More simple pleasures

By Caitlin Kelly

With so many of our normal activities now too dangerous, what’s left?

Lots!

Gorgeous fall light, low and slanting

Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon

Bingeing great TV shows and movies

Lying under the duvet listening to the radio

Making butternut squash soup and apple crumble

Long phone calls with old friends

Planning your Christmas card list

Cosy new pajamas and slippers

A new wall or room color!

Farrow & Ball’s most recent fandeck

Shelter magazines to dream by

Fresh pillowcases

Bouquets in every room

Late afternoon naps

Choosing new recipes to try

If you have art or design reference books, leafing through them and enjoying the visuals

A bowl of tangerines

Drinking your tea or coffee from a favorite mug or lovely cup and saucer

A warm croissant with raspberry jam

Sitting alone in silence, every day

Waking up, dining and going to sleep by candlelight

A pot of tea

Patting your dog or cat or maybe even your tiny albino hedgehog

Playing cards with your sweetie

Hugging your kid(s)

A Kit Kat!

And yours?

Home for the holidays?

By Caitlin Kelly

Not for me!

I haven’t been back to my native Canada since summer 2019, when I was reporting a major story and attended a northern Ontario conference.

My father lives alone in rural Ontario; at 91 he has to be very careful about exposure to the virus, even though he’s in pretty good health. If I tried to go up, I’d face a two-week quarantine, so I’ve chosen not to.

The pandemic has killed almost 250,000 Americans and infected millions worldwide.

In the U.S. Thanksgiving is a huge event for many people, the one holiday that gets people to travel far and wide to celebrate with family or friends.

This year?

It’s just too dangerous!

We’ll be at home, just the two of us, but that’s been our norm for many years, as Jose’s family all live very long drives away from us and his closest sister heads further south to visit her own adult children.

Yet many Americans — as usual — insist they’ll host as many people as they like and the virus is a hoax and all those morgue trucks full of COVID corpses are…some sort of illusion.

How about you?

Do you have Thanksgiving plans?

What about Hannukah or Eid or Kwanzaa or Christmas?

My writing life…the latest

By Caitlin Kelly

Last year was really rough.

This year, for reasons I can’t discern, things have been much better and much busier. For which I am so grateful!

In the past few weeks:

— I’ve pitched three editors at The New York Times (science, At Home, Well) and sold two ideas to them.

Here’s one, about listening to foreign radio.

— Pitched a fun idea I found (by reading the production notes of a recent documentary) to a Canadian magazine I admire, and was initially excited to write for, until they refused to push the pay rate into American currency, cutting a low rate ($500) to $380. Then their contract arrived and it was Biblical in length and demands. I did something very rare and backed out of the assignment. Then I had to manage the legitimately disappointed feelings of the person I was going to profile. But, when I discussed this on my Facebook page, several fellow Canadians suggested alternate editors.

— Negotiated with a physician about possible coaching.

— Did a bunch of Zoom classes with high school and college journalism students.

— Got back in touch with a few editors to try and start lining up assignments for January 2021. I always have to think at least two months ahead!

— Got some good news on a potential book project for which I need to speak to some very senior journalists.

— Connected two writers I admire, one in Nashville, one in London, to help one another on a project. I love connecting people!

— Wrote more blog posts for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds research into pancreatic cancer. The topic is challenging, as so many people don’t survive it, but it’s also been an honor to speak directly to the researchers working on so many different ways to detect and manage it.

— Enjoyed an unusual two-hour phone chat with one of my editors, who’s been buying a lot of my work for The Conversationalist. Only after two hours did we actually discuss work!

— Managed money! I work so hard to earn what I do, it’s easy to forget that what savings we do have need to be properly managed. We expected the stock market to soar after Biden was elected, and it did. I jumped and pulled some of that windfall into cash. I’m damn grateful to have savings and investments, without which I’d live in monthly fear of not being able to meet all our bills. I tell every would-be freelancer this — if you don’t have at least two to three months’ worth of expenses in the bank, you’ll never be able to turn down work or walk away (as I describe above) from a lousy deal.

— Swimming three times a week, at 12:30 p.m. at our local YMCA. They allow only four people at a time, one per lane. It’s bliss. I get some exercise, some social interaction, some relief from sitting alone at home all day. I even found the perfect source for my NYT radio story swimming in the next lane. He connected me, after we chatted as we left, to a great source in Miami.

