Talking to strangers…

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For this New York Times story, I spoke to this woman and teachers and volunteers and many middle school students

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I spend my professional life speaking with strangers, an odd way to describe journalism — since everyone focuses on the (cough) fame, fortune or fake news that’s the written or broadcast end result.

But if I don’t speak to strangers — and those have included Queen Elizabeth, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, a female Admiral and a few celebrities (like Billy Joel at the very start of his career) — I have nothing to work with. Just as every builder needs bricks and mortar and windows and doors and HVAC to create a functional home, I need to assemble quotes, facts and anecdotes to write interesting stories.

People assume that, because it’s a journalist’s job to talk to strangers, we each find it comfortable and easy. But sometimes it’s excruciating, like speaking to the survivors of or witnesses to rape, genocide, war, mass shootings — meeting people in their most vulnerable moments, sensitively (at best!) managing their tender emotions even as we struggle to mask or contain our own.

But it’s also the part of the work I most enjoy. People are so different, and yet we all want to be listened to attentively and respectfully.

We want to be met with interest, empathy, compassion.

It’s good to find common ground.

It’s great to share a laugh!

I also talk to strangers when I’m out and about — at the gym or grocery store or on the train and, especially, when I sit alone at a bar and chat (when welcomed) to the person beside me.

And because I’ve traveled widely and often alone — Istanbul to Fiji, Peru to the Arctic — I’ve also had to rely many times on the advice, kindness and wisdom of strangers. It does require good judgment and the confidence to suss out a baddie from a perfectly kind soul. So far my only misjudgement, of course, happened at home in suburban New York.

This past week was a perfect example of why, (and yes I’m careful)…I sat at the bar, as I usually do when I eat out alone, at a fun restaurant, and the man beside me was heavily tattooed, had a thick, gray lumberjack beard and was on his second or third tequila. His name was Joe and we had a terrific conversation — he’s a tattoo artist and former Marine.

We could not have less in common!

And yet, a lively, friendly chat ensued.

The power of journalism, in forcing its front-line staff to talk to hundreds of strangers every year, is that it shoves us out of any self-defined “comfort zone” — a phrase I truly loathe. No matter how I personally feel about a specific subject (and, as a freelancer I won’t take on something I know will revolt me), I have to remain polite and respectful to my interlocutor.

If only every teen and every adult would make time to civilly engage with people they don’t know, whose politics they haven’t predetermined and admired, whose race and gender and sexual preference and age and clothing and demeanor and house and vehicle don’t signal they’re predictably and cozily “one of us.”

 

Would the U.S. — or Britain — be any less divided?

 

Do you speak to strangers beyond necessary commercial or medical interactions?

A must-see film: Capernaum

By Caitlin Kelly

Sometimes you watch a film that feels like a punch to the solar plexus.

In a good way.

I was bored and channel-surfing this week on yet another stiflingly hot evening when, at 10:00 pm, I found a film I had really wanted to see in 2018 when it came out. It received rapturous reviews, including a 15 minute standing ovation when screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Capernaum — also named Chaos — was filmed in a dusty, crowded Beirut for $4 million, starring a 12 year old Syrian refugee named Zain who’d already survived eight years in that city’s slums. The stars of the film include the most gorgeous baby — not more than a year old — and an Ethiopian woman, his mother, living and working there in menial jobs illegally.

If there is a film that more powerfully shows what it’s like to scrape every single day for food, water, income and dignity, I don’t know what it is.

The child who plays Zain is also named Zain, and was 12 at the time of filming, then illiterate. He is so tiny he looks like he might be eight or ten. (He now lives in Norway.)

Every element of this film is searing: the fate of his sister Sahar, a child bride; his abusive parents unable to care for him in any way; his resilience; the empathy and compassion Rahil shows for him (the mother of the baby) and his, in turn, for her toddler.

There’s a kind of intimacy and immediacy to this film that renders everything more slick and produced meaningless in comparison. It is in Arabic and Amharic with subtitles.

Slumdog Millionaire made in 2008 for $15 million — and which made $377.89 million — is the only other film that comes to mind like this, and Capernaum is much better.

Like Slumdog, it was made on  a small budget of $4 million (thanks to a producer who mortgaged his home), and has so far earned $68.6 million becoming a huge and unexpected hit in China.

Ironic that two films about desperately impoverished street children have proven so popular and lucrative.

I sure hope these child actors have also enjoyed some of that wealth!

Here’s the film’s trailer.

Find it. 

Watch it.

Extraordinary.

Isolation is deadly. Ask for help!

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War correspondent, the late Marie Colvin, was a tough nut…she had to be.

By Caitlin Kelly

It has been a brutal year for New York City police officers — two of whom committed suicide this week alone, nine so far this year.

A friend, Tanzina Vega, is rocking it as host of the daily NPR radio show The Takeaway, and they did a great segment on this; link here.

The show dug into why police officers are prone to depression and to making the terrible final decision of suicide.

A key element, not surprisingly, is a professional culture of silence.

If managers and supervisors don’t allow workers to show tender, difficult feelings — of grief, fear, confusion, anger, revulsion — all of which would be normal reactions to the toughest elements of police work, where can those emotions go?

Nowhere.

If fellow professionals sneer at you for being “weak”, you won’t ever show how you really feel, no matter how toxic is it to marinate in misery alone.

A former cop who spoke on the show referred to after-work drinks as “choir practice”, alcohol being one acceptable way to numb one’s feelings after another day dealing with violence, mayhem and death.

 

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This also hit me because journalism offers a very similar culture — long hours, low pay and a lot of stress. It’s hierarchical and macho. The “best” assignments, the ones that win us front page and major awards, are often about witnessing and describing in detail the very worst events — shootings, terrorism, natural disasters.

Some journalists are as exposed to violence and gore as cops, yet we, too, have almost nowhere to let out our feelings of horror and sadness after the story is filed or the broadcast made. And co-workers and managers working on less disturbing material have no idea what it’s like, while those who do can, like cops, often throw up a thick, tight wall of defense, dismissing anyone’s emotions about it as sissy or unprofessional.

When they are human.

In my early 20s, I worked briefly at the Canadian Press, a wire service, and my Sunday night job was “fats” — short for “fatalities”. I had to find the province’s deaths that weekend — like car crashes — and write them into a story.

I began to dread it.

I really hated it when a perky coworker named Judy finally said “It’s just numbers!”

No.

It’s human beings.

The day we ignore, dismiss and bury our grief and rage — whether created by our feelings about work or politics or climate change or family dramas — is the day we turn that violence against ourselves.

 

Everyone needs and deserves a safe space to air these out.

Reporting a big story — a how-to

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The NYC food bank — which I visited in 2015 while working on a story about it

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I can’t reveal the details for a few months, but for those of you interested in how big newspaper or magazine stories come to be…

I’ll be doing a fair bit of my reporting on-site, these days a luxury.

After months of editorial rejections, I found an outlet interested in the subject.

So it all starts with an editor saying yes to an assignment, agreeing to a length, fee and deadline, and the scope of the work.

A lot of my recent work has been frustratingly short — pieces of 300 or 500 or 1,300 words. Journalism — Dickensian! — usually pays by the word, so you can immediately see why a 3,500 word story is, in some ways, more valuable, even if it takes a lot longer to produce.

And today “longform” can be as short as 1,500 words, which barely scratches the surface of any complex topic.

To even begin setting up interviews with the right people — as you always have somewhat limited time — means visualizing the many pieces of the story:

 

Who are the primary characters? Secondary? Tertiary?

What powerful visual scenes can I offer readers to get into the story and keep following it to the end?

What about anecdotes?

Data and statistics?

Podcasts on the subject?

What else has been written about it?

How should it be illustrated visually — graphics? charts? maps? Photos? Illustrations?

Does it also need a video component?

Is there film, video and audio of the subject and its experts?

What about their tweets or YouTube videos or TED talks?

Books and white papers and academic studies to read?

 

Essential to the process is simply understanding the scope of the story….and sometimes that means finding a few generous insiders, often fellow journalists on the ground who are expert on the topic, to help orient you. Much as this is a very competitive business, I’ve been fortunate so far on this one to have gotten some extremely helpful insights from the beginning.

As you start to contact sources, especially experts, there’s a bit of an unspoken game happening as, when you speak to them, they’re taking your measure — are you smart? respectful? well-prepared? Are your questions incisive or banal?

I recently spoke to a major source who suggested I speak to X and Y, major players in the field. When I told them I already have an interview set up with them soon, I knew I had won some more of this source’s confidence in me — and they sent me a tremendous list of new contacts and background reading.

Every interview is in some way an audition for the next — if a source decides you have enough street cred, they’ll refer you on to well-placed others they know can be helpful as well. Or not! It’s a bit like walking out onto ice, knowing it can crack or continue to support you on your journey.

 

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

 

Especially now — in an era when the cynical scream Fake News! and yet every journalist I know lives in mortal fear of losing their job — being transparent about our methods and motivations is more important than ever,

When I speak to “civilians” — regular people who don’t have a PR firm or communications team, or who have never spoken to a journalist before — I’m careful to explain, before we start an interview, the rules of engagement:

I need to identify them fully.

I will quote their words unless before they speak we agree that those words are off the record.

They will not get to read my story ahead of publication but I will make sure to clarify anything I am not sure I understand.

So far I’ve done a few 60 to 90 minute phone interviews to better understand this story and am now setting up dozens of additional ones, some face to face whenever possible, some by Skype and phone. The worst is email, since it doesn’t create the spontaneity of conversation.

By the time I’m done, I expect to have spoken to dozens of people and read a few books on it; some of those people won’t be quoted or visible to the reader, but their ideas and insights have helped to guide me.

 

Then…oh yeah, writing!

 

Life on the Hudson River: 7 joys

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

I grew up in Toronto, a city that has managed, except for a few exceptions at its most eastern and western edges, to cut off easy access to Lake Ontario.

So it’s been a tremendous joy to spend decades living on the eastern edge of the Hudson River, with terrific views from our every window.

Some of our many riparian pleasures include:

 

 

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The new bridge

 

It’s gorgeous! The old one, in use between 1955-2017, was desperately overdue for replacement and finally was torn down and replaced with this stunning new version spanning the Hudson. It glows at night in lavender. Details here.

 

Sunsets and sunrises

 

We have a gloriously clear view from our bedroom window of the exact moment the rising sun hits all the windows of homes across the river, high on its opposite shore, lighting them up in a stunning, brief blaze of red. I call it the ruby moment and love to track how that time changes with the seasons.

Sunsets are always spectacular, whether streaks of orange and purple or a single red ball dropping over the horizon.

River traffic

It’s very much a working river, with plenty of big barges being shoved ahead by small, powerful tugboats. There is some sailing, kayaking and canoeing as well, with boat clubs up and down the river.

 

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Boscobel

 

Swoon! It’s embarrassing to admit that only this year, thanks to a discount ticket and a musical I had longed to see — Into the Woods — did I finally drive 45 minutes north to this exquisite early 19th century estate that holds an annual Shakespeare Festival on the grounds. The house, painted mustard, is gorgeous from the outside (I intend to go back for a tour), and the theater was a hoot. It’s like a circus big top, with seats on 3 sides, and a sand-filled stage with three exits.

 

 

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People arrived a few hours before the Broadway show, which debuted in 1986, spreading out picnic blankets on the lawn, enjoying the sunshine and spectacular river views, and starting their meals with bottles of wine and friends.

 

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The performance I saw was fantastic, prompting a standing ovation well-deserved.

Olana

 

Built in 1872, this spectacular hilltop mansion — with stunning views — was the home of legendary painter Frederic Church. It’s filled with fantastic, high Victorian art and architecture.

