Archive for the ‘aging’ Category

The joy (and misery) of possessions

In aging, art, beauty, behavior, blogging, culture, design, domestic life, life, Style, travel on November 2, 2015 at 12:44 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

“I don’t believe in storage lockers” — prop stylist/blogger Chelsea Fuss

If you’ve never seen Chelsea’s blog, go!

I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls -- so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret...

I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls — so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret…

I’ve been following it for years, for which she’s won all sorts of awards. Fuss worked in Portland, Oregon for 14 years as a props stylist and lived like a nomad for a bit, (no husband or kids.) Now, at 37 — an age when some of us are deeply mired in conventional-if-bored-to-tears work and domesticity — is happily re-settled in, of all places, Lisbon.

I enjoy everything about her blog, and her spirit of adventure. She really has the perfect name for a woman who creates lovely images for a living!

I also share her values: a devotion to connection, to beauty, flowers, travel, quiet, making a pretty home, wherever you live, that welcomes you without spending a fortune.

Paris, January 2015. I'd rather be free to travel than stay home, encumbered by stuff

Paris, January 2015. I’d rather be free to travel than stay home, encumbered by stuff

I loved her comments here, on another woman’s blog,

When you spend your day driving around town in a cargo van buying $1000’s of dollars worth of props from Anthropologie and West Elm [NOTE: chic chain-store shops, for those who don’t know them] for photo shoots, those products start to mean very little. I am very detached (possibly to the extreme) from possessions! There are very few stores I walk into and find myself ooh-ing and aww-ing. As a prop stylist, after a while, you’ve seen it all. What’s really special are the one-off pieces, the heirlooms, the perfectly weathered linens, or the family postcard with old script that tells just the right story.

As I sort through my stuff, organizing/ditching/selling/donating/offering for consignment as much as I possibly can, it’s a powerful time to reflect on what we own, what we keep and why.

This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it's versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.

This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions — bought in 1985. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it’s versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.

Even as I’m pitching, Jose and I are treating our home to a few nice new pieces: framing a lovely image by the talented pinhole photographer Michael Falco (a gift); a striking striped kilim we’re having shipped from Istanbul that I found online, rewiring and adding a fresh new white linen shade to an early pale grey ginger jar lamp we recently found in Ontario and a spectacular mirror, probably mid-Eastern in origin, I found dusty and grimy in an antique shop in North Hatley, Quebec.

So…how can I possibly advocate less stuff?

Because we live in a one-bedroom apartment, with very limited closet space. I’ve lived here for decades, and we both work at home now and don’t plan to move into a larger space any time soon, so a constant attention to add/pitch is crucial to our sanity and tidiness. (Yes, we do have a storage locker and keep some things in our garage as well: out of season clothing, luggage, ski equipment, etc.)

I grew up in homes where my parents’ primary interests were travel and owning fewer/better quality objects than piles ‘o stuff. My family home, and ours today, was filled with original art, (prints, paintings and photos, some of them made by us, Eskimo sculpture, a Japanese mask and scroll) and a few good antiques.

I’m typing this blog post atop a table my father gave us last year, which is 18th.century English oak.

One of the lovely Indian textiles my mother collected

One of the lovely Indian textiles my mother collected, atop an Art Deco-era Japanese vanity, a gift for my 35th birthday

It boggles my mind to enjoy and use every day in 2015 an object that’s given elegant service for multiple centuries. I prefer, for a variety of reasons, using older things (pre-1900, even 1800, when possible) to new/plastic/Formica/mass-produced.

Many people inherit things from their families and cherish them for their beauty and sentimental attachment. Not me.

I own nothing from either grandfather, and only a vintage watch and a few gifts from one grandmother — she was a terrible spendthrift who simply never bothered to pay three levels of tax on her inherited fortune. Her things were sold to pay debt; if I want to see a nice armoire she once owned, it’s now in a Toronto museum.

So…no big emotional draaaaaaama for me over stuff. I’ve bought 99% of what I own, as has my husband.

I’m also of an age now when too many of my friends, even some of them decades younger, face the exhausting, time-sucking, emotionally-draining task of emptying out a parent’s home and disposing of (keeping?) their possessions. One friend is even flying to various American cities from Canada to hand-deliver some willed pieces of jewelry, so complicated is it to ship them across the border.

When my mother had to enter a nursing home on barely a week’s notice four years ago, we had to clear out and dispose of a life’s acquisitions within a week or so. Most went to a local auction house.

It was sad, painful and highly instructive.

$31. Score!

$31. Score!

Today I’m lucky enough to enjoy a few of her things: a pretty wool rug by my bedside and several exquisite pieces of early/Indian textiles; she lived in a one-bedroom apartment so there wasn’t a lot to deal with.

But if we’re lucky enough to acquire some items we really enjoy, parting with them can feel difficult.

Maybe better to keep them to a minimum?

Check out this amazing 650 square foot NYC apartment with handsome multi-functional pieces and built-ins.

How do you feel about owning/cleaning/ditching your possessions — or those of others?

This I believe…

In aging, behavior, blogging, life on October 17, 2015 at 12:37 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

I believe that beauty - wherever we find it -- nurtures us deeply

I believe that beauty – wherever we find it — nurtures us deeply

Did you ever hear the NPR radio series of this name?

Here’s a book that collected 80 essays from it.

It’s either (choose one!): pompous, boring, predictable, self-serving, self-promotional, fatally candid to publicly state your principles. Maybe.

Maybe not.

I think action speaks louder than words. (There’s one thing I believe in.)

Having recently been hounded several times on-line, once by a very annoyed reader of this blog who emailed me privately three times to keep making his point — accompanied by personal insults — and within a women’s online group, it might be time to clear things up.

