How (fill in nationality) are you?

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I remain a fan of long, long lunches — too French, for sure!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

A typical weekend scene in our home — my American husband, Jose, watching TV football or golf, the other day cheering the Ohio State University marching band, who are pretty amazing; here’s a video, 9:11 minutes long.

I admit it: I have yet to even see a football game live.

I’ve never seen a marching band live and — fellow Canadians, am I wrong? –– I don’t think Canada even has marching bands!

It’s been decades since I moved to the U.S. from Canada and I’m still stunned by some serious cultural/political differences, like the legal right in some states to “conceal carry” or “open carry” — i.e. walk around normal daily life with a handgun on you. (I spoke to 104 men, women and teens for my 2004 book about women and guns, and learned a lot.)

Or tailgating — in which you serve food from the back of a parked vehicle, usually in the parking lot of a sports stadium. What?!

Or words, and concepts, like a Hail Mary or a do-over.

I like the French formality of a cheek kiss or handshake whenever you meet someone. I really prefer the discretion of not blurting out a lot of highly personal detail allatonce the way Americans can do. I find it odd and overwhelming.

 

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A bit of classic Americana on Long Island, NY

 

I do love the directness and speed of New York, and it’s one reason I moved here, as I was always being mistaken for an American anyway — (too fast, too direct, too ambitious!) — in Toronto, my hometown. Canadians, for a variety of reasons, tend to be much more risk-averse and can move at a glacial pace in business, needing months or years to establish a sufficient relationship; New York, anyway, is highly transactional and people here want to do business, and (at a certain level) quickly and decisively.

And being “American” means quite different things in different areas — whether being overtly highly religious or owning a gun, to name only two regional examples.

One of the reasons Jose and I matched so quickly, even between a Canadian and American, an Anglo and a Hispanic, was our shared values, like a quiet sort of modesty, regardless of accomplishment — normal in Santa Fe, NM and for Canadians. Bragging is declassé!

I’ve lived in Canada, Mexico, England, France and the U.S. so my values and attitudes are all a bit of of these.

 

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Love this delivery, in the Marais, Paris

 

I miss Paris, where I lived at 25 — style, elegance,  history.

I miss Mexico, where I lived at 14 — gorgeous countryside, kind people, history and design.

That may sound pretentious, but it’s true.

When you have powerful experiences while living in a distant country your memories are highly specific and often unshared. When you leave that place behind, you carry all those memories, but who can you talk to about them?

They’re called “invisible losses.”

I really value friendship and emotional connection — which take time to nurture, and prefer them to the constant chase for money and power — which is pretty darn un-American. I also work to live, not live to work, also bizarre in a nation addicted to being productive above all.

 

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I always visit St. Lawrence Market in Toronto — and who doesn’t love a Mountie?

 

And yet I’m also very competitive, which works here.

I have friends, like the author of Small Dog Syndrome, who are TCK’s — third culture kids — who have spent much of their lives out of their country of origin. This gives them tremendous global fluency, sometimes multiple languages, and the very useful ability to fit in well almost anywhere. (Barack Obama is one, too.)

The downside?

You can feel forever a bit of a nomad, enjoying many nations, but perhaps loyal to none.

Here’s an interesting TedX talk on life as a TCK — from a white woman born in Nigeria.

 

 

Are you “authentic”?

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Climate change marchers in Montreal.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a word much used these days.

Being true to oneself.

Being yourself.

It’s an interesting challenge if you grew up in, or married, or married into, a family that’s heavily invested in a certain kind of person — and you’re not really that person at all.

I’ve seen this firsthand with several women I know and it’s extremely painful to hear and see the tremendous stress it creates. Worse, obviously, to be that person and be told constantly what a disappointment you are.

One chose to leave her faith, to the shock and dismay of her parents. Another is living a deeply conventional life, and is simply not that person.

One of my favorite songs, Once in a Lifetime, by one of my favorite bands, Talking Heads:

 

You may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say yourself
“My God! What have I done?”

We choose our lives from the best place we know how, at that time. So we sometimes choose the wrong partner, university, job, city or friendships. They feel right then, but as we grow and become more intimate with ourselves, we see how poorly these choices now fit, like a suit of armor that once (likely) protected us — and now constricts our movements in every way.

My first husband, a physician, was “perfect on paper”, a handsome, bright, musical, ambitious man. He was, at first, kind and funny. But he was someone unwilling or unable to do the work of marriage with me, and left me barely two years after we took vows, to remarry. I should have had the guts to not marry him, as I knew it wasn’t a good fit. I did, hoping and determined to “make it work.”

But my second marriage allows me to just be who I am: messy, creative, spontaneous.

In the U.S., the workplace is structured in many ways that insist on denying who we are, whether our sexuality, the fact we are pregnant or soon hope to be (again), the fact we have aging or ill parents or relatives or dear friends who need our caregiving. It’s a country predicated on, and dedicated to, profit and productivity — not human connection or kindness. Work til you drop, dammit!

So if your authentic self more deeply values connection, or creativity, or freedom, or less conventional options, you may find yourself — however authentic — isolated, alone and filled with self-doubt and recrimination.

If only I were…not myself.

Be yourself.

 

Be your blessed, unique self.

The week I learned some family secrets

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By Caitlin Kelly

Intimacy isn’t easy.

A new friend — of about a year, someone a decade younger than I but the mother of teenagers — recently told me I had disappointed her. She took the risk I wouldn’t listen or that I would get angry or get defensive. I didn’t. It wasn’t a huge thing (to me) and I apologized for disappointing her and she seemed mollified and relieved we had discussed it calmly.

I am glad she took that risk because a friendship soured by unspoken disappointment can’t last.

But on reflection I wrote her an email to explain why, in some ways, I’ve hurt and disappointed people I care for unintentionally. I’ve done a lot of therapy so at least I have a clearer understanding why.

Intimacy with oneself is often a work in progress.

When you come from a family where everyone’s feelings were routinely ignored or dismissed, taking others’ seriously and responding to them quickly, just isn’t how you behave.

I really hate unpacking my family history, since it’s weird and painful and the polar opposite of the Hallmark card closeness, trust and kindness that is soon about to be celebrated again in the U.S. with Thanksgiving and then Christmas and Hanukah.

 

The very word “family” is used in much American advertising as a proxy for close, loving stability — when for many people it’s just not that at all.

 

A total stranger who writes a blog about crime fiction has been researching my American maternal grandmother, great grand-mother and grandfather — whose marriages were legion and some deemed so scandalous, (thanks to their wealth and social prominence), they made the newspapers.

He recently emailed me to share his findings. They were…enlightening. But also unsettling to read about people I knew as entries in public documents.

My grandfather, an author, who my mother only met twice and I never met, (long since divorced anyway), apparently added a “von” and the letter “H” to create the name von Rhau — which sounds pretty Euro-aristocratic, as he hoped.

He was actually Henry Rau from Staten Island.

I knew none of this until last week.

If of interest, here are his blog posts; first part, second part.

My maternal great-grandmother ended up as the Countess Casagrande on Park Avenue in New York City, (yes, really), while her daughter kept marrying and re-marrying at dizzying speed.

I knew my mother had a very rough emotional childhood, despite plenty of material wealth.

 

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An extraordinary story of survival

 

So when it comes to “normal” behavior, our family is not the place to look for role models or sterling behaviors.

My late paternal grandfather, a self-made millionaire in Vancouver, had an affair with his sister-in-law and kept the boy with his own family; my father has four adult children, two by wives (divorced, dead) and two women he did not marry. I haven’t even met one of them.

Why tell you any of this?

Because when you meet someone new, as my friend did when she met me  — and they might be fun and funny and charming — and I am all of these things, they might also be carrying some tough history as well.

And when you hit those spots,  which I call emotional bone bruises because they’re not visible, it can be difficult to open up or to explain.

No wonder I married a small-city preacher’s kid whose emotional life and financial history could not be any more different than my own.

I also find it ironic that I come from a family that so resolutely avoided discussing our tangled histories — while I have made my living persuading total strangers to share some of their toughest moments with me for my two books and decades of journalism.

Do you carry some difficult stuff from your own family of origin?

Do your intimates know about it?

 

How does it affect you and your life today as an adult?

 

Life, wealth adjacent

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A program that gets low-income New York students out onto the water — into boats they built by hand

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you heard of the Gini coefficient?

It’s a measure of income inequality, invented in 1912 by Italian statistician Corrado Gini.

I pay attention to it since I live in the United States — whose income inequality is the greatest in a century — and grew up in Canada, a nation with a much greater sense of the common good, and which creates public policy accordingly.

I’m also so aware of this because, living in a wealthy county north of New York City, I see it every day.

My town, 25 miles north of New York City, has massively gentrified in the 30 years I’ve lived here, as Brooklyn hipsters, priced out, have stampeded north, bringing man buns and McLaren strollers and Mini Cooper cars with them.

The other day a black Maserati blasted past me on the road and I’ve even seen a Lamborghini in town, a place once mostly filled with dusty Saturns and Civics. Today we have a local restaurant whose owner and whose ambition we love, but we watched three separate customers look at the menu and leave, saying his prices were too high.

And yet, our town retains real diversity — with public housing projects, multi-family homes, many rentals and, recently, million-dollar riverside condos.

I drove into Manhattan the other day to my hair salon and watched a woman laden with shopping bags struggling into her West Village 1800s brownstone townhouse door — a home that today would easily sell for $5 million or more; here’s one — just down the street from my salon — for a cool $28 million.

We are OK, compared to so many Americans, in even having savings, in owning our apartment (OK, still with a damn mortgage!) and having decent health and work.

But it’s bizarre to be surrounded by people with so many more zeros to their annual income, property values and assumptions about what’s “normal” — many women casually sporting a Goyard carryall that sells for $1,150, more than our mortgage payment.

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The organ was a $250,000 donation — from one parishioner

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We attend a gorgeous little church, built in 1853 by the same architect who designed New York’s famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and some parishioners are extremely well-off. (The photos on their website are all by Jose Lopez, my husband.)

Some women live nonchalantly supported  by husbands working in corporate law or on Wall Street, in enormous houses. Annoyingly, they seem to think my  career in journalism is some cute hobby, as they chirp: “Are you still writing?” or just ignore me because I’m clearly not rich and raising a brood of ferociously ambitious children,

This is the time of year when we’re asked to pledge, i.e. make a firm monthly financial commitment, to the church. There’s a chart in the parish hall showing a small group of people — fewer than 10 — give $20,000 to $30,000 a year, which is more than I’ve earned in some freelance years.

We’re debating how much to give. I admit that we’ve never pledged, but almost always add to the collection plate.

My family of origin had plenty of money, on both sides, and I enjoyed a childhood of material privilege, attending boarding school and summer camp. So wealth doesn’t intimidate me, nor do I spend my days lusting for more stuff.

But American “success” is always predicated on highly visible signs of wealth and power — hence the need for status-signaling clothing, accessories, housing, cars, nannies (some have three), exotic vacations, etc. So if you’re not “keeping up” you must be some sort of loser.

 

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East 70th Street, Manhattan

Jose and I chose a much less lucrative career path, journalism, which is why we drive a 20-year-old Subaru and have lived for decades in a one-bedroom apartment. (We also have decent retirement savings, a less visible decision.)

And yet, you have to be wilfully very ignorant to ignore the incredible poverty that also surrounds us, poverty I finally confronted personally for 18 months when I was a Big Sister to a 13 year old girl, a formal mentoring/matching program.

Sharing a squalid house with a bunch of relatives, her mother having disappeared years before, she lived only a 20-minute drive east across the county from me, but might have lived on another planet. I had never grasped that even knowing how to use a public library was a specific and essential skill for future success in a highly competitive economy; she didn’t know.

It snapped me into a deeper awareness of how wide these divisions are.

I wish I had some smart answer to this.

I do not.

 

Do you see this kind of income divide in your area?

 

 

Old dreams, new dreams

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Where to? Tokyo has long been on my list…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In your teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, life tends to follow fairly predictable patterns: finish your education, find a partner, marry, have children, buy a home….if you can even afford them, as so many can’t now thanks to crippling student debt and stagnant wages.

If you’re lucky enough to remain healthy and keep finding good jobs, you might be acquiring capital for retirement and watching your income rise. Nothing guaranteed, of course!

But my point is that, for a good long while, the trajectory — traditionally — seems fairly clear, and usually, upward in terms of acquisitions, growth and success.

Then what?

My old dreams, thankfully, have been realized: to own my own home; to have a happy marriage; generally good health (and access to good care); lasting, deep friendships. I was lucky enough to have three staff jobs at major newspapers, doing work I enjoyed, and several magazine editing jobs, and then published two books to good reviews.

I’ve traveled widely, to 41 countries, including places in Africa and Asia. I love to travel and am debating disappearing into a Paris rental apartment in 2020 for months. I love Paris and I miss hearing and speaking French.

 

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We only get so much time….

 

The next bit, if I am lucky enough to remain healthy and solvent, is much less clear to me. Many women my age are corporate warriors earning a fortune, too busy for friendship, or doting grandmothers, cooing over their family. I’m in neither category and that is sometimes both disorienting and very lonely.

I still have to bring in money to meet our exorbitant health insurance costs, although I’d happily hang it up now. I still enjoy writing but have been chasing writing income since university and am heartily sick of that.

New dreams include more global travel, possibly writing a few more books, starting a business of PR strategy and another to sell my photos to interior designers.

Will any of these happen? Who knows?

It’s a luxury, I know, to have achieved so many of my younger dreams.

