples, she says she shares with Lila “her energy, the fragility of her sentiments, her determination.”

She and her mother have moved to be close to the set. Unlike the other girls, who burned to tell their friends about the role of a lifetime, Girace wanted to keep it a secret. “It was a thing for me,” she says softly. “A personal thing.”

Margherita Mazzucco, the fifteen-year-old who plays the older Lenù, is fairer, with thick, wavy hair. She welcomes me to the courtyard, “where I live,” she jokes, and complains that the costumed padding is making her seem heavier.

“I’ve never acted, never done anything,” she says. “Even today, I asked myself why they picked me.” In the course of devouring the books, she at first saw nothing of herself in the naive “and nice” Lenù. But as an actress, she has learned they both “observe everything.”

 

Have you read the books and/or seen the show?