After all, more than 15,600 (!) people are now following this blog, and some may wonder — who is this woman and why should I listen to a thing she says?

Life is short. Use it well

Life is short. Use it well

I believe:

Generosity beats tight-fistedness. Almost every time. Some people will rush to take advantage of your altruism, kindness and goodwill. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll suss them out quick enough.

Generosity is not defined by opening your wallet; some of the wealthiest people, writing enormous checks, are not behaving in a way I’d personally define as generous. You can offer your time, your skills, your wisdom, your advice, your hugs, your careful and undivided attention.

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She’s the best-selling author!

Success is not a zero-sum game. It sure looks like it, and especially if you live in a society with very limited access to the top rungs of professional or financial accomplishment. Yes, only one author will win the Booker Prize and only a limited few will win Guggenheims and Fulbrights or hit the best-seller list. Helping others achieve their goals, whenever possible, is a decent choice.

Envy will kill you. Stay in your lane. Be(come) the best version of yourself.

Work at it! Those who are truly excellent at their craft have spent years, even decades, perfecting their skills. A blessed few have it all out of the gate. Most of us don’t. Take classes, get coached, find a mentor.

In being strategic about when and how you use your energies. Even the most high-energy among us still need to sleep, rest, exercise, spend time with loved ones, think. If you insist on spreading yourself thin, 24/7, for months, years or decades….what is your strategy? Does everyone love or respect you? Should they?

Like Joan of Arc, you need a vision of your life and your goals

Like Joan of Arc, you need a vision of your life and your goals

Kindness is not to be mistaken for weakness. Some of the toughest and most resilient people I know are also some of the kindest and gentlest.

Persistence beats (lazy, entitled) talent. Every time. One of my favorite indulgences is watching the 14-year-old Lifetime show Project Runway, which chooses 14 fashion designers of varying ages and backgrounds and, each week, dismisses one, finally choosing a winner. In reading the biographies of this season’s designers, I was struck by the fact that one of them had auditioned for every single season and another had auditioned four previous times before being chosen. Giving up is an easy out. Staying in the game, sometimes much longer than you wanted or hoped or can really afford to, can be the way to win it. Eventually.

Keep your promises. Don’t make them if you know you will not honor them. Others are counting on you.

We're not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

We’re not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

Intellectual debate is smart and necessary. But do it civilly. I come from a family of finger-pointing, table-pounding arguers. To us, a rousing debate is sport. But for too many people, now it quickly descends into ugly ad hominem attacks substituting for thoughtful comment. Nope. I won’t engage, here or elsewhere.

— We live in a diverse culture and listening to “the other” matters more than ever.

The CBC's logo -- one of the many news sources I follow

The CBC’s logo — one of the many news sources I follow

Women’s bodies are ours, and ours alone. Yes, I believe we have the absolute right to decide if, when and how often we will agree to (or abstain from) sexual activity. We deserve legally-protected access to reproductive care and information. We deserve to be safe on the streets and in public spaces.

Women’s value to the world lies not only, exclusively — ever — in the shape and size of our bodies, but in the width, depth and breadth of our generosity, intelligence and commitment to action.

Being informed is a basic civic duty. It’s naive and disingenuous to say “the news is toooooo depressing!” There are hundreds of news sources, and if you find one (or dozens) of them disappointing, keep looking. Read, watch and listen to a range of opinions and reporting, including some from beyond your political perspective and national/domestic agenda.

Beauty is everywhere -- like this Paris cafe

Beauty is everywhere — like this Paris cafe

Beauty nurtures our souls and spirits. We neglect this at our peril. It might be nature or a painting or your baby’s smile. Savor it daily.

— Silence heals. In a noisy, crowded, distracted world, sitting in silence is essential.

Elegance, in dress, demeanor, grooming and in your home, is a gift to yourself and to others. Style and wit are timeless and can offer great pleasure: a delicious meal beautifully served, a well-cut suit, a silk pocket square, a terrific haircut. It doesn’t need to cost a lot of money, nor snobby brand-name-warfare, but it does require some time and attention.

— Friendship is one of life’s greatest blessings.

A Babar hot water bottle cover!

A Babar hot water bottle cover!

Make time to play! Being an adult is hard work: paying bills, raising children, pleasing a demanding boss, colleagues, clients. Be sure to include playtime in your life as well.

Underpromise and overdeliver. Too many people get that backwards.

Fresh flowers -- a must!

Fresh flowers — a must!

Send flowers. Yes, it’s expensive. Do it anyway.

Write letters. On paper. By hand. Use a stamp. That sort of personal care and style is rare now, ever more appreciated.

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action -- that collective community response still matters

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action — that collective community response still matters

Showing up matters: at weddings, christenings/brises, bar/bat mitzvahs, graduations, funerals, memorials. The bedsides of the ill and dying. Do not make excuses. Do not abandon people at their hour of greatest need.

Compassion is our greatest source of power. Not corporate or political or religious titles. Not financial wealth. Not piles of stuff and six houses proving how “successful” you are. Without compassion and empathy for those hurting, doing what you can you help, your “riches” look ragged to me.

We’re all hurting in some way. But don’t sit in it forever! Get help. Don’t spend your life wallowing, let alone brutalizing others with your unrecognized and unhealed traumas. Own them and, if at all possible, move forward. Take responsibility for yourself and relieve others of the unwanted burden of rescuing you repeatedly.

Pleasure matters! A cup of tea at the Ritz in London

Pleasure matters! A cup of tea at the Ritz in London

Being blunt/candid/direct is not per se ugly, declasse or shocking when you realize that women’s voices and opinions matter every bit as much as men’s. Punishing women who speak their mind is a nasty and popular habit.

