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Ohhhhh, Canada! For Americans hoping to head north

In behavior, cities, domestic life, immigration, journalism, life, politics, U.S., urban life, US on March 13, 2016 at 4:00 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Lake Massawippi, Quebec

It’s become something of a new anthem in itself…”I’m moving to Canada!” if Trump (or whichever Presidential candidate most terrifies/disgusts/depresses you) wins the nomination, or Presidency.

 

Not so fast!

 

I left Canada, where I was born (in Vancouver) and raised (in Toronto and Montreal) in 1988 to take a temporary editing job in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Why there? I was madly in love with an American, a physician doing his medical residency at Dartmouth College after studying at McGill; we met when he was in Montreal. We later married — and divorced.

I came to the U.S. on an H1-B, a visa that’s difficult to get — the employer must advertise the position and be demonstrably unable to fill it with a qualified American. I initially came for three months, but had long wanted to come permanently, able to do so thanks to my mother’s American citizenship, which allowed me to obtain a “green card”, and become (o’ infelicitous phrase!) a “resident alien.”

I’ve lived in New York, in a suburban town near Manhattan, since 1989. It stuns me sometimes to realize it’s been so long, but I’m still here.

Like many Canadians, blessed with a terrific university education, (and zero debt upon graduation, thanks to low tuition costs), I felt, and was, able to compete with sharp-elbowed Americans all grasping for the various brass rings of publishing and journalism.

Here’s my recent story for Money.com about the savings one can realize by choosing to attend college in Canada.

I craved a larger place to test out my skills. (It’s not easy!)

My maternal grandmother and her antecedents were all American, as are many cousins, some of them highly accomplished, one an ambassador, another an archaeologist. I was curious to know more about the culture that had shaped them.

Canadians are deluged by American media so it’s not as though we don’t hear about the place, all the time.

I was also tired of constantly being mistaken for an American, a very odd experience from fellow Canadians, where being openly ambitious is a no-no.

Not in New York!

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New York — where I’ve lived since 1989

Canada is usually routinely invisible to American news outlets. We’re used to it.

But now that the 2016 Presidential election campaign has become a bizarre and frightening circus, many Americans are wondering if that nation to the North — the one they typically ignore in quieter times — is a better option.

 

Here’s my story for Salon and an excerpt:

While Canada recently welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees, don’t be too quick to assume there’s an equal welcome for thousands of panicked Americans eager to flee a political scene they find abhorrent.

Read the Canadian government website for potential immigrants and you’ll find a list of exclusions, from health and financial problems to a DUI conviction. Yes, some of you will be able to obtain work visas, but many Canadian jobs pay less than you’re used to – and taxes are higher. You’ll also wait longer for access to some medical care.

Before assuming Canada is a default lifetsyle option, read its newspapers and listen to the CBC. Read our history and some of our authors, not just the ones you know, like Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. Talk to people who live there. In other words, before you reassure yourself that if it comes to a Trump inauguration, you can pack your bags and head to Vancouver (maybe not Vancouver – CRAZY expensive to live there), you might want to take a minute to acquaint yourself with some specific attributes of that country to the north

 

I wrote the piece from a place of mixed emotions.

In some ways I miss Canada terribly — my oldest and dearest friends, my personal history, a political climate that doesn’t demonize women for wanting reproductive freedom or gays for wanting to marry.

I miss a shared culture and its references.

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Not to mention Justin Trudeau, our new 44-year-old Prime Minister.

But I also left for reasons.

This is the challenge of every ex-patriate and immigrant; we leave a place we know well and possibly love, throwing our fresh hopes onto a new land and its values, political and economic.

For the first time since moving here, I’ve wondered about moving back, even for a year. My American husband loves Canada and has portable skills. We’ll see.

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How about you?

 

Is moving to Canada an option you would ever consider?

 

Why?

 

Getting the story is a story in itself

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, news, television on March 6, 2016 at 1:59 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The NYC food bank — which I saw last year while working on a story about it

I’ve been working as a journalist since my sophomore year of university; clips and details, here, at my website.

Decades later, despite the brutal disruption of our industry, I still write for a living.

Here’s a brand-new 36-minute podcast in which I describe how I conceive of, report and think through my stories and non-fiction books.

Sadly, many of us — certainly those with 20+ years’ experience — are starting to feel like whaling ship captains in the new era of steam, offering terrific skills that fewer and fewer publishers want or can afford to pay for.

The British daily The Independent recently killed its print editions and thousands of journalists are losing their staff jobs all over the world.

I still ply my trade freelance, publishing online and in print, for outlets from the Case Foundation to The New York Times.

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed.

The terrific new film “Spotlight” won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, about the investigative team at the Boston Globe and how it uncovered sexual abuse within the Catholic church. Here’s my earlier post about it.

Here’s a radio interview on CBC, (18:20 minutes in length), with the female member of the real Spotlight team, Sacha Pfeiffer, about what it’s like to work in investigative journalism — and to be observed and portrayed by an actress on film.

And here’s an interview with Joshua Hammer, whose story about Ebola for the digital site Matter, a piece of 9,000 words, won him a 2016 National Magazine Award.

If you, or anyone you know is considering working as a journalist — or you’re just curious about the process — this film is truly a must-see.

It’s the only movie I know of that shows the daily minutiae of reporting and how long, slow and sometimes tedious it can be to get to the point of proof and publication.

One of the things I still admire about journalism, at its well-funded serious best, is its larger goal of public service; here are the recent winners of the George Polk Award, given each year to American journalists in all media for their investigative reporting.

And those of us who do it professionally, especially within news, know there are many other people whose skills help us get it done safely and accurately, from translators to fixers to unnamed but well-placed sources.

Here’s a New York Times front page story about the death of one of them, a Syrian soldier who helped the Times tell the story of the mayhem happening in his country.

By the time you see or hear a story online, on radio or television or in print, hundreds of decisions have been made about it and decisions made by dozens of professionals. Journalism remains very much a team sport.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

Here’s some of what happens before you ever see or hear a work of journalism:

 

Someone gets an idea

It happens in a variety of ways.

It might be from a press release, sent out by a professional agency whose job it is to promote their clients and their interests.

It might be something we noticed — an ad, an overheard conversation on the bus or at the dog run or while in a doctor’s waiting room. I saw something this week in a local drugstore, a new and unusual product that’s a direct reflection of recent cultural change. It might be a story.

