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A question of trust

In aging, behavior, business, cars, Crime, culture, design, family, journalism, life, love on June 17, 2015 at 11:38 am

By Caitlin Kelly

trust-torn

We can’t survive without it.

I’m writing this from a friend’s home in Dublin, where we arrived last night from New York.

This week, five broken-hearted sets of Dublin parents will fly to California to collect the bodies of their young adult children, all of whom died when an apartment balcony they were standing on suddenly fell in Berkeley; all five of them were visiting on work visas. A sixth, who lived locally, also died, and seven other students were injured.

It is, of course, front-page news in today’s Irish Times.

I’m a nervous flyer. I love to travel and have been to 39 countries so far; this is my fifth visit to Ireland. But every time I step into an aircraft, I’m fighting anxiety, no matter how annoyed this makes me. When, which is inevitable, we hit turbulence, it’s a battle for me to stay calm — to trust the pillots’ skill and experience, the careful work of the mechanics who maintain aircraft and the plane itself, built to withstand much stronger forces than I’d like to experience.

I've lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings

I’ve lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings

It’s all based on trust.

Yet, every day, our trust — in authority, in material safety, in the food and drink we consume — is tested:

An enormous recall of Takata-made airbags, whose explosion have killed 3 people and injured 139

— The bridge crossing the Hudson River where I live is so old (now being re-built), it’s been called the “hold your breath” bridge for years

— Those recently killed on a Chinese ferry and the young students lost on a Korean ship

— The disappearance of MH 370 and the deliberate crash of Germanwings flight 9525 by a deranged young pilot who had, somehow, passed multiple medical tests

— Recalls of contaminated food and drink, like the Blue Bell ice cream that killed three people and put seven others into the hospital.

Everything we touch, every interaction, relies on our ability to trust one another to some degree:

That the elevator will ride smoothly and safely; that the meal we order won’t be prepared by contaminated hands; that our surgeon is sober, skilled and well-trained; that our mechanic isn’t lying when he tells us our vehicle needs extensive, expensive repairs.

Friendship relies on honesty and loyalty. So does a healthy marriage; if you can’t trust your own partner or spouse, who can you rely on? Which is why adultery is such a devastating blow — you choose your own family and it falls to pieces.

Teachers trust their students to do the work and not plagiarize or cheat. Students trust their teachers to be fair, smart, helpful and wise. Both of them have to trust in the authority of a system that more often privileges test scores or tuition fees over the needs of either group.

And yet we also bring a widely disparate set of hopes and expectations to the table. Some students lie. Some teachers are incompetent. Some surgeons gown up while drunk or high. Nurses can’t or won’t rat them out — risking patients’ lives. (As someone who’s had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, it’s an issue I’ve had to consider personally.)

Anyone looking for love, certainly when dating people they don’t know well through mutual friends or family, takes a risk.

I spent a few months in 1998 being wooed fervently by a charming, witty man I met through a personal ad. He kept proposing marriage to me — until the day he opened my mail, activated my credit card, forged signature and started using my cards — i.e. committing multiple felonies. When I confronted him, his three little words shifted from “I love you” to a chilling, well-practiced “It’s not provable.”

That certainly shifted my notions of who looks, sounds and is trustworthy. It also deeply shook my confidence in my own choices about what signals of trustworthiness are real and which are not.

The New York Times newsroom...without trust in its product, we would have no readers

The New York Times newsroom…without trust in its product, we would have no readers

As a career journalist, my entire reputation relies on my editors’ trust in me: to vet the sources I use for their veracity and authority, to meet my deadlines, to produce excellent work, to report accurately, to quote and attribute my sources properly.

When other writers screw up — and it happens a lot — all of us cringe and know we’ve lost even more of the public’s little trust in us.

The law is a blunt instrument when redressing broken trust — no amount of financial compensation will bring back a broken marriage, a dead child, a ruined career.

When, where and how much and in whom should we place our trust?

That’s the question I have yet to answer to my satisfaction.

You?

