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Q and A with Plum Johnson: her new memoir: “They Left Us Everything”

In aging, behavior, books, domestic life, family, life, love, women on June 30, 2016 at 1:44 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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I recently read a lovely new memoir by a fellow Canadian and she was kind enough — thank you, Plum! — to agree to a question and answer interview with me for Broadside.

As regular readers here know, I love to find and feature talented writers and photographers whose work I hope will be valuable to my blog readers as well.

One great joy of the creative life is celebrating talent and sharing it.

Her book resonated strongly with me, as it’s set in the town of Oakville, near Toronto where I grew up and return often to visit.

I haven’t had to clear out a huge family home, as she did, but I totally related to much of her story. It’s fun, funny, poignant.

Certainly anyone faced with the daunting and often emotionally overwhelming challenge of sorting through decades of their parents’ belongings, let alone selling the family home, with all its attendant memories, will enjoy her book.

I also love that one of Plum’s role models for memoir is one of my favorite writers, Alexandra Fuller, a British woman (now living in the U.S.) whose two memoirs of growing up in Zimbabwe were best-sellers. When I teach writing, I always use some passages from her books.

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The book’s Canadian cover

 

Tell us a bit about yourself…

My first book, (written when I was five), was called ‘The Mouse and the Hat.’ My mother saved it and it surfaced when I was clearing out her house. Writing came easily to me, but Dad said, “Life isn’t meant to be easy!” So I figured I should do something harder. Many of us ignore out childhood passions, don’t you think?

When I was six years old, a friend of my mother’s published a satirical romantic novel in which the feisty heroine was loosely based on Mum. That book sat on a shelf in my bedroom for years. Each night I’d stare at it, secretly dreaming that one day my own name might replace the author’s on the spine. I’m sure a therapist could infer all sorts of things from that early obsession, but I still treasure that book. It reminds me that my dream was there from childhood.

After college, I taught high school for a year and then switched to advertising. I got a job as a copywriter for Sears – in their catalog division. It was wonderful training! Copywriters spend all their time ‘killing their darlings’ – madly cutting until their copy achieves pure essence, using as few words as possible.

 When did the idea for this book come to you?

The light-bulb moment came when I was taking Mum’s stuff to the thrift store. I noticed three things: the store was piled high with identical stuff from the fifties; adult children were dropping it off by the truckload in a big hurry; and it had all lost its value – nobody wanted it.

I stood back and thought, Wow – look at this big picture!

 

Why isn’t anybody writing about this? I wonder if there’s a book here?

 

What did your agent think of it initially? Was it an easy sale, as there are so many memoirs now?

Memoirs used to be a hard sell, but I think that’s changing – especially with the success years ago of The Glass Castle. The popularity of reality TV has changed readers’ appetites.

 

We’ve become a nation of voyeurs

 

If ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ why read a novel? My original pitch was that I’d write a “Goodnight Moon” for adults. (It’s got good “buzz” – right?) My agent liked the idea. I planned a lighthearted book about “saying goodbye to stuff.” But the more I wrote, the more the book changed. Suddenly the “old lady whispering hush” emerged: a strong mother-daughter theme that caused me to look deeper.

 

 

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The American cover

 

Did you have any concerns (as many people do when writing about their family)?

 

Sure. When I began looking deeper I was terrified. Not terrified of what my family would think, but what readers might think once the book was published. I was confessing so many private thoughts about my relationship with Mum – and I wasn’t proud of them.

 

Did you have any role model/memoirs whose tone or structure inspired yours?

 

I’ve always loved reading memoir, so I have lots of favorite books. I was reading Rick Bragg’s memoir about his mother, All Over but the Shoutin’, Susan Cheever’s Treetops, Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and also rereading essays by Nora Ephron.

 

How did you structure the book and why?

 

My first attempt was strictly chronological. I happen to like chronological order – it’s a pure form and leaves no place to hide. But as different readers and editors offered opinions, the structure began to change.

One reader had marked a big red arrow about twenty pages in with the words: YOUR BOOK STARTS HERE.

 

Then my agent (who also happens to be a great editor) took all the chapters, shuffled them like a deck of cards, handed them back, and said, “What about this?”

 

We lived with that for a while until, at the eleventh hour, another editor gave me a thoughtful ten-page critique that was exactly right. It was like eureka! I spent a frenzied weekend putting yellow sticky notes all over my kitchen wall and changing the order of a few key things.

 

What was most challenging about writing it?

