A matter of trust

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s foundational to everything we do, from earliest childhood to later years — we (have to!) place our trust in medicine and health procedures, in the men and women who pilot airplanes and drive subway trains and schoolbuses, in the chefs and cooks who prepare our meals when we eat away from home — and the health inspectors whose role it is to make sure it is safe.

If you live in the U.S. and follow news — which some of you don’t — a big story of late has been a shocking, relentless barrage of lies from a newly elected Republican congressman from Long Island, George Santos.

From The Daily Beast:

The perplexing series of alleged lies from George Santos, the Republican congressman-elect from Long Island under investigation by countystate and federal prosecutors, have continued to roll in this week—with each “embellishment” as shocking as the last.

Among the new claims under scrutiny in the last 24 hours: Santos’ high school education, his claim to be half-Black, a claim that his family’s Jewish last name was Zabrovsky, and that “9/11 claimed” his mother’s life after she’d “fled socialism” in Europe.

Basically everything he told voters is a lie. And…he will still be sworn into office.

HOW?

I think about trust all the time because trust in journalists — my career since university — is very very low.

This causes endless problems if voters believe a pathological liar like Santos — but not the reporters who uncovered those lies.

It’s a problem when people shriek “Fake news!” when they hear things they don’t want to, like COVID running rampant still.

It’s a problem when we keep sending our hard-earned tax dollars to governments that don’t do what they said they would, further eroding our trust in them, which, for Americans especially, seems subterranean at best.

From the moment a writer proposes a story, there’s a level of trust between them and their editor, whether they’re on staff or freelance. A staffer can be disciplined, suspended or fired for lying while a freelancer can lose access to a coveted market; The New York Times, for which I’ve written more than 100 stories, periodically sends every freelancer its long and detailed ethics code, and those who break it are out.

But there are legendary stories of lying reporters and their names are known to those of us in the industry, like Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, all of whom were — of course — much lauded for brining in powerful stories and every ambitious editor wants material like that. Until they turn out to be false.

Every time I ask a source to speak to me, they generally agree quickly and kindly, which, in itself is a sign if trust that I’ll behave professionally; my website makes clear I have a long and solid career in place as testament to that. Only once, and it was interesting, was I told “oh hell no!” when I tried to get sources, by an agency that helps teens on Riker’s Island accused of crimes. Only after pleading my case to them face to face did I win the interviews, which are in my first book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.” I’m proud of having won these stories, as they were untold and powerful and I’ve never forgotten them — and I’ve done thousands of interviews in my career.

That took trust.

We live in an era of easy, quick and profitable manipulation — of words, ideas, images. A few years ago the news agency Reuters invited a group of New York journalists (arguably pretty savvy) to listen to a powerful and frightening presentation about how easy it now is to alter images, whether video or still. It was deeply sobering to know how much energy is spent trying to sort out the garbage. My husband, Jose, is a photo editor for The New York Times, and it’s also his job — like every news editor now — to sniff out fake images. Staff photographers and longtime freelancers have earned their trust, Many photos arrive through a photo agency like the AP, Getty and and Reuters, to name three major ones — by the time they’re looked at for publication, they’ve been vetted by many editors who’ve already vetted their photographers.

Trust requires a long unbroken chain.

In 1997, as I think I’ve written here before, I became the victim — one of many! — of a skilled and determined con man who had duped many people in Chicago, done time and moved to New York where he picked up again. I won’t get into all the grim details, but it was a lesson for me, for anyone, in what behaviors inspire our trust and why.

He was physically attractive.

He dressed well.

He was very intelligent and engaging.

He was (of course!) initially charming — later creepy and threatening.

I fell quite ill the day before I was to fly from New York to Sydney Australia alone, hoping to research my first book — he brought me a pot of homemade soup.

How can one — when should one — mistrust kindness?

Read The Gift of Fear, a must-read book for every girl and woman — which includes charm and niceness as warning signs.

Are you wary by nature or experience?

My writing year in review

One of my best memories of 2022…Pete’s Tavern, one of NYC’s oldest. I sat at the bar and had a long conversation in French with a visiting historic costume designer. She bought my beer!

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m writing less now than I used to…in some ways, this is good because at higher pay rates I can afford to produce less.

