Why read a grim book?

By Caitlin Kelly

There are happy books and there are books you think…really?

I’m expected to get through the whole thing?

There are books, whether novels or non-fiction, about alcoholism, drug use, family abuse, that can feel like a real slog. The subject is undeniably depressing, frightening, even terrifying and most of its characters are people you would never want to meet.

I admit, I didn’t enjoy reading a huge 2018 best-seller, Educated, by Tara Westover, about the terrible family she grew up with, eventually escaping to a better life. I was (however unfairly) impatient with her for staying so long in an environment that was so awful. An earlier best-seller, also by a white woman, Jeanette Wells, was 2005’s The Glass Castle. But I did enjoy a Canadian book like this, North of Normal.

One of the best books I read last year was also emotionally difficult, In The Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado, a memoir of lesbian domestic abuse. Now that sounds appealing! But her writing is extraordinary and it’s a great book.

I recently read the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain. As I described it to a friend, a fellow journalist, she said she just couldn’t do it. I found that interesting as journalism, with our decades of exposure to some very tough stories, tends to harden us somewhat.

I did enjoy it, but it’s rough — a young boy, Shuggie, living in Glasgow poverty with an older brother and sister and a severely alcoholic mother, abandoned by his father.

I also found elements of it painful and hard to read because my mother was also an alcoholic, and the novel is filled with his hopeless hope that someday, someday, she won’t be — a fantasy painfully familiar to any child of an alcoholic.

The author, Douglas Stuart, survived a very similar childhood, so his ability to turn such grim fare into a compelling novel is impressive. And his background isn’t the standard trajectory of writing classes, workshops and an MFA — he worked in fashion design for decades and was writing it while working as the senior director of design for Banana Republic.

From Wikipedia:

In a conversation with 2019 Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo on 23 November, livestreamed as a Southbank Centre event, Stuart said: “One of my biggest regrets I think is that growing up so poor I almost had to elevate myself to the middle class to turn around to tell a working-class story.”[22] Discussing the “middle-class” publishers’ rejections he had received for Shuggie Bain, he told Evaristo: “Everyone was writing these really gorgeous letters. They were saying ‘Oh my god this will win all of the awards and it’s such an amazing book and I have never read anything like that, but I have no idea how to market it’.”[22] Stuart said in a 2021 conversation with the Duchess of Cornwall that winning the Booker Prize transformed his life.[36]

But I also liked a very tough book, Triomf, from 1994, by Marlene van Niekirk, the most celebrated Afrikaans author of South Africa. It’s dark as hell; the family she features even includes incest.

What, then, is the appeal of such books?

For some, voyeurism….thank God it’s not me!

For some, curiosity, having never experienced poverty and/or alcoholism, or life in a cult in the woods.

I hope, for some, as a way to develop or deepen empathy for people whose lives are wholly different from their own, as — in non-fiction — the storytellers have clearly been able to survive and thrive despite a really difficult earlier life. It becomes a narrative of resilience, not despair.

I admit, I cried hard at the end of Shuggie Bain, as it brought up a lot of unexpressed and painful memories of my own experiences of being “parentified”, always worrying about my mother’s health and safety instead of my own, (even though we were not, thank God, poor), and tied to a woman who was unable or unwilling to create a larger social safety net for herself. So reading a similar book can be painful but also cathartic — someone else really gets it. And, God forbid, someone else had it much worse.

Do you ever read books like this?

Which ones?

How have they left you?

NOTE: I refuse to use Amazon for any purchases, (I loathe its labor policies), so links to these books will not connect to their site.

More simple pleasures

By Caitlin Kelly

Happy New Year!

As we plunge into 2022, COVID raging, so many of us confined to quarters, we all really need some extra cheer!

First — a big thank you to everyone still showing up here. It’s been (!) 13 years since I posted for the first time, and here we all are.

Also — I am very much hoping you will stay healthy, but if this terrible disease catches you, you are well-vaxxed and it won’t be too grim.

A few things I enjoy:

Regaining our full northwest view of the Hudson River now that the treetops are bare

The exact moment, easily missed and so lovely, when the rising sun behind us on the east bank of the Hudson hits a row of windows on the west bank — making them look like signal fires. I call it the “ruby moment.”