It could be something we read or saw, yes, already produced by another journalist  — but not in depth or not for an audience we know well.

It might be a wire service story our editors want deepened or localized; if too local or regional, maybe looking at it nationally or globally.

Many reporters work a specific beat, (like a cop’s beat, an area they are meant to know intimately), and stay in close touch with sources in it, whether aerospace or retail or philanthropy.

Much traditional reporting, (a weakness in its conceptual narrowness), focuses on institutions of power and its players: the schools, courts, police, Wall Street, Big Business, Parliament or Congress or its various committees. The ideal is to hold the powerful accountable for their decisions, many made in secret and many using taxpayers’ money or affecting public policies.

Smarter thinking considers ideas more broadly and in ways that intersect across disciplines — design, gender, technology, culture, labor, belief systems.

A freelance writer, who survives like Sheherezade by telling/selling story after story after story, also needs to decide who’s the right market for which idea:

a trade magazine? A major newspaper? An overseas website? A women’s magazine? A men’s?

The reality is now that digital sites are ravenous for copy — and most pay crap — $50, $100, $200 for stories that can still require significant skill, experience and lots of time to report and write.

Young writers are lining up for it, and beating their ambitious wings against the locked doors of print publications.

Print pays a lot more. Not a lot of money, ($2,00o to $10,000+ per story for the truly fortunate), but enough to eat and pay bills.

I live in an expensive part of the world — the New York City suburbs — and most of my work is either produced for print or paid at print rates.

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My desk — no news there!

What’s the story — and who cares?

Journalists are cynical, skeptical, dubious.

We’re paid to question authority, (even if we often fail to do so in an era of concentrated media ownership and few jobs.)

As the saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

So what is the story and why should anyone else make time to read or listen to it?

Who are the main characters? What’s new or different?

Does it reflect a trend?

What expertise or insight can you bring to it?

Is it even really worth doing?

Here’s a great blog post by a science journalist who decided — as we all do sometimes — to drop a story after she realized it was bogus.

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We try to sell the idea to an editor, either someone who’s our boss (and their boss) or a freelance client

Much of what we do requires the delicate art of persuasion. We have to feel passionate enough about each story — ideally — to do the work of reporting, interviewing, researching, writing and revising it.

But we also have to have skills and expertise not to make a mess of it. Do we have the right contacts? Do we speak the lingo of that industry?

If freelance, is it even worth doing financially? It can take days, weeks or months to properly research a story and we have to budget our time carefully.

What if it requires travel expenses — plane/train/car rental/hotel/meals? When budgets are tight, every additional penny must be justified.

Which is why so much lazy, crappy reporting is now done by phone, email and Skype. It’s cheaper.

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Time to make some money with your writing?

What’s the best way to tell this story?

One of the joys and challenges of producing quality journalism now is the decision process when presenting it — a video? a podcast? a broadcast? A 3,500 word feature? A Q and A?

This BBC video — of a former concentration camp in Germany — is astounding. The images were shot using a drone.

There are so many ways to present information.

The goal should always be to engage the reader, to bring him or her with you into the places you’ve been to gather the material — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures.

How soon do we need to jump on it?

In an era of Twitter, Vine and Periscope, the rush to be first is exhausting and getting worse.

What if one of our many competitors gets it before we do?

These New York City brothers were the subjects of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

Who do we need to include to tell this story?

This is where so much journalism remains weak  — still depressingly filled with white, male voices and few  women and/or people of color, as this story points out.

I usually write nationally-reported stories and try to find a mix of people in age, race, geographic location and profession as sources.

Once we’ve figured out our possible list of sources, we need to consider possible conflicts of interest; (does their brother own the company? Did they attend that school?), and decide who’s most likely to give us time and how much of it.

There’s a distinct pecking order to whose calls and emails will get returned the fastest; if you’re writing for a trade magazine instead of a Big Media Outlet, be prepared to make a lot of return calls. For freelancers, time is money and every wasted minute costs us income.

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Do we need to travel to do the best reporting possible? By helicopter? Bus? Military aircraft?

How much reliable accurate information can each source give us?

This is the hidden 90 percent of the iceberg of every story you’ll ever read or hear, and one that “Spotlight”, unusually for a film about our biz, explains well.

It means actual legwork — sometimes physically venturing into neighborhoods or places we already know are unwelcoming, and maybe unsafe.

Knocking on doors. Calling people who never call back. Sending dozens of emails.

Accessing public documents, maybe filing a FOIA — Freedom of Information Act — when we’re stonewalled.

If you’re working in a foreign country, you may need a bodyguard, a fixer, a translator and a driver. You also have to find them, trust them with your life and pay them.

What do you need to take with you? War reporter Janine di Giovanni recently told the Financial Times her kit always included a morphine syringe, a tourniquet — and a little black dress because, you never know!

I know two seasoned female reporters who recently went into dangerous territory (Mexico, researching narco-terrorism) and South Sudan (researching famine) for their work. That’s normal. That’s what some of us do.

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A village in Nicaragua I visited for a story for WaterAid…no running water and no electricity

How much time before you’re done?

I recently proposed a story that I knew would be complicated to do well. Hah! It took me eleven interviews, each 30 to 75 minutes long, to understand it well enough to write it for a general newspaper audience. Then I still needed time to write it.

The worst thing to do is rush and skimp. I call the result Swiss cheese journalism, full of holes.

Does it make sense?

This is where the best and toughest editors are our saving grace. It’s their job, even when we resent it, to question our thinking, decisions and sources, the structure and tone and length of what we’ve given them.

It’s very easy, after spending a lot of time working on a story, to completely forget that — for the viewer or listener — it’s all new to them!

 

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On assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua.

 

The downside of travel — turbulence!

In behavior, business, Technology, travel, world on March 3, 2016 at 12:45 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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At least a space station doesn’t budge!

Do you hate turbulence as much as I do?

Some people actually enjoy it, but this year — thanks to the strongest El Nino in decades — many flights are proving to be much bumpier than anyone ideally prefers. Like, screaming, throwing up, we’re-all-gonna-die bumpy.

Flights are increasingly being diverted to airports where the plane can actually land safely, as a recent instance in Canada where it went to an entirely different province. Or passengers and crew are injured and the flight diverts to the nearest airport and hospital that can accommodate it.