These were three challenging and interesting assignments speaking to academic researchers on health policy for a grant-making foundation; the communications director and I have never spoken or met but she knows me and my work through Facebook. I loved speaking to such smart, passionate people. It’s a real privilege and their work can be somewhat complex to explain.

My favorite story of the year was my first ever for the Financial Times, a global business paper in London I read every day. The quality is amazing so it was a real thrill to sell a story to them, about women ironworkers in New York City. Here’s the link. The pay rate was half what The New York Times pays — barely $500. I had to drive an hour each way to Queens, spend an hour or so speaking to the women there, then do additional phone interviews, so it wasn’t lucrative. But it was a lot of fun and a real accomplishment to break into the FT, so I’m proud of that.

I had two unpleasant experiences with New York Times editors, which effectively shut off any chance of writing for those two sections. I hate any sort of professional conflict because you can’t make a freelance living without ongoing relationships! I also lost $3,000 from the shady crew at ZZDriggs, a furniture sales website, who had committed to $6,000 worth of blog posts from me in a year — and abruptly, and without any warning at all, dumped me in July and gave no explanation. My attempts to recoup that lost income from a CEO who lives in a multi-million-dollar brownstone (of course) were fruitless. Not cool.

Also my basic mistake of not having a much tougher and clearer contract. Beware of twinkly charm!

Jose and I spent a lot of time and energy producing a 20,000 word book proposal for fellow freelancers which, so far, has failed to find any publisher, much to our annoyance and frustration — OK, mine. There are still more than a dozen looking at it…

One win was getting my rating from Alliance Francaise after taking their written and oral tests — C1 (expert!) Only one category is higher. Those bloody subjunctives!

The work I most enjoy — and I really love it — is coaching other writers. I admit it, it’s money I make with the least friction or drama as clients seem to find me, mostly through Twitter. I don’t market myself heavily as such. My greatest weakness is my laziness when it comes to endlessly marketing myself to new clients and editors.

Usually when people come to me for coaching, they already have a defined need or problem they hope I can help them with. Sometimes it’s an essay they’re working on or a book proposal or a need to just brainstorm new markets for their work. I charge $250/hour (with a one hour minimum, paid in advance.) No one has asked for a refund!

My goals for 2023 are less about writing than reading and traveling more, working on my French and Spanish skills. I have a few potential clients lined up, but just won’t chase work hard at this point. I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19 and I’m pooped!

30 great holiday gifts — 2022 edition!

By Caitlin Kelly

The gift list returns!

As someone who’s been assembling this annual holiday gifts list for years, I love sharing it with you and seeing which items start to gain traction.

I get no income from this at all, just the fun and pleasure of curating it.

The list includes small indie makers, a few large companies and offerings from Europe and North America – from Scotland to San Francisco.

If you’re ordering from afar, order soon!

I’ve also chosen many less expensive suggestions this year, as inflation is biting us all so hard already. Only one is near four figures and most are $300 or less, several at $20-60.

I refuse to use Amazon since I loathe Bezos’ labor policies. So every choice is something to order, ideally, directly from that vendor.

I don’t offer specific options for tech, for kids or teenagers – sorry! – but choose items I think would delight anyone stylish, probably ages 16 to 90.

The list includes art, homewares, purses, scarves, winter wear, jewelry, slippers, books and more.

I hope you find some great choices!

And away we go…

I discovered this 16-year-old store, as I often find so many great ideas, in the weekend Financial Times. Roam around their stylish website for all sorts of lovely things. I really liked this small (four by six inches) print of a bird hovering over a rural landscape, easy to frame inexpensively as well. $48

Nothing nicer than a cozy knitted hat for winter, this one striped, made in Nepal. $20

An odd choice but possibly perfect for the right person – a lightweight, strong storage box, useful for kitchen utensils, art supplies, desk things, a kid’s bedroom?  It comes in orange, deep blue or gray. $65

This British website is brimming with lovely items, many for tabletop and entertaining. I love these two tiny owls. $36.70

It’s not easy to find lovely, unusual earrings at a good price, that use real jewels. I think these, brushed sterling with four tiny sapphires in each, are terrific value and very stylish. Sold by classic San Francisco retailer Gump’s. $275

Another pair of small stud earrings made by the same designer, in splurge-y diamonds and gold. If our book sells, I might do it! $990

Diamond Charm Tiny Stud Earrings

Also from Gump’s four elegant small canape plates $110

A gorgeous wool throw – in black, brown and white checks $165

I found this amazing designer, Rowena Dugdale, who lives and works in Wester Ross Scotland, on Twitter. For 14 years, she’s been making unusual and very beautiful small purses and change purses using digitally printed images of nature, and at extremely reasonable prices.

