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.

Ten tips for freelancers

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At its best, time for a long lunch out! This is L’Express in Montreal

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Some call it — ugh! — the “gig economy” as if we were all hep-cats pounding some drum-set in the basement.

Freelance life, if it’s your sole income, really means self-employment, running a small business. While freelance sounds hip and cool and breezy — being a small business owner sounds, and is, much more serious.

I’ve been full-time freelance since 2006, but have done it for long stretches before that.

Some tips:

 

Choose your clients very carefully

It’s tempting, especially when you’re starting out, to lunge at every opportunity. It’s not a good habit to develop. People can smell desperation and will, sadly, take advantage of it with low rates, slow payment, awful contracts and abusive behavior. Do your due diligence whenever possible so you can avoid these toxic monsters.

 

 

Cultivate a wide, deep network of peers, fellow professionals whose work, work ethic and character you know well.

 

See point one! Without a network, how would you know? With a network, you will be more able to pick and choose which opportunities are best for you and your skills. Once you have a posse, you can safely refer work to them when you’re swamped, and vice versa.

 

 

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Keep at least three months of basic living expenses in the bank or have access to a line of credit.

Very few clients pay quickly. The best will pay 50 percent up front, or one-third, but this varies by industry. Late payments are a huge source of stress.

 

Know your legal rights! Read every contract carefully and amend them whenever possible. In New York State, the law protects freelancers who get stiffed.

 

Some contracts have become virtually unmanageable. Worst case? Walk away.

 

Negotiate. Every time.

 

No one is ever going to just hand you bags ‘o cash. Ask for more money, more time, a larger travel budget, social media boosts, etc.

 

Keep growing and building your skills.

 

Your competitors are!

Attend conferences, take classes and workshops and get some individual coaching. Listen to podcasts and Ted talks and YouTube. Read books. Take a college or university night class. The wider and stronger your skills, the more options you have to earn multiple revenue streams.

Yes, I coach!

 

 

 

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Get out into nature. Slow down. Rest.

Take time off!

 

Without rest, recharge and respite, burnout is inevitable. For all the putative freedom — no commute! work in a T-shirt! — this is often a highly stressful way to earn a living. Some people with “real” jobs, some of whom have paid vacations and paid holidays and paid sick days, get time off.

Freelance? The only people who know when it’s time to take a break is us.

 

Set clear boundaries between work and rest. Keep them!

 

I don’t work nights or weekends. If I do, I take time off in recompense. I keep a fairly standard work schedule, 10:00 a.m. to 5pm. I don’t like early mornings so will only schedule something before 10:00 a.m. if it’s really urgent — like working with someone in Europe (five to six hours ahead of me in New York.)

Get out of your lane!

 

I hate this new admonition — stay in your lane! All it does is ensure we don’t listen to, look at and engage with others who are different from us, in politics, interests and vocation. If all you ever do is talk to other writers or fellow freelancers, you’ll quickly die of boredom! Go to museums and parties and gallery openings and concerts and stuff your kids are into (Fortnite!) to keep your brain open to new ideas and ways of thinking.

 

 

 

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Remember in your heart of hearts that your skills and work bring value

 

Freelancing can be really lonely and really isolating. If you work alone at home for years, and have no kids or pets and your partner or spouse works out of the home, it’s very easy to start to feel feral and ignored. Make an “attaboy” file of every bit of praise and kindness so on days when everything gets rejected you recall why you’re good at this stuff and things will improve.

Here’s a recent interview with an American freelance writer, a woman of color.

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?

A must-see film: Capernaum

By Caitlin Kelly

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

In a good way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the film’s trailer.

Find it. 

Watch it.

Extraordinary.

Isolation is deadly. Ask for help!

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

Nowhere.

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

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

 

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

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

When they are human.

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

I began to dread it.

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

No.

It’s human beings.

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

 

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

Reporting a big story — a how-to

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

 

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Who are the primary characters? Secondary? Tertiary?

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

What about anecdotes?

Data and statistics?

Podcasts on the subject?

What else has been written about it?

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

Does it also need a video component?

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

What about their tweets or YouTube videos or TED talks?

Books and white papers and academic studies to read?

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

I need to identify them fully.

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

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

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

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

 

Then…oh yeah, writing!

 

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.