Cold Spring

 

I was married there, the first time, in May 1992, in a lovely and austere chapel right at the river’s edge — shown in period engravings — built in 1833 and abandoned in 1906. It has no electricity, just a huge chandelier lit by candles. Our Lady of Restoration is now non-denominational. From its website:

 

the first Catholic church north of Manhattan.

Its designer was another immigrant, a 19-year-old from England, Thomas Kelah Wharton. Built in 1833 of locally made red brick covered with stucco, the chapel was in the Greek Revival style, then in vogue. Its columns were of the Tuscan order, a simple, unfluted version of the Doric, whose supreme expression is the Parthenon in Athens..

Contemporary press describes a festive dedication, September 21, 1834, with people arriving by boat. A large choir performed, along with a band from West Point, “whose notes might be heard in the recesses of the mountains,” for dignitaries of church and state.

The town is a fun easy day trip from Manhattan, 50 miles north, easily accessible by commuter train.

It’s also a spot where the river is very narrow and the landscape feels timeless, like you’ve been whisked back to 1773 or 1842.

Metro-North’s Hudson Line

A paean to a commuter train line?

Yes.

It’s almost always on-time, with cars that are usually clean and always air-conditioned.

Its tracks — most compellingly — run parallel to, and very close to, the Hudson River.

As the train heads north from Grand Central Terminal, it skirts the Harlem River before turning north. If you sit in the window seat on the river-facing side, you’re always guaranteed one of the prettiest rail commutes in the U.S.

Learning to say no

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By Caitlin Kelly

Anyone poorly parented and/or the victim of bullies and narcissists knows how extremely difficult it can be for their victims to say no.

Ever.

To anyone.

To anything.

To the most absurd and unrelenting demands.

 

Because what happened after I’ve said no is…abandonment. Estrangement. Rejection. Verbal or physical cruelty. Job loss.

I’ve lived in fear for decades — and readers know I express plenty of strong opinions here and in my writing and books and on social media — of these outcomes in my personal and professional life.

My industry, journalism, is in such utter chaos — with the most job cuts in 2019 since 2008 — that those with jobs will do anything to keep them, and the hell with us freelancers, seen by many as disposable commodities, easily and cheaply replaced with someone, always, terrified and docile.

I have never seen such shitty behavior.

The past two weeks made me snap.

First, a baby editor with zero social skills — who I later found out has been this rude and aggressive with other veteran writers. Then, this week, a source decided it was appropriate to throw me and my skills under the bus.

Then stalk me on Twitter.

 

Done.

 

In both instances, their entitled behavior — unprovoked and insistent — left me shaking and shaken.

From now on, I’m just walking.

This is,  a great luxury, and a measure of privilege because it’s possible only with the explicit agreement and financial and moral support of my husband and a bank account plundered to make up the lost $1,050 in anticipated/needed income from these two stories.

Most Americans don’t even have the savings to say…I’m gone. I’m not putting up with this.

Because without savings, and the ability to never engage with them again, we’re all left groveling to bullies.

 

DONE.

How’s your summer going?

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By Caitlin Kelly

How did it get to be August already?!

But here we are.

Have you been enjoying yours? Did you take any time off? Travel?

June is my birthday month, so we always plan something fun. We flew to Jose’s hometown of Santa Fe for eight perfect days, and really splurged. We got first class airline tickets, and that’s it. My future life! (I wish.)

 

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We stayed four days with friends then enjoyed a comfortable and quiet hotel room a few blocks from downtown, ate great good, saw friends, played a round of golf. I haven’t been that relaxed in a long, long time. It was bliss!

July has been the usual frenzy of seeking and completing freelance work for a variety of people — nbcnews.com, a blog post for branded content, three short pieces for a magazine focused on hemophilia, for which I got to interview a UK cyclist who’d just finished the Tour de France. That was fun!