Small purse $27.50

https://www.redrubyrose.com/product/velvet-leaf-coin-purse-one-off-for-cloth20

Her silk kiss-lock purses are $84.50. Possibly perfect for your fussy teenager?

Hard to go wrong with a pair of suede and wool slippers – these, for women, come in black, tan and a gorgeous bright purple, from the Garnet Hill catalog (which has lots of other great choices!) from Uggs. $100

But oooooh lala, this cardi is so sexy and pretty and very high on my wish list! From cool-girl brand Sezane, whose Paris-inflected styles are utter catnip for me – feminine but not twee and whose prices seem fair to me. This sweater comes in 17 colors and I’d love about five of them! $120

https://www.sezane.com/us/product/gaspard-jumper/ecru-gold#size-XXS

Sort of Goth. Sort of High Victorian. Imagine it filled with bright orange flowers! Tall navy blue pitcher entwined in the coils of a coiled serpent, from the high-drama creator House of Hackney. From Anthropologie. $68

For him! This is one of my favorite indie retailers, Sid Mashburn, offering all sorts of classic but non-boring menswear. This burnished leather card case is stunning, the sort of thing you might bring home from Florence. In seven colors. $125

Also, for the guy in your life who loves cars – this coffee table book of stories and images of legendary cars and their owners. $45

I love an old-school badger brush and razor shaving set — this one is elegant and classic, from Caswell-Massey. $225.

Love this graphic black and white wool scarf, a nice choice for men or women (and non-binary folk!) From the fantastic gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of NY. $95

https://store.metmuseum.org/albers-tents-wool-scarf-80056183

Or this one, in black and gray wool, with cool Peruvian patterns. $95

https://store.metmuseum.org/peruvian-patterns-wool-blend-scarf-80054180

Check out these little gems – Tiffany favrile style round glass magnets $22

https://store.metmuseum.org/louis-c-tiffany-favrile-domed-magnets-80011828

This Kiddush cup is very beautiful, by the talented metalsmith Michael Aram $105

https://store.metmuseum.org/michael-aram-pomegranate-kiddush-cup-80055448

The classic cat mug! $22

https://store.metmuseum.org/the-favorite-cat-mug-80054844

These kitchen knives are gorgeous – deep blue handles. I bet a new homeowner/fresh grad would love them $159.95

https://www.crateandbarrel.com/cangshan-kita-blue-2-piece-starter-set/s216389

You can’t always get what you want…but how about this gorgeous coffee table book about the Rolling Stones? $80

On the grimmest, greyest winter’s day, a splash of deep purple is just the ticket! Cashmere scarf, unisex. Comes in 13 other colors! $170

I discovered this website, Inoui, and want everything on it! The name means “extraordinary” in French — and it really is. It’s quintessentially French, with fantastic color combinations and classical designs but a great sense of playfulness. There are leather handbags, laptop cases, throws, scarves and even super-stylish shopping totes. This 25-inch square silk square scarf comes in four stunning color combinations. $120

https://inoui-editions.com/en-us/product/square-65-turgot-green-ca16tur10

I love this pretty 8 by 12 inch china tea tray from uber-chic designer La Double J, and appreciate the stylish exuberance of everything she produces – roam around! Perfect for afternoon tea for two or an elegant breakfast in bed. $250

https://www.ladoublej.com/en/homeware/home-decor/trays/tea-for-two-tray-libellula-DIS0006CER001LIB0003.html

Salad servers in olive green, from my favorite cutlery company, Sabre, and one of my favorite Manhattan shops, Il Buco Home $65

An hour of my coaching, for you or any ambitious writer of journalism, content and non-fiction. $250

http://caitlinkelly.com/coaching

These fun winter neckwarmers from one of my favorite athleticwear companies, Title Nine. Six versions! $30

https://www.titlenine.com/p/handcrafted-womens-neckwarmer/711827.html

Baby (and adult) elephants! Back again – a former member of the holiday gift list. A long-established trust that allows people to sponsor the care of an orphaned elephant, or several. $50 and up

https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/orphans

How does one become creative?