A landscape forever altered

In beauty, business, cities, design, nature, urban design, urban life on June 15, 2015 at 12:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A walk along the Palisades, on the western shore of the Hudson River

A walk along the Palisades, on the western shore of the Hudson River

I’ve lived — which stuns me — for 25 years on the same street, a steeply hilly winding road that has raccoons, deer, coyotes, raspberry bushes and still has a clear view, however unlikely, of the gleaming towers of Manhattan 25 miles due south.

When I moved here, the corporate headquarters for Hitachi on our street, a vast expanse of orchards and green lawns, was ringed by split-rail wooden fences. Those fences are gone now and I miss their rural charm.

Across the street from Hitachi, all this time, has been a thick, impenetrable woods, deep, dark, leafy and green, a lush and powerful natural sight and sound barrier dividing our quiet street from a busy four-lane highway running east-west a block away across our suburban county.

I’ve always marveled at how rustic and quiet it’s kept our street — it has never felt suburban to me because of this — and been grateful for that.

Gone.

Here are some images of the sudden changes that began this month. Changes that have now forever altered the bucolic character of our street. Now, in an unwelcome change, we can see not only the office buildings on the north side of that road, but clear through to the south side.

 

Before...

Before…

After...

After…

The world is intruding.

It’s inevitable. Undeveloped land often holds potential commercial value. Land offers developers profit and the town added tax revenues.

But landscapes unaltered retain their own beauty, silence, natural life and history.

Once they’ve been altered, they’re gone for good.

Here’s a cool way to guesstimate the age of a tree non-invasively — if you see me out there this summer hugging trees with a measure tape, you’ll know why!

I often wonder what our suburban New York landscape was like before the Europeans arrived — as it is, we still have New York State’s second-oldest church a mere 10 minutes north of our home.

Dating from 1685, the Old Dutch Church, Sleepy Hollow, NY

Dating from 1685, the Old Dutch Church, Sleepy Hollow, NY

Who remembers what lay there before?

And there I was recently, in a shiny, new-ish TD Bank in Elmsford, NY, one of the least lovely towns in Westchester, NY, a sadly industrial mish-mash of office complexes, car washes, big box grocery stores. You wouldn’t think, seeing it today, there would have been much very attractive to miss.

IMG_20150612_133844212_HDR

And there was a photo mural — here’s a poster they’ve printed and keep in a stack for us to take — of what was there before.

I found this deeply moving and so unusual. A multinational bank caring about what its local customers might have remembered of that landscape, of their town’s history?

I love this Japanese word — yugen – a profound mysterious sense of the beauty of the natural world.

I’m at an age now where too many places I’ve known and loved are gone for good.

In Manhattan, the extraordinary profits to be made in real estate have closed many well-loved spots. One of the most recent was a pharmacy, Avignone, on the southwest corner of Sixth and Bleecker, which was one of the city’s oldest.

The lovely Cafe Angelique, barely a decade old at the corner of Grove and Bleecker, closed this year when the landlord suddenly demanded a monthly rent of $45,000. You just can’t sell that much coffee or that many cupcakes.

Gone.

20131114134802Here’s Neil’s, on the same corner of Lexington and 70th for 50 years.

If you, like me, are a fan of the TV show Project Runway, you might mourn the loss of this midtown New York City Building.

From The New York Times:

It is only 53 years old, but the cornerstone of a doomed building in Manhattan’s garment district reads like an impossibly hopeful sentiment from a distant time, from a world that can never be recovered.

“Dedicated to the ideal that, through better human relations, understanding and good will among peoples, the supreme dignity and indissoluble brotherhood of man can be achieved.”

This was once Brotherhood House.

At the end, the six-story building at 560 Seventh Avenue, at 40th Street, was barely remembered by that name, or as a crucible of social advocacy in the 1960s.

But it was nationally known as the home of “Project Runway,” a television program in which aspiring fashion designers endure excruciating competition and withering critiques as they try to make their mark. In the series, the building played itself: the David M. Schwartz Fashion Education Center of the Parsons School of Design.