What are some of your principles?

Do any of these resonate with you as well?

Take good care of yourself

In aging, beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, Health, life, work on October 14, 2015 at 12:30 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Beauty helps!

Beauty helps!

Button up your overcoat, when the wind is free, Oh, take good care of yourself, you belong to me!

— Ray Henderson lyric, 1928

After a few decades of running around — and four orthopedic surgeries within 12 years — I’m finally treating my body with a little more respect.

I grew up in Canada, but now live in the U.S., and near New York City, the epicenter of a workaholic, gogogogogogogogogogo culture, one that solely encourages and rewards “productivity”.

We’re all exhorted daily to move faster, do more, sleep less, earn more money, get the promotion.

Watch a great movie!

Watch a great movie!

Vacation? Hah! Even the few Americans who get paid vacations beyond 10 days a year are too scared to take the time off.

The notion of actually nurturing our souls, bodies and minds is anithetical to the industrial mindset of production. There’s no profit (for anyone else) in it!

Here’s a thought-provoking essay from The New York Times on the subject:

On my last day of work at the American ad agency, something strange happened: I was smiling. A weight had been lifted, and I felt like a prisoner about to be freed. And despite my fear that no one would hire me, I soon found a job in Zurich doing exactly what I had been doing in the United States: copywriting for an ad agency.

My job title was the same, but I worked part time — and for a higher salary than I had received working full time in the United States. When I was politely asked to work additional days beyond the ones specifically mentioned in my contract, the agency paid me for that extra work.

Not only that, but instead of two weeks of vacation, I had five. And I was encouraged to use every single day of it, guilt-free. Once, when I went to Spain for “only” 10 days, my Swiss colleagues chastised me for not going away long enough.

Instead of worrying about working weekends and holidays the way I had in the United States, I planned trips like the rest of my colleagues: Paris. Prague. Zermatt. For the first time in my working life, I was living, too. Because of this, my creativity flourished. I had both time and money, and because I had real time off, I was more productive when I was at work. In my spare time I wrote blogs and essays and I swam in the lake.

I’m firmly and decidedly out of step with American values in this regard.

A bushel of freshly-gathered clams, mid-coast Maine

A bushel of freshly-gathered clams, mid-coast Maine

In 2015, I’ve spent 3 weeks in Europe in January, another three weeks in June in Ireland, 10 days in Maine and 10 days in Ontario.

Because my husband and I are, as of this year, now both full-time freelancers, (he’s a photo editor and photographer, I write for a living), we can work from anywhere there’s wi-fi and can take as much time off as we can afford.

We’re not wealthy and we live a fairly frugal life, with a small apartment and a 14-year-old car. Nor do we have the financial responsibilities of children or other dependents.

We’ve had terrific careers and won awards and the respect of our peers and while we still need to work for income…it’s time for us.

I’m not fond of the word “self-care” but it’s a concept I believe in strongly, especially for women who are socially encouraged to give everyone else their time, energy and attention — but often feel conflicted or guilty when they stop long enough to take equally thoughtful care of themselves.

Stay hydrated!

Stay hydrated!

Self care can take many forms:

— massage, manicures, pedicures, facials

— dressing well

— a barbershop trim or shave

— regular medical and dental checkups

– cooking or baking something delicious, especially “just” for yourself

— a pot of tea in the afternoon, possibly with a biscuit or two (no sad little teabag in a cup!)

— naps!

drawing, painting, taking photos, nurturing your creative self

— doing yoga

— playing music

— singing, alone or with others

— exercise

— dancing (check out this amazing early morning event I go to)

— keeping a calm, clean, lovely home, (or at least a dedicated space within it)

— the company of dear friends

— reading for pure pleasure

— visiting a gallery or museum

— wearing a lovely scent

— gardening

— taking a luxuriously long bath or shower

— spending time in nature

— silent solitude

— listening to music

— candlelight

— unplugging from all devices and social media

— attending a religious service

— volunteer work

coloring (have you seen the latest trend — adult coloring books?)

— cuddling and/or caring for your pet(s)

– handiwork like knitting, crochet, quilting, sewing embroidery — or woodwork

— meditation

— prayer

Making art can be a way to decompress

Making art can be a way to decompress

Do you take good care of yourself?


Home is…

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life, parenting on September 20, 2015 at 2:47 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The night-time view from one of the windows at my Dad's house...

The night-time view from one of the windows at my Dad’s house…

Where is it exactly?

Is it in the city or town where you grew up?

Your parents’ home?

Your rented apartment, maybe in a foreign country?

A college dorm room?

A house shared with room-mates?

Your current residence?

On a visit now back to Ontario, where I lived ages five to 30, it’s always a question for me, even though I left long ago for Montreal, (two years), then New Hampshire (1.5 years) and New York (20+ years now.)

We’ve been staying in my father’s house, reveling in all that luxurious space, a working fireplace, a spacious and private backyard and small-town charm only an hour’s drive from Toronto.

For some people, home is a place you can always retreat to, with parents, or one parent, always eager to see you and help you and set you back on your feet after a tough time, whether divorce or job loss, sometimes both.

For others, though, estrangement is the painful and isolating norm.

I left my father’s home when I was 19 and have never lived there since.

I left my mother’s care at 14 and have never lived there since.

Independence is a learned art, one I had to acquire early, as there was no physical and little emotional space for me in either place.

My father’s late wife didn’t like me much, so my stays on their sofa were pretty short; after 3 or 4 days, it was clear I had worn out my welcome.