In 1845, a young girl made this sampler…early creativity

By Caitlin Kelly

Back when I started this blog — 2009 (!) — one of my first and best-read posts was about the endless American fetish for “productivity” when creativity is really what drives most innovation, and certainly the arts.

As every blogger knows, blogging demands creativity! Ideas, some skill and the eternal optimism there might actually be an audience out there for us.

As readers here know, I only moved to the United States at the age of 30, so its cradle-to-grave obsession with work and being seen as obsessed with work — above all other pursuits (family, friends, health, a spiritual life, etc,) struck me, then as now, as weird. Yes, I know about the Puritan work ethic. But we’re not all wearing shoes with buckles or moving around by horseback and making our own soaps and clothing either…

In a country whose minimum wage pushes millions into poverty, millions will never find the time and energy and encouragement to savor creative pursuits, even for their own pleasure — cooking, knitting, crocheting, embroidery, woodworking, making music or visual art. American capitalism makes sure only the well-off have the leisure to do it without sacrifice — I still get a payment every year from Canada’s Public Lending Rights program, a sort of royalty system that pays authors for the library use of our books. It’s not a large amount, but is deeply meaningful to me, both because it democratizes access to our work and sends a powerful message to creators — you matter!

I don’t have children, but I do see the tremendous pressure American children face — to pass endless state tests, to do terrifying “active shooter drills”, to get into fancy and costly colleges.

None of which seem likely to foster creativity.

So I’m always in awe of creative people, some of whom manage to keep producing their work in the face of some serious odds.

Here’s a 9:07 video of actor Ethan Hawke talking about creativity; it’s gotten 5.2 million views.

“We’re educating kids out of creativity” says Sir Ken Robinson on this 2006 TED talk; it’s 19:12 minutes long and has received 74 million views, with lots of laughter and insight. “We need to radically rethink our idea of intelligence,” he says. Worth it!

Here’s one unlikely and interesting example of creativity — a book out May 16, 2023 from a San Antonio nephrologist whose Twitter threads on medicine were moving and powerful. Social media networks like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have fostered and spread all sorts of creativity, from high schoolers to seasoned professionals.

We recently visited friends who worked with my husband at The New York Times for decades, one a photographer renowned for his portraits and his wife, a photo editor. Her father was an architect and her mother a textile designer; his father and grandfather were bakers.

I grew up in a home filled with all sorts of art — Inuit prints and sculpture, 19th c Japanese prints, Mexican masks, a Picasso lithograph — and all three of my parents (father, mother, stepmother) worked in creative fields: journalism, TV and film-making. So it feels natural and felt inevitable I’d work in some creative capacity, as I’ve done since my teens when I sold three photos as magazine covers in Toronto while still in high school.

But creativity requires many things some people never have:

  • silence
  • solitude
  • uninterrupted time to think deeply
  • a physical space in which to paint, draw, print photos in a darkroom, weave, sew
  • access to needed tools and materials
  • the disposable income to buy needed tools and materials
  • a larger culture that admires and celebrates creativity, whether family, school, neighborhood, country
  • skill sufficient to make something you might want to keep or sell
  • time, energy and spare income to learn and perfect those skills
  • good health and mental focus
  • encouragement!

My favorite book on the subject is the 2003 book The Creative Habit by American choreographer Twyla Tharp.

She is ferocious! No awaiting the muse!

When, how and where does your creativity emerge?

Have you been encouraged along the way?

By whom?

Some very good news

By Caitlin Kelly

Last spring, Jose and I were chatting about doing a possible book, a sort of guide for fellow freelancers, as millions of people are now eager to try this way of living and working.

Over July and August we worked really hard and, writing it together, produced a full book proposal which we shared with a pal in Toronto who worked for years in book publishing and now teaches it. She liked it a lot but made some very specific suggestions to improve it.