— Participated in multiple Twitterchats: #TRLT (travel), #CultureTrav (travel) #RemoteChat and #FreelanceChat. I really enjoy these lively global online/real-time conversations and have met some great people through them, like an Australian woman living in France or a Dutch woman in New York. Each session is about an hour and focused on discussing a specific topic. I always learn something new and — especially with the terrible loss of social life due to COVID — they help keep me going nuts from loneliness and isolation.

— Kept up with my normal media consumption. I read the Financial Times and New York Times every day in print. I may scan others, like The Guardian, online. I listen to CBC and NPR radio, for news and pleasure. I also read books (slowly!) and some magazines, although many fewer than we used to. I’m not loving Vogue these days but enjoy reading even old copies of Smithsonian.

I really miss working in our gorgeous local library, with its soaring ceilings and tall windows and enormous tables.

I miss seeing other people face to face!

But we’ve spruced up our apartment, thanks to a good year, and that’s helped: new sofa, new rug, framing some art.

Here’s another writer’s description of her writing life — she lives alone in Brooklyn with her cat and does a lot of science writing.

Our writing lives are all, in some ways quite different and in many ways, very similar.

There’s no “Latino” vote

New Mexico

By Caitlin Kelly

This is a smart and powerful argument why the Democratic party needs to wise up fast — with mid-term elections within two years for both Senate and House seats.

Their abysmal failure to speak intelligently to — and listen carefully to — millions of Hispanic/Latino voters cost them a state they expected to sweep and didn’t, Florida.

As a white middle-class Canadian who grew up in two of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities — Toronto and Montreal — these persistent blind spots are both annoying as hell and depressingly consistent in American politics, at least at the federal level.

Expecting a wildly heterogeneous group — whose birthplace or ancestry maybe as disparate as Chile, Mexico (whose many regions are also wildly different from one another), Argentina, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or even Spain — to somehow share aspirations, beliefs, education and other values is naive at best, desperately ignorant at worst.

There is tremendous racism (thanks to millions of undocumented Hispanics in the U.S.) and wilful ignorance, a toxic combination when formulating intelligent policy and trying to win votes.

I’ve seen it firsthand in a few terrible moments with my husband — a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist mistaken for (of course!) a day laborer.

Both are important jobs but never ever ever assume who anyone is based on the color of their skin!

Here’s Isvett Verde, a New York Times staffer:

Journalists and pundits who have spent some time in Latin America or interviewed a few Spanish speakers (and now fancy themselves experts) have suggested that machismo, and a desire to be closer to whiteness, is what drove these voters to support the man who promised to build a wall to keep caravans of Spanish-speaking brown people out. That may be true, but it’s far from the whole story.

I’m a Cuban-American from Miami, and I’m not surprised that around 52 percent of Cuban-Americans in Florida voted for Mr. Trump. No one who was paying attention could be. In the weeks leading up to the election, Cubans in Miami composed a salsa song in support of Mr. Trump and organized Trump caravans hundreds of cars long.

It may sound ridiculous, but some of those voters are genuinely afraid of socialism, and he leaned into that. “We will never have a socialist country,” he promised. He understood that for Cubans and Venezuelans, the word is a reminder of the dysfunctional governments they left behind.

I know this firsthand because I live it — as a partner of 20 years with Jose Lopez, born in New Mexico and whose father was born in Mexico. Jose worked for 31 years as a photographer and photo editor and teacher within a bastion of American media power, The New York Times, where a former very senior colleague once said — to his face — “A preppy Mexican!” — when Jose wore khakis, the dull-but-safe East Coast uniform.

It was decades ago….but really?

What bullshit.

Nor does Jose speak Spanish, which I do fluently enough to have worked in it.

Nor is he Catholic — his father was a Baptist minister and he is Buddhist, his sister Baha’i and one sister Catholic. Yes, even within one family, diversity. All three siblings married non-Hispanics. One has lived and worked all over the world.

I lived briefly in Mexico as a teenager and have been back many times, although not recently. I’ve also visited Peru, Colombia, Nicaragua, Cost Rica, Venezuela, and Spain.

It’s pretty obvious none of these countries resemble one another beyond a shared language — and even then, not really! I learned to be very careful with local idioms; the verb “coger” can mean quite different things!

I want to see — demand to see — a much much smarter parsing of what it really means to live and work and pay taxes and vote in the United States as someone of Latino or Hispanic heritage.

Exhaling…

By Caitlin Kelly

This isn’t an issue I’ve read a lot about, but here it is….

If you, as I have, have spent time with a narcissist, subject to their twisted and exhausting manipulations and rage and gaslighting, the past four years of Trump’s presidency have been very very triggering.