I’ve committed to a major reporting project that takes us north to Canada on the 31st for a few weeks. I can’t say more until it’s published but am really excited to finally once more tackle a serious, challenging story. I enjoy my work, but writing 300 words or 500 words or even 1,000 words barely scratches the surface of most issues.

This story proposal was rejected by at least six other places, so it’s also a relief to have found a good home for it.

And Jose is coming with me! We have never really worked together, so that’s exciting.

Fun this summer has included enjoying afternoons — usually 3pm to 5:30 — at our building’s swimming pool and lots of time on our balcony IDing bird calls and the many many flights overhead, using FlightRadar24.

For aviation geeks like us — living beneath the flight paths to four New York City/area airports: Westchester, NY; Newark, JFK and Laguardia — it’s a lot of fun to see who’s up there and in what aircraft and where they’re headed.

 

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Love our sunsets!

 

We’re on the top floor, so it’s lovely and private at treetop level, still with a bit of Hudson River view.

I tend to avoid New York City all summer — too hot, humid, smelly and crowded — with too many days of delayed subway service. Hell is standing on a super-jammed platform drenched in sweat with no ventilation. I’ve ventured in a few times for work and play.

This coming week I’ll visit Boscobel to see Into the Woods, a musical, for the first time. Looking forward to it!

We still have a few months to enjoy our town’s lively Saturday morning farmer’s market, complete with live music, and on the steamiest days I flee to our gorgeous town library, with its tall ceilings, silence and very good air conditioning! They even have private conference rooms so I can do phone interviews as well.

 

What fun have you been up to?

 

Getting older, becoming invisible

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By Caitlin Kelly

I live in a building dominated by older people.

Here’s my essay published this week about it on nbcnews.com:

If you really want to know what old age looks like and feels like and sounds like — forget playing around with FaceApp, whose AI technology can age your appearance in seconds on your phone. Simply plug in a current photo and the app will generate a falsely wrinkled face, sagging jowls and wispy white hair. But while the app has quickly gone viral, with artificially aged photos of celebrities and friends alike popping up all over social media, such images have almost nothing in common with the true experience of aging in America.

You just can’t imagine old age. You have to live it firsthand.

I was prompted to write it after our next door neighbor, Flo, died last week, at 91, after a final year at home bed-ridden. All we ever saw were visits from her daughters and the Russian woman who was her in-home aide.

Flo was deeply private, with a head of thick white curls and bright eyes. Only at her funeral did I learn she’d been widowed at 44 with three daughters to raise, aided by a large and supportive family.

Living in a place surrounded by seniors — a word I dislike (we don’t call people juniors!) — has shown me what aging really looks like. The same week my first husband walked out, some 25 years ago, was the week L’s husband had a stroke and never spoke again. He later died and she dated a jaunty older man who wore cool sneakers. He died.

She is now so impossibly frail, sitting with her aide.

It’s sobering. It’s instructive.

As someone with no children, I’m acutely aware, should I live into old age, I will need money and physical help to live well, safely and independently, if lucky enough to do so — my 90-year-old father does.

I lost my grandmothers the same year, when I was 18 and never met my grandfathers.

So this is what I know.

But we also have people here in their 80s looking great and living an active life.

You can’t understand what you don’t see.

The writing life, this week…

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Still hoping to sell a third book proposal…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew.

My livelihood, like that of many full-time freelancers, is intellectual piecework. Instead of sewing pockets on jeans in a factory, I chase assignments, negotiate fees and conditions (some now paying 60 days after invoice), read, sign and amend contracts, fill out the paperwork to get paid.

I also…oh thatwrite.

The past week has been a really exhausting roller-coaster.

After agreeing to a shitty fee of $750 for 1,400 words, (ironically for an outlet focused on journalism), I turned in my story, which required six interviews and reading a new book on the subject of the piece. Endless email mis-communication ensued until the very young female editor called me — at 4:55 on Friday afternoon — to find out what was going on.

Thanks to texting and emojis and a life lived only screen-mediated, many young editors and writers now exhibit a bizarre and pronounced fear of speaking by phone. Some simply don’t know how to react, civilly, in real time.