We did that and started submitting it to agents, with a few rejections.

Then — yay! — we found an agent quickly, also in Toronto, my hometown I left decades ago. So we are now officially represented and very excited. She won’t be submitting it to editors until early November after we take a badly needed break, (Jose’s first for 2022), to Quebec and upstate NY.

Then, all digits will be crossed!

It’s a wild notion to be co-authors after 22 years together, and Jose is a photographer and photo editor and photo archivist — not a writer! But he writes very well and has been a good soldier with all my demands for revisions.

I haven’t sold a new book since September 2009, when I sold Malled, so am eager to rejoin the fray. The industry has changed a lot since then, and getting tougher, of course. There’s been a lot of consolidation so fewer places to submit to. Then the nasty fact of payments in 25% increments…the first payment (- 15% to the agent, standard every time) upon signing the deal; the second upon acceptance of the manuscript; the third upon publication — up to a year later then the final one (!) a year after that. Unless you get a huge advance, which few do, it’s not a way to make a lot of money!

But we know for sure there’s a global market for this subject and we’ve read some of the “comps” — comparable books, a must for every non-fiction book proposal. I won’t get specific yet, but ours has at least six very distinctive features that competing books just don’t offer.

Wish us luck!

My writing life, recently

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a long time since I’ve offered an update here on my writing life.

Most recently, I coached two writers in two days, very different personalities working on very different projects. I really enjoy coaching, but sometimes — rarely — I have to conclude I’m not the right person to coach a particular writer, whether our differing personalities, goals or the type of work they want to pursue. As an old-school hard news reporter, having worked for three major daily newspapers, I believe in original reporting, thoughtful interviews and smart, incisive work. Lighter stuff just isn’t really my jam.

When people hire me to coach them — at $250/hour — I’m very aware they’re entrusting me with their hopes for bigger and better sales or new markets. If I really feel I’m not a fit, as I recently did with one writer, I’ll say so and not take on the work. I’ve now helped more than 50 people worldwide; most find me organically through my social media profiles. It’s hardly a full-time income, but a very welcome piece of my annual revenue.

This past week I also began a four-part series with another writer, a first for me. I’m really excited by this new opportunity.

In my own writing, I’ve been doing profiles of grant recipients for a non-profit, of highly accomplished academic researchers working on complex and thorny issues. It’s challenging! I don’t get a byline (i.e. my name on it as the author), but I’m happy to have the work, as it’s well-paid and interesting.

I also recently applied for another job, writing about a local non-profit organization, and we spent a lively hour on Zoom getting to know one another. These initial meetings are uncompensated, as we both need to discover if there’s a good fit between our styles, deadlines and budget. Budget is often a sticking point, as inflation is making me ask for higher rates now. The meeting was terrific and we’re going to re-group in about a month.

I had another hour-long meeting, also by Zoom, also with two principals, about my ongoing work as a design blogger for ZZDriggs, which recently hired two specific experts — aka my new bosses! We had a great conversation and discussed a few ideas; re-grouping in a few weeks as well.

The truth of these meetings with strangers — they’re tiring, really an hour of selling myself to them, truthfully, as someone smart and fun and collegial and skilled and…whew! It’s also a two-way street as, even though I need to earn income, I’m now more cautious about who I work with, having had a few disappointing experiences where I had to walk away and lose the money I had budgeted for.

Jose and I have been working on an idea for a book about how to freelance successfully, as something we’ve done. I hope we can find an agent and publisher.

I’ll also be writing for a trade publication, also about design; I studied at the New York School of Interior Design in the mid-90s while still married to my first husband; a physician, he made a good income, which would have allowed me to start a new career at the bottom. But he bailed after two years of marriage, so I never went into the industry. I loved my training and it’s helping me now, years later, with expertise and authority — two things I can offer as someone deep into my career.

And someone referred me for a science-writing opportunity; I need to find out more to see if there’s a fit.

As a generalist, I really enjoy this odd mix of topics. It keeps me intellectually nimble, which is welcome in a time when so much journalism is tedious clickbait.

I’m doing less and less journalism, which is in some ways sad — but pay rates are abysmal, and contracts hideously restrictive — so there’s little pleasure to be found!