My mother had a large house for only a few years, but then lived in a place that took me an entire day’s flying, bus and ferry to reach, so I didn’t enjoy much time there before she moved into a small one-bedroom apartment with no room for me at all; I stayed at a motel a block away. (Today she lives in a small nursing-home room, a sad and very costly end to a highly solitary life.)

So even when my first marriage ended quickly and badly, I had no “home” to rush back to. When I lost jobs and when I needed surgery, (four times within 10 years, all orthopedic), I had to call on local friends, even my church, to come and help me with meals.

So I really enjoy house-sitting while my Dad’s off traveling again, having plenty of time surrounded by the many familiar images and objects of my childhood and adolescence, the paintings and prints and sculptures I’ve been looking at my entire life. Many of them are images he’s created, paintings of his late, beloved dogs, of his late, beloved second wife and landscapes from Nova Scotia to Tunisia.

I find it deeply comforting to see them and touch them, even if they’re only inanimate objects. It’s my past.

They tell me I’m home again.

It’s also deeply comforting to even have this home to come to, as I haven’t seen or spoken to my mother in four years. (Long story, too tedious for here.)

Home is where I make it, now with my second husband, in a suburb of New York City. We talk about where we hope to retire, never sure whether we’ll return to Canada and/or live part-time in the U.S., France, Ireland…Not sure where home will be in the next few decades, if we’re fortunate enough to stay healthy and alive.

I moved to the U.S. filled with excitement and anticipation about my new life there; today, deeply weary of toxic politics, corporate greed and stagnant wages, I’m thinking more seriously about making a home elsewhere….yet Toronto, even in only two days this week, had shootings in downtown areas and not-nice houses sell, routinely, for $1 million, far, far beyond our means, even after a lifetime of hard work and saving and no kids.


How about you?

Where is home for you?

Would you rather buy more stuff — or have more fun?

In aging, behavior, business, culture, domestic life, entertainment, Money on August 17, 2015 at 12:08 am

By Caitlin Kelly

This piece in The New York Times piqued my interest:

American consumers are putting what little extra money they do have to spend each month into eating out, upgrading their cars or fixing up their homes, as well as spending on sports gear, health and beauty. Spending at restaurants and bars has jumped more than 9 percent this year through July compared with the same period last year, and on autos by more than 7 percent, according to the agency.

Analysts say a wider shift is afoot in the mind of the American consumer, spurred by the popularity of a growing body of scientific studies that appear to show that experiences, not objects, bring the most happiness. The Internet is bursting with the “Buy Experiences, Not Things” type of stories that could give retailing executives nightmares.

Millennials — the 20- and 30-something consumers whom marketers covet — would rather spend their hard-won cash on out-of-town vacations, meals with friends, gym memberships and, of course, their smartphones, many surveys suggest.

More stuff!

More stuff!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we’re finally, gratefully, at a point in our lives we need very little additional stuff. We’ve renovated two rooms of our apartment and own an array of sports gear, art supplies, camera equipment, the things we use for pleasure and for work. (We do need to replace our old car.)

It’s a huge relief.

I’ve never been a mall rat, the sort of person whose favorite activity is shopping. I enjoy it and sometimes take an entire day to do it, but rarely come home with more than one or two things, and usually nothing huge or expensive.

Like everyone, I have specific weaknesses — anything seriously antique, jewelry and lovely things for setting a pretty table.

One of the most fun things you can possibly do -- dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC

One of the most fun things you can possibly do — dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC

We’ve also saved really hard for years for our retirement, so can now release a bit more of our income for pleasure; saving 15 per cent a year is no fun, but — yes, really — it adds up.

I’m more eager now to spend what extra money we earn on travel, dining out, enjoying the many plays, concerts, dance performances and conferences available to us in and near New York City. We do not have children or grandchildren, nor, as many of our younger friends do, huge student debts to discharge. Frankly, we feel like outliers — we are very far from 1%ers but we’re not panicked about money the way many people are; the average American has saved stunningly little for retirement.

A ticket to the theater is a joy --- and privilege

A ticket to the theater is a joy — and privilege

In the next few months, we’ll attend a weekend workshop (for business purposes); travel back to Canada (by car), attend a few shows and concerts. We hope to be back in Europe after Christmas for several weeks.

My Dad heads off soon for a month sailing with a friend in Greece; at 86, with a new hip, he’s lucky enough to have the good health, strength and finances to keep enjoying his life. In this regard, he’s very much a role model.

How many things do you want to own? How many experiences would you like to enjoy?

Unless you’re wealthy, every expenditure of money means making a choice — the time needed to invest in earning the taxable income to buy the stuff, store the stuff, clean and polish and upgrade the stuff — or an amazing afternoon/evening/week/month/year creating indelible memories.


We spent a recent Sunday in Manhattan (a 40 minute trip into the city from our home) seeing a show, On The Town, on Broadway, and splurged on box seats, at $101 each. I felt like royalty — they offered amazing sightlines and no squished knees; we sat in comfortable elegant Louis XIV-style armchairs. Before the show, we stopped in at Sardi’s, the classic, old-school bar and restaurant, for a Bloody Mary and a snack.

What a lovely, lovely day, creating memories we’ll cherish for years to come.

I’ve never once regretted any of the money I’ve spent on travel or meals or a day of skiing or a game of golf. But I’ve deeply regretted the money I’ve wasted on a pair of too-high heels (worn once!), clothing that just looked like hell or a really boring book that was, after all, a best-seller.

Sunrise from our friend's bedroom window in Maine

Sunrise from our friend’s bedroom window in Maine

Nothing that arrives in a box or bag is ever as pleasurable and satisfying to me as walking down a Paris street or having tea with a friend in London or catching up face to face with my sister-in-law in Toronto over a very long lunch.