 

The editing of any book is the hardest part, but also the most satisfying. It took me about nine months to write and almost two years to edit. Of course, now I can’t remember what we left in or what got cut.

 

The most fun?

 

Trying to find my book in the bookstores. It was usually shelved under “Grief and Bereavement.” I had no idea it was about grieving.

 

Did you take notes as you were emptying the house or did you have to rely on memory?

 

Yes – notes! Remember – I was living in Mum’s house for more than a year. I knew very few people in town, so I had no social life.

After sorting all day, I’d collapse into bed and write down memories triggered by the things I was finding

 

Memories were in no particular order. Just a jumble of thoughts. But I ended up with a collection of “scenes” that I used later in my manuscript.

 

Any reaction from your family?

 

My family read the manuscript before it ever went to a publisher. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any relationships, so I promised to remove anything they found hurtful. Thankfully, nothing got removed – except later by the editors!

 

What sorts of emails/reaction have you gotten from readers — it’s so much a generational rite of passage for so many people now!

 

That’s the thing about memoir: you think you’re writing about your own life but it turns out you’re writing about everyone else’s as well.

 

We all have so much in common

 

I wish I could thank the stranger who came up to me outside an elevator shortly after my book came out. She recognized me from the book jacket and did a double-take. “Are you Plum Johnson?” she said. I started backing away, thinking: uh-oh, here comes the criticism. “May I give you a hug?” she said. “Because I had a mother just like yours!”

 

 

 

The joy of rekindled friendship

In behavior, life, love, women on June 28, 2016 at 2:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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One of my Twitter friends — an archaeologist in Berlin — and I tweet RHPS lyrics to one another. Because…friendship!

 

Few moments are sadder than a friendship’s abrupt and unforeseeen end — through anger, misunderstanding, a conflict no one is willing or able to resolve, a moment of no return when no one, (as the British say), will grasp the nettle and get through a tough moment to the other side.

A true friendship means creating and nurturing deep intimacy, sharing secrets (and trusting those will be held tightly for decades), daring to reveal your weaknesses and flaws along with your utter fabulousness.

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One of the many lovely people I’ve met through my blog (!) — Mallory Guinee, with me in Paris in January 2015

A true friend — in my world — is someone who knows you really well and loves you anyway.

Some people come from tight, loving, intact families and, as a result, perhaps have much less need of friendship. They know they can count on parents, siblings, grandparents, even cousins, for moral support throughout life’s ups and downs, and sometimes even receive financial help.

If you emerge from a family like mine, poisoned by estrangement, friends are family, the people you learn to turn to first and always.

They’re the ones who walk uphill in a blizzard to get you to the hospital at 6 a.m. for knee surgery and who stop you from falling head-first into the bathroom door as you emerge from  anesthesia.

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The ones who sit with you as you weep through hearing the sound of bagpipes for the first time since they marked your marriage, now ended.

The ones who know your dogs’ names and the man who broke your heart and the woman you dreamed of becoming .

They never forget your birthday.

You know their parents and their siblings and how they’re all doing.

Losing one of these friends is a terrible loss, and one not quickly or easily replaced.

 

Some friendships outgrow their time and not all of them are meant to last.

But I hate it when someone I really enjoy suddenly disappears from my life, which has happened a few times.

After trying to talk through some troubling (to me) behavioral patterns, I lost three friends in rapid succession about a decade ago, all of them women I had hoped would be friends for many years to come, but they’re gone, and they’re gone for good.

I don’t regret it now, although it’s not been quick or easy to replace them.

At a recent wedding of a friend, I knew I would run into a younger woman I’d been close with about a decade ago, and — after a silly falling-out  — we had not spoken since then. We had met through that mutual friend, who kept me up to date for years on K’s progress through life and how, since our fight, she had since found all sorts of happiness.

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My best friend, my husband, Jose

I knew she was now married, with a baby.

And she was there, glowing, with her handsome husband and photos of her lovely new baby on her phone.

I said a nervous hello, and it was, thankfully, an instant of hugs and reconciliation.

And how very glad I was.

 

Have you lost — and later re-made — a friendship?

Lessons from Dad

In aging, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life, men, parenting, women on June 19, 2016 at 3:41 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Today is Father’s Day.

Some of you are fathers. Some wish to become one. Some of you love yours deeply, while others, like me, sometimes have strained and challenging relationships with theirs.

I spent much of my childhood, after my parents split up, between boarding school and summer camp. Even though his apartment building was, literally, across the street from my school, custody arrangements made it difficult to see him — and he traveled the world as a film director.

