Home is…?

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Montreal’s Habitat, a legendary bit of architecture

 

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’ve moved around a fair bit — as every child in a military family knows well, like the author of Small Dog Syndrome blog — it’s sometimes challenging to decide where home really is.

I’ve now lived decades in the same one-bedroom apartment in the same building in the same suburban New York town, by far the longest I have ever lived anywhere.

When my adult midlife peers lament the final sale of their beloved childhood home, I think: “Huh.” Not me.

I’ve moved a lot and have lived in five countries. But it’s now been a long, long time since I last changed residences, absolutely worn out after changing my home location six times in seven years.

It takes time to settle in, to get to know a place and its rhythms.

And, sometimes — despite all your highest hopes and best intentions — it’s just a really poor fit.

I did not enjoy living in Montreal, even with the nicest apartment anywhere ever (fireplace, 15 foot ceilings, spacious rooms) — the winter was too cold and long and snowy and the professional possibilities far too limited. Plus incredibly high taxes and, then anyway, a disturbingly high crime rate. Our building was broken into a lot.

Same for my 1.5 years in small-town New Hampshire, before the Internet, with no family/friends/job and an exhausted/absent medical resident for a boyfriend.

 

My homes:

Vancouver

Born, lived to age two.

London

ages two to five, with my parents, while my father made films for the BBC.

 

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The Ex, an annual event in Toronto

 

Toronto, ages five to 30

— a gorgeous huge house with a big backyard. Parents divorced when I was seven.

— boarding school Grades 4-9 and summer camp (four of them) ages 8-17

— a downtown apartment shared with my mother.

— a second apartment in the same building, shared with my mother.

— an apartment with my father and his girlfriend.

— a house (owned), also living with with them, in a lovely neighborhood, facing a park.

— a ground-floor, back alley studio in a bad neighborhood, until a man tried to pull me out of the bathroom window while I was in the bath. Lived alone.

— a sorority house, for the summer. Shared space, very comforting!

— a top floor studio apartment near campus; alone.

— a top floor apartment in a downtown Victorian house; with boyfriend.

— the top two floors of a (rented) house; with boyfriend, then alone.

 

Cuernavaca, Mexico

— six months with my mother in a rented apartment, age 14

 

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Montreal has some amazing  buildings!

 

Montreal, Quebec

— one year, with my mother in a rented apartment in a downtown brownstone, age 12

— 1.5 years on the top floor of a luxury 1930s-era rental building in downtown while a Montreal Gazette reporter; alone.

 

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Now that’s my kind of delivery! The Marais, one morning…

 

Paris

— eight months in a tiny student dorm room in Cite Universitaire while on an EU-funded journalism fellowship.

 

Lebanon, New Hampshire

— two years in a rented apartment on the main floor of a farmhouse, with boyfriend-later-husband.

 

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A walk along the Palisades, on the western shore of the Hudson River

 

 

Tarrytown, New York

—  current residence; married, divorced, solo, now re-married.

 

I know people here now.

I run into D, the amiable Frenchman who helps choose stock for our local thrift shop and notice he’s still limping, months after he broke his ankle.

I chat with M, a hardware store sales associate I interviewed in 2009 for my retail book, and who works for a man whose great-grandfather started the company.

I say hello to Hassan, who hands me shards of ham and bits of candied pecans at his gourmet shop.

I bump into friends on the street and at the gym and the train station and the grocery store and at church.

When I return to Montreal and Toronto, I’m also delighted to spend time with old friends and to enjoy familiar foods and sights and sounds and all our shared cultural references that none of my American pals will ever get.

 

So I feel lucky that so many places have been my home. I feel as bien dans ma peau speaking French in Montreal and Paris as I do hablando en Mexico as I do ordering a bagel with a schmear here in New York. 

 

Will we move again?

When?

Where?

Why?

 

Where is home for you?

 

A new challenge: Les Mis en francais

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Because I need to do something with my brain that’s just for me.

I play Scrabble on the computer at the advanced level and read a lot but want to keep the old head in gear and sharpen my wits as best I can.

I studied French for three years at University of Toronto, decades ago, but only to make sure I could work in it as a reporter, which I did in my 20s and 30s.

But I never studied French literature! Never poetry! What a loss.

I’ve been watching and enjoying the BBC series of “Les Misérables”, which prompted me to get a copy of the book — written in 1832 by Victor Hugo — from our library system.

I still have my trusty French-English dictionary from college, so feel ready to go.