How about you?

What makes you happier — stuff or experiences?

Any good ones you can share?

The allure of learning something difficult

In aging, behavior, domestic life, education, travel on August 10, 2015 at 12:16 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland

Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland

For some, it’s calculus or making a roux or hitting to the outfield or soothing a colicky baby.

It’s been years since I’d had to acquire some new and challenging knowledge. Once you leave the world of formal education, it’s onoing auto-didacticism (love that word!) or slow mental atrophy. I work alone at home, and have since 2006, so unless I make a conscious decision to take a class or attend a conference, no boss (for better or worse) will force me to learn some new skills.

This weekend, my husband and I are taking a workshop in…how to create a workshop. How American is that? I hope to offer one for writers next summer and he hopes to offer one for photographers. (Stay tuned for details!)

But while many of my peers are rushing to learn computer coding, I wanted something different, a new set of skills for my own pleasure.

Time to learn German? It looked really difficult! More practically, when, if ever, would I really use it? I live in New York and getting to Europe is so costly that I usually visit France, (where I already speak the language), England or Ireland.

Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)

Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)

Instead, I’m learning how to play golf.

Mostly because my husband loves it. Like me, he came to it later in life as neither of our families were into the sport when we were growing up. My father, still sailing and cycling in his mid-80s, still shakes his head at my taste for it.

We’re not wealthy and where we live a game of golf can cost up to $100 for a decent course, so it’s not something we can do every week.

But Jose is passionate about it and playing golf also combines the elements that make me happy: his company, being outdoors in a beautiful setting, exercise, socializing.

He gave me a set of older clubs, some great golf shoes and off we went to the driving range. (That’s where you buy a bucket of balls and spend an hour or so practicing your shots with every different club. Large round wooden targets that look a bit like archery targets saying 50, 100 and 200 yards, tell you how far your shots are reaching.)

It’s a very male place.

But on a cool summer’s morning it’s also a great start to the workday; we have a range only 10 minutes drive from our suburban home. Two days after hitting a bucket and a half my arms, chest and oblique muscles are sore!

We were very lucky, on a recent trip to Donegal, Ireland, to be invited out to a links course by the edge of the Atlantic. We played with two women in their 60s, who were terrific golfers and yet very patient with me, playing my fourth or fifth game ever.

The course was crazy! One hole required hitting straight over a cliff to the fairway on the other side. There were no carts on a course so hilly that we felt like sheep clambering up and down, carrying our clubs backpack style. (Links golf comes from the medieval work hlinc, meaning hilly.)

I found it hard to concentrate because the scenery was so stunning: deep blue water, a distant island, seagulls swooping so low we almost hit them. I felt salt spray on my cheeks as a strong wind blew in our faces.

I love that golf is a portable sport — almost anywhere green with some land will have a golf course, or several, and often much more affordably than where we live. We’ve now played in rural Ontario and midcoast Maine, in the crisp air of autumn and on a day so hot I gave up after the fourth hole.

I like how challenging the game is. It forces me to slow down and pay very close attention. It requires a stillness and a shutting out of all distraction. It rewards both power and fine motor control.

I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t — I admit — keep going. But it’s also satisfying to be acquiring new skills later in my life. It’s so easy to stick to what I know and am good at.

The Luas -- which means

The Luas — which means “speed” in Irish

After our three weeks in Ireland, listening to my friend’s voice calling out the official station stops on Dublin’s tramline, the Luas, (she speaks fuent Irish and did the voice-over), I’m debating trying to learn even a bit of Irish.

My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the tiny Donegal town of Rathmullan, and we recently revisited his one-room schoolhouse there. I have roots in that world.

But Irish? Now that’s deeply impractical; only two percent of Irish people even speak it anymore, in three areas known as the Gaeltacht.

But it’s gorgeous to listen to.

What new skills are you learning these days?

What made you choose them?

Smile, honey! Why what I do with my face is none of your business

In aging, beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, life, women on August 2, 2015 at 2:42 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

No one tells him/her to smile!

No one tells him/her to smile!

Have you heard of “bitchy resting face”?

A piece in today’s New York Times has, so far, drawn 564 comments on the bizarre notion that a woman’s face is something total strangers can expect to make them feel happier:

RBF is now the topic of multiple “communities” on Facebook, dominated by women.

Plastic surgeons say they are fielding a growing number of requests from those who want to surgically correct their “permafrowns” (again, primarily from women).

The country star Kacey Musgraves recently helped Buzzfeed create a list of 17 more accurate names for RBF (among them, Resting “this wouldn’t bother you if I was a guy” face).

A New Jersey business journal, NJBIZ, even published a special report on the topic.

If you’re an American woman, the larger culture demands you be real friendly! all the damn time — and a woman who doesn’t walk through the world with a big fat reassuring smile plastered on her face is deemed angry, annoyed, frustrated and (wait for it), rude as a result.


I grew up in Canada, a British-inflected nation (see: stiff upper lip, emotional reticence, subdued expressions of feelings) where no one — thank God — expects you to be chatty and charming to every single person you meet. It’s exhausting!

London -- where no one expects me to be all cheerful all the time

London — where no one expects me to be all cheerful all the time

I moved to the U.S. in 1989 and one of the biggest cultural adjustments I’ve made in the 25 years since then is the cultural norm of being genial to strangers. Why, exactly, is never made clear.

It’s just a cultural norm. I still don’t feel compelled to be “friendly” to anyone, and don’t feel compelled to apologize for not doing it. Civil, polite — of course!

Beyond that? I conserve my emotional energy for situations I think require it.

It was much worse in the 2.5 years (Merry damn Christmas, already!) I worked retail as a sales associate for The North Face, working in a suburban New York mall, serving customers who were often extremely wealthy and whose behavioral expectations were off the charts. Surrounded daily by minions they’d hired and could fire in a heartbeat — nannies, chauffeurs, au pairs, maids or their workplace employees — they were positively stunned when we dared to utter a one-syllable word to them.


As in, “No, we don’t have that jacket in your size/color.”

The only way to soften the terrible blow of their delayed gratification was by offering an automatic huge smile and a heartfelt apology — all on low wages. (This is called emotional labor and it is, very much, a thing.)

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011

I wrote a book about that experience; the link is here.

I know I’ve got a severe case of BRF and I’ve even addressed it explicitly in job interviews because when I concentrate hard I don’t always keep eye contact (bad) let alone I fail to smile reassuringly (even worse) at the person trying to decide if I’m likeable enough to hire.

One reason I work freelance alone at home!

I have no doubt my lack of reflexive emotional appeasement helped tank some of my student evaluations this past year when I taught at a very expensive private college in Brooklyn. I don’t smile a lot. I don’t make an effort to ingratiate myself. I have a sense of humor and love to laugh, in the classroom and outside of it.

But sticking on a fake smile to soothe people for no apparent reason? No.

Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua. No smile? OMG!

Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua. No smile? OMG!

To me, learning is a serious business and those who feel cheated without fake bonhomie are a poor fit for my style.

So to tell women walking down the street, or buying groceries, or chairing a meeting or sitting on a park bench, “Smile, honey!” is a normal grotesquerie for many of us. Because, somehow, if we’re not making you feel better about yourself, we’re failing you.

It’s our face.

Have you been told you’re not perky enough?

How did you respond?

Which habits are you trying to break?

In aging, behavior, business, culture, domestic life, entertainment, life, Technology, work on July 11, 2015 at 2:18 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Sunset in Donegal -- at 10:15 pm

Sunset in Donegal — at 10:15 pm

One of the best things about taking vacation — and the longer, the better — is shedding some bad habits (ideally!) while savoring the pleasures and challenges of a new or different environment.

So much easier to do when I’m not triggered by the same old patterns into the same tired behaviors.

For example:

I’ve been working alone at home in an apartment in the suburbs of New York for nine years. It’s lonely!

Hence a growing reliance upon social media for interaction that doesn’t require me to get dressed, get into a car, drive somewhere and….enjoy my life.

It’s become, as they say, thin gruel.

It’s too easy, too time-consuming and, most of all, increasingly frustrating because it doesn’t, at least for me, deepen intimacy, which is one of my joys in life.

Habits do make life easier; we don’t have to stop and think through why we’re making a specific decision. We just do it.

It was a great break for a week in Ireland to rent a cottage with no wifi or cellphone access. I didn’t miss it a bit! Badly burned by a huge data-usage bill from social media use when in Canada, I left my phone at home in New York this time. Jose dropped and broke his.

Instead we read, slept, took photos, drew, went for walks, talked at length to one another. Connected, with friends and with nature and with ourselves.

When we did have access to wifi by going to a nearby pub, we limited it to an hour or so a day to catch up on email, (some of it for work as we’re both freelance), and social media.

But it provoked some self-reflection on my part to realize how much time I’ve been wasting on “connecting” with others through social media, not face to face.

In fact, social media offers an easy way to procrastinate. It does almost nothing for my income. It rarely makes me much happier.

One habit I intend to keep -- a daily pot of tea

One habit I intend to keep — a daily pot of tea

The question?

What new and healthier habit can I — must I — now create to replace it?

Another habitual behavior of mine, is a default position of feeling anxious. It’s wearying and no fun and it’s been a habit of thought for decades. It comes from a very real place — when you work freelance, your income is precarious!

But it’s also exhausting.

As one wise friend says, “Don’t borrow trouble.”

My media habits need a shake-up as well, so I recently signed up (yes, on Twitter) to follow a French magazine and a Spanish newspaper, both to find story ideas and to expand my worldview far beyond the terribly limited one offered by American media.

On vacation, between jet lag and different light, we were up both much later and much earlier than usual — the summer sky was full light by 4:30 a.m. and remained light until 11:30. I took some of my best photos, walking barefoot on gravel in my nightgown, at 6:00 a.m., catching the light on dew in thick spiderwebs, a sight I never see at home because I never get up that early.

And yet I saw one just like it the other day on our front lawn. Why not start getting up early here?


I need to broaden my horizons at home, not only when traveling.

Like…when I have a free day, I’d normally stick at home or head into Manhattan.


Last night I behaved as though I were still on vacation — i.e. adventurous enough to try something I’d never done at home before. (Why is that?)

I went to our commuter train station and bought a ticket heading north an hour to a renowned concert venue to hear Cherish The Ladies, a terrific all-female band playing traditional Irish music.

It required a taxi to and from the station and a change of trains — would any of that be possible at 11:00 after the show? Fingers crossed!

Instead, I said hello to the pianist we’d met in Dungloe in a pub; she dedicated a song to me from the stage and mentioned my town and a dancer with them drove me home — as he turned out to be a next door neighbor.

Talk about positive reinforcement for breaking a habit!

Loved this recent story about a young Vancouver woman, and blogger, who declared a ban on shopping for a year — and lived well on 51 percent of her income. She’s eloquent and inspiring on how much of her shopping was habitual and, in some ways, mindless.