That experience leaves you with a sort of PTSD. I cannot tolerate being shouted at or verbally abused — very rare now, but has happened a few times in recent years from others — and will shake for hours afterward when it happens.

To have that toxic piece of filth, and his lying, cold, grifting family GONE?

And a woman of color as our Vice-President!

I can breathe.

I can breathe.

So can millions and millions of relieved Americans.

Here is a powerful clip of commentator Van Jones, on CNN.

Why EQ beats IQ

Are you someone eager to start a fire — to destroy?

Or to comfort?

By Caitlin Kelly

I found this story interesting — a list of 19 things emotionally intelligent people do.

Here are some of the ones that really resonate for me:

2. They pause.

Emotionally intelligent people realize that emotions are fleeting, and that often making impulsive decisions leads to regrets. Therefore, they try to pause and think before speaking or acting—especially when they find themselves in an emotionally charged moment.

In short, their goal is to never make a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion.

Boy, does this one ring true!

How many of us can easily destroy a friendship, relationship, marriage or job with something snapped or shouted in anger?

Even if it doesn’t end it, it can cause serious damage.

The key word for me here is temporary — if you’re consistently miserable, time for a change.

7. They’re authentic.

Those with high emotional intelligence realize authenticity doesn’t mean sharing everything about yourself, to everyone, all of the time.

Rather, they endeavor to always say what they mean, mean what they say, and stick to their values and principles above all.

I think about this a lot with my social media presence, here and on Twitter, where I spend (too) much of my time in these lonely, isolated stay-at-home pandemic days.

As I said to a friend, a very senior level journalist, I may be playful and revealing on social media — but never careless. Whatever I decide to reveal publicly, it’s actually who I really am and expressing how I truly feel and I do that know anyone, anywhere can see it — including future clients.

15. They help others.

One of the best ways to inspire someone is to help them.

By extending a supportive hand, emotionally intelligent people help others to become the best version of themselves.

I’m no Pollyanna, but one of the things I do consistently — like every day or at least every week — is try to help others.

Recently, I introduced a writer in Nashville to one in London, to help her work on a high-level, potentially career-making story. A student whose class I addressed a few weeks ago has become a fairly regular email correspondent.

I work as a journalist, a challenging business that demands decent intellectual ability (not nearly as much as you’d hope) and, ideally, real emotional intelligence — as one of the 19 keys is empathy.

We recently caught up with a friend who’s won a lot of journalism awards and really is a fantastic writer and reporter. While writers love to brag about how much they earn or what awards they’ve won — we so rarely talk about how we do our reporting.

How we get total strangers to trust us with their stories.

Only empathy gets us there, she agreed.

I have no kids and my only niece and nephew are twins born in May 2020 to the brother who refuses to have any relationship with me — for 13 years.

He’s 40 and someone who’s spent his lifetime, since winning major awards in his teens, preening in front of everyone that he is super smart.

I find him one of the least emotionally intelligent people I’ve ever met, and not just because he dislikes me.

Because he places all his value on being a tedious “intellectual”, determined to out-argue everyone on every topic.

Intelligence isn’t something you beat people to death with.

That’s insecurity.

At the edge of the precipice…

By Caitlin Kelly

Tomorrow — as anyone in the U.S. knows — is election day.

Without doubt, it’s the most frightening and essential we’ve faced in the past century — and I mean going back to 1920.

The choice between two old white men is not appealing.

It is not what many of us wanted.

The choice between four more years of lies, grift, theft, racism and violence incited by the President, and…anything but that…feels stark and fraught with peril.

It is.

I left my native Canada in 1988, eager to start a shiny new life in the United States, grateful for my American mother’s ability to allow me access to a “green card” to become (in that hideous phrase), a “resident alien.”

It’s been a wild, wild ride. I lived for 18 months in small-town New Hampshire with my American boyfriend, then a medical resident, then moved with him to a suburban New York town. We married and he walked out two years later to marry a co-worker and have two daughters with her.

I’ve had great staff jobs — as a magazine editor, as a New York Daily News reporter, as a two-time author.

I’ve generally loved my life here and am in no rush to sell a home we love in a town we love and a state we love.

But this country has become even more toxic for so many.

Tomorrow — and the inevitable days and weeks ahead of arguing and violence and lawsuits and challenges to every vote — is making millions of us very, very fearful.

Yesterday — in the sort of thuggery Americans love to jeer at in other countries — a convoy of Trump supporters blocked a bridge that crosses the Hudson River.