So the time I did get to spend with him was rare. I moved in with him and his girlfriend, later wife, when I was 14.5, and lived there until I was 19.

Those were our best years:

We played sports: badminton, squash, skiing, and went for long walks in the country, giving me a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors and for being athletic and active.

We played Scrabble almost every evening, with Jack the cat usually stepping right into all our carefully placed tiles.

We drove across Canada, sleeping in a tent, with a few stopovers in North and South Dakota where we attended several native American pow-wows. At night, they placed food at the door of our tent, a welcome gesture.

We drove and drove and drove and drove — Canada is enormous and we had started in Toronto.

I left home at 19 and never moved back. He recently turned 87 and is still in very good health.

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A scene from Dr. Zhivago, a film we saw together

 

Some of the lessons I learned:

 

Kick ass!

 

He was always eager to rattle the cage of received wisdom, challenging every source of authority, and his films, mostly documentaries, but one film for Disney and several television news series, reflected that.

Here’s his Wikipedia entry.

 

Be excellent, always

 

Life is short and wasting it producing mediocre bullshit is a terrible choice. It is, always, a choice.

 

Be frugal — but enjoy life

 

He’s always owned used (nice!) cars and spent his money on good food, travel, art. I’ve adopted his ways and enjoy my life as a result. I treasure my many memories and love looking at the the objects, photos and souvenirs I’ve collected over the decades.

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The view from our cottage rental in Donegal, June 2015 — visited my great-grandfather’s one-room schoolhouse in Rathmullan

Figure out your finances

 

He never gave me a dime for college or birthdays or graduation. Just not his style. So, from an early age, (and, luckily, I did inherit some money from my maternal grandmother), it was all up to me to figure out how to budget, what to buy and when and why, how to save and invest and not go broke, even in the toughest of freelance years.

A great lesson, even when difficult to manage.

 

You can indeed earn a living as a creative professional

 

This is likely the most essential of all, in a culture that both reveres the “artist” and all too often dooms him or her to penury and frustration. We had cotton years and cashmere years, some that were wealthier and some that were less so. But we never lost our home or felt terrified that was likely.

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Paris

The world is filled with wonders

 

He returned from his work travels — long before cell phones or the Internet, so a month of silence — bearing odd bits of the world I’d never see anywhere else: Inuit sealskin gloves, a caribou-skin rug, a woven Afghan rifle case, badges from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. There was an extraordinary world out there waiting for me to get into it, explore it and tell my own stories about it.

 

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Women can do anything

 

I graduated high school at the height of second-wave feminism, and thank heaven for that! It never — then or since — occurred to me that women should or could accomplish any less than their male competitors.

 

Insatiable curiosity

 

It’s how I earn my living, as a freelance journalist for The New York Times, author of two non-fiction books and world traveler. The world is bursting with untold stories.

His bookshelves, like mine, include art, history, biography, memoir, design.

 

Stay competitive, always

 

Pretty counter-intuitive lesson for a teenage girl, but also key to my ongoing success in the super-competitive world of publishing and journalism. If you have a great idea, keep it close to your vest, then sell it to the highest bidder.

 

Here’s my Reuters Money story this week about the best financial advice some well-known people got from their Dads.

 

I especially like this one:

Dara Richardson-Heron, MD

CEO, YWCA U.S.A.

“My Dad, father of four girls, made it clear to each of us that we should never be limited in any way by our race or gender, particularly true as it related to receiving equal pay for equal work. That’s why I’m so fortunate he was ahead of his time and also very intentional about discussing the tremendous importance of pay equity. Because of his advice and guidance, I am on a mission every day to use my skills, experience, and expertise to help all women achieve economic empowerment and equity.”

What did your father teach you?

 

What lessons are you sharing with your children?

The joy (and terror!) of your first solo apartment

In aging, behavior, cities, design, domestic life, life, U.S., urban design, urban life on June 15, 2016 at 2:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

One of Broadside’s most faithful followers — Rami Ungar, whose blog is here –– is moving into his first apartment on his own as he starts his first post-college full-time job.

 

IMG_20151219_080332133_HDRThe view from my friend’s studio apartment on East 81st, in Manhattan

 

Big step!

 

Independence. Self-reliance.

How do you make rice? Boil an egg?

I’ll never forget (does anyone?) my first apartment where I lived alone for the first time. A studio, with a sleeping alcove just big enough for my double mattress (on the floor), it was on the ground floor of a building facing an alleyway in a not-very-good part of Toronto.

The rent? $160/month — while my monthly income was $350.