I’ve been flying around the world for 40+ years, on tiny aircraft (the Arctic, Caribbean, Nicaragua) and 777s and A320s, but (thank heaven!) have not ever had a really terrifying flight.

I do live in fear of one and yet I live to travel. Bit of a dilemma!

I figured others were noticing this pattern, certainly anyone who flies often.

I pitched the idea to The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing for years.

Here’s my story.

I love the accompanying illustration with it (please go look!) by Randall Enos, a local artist exactly my age, whose work has accompanied other stories of mine in the paper. How on earth do you illustrate something invisible?

I was so thrilled with what he produced I called him at 9:00 in the morning to thank him — he was already up caring for his six horses. “I’m a horse janitor,” he said.

An excerpt:

There are many different kinds of turbulence, with the most problematic to predict and to avoid being clear air turbulence (which is very difficult to detect using conventional radar). Much of it is typically experienced at cruising altitude.

In the last few months, at least three commercial flights, two on American Airlines and one on Air Canada, have experienced severe turbulence that resulted in injuries to those on board. In two instances, the flights were diverted to nearby airports so the injured could receive treatment.

Aviation professionals classify turbulence from light to extreme, a form they say is very rare. The challenge of reporting turbulence, several pilots said, is that the reports themselves are subjective.

While in flight, pilots file Pilot Reports (Pireps) to alert airline dispatchers and other pilots en route of any turbulence they’ve encountered; what one pilot considers mild might feel moderate to another.

 

This was by far the toughest story I’ve written in a long time!

 

I’ve never studied physics or aeronautics or flown a plane myself. Because so many people fly, even those who hate and fear it, I knew it would be well-read. I also knew that aviation professionals would likely read it so see if I got my facts right.

It’s not a simple, quick story, which also made reporting and writing it so satisfying. I like a challenge.

But I also live in terror of making a mistake!

I started by reading basic news reports to find out how widespread the problem is and what’s being done about it.

I wanted to speak to someone who’d been on a really bad flight to describe it firsthand. I found him by seeing him quoted in a Canadian news story, checked him out on LinkedIn and then had to persuade his assistant and his public relations agency to speak to me about it.

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Our last transatlantic flight — mostly smooth! — from Dublin to New York

This was one of those stories where my network really came through for me, without which I simply couldn’t have done a decent job on a complex topic.

I asked an aviation writer, a woman I’ve never met, if she could recommend a source/expert, and she did, immediately — a pilot with decades of experience now teaching aeronautics. He proved invaluable throughout the lengthy process or producing this story, which took weeks of interviews and revisions and cuts.

I also spoke to four working pilots and a flight attendant — all working long-haul routes on 777s and their like. I wanted people in the air now, not retirees, and that meant I couldn’t name them.

That meant the Times refused to allow me to use their helpful insights and comments, at least not in quotes.

I spoke to several meteorologists to try and parse the many kinds of turbulence — some of which seem banal to pilots, if not to us shaken-up and scared passengers!

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I love London — and have to cross an ocean to see it again

My goal was to both soothe nervous flyers as much as possible while making clear how essential it is to buckle your seatbelt!

 

I learned a lot and was so frustrated I couldn’t include more detail and quotes. But that’s journalism, kids!

We always work within some sort of restraint, whether time, length or access to sources.

I hope you’ll read and share it.

I think you’ll find it helpful!

The writer’s week

In behavior, books, business, journalism, life, Media, work on February 23, 2016 at 5:06 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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An ongoing, occasional series, a glimpse into the life of a full-time freelance writer and career journalist…

It’s been a week!

And it’s only Tuesday

I spoke yesterday to a class of freshman students at New York University, invited by a friend, Sarah Dohrmann, a highly accomplished writer who’s been published in one of the Holy Grails of American journalism, Harper’s; here’s her story about Moroccan prostitutes.

She and I met for the first time last summer through a group of women writers who joined an on-line group and some of whom have trekked out to lunches and dinners to meet one another face to face. So fun!

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Jose (my husband, a freelance photographer) bought this book — I look forward to reading it!

One of the toughest challenges of working freelance — i.e. with no fixed income or employer — is how lonely it can be. Many of us, as I am writing this blog post, are at home in our sweatpants or gym clothes. Maybe in a co-working space (which costs precious income) or in a coffee-shop or library for a break from midwinter cabin fever.

So making a new friend, and someone with whom you can really share the ups and downs of our field, (and frank details of the places we’ve worked or want to work or think we want to work) is a joy.

It’s also the only way to make a living at this level of the game. Sarah and I are peers, with credentials and experience. We’ve won prestigious fellowships and traveled the world. We’ve taught writing at New York City colleges.

We’re still figuring it out.

 

When you work for yourself and have creative ambitions — like winning a fellowship (or another and another), or a writer’s residency or selling a book (or your second or third or eighth) — you’re constantly juggling short-terms needs for income with longer-term needs for growth and learning.

 

How many conferences to attend? Who’s speaking? Who will I meet there? Is it worth it?

How much time can I afford to “waste” on a passion project for whom no one has assigned an economic value (yet)? When will I sell it and to whom? What if no one ever buys it?

Should I take (keep) a part-time job to stay afloat? For how long? Doing what?

 

That same night I attended an event designed to teach me how to better make use of LinkedIn. It was a firehose of data and exhausting, although I met some nice new people and learned a lot.

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The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker

I’m also in the middle of pitching several stories to several outlets and fielding requests for more details on them — among them The Wall Street Journal and a major national magazine I don’t want to name yet.

I feel like the hotel clerk in an old-fashioned hotel, the kind with real metal keys and numbers engraved on them, or a sorter in an old post office, popping letters into the right boxes. Deciding who to pitch, when and why is an art, not a science, and it requires skill, nerve, research — and self-confidence.

Rejection is normal.

 

If you want to crawl into bed in the fetal position when your work is rejected, cowboy up! Not an option.

 

Figure out what didn’t work and move on.

Freelancers live like Sheherazade, spinning tale after tale after tale to save our lives, to simply earn enough income to pay the mortgage/rent/groceries.

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My husband’s retirement cake; I wrote the headlines (Arthur is the publisher; Zvi a former colleague)

We also teach, online and in person; I offer individual webinars ($150, skedded at your convenience) and coaching at $225/hour. Details here!

 

 

Our health insurance bill recently jumped — from an impossible $1,500 per month to a WTF $1,800 month. So this week I’ll also be ditching a plan I like and trust, but which is killing us financially, for one I hope will give me what I need most.