This did not go well.

She was rude, condescending, dismissive, constantly interrupting me. Two hours later she killed the story, costing me the entire fee.

Since that shitshow, I successfully pitched another idea, an essay, to a website, got a quick rejection for a New York Times op-ed, accepted three more assignments from a specialty magazine and — to my amazement — got a green light on a story that had been widely rejected for months.

I also pitched the Financial Times, allure.com, another NYT editor and Real Simple (no go) — and wrote that time-sensitive essay in 2 days.

Losing $750 I expected means postponing a dental visit, getting a new pair of glasses, paying down credit card debt. It’s not a joke. This is not a hobby.

One of the greatest challenges, for me, is just moving on after a really bad experience. That baby editor’s behavior was appalling — but it’s not my issue.

I know the excellent skills I offer. I know the people who value them.

Whatever happens, the bills keep showing up, every month, thousands of dollars needed to pay them all, in full, on time.

Like regular people.

 

This is not a life for the fragile.

The challenge of finding love

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My sweetie, making photo history by photographing the Pulitzer Prize journalism judging — his idea!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In the romantic sense, anyway.

I see a lot of anguish among my friends who are single, no matter their age. One is desperate to have children but has no partner. Another has had her heart broken a few too many times.

Another already knows men her age insist on dating women decades younger.

One of my Sunday morning pleasures is reading The New York Times wedding announcements, aka the social box scores. I admit it — my mother’s wedding and both of mine made the cut. And, for every kindergarten teacher marrying an investment banker, or a Harvard-educated physicist marrying a former White House speechwriter, there are a few fun couples you just want to cheer for, like the 71-year-old therapist and mandolin player who married an 80-year-old — and met him while sharing their love of vintage Porsches.

I married for the first time at 35 and he bailed after barely two years, re-married to a colleague within a year. He was “perfect on paper” — a tall, handsome, medical student who played clarinet and guitar and also loved to travel. But it was not to be.

Divorced (no kids) for six years, I had plenty of time to re-think who or what I most wanted — as I missed being married. One of my hopes (realized!) was to find a partner who was interesting, well-traveled, accomplished yet also modest. In New York, that’s almost impossible; I was way out of most leagues, not having an Ivy degree, let alone several.

In those years I dated a computer geek of Greek origin, a ship’s engineer and a Jewish man whose parents’ first question to me was: “Are you Catholic?” (No.)

I met a few charming liars, as anyone does when meeting people on-line. Even a convicted con man. Terrifying!

Then I wrote about online dating — still a novelty then — for Mademoiselle, a now-defunct national women’s magazine. My profile headline read, truthfully: Catch Me If You Can. Jose, now my husband, liked the challenge and we met and…that was it!

 

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In sickness, surgery and in health…

 

We would never have met any other way, as he lived 30 miles south of me in Brooklyn and worked full-time, an odd schedule, at The New York Times. The day he was to have moved in with me was 9/11.

Yes, the 9/11.

Our first few years weren’t smooth. We loved one another, but were tough, prickly, set in our ways and, typical of successful journalists, extremely competitive. Whew!

But we’ve also always been quick to laugh, to hug, to forgive. We share a ferocious work ethic. We love to mentor and entertain, to share what we have with those we love. Our sofa is well-used by visiting younger pals.

We love to travel, whether in a tent (rarely!) or an elegant city hotel. We both have spiritual practices — mine, Episcopal church, his Dzogchen Buddhism; you can see his mala beads on his left wrist below and the stained glass of the tiny wooden church on Toronto’s Centre Island.

 

5th-anniversary

September 2011

 

It’s never easy or simple to find a great match, especially later in life as career and education and children enter the picture and each of which can make a commitment more challenging.

I was unhappily single for years in Toronto because I knew I really wanted to move to New York — and who would move with me, legally? It all worked out (moved here with first husband who I met in Montreal), but who knew at the time?

I’m so grateful for how it worked out.

How have you found romantic love?