My last published story was February 10 in the Financial Times, which I’m super proud of. But a later pitch to another editor there, of course, was completely ignored. This is quite normal at larger outlets, where one editor has no say over another, so a referral onward internally can mean almost nothing. It’s extremely frustrating!

I found out, after long months of waiting, that I did not win a fellowship I applied for — nine others did. These things are horribly competitive, always. Having said that, I might try for another fellowship, one that offers more money and is less initially demanding (like insisting only people with guaranteed publication can compete.) That’s massively unfair to most freelancers.

I loved my month off, and came home completely refreshed and grateful to just not have to hustle, negotiate, produce or revise for those blessed weeks while Jose’s June freelance photo editing schedule was truly heinous — 15-hour days every day, plus the endless noise of renovations in our apartment hallway and in the apartment below.

There are days I think: “NO more work!” But I have an appetite for luxury, mostly travel, and the income still has to come from somewhere! I’m grateful so many people still want my skills and my point of view; I’m finding a new and much happier way to work when it’s not journalism, which remains a greedy and hierarchical model. My non-journalism clients really appreciate the skills I bring and even some of my ideas, a breath of fresh air when they’re internally stymied or new to the organization. Cooperation! Teamwork!

As I contemplate retirement I also have no hobbies! A friend suggested birding, which doesn’t feel like a fit.

For now, a slower schedule bringing in a decent-enough income is fine with me. It allows time off for travel and brings in the means to do it.

Why read a grim book?

By Caitlin Kelly

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

I’m expected to get through the whole thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Wikipedia:

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

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

What, then, is the appeal of such books?

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

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

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

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

Do you ever read books like this?

Which ones?

How have they left you?

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

A must-read book of 20th century history

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

No, not COVID, but AIDS.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Anthony Fauci was one of them.

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

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

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

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

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

Political infighting.

Denial.

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

Demonization of victims.

Demonization of the health-care workers caring for them.

Fear that caring for AIDS patients could kill someone.

Insufficient funding to help victims.

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

Writing personal history

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m no celebrity, obviously, but have been urged for a while to write a memoir.

I’ve always resisted because…really?

How would my life be of interest to strangers?

I’ve enjoyed it, for sure, and had some wild adventures — visiting 41 countries, a two-year marriage, winning some nice writing awards — but is that of larger appeal?

I’ve had a great career: three major newspaper jobs with some fantastic assignments (going to the Arctic, covering Queen Elizabeth), a European fellowship, two books, etc. — so maybe some of that would be interesting to other journalists.

My family, as readers here know, is not a Hallmark card. My late mother and I were estranged for the last decade of her life. I have three half-siblings, one of whom I’m estranged from, one of whom is a self-made millionaire and one I’ve never met and don’t want to.

So, does a any of this add up to a book an agent will rep and a publisher will buy?

To be determined.

Most books are 80,000 words.

So far, I’ve easily and quickly written 20,000 and, to my surprise, am really enjoying it. It’s a mix of personal and professional stories, ranging from my time in Toronto to that in Paris to moving to New York knowing no one and without a job.

I have diaries from my 20s I haven’t even looked at, and a journal from 1998 of my trip to Australia and New Zealand, so I have some material there to work from.

Thanks to Google, I’m constantly fact-checking — like the distance from Montreal to the Arctic, or where the tree line ends in Quebec (the 56th parallel.) I also found a glaring error in my aunt’s Wikipedia entry, so am fortunate my father is still alive and lucid at 93 to do some corrections there; my aunt and uncle, both Canadian but British residents, were very well known in Britain in the 1960s and 70s for their work in TV and radio.

Several people who follow me on social media are most intrigued by my estrangements — how and when they happened and how it has affected me; my recent New York Times story on this topic elicited a stunning 700 comments, so it clearly struck a nerve.

We’ll see if this ends up being commercially useful.

Memoir starts with “me” — but it has to make sense to thousands of strangers.

In the meantime, I’m banging out 1,000 to 1,500 words a day.

What, if anything, would you want to know about me?

Trust. It’s everything.

