4 days’ inspiration: the Fireside Conference

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine the smartest and most interesting people you’ve ever met.

Four hundred of them.

In the woods, sleeping for three nights in unheated cabins at a summer camp more than three hours’ drive north of Toronto, on a huge private lake.

I just spent the most tiring, intense, exhausting, interesting four days of my life — and, maybe like you, I’ve been to many conferences over the years.

None remotely like this one.

This is invitation only, and I was invited (free), waiving the $2,500 (Canadian) standard fee; I spoke twice during the event on how to tell stories, as many of the attendees run their own companies, many of them start-ups and many have no idea how to find and work with the media to promote their products and services.

 

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The age range was 20s to 60s, about 70 per cent male and probably 60 to 70 percent Canadian, from all across the country. One man came from Cyprus and others from far away in the U.S. , even Spain.

It was a wildly eclectic mix of talents and skills — from a male performance artist to a young female cryptocurrency business owner, from the female Alabama owner of a pet-sitting company to about eight other journalists.

Of the 400, about 150 were returning from prior Fireside Conferences.

Because it’s held at a camp, the remote wooded 750-acre setting is simply gorgeous and the amenities fairly basic — the cabins have no heat and it was cold (like 40 degrees F) at night.

We all ate breakfast and dinner in the dining hall; unlike camp, there was plenty of free alcohol provided by sponsors. We were woken up at 8:15 by music broadcast through speakers and at night many of us congregated around small stone-ringed campfires and made s’mores.

And the stars! I hadn’t seen the Milky Way in years.

 

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Our cabin — I shared it with three other women, all of them strangers (now good friends!) — no heat!!! Bunk beds.

 

No one wore a badge or lanyard. Almost no speakers used or needed a mic — instead we sat on a bench or on the grass to listen, creating an intimacy that was immediate, unusual and powerful as we often engaged in long, private, sometimes very personal conversations.

Unless you’d been there before, you probably arrived, as I did, a little nervous — and didn’t know who anyone was, meaning you just had to engage in conversation and you could be speaking to a self-made millionaire or a grad student, a musician or a photographer or a mother of four.

Egos checked!

The other secret?

No wifi!

There was a cabin where you could access it but this meant tremendous personal interaction without the absurd constant distraction of cell phones and notifications.

We could also — in addition to dozens of speakers and panels — enjoy classic camp activities: sailing, canoeing, kayaking, water skiing, archery, tetherball. I canoed solo for a bit.

My brain is swirling — I was invited to, also did, a podcast there, and may be invited to speak at some other conferences thanks to some contacts I made.

And so many new friends.

Taking a needed breather

 

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Time for a break!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Luckily, I have good friends in Toronto willing to host me for a week, and I’ve been enjoying time away from the endless toxicity of American politics, work and health issues.

Late summer is a good time to visit this city, as winter can be bitter and midwinter days depressingly gray. (My husband, Jose, is busy right now photo editing the U.S. Open Tennis, ending his work shift as late as 1 or even 2:00 a.m. after the final evening match.)

I arrived here bringing champagne and chocolate and books. I try hard to be a low-maintenance guest, since we have often hosted friends in our one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, and I know it can feel overwhelming. My friends have a large enough house we can all disappear when needed — and one sign of a good friendship is the ability to do so, and no one feels offended, since everyone needs quiet time alone.

I grew up in Toronto, ages five to 30, so I still have many deep friendships and lots of memories here — I usually return once or twice a year, the last time in April with Jose.

This visit I shared a friend’s 70th birthday celebrations, caught up with five more of my friends and just enjoyed some badly needed downtime; (several more local pals were posting FB photos of their trips to Paris and Prague.)

Like most of my visits, it was filled with reminders of my history here. One of the party guests knew me as a baby (!) and hadn’t seen me since. Another knew me from fifth grade at a Toronto girls’ school. And I worked with yet another at Canadian Press — in January 1982.