I was so broke! But it was mine, all mine, even still sleeping in my childhood bed, under my red and yellow and blue patchwork quilt.

I was an undergrad, in my second year at University of Toronto, an easy walk to our downtown campus.

It was really, looking back, a terrible choice for a single woman, not safe at all.

I ended up having to move out within six months after one spring evening, when — my bathroom window open to the breeze — a man (yes, really) leaned into my bathroom window, at his waist height, and tried to pull me out of the bathtub.

Terrifying.

I moved next into a gorgeous studio on a much nicer street, on the 6th floor, with a balcony facing over the lush treetops of a nearby park.

No one could get at me.

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A table set for one of our dinner parties

Ever since that first first-floor home, I’ve lived on a building’s sixth, and usually highest, floor, usually facing trees — both beautiful and with zero possibility of a stranger accessing my door or windows.

But living alone is such heady stuff!

Everything is up to you: when and where and what to eat. Buying and cooking groceries. Learning to cook. Deciding who to bring home for how long and how often. Are they safe?

Doing laundry. (Or lack of same.)

You’re now negotiating your home’s care and safety directly with strangers — your landlord, maybe a superintendent or janitor.

Your rent is due exactly when they expect it. Every month. In full!

I was out on my own at 19, which, in retrospect was pretty young to be on my own in a major city. But I didn’t want to live in a dorm — after years spent sharing space with people at boarding school and summer camp.

Some people loathe the solitude and loneliness of solo life. For a while, I loved it.

Now, having been with my husband for 16 years, I really cherish the comfort and company of married life. I’d find it difficult to be alone now. (Not to mention his help getting things off those higher shelves.)

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A French laundromat washing machine…quite incomprehensible!

I liked this recent New York Times story about New York’s newest micro apartments:

It’s a nice place for a sleepover. The 302-square-foot unit I stayed in rents for $2,670 a month, furnished, which includes convertible and small-space objects from Resource Furniture. That company’s sofa-wall bed combination called Penelope (my destiny?), made in Italy by Clei, is the linchpin of the space: a Murphy-style bed, surrounded by deep cabinets, that unfolds over a diminutive charcoal-gray sofa.

I spent a good half-hour practicing opening and closing that bed, which is heavier and trickier than anything Bernadette Castro ever tackled, but much, much more comfortable, because it has a proper-size mattress and a firm base. (The two photographers who had accompanied me on my mission declined to help, perhaps taking their journalistic ethics too seriously.)

I know, I know….that’s about the size of some people’s walk-in closets!

I also loved the writer’s nostalgia for her first apartment:

My first single-person’s apartment in New York City was a studio on Christopher Street, in a prewar tenement building with a hallway that smelled of cat and scorched garlic. There was a kitchen of sorts in a cubby space with a tiny Royal Rose stove, a sink and a mini fridge — but I never cooked there.

I was no Laurie Colwin (I don’t recall owning a pot) and anyway, the Korean market on Bleecker Street was my cafeteria. It was 1984; on weekends, the young men who came downtown to showboat kept me awake until 5 a.m., but I didn’t care. When I wasn’t cursing them, I loved watching the performance.

The kitchen and bathroom windows looked out onto a grimy air shaft, and right into my neighbors’ apartments, so at night I did a lot of ducking, being too slack to install a shade or even tack up a sheet. If you closed the bathroom door, you’d be stuck until a PATH train rumbled past and shook it free. (My first night in the apartment, I spent two hours trapped in there, having closed the door firmly to clean the black and white herringbone tile floor.)

Mostly, my tiny apartment was a launching pad, and I was thrilled to be living alone.

As was I in mine.

 

Do you remember your first apartment?

What was it like?

 

 

Sharpening the saw — off to D.C., then Toronto

In behavior, business, education, journalism, life, travel on June 11, 2016 at 12:36 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Time for refreshment!

OK, laugh…but I do, occasionally, read self-help books, especially those focused on business.

I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2005, and have done so several times in my career. Which means I have no boss or manager to, ideally, train and guide me, or mentor me or help me get better at what I do.

And being a freelance writer is — very rarely — about the quality of your actual writing, but about your ability to sell, close deals, hustle, to create and sustain profitable new relationships.

So I need to seek, and to find, people and ways to help me stay fresh, smart and sharp.

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New horizons!

A classic of the business self-help genre is Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”, originally published on August 15, 1989, which I read and enjoyed.