Imagine if you were the dying patient in an ambulance, or trying to reach a fire.

This is blatantly illegal and dangerous.

Egged on by the bully in the White House — who just added yet another fence to his massively encircled home — his worhipers thrive on aggression and rage.

For one, I can’t take another minute of it, let alone four years.

It’s going to be an emotional week.

Women and money

One place I do love to splurge — Via Carota in NYC

By Caitlin Kelly

This story surprised me, that millennial women are less likely to handle their own finances than us Boomers:

A study published in June by the Swiss banking group UBS underscored that point. It found that even the most educated and high-achieving millennial women were not as involved as their husbands in long-term financial decision making.

In fact, millennial women — part of a generation thought to have pushed for open-mindedness about gender roles — exhibited less financial independence than boomer women did. Among millennial women living with male partners, 54 percent said they deferred to their partners for long-term financial planning rather than sharing that responsibility or taking the lead themselves, compared with 39 percent of boomer women, according to the study, which surveyed 1,320 women with at least $250,000 in investable assets.

This — initially — made sense to me:

Sallie Krawcheck, chief executive and co-founder of Ellevest, an investment platform for women, said millennials might not have realized that if they do not have financial equality, they do not have independence.

“Younger women haven’t had as many hard-won lessons,” she said.

But I know several millennial women (ages 23 to 28 in 2019) and they’ve faced a difficult economy and massive student debt, both of which can make anyone fearful of money matters.

The reason the women surveyed for not handling more of the money offered was their assumption that their husbands knew more.

This is madness!

The ability to manage money well — whether debt or investments — isn’t a male skill. I’ve seen this in my marriage with Jose, who did not grow up in a wealthy family, while my family of origin (at the grandparents’ level) had some serious money.

So I was fortunate at 19 to have a fat $350/month (thanks to my maternal grandmother) I had to make sense of and, throughout three years of full-time university, use for all my costs, including living alone in a major city.

Living on $350 a month was hardly luxury — my rent consumed 50 percent of it.

So I learned young to hustle hard for more income, through freelance writing and photography assignments.

I still remember what clothes I owned then, bought new, but very few of them and nothing as shiny as my live-at-home fellow students.

Jose and I have been able, without the additional costs of raising children or carrying student debt, to accumulate a decent amount of savings, enough that we really do have to pay attention.

He got a buyout package when he left The New York Times in 2015 and it’s our job to keep it safe and grow it when possible as we’re not going to get hired into another well-paid full-time job again, and never again enjoy job-subsidized health insurance — thanks to age discrimination.

So the pressure’s on to be smart and savvy.

I read the Financial Times every day. It’s really written for the professional experts who work in capital markets in London, New York, Hong Kong — not for me! But I learn a lot and keep an eye on companies worth investing in. If you refuse to pay attention to the global economy you’ll always be surprised by what happens.

I’ve read a few financial self-help books — the best takeaway? Don’t put your money anywhere that you just don’t understand! For me, that’s ETFs. They’ve been explained to me several times but my brain just freezes so I stick to what I know — a wide variety of mutual funds and a few individual equities (i.e. stocks.) We have no bonds at the moment.

If you’re willing and able to invest you do need to learn some lingo:

— asset allocation (where you invest)

— diversification (making a range of different investment choices to balance out the risk of individual ones failing)

— capital (i.e. money!)

That’s just a super bare bones start!

The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

Even if you’ve got some savings in a mutual fund, have you checked how it’s doing? Do you know the top 10 holdings? I was stunned — a few years ago — to see how dominant China was even then.

Do you know what a fiduciary is? They’re the only people whose financial advice you should heed.

I also learned the hard way never to play ostrich with how your money is doing — and lost about $11,000 that way on an investment my first husband made. I was an utter fool, too scared to open the envelopes they sent, and discovered that my own money (already saved) had been used to keep paying the company every month after I lost my full-time job and could not get another.

Back when, like these women, I assumed he knew better than I.


He didn’t.

The power of silence

By Caitlin Kelly

There are only two places I’ve been, so far, where I was surrounded by utter silence — inside the Grand Canyon and on a friend’s ranch in New Mexico, a place so quiet I could hear myself digesting.

Some cultures revere silence and know how much we all need it. The United States isn’t one! People love to talktalktalktalktalktalk and will spill what sound like the most intimate secrets in a quick conversation with a stranger. It’s exhausting and disorienting if you come to the country from a more discreet, reticent culture.

And silence?

Terrifying!