Now it’s gotten to a weird place where I feel not only uncomfortable spending money but I had to go into a mall to buy a baby present in a mall recently, and I felt almost sick in there because I was surrounded by ads. I felt overstimulated from being inside the mall. I don’t like the energy in there.

I felt this way in the Dublin airport when we were leaving to return to New York, surrounded by shops selling liquor and cosmetics and clothing and electronics….too much stuff! Overwhelmed, and grateful for the things I already own, I bought nothing — maybe a pre-flight first for me.

I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls -- so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret...

I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls — so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret…

Being mindful about what we do, how often and why takes some serious reflection.

It can be painful, and some of our habits, of thought and behavior, can be deeply rooted in emotions we don’t especially want to face or change.

Do you read Seth Godin’s blog? Loved this one:

Stop rehearsing the easy fears that have become habits.

Do you have a habit, or several, you’re also trying to break or shed?

How do you define (or check) privilege?

In aging, behavior, culture, domestic life, education, life, men, parenting, politics, US, women on July 8, 2015 at 7:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

That takes money many people don't have...

Shopping costs money many people don’t have…

When I asked a class of students I taught this year — whose families were paying $60,000 a year so they could study writing — for their least favorite words, one phrase immediately surfaced.

“Check your privilege,” said one.

In a nation where income inequality is growing at the fastest pace since the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, questions of who’s ahead, who’s (usually) getting ahead and, crucially, who’s consistently staying ahead are daily fodder in the American media.

Have you seen this BuzzFeed video?

As I write this post, it’s gotten more than 2 million views. In it, the participants step forward or back with every bit (or loss) of privilege. It’s worth watching, and the comments of those who did it are also interesting.

At least, that as defined by the terms of the questions.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater...College costs money, too!

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater…College costs money, too!

The questions:

1. If your parents worked nights and weekends to support your family, take one step back.
2. If you are able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault, take one step forward.
3. If you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, take one step forward.
4. If you have ever been diagnosed as having a physical or mental illness/disability, take one step back.
5. If the primary language spoken in your household growing up was not english, take one step back.
6. If you came from a supportive family environment take one step forward.
7. If you have ever tried to change your accent, mannerisms or name to gain credibility, take one step back.
8. If you can go anywhere in the country, and easily find the kinds of hair products you need and/or cosmetics that match your skin color, take one step forward.
9. If you were deeply embarrassed about your clothes or house while growing up, take one step back.
10. If you can make mistakes and not have people attribute your behavior to flaws in your racial group, take one step forward.
11. If your gender identity or expression matches the assigned gender on your birth certificate or drivers’ license, take one step forward.
12. If you were born in the United States, take one step forward.
13. If you or your parents have ever gone through a divorce, take one step back.
14. If you felt like you had adequate access to healthy food growing up, take one step forward
15. If you are reasonably sure you would be hired for a job based on your ability and qualifications, take one step forward.
16. If you see calling the police trouble occurs as a reasonable choice, take one step forward. If you see calling the police as a potential danger, take one step back.
17. If you can see a doctor whenever you feel the need, take one step forward.
18. If you feel comfortable being emotionally expressive/open, take one step forward.
19. If you have ever been the only person of your race/gender/socio-economic status/ sexual orientation in a classroom or workplace setting, please take one step back.
20. If you took out loans for your education take one step backward.
21. If you can practice your religion or wear religious dress without fear of prejudice or attack, take one step forward.
22. If you had a job during your high school and college years, take one step back.
23. If you feel comfortable taking a walk in your neighborhood at night, take one step forward.
24. If you have ever traveled outside the United States for your own enrichment or leisure, take one step forward. If you have traveled outside the U.S. for military combat, take one step back.
25. If you have ever felt like there was not adequate or accurate representation of your racial group, sexual orientation group, gender group, and/or disability group in the media, take one step back.
26. If you feel confident that your parents would be able to financially help/support you if you were going through a financial hardship, take one step forward.
27. If you have ever been a defendant in court without a paid lawyer, or have spent time in jail or prison, take one step back.
28. If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, take one step forward.
29. If you studied the culture or the history of your ancestors in elementary school take one step forward.
30. If your parents or guardians attended college, take one step forward.
31. If you ever went on a family vacation, take one step forward.
32. If you can buy new clothes or go out to dinner when you want to, take one step forward.
33. If you were ever offered a job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
34. If one of your parents was ever laid off or unemployed not by choice, take one step back.
35. If you were ever upset by a joke or a statement you overheard related to your race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.

Like every survey, though, this one also contains inherent biases and weaknesses.


1) If your parents worked nights and weekends (the implicit assumption they were working menial jobs and/or working several jobs at once) they might also have been working freelance or running their own business.

A much smarter question, especially in light of current on-demand scheduling in many food service and retail jobs, which is both disruptive and income-limiting: Did your parents have reliable, steady incomes? And key to that — was this their choice or imposed upon them by their employer(s)?

Many retail workers have completely insecure schedules -- and not nearly enough hours to make a living

Many retail workers have completely insecure schedules — and not nearly enough hours to make a living

2) If you’re legally able to carry a gun, and wish to make that choice, you might no longer live in fear of sexual assault since you have chosen a way to defend yourself. It’s not a PC choice to carry a firearm for many Americans — or even to discuss it as an option — but it is for many others, like some of the women I interviewed for my 2004 book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

4) I relied on crutches for three months in the fall of 2009 due to arthritis. Many of us will move in and out of periods of great(er) or lesser physical privilege as we age or face illness(es.)


12) Seriously? Talk about cultural bias! The United States ranks shockingly low now on many global measures of quality of life, from infant mortality, paid maternity leave (only one other nation does not offer it), income inequality and the stunning cost of post-secondary education. Having moved to the U.S. at the age of 30 from Canada — a nation with cradle-to-grave free health care — I find this assumption risible.