Here’s the seventh one, which he calls sharpening the saw:

Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. Here are some examples of activities:
Physical: Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting
Social/Emotional: Making social and meaningful connections with others
Mental: Learning, reading, writing, and teaching
Spiritual: Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer, or service

As you renew yourself in each of the four areas, you create growth and change in your life. Sharpen the Saw keeps you fresh so you can continue to practice the other six habits. You increase your capacity to produce and handle the challenges around you.

 

Those of you who read this blog regularly know how deeply I believe in and evangelize for a life filled with joy and connection and rest, not just a hard charge from cradle to grave.

 

In that spirit, I’m heading to D.C. this weekend for a firehose of data on writing about retirement. I’ve been writing often for Reuters Money on a variety of personal finance topics, from taxes to how to establish a scholarship. This three-day D.C. fellowship, offered to 20 journalists from across the country, will, I hope, better prepare me to pitch and write smart, incisive stories.

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Lincoln Center, New York City — where my friend invited me, as a young journalist, to perform as an extra in Sleeping Beauty with the National Ballet of Canada. I did eight shows, terrifying fun, and wrote about it for the Globe and Mail.

While in Washington, I’m also meeting editors at two major publications and hoping for new work from each of them.

I’ll take three days to rest, recharge and enjoy the city, which I’ve visited many times; favorite spots include the Old Ebbitt Grill and the Sackler Museum, the elegant, serene Asian art wing of the Smithsonian.

I’ll get home, have a day to unpack and repack, then fly to Toronto, my hometown, to attend the wedding reception and brunch of one of my dearest and oldest friends, a woman marrying after decades of independence and financial success running her own business.

I’m super excited for her and her fiance, a distinguished author and professor, and thrilled to be there to share their joy; she spoke at my second wedding, in September 2011 in a small church on an island in the Toronto harbor.

She has known me, and nurtured me, from the very start of my journalism career, when I — a wildly ambitious writer in Toronto — apparently (!?) pestered her for free tickets to the ballet, which she represented for years as their press officer.

We quickly became good friends, and she has welcomed me into her home many, many times. I later wrote several times about the National Ballet, and had some great adventures as a result; I was honored to write an essay for their 35th anniversary souvenir program as well.

She is more family to me than anyone to whom I’m related.

It’s also been a busy spring with no out-of-state travel since early January, so I’m really ready for a break, physically, emotionally and intellectually.

How have you been “sharpening the saw?”

 

Real journalism still matters — and it costs

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, news, television, work, world on June 7, 2016 at 2:01 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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

It costs lives.

This week, once more, journalists across the world are mourning the deaths of two more tribe members, David Gilkey, a photographer for National Public Radio (and a veteran of several U.S.newspapers) and his interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna.

The two men, travelling in a convoy with other NPR staff, were killed in Afghanistan on assignment when their Humvee was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.

To most people beyond professional journalism, it’s just another story flashing by in your Twitter feed or something glimpsed, possibly, on Facebook.

I listened yesterday to the heartfelt tributes on National Public Radio by Jason Beaubien and Kelly McEvers, who worked closely with Gilkey; McEvers, who worked for many years in the MidEast, could barely choke out a sentence.

It takes tremendous courage to step into the theater of war to cover it as a journalist, (and, as Gilkey also frequently did, starting in 2007 for NPR, to record the aftermath of natural disasters in places like Haiti and the Philippines) — to pick up a camera or microphone and start gathering facts to share with the rest of us, sitting safely and calmly at home on our balcony or in our cars or on a sofa patting our dog or cuddling a child.

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

These jobs — yes, chosen freely — demand sacrificing any sort of personal life, sometimes for many years.

You go, at once, where the story is, where you have to be, for as long as your editors want you there. Forget celebrating other people’s birthdays with them or anniversaries or attending their weddings or graduations or the birth of your children.

Reporters’ risk their physical and mental health, even if “only” at risk of secondary trauma, a very real effect of witnessing death, violence and destruction firsthand.

 

There’s no other way to tell these stories well.

 

Like PTSD, secondary trauma leaves scars for years, and it often goes unnamed, unrecognized and untreated, because admitting it to yourself — or your colleagues, let alone to your bosses — also means admitting you’ve got deep and complicated feelings about what you’ve witnessed and recorded and transmitted.

Feelings are something we often postpone having about tough stories.

They’re messy and can slow us down.

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I covered the unity march in Paris in January 2015 — I love breaking news!

If you can spare the time or have the interest, please take 25:03 out of your life to listen to this smart, impassioned commencement speech to the 2016 graduates from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism by Rebecca Solnit.

Here’s a print version of it.