Twinkling lights on a Christmas tree

Getting up for a morning bath, then back to bed under the duvet for more snoozing

Lying in bed reading

The astonishing burst of brilliant orange just as the sun sets

Enjoying all the Christmas cards we stick to the back of our front door

Fruitcake! (yes, really)

Fresh flowers in every room because the skies are so gray — and so are our moods

Silence, broken only by the hissing of radiators

So much great music on Sirius XM: jazz, classical, Classic Rewind, Deep Cuts

The endless beauty of the sky and clouds — just look up!

English and French decorating magazines — all those charming 17th c Cotswold cottages and rambling chateaux!

Playing my vinyl records, from Rocky Horror Picture Show to Vivaldi to Billy Bragg

Clipping and organizing recipes

Trying out new recipes

Clearing out clothes, shoes, household goods for donation or sale

Organizing every drawer and closet, ready for 2022

Re-watching beloved TV series (Derry Girls!) and movies I know so well I can quote the dialogue (The Devil Wears Prada, Casablanca, all the Bourne movies.)

Starting every cold dark morning with the gentle glow of a scented bedside candle

What are some of yours?

Some Christmas memories

1995…Jose (later my husband) working for a month in Bosnia as a New York Times

photographer. It was a cold, lonely, hungry month. Unforgettable.

By Caitlin Kelly

The holidays are a time of a lot of emotion. This year, like last, will be one with far too many empty beds and places at the dinner table — with an unfathomable 800,000 Americans now dead of Covid.

If you are one bereaved, I hope you can find some joy this season.

I thought I’d share some holiday memories, most happy. When I was single, I would spend it with my mother or my father and his second wife and son. I have to admit it wasn’t always enjoyable; my mother drank and my stepmother, although an amazing cook, rarely made me feel welcome in their home.

Since my father has four adult children by four women, one of whom I’ve never met and don’t want to, and one of whom refuses to reconcile with me after more than 15 years…we don’t even try for a “family” Christmas. It’s too messy and impossible. The closest we came was 2017, when Jose and I drove up to Ontario and my half-brother and his girlfriend joined us.

While my maternal grandmother was alive, her presents were always wrapped in silver paper with blue ribbon, from Holt Renfrew, Canada’s nicest department store. She was a lavish gift-giver…gone since 1975.

We had been looking forward for six months to spending four days over Christmas at a resort in Quebec. Of course, we cancelled, thanks to COVID.

Instead, we’ll have a tree and a lovely meal at home and just enjoy each other’s company.

A happier one!

Montreal/London, age 11

We lived — my mother and I — in a brownstone at 3432 Peel Street, midtown. That year she was the host of a TV talk show, and that Christmas we flew to London to stay with my aunt and uncle, both Canadians, but very well-known figures in British TV and radio. We had Christmas dinner with Montreal friends, then a trans-atlantic flight with wreaths somehow suspended across the aisle, then another holiday meal. I remember most fondly discovering clotted cream…swoon! And Hamley’s, for years one of the world’s best toy stores.

Cartagena, Colombia, age 23

My mother was traveling throughout Latin America, alone, for years, starting in this coastal city, then barely opened to tourism. We went the cathedral for Midnight Mass — and were pulled over and frisked by police in case we were going to do harm to the tourists, aka us.

We spent the day on the beach, unaware of possible heat stroke thanks to a steady breeze. We had pizza for dinner — then took turns in the bathroom, quite ill.

My favorite Christmas cookies!

Paris, 2015

Friends loaned us their apartment, in the most perfect location — a block from Rue Cler, one of the city’s best for markets and restaurants. Daunted by the high prices of restaurant meals, our Christmas dinner, eaten in their small kitchen, was a roast chicken. It was unseasonably warm and I walked over to the Ferris Wheel near the Tuileries and rode high above the city, sweaty even wearing only a sweatshirt.

Cuernavaca, Mexico, age 14

This was the worst of all, the night my mother had a full-blown manic episode and drove down the highway with her car lights off. I’ll spare the details, but it ended in a city where we did not live, at midnight, after she drove into a ditch. I left her there, leaving with two friends, and never lived with her again. I moved back to Toronto soon after and moved in with my father.