Jose and I did a seven day silent Buddhist retreat in the summer of 2011 a month or so before we married. There were 75 people of all ages and it was fascinating to be surrounded by people with whom not a word was exchanged until the final Saturday evening, when we “broke silence” and found out, verbally, who everyone was.

I admit, we had whispered occasionally in our shared monastic bedroom but mostly relied on Post-It notes to communicate.

I was shocked to see participants walking through the woods — on their cellphones — or leaving in their cars to head into town for…talking?

I blogged about it every day and found the experience healing and insightful. Talking and listening is really really tiring! If you actually pay attention to others, this consumes a lot of energy.

Not talking is very freeing.

Silence imposes discipline.

It forces you into your own head, a place many prefer to avoid.

I was fascinated, when I tell people I did seven days without speaking, (we could ask questions of the teachers once a day), they all said: “I could never do that!”

And I would reply….why not?

Here’s an interesting NYT story about staying silent at breakfast:

Eating in silence is an ancient practice with roots in many monastic communities. “Buddhists, Celtic Mystics, Sufis, Vedic Mystics,” said Ginny Wholley, a teacher at the UMass Memorial Health Care Center for Mindfulness. “Everyone has a component of silence that is an inherent part of the practice.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the center where Ms. Wholley teaches in 1979 as a way to promote and study the benefits of practices like these in a secular setting — in part because it’s challenging. The concept for silent breakfast is simple enough: focus on your food, quietly, and deal with whatever thoughts come up. But it’s more difficult than it seems.

….“One of the funny things about starting a mindfulness practice is that when you quiet the external noise, you start to hear more of the internal noise. If you’re not used to this, it can be incredibly unpleasant,” said Ravi Kudesia, a mindfulness researcher and assistant professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. “The key idea here is that it’s better to notice the whispers before they become screams.”

Here’s a list — one of my posts from that 2011 retreat — of all the sounds I heard instead.

Do you read self-help books?

By Caitlin Kelly

The book has sold more than 25 million copies in 40 languages.

It came out in 1989.

It has a really boring title — The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

But I think it’s also smart and worth reading, still.

That year, I had just moved permanently to the United States, a country whose population is 10 times greater than my own, Canada.

I was nervous as hell and felt like a raindrop falling into an ocean.

How could I ever make my mark?

Find my place socially and professionally?

I needed help!

And my family lived in Canada as did all my friends.

I had no American staff experience or any formal American education — as did all my competitors!

The United States is a country of very sharp-elbowed people, taught practically from birth lessons few other nations teach so assiduously — to compete really hard, beat the other guy, it’s all about you and your individual needs.

American success is a zero-sum game, with only one winner.

Covey’s book up-ended some of this.

I especially like the final Habit — Sharpen the Saw — staying mentally and emotionally sharp and refreshed.

You can’t do much when you’re burned out, bitter and exhausted. And, maybe like some of you, I have been at times.

I find some of his advice either banal (start with the end in mind) and some — within an American mindset — less so, that thinking “win-win” is more effective than punching every competitor in the face.

But as I near the end of a long career in an absurdly competitive and insecure industry — journalism — I find sharpening the saw ever more important. I’m now competing with people half my age with possibly three times the basic energy and stamina.

Add this to the general anxiety of self-employment, and we’ve been inundated in 2020 by a global pandemic, fires and floods and hurricanes and racism and violence and, oh yeah, the most important American election in maybe a century.

So staying calm, energized and focused matters more than ever. As I learned as a teenage lifeguard, people don’t always drown because they can’t swim — it’s because they panic.

So how do I stay sharp?

Long conversations with good friends about the joys and pleasures and many interests in our lives, not just work or politics. How are the new grandkids? The dog? (In two separate instances, both in Tennessee, the cow and the hedgehog.)

Naps, daily. I have no embarrassment about this, even though Americans are told ALL THE TIME they must always be more productive. i.e. don’t rest, don’t nap. A federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 for years is one way to dump millions into a life without leisure and respite.

Exercise. I need to do a lot more, but am swimming 30 minutes three times a week.

Box breathing. I recently discovered this interesting way to reduce stress.

Playing Scrabble on the computer (advanced level.) I usually play 45 to 60 minutes and love how it’s both fun and challenging.

— Playing cards or Bananagrams with my husband. Both require quick thinking, especially Bananagrams, which demands thinking really fast and making/rearranging words you may have already committed to. I really like how that aspect alone forces you to hastily abandon “commitment” to something that isn’t working!

Have you read any self-help books you found truly helpful?

How?