An excerpt:

Break the story is a line journalists use to mean getting a scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance. When you report on any event, no matter how large or small—a presidential election, a school board meeting—you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened. But of course we swim in stories like fish swim in water; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do. Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermines or reinforces the existing stories. Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday. It’s also to see and make visible and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories. The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture. We call those dominant narratives or paradigms or memes or metaphors we live by or frameworks. However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces. And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and too often the bars of someone else’s cage. They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date. They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions. Why does the media obediently hype terrorism so much, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about 1200 a year? How do you break the story about what really threatens us and kills us?

 

I love what she says and believe wholeheartedly in her stance — that so many of the “stories” we write or broadcast are bullshit.

It also takes real professional courage to break away from the pack, to zig when everyone is zagging, and chase down a story you know is essential but that no Big Outlet has (yet) deemed important.

It’s called a press pack for a reason…

 

I hope, as you consume serious, smart  journalism today, in whatever format on whatever device — paper, phone, tablet, book — you’ll stop and say a prayer of thanks for those who have given their lives to bring it to us.

 

 

 

The loudest voice in the room

In behavior, domestic life, life, U.S., women on June 2, 2016 at 1:36 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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One of my favorite Toronto sights — the ferry to the Islands

I come from a quiet culture.

Canadians are socialized to be polite, non-confrontational, conflict-averse.

Like the British, one of our founding nations, we prize a stiff, silent upper lip.

We’re suspicious of draaaaaama and shiny, empty promises.

Unlike Americans — trained to compete hard for everything, to sharpen their elbows and throw them as needed — we generally value community harmony over individual triumph and ego gratification.

A recent study finds some not-so-nice views of American behavior.

From Alternet:

if all the world’s a stage, America is a prime player: a rich, loud, attention-seeking celebrity not fully deserving of its starring role, often putting in a critically reviled performance and tending toward histrionics that threaten to ruin the show for everybody else. (Also, embarrassingly, possibly the last to know that its career as top biller is in rapid decline.) To the outside onlooker, American culture—I’m consolidating an infinitely layered thing to save time and space—is contradictory and bizarre, hypocritical and self-congratulatory. Its national character is a textbook study in narcissistic tendencies coupled with crushing insecurity issues.

How to reconcile a country that fetishizes violence and is squeamish about sex; conflates Christianity and consumerism; says it loves liberty yet made human rights violations a founding principle? In conversations with non-Americans, should the topic of the U.S. come up, there are often expressions of incredulity and bewilderment about things that seem weird when you aren’t from here. Talk and think about those things enough, and they also start to seem objectively weird if you are from here, too.

Maybe it’s why I find loud voices, and the enormous egos behind them, let alone those who kowtow to them, so difficult and unpleasant. People who feel a constant need to draw attention to themselves and their concerns, certainly past the age of 12 or so, strike me as exhausting.

I’ve been taking a jazz dance class for a decade and enjoyed it greatly, until this year.

A woman, 48, feels compelled to talk, often and loudly, throughout the class, offering her opinion on everything from the music we’re moving to to the latest show she’s seen.

I asked the teacher, twice, to ask this woman to be quiet, to no avail. I know another student (British origin, interestingly), also complained.

I’m now looking for a new dance class.

I see the same phenomenon on-line, where some people are all-angst-all-the-time. Their neediness sucks all the air from the room and leaves me wondering why, as with the woman in dance class, they feel compelled to dominate every possible space, real or virtual.

The current Presidential election has proven the point as well, with Donald Trump garnering  huge, (i.e. disproportionate), volumes of airtime and headlines through his incessant bullying and bombast. This week he added personal insults — “You’re a beauty” — to injury when he attacked journalists who dared to challenge him at a press conference.

(FYI, that’s our job.)

It’s gotten so bad that journalists — who admit they’ve given Trump far too much airtime and ink — are now, belatedly, trying to redress that imbalance.

From The New York Times:

For broadcasters, turning down an interview with a candidate is anathema to a news culture trained to pursue maximum access. Yet the starkly different strategies of the candidates are straining the industry’s bedrock notions of evenhandedness.

“The two candidates are running two different kinds of races,” said John Dickerson, the moderator of “Face the Nation” on CBS, who has interviewed both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump on his show.

“At every opportunity possible, you invite both of them on to share their views and answer the questions of the moment,” Mr. Dickerson said. “But a lot of this is on the candidates. If they believe a point is better expressed by their surrogate, or not talking at all, that’s sort of their choice.”