I read out loud to practice my accent and had forgotten what a workout it is physically to speak French! I began studying it in Toronto in elementary school and later lived for eight months in Paris and have been back many, many times.

I like to say I am fluent, and am confident in most situations that don’t demand highly specialized vocabularies (science, tech, medicine, etc.)

We’ll see how many of its 1,651 pages (!) I can get through in the six weeks the library allows.

Have you ever read it, in any language?

 

Have you read other books in a language that is not your native tongue?

 

Niksen, farniente, lassitude. REST!

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I lay for long lazy hours alone on this beach in July 2017 in Croatia. Heaven!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s all sort of sad, really.

In this recent New York Times story — putatively touting the benefits of doing absolutely nothing, aka niksen — the whole reason for doing nothing is…to be more productive:

 

More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense.

We at Smarter Living have long been fans of taking regular breaks throughout the day, as study after study shows that feeling drowsy, exhausted or otherwise mentally depleted during the workday drastically hinders performance and productivity.

In other words: Whether at home or at work, permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out.

 

Insert my very loud scream right here.

 

I did something unthinkable to the old me today.

I skipped the second jam-packed day at an annual writers’ conference: missing appointments and new potential clients, not seeing old friends and basically wasting the money I paid for all of it.

Instead, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I stayed home, alone and quiet.

I didn’t do this to become more productive!

I did it because I was tired.

I really needed to rest.

I did this because my body told me to sleep 9.5 hours last night, which I gratefully did.

I did it because I cried to a friend in a NYC tea room, worn out with anxiety.

We live in a time when millions of us are being forced into economic precarity — aka the “gig economy”, a phrase I loathe. Because this kind of work is always somewhat unpredictable (I lost my two anchor clients overnight), and can be poorly paid, one is very reluctant to turn away income, to slow down, to just….be still.

Which makes it even more important to just do that.

Nothing.

And plenty of it, dammit!

 

Do you find it hard to slow down, unplug, unwind and just rest?

 

Reframing rejection

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One of my coffee-stained notebooks from my last staff job. Laid off, not fun!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and necessary part of every working day.

— Anonymous

 

Does anyone anywhere relish rejection? Not really.

I recently interviewed for a dream job — didn’t get it. I applied for a very well paid corporate job and was interviewed, didn’t get it. Jose and I both applied for very good journalism jobs at major outlets in D.C.

Not even an interview.

So, yeah, we’re quite familiar with the concept!

My first two books were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major NYC house took each one on. So, even after a lot of rejection, you can achieve a goal.

If you don’t give up.

 

 

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

 

 

An interesting piece by Adam Grant  on this topic in The New York Times:

A good starting point is to remove, “It’s not you, it’s me” from your vocabulary. Sometimes it really is them! But the real reason to ban that phrase is because most of the time when we get rejected, it’s not you. It’s not me either. It’s us.

Rejection often happens because of a lack of fit in the relationship: Your values were a mismatch for that interviewer, your skills didn’t quite suit that job, your ratty conference T-shirts failed to overlap with the taste of your decreasingly significant other. New research reveals that when people are in the habit of blaming setbacks on relationships instead of only on the individuals involved, they’re less likely to give up — and more motivated to get better.

It also helps to recognize that our lives are composed of many selves…When one of your identities is rejected, resilience comes from turning to another identity that matters to you.

This is the only way I’ve really stayed sane through so many rejections.

While American life is determined to reduce us all to more productive automatons, who feel guilty if we do anything that’s not income producing, we are all so much more than that!

When my ideas are rejected — as they are all the time,  by which I mean every week, sometimes every day! —

 

I’m still:

 

— a much beloved wife

— a welcomed neighbor

— a valued friend

— a member of my spin class

— a member of my church

— a wise contributor to many on-line writing groups where others seek advice

— athletic and flexible and strong

— multi-lingual

— a traveler

— a very good cook and hostess

It looks as though my latest book proposal will get looked at by an editor. I should be more excited, but until it sells, if it does, I’m holding my fire.

It was roundly rejected last year by multiple agents, which — I admit — left me really frustrated and dejected.

 

How well do you handle rejection?

Which was your best decade? Worst?

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One of the great pleasures of Montreal, the Atwater Market

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We listen to satellite radio in our nicer car and, I admit it, I listen to the ’80s channel.

Why?

Because, yes, it was easily my best and most fun decade, my 20s.

Promptly followed by my worst, the ’90s.