12/27/95–On Military Route “Arizona”- A sign warns of mines that were planted in a field during the Bosnian war. In a report published by the Bosnian and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, it stated, ” In Bosnia and Herzegovina there is still remaining more than 80,000 mines/ERWs. Mine problem is present in 129 municipalities/cities, or 1,398 affected communities/settlements.”photo, J.R. Lopez, New York Times.

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’ve been reading Broadside for a while — thank you! — you know I’m generally an openhearted person.

I like people and approach new situations, professional and personal, with a sense of optimism.

Working as a journalist means I have to quickly put strangers at ease and gather useful information from them. We have to establish trust fast — something of a contradiction.

Working as a journalist also means assuming most people are not lying to me, or want to do me harm in so doing, because a journalist who publishes lies is someone with a very short career. So we fact-check when possible and seek out sources whose background and credentials are as legit as we can find.

When it comes to personal relationships, trust is also paramount, at least for me.

My first marriage, to a physician, lasted barely two years; he bailed and remarried, quickly, a fellow therapist (!) he worked with and with whom he spent a lot of personal time. I was wholly reliant on him financially, so I had to trust him. I had little choice then.

Jose and I have spent time apart. I traveled alone for six weeks in Europe in June-July 2017, as blissful as I could be. I love solo time and traveling alone, exploring to my heart’s content.

I had an amusing evening in Berlin, sharing a table with three handsome young men (all co-workers), one of whom (as part of the conversation!) took off his dress shirt.

It was all good fun, nothing more.

Trust is the basic foundation of every interaction we have, from infancy to death:

— our parents

— our physicians

— our caregivers

— our teachers and professors

— our school/college administrators

— the police

— the courts

— our clergy and religious leaders

— our political leaders

— activists

— our relatives

— our romantic partners/spouses

— our employers

— youth group leaders

— our co-workers

— government agencies whose job it is to regulate/fine/shut down offenders

If you’re a person of color, or non-Christian, or gay, you have now become a target for hatred — with more and more deaths-by-vehicle, targeted by sociopaths or a pervasive police brutality that is deeply shocking, if no longer surprising.

You can’t even go out for a bike ride or a walk trusting in your personal safety.

And, as I’ve written here before, trust can be quickly shattered, and is difficult to regain….after dating a con man in 1998, being laughed at, literally, by my local police and D.A., my worldview would never be the same again.

My family relationships, too often toxic through anger and alcohol, taught me to be wary of intimacy.

Trust also underpins every freelance personal and professional relationship:

— our friends

— our colleagues

— our clients

— our agents

— our editors

— our social media networks

I spend a lot of time (too much!) on Twitter, where I have some 5600 followers, including some very senior people in my industry.

I’ve made several very good friends with people I still have yet to meet face to face, whether in Brazil or Tennessee.

So this past weekend, we did!

SO MUCH FUN!

A gay couple, one of whom works in our industry (journalism) and her partner, came up to our home and shared a long lunch that started at noon — and ended at 5:30.

We all took the chance of getting together and hoping we would be as we are on social media — fun, funny, playful, smart, interesting.

We were and we did.

I call these Twitter blind dates, not that we want a romantic thing, but we go into them really only knowing a tiny profile photo, a bunch of tweets and LinkedIn profile. Hoping for the best!

I’ve done this many times, never disappointed.

With a retail expert who lives in Virginia.

With a travel blogger and an archeologist (2 people) in Berlin.

With a pair of travel agent sisters in Zagreb.

With a fellow blogger, in London, https://smalldogsyndrome.com/.

We’ve been repeat house-guests a few times, and that also requires trust — that we’re quiet and thoughtful and don’t smoke or do drugs or will break or stain or ruin things. We bring food and drink and a gift and we always send a thank-you note.

We also trust our hosts to offer us a clean, soft bed. To let us have quiet alone time. To offer good food. To not (as one did to me?!) leave a filthy cat litter box beneath my pull-out bed.

I also once house-sat for a family of four headed to Tuscany from Vermont — unpaid. I was perfectly happy to walk their small affectionate dog. I was not at all happy to also get stuck watering their large garden in a heat wave and (!?) cleaning their pool.

That friendship died with this abuse of my time and energy. I trusted them to be fair with me, and they were not.

Do you trust easily?