I paid $660 a year (yes) for my college education at Canada’s top university, a huge privilege I took for granted there; Americans who wish to continue on to college or university can face decades of enormous student debt that they cannot discharge through declaring bankruptcy.

22) What’s wrong with having had a job in high school or college? Yes, if it hindered your studies to the degree you could not graduate. For many people, that’s not the case.

Never enough?

Never enough?

One huge question missing here relates to age:

36) Have you ever lost out on an economic opportunity — an internship, freelance work or — most essential — a full-time job because of your age (i.e. over 40)?

American employers routinely shut out workers over the age of 50 because…they can. There’s no way to prove it and no consequence to their actions; I wrote about this for The New York Times.

Here are a few more I consider “steps back”:

37) Were/are one or both of your parents physically or emotionally abusive?

38) Were/are one or both of your parents alcoholic or addicted?

39) Have you and/or your spouse/partner suffered long-term (6 months+) unemployment?

40) Were/are one or both of your parents mentally ill?

41) Are you now or have you been financially responsible for siblings or other family members?

42) Can you afford to buy a comprehensive health insurance plan?

43) Have you ever had to declare bankruptcy? (Medical debts are the single greatest driver of American personal bankruptcy.)

44) Are you carrying any medical expenses you simply cannot (re) pay?

45) Have you always had ready/easy/affordable access to the technology used by your educational peers and competitors for work/jobs?

In the rush to competitive victimhood (or guilt), it’s rarely simple to determine who’s better off, beyond the 1 percent.

Do you feel privileged?

Have you been told to “check your privilege”?

What else would you add?

A question of trust

In aging, behavior, business, cars, Crime, culture, design, family, journalism, life, love on June 17, 2015 at 11:38 am

By Caitlin Kelly


We can’t survive without it.

I’m writing this from a friend’s home in Dublin, where we arrived last night from New York.

This week, five broken-hearted sets of Dublin parents will fly to California to collect the bodies of their young adult children, all of whom died when an apartment balcony they were standing on suddenly fell in Berkeley; all five of them were visiting on work visas. A sixth, who lived locally, also died, and seven other students were injured.

It is, of course, front-page news in today’s Irish Times.

I’m a nervous flyer. I love to travel and have been to 39 countries so far; this is my fifth visit to Ireland. But every time I step into an aircraft, I’m fighting anxiety, no matter how annoyed this makes me. When, which is inevitable, we hit turbulence, it’s a battle for me to stay calm — to trust the pillots’ skill and experience, the careful work of the mechanics who maintain aircraft and the plane itself, built to withstand much stronger forces than I’d like to experience.

I've lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings

I’ve lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings

It’s all based on trust.

Yet, every day, our trust — in authority, in material safety, in the food and drink we consume — is tested:

An enormous recall of Takata-made airbags, whose explosion have killed 3 people and injured 139

— The bridge crossing the Hudson River where I live is so old (now being re-built), it’s been called the “hold your breath” bridge for years

— Those recently killed on a Chinese ferry and the young students lost on a Korean ship

— The disappearance of MH 370 and the deliberate crash of Germanwings flight 9525 by a deranged young pilot who had, somehow, passed multiple medical tests

— Recalls of contaminated food and drink, like the Blue Bell ice cream that killed three people and put seven others into the hospital.

Everything we touch, every interaction, relies on our ability to trust one another to some degree:

That the elevator will ride smoothly and safely; that the meal we order won’t be prepared by contaminated hands; that our surgeon is sober, skilled and well-trained; that our mechanic isn’t lying when he tells us our vehicle needs extensive, expensive repairs.

Friendship relies on honesty and loyalty. So does a healthy marriage; if you can’t trust your own partner or spouse, who can you rely on? Which is why adultery is such a devastating blow — you choose your own family and it falls to pieces.

Teachers trust their students to do the work and not plagiarize or cheat. Students trust their teachers to be fair, smart, helpful and wise. Both of them have to trust in the authority of a system that more often privileges test scores or tuition fees over the needs of either group.

And yet we also bring a widely disparate set of hopes and expectations to the table. Some students lie. Some teachers are incompetent. Some surgeons gown up while drunk or high. Nurses can’t or won’t rat them out — risking patients’ lives. (As someone who’s had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, it’s an issue I’ve had to consider personally.)

Anyone looking for love, certainly when dating people they don’t know well through mutual friends or family, takes a risk.

I spent a few months in 1998 being wooed fervently by a charming, witty man I met through a personal ad. He kept proposing marriage to me — until the day he opened my mail, activated my credit card, forged signature and started using my cards — i.e. committing multiple felonies. When I confronted him, his three little words shifted from “I love you” to a chilling, well-practiced “It’s not provable.”

That certainly shifted my notions of who looks, sounds and is trustworthy. It also deeply shook my confidence in my own choices about what signals of trustworthiness are real and which are not.

The New York Times newsroom...without trust in its product, we would have no readers

The New York Times newsroom…without trust in its product, we would have no readers

As a career journalist, my entire reputation relies on my editors’ trust in me: to vet the sources I use for their veracity and authority, to meet my deadlines, to produce excellent work, to report accurately, to quote and attribute my sources properly.

When other writers screw up — and it happens a lot — all of us cringe and know we’ve lost even more of the public’s little trust in us.

The law is a blunt instrument when redressing broken trust — no amount of financial compensation will bring back a broken marriage, a dead child, a ruined career.

When, where and how much and in whom should we place our trust?

That’s the question I have yet to answer to my satisfaction.



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