So, my ’80s:

 

1982-3

I win an eight-month-long fellowship, based in Paris on Rue du Louvre at the CFPJ, called Journalists in Europe, which chooses 28 men and women 25 to 35 who speak fluent French and English to come and study Europe and write about it, traveling throughout as a group and on solo 10-day reporting trips. There are JEs from Togo, Bangladesh, India, New Zealand, Brazil, China and many others. We form unlikely close friendships, like mine with Yasuro,  from Japan, discussing baseball in French. It’s an amazing, exhausting, life-changing year, the happiest of my life, creating friendships that will last for many decades yet to come and giving me a tremendous boost of skills and self-confidence. Plus, getting to live in Paris!

1983-84

I return to dreary Toronto and finally break up with my live-in boyfriend there who wants to get married. I don’t want to get married so young.

1984-1986

I finally win my dream job, as a reporter for Canada’s best newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I get to cover a Royal Tour, following Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip across Canada for two weeks, a Quebec election and stories from profiling a female prison warden to a series on re-using disposable medical supplies. But it’s a mean, tough, elbows-out newsroom and after 2.5 years I’m burned out and need a break. A friend helps me win my next job.

1986-1988

I move to Montreal to become a feature writer for the Montreal Gazette. I meet my first husband, an American in his final year of medical school at McGill. I love my spectacular top-floor apartment in a gorgeous 1930s downtown building, with two bedrooms, a working fireplace and tall windows. Nicest place I’ve ever lived. But I didn’t love the Gazette and I really hated the ferocity and length of a Montreal winter.

1988-1989

Unbelievable luck — I get an H1-B visa to work for three months in Hanover, NH as an editor, in the exact place my first husband (not yet my fiance) is in his medical residency at Dartmouth. I’m able to get a “green card” to live and work in the U.S, thanks to my mother’s birth in the U.S. and I move to Lebanon, NH. I’ve left behind career, income, friends. But, pre-Internet, locals are so unfriendly I can barely believe it. I usually make friends easily and quickly. We’re broke and my boyfriend is exhausted all the time, if he’s even home. This makes for the roughest experience I’ve had in many years.

1990

We move to New York, to a suburban town where we buy an apartment that needs renovation we can’t afford. It takes me six months of cold calls, and a lucky New York Times’ job ad, to get my first job, as a senior editor at a monthly magazine focused on global news — saved by my ability to speak French and Spanish. We know no one.

1992-1994

I quit that job, and get married, albeit with very serious doubts about whether it will last, no matter how hard I’m willing to work at it. My family wants nothing to do with me and I’ve already had the best jobs in my industry in Toronto and Montreal. Not a lot of options. After barely two years, my husband walks out and re-marries someone from his workplace.

1995-1999

Chaos. I get divorced. I have a few staff jobs, but they don’t last. I had alimony, but it ends. I start online dating and meet a con man through a newspaper ad, who is ruthless and vicious and terrifies me. I waste four months of my life with him, trying to get him arrested and charged, but give up. I am burned out. I am lonely. I am struggling financially.  In 1998 I fly, on my dime, all the way to Australia and New Zealand, hoping to write and sell my first book, a narrative of the women’s boat in that year’s round-the-world Whitbread (now Volvo) Yacht Race. But they blow me off when I get there…so I have a great but very expensive and unplanned vacation alone.

2000

Phew. I meet Jose, now my husband, in March. Finally, life starts to become happy again.

 

Have you had a rough decade?

Or one (maybe several) filled with joy and accomplishment?

Social triage

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I miss these amazing women — the team at my radiation clinic. This was Nov. 15, 2018, my final day of treatment.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve written a lot here about trying to find community and loneliness.

But social triage is also  — as we say — “a thing.”

Just as ER and conflict medical staff triage patients into: will die, might die, treat first, we tend to decide who’s going to be closest to us and to which friends, or family, we’ll devote the bulk of whatever time and affection we can spare.

I was diagnosed in late May 2018 with very early-stage breast cancer and am, thankfully, fine. But it has, as serious illness tends to do, made much clearer to me who I most want in my life and who, now, I really don’t.

(Others have made the same decision about me — three former friendships died a long time ago. It happens.)

 

 

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So who are the people I now want closest and treasure most?

 

— We laugh a lot.

— We make consistent and concerted efforts to see one another face to face, even if only by Skype across an ocean.

— Regular long phone conversations — texts and emojis are just not enough.

— Regular play dates: coffee, lunch, a museum or show.

— Some have accompanied me to medical appointments, their mere presence a tremendous comfort.

— Months may go by without much contact, but we trust one another’s affection and loyalty to know that life gets crazy and we will re-connect.