Peace of mind.

I’m also trying to figure out what to do about a book proposal I wrote in December but is stalled; my agent isn’t happy enough with it to send it out. And no one wants to read a proposal without an agent’s imprimatur.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — blogger Jen Iacovelli in the bow of a dugout canoe. This is where I was two years ago. Hungry for my next adventure!

I’m also endless revising and fact-checking my latest story for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing for many years; some clips here.

Readers have no idea how heavily edited — and questioned and challenged, by multiple tough editors — each of their stories is. It takes a lot of time and energy, even after I interviewed eleven sources and, oh yeah, wrote the story.

Next month, I’ll once more be a finalist judge for Canada’s National Magazine Awards; I won mine in 1998. I speak fluent French, so some of them might be en francais.

That’s another way we give back to our industry, an honor when asked.

In addition to my daytime work, this week includes a variety of social and professional evenings out as well.

One is an event where an editor I need to meet face to face, (and who I’ve already written for), is speaking. Another is a new-to-me market, invited by a friend who’s already well-known to them and who generously asked me along.

The third is a retirement party for a friend, colleague and neighbor who’s leaving The New York Times.

We’re a tribe.

Without it, we’re toast.

 

 

 

Our attachment to objects

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, culture, design, domestic life, life on February 14, 2016 at 1:48 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Silly, perhaps, but I get such pleasure from using my red leather Filofax!

Why do we form our attachment to certain objects?

Whether something inherited from a beloved ancestor or a gift from a friend or our partner or spouse or something we buy that we’ve always wanted or have saved hard for.

I was listening to the terrific NPR radio show Radiolab as I drove into Manhattan recently to attend the Winter Antiques Show, arguably the best show in that city each year, and probably one of the world’s best places to look at — and buy –museum-quality objects of every possible material, design and period.

 

Radiolab’s episode was all about why and why we become emotionally attached to certain objects or why some of them fill us with awe.

One of my favorite travel moments was finally seeing the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux, Normandy, France. As someone passionate about early textiles, I had long wanted to see it in person, and so we did. Amazing! It’s actually embroidered on linen, 230 feet long, created in 1070.

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Another object, also red, that I enjoy. I found this little robot in the window of a children’s clothing shop in the 7th arrondissement in Paris

I grew up in a home filled with interesting art and objects, from Japanese prints and Eskimo sculpture, (now called Inuit), to a Picasso lithograph to my father’s own handiwork in oil, silver, lithography and etching.

I’ve also been lucky enough along the way to be able to buy some art and photographs and antiques, so our apartment is filled with reference books on art and design and a variety of decorative objects we enjoy using or looking at.

So attending the Winter Antiques Show was a special treat. Admission is $25 and it’s held at the Park Avenue Armory, an enormous red brick building on Park at 67th. It accepted 75 dealers from all over the world, from Geneva to London to California, some of whom wait for years to be allowed into the show.

And what a show!

 

Imagine being let loose in a great museum, able to touch, hold and examine closely the most exquisite objects — whether a fragment of an Egyptian sarcophagus or a 16th century atlas or a piece of porcelain made in 1740.

You can wander about with a glass of white wine or champagne, coming face to face with a boy’s sword from 1300, ($20,000), or an astrolabe made in 1540 for the Spanish king ($1.3 million). I assumed I wouldn’t be able to afford a thing, and many prices were four, five and six figures.

But, despite my worries, it never felt snooty.

Sure, there were women wearing furs and quite large diamonds and lots of cashmere; I wandered about in my black Gap cotton Tshirt and black leggings. I’ve studied antiques at several institutions and bought and sold them at auction, so I know what I’m looking at when it comes to several categories.

For me, it was absolute heaven, and most dealers were surprisingly kind and welcoming,  making time to explain their objects’ design and histories, like a $55,000 blue enamel pendant made by a famous British architect as a birthday gift.

It was originally found at a flea market!

Having bought some good things for low prices at auction and flea markets, I’m also always curious to find out their current market value and learn more about them. Dealers are de facto always passionate about their area of specialty, so no one seemed to mind my curiosity.

I even bought a photograph.

That was a huge surprise, and I hadn’t bought art in ages. But I discovered a Finnish photographer whose black and white work mesmerized me and the price was manageable — less than the cost of three months’ groceries.

Here’s a link to his work, and the gallery I bought it from.

One reason I so enjoy flea markets, auctions and antiques is making my own design choices. My maternal grandmother owned some very good things — but she never bothered to pay tax on her inherited fortune, so when she died almost all of it was sold to pay off those debts.

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This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it’s versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.

I never saw a thing from either grandfather or my paternal grandmother and almost all my mother’s belongings were also sold quickly when she suddenly had to go into a nursing home.

Jose’s parents left him a few belongings, but we’re not a family buried in heirlooms.

Almost everything lovely in our home, then, is something we’ve bought, and an expression of our aesthetic and taste. My husband is a career photographer, (here’s his blog), so we have a growing collection of images, from one you might know (of JF Kennedy standing at the window of the Oval Office) to an early Steichen.

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These 3 pendants were given to me by my mother, a friend and my late grandmother. They have sentimental value to me as a result.

My favorite objects include:

my Canadian passport, a stuffed Steiff bear the length of my thumb, another small stuffed bear, a few good photographs, two silk Hermes scarves, a photo of my paternal grandfather, who I never met.

What — if any — objects do you treasure and why?

 

Four recent “failures” and what they taught me

In aging, behavior, business, life, women, work on February 10, 2016 at 12:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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We’re not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

It’s the new black, failure.

Every day I see a new book or article exhorting us all to fail — and enjoy it.

Fail forward!

Like it’s really fun and comforting and the sort of thing you just can’t wait to blog about or tweet about or post an Instagram image of you at the elevator holding your cardboard box with all your shit in it after doing the walk of shame from your desk when they’ve just canned you.

Sorry, right-sized you.

Whatever.

Here’s an interesting blog post about why trying (and failing) is good for us:

Schools, particularly in the U.S., set us up for fixed mindsets, which means there is only one answer or that you believe talent is something you’re born with and it can’t be evolved or changed.

A person with a growth mindset, on the other hand, welcomes a challenge and enjoys doing things they’re not good at because they know they’ll learn.