Networks are seeking novel ways to maintain balance, like staging voter town halls that provide candidates with equal airtime; seeking a wider spectrum of on-air contributors and campaign surrogates; and bringing more fact-checking into segments, as Jake Tapper has done recently on CNN to some acclaim.

Still, the presence of Mr. Trump can be irresistible, especially in an election in which viewership and advertising rates have soared, generating tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue for an industry threatened by digital competition.

 

 

 

We’re all WIPs…(works in progress)

In aging, behavior, domestic life, life, work on May 28, 2016 at 12:40 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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This is one of my favorite paintings…it’s huge, and hangs in a hallway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. It’s Joan of Arc realizing her destiny.

We live in a culture obsessed with being perfect and efficient and productive.

We’re human.

And a culture based on an industrial production model, aka laissez-faire capitalism, doesn’t really allow for much humanity, the times we’re slowed by grief or panic or confusion.

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Give your tired old dogs a rest!

We can’t all operate at 100 percent all the time, even if some people expect it.

We get sick, with an acute illness, or a chronic illness or, worst, a terminal illness.

We nurse loved ones with these afflictions.

I see so many people flagellating themselves for not producing more (why not producing better?) or not meeting others’ (unreasonable) expectations or failing to keep up with others who may have the advantage of tremendous tailwinds we’ll never see or know exist.

We could all use a little break, no?

A common phrase among fiction writers is their WIP, their work in progress, i.e. a book or poem or essay they’re plugging away on, whether with a contract and a publisher or just a lot of hope and faith.

 

We’re all a work in progress, really.

 

Getting older (I have a birthday soon!) is a great way to slow down long enough to reflect on the progress we’ve already made, not just scrambling every single day to do it all faster and better.

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It’s so easy to feel inadequate when deluged daily by a Niagara of shiny, happy, successful images on social media.

As if those were the (full) true story.

 

But everyone has a wound and a dark place and a weak spot, likely several, and they often remain well hidden, sometimes from ourselves and sometimes for decades.

 

Have you seen this moving, powerful TED talk?

It’s 12:58 in length, presented by a writer named Lidia Yuknavitch — who I confess I’d never heard of before.

Her talk reminds us that:

“Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful,” she says. “You don’t know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That’s your beauty.”

It is so easy, at every level and stage of life, to feel like less than, a failure, a loser, and no one is ever supposed to admit it!

Only losers admit to feeling fear, envy, insecurity.

Not true.

We’re human.

And we all end up in the same place eventually.

 

The true meaning of collegiality

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, women, work on May 25, 2016 at 12:51 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Writing for a living can be lonely!

 

Many professional writers, as I do, live and/or earn our incomes in solitude, working freelance at home or in a cafe or library.

As a result, entire days, sometimes weeks, can go by without seeing another member of our industry face to face — people live far away, have long commutes or are simply too busy cranking out copy to have a long meal, or short coffee, with one another.

It’s a real loss.

 

We all need colleagues with whom to talk shop, gossip, hear about their latest project, cheer them when they win well-earned awards.

 

We need to give, and receive, fierce hugs and hear “Hey!” from across a crowded room.

And, yes, commiserate if it’s not been such a great year so far.

 

Last week reminded me how incredibly important it is so get into the same room with people whose work, and values, you like, respect, admire and hope to emulate.

 

I attended, along with 599 others, the annual meeting the of American Society of Journalists and Authors, held every spring in midtown Manhattan at the Roosevelt Hotel.

The ASJA is a member-only group, but Saturday is open to other writers at all levels; we focus on non-fiction and journalism.

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The writer and I have become Twitter friends — but have yet to meet in person. Terrific book!

After the sometimes shockingly filthy air of online-only communication — poisoned in so many groups by misunderstanding, grandstanding, rank amateurs and even bullying of those they deem unwelcome — being surrounded by smart, talented, proven professionals who actually know, like and respect one another’s work was truly a hit of pure oxygen.

The very first person I saw was a male tech writer, a friend of many years, who asked me about blogging.

Others asked how my work was going, or told me how much they enjoy my blog.

I met many new writers, and those with decades of work for every imaginable magazine, authors of multiple books, some of them New York Times best-sellers.

 

We’re all thirsty, at every level of experience, to learn more, to improve our skills.

 

On Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel with two other writers about coaching, a service I offer fellow writers. In the audience were two talented younger women I spoke to at length afterward — one from my hometown, Toronto, one from Alabama.

Here’s the full list of every panel, as they were all taped for late sale — you can order them! (Mine is S09 on May 21.)

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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

Such a pleasure to meet new people with thriving careers!