Toronto, age 15

My first Christmas living with my father and his girlfriend. I hadn’t lived with him since I was seven. I still remember the lavish gifts he offered — skis and a brightly colored patchwork quilt I used for many years. It felt good to be so welcomed.

Irvington, NY, can’t remember the year!

We attended midnight service at our church and it was just starting to snow as we left. “Let’s go to the lych gate”, said Jose. It was cold! He insisted and, under that small canopy, proposed to me there. He knew that Christmas Eve was a night of very bad memories with my mother, and wanted to re-brand it with a much sweeter memory. It worked!

Do you have a special holiday memory?

Come join our pitch slam! Dec. 15, 6-7 ET

By Caitlin Kelly

On December 15, between 6-7pm ET, my friend Abby Lee Hood and I are offering a Zoom pitch slam — $25.

If you have been pitching (some of?) your ideas fruitlessly, this is a great and affordable opportunity to get smart, kind, helpful feedback from two busy full-time freelancers; I’ve sold more than 100 stories to the very demanding editors of The New York Times and Abby writes for a wide variety of outlets, some in their native Tennessee (i.e. local and regional news) but also for the Times, Teen Vogue, Washington Post and more.

Pitching isn’t easy!

So this webinar, which will be recorded, offers everyone a chance to either pitch their idea and get our candid-but-kind feedback or just watch, listen and learn.

Here’s the sign-up!

Hope you will join us!

The Nova Scotia debacle…

By Caitlin Kelly

Note the small lot….a problem for adding a septic in a town of dug wells and septic systems…

Well, kids, it sure wasn’t dull.

The house dream blew up in fairly spectacular fashion Monday morning the 15th.

That was the day we were to commit to purchasing the house or losing our $3,000 deposit if we missed that deadline.

Friday morning — i.e. with two days to spare — I discovered the house is actually illegal, thanks to its antiquated septic system that, like many in that village, empties into the ocean.

Gross!

Also, against Nova Scotia environmental laws.

We needed probably three weeks to seek and win necessary government approval to install a wholly new system ($12,000) but the seller — a wealthy and powerful local businessman — refused us even an extra day.

Busted!

That was that. We bailed.

Then — do not ever mess with a skilled reporter! — I placed three calls that day to the local office of the environment and an official called me right back and is launching an investigation.

Also writing a letter to the top three people of the seller’s realtor to point out how crappy this is: either she lied or the seller lied and this put us in tremendous financial jeopardy if we’d been forced to buy an uninhabitable house.

Lessons learned:

1. The house’s owner, a local grandee accustomed to deference from the little people, isn’t going to suddenly get all ethical and nice for an outsider. Probably the opposite. Our realtor made clear he was furious to have dropped his price and then we dared ask for more time.

2. Never assume that a small town in a largely rural province is de facto any nicer or gentler than the iron-fisted ways of New York City! It’s very clear that panic pandemic buying has massively inflated prices and created a feeding frenzy for realtors and sellers that only leaves any buyer vulnerable.

3. Never stop asking questions!!

4. Take lots and lots and lots of notes; an email paper trail is also useful for reference. Also photos and videos.

5. If something feels off, it is!

6. My love for the physical structure of a charming house was blinding me to local conditions that would have made life there unpleasant and expensive — to reach the town means taking a car ferry and missing it (as I did one day) means losing valuable work time. I was warned that no one would even deliver a sofa that far because of lost waiting time; same for other services like pumping out the septic.

7. Take time to do every possible inspection and made each one a condition of purchase.

8. Getting a larger sense of the community and its culture quickly reduced my enthusiasm — after people lied to me, I had no wish to live there, even part-time.

Waiting for the car ferry; it carries 17 vehicles, and takes about 10 minutes

This was also just emotionally painful for me to let go of all the attendant hopes I had:

— welcoming friends

— getting to know a new community and province

— coming back to Canada

— a chance to use my decorating and design training to make the house lovely

— maybe getting summer rental income from it

— owning a place with no rules (like our co-op apartment)

— finding a property within our budget. Impossible now, really.

A must-read book of 20th century history

By Caitlin Kelly

There are very few book of more than 500 pages anyone wants to tackle!