Perhaps you’re learning how to read analytics and metrics. Or you’re trying to figure out how content and search engine optimization work hand-in-hand. Or you’re moving beyond media relations to do some really hard, but powerful communications work.

Whatever it may be, you have a growth mindset and fear of failure won’t paralyze you.

Talent can be learned. It can evolve and grow.

 

But I’m damn glad it’s 2016, because 2015 really kicked my ass in some new and excruciating ways.

Because four in a year, (and these are only a few of the bigger ones, the ones I’ll even admit to here), is a shit-ton of failure in my world.

Kelly’s don’t fail.

So that’s an issue right there.

I hate the tired phrase “comfort zone” — and yet I wholeheartedly agree with the premise we all need to flee ours, often, to try new things, stretch our wings, learn new skills and behaviors.

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Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC. Was their decades of prior success now a “failure” because they closed? Not to me!

Failure Number One

I was hired to teach two classes a day, one day a week, at a schmancy private college, the kind where the rich kids fly home to Asia on long weekends and everyone dyes their hair purple and septum rings are de rigueur.

I had previously taught at several New York City-area colleges, no novice. I read up on millennials and what to expect.

This was different.

Tuition there runs a cool $60,000 a year, to study high-earning fields like…writing.

I loved the first semester, grateful for lively students who were warm and hard-working. What’s not to like? Half of them arrived each week 20 minutes before class began just to hang out. I really enjoyed getting to know them as individuals, not just a pile ‘o papers to grade.

The second semester was…not that. Suffice to say it started badly and ended much worse. I don’t teach there anymore and I wouldn’t if it were the last income source on earth. An MIA dean made it even more difficult.

Lesson learned: Adjunct teachers, especially of writing and especially in New York City, are more disposable than Kleenex. Without solid institutional support — of any kind! — it’s impossible to navigate complex scenarios you’ve never faced before.

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There’s never enough beer when things are shitty

Failure Number Two

I take on a web-writing assignment for a large charity, excited to work on something I believe in for people whose work I respect. The fee is fine and the people seem pleasant.

But they’ve never worked with an outside writer before and it becomes increasingly clear that they have no idea how to manage my time effectively, both being vague and micromanage-y all at once.

It gets worse week by week until finally it’s one Friday at 5:30 p.m. and we politely and cordially enough call it a day.

I lose $4,000 worth of anticipated income by failing to complete that project, and feel like a fool for not realizing how complex it would be.

Lesson learned: Ask a lot more questions before committing to a project, especially one that’s going to be edited by so many people.

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This little monkey is so NOT my role model. Flee, monkey!

Failure Number Three

I congratulate someone I know, vaguely, on Facebook about a great new managerial role he recently assumed.

Within a month, to my great surprise, he’s hired me to manage two complex, multi-part projects. The potential income is excellent and the content challenging. It does look a little hairy, but I’m a quick learner.

So I thought.

His managerial style proves to be a pendulum between charm and bullying. Our communication is both excessive and insufficient to our needs.

And the writers I need to hire and contract for work are fearful — naturally, given the state of our industry now — that they won’t be paid or paid quickly.

I reassure them, but with no sure knowledge of this man’s business ethics, or that of his employer. Which makes me very anxious indeed; he’s only one client, while my wide network of trusted colleagues is what keeps me working year after year thanks to their referrals. I don’t want to inadvertently screw anyone over!

Within weeks, I’m debating how soon to walk away, but hating the idea of letting down a large team — our initial meeting, (hello, warning sign) included 25 people.

I’m fired.

I’m also hugely relieved — and out at least a month’s income because I’ve been 100 percent focused on this thing, not marketing elsewhere.

Lesson learned: If a job or assignment feels this wrong within days, let alone weeks, it probably is. If someone lashes out at me, I don’t care how much they’re paying. I’m done. I won’t tolerate this kind of behavior at this point in my career.

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Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. My WaterAid gig in Nicaragua — for all its challenges — was a joy and a pleasure. That’s what I seek.

Failure Number Four

I’m asked to chair a 13-member volunteer committee for a registered charity, a board I’ve served on already for six years.

I’m passionate about the mission. I have a ton of ideas and am really excited to see what we can do to advance its goals and make its value much more visible.

I choose a co-chair to help, as I know some heavy lifting lies ahead.

We have no training in how to actually run a board or a meeting.

We do our best, but are soon, at every step, ignored by half the board or undermined and criticized by three women, all former presidents of it, who have very strong opinions. Nothing we say or do is met with enthusiasm, and some of it with serious opposition.

Not a great start.

I’m soon spending more unpaid time turning to others who run or serve on other boards for advice and help. Demoralized and worn out, I end up in tears.

My husband says — just leave.

We spend weeks crafting our letter of resignation, trying to be polite but honest about why we’re quitting our roles, and the board — to be met with “I’m overjoyed” by one of these women who then sends the entire board a vicious laundry list of our personal faults.

Lesson learned: Walking away is often the only choice. No one can “lead” a group of people who have no interest in supporting your ideas.

Admitting I’ve made lousy decisions hurts.

Admitting to my weaknesses hurts.

Admitting I can’t take on, and master, new projects quickly is less difficult — but I now know for sure that opposition, whether aggressive or passive-aggressive, means guaranteed failure.

Admitting I was unable to rally the support I needed is painful and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to determine what went so wrong.

We all like to succeed.

We rarely, if ever, publicly discuss or admit to fucking up.

But we all do it.

 

I’m guilty of sometimes moving ahead too quickly, leaping before I look deeply enough, perhaps. As a full-time freelancer living in a costly part of the world, we need steady income in the four figures every single month. I can’t sit around twiddling my thumbs waiting for the perfect fit on every opportunity.

But I’m also forever eager to try new experiences, face new challenges and grow my skills and my network. If I stick to my knitting, that can’t happen.

 

Onward!

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The gift of mobility

In aging, behavior, Health, life on February 6, 2016 at 12:53 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland — June 2015

Maybe you just walked to work or enjoyed a bike ride or went dancing last night.

Maybe you’re training for a marathon or triathlon — or happy to race with your dog(s) along a trail.

Today’s the day I celebrate my body’s rebirth to full mobility – on Feb. 6, 2012, I was wheeled into an operating room to have my left hip replaced.

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I was young for the surgery, as most people have it in their 60s or beyond; my 86 year old father only had his hip done in May of 2015.