— We send one another little gifts or cards just because we can.

— They really understand that life can be frightening, and show compassion for fear, anxiety and tears. They don’t flee when times are difficult.

 

 

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Those left behind?

 

— It’s always all about them. They don’t even draw breath before launching into a 20-minute monologue.

— They never simply ask “How are you doing?”

— So much drrrrrraaaaaaaama! Exhausting.

— People who radiate haste and anxiety. Much as I have compassion for them, I stay far away. I have enough anxiety of my own.

— People with no sense of perspective, who whine and complain about issues that are for them enormous — but which in the larger scheme of things are minor and easily resolved.

— People who never initiate contact but wait for me to jump-start every meeting.

— People unable to know how much their own challenges are already softened by the privileges of good health and enough income.

 

Have you become more selective about your friendships?

When age becomes a four-letter word

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’m now in that fabulous place where I’m at the top of my game professionally —- and fewer and fewer terrific work opportunities, certainly full-time jobs with affordable health insurance, are available to me because of my age.

Speaking by phone, I recently had a new/potential PR strategy client — a man — ask me directly: “How old are you?”

I was a bit stunned and finally, laughing, replied: “Over 45. That’s enough.”

I could have said over 50 but imagine….all those extra years!

Here’s a recent New York Times op-ed on the double standard women in politics face regarding their age:

 

The Democrats vying for 2020 run a remarkable age gamut. Mr. Buttigieg is the youngest and Bernie Sanders, at 77, is the oldest. The prominent female candidates cluster more in the middle: Kirsten Gillibrand is the youngest at 52, and Elizabeth Warren is the oldest at 69, with Kamala Harris (54) and Amy Klobuchar (58) in the middle. But whether a youngish candidate is bright, brilliant and promising or inexperienced, off-putting and ruthlessly ambitious depends on whether the young thing in question is male or female…

Unfortunately for women, age poses an unsolvable problem: They are seen as too young and inexperienced right up until they are branded too old and tedious. Ms. Warren, for example, finds herself put in the sameold” category as Mr. Sanders and Joe Biden, even though both men are nearly a decade older than she is.

Men who are more or less the same age as Ms. Warren — Sherrod Brown (66), John Hickenlooper (67), Jay Inslee (68) — are not lumped in with the white-hairs. If women in their 40s are “in a hurry,” and women in their 50s are old news, and women in their 60s are just old, when, exactly, is a woman supposed to go to the White House?

 

I probably use social media more often than most women in their 30s or 40s — who are already swamped climbing the career ladder, commuting and/or parenting.

Yet, here we go, also in the NYT:

 

“We don’t want to lean out of that, we want the Cami-stans to want to pick it up,” one editor piped in. (For those over the age of 40: a “stan” is a kind of superfan.)

 

Seriously, enough with this bullshit.

Like anyone north of 40, let alone beyond, doesn’t read?

Watch TV, YouTube, Insta?

Tweet?

I have no kids or grand-kids, so if I want to talk to someone decades my junior, it’s going to be social and/or professional, not familial.

Luckily, I still have friends in their 20s, 30s and 40s and really enjoy their companionship. I’m delighted when they choose to hang out for an afternoon or catch up for a long phone or Skype chat. I offer advice when asked (and sometimes when not!) but our concerns are hardly wildly different — where’d you get that fantastic lipstick? How’s work? How’s the new house?  What are you reading these days? Mammos hurt!

 

Friendship, in my world, need know no boundaries.

 

Work, illegally and so annoyingly, does.

I don’t Venmo (I use PayPal) but I actually do know what it is.

The next time you assume someone older than you is de facto ignorant of a word or phrase or reference, ask.

Then be pleasantly surprised — or have a useful conversation in which you share your knowledge.

Where will love take you?

 

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Atwater Market, in Montreal, where I met my first husband

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

My mother was 17 — a headstrong American beauty freshly graduated from her prep school. My father was then 23, a handsome sailor from Vancouver painting in the south of France, supported by his father.

They met, bien sur!, in a little village on the Cote d’Azur at a party and that was that. My mother, desperate to flee life with her wealthy mother who kept marrying and divorcing (six times, maybe eight?), returned to New York City and married my father at the enormous Romanesque Park Avenue cathedral of St. Bartholomew. I used to walk past it on the way to one of my Manhattan journalism jobs, aware it was partially responsible for my even being in New York.

They moved back to Vancouver — a provincial backwater in the early 50s —  but they had fun: he opened an art gallery and she modeled. They moved to London for three years after I was born; (he made films for the BBC) then to Toronto, finally divorcing there, where I grew up.