Let alone one that focuses on an international source of death…

No, not COVID, but AIDS.

I found this book on the shelf at my father’s house on our visit to Ontario in September and had been wanting to read it for many years but hadn’t sought it out.

Then, there, I had time to sit in the fall sunshine and read for hours.

Despite the grim topic and the fact it all happened more than 30 years ago it is a tremendous read — powerful real characters, from death-denying politicians, AIDS activists, researchers in Washington and Paris competing for prestige and power as they sought a vaccine, the individual men and women affected and their families and friends…

It is an astonishing piece of reporting, of history — and so sadly, powerfully prescient of what we’re all enduring with COVID. Of course its author, Randy Shilts, also later died of the disease.

I remember a lot of this because it was also my time.

I was a young and ambitious daily newspaper reporter in the mid 1980s, and so AIDS became part of the work I did for The Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette. I lost two dear friends — both gay men — to this disease because, then, it just killed everyone, and they died terrible deaths.

I still remember the names of some of those incredibly dedicated and frustrated doctors doing their best against, then, an implacable enemy.

Dr. Anthony Fauci was one of them.

For millions of closeted gay men, it also meant suddenly coming out to their families — some of whom rejected them, leaving them to die alone in ever-more-crowded hospital wards.

It affected women and children through shared needles, through blood tranfusions, through unprotected sex with men who were infected, whether they knew it or not.

We were horrified by it, scared of it, despairing when someone we loved called to tell us it was now their turn.

I know most of you won’t even consider reading it, and I get it!

But it is an important and powerful testament to all the issues we’re fighting today….still!

Political infighting.

Denial.

Vicious battles between those who recognize(d) the science and those who refused.

Demonization of victims.

Demonization of the health-care workers caring for them.

Fear that caring for AIDS patients could kill someone.

Insufficient funding to help victims.

Insufficient government action — sooner — to mitigate the disease’s spread.

Where the heart lies

Our NY view of the Hudson

By Caitlin Kelly

If you have moved around a lot, it can be hard to decide where your heart truly lies — where “home” is.

I’ve lived in six cities and two towns in five countries — my native Canada, England (ages 2-5), Mexico (age 14), France (ages 25-26), the United States (age 30 on.)

I always felt too American for Canada — too bossy, too direct, too ambitious, too much in a hurry.

Now I feel too European for the U.S. — I savor time off. I don’t flagellate myself hourly for being less “productive” than my many peers and competitors, many half my age. I like long vacations and two-hour lunches. I take naps.

So while home again in Canada for the first time in two full years, the eternal question arises again: where’s home?

While I spent decades in Toronto, and have many many memories there, is it home?

Home, to me, means a place I feel truly welcome, and while we have lifelong friends there, Toronto housing is absurdly overpriced — nasty little houses an arm’s length apart are $1 million and condo boxes $600,000. No thanks!

Then…maybe a house in the Ontario countryside? Same problem. The cost of housing is inflated by demand, beyond what is workable for us.

Then….another province?

Or another country?

Tempted by Montreal’s many charms…

I follow several Facebook pages now on living in France and look at a lot of French real estate online. Because of COVID, I don’t see spending the requisite time and money to search more seriously.

I lived there for a year at 25 and have been back many times. I know a few areas a bit: Paris, Normandy, Brittany, the Camargue, the Cote d’Azur, Corsica. I speak fluent French. I love the way of life and physical beauty and ease of getting around thanks to the TGV network. But if we moved there full-time would any of our North American friends ever come to visit?

Would we easily make new deep friendships?

So…who knows?

My mother died in a nursing home in 2020, her apartment sold a decade earlier to pay its costs.

My father buys and sells houses, forever restless. So there’s no family homestead to attach to emotionally…I left one of his houses at 19 and never again lived with either parent.

So, for now, my heart remains in Tarrytown, a small town north of Manhattan on the Hudson, a town so pretty we are constantly seeing film and TV crews arriving to set up on our main street. I landed there when my first husband found a psych residency nearby and we bought a one-bedroom apartment. I had never been there nor ever lived outside a major city. It’s dull and hard to make friends, but we enjoy a great quality of life with Manhattan only 45 minutes south and gorgeous scenery for walks and bike rides and a lot of history.

With 45 gone for now (but who knows?) life feels so much calmer and less terrifying than it did between 2016 and 2020 when, like many others, thoughts of fleeing were a daily part of our life, however impractical.

Where does your heart lie?

Heading north — after 2 years

By Caitlin Kelly

A banner from NYC Fleet Week a few years ago

I moved to the U.S. permanently 34 years ago.

This two-year absence — COVID-caused — is likely the longest time I’ve not been back to Canada, where I was born (in Vancouver) and raised (in Toronto and Montreal.)

If our COVID tests are negative, we’ll soon drive the 5.5 hours through upstate New York and cross into Canada at the 1,000 Islands, then have lunch in Kingston, Ontario, before going to stay with my father, 93, who we haven’t seen in more than two years and who lives alone in rural Ontario.

And we’re off!

I’m also looking forward to seeing some old friends who live near him.

I miss Canada.

Yes, it’s riddled with COVID — as is everywhere now. We are fully vaccinated and will mask wherever necessary.

But only on August 9 did Canada even open the land border with the U.S. so this is our first opportunity to drive back, which is what we always do. I don’t want to sit in an airplane now with un-vaccinated passengers and crew, let alone face standing in crowds at security and immigration.

Many people (especially some in the U.S.) think Canadians are just quiet, polite Americans. But we’re not.

I miss just sharing a culture and history with others there.

Whether books, magazines, films, music, politics, food — there are many specifically Canadian things and points of view that most Americans wouldn’t know unless they went to university there and got to know it more deeply. Like Canadian content, mandated by the government to boost homegrown talent and protect it from American domination — what percentage played on-air radio has to be Canadian.

I like going into a local bookstore to see what’s new from Canadian authors, certainly since so many of my journalism colleagues there also write books.

Canada has also been through its own special hells this summer, in addition to COVID — the terrible discoveries of children buried at residential schools in several provinces, schools where indigenous children were literally pulled from their parents’ arms and forced to renounce their languages and culture.

Now Canada faces a snap election and the Conservatives are as ugly as ever.

So I will be curious to hear what Canadians have to say about all of this. I follow Canadian media on Twitter so I hear and see a fair bit of coverage.

Some of the pleasure is silly stuff — little things like playing a round of golf at a lakeside course we know and love or lunch at Basil’s, a small deli in Port Hope, or eating a butter tart, not sold in the U.S., mostly sugar and calories and sooooooo good.

We are also just really ready for a break, as our last one was five days upstate in March.

Other people’s lives

Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada,
in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

By Caitlin Kelly

Social media can be social — meeting and getting to know new friends and colleagues solely through LinkedIn or Twitter or TikTok or blogs or Insta or Twitter — and/or, passively, it can offer us a peek into other worlds, wholly different from our own.

Given that we’ll have to stay physically distant from so many people for so many years — yes, years with this goddamn pandemic — virtual life and relationships are the safest and best many of us have now.

Travel? Also difficult to impossible; we recently lost $2,000 for non-refundable airfare and hotels after cancelling two much-anticipated vacations.

So, yes, I’m loving images (however enviously!) from Greece and Morocco and Kenya and Cornwall and the Hebrides…

Last week, Abby Lee Hood and I did a pitching workshop aimed at helping other freelance writers write better pitches — a pitch is a sort of a sales document for a story we might want to write. They’re not easy to do well and we got 47 people to sign up, which was fantastic. It went very well and people were still buying copies of our Zoom video days later.

I’ve yet to meet Abby, who is non-binary and has tattoos and owns a small pig, a three-legged cat, an albino hedgehog and a dog. They live in small-town Tennessee, a state I’ve never been to.

They are 27. I am…much older.

What on earth would we have in common?

A lot!

As we’ve gotten to know one another, we found we both share some similar issues with our families of origin. We both have high ambitions for our work. We both hustle hard for assignments. And we also share some fundamental life values.

I’ve found them to be a deeply generous person, rare these days it seems.

So I hope our workshop, beyond its obvious goal, also modeled that sort of inter-generational friendship for a few others.

Some of the many lives I enjoy witnessing, between Twitter and Instagram, include:

Three women archeologists

A male archeologist in Berlin who works on Gobekli Tepe, a famous Neolithic Turkish site; I met him on one of the travel Twitterchats I participate in

A Canadian Arctic marine biologist

A Chilean photographer

A photographer in Queretaro, Mexico

A Canadian mother of two young boys in Australia whose nature photos are amazing

A Scottish mountain climber

A nephrologist in San Antonio, Texas who writes as Doctor T on Twitter

A French illustrator

Several interior designers

Several artists, one a young British woman whose work is spectacular but who posts rarely

A London-based dealer in antique and rare textiles

Several European female commercial airline pilots

A mudlarker in London

A few economists

And (sigh) several Facebook groups about buying a home and living in France, a dream of mine for a long time.

Do you have favorite blogs or social media folk you really enjoy?

The new normal

By Caitlin Kelly

Constant change.

It’s exhausting.

Making plans — breaking them.

Planning a vacation — cancelling it.

Thought we were safe? No, not for a long long time.

Powerful essay on Medium about this:

What if the pandemic just never ends? What if the New Normal is not some accommodated version of the old normal, but instead is just…this? What if what we are experiencing now — this constant state of anxiety and change and daily back-and-forth and in-and-out of masks and lock-downs — is what the 21st century will be? What if the economic recovery is DOA or if it somehow only makes things worse? What if this is just the beginning of much larger and more frequent health, climate, political, and economic disasters?

Jose and I were so looking forward to attending a wedding in Memphis, Tennessee in early September. It would have been our first flight in two years and our first visit out of state. We were so excited! The women getting married, a couple we met on Twitter, demanded proof of vaccination, which we were fine with.

Then, proof of negative tests. We cancelled.

I have no objection to their request.

But the pleasure was quickly leaching out of what was to have been a relaxing break. That state now has hospitals so full there’s no room left.

We had planned a month’s driving trip out to Colorado and back in October. Cancelled.

We had already planned and cancelled Hawaii or Paris.

I’m hitting bottom right now.

I admit it — I’ve been spoiled since childhood by travel being a normal and expected source of pleasure, one easily accessible. Not in luxury, necessarily, but always owning a valid passport and a reliable vehicle and having an insatiable hunger to see more of the world.\

One of our Montreal favorites

I’ve already been to 41 countries — and there are so so many places I still want to see!

Morocco, Japan, Namibia, South Africa, Madagascar, the Baltic nations, to name only a few…

And we miss our friends in Ontario and Nova Scotia and Paris and London and Scotland…

I chose to move to the U.S. and, since Biden’s election, my pulse rate has dropped from the daily anxiety of being “governed” by a madman for four years.

But the endless divisions here, and endless fawning media coverage of people who refuse vaccinations — endangering all of us — are tedious as hell. Thanks to them, going basically anywhere is dangerous.

And — most concerning — even the vaccinated can carry a lot of this virus, unknowingly infecting others while showing no symptoms.

Like all of you, we work hard.

Like all of you, we need things to look forward to!

And, as I write this on our balcony, planes soar over our heads, as we’re on a flight path from the local airport.

SIGH.

These days, all we can anticipate is constant change — and disappointment.

A bit more of the essay:

the pandemic has put life into perspective. It has made crystal clear that love and health are what’s important in this life. The rest is what it is. We must be grateful for what we have, find joy wherever we can, and be incredibly patient with, well…everything else. In cultures that have survived war, that made it through bombings and mass killings and attacks, people turn to all that does not change for comfort and hope. As their day-to-day reality changes around them, they find solace in anything that is constant and unifying: their food, their language, their songs, their fairytales, their games, their age-old traditions.

Right now, I have to take solace in what we have and can enjoy that COVID can’t destroy:

our Hudson river view

a town we love living in

a new (woman!) governor who’s a badass

deep and abiding friendships

savings

freelance work

Manhattan, literally, on our horizon, there when we need a break from snoozy suburban life

a home we’ve made beautiful through design, renovation, art

a good hospital 15 minutes north of us

we are both vaccinated and will take boosters when and if they are offered

lovely places to walk and bike outdoors safely

books and music and card games and puzzles to amuse us

How are you holding up these days?