I was very fearful, (I’d already had 3 prior orthopedic surgeries, [both knees, right shoulder] within the decade, all of which had gone well), and had put the operation off for more than two years. I was sick to death of surgeries and rehab and doctors and the whole thing.

And, as someone who’s wholly self-employed with a fluctuating income, I also had to fund a month off and the cost of co-pays for physical therapy rehab.

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Another beloved activity — this is Daybreaker — a 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. regular dance party in Manhattan

Those two years of avoidance, though, were crazy.

The arthritis in my left hip had required a course of steroids — whose side effects, (called avascular necrosis), instead destroyed my hip bone.

The resulting pain was 24/7 and exhausting. It made every step I took painful; even crossing a room was tiring.

Buying groceries in the enormous stores here in the suburbs of New York was a misery. Museum visits became marathons and I carried painkillers with me everywhere.

By the fall of 2010, in desperation, I went on crutches for three months just for a brief respite from pain. I bought a pair off the Internet, the short kind typically associated with long-term disability (think of FDR photos). Heaven!

With renewed energy and the ability to move more safely, painlessly and quickly, I went to the movies and theater, (scooching sideways across those narrow aisles), and even flew to Las Vegas to address a conference there.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Yet another event my new hip allowed me to experience.

By December of 2011, I was just too worn out from pain and booked the operation.

Three days before it, I was a featured speaker at — of all things — a conference of liquor store retailers in New Orleans, wandering that city’s streets with a limp so pronounced I walked like a drunken sailor. I’d been invited as a result of my book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” to share my research into low-wage labor.

Sheer luck brought me that gig — and earned me $6,500, enough to take time off to just rest, rehab and recover.

A highly active person — I walk, cycle, dance, play softball, ice skate, ski and do a variety of other sports — I feared that a poor surgical result would mean the end to my athletic life. Or that my doctor would utter the dreaded word “moderate”, as a verb.

Not in my vocabulary!

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid, March 2014

Here’s my cover story from Arthritis Today about that life pre-surgery. I like the photos they took, but you can how heavy I got because it hurt so much to exercise.

Today I take jazz dance  class twice a week, one of them so vigorous I leave sweat puddles on the floor, and enjoy full range of motion. (OK, I don’t do the splits anymore.)

I also live in an apartment building filled with people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, many of whom can now only ambulate safely using a cane or walker.

It’s sobering and instructive to see what aging, (and/or a poorly done surgery), can do to our blessed ability to run, dance, jump and simply enjoy the grace and power of our bodies.

Never take it for granted!

20 ways to survive winter, even enjoy it…

In behavior, domestic life, entertainment, life on February 1, 2016 at 11:57 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Our view of the Hudson River

Some of you — lucky things! — live in much warmer places right now than frigid snowbound New York, (and much of the Northeastern U.S.)

For newcomers to this climate, like the refugee Syrians tobogganing in Canada, it can come as a hell of a shock.

I grew up in Toronto and Montreal, cities annually subjected to a sort of winter that makes finding ways to enjoy it essential. I thought I knew snowfall until I spent an adult winter (only one!) in Montreal, when it didn’t stop snowing for about 12 hours and I had to walk my poor little nine-pound terrier across the plowed mountains of snow on either side of the street.

I now live in a suburb of New York City, whose climate is similar, with many days and weeks of cold, ice and snow ahead.

My favorite blogger Chelsea Fuss is now living in Lisbon and recently posted a terrific list of 21 ways to enjoy winter, inspiration for this post.

Here are some of my tips for making cold, snowy, windy weather your friend, or at least less of a foe:

Moisturize!

Indoor heating parches your skin and lips, as do wintry winds. I keep a tub of lavender-scented body butter nearby and am now using it multiple times every day. A bottle of cuticle oil and a pair of cotton gloves to wear while it soaks in are good, too. Olive oil is a terrific moisturizer as well. I never leave the house now without a small tube of heavy-duty cream in my pocket or purse — and don’t forget to carry and use lip balm.

Sunblock

No matter that it’s cold, keep using your SPF.

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A silly winter selfie…

Sunglasses

The winter sun can be super-bright as it reflects off snow and ice. Not to mention brutal winds whipping into your eyes. Keep a great pair of sunnies handy.

Yaktrax

These are your best friend for navigating slippery, icy streets and paths. They slip over your shoes or boots to help grip the surface you’re walking on — falling on ice is no joke and emergency rooms are filled with broken bones this time of year.

Cashmere

Whether you’re wearing gloves lined with it, a hat or scarf or sweater made of it, it’s warm and light, saving extra bulk while keeping you super-warm. You can find it on sale and in some thrift and consignment shops and it wears well for years. (The photo of me above includes my favorite cashmere muffler, now a decade old or so.)

Warm Feet

Not sure if you want to spend $300, but these battery-heated socks are worn by the Austrian ski team, who surely know what cold feels like! Even indoors, warm toes will make you so much happier; I’m loving these gorgeous suede sheepskin slippers I received for Christmas this year — now on sale for $69 — in  jewel tones of burgundy, navy and tan.

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Greenery

Plants! Fresh flowers! We recently had two glorious purple hyacinths scenting our apartment and it felt like spring, even as the wind howled outside in frigid temperatures. Treat yourself to a bunch of tulips or a few green plants.

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Wear cheerful colors

I love buying winter gear when I’m home in Canada as the selection is so terrific. My winter wardrobe now includes deep purple nylon boots, purple mitts and cap, a soft orange winter coat and a neon yellow faux-fur muffler. Not to mention the turquoise coat I had custom-made a few years ago. No tedious gray, black or brown for me!

A goosedown duvet

I love ours. Nothing is more cozy — and lightweight warmth — than a down duvet. Choose a pretty cover and snuggle in.

Cook some comfort food

Everyone has their favorites, whether cassoulet, mac and cheese, risotto or baking up a batch of muffins. Cold winter afternoons are a perfect time to pull out your cookbooks and find a great new recipe to try; one of my standbys is Bistro Cooking.

Have friends over

If you can woo friends over for a visit, enjoy an afternoon of cards, conversation or binge-watching together. Get off the bloody phone and computer and hang out in the same room with someone whose company you really enjoy.

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This gorgeous path is a five-minute drive from our home…

Go for a walk

If you’ve bundled up enough and your gait is steady, you’ll find it invigorating. The winter landscape is so beautiful — elemental, graphic, monochromatic — and so dramatically different from every other season. After a snowfall, the lights and shadows across those white expanses are also spectacular. I went out right after the enormous snowstorm of Jan. 23 and found our local woods walkway largely empty and silent.

Take photos

Not easy when it’s freezing out, but take advantage of the lengthening days and seasonal beauty to capture some of it. Winter offers such spare, sere beauty: shadows on snow, the low, slanting light, a coral and gray sunset, the gleam of ice.

The most fun for me of the recent snowstorm battering the East Coast was seeing all the images on Twitter and Facebook of people enjoying it all — even snowmen in Times Square!

A fireplace!

Few things are as welcoming as a wood fire…One of my favorite travel memories was arriving at Le Germain in Montreal to see a fire blazing in their elegant glass fireplace. Here’s a list of 10 New York City restaurants with fireplaces, including my longtime favorite, Keen’s Chophouse, (steps from Macy’s!)

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A Babar hot water bottle cover!

A hot-water bottle

Classic. If your bed or sofa just isn’t warm enough, fill a hot-water bottle and tuck it at your feet. I loved this one, spotted in a Paris store window last January — still regretting not getting !

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Our (only) bathroom. I spend many happy hours in this tub!

A long soak

When we renovated our apartment and our tiny bathroom, a super-deep tub was top of my list. It’s 21 inches deep — hell to clean! — but covers every inch of me. Add plenty of bath oil and some glorious scent like jasmine or eucalyptus from a bottle like this one.

A spa or hammam day

One of my happiest ever travel memories — going back maybe 20 years — was a bitterly cold, dark, dreary winter’s day in Paris when I retreated to the steamy depths of a hammam in the 5th arrondissement. Hammams are what I miss most about Paris in the winter, a Middle Eastern tradition, a place to relax, refresh, enjoy a gommage (exfoliation), massage, sauna. Last January I tried one in the 18th and the steam room was so hot you couldn’t even see across the room! Here at home in Tarrytown, we’re  blessed to have a gorgeous spa literally next door to us in a luxury hotel. What a lovely way to while away a frosty Sunday afternoon. Treat yourself!

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Pleasure matters! A cup of tea at the Ritz in London

Drink lots of tea

One of my favorite beverages is hot tea in all its glorious forms — oolong, rooibos, jasmine, green, herbal. And never a lonely little teabag dumped into a cup of hot water, American style. Please! Invest in a proper teapot and loose tea or bags, whether fragrant Constant Comment or the tangy, smoky Lapsang Souchong. I love discovering great tea rooms whenever I travel — like Le Loir Dans La Theiere in Paris or Bosie in Manhattan, so nice that I visited it twice in one recent week. It’s easily missed, on a very short block in the West Village but well worth a visit.

If you’re in the West Village, head east or west a few blocks and stock up on tea at Porto Rico on Bleecker or McNulty’s on Christopher, each of them a tin-ceilinged 100+-year-old institution.

Not to mention, a pot of fragrant tea is so much more comforting than slugging yet another bottle of cold, boring water — we all need to stay hydrated in dry/heated homes and offices.

I love this bright red enamel teapot!

Maximize interior light

Look to pre-industrial historic interiors for how best to boost winter’s weak low natural light — add a few large mirrors near your windows, candles and reflective surfaces like glass, crystal, gleaming brass, silver or copper. These might be candlesticks or lamp-bases or decorative objects. Dust every lightbulb in your home and, if feasible and safe, up the wattage to make sure you’ve got sufficient light to read, cook and work by. Thoroughly clean, dust or replace your tired old lampshades. Throw open those curtains!

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New curtains for the sitting area…no more black bare window glass on cold winter nights

Make or order something charming for your home

By mid-winter we all start to feel a bit cabin feverish — and if your cabin/house/apartment/room is less than cosy it can get really depressing. Even if you’re in a tiny rental, find something affordable that will cheer you up every single time you look at it. Maybe it’s a stuffed animal (oh, go on!) or a floral tablecloth or a lovely throw that you crochet or knit yourself. It might be an antique bit of beauty or something shiny and modern.

Think of it as your gift to your home, a way to say thanks to it for sheltering you and keeping you warm, safe and dry through these long few months.

 

 

 

Taking inventory

In aging, behavior, business, culture, domestic life, life, women on January 27, 2016 at 2:09 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Lincoln Center, one of my greatest pleasures of living in New York. More culture in 2016!

It’s a normal and essential activity in retail — where I worked part-time for 2.5 years from 2007 to 2009, (and the subject of my last book.) An entire team of strangers, all wearing matching golf shirts, would take over our store for a few days while we watched in awe at their efficiency.

It’s a good idea to take stock of our own lives as well. So often, we just keep stumbling, or racing, ahead, too exhausted or distracted to notice the patterns guiding our behaviors. We’re all creatures of habit.

And some need a reboot.

As we slip and slide into 2016 — I’m writing this post during the first huge snowstorm of the year — I’ve been thinking about what to keep, what to ditch and what to add to my life, whether personal or professional.

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Jose, at my Dad’s house

Keep

A happy marriage

Thank heaven! Jose and I met 16 years ago in March after he saw my profile and photo on aol.com (remember?), posted for a story I was writing about on-line dating for Mademoiselle magazine, (also long gone now.) My headline, truthfully, read “Catch Me If You Can.” He did. We would never have met otherwise — he lived in Brooklyn and I north of Manhattan. But we  both worked for The New York Times, he as a staff photographer and photo editor and I as a freelance writer.

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Our living room, reflected

A home we love

It’s been more than 20 years since I bought a one-bedroom apartment in a suburban town north of New York City, whose downtown towers we can see — 25 miles away — from our street. Luckily, we’ve had the funds to pay for high-quality renovations of our bathroom and kitchen and have made minor upgrades like a glass door to our balcony and lined custom-made curtains. As someone who spent ages 8-16 in boarding school and summer camp, sharing space with strangers in rooms whose design I couldn’t choose or alter to my taste, and a few years in fairly basic rental apartments, I love that we can create and enjoy such a pretty space.

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January 2015, meeting a young blog follower in Paris

Deep and abiding friendships

I’m so grateful for the friends I’ve made, worldwide, and for their support and belief in me, even when things are rocky; it’s the measure of true friendship that we don’t flee one another during the tough times. I love chatting with them on Facebook, Twitter and Skype, from Berlin to Dublin to New Zealand to Toronto.