It’s a challenge, now, to think of new ones — and to gin up the requisite enthusiasm and energy for some of them.

 

Nap time!

 

The deep comfort of seeing old friends

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By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine opening your kitchen door to someone you haven’t seen in 50 years.

That just happened for me and a woman I knew at boarding school in Toronto, with whom — both of us bad girls asked to leave the school at the end of that year — I then, briefly, shared a room there.

She’s an incredibly talented art photographer, with three books to her credit; here’s her website.

After we lost touch, she moved to Ireland, then back home to Toronto, then to the U.S. — as I did, and there married and divorced without children (as I did.) Now she’s back in Canada and we caught up on so many stories! It was eerie how much we had in common and so comforting to feel like it had not been so many years; she, too, had DCIS (early stage breast cancer) and reached out to me on Facebook last year when I was diagnosed, then living in New Mexico — my husband’s home state.

On this trip we also caught up with a man I’ve known since my very early 20s, married for years to his husband, now retired to the country. We met their gorgeous Airedale and enjoyed a great meal together. We hadn’t seen them in a few years and look forward to returning. How nice to know we’re welcome again.

We also spent an evening with yet another friend of many, many years — who I met when he was a tenant in an apartment in a house my father owned. It’s lovely when you’re out on the road for three weeks, most of it working, to sit at a friend’s table and savor their hospitality. (We arrived there with a big box of delicious bakery goodies.)

I finally, after many lonely years there, have several good friends in New York, and one who’s known me for about 20 years — but the depth and breadth of my earliest friendships, the ones who knew me before my first husband, (pre-1986), are so precious to me. They knew me “when” — and, still, gratefully, know me now.

On this trip, I’ve also made several new younger friends through Fireside, and I am really enjoying getting to know them better.

 

Friendship sustains me.

Row, row, row your boat

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Can’t wait to sit fireside once more….

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We leave this weekend for a much-awaited trip back to Ontario, where we’ll see and stay with five different friends — one, I literally haven’t seen since ninth grade — in two cities and three towns. I won’t be back home in New York until late September.

We’re grateful and fortunate to have so many close friends who happily welcome us, sometimes many times, to stay in their homes, sometimes for as long as a week, to share morning coffees and late-evening conversations, to catch up in depth and detail on one another’s lives in a way that no social media chitchat can ever provide.

We’re also eager for respite.

When Jose took the buyout from The New York Times in March 2015, an opportunity we couldn’t afford to pass up at the time, we knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew, more than he did, that in a chaotic and youth-obsessed industry like journalism, we probably would never have another staff job in it, or likely any other, and get stuck with costly health insurance.

Our applications — even with our industry’s top awards — go unanswered.

So we’re both full-time freelance, hustling hard to make our financial commitments — $20,000 a year just for health insurance is a huge burden, and not an item we can afford to cheap out on.

Much as we enjoy the relative freedom this life offers us, being able to go away when and where we can afford to, it’s also a real scramble. Clients come and go and must be replaced quickly to keep income incoming.

In our leaky little boat, we row hard every day, bailing when necessary.

I left home at 19, never with any option of returning when times got tough. My parents don’t offer help, financial or emotional, and Jose’s parents died decades ago.  I have three half-siblings and know none of them well; I haven’t even met one. His two sisters have their own lives and live far away from us.

I watch, in awe, when a younger friend is handed $50,000 by her parents…because they can, and another pays half a million cash for her apartment, also a family gift. (I was very lucky, in my mid-20s, to inherit some money from my late maternal grandmother.)

Today, we have no one anywhere to rely on but ourselves: our wits, our health and our skills.

We’re attending and speaking at an annual and unusual conference held at a camp in northern Ontario, called Fireside. The creation of two young Ontario lawyers, it attracts participants from around the world — no badges or lanyards, no wi-fi and sleeping in unheated cabins when it’s about 40 degrees F at night.

It’s a great adventure.

 

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The dining hall at Fireside

We’re OK, generally.

But the past year has worn me out.

This summer cost us an anticipated $1,050 from two of my projects that blew up due to others’ tantrums and a tiny skin cancer on my leg (treatable, I’ll be fine!) had me watching anxiously for months before biopsy, diagnosis and treatment, paying (of course) additional out-of-insurance-network costs for a dermatologist I like and trust.

So this chance to wake up among pals in a spacious, multi-roomed house — not our overused one-bedroom work/office/apartment — and have food prepared for us by people who love us, to rest, to not hustle every day, even for a bit, is a great luxury and one we are deeply thankful for.

 

We all need to be cared for at times.

 

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?

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.

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.