I slept in, visited with my hosts and binge-watched The Alienist. Shopped at my favorite store, Gravity Pope. Ate a few good meals.

What a gift to detach from work and all things medical for a while!

A few images…

 

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Every Toronto summer ends with the Canadian National Exhibition, aka The Ex, which closes on Labor Day. I hadn’t been in about eight or nine years, met a good friend there and wandered. But it’s gotten stupidly expensive ($20 admission alone) and too commercial for my taste.

 

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My friend’s party had such delicious food — ribs and salmon and corn and caprese salad and lots of wine and this amazing pavlova for dessert, made by one of his daughters. Yum!

 

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It’s trendy as hell, but a good spot for a cold beer and lunch on a scorchingly hot day.

 

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I’m total and unrepentant fan of all things aviation related, so the CNE air show was so so so cool!  It was a little terrifying to hear the thundering of jets flying low over downtown, but what skills!

Four women comedians

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s been a rough summer: illness, too many friends dying, lost work…

So I’ve been watching comedy specials on television, most recently three women: Tig Notaro, Hannah Gadsby and Michelle Wolf.

Tig, who’s gay and married and a survivor of breast cancer, is the oldest at 47, and her show is radically different from the hyper, smiling Wolf — who’s 33. Notaro, halfway though her hour-long TV special filmed in Boston, removes her elegant navy blazer and crisp white cotton shirt — and performs the second half naked from the waist up.

Her delivery is slower, more thoughtful, less frenzied. She’s angry, but in a quieter and more moderated way.  You can tell she’s been doing comedy a long time, and feels in control.

Wolf is wild and dirty — with endless references to penises and periods. She grins a feral grin.

Gadsby is the outlier, Australian, earnest, furious. What begins as comedy morphs into something deeper and much more personal:

From The New York Times:

Ms. Gadsby, an Australian comedian, is the creator of “Nanette,” a stage show turned Netflix special that is lacerating in its fury about how women and queer people like her, and anyone else who might behave or look “other,” get treated, dismissed and silenced. She is unflinching about the abuse that they — that she — endured, and the cultural norms that enabled it. She calls out men, powerful and otherwise.

In stark personal terms, she reveals her own gender and sexual trauma, and doesn’t invite people to laugh at it. “Nanette” is an international sensation, the most-talked-about, written-about, shared-about comedy act in years, exquisitely timed to the #MeToo era. And in its success Ms. Gadsby has perhaps pointed the art form of stand-up in an altogether new direction, even as she has repeatedly vowed, onstage, to quit the business.

“I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore,” she says in the special. “Because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”

The fourth is a British woman, Viv Groskop, (a coaching client of mine), who  recently played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, who writes an advice column and who has a new book — pictured above.

 

Viv, of course, is Cambridge educated and speaks fluent Russian.

 

Do you have a favorite female comedian?

 

A summer of reckoning

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

I’m so ready for this summer to end!

 

Not being a beach person, I don’t spend the year eagerly awaiting summer, as many of our friends do.

And this summer has felt like a series of waves smashing us both in the face:

— Husband now using insulin and adjusting to all that it entails

— My breast cancer diagnosis right around my June 6 birthday

— The ensuing tests, procedures and appointments that have consumed precious days of lost work/income since my husband and I are both wholly freelance, with no paid time off that we don’t fund ourselves. (Thank God for savings.)

— Multiple $100 co-pays to have some of these tests and procedures.

— An infection in my breast, six weeks post-op. Extremely painful, but resolved. Breasts are such sensitive things!

— Two friends widowed the same week, a friend’s young adult daughter dying and the sudden and shocking death of a former colleague and friend.

— Far too many days shuttered indoors with AC blasting, curtains drawn, escaping 90+ degree heat

— Far too many days with torrential rain

OK, what’s been good?!

 

— Meeting a new Canadian-in-the-States friend, a fellow writer living in Oakland, CA and his husband who came to NYC and joined us for dinner.

— The thoughtful gift of a classic Hermes silk scarf from a friend; it belonged to her mother, who died last year and was a dear friend of ours.

— So many loving cards, emails, flowers and phone calls from friends worldwide as I adjust to a new reality.

— Blowing insane money on a designer handbag, (on sale, dammit!) after my diagnosis

 

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— Jose made us gorgeous new wooden planters and the brilliant orange marigolds and fragrant lavender have been amazing. I love watching bees dive into the salvia each morning.

— Discovering how multi-talented my friends are, both journalists like me, one of whom made us home-made soap, the other really delicious home-made bread. I love all things artisanal and am in awe of such colonial skill.

— Snagging a potentially very good new freelance opportunity after seeing an editor participating in a Twitter chat. We met in NYC for lemonade and hit it off.

 

How’s your summer been?

Highs?

Lows?

My writing life, recently

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

This summer has meant dodging endlessly between various doctors, hospitals and offices, so the time and energy I’ve had for making a living has been limited.

 

Some of what I’ve been up to:

— Tried again to see if there might be a staff writing job for me at The New York Times, since there’s a new editor on a section that could use my skills. I got a nice, quick reply so we’ll see if it turns into anything more serious.

 

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— Twice revised a 1,000 word profile of a French farmer, working in French, to insure accuracy.

—- Found/interviewed 11 people for a 1,500 word story about how fitness has become something aimed largely at the affluent. Editors, both of them new to me (always a nervous moment) both liked it a lot.

— Pitched a story set in British Columbia to a Canadian business magazine (no decision after 3 weeks.)

 

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— Invited to a conference in northern Ontario, decided to head up for a break.

— Pitched two ideas to Amtrak’s magazine, which had asked for pitches. Twice. Crickets.

— Sent an LOI to someone who does content marketing, (the only source of true income now for writers), and got a quick, positive reply but no immediate work.

— Checked in with an Atlanta editor, (thanks to a friend’s referral), to see if she’s got anything. Stay tuned, she tells me. (Again.)

— Took a story killed by the Times (which cost me $500 in lost/expected income) and re-framed it as a pitch to a business magazine. Three weeks later, still awaiting an answer after an initially positive reply.

— Pitched a story about an unusual Canadian arts program to The New York Times Magazine (twice); no answer.

 

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— Met with editor of a brand-new website focused on people in their 50s and 60s, and chatted over lemonade about story ideas. We hit it off, and I hope to produce two stories a month for her.

— Was interviewed twice for a job as editor in chief of a small weekly newspaper in a very wealthy town in my county. Very odd experience! We decided, cordially, this was not a fit for me.

— Pitched/wrote/revised a story for The New York Times about one specific element of my recent medical experiences.

— Got a surprise assignment to interview the new coach of the New York Rangers hockey team, whose offices are a 10-minute drive from my home. Met him on a Wednesday and turned in 1,200 words by Friday morning.

 

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— Reading a book of letters written by Martha Gellhorn, one of the 20th century’s best female journalists and war correspondents, (and one of Hemingway’s wives.) She knew everyone, and many of her letters are to her good friend Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1938 she was paid $1,500 by Collier’s magazine for a story — the equivalent today of $26,000. I get paid $1,500 today — 80 years later! — for some of my stories — and my monthly health insurance alone costs $1,400. Do that math.

— Joined a new-ish online writer’s group, StudyHall, which has proven surprisingly civil, friendly and extremely supportive of one another.

— Blogged, as usual.

 

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— Read, as usual, the NYT and FT seven days a week, plus several books, plus NPR, plus magazines, (mostly for leisure, like Vogue and House Beautiful and Bon Appetit.)

— Send out four LOIs (letters of introduction) to what I hoped might become new clients. Crickets!