The tedious-but-necessary habits of frugality

Ugh. So boring! But the only way I know to save money is to…save money. You can spend it or save it. If you never save, like millions of Americans who don’t or can’t, you can never, ever stop working and you live in daily terror of the next fiscal crisis. I’ve been working since I was 15 but didn’t start saving hard for a while. The only reason retirement is even an option is decades of living carefully and saving money.

Ditch

Toxic relationships

I recently resigned as co-chair of a volunteer board I had served on for seven years. One of its members, an imperious and demanding older woman, immediately showered me with  a Niagara of personal insults — and publicly — for my putatively disastrous tenure, however brief. QED, kids. Happy to flee such a swamp of nastiness. Same goes for anyone whose SOP is constant criticism, undermining, snark and whining. It’s exhausting to listen to, respond to and absorb.

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Who owns your time?

Miserable work

Last year was an eye-opener, as I took on a few projects that looked initially pretty alluring, clear-cut and decently paid. Nope! They blew up within weeks, costing me thousands of dollars in lost and anticipated income, not to mention the emotional wear and tear of working with people who were bullies or micro-managers. Not this year, thanks.

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Not going to feel as trapped as this guy…

Soul-sucking situations

Like that volunteer commitment above, which I struggled with for months before walking away. My nature is to be extremely tenacious, to keep going to the end, no matter how desperately unhappy I am along the way. That’s a decades-old habit and one it’s time to shed.

Worry

As my Jamaican-born friend said, “Don’t borrow trouble.” If it’s fixable, get it fixed. If it’s not, move on.

Self-doubt

I suspect many women struggle with this one. New motto? “Give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

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New horizons!

The unappreciative

My hourly fee for reading your work or advising you on how to improve it is $225 and I may raise it yet again this year. I prefer being generous, but after reading too many words unpaid, I’m weary of seeing young writers crow loudly on social media about their supposedly solo writing accomplishment — when in fact their weak first draft required  many revisions, and many invisible and unacknowledged editorial questions and suggestions.

All those bloody unread books

They clog up the shelves and prop up my ego — oooh, I feel so smart for having them around me for all these years. But I’ve never read so many of them and I doubt I ever will. Better to box them up and sell them, as we’ve done so in the past successfully. Allowing me to buy new books I’ll actually, you know, read.

Add

Healthier choices

More exercise. Fewer calories.

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Our visit to Donegal, June 2015

More travel!

I’m insatiable when it comes to exploring new places, while wanting to revisit old favorites like France, Ontario and California.

Professional help

Whether turning to our trusted career coach, accountant or lawyers, when I need help to quickly and effectively resolve a difficult or messy challenge, I’m bringing in the big guns. Yes, they cost money. So does every lost minute of my mental health and focus!

More face-to-face meetings

I’ve vowed to spend at least one day every week — that’s 52 meetings — sitting face to face across a table with someone, whether for work or friendship. In an era of social media , texting and mediated communication, I increasingly want to see people at close range, and have them see and know me, not some virtual notion of who I am. Intimacy is ever more a rare and precious commodity now and I’m determined to add more of it to my life.

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Attending more cultural events

A mix of live music, dance, theater. Art galleries and museums, as every time I do so, I come home refreshed and enlightened and inspired. My default choice, always, is going to the movies, and my best weeks I might see several films in the cinema. But I need to be more adventurous.

Music lessons

Gulp. Terror! I don’t even  know how to read music, but a friend has lent me (!) a practice cello, now standing in a corner of the living room and making me feel guilty for not getting started.

I loved this inspiring blog post about choosing a theme for your year.

How about you?

What’s on your keep/ditch/add list these days?

 

 

 

What lessons did your first boss teach you?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, life, work on January 23, 2016 at 1:53 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories...I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

As a follow-up to my Devil Wears Prada post, I’ve been thinking about my first editor(s) when I started out in journalism and my first full-time-job boss and the lessons they taught me — some of which might resonate for you.

I began freelancing as a writer for national publications when I was 19, having grown up in Toronto, the center of Canadian publishing.

Eager to join the world of journalism, I immediately signed up as a reporter for the weekly campus newspaper at the University of Toronto, and started writing as much as they would let me. Within a year, I had a good pile of articles, (aka clips), to show to professional magazine and newspaper editors I hoped would pay me for them.

I first started writing for a national Canadian magazine, then called Miss Chatelaine, now called Flare.

My editor was ferocious!

Her own mother was a legendary writer and so is her younger sister. I had never formally studied journalism or writing, beyond a BA in English literature from the equally-ferocious University of Toronto.

No one in my new worlds, either college or journalism, suffered fools gladly!

My editor would circle every misplaced or misused or lazy word with a red pen — this was in the day of typewriters and paper copies.

My first few stories were an embarrassing sea of red circles.

The New York Times newsroom...since 1990, I've written more than 100 stories for them

The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

She taught me a lesson I never forgot: to use specific verbs in the active tense.

When we spoke on the telephone, (no Internet!), and she told me what was wrong with my work, I would occasionally end up in tears.

Was it always fun? Clearly not.

Was I learning (and getting paid to do so?) Clearly so.

I could give up and walk away — or continue to learn my craft.

She and I are Facebook friends today.

My first book, published in 2004...all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today

My first book, published in 2004…all the skills I learned in my 20s are still in play today

My first newspaper boss was a man so shy most people thought he was cold and unfriendly but he was really someone who valued guts and intelligence.

He took the crazy risk of hiring me — although I had zero prior staff newspaper experience — to work for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s daily national newspaper.

My first day, staring up at the large overhead clock that still rules every newsroom, I thought: “Wow, they want this story….tonight.

He kept throwing me into huge, terrifying, front-page stories, from covering an election campaign in French in Quebec, (I had never covered politics, anywhere, for anyone, let alone en francais), to a two-week national tour trailing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip from New Brunswick all the way to Manitoba.

The lizard part of my brain sent me to cry in the bathtub, scared to death I would fail every time and get fired. That was his agenda!

The rational part of my brain told me to shut up and get on with it. I was being offered tremendous opportunities to shine. The rest was up to me.

I did fine.

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid in March 2014

I remain forever grateful to both editors for giving me amazing (scary!) chances, knowing I was still young and fairly green, knowing I might have proven a terrible disappointment. They had more confidence and faith in me than I often did.

That’s my definition of a great boss.

What did your first boss or job teach you that was most helpful?

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