A group of us went out for lunch — women from Austin, Texas, New York, Boston, all of whom had never met. There’s an immediate, automatic comfort among fellow writers who know the real pressures of paying the rent/mortgage/health insurance from our writing, editing and teaching.

That afternoon, as other ASJA members do every year at the conference, I also mentored a young woman from (!) Sydney Australia; we mentor writers at the conference who pay a small additional fee and can ask us anything they want about the business of writing for a living.

It really is a meeting of peers and colleagues, not just idle chitchat.

We don’t just go to exchange business cards and polite pleasantries but, in a few more intimate conversations, to dig deep into the joys and challenges of what it means to still try to produce smart, thoughtful journalism in an age of listicles and clickbait.

How and where do you find true colleagues?

The true meaning of friendship

In aging, behavior, domestic life, life, love, urban life, women on May 22, 2016 at 2:38 pm

By Caitlin  Kelly

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Two chairs, two friends…

The word “friend”  only became a verb thanks to social media.

One once befriended someone or made a friend; note the verb to make.

 

It takes time, and effort and consistent interest.

 

It also requires a shared sense of values and expectations if it’s to last more than a few days or weeks.

Today it’s become a word with multiple meanings, some of which...don’t mean a thing.

Having just weathered intense cyber-bullying by an online group fellow women writers, (none of whom have ever met or spoken with me), I spent some time culling my “friend” list on Facebook.

More than 200 people are now gone from my list of “friends”, as I realized I’d allowed myself to accept requests from people I didn’t know well, assuming — innocently, hopefully and very stupidly — that everyone who wanted to be my friend also knew, and shared, my values, ethics and/or professional expertise.

Nope.

Several of these women proved to be Trojan horses. Lesson, painfully, learned.

So, back to true friendship.

This week also reminded me what it looks and feels like:

Face to face conversation.

Revelation.

Mutual trust.

Sharing stories.

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One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua in March 2014 — now still friends with these three

On Monday I went for lunch with a woman who lives across the street from us, and who I hadn’t spent time with for at least six months. We’d had a disagreement last fall, and stopped our weekly walks.

I wasn’t sure we would continue our friendship. We seemed, suddenly, just too different.

Then she was felled, (luckily, getting better now), with a challenging acute illness.

I took her flowers, shocked at the trials she was facing and sorry for her difficulties.

This week, I returned to the relationship with a deeper gratitude for her good humor, her sense of perspective and delight in her recovering health.

Like a handful of people, she knows me very well.

There is something so comforting talking to someone who just knows you, loves you and accepts your quirks.

On Wednesday, I met another friend, a newer one, and we went to the Met Museum after having lunch at Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, both on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

We’re still getting to know one another, and she is a working artist and art teacher — we geek out over things like Vikings and monstrances.

On Thursday, I caught up with a woman who was originally a story source, a brilliant (Harvard MBA, ho hum) finance expert.

I feel so lucky when I meet and get to know a woman who’s both wicked smart — and deeply kind. What a pleasure to see her, even once a year when she visits New York.

On Saturday — (this is not a typical week!) — I had breakfast with a fellow writer, a specialist in medical topics, visiting from Toronto, then we both spoke on panels at a writers’ conference.

A woman I’d never met before stayed behind after my panel to talk to me….and we kept talking until midnight when we had to run for our respective trains to get home.

She’s an author from Alabama; here’s her book about a terrifying day when dozens of tornadoes traumatized the U.S.

Whew! What an energizing, delicious gift this week has been.

The gift of friendship.

And how helpful, for all of us, to see the world through others’ eyes and their perspectives. It’s so easy to get caught in your own little worldview, trapped by your own firmly-held opinions.

A key difference I’ve seen here in the U.S. is a discomfort with, (understatement, more like terror of), major differences of opinion, certainly on issues like politics, religion, feminism, the usual flashpoints. If you don’t agree 100 percent on everything, discussion (certainly online) flares into nasty, name-calling argument and boom!

There goes your “friendship.”

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

I’m slow to make new friends.

Having been betrayed by a few, I’m now much warier about letting a new person in close.

 

True friendship takes time to grow, to deepen, to broaden.

 

You may have to forgive them, (and they you!)

Intimacy can be challenging.

Some flee at the first sign of friction.

 

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Coming from a family of origin whose typical stance is estrangement or anger, my friends are my family.

Few things are as precious to me as the intimacy of friendship, old and new.

How about you?

Do you make friends quickly and easily?

Have you weathered the sting of deception and betrayal?

 

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