Now, it is vacant. The departure of the last tenant, the Garment Center Synagogue, has allowed asbestos abatement to begin. Demolition is to start this year, followed by the construction of a 29-story, 238-room Dream Hotel, opening in 2018.

In my hometown of Toronto, a beloved landmark, The Coffee Mill, closed this year after a 50-year run. I will miss their goulash and strudel, their cappuccino — and the memory of my childhood visits there when they first opened.

It’s one thing to mourn a lost restaurant or shop.

It’s another entirely when our natural landscape, as it is every day anyway, is forever changed — and possibly destroyed.

The Grand Canyon -- whose profound silence makes your ears ring

The Grand Canyon — whose profound silence makes your ears ring (photo: Caitlin Kelly)

I fear for one of my favorite places in the world, The Grand Canyon, threatened by major development. From The New York Times:

On the South Rim plateau, less than two miles from the park’s entrance, the gateway community of Tusayan, a town just a few blocks long, has approved plans to construct 2,200 homes and three million square feet of commercial space that will include shops and hotels, a spa and a dude ranch.

Among its many demands, the development requires water, and tapping new wells would deplete the aquifer that drives many of the springs deep inside the canyon — delicate oases with names like Elves Chasm and Mystic Spring. These pockets of life, tucked amid a searing expanse of bare rock, are among the park’s most exquisite gems…

Less than 25 miles to the northeast of Tusayan, Navajo leaders are working with developers from Scottsdale to construct a 1.4-mile tramway that would descend about 3,200 feet directly into the heart of the canyon. They call it Grand Canyon Escalade.

The cable system would take more than 4,000 visitors a day in eight-person gondolas to a spot on the floor of the canyon known as the Confluence, where the turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River merge with the emerald green current of the Colorado. The area, which is sacred to many in the Hopi and Zuni tribes, as well as Navajo people, would feature an elevated walkway, a restaurant and an amphitheater.

Maybe it’s the result of having spent my childhood summers at camp, canoeing through landscapes unchanged for centuries, possibly millennia — granite outcroppings, wind-whipped pines, dark, deep, cold lakes.

I am most moved, sometimes to tears, by places of timeless natural beauty: Corsica, Thailand, the Arizona and New Mexico desert, northern Ontario.

We’ll soon be renting a seaside cottage in one of the most rural parts of one of the most rural countries, Co. Donegal in Ireland. Can’t wait!

Here is one, of Ontario's Georgian Bay

Here is one, of Ontario’s Georgian Bay

I love the paintings by The Group of Seven, Canada’s equivalent of the Impressionists, whose images of our land, from the Arctic to the crimson trees of autumn, always make me homesick.

Do you have a landscape you’re deeply attached to?

Where and what is it?

Has it changed much?

The ability to tolerate discomfort

In aging, behavior, business, culture, domestic life, education, journalism, life, work on June 8, 2015 at 5:26 pm

From The New York Times:

“A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations,” Dr. Jones said. “They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”

…And so personal setbacks that might once have become “teachable moments” turn into triggers for a mental health diagnosis.

“Students are seeking treatment, saying, ‘I just got the first C in my life, my whole life just got shattered, I wanted to go to medical school and I can’t cope,’” said Micky M. Sharma, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors and head of Ohio State University’s counseling center.

I spent the past year teaching at a private college that charges $60,000 a year. It was an interesting experience to see how fragile and coddled some of these students were.

THAT was difficult

THAT was difficult

My husband and I are career journalists; his website is here; mine is here.

Maybe it’s the careers we chose — if you not debrouillard(e) — resourceful and resilient — you’ll hate the job and quickly leave the industry.

It’s likely the generation we grew up in.

Maybe it’s having survived three recessions in the past 20 years, times that forced many of us to shelve our dreams and say farewell to some others forever as our incomes dropped and good jobs disappeared.

I do know one thing.

If you are unable to tolerate discomfort, your life beyond college — no matter where you live, what you earn, what career you path you choose — you are going to be miserable.

So are your co-workers, bosses, husbands/wives/partners.

Life has sharp edges!