— Applied for staff jobs at the L.A. Times, The Independent, Globe & Mail and a local business newspaper. The Globe responded quickly and kindly, (I used to work for them), but, as I suspected from the start, will likely send someone down from Toronto as a plum gig. Applied a while back for a reporting spot at ProPublica — 700 resumes received. Form letter rejection.

— Helped a younger writer (who pays me for it!) navigate some tricky bits of freelancing.

Leaving this week for a 12 day break in Ontario!

Failure? Let’s discuss

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By Caitlin Kelly

In the shiny, buffed world of social media, how often do you see someone — or do it yourself — admitting to failure?

It’s a parade of perfection, and one that can make any of us feel like a total loser for not being as thin/pretty/well-dressed/groomed/wealthy/well-employed/living on a Greek island…

Loved this New York Times piece about why we need to talk more openly about it:

In a new working paper, co-author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, found that discussing failures can help to humanize the sharer by making them seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace. It also generally increased levels of so-called “benign envy,” which can motivate and drive employees to perform better.

However, the enemy of benign envy, according to the paper, is “malicious envy”: The type of envy others feel when we talk about our achievements much more often than our struggles. Projecting that image of perfection can be especially harmful for those in leadership positions who risk coming across as disingenuous, Ms. Brooks and her colleagues found.

A simple way to understand this is to look at the polished-though-unrealistic lives many of us present on social media.

 

 

One of the most powerful lessons I learned last year — despite their towering reputations lasting centuries — is that Japanese print-making legend Hokusai, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci all suffered setbacks and penury and failure.

It happens!

I’ve spoken here a few times about the many failures I’ve experienced in my life and career, but let’s review a few.

The only true value of failure is learning something useful.

 

— Moved to Montreal age 30 for a staff newspaper job I had doubts about (not a very good paper.) Was gone within 18 months after some unpleasant interactions with my boss and a union that shrugged and wouldn’t help.

Lesson: trust your gut.

— Moved to a small town in New Hampshire, pre-Internet. Despite efforts, made no friends and, again, left within 18 months to move to New York, just in time for a recession.

Lesson: I’m not a rural girl!

— Took six months, crying every day, to get a magazine editing job after cold-calling hundreds of strangers.

Lesson: Re-starting your career in a highly-competitive industry in a highly-competitive city with zero social connections is really hard.

— Married in 1992, husband walked out 1994. 

Lesson: Don’t marry someone who won’t do the work to go the distance.

— Have applied many times for competitive fellowships like the Knight-Bagehot (to study business at Columbia), the Alicia Patterson (tried three times), a Canada Council grant (worth $20,000 Canadian) multiple times.

Lesson: Thousands of competitors want the same bag of goodies. You can keep trying, even if you feel pissed off and humiliated.

— Spent many hours in 2018 producing two full book proposals, both of which were rejected by five agents. Fun!

Lesson: Intellectual growth — creative growth of any kind — is almost always going to be unpaid, speculative and suck time away from paid work. How much do you want it?

 

I admit, though — I’m much less amused by failure at this point in my life.

I want to stop working within five years, ideally sooner, which places a lot of pressure on me to to do good work and well-paid work and work that I really care about and am proud to have produced.

All of which now run directly counter to current industry trends in journalism.

I’m not someone who spends her days consumed by envy when I see social media brag-fests. Sure, it hurts to see people winning, especially if you feel like you’re losing. But it doesn’t accomplish anything to focus on their success and your (relative) failure.

No one succeeds alone, so I’m also attentive to people’s headwinds and tailwinds — the many invisible forces beyond talent, skill and experience — that can propel some people to massive/quick success while the rest of us struggle.

That might be family money, social capital, alumni connections, anything that offers a leg up.

Some of my younger friends, in their 20s and 30s, end up consumed with envy at their peers’ glittering achievements, which is a terrible distraction. I do think, once you’re past 40 or 50, life should — ideally! — have brought you some of the rewards you once coveted.

A feeling of success, despite the inevitable setbacks and failures we all experience.

I’ve also found that some things we’re completely obsessed with at 25 or 35 or 45 can shift so that not getting it — i.e. what we once would have deemed a failure — is no longer a goal we even want.

It’s too easy to focus solely on one area of accomplishment — work — rather than being proud that you’ve been a great friend or spouse, have managed to regain and maintain good health, have planted a thriving garden.

We’re all diamonds, multi-faceted, and several sides will always catch the light.

We also all have many successes, if we take time to notice and celebrate them.

 

How do you handle failure?

Do you obsess and freak out or just move ahead?

 

Do you stick with unlikable characters?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Our most precious resource, beyond health, is time.

So…when you’re reading or watching a film or television show filled with unlikable characters, do you stick with it?

I get it — conflict and drama are essential to almost all compelling narratives, in whatever form. Without it, it’s all puppies and rainbows.

Baddies add spice and darkness and intrigue.

But how much of it can you take?

I’m prompted to ask this after watching four recent TV series here in the U.S.:

Succession, Sharp Objects, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Insecure.

The first, on HBO, follows the fortunes and chicanery of the media mogul Roy family (pretty clearly modeled on Rupert Murdoch), with three weird adult sons and a serious bitch of a daughter; when one’s nickname is Con (Conor) and another Shiv (Siobhan), there’s a clue! The plot line focuses on the four adult children and their endless maneuvring for power, attention and approval from their terrifying father, Logan Roy, who manages to spit “Fuck off!” to each of them fairly regularly. And to anyone within range.

These are not people you’d want to have lunch with, that’s for sure. They alternate between spoiled, wealthy, entitled charm and knives-out ambition, manipulating those around them as need be. So, why watch? I stuck it out to the end, and, yes, it’s worth it!

Even as horrible as most of these characters are, you can also gin up some sympathy for them with the brute of a father they’ve all also endured.

Sharp Objects is based on the book by Gillian Flynn, and follows an alcoholic female reporter sent back to her small Missouri  hometown to cover murders of local teen girls. The direction and cinematography and dark and moody, and the characters challenging — the reporter Camille Preaker is a cutter who slurps vodka all day from a water bottle while her mother swans about in pastel nightgowns and her teen half-sister swings between wildness and demure behavior.

I’m glad I read the book because the series’ slow pace is losing me, given the consistent ugliness of the people involved.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel came highly praised and, in some ways,  appears easy to like — a feel-good story about a wealthy 1950s NYC housewife, at 26 mother of two young children, determined to make it as a stand-up comedian after her husband has an affair. It’s fun to guess which New York City locations were used, and all the 50’s fashions and all the old cars, but the very premise seems bizarre to me, and the more I watched it, wanting to like it, the less I enjoyed the characters — whose wealth insulates them from tedious realities (like taking the subway or finding and paying a babysitter. When she loses her enormous apartment, Mrs. Maisel simply moves upstairs into her parents’ enormous apartment.)

Her mother is anxious, her father a semi-tyrant, her husband thoroughly unattractive — and Mrs. Maisel? She’s not that funny and her “journey” through some really bad evenings with audiences who hate her? How could she possibly fail? They all feel too entitled for me at this point.

Insecure, the creation of Issa Rae, is heading into its third season and I’m trying to like it. Rae is charming and funny and totally relatable. And yet, at 30, her character is still making disastrous choices in her life.

Her passivity annoys the hell out of me.

I may just be too old (or too white) to appreciate what a great show this is.

 

Have you seen (and enjoyed) any of these shows? What am I missing?!

 

How do you feel about unlikable characters?

Do you watch the credits?

 

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this piece in The New York Times, an argument in favor of watching the opening credits to TV shows.

I’m also obsessive about watching opening and closing credits, for television and for film.

The opening credits — and carefully chosen music — carefully set a tone for the show that follows. Anyone remember the joyful opening hat-toss of the late Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show?

And its girl-power theme song: “You’re going to make it after all.”

I’ve been watching three dark and powerful TV series this summer — Happy Valley, set in Yorkshire and Succession and Sharp Objects on HBO. In all three, the opening credits, for me, are part of the pleasure, physically and emotionally setting us up for what happens next.

I even got a story out of this obsession once, after watching the final credits for The Namesake, a lovely 2006 film about an East Indian family living in the U.S. The credits revealed that the movie had been shot on location in a town about 10 minutes’ drive from where I live, in a suburban area north of New York City.

I sold a story about the making of the film to The New York Times, and learned all sorts of movie-making arcana, like how difficult it was to find the right hanging dishrack for the kitchen and why so many films and TV shows are made in or close to New York City — thanks to union rules, (and the high cost of paying overtime), if it takes more than an hour to reach a shooting location, door to door (or close to it), it’s deemed too costly.

My father, now retired, is an award-winning documentary film-maker — here’s his Wikipedia entry —  so watching movies and TV shows was a normal part of our lives.

 

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Love this movie!

 

I got another story idea when I noticed how many recent films had long lists of Hungarian (!?) names in the credits — and discovered that one of the newest and largest film studios is just outside of Budapest.

Variety, which covers the business side of Hollywood, wanted me to do some reporting when I was there in July 2017 but the pay was poor for way too much work, so I just had a good time with my friends instead. (If you’ve seen “BladeRunner 2049”, one pivotal scene is shot inside the city’s former stock exchange and many others were shot on their sound stage there, as was “The Martian.”)

I’m mad for movies, and usually see at least one or two every week, sometimes more — old ones, new ones, watching loved ones over and over. (Just re-watched “The Post” last weekend for the third or fourth time. And, every time I do, I pick up a few more details I missed before.)

I watched “It” on TV recently and was hooting with laughter within the first few frames at a quaint street scene set in a fictional American town — which was in fact Port Hope, Ontario, whose landscape I know very well since my father lived there for four years and we had visited often.

But not a word of it was in the credits!

There you’ll find cool movie jargon for some very specific jobs — and here’s an explainer for 12 of them.

 

Are you someone who reads the credits?

Books I’m reading — and tossing!

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Loved this one!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Our apartment building has a shelf near the laundry room where we exchange books and magazines. I’ve had some great luck, (“Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn), but recently gave up on three books I found there — one by (of all people!) John Grisham, since the book was all scene-setting with no apparent action or plot to be found.

Another was one of those Scandi-noir murder mysteries (ditto) and the third (sigh) was “NW” by Zaidie Smith. I gave up within two chapters. I loved White Teeth but have been so disappointed by others of hers.

I’m still slooooooowly getting through “A Bright Shining Lie”, Neil Sheehan’s doorstop history of the war in VietNam. I’m meandering through “The Lay of the Land,” by Richard Ford, who manages to make the life of a middle-aged New Jersey realtor compelling.

A good friend keeps urging me to write a novel, as I’ve had the vague outlines of a murder mystery in my head for a decade. The idea is a little terrifying, even though many journalists have made a successful transition to fiction.

But I tend to keep returning to non-fiction as I am so often annoyed by fiction and resent wasting time on it.

Some of my fictional favorites:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Later made into a film, a portrait of a Parisian concierge and the upscale apartment building where she works.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, David Mitchell

Loved love loved this tale of 18th century Japan. His physical descriptions are beautiful and mysterious.

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachmann

Written by a fellow Canadian journalist who once worked at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, apparently his portraits of his co-workers are pretty clear in this charming novel about…a newspaper in Paris.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Another doorstop, its size intimidating, I received this as a gift from a friend for my birthday two years ago. I’d been warned it was too long and the last third could well have used a heavy edit. But loved this one, set in New York City and elsewhere.

A Little Life, Hana Yanagihara

Not an easy read, but one of the most powerful and unforgettable books I’ve ever read, a tale of ongoing friendship, also set in New York City — written (in her spare time!) in 18 months by an editor at The New York Times.

In The Skin of a Lion, Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje

He’s probably best-known for “The English Patient”, (still one of my favorite films ever), but reading anything by this Sri Lankan-Canadian author is like entering a dream state, in the best sense. In the Skin is about Toronto (my hometown) in the 1920s and “Divisadero” about a California family.

I was recently given a copy of “Lincoln in the Bardo”, so that’s on the list.

I typically don’t read horror, romance, sci-fit, dystopian, Westerns or YA…

What have you been reading lately (or tossing?!)

 

Journalism’s less-visible heroes

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The New York Times newsroom

 

By Caitlin Kelly

To those who’ve never worked in journalism, it’s easy to forget — or simply not know about — the many hidden talents that make radio, print, digital and television coverage possible.

They include coders, graphic designers, layout people, researchers, fact-checkers and copy editors.

While on-air anchors earn millions, and reporters and photographers, out in public are visible, without cameramen and women, young and hungry interns, production assistants and bookers, none of it is possible.

One of the things my husband, a career photographer and photo editor, and I enjoy is that journalism really is a team sport; without all those talents, it just doesn’t happen.

Here’s a fantastic story from The Walrus, arguably Canada’s quirkiest and most interesting national magazine (for whom I soon hope to be writing!), about the eight women who ran the switchboard of the Toronto Star. Their genius was essential in an era before Google and social media made our jobs  — i.e. finding people fast — so much easier.

 

To the reporters at the Star, the switchboard seemed capable of working miracles. And its feats were all due to dedication of eight women. Most came to the job with a background working switchboards, but the ones who stuck around were those who had the grit to call up dozens of people in the hopes of finding a source and then were persuasive enough keep them on the line. They took the job seriously: lugging yellow pages back from vacations abroad, leaving their home-phone numbers with reporters in case they were needed in a pinch, and working with reporters to revive leads that seemed long dead.

One of those operators was Eva Cavan, the switchboard’s supervisor for over three decades, who once tracked down the Star’s Washington correspondent by calling up every shop along Pennsylvania Avenue until a pharmacist was able to ID the reporter. During her tenure, Cavan’s team found the prime suspect in the 1972 Olympics massacre, located Terry Fox in Newfoundland by calling up stations he was likely to stop at, and convinced a control tower to delay takeoff so that the Ontario health minister could disembark and take a call with the Star.

I remember with fondness the operators at the Globe and Gazette, one of whom handed me the piece of paper informing me my French mentor had died.

This past weekend was a painful and emotional reminder that colleagues can be much more than the next guy or gal in the cubicle.

We attended the funeral of a man we all thought would live to his 90s, for sure, but who was struck down at 70 quickly and brutally by a rare cancer.

Zvi Lowenthal worked for 44 years at The New York Times, but you never read his name.

My husband worked for seven years inches from Zvi, an avid tennis player who — with Jose, his fellow photo editor — assigned and chose every photo for The New York Times’ business section. They were, according to their co-workers, an old married couple, and it was a good match: Jose is calm, steady, ice in his veins when the shit hits the fan. Zvi was warm, kind, meticulous, the kind of guy who made sure that freelancers got paper copies of their images, a gesture very few editors would ever bother to make.

And, when Jose was a Times photographer, Zvi had also been his editor. While Jose enjoyed seeing his name in the paper with every photo he took — in newspaper parlance his “agate” — editors never do.

The team managed to keep pictures coming through the most terrifying economic crisis since the Depression. It’s not easy to illustrate corporate malfeasance!

Today, American journalists are derided by the President, of all people, as “fake” and “disgusting”, inciting violence against us at his rallies.

 

Our skills and dedication  — visible or less so — remain essential to a functional democracy.