I wanted to get to New York and I also wanted to marry, but I couldn’t quite imagine how either of those things would happen. I couldn’t picture a Canadian man willing and legally able to move to New York.

 

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Montreal

 

Living in Montreal in the 1980s, working as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, I met my first husband — also a party guest at my housewarming. He was an American from New Jersey, in his final year of medical school at McGill.

We spent seven years together in New Hampshire and New York; I followed him to the U.S. in 1988, legally able to do so thanks to my mother’s citizenship.

My mother and I basically switched lives — I to live in a town 25 miles north of her birthplace, New York City, and she living 25 miles north of Vancouver, my birthplace.

I also longed to better understand the American side of my family, which included a rancher, an ambassador, a bullfighter and an archeologist, and the drive and ambition that led my paternal great-grandfather to develop a Chicago landmark, still there, the North American Building. Thanks to him, I knew the names of downtown Chicago streets as well as those of my native Toronto.

 

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The Met Opera. New York City. I do love the elegance!

 

My mother, politically liberal, was much happier in Canada than in the sharp-elbowed U.S. Without a college degree, she also couldn’t compete effectively for good jobs; luckily for her, she inherited enough money she never had to.

Jose, my second/current husband, and I met in the year 2000 — when I wrote a story for a women’s magazine about a then new trend called on-line dating; my profile placed on aol.com drew 200+ replies from around the world but he lived within the desired radius of 35 miles.

We were wondering the other day how our lives would have turned out had we never met, which seems happily unimaginable to us now, all these years later.

What if he’d gone back to Denver, a city he loved?

What if I’d returned after my divorce to Canada or to France?

What if?

What if?

 

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Northern Ontario, a landscape I love and miss

 

I’m always intrigued by people who move very far from their homes for love.

It is a huge leap of faith — as getting divorced in another country can be really expensive and lonely and confusing.

It seems normal in our circles, peripatetic journalists and photographers. One friend became the “trailing spouse” and follows his wife to every State Department posting. I have a friend in London, recently widowed, who met her American husband while reporting in Israel. A couple we know — he’s French, she’s American — met (of course) while both were were working as journalists in Tokyo.

 

Have you ever moved a long distance, even to another country, for love?

Did it end happily?

 

Too many screens?

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At least these screens were used at a recent photo conference — in a room filled with other people!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

And yet, here we are again!

A recent New York Times piece on how the wealthy eschew screen time while the rest of us poor suckers spend all our time on them:

Life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.

Not only are screens themselves cheap to make, but they also make things cheaper. Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass.

Which is a terrible paradox.

 

Without a screen, your phone or computer, I couldn’t be communicating right now with you and with readers arriving at this blog (!) from the most unlikely of places — New Zealand, Nepal, Romania, Zimbabwe, VietNam, Yemen, South Africa.

Without a screen, I wouldn’t be earning our monthly living costs by reading on-line, setting up interviews by email then writing on a laptop and hitting send.

Without a screen, I couldn’t use Skype to chat with friends, and coaching fellow writers and doing PR strategy, with those living outside my town.

 

And yet…I get lonely and bored if all my interactions are thus mediated.

I get out into nature.

I regularly meet friends for a meal or a coffee.

We throw dinner parties.

Church, occasionally.

A new-to-me weekly meditation group of women.

 

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I host an annual women’s tea party, using an early 19th. century tea-set.

I go to the gym at least three times a week, as much to be social in spin class and afterward as to exercise.

 

Here’s a new book I’m eager to read, written by Mark Boyle,  a British man who has gone back to living alone an 18th century rural life there since 2016, eschewing all technology.

Here’s a recent piece by him in The Guardian:

 

This way of life is often described as “the simple life”. Looking at it head-on, it’s far from simple. This life is actually quite complex, made up of a thousand small, simple things. By comparison, my old urban life was quite simple, made up of a thousand small, complex things. I found industrial life too simple, and thus repetitive and boring. With all of its apps, switches, electronic entertainment, power tools, websites, devices, comforts and conveniences, there was almost nothing left for me to do for myself, except that one thing that earned me the cash to buy my other needs and wants. So as Kirkpatrick Sale once wrote in Human Scale, my wish became “to complexify, not simplify”.

 

 

How about you?

Are you trying to lessen your screen time these days?

Coping with fragility

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

What a concept.

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.

Today?

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.

Therapy helps.

Telling good friends helps.

But it’s a process.

 

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