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When someone tells you that your work, or skills — social and/or professional — are weak or sub-standard or do not measure up, these are some of your choices:

— Disagree and ignore them

— Disagree but listen to their input for whatever lessons you can learn from it

— Acknowledge that their point of view is fair and listen to it carefully

— Cry

— Quit

— Never try that path of endeavor again

— Complain to a higher authority and push as hard as possible until they take your side

I have several friends who teach college ready to tear out their hair at the behaviors they see from students who refuse to take “no” for an answer when that “no” bumps up against their cherished self-image.

When life feels difficult and unfair and uncomfortable, here are some of your choices:

— Cry

— Yell at someone

— Run away

— Deal with it

— Use drugs or alcohol to numb your unpleasant feelings

— Talk to someone wiser and calmer, whether a friend, relative and/or therapist for their insights

– Change as much of the situation as possible

— Examine how and why your reaction to this challenge is making things even worse; as the Buddhist saying goes “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”

As readers of this blog know, I do not have children and never wanted to have children.

Drinks help!

Drinks help!

I do nurture and mentor about a dozen younger writers and photographers, one of whom just arrived in Australia for a two-month assignment there. Jose and I are happy to do it.

But they listen! They also have developed the requisite ego strength, even in their early 20s, to hear tough-if-loving feedback and use some of it without a shrug, hand-flap or quick dismissal of anything that challenges them.

I was still an undergraduate when I began selling my writing to national publications. At one of them, an editor was so harsh I’d end up in tears after a phone session with her.

But I learned a lot from her: how to write better, how to listen to criticism (even painful!), how to maintain a calm and professional demeanor. That growing (up) wasn’t going to be all puppies and rainbows.

Decades later, she’s still reading and admiring my work. That’s hard-won and well-valued in my world.

I wish every new graduate the best of luck as they move into the larger world of commuting, low-level drudgery, long hours, too-little money for too-much work.

More than anything, though, I wish them the resilience they most need — not just a shiny new degree or a stellar GPA — to thrive in the decades ahead.

Discomfort isn’t fatal.

Moving from staff to freelance? Ten crucial tips

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, life, Money, photography, US, work on May 30, 2015 at 1:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

Are you (yet) a member of “The Precariat”?

It’s also known as The Gig Economy.

From the Alternet:

I caught up with Gerald Friedman, who teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written about the gig economy, to find out how this trend happened and what it means to workers and our increasingly unequal society.

Lynn Parramore: How did the shift away from full-time employment to the gig economy come about? What forces drove the change?

Gerald Friedman: Growing use of contingent workers (in “gigs”) came when capitalists sought to respond to gains by labor through the early 1970s, and in response to the victories capital won in the rise of the neoliberal era. Because contingent workers were usually not covered by union contracts or other legal safeguards, employers hired them to regain leverage over workers lost when unionized workers gained protection against unjust dismissal, and courts extended these protections to non-union workers under the “implicit contract” doctrine.

Similarly, the rising cost of benefits due to rising healthcare costs and government protection of retirement benefits (under the 1974 ERISA statute) raised the cost of full-time employment; employers sought to evade these costs by hiring more contingent workers…

GF: Talk of “microentrepreneurs” presents a favorable view of the rise of the gig economy, one consistent with liberal values of individualism and opportunity, even while ignoring the oppression and poverty-wages many find in the gig economy.

There are certainly some who enjoy the uncertainty of irregular employment. When unemployment rates fell to levels traditionally associated with full employment in the late-1990s, however, we saw how workers really feel about gig jobs: they rejected them and the contingent economy contracted.

Given a choice, workers choose careers and jobs, not freelance gigs.

By removing any social protection, the gig economy returns us to the most oppressive type of cut-throat and hierarchical capitalism, a social order where the power to hire and fire has been restored to employers, giving them once again unfettered control over the workplace.

I recently participated in an hour-long discussion of this, with Friedman as the opening expert, on WNPR; I speak in the final seven minutes and this is a link to that broadcast.

Rue Cler, Paris, where I spent 2 weeks. Vacation, for a freelance, is whenever and wherever you like

We stayed a block from the Rue Cler, Paris,  in December 2014. Vacation, for a freelance, is whenever and wherever you can afford to go. Some people choose to live overseas and work from there.

The American workforce is now one in which an estimated 40 percent of us work with zero safety net, beyond that which we create: (six months’ basic expenses saved, a separate emergency fund, a low-interest line of credit, disability and life insurance.)

Knowing how to survive thrive without a steady paycheck is a crucial new skill.

My husband recently left a secure, well-paid job at The New York Times.

Madness? Perhaps.

But, after 31 years there as a photographer and photo editor, having done almost everything one can do in a career,  (including helping them win a team Pulitzer Prize for their 9/11 coverage), and offered a healthy buyout package — which gave us the requisite six months’ of expenses cushion of savings –– he decided to leave a month or so ago.

While he seeks another full-time staff job — which he may not find — he’s discovering how pleasant life can be without a 2-hour train commute, (costing $300 a month), fighting his way crosstown through aggressive crowds and having to book vacation in the first week of January due to seniority issues.

It can be a huge adjustment, no matter how desired, to move from the relative security of a salary that arrives on schedule and is predictable in size and due date to the roller coaster life of the self-employed.

Jose has seen me work freelance since 2005 and knows I know those ropes.

Now he’s learning them as well.

I liked this piece about moving to freelance work from The Guardian — and her realization that giving away your time without financial compensation, even barter, however friendly and helpful — is something no full-time freelancer can afford.

Here’s a comprehensive and helpful guide from the Freelancer’s Union.

And five tips from Time magazine about readying yourself for that leap.

You can catch a midweek matinee!

You can catch a midweek matinee!

A few of the lessons I’m teaching him:

Don’t rush to say yes to every offer

Just because the client is prestigious and/or your bank balance is running low this month, don’t just leap at any offer you get. Is the client a good fit for your skills, experience, temperament? Have you done your due diligence on that client’s track record of payment and ethical behavior?

Don’t say no to what looks like a lousy offer; consider its every possible benefit

The hourly or day rate might be lower than ideal. It might be a low-prestige gig that pays well, or quickly, or both. The gig might introduce you to a new market and possibly expand your skill set, in effect paying you (even if not very well) to learn on the job.

Never agree to a gig without a clear, written agreement as to the scope of work

One major non-profit recently advertised for a photo editor freelance job, with a long list of responsibilities — with no clue how many hours a day or days a week or weeks per month they were offering. They just kept asking “What’s your day rate?” Nope. Avoid low-balling yourself before you know what they expect in return.

We started one of our days dancing from 7 to 9:00 a.m. All the office folk headed out early. Not us!

We started one of our days dancing from 7 to 9:00 a.m. All the office folk headed out early. Not us!

Never agree to a gig without a clear, written, signed agreement/contract

Things go south: your editor quits or gets fired; the budget is suddenly cut; your client hires a new assistant who hates everything you produce. You need protection. Spell out all your responsibilities, all their needs and the dates when you will be paid. It must be signed by both parties.

Everything is negotiable — including your decision to turn down a gig or leave one mid-stream

No one, ever, wants to walk away from a (well) paying client. Sometimes, though, it can be a wise choice to politely recuse yourself from a quicksand scenario where one client is sucking up all your time, energy and patience. Life is too short. (See: emergency fund.)

Negotiate! When someone offers you X fee, always ask for more. It’s been statistically proven that men almost always do, and often get it, while women just say “Thanks!” and get taken cheaply.

Your best sources of work are referrals from people who know, like and respect you and your work

It’s completely counter-intuitive that the fellow professionals with whom you’re now competing for freelance work can be, in fact, your best sources of good opportunities. In an office setting, you can face politics, nepotism, favoritism, seniority, sexism. For every ally and work-wife/husband, you might face a Game of Thrones-ish power struggle with someone.

Freelance life can offer plenty of stress, but if you have a strong, sturdy network of skilled, smart and ethical people who you help as often as possible! — you’ll never starve.

On assignment in rural Nicaragua...Gin up some paid adventures!

On assignment in rural Nicaragua…Gin up some paid adventures!

A ferocious work ethic — even if you wake up at noon and work in sweatpants — matters more than ever now

No missed deadlines! No slacking off!

You are selling your time, skills and experience. Never underestimate their value

Every freelance dollar you earn must now 100 percent fund your healthcare, retirement, sick days and paid vacations. You’re also on the hook for paying the full 15 percent of your income to fund Social Security, (employers usually pay 50 percent.) Boost your rates accordingly.

Stop...enjoy life's beauty. Put a fresh flower on your desk

Stop…enjoy life’s beauty. Put a fresh flower on your desk

You must take breaks, both in  your workday and your year

Without exercise, friends, face to face meetings and pleasure, you’ll quickly burn out. It’s isolating and lonely to work alone every day all day. It’s also tempting to work far too many hours instead of shutting off all electronics and access to email at a set hour so you can enjoy a full life, not just a new form of wage slavery.

Follow my friend Wendy’s three rules whenever possible as you choose (or refuse) a job:

Is it fun? Will I learn something new? Is it well-paid?

It should hit two of three.

Have you moved from a staff job to freelance life?

How’s it going?

What else would you advise a newbie to this way of working?

It all began with…

In aging, behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, Media, work on May 27, 2015 at 12:01 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Some of you want to become journalists or non-fiction authors.

Some of you have just graduated from college or university, wondering when your career will begin.

It will.

I recently found a piece of my early career that I’m so glad I still have, as so many of my other clips have been thrown away by accident or deliberately as I’ve moved around.

Today, with everything available on-line, it’s hard to recall a time when print was it and paper clips — (pun intended!) — were crucial to getting more work, carried around physically in a large, heavy portfolio case.

Here it is.

A story about testing cosmetics and other products on animals. Very tough stuff!

A story about testing cosmetics and other products on animals. Very tough stuff!

The reason this clip matters so much to me?

I was three years out of university, with no journalism training, but ferociously ambitious and already writing for national magazines before I graduated.

Without editors willing to take a chance on a writer in her early 20s, I’d never have gotten started, or so young. That trust meant everything!

I was lucky on a few counts:

I already lived in Toronto, Canada’s media capital; there were then many such magazines, several of them well-respected weekly supplements to newspapers, and they paid well; editors were willing to give me assignments, and more assignments.

And I had the cojones to walk into those glossy offices and make my pitches, sometimes even overcoming their doubts.

I wrote about the (then!) new fashion of wearing running shoes as casual wear, and the warring German brothers Adi Dassler (Adidas) and his brother, Rudolf, who founded Pumas. I also learned to pronounce the name of their town, and never forgot it — Herzogenaurach.

I got to watch a lady parachutist, hoping like hell not to fall out of the open aircraft door myself.

I got sent to Flint, Michigan to watch teen girls play a form of hockey called ringette.

More than anything, I was paid to learn my craft from some of the best, people old enough to have been my parents or professors.

The testing story came to me via a local activist, a woman I still run into when I go back to Toronto and visit the flea market, where she sells terrific jewelry. She was then a passionate advocate for animal rights and told me about the testing, some of which I saw done on cats in a downtown hospital.

It was pretty soul-searing.

But it also set the tone for much of the work I would later tackle as a journalist, whether visiting a cancer hospice in Quebec or writing a book, decades later, about women and guns.

I wanted serious intellectual and emotional challenge from my work and I still do.

This story appeared in March 1982 — the year my career took off after I won, in June 1982, an eight-month fellowship in Paris. I would spend Sept. 1982 to June 1983 in a group of 28 journalists from 19 nations, including Togo, Japan, Brazil, Ireland, New Zealand, Italy and, of course, the U.S. and Canada, with eight of us from North America.

The year was astounding. We traveled as a group to Germany and Italy. We also took off on solo ten-day reporting trips. I went to Copenhagen to write about the Royal Danish Ballet; to Comiso, Sicily to write about Cruise missiles, (speaking not a word of Italian!); to London and Amsterdam to write about squatters and an eight-day trip from Perpignan to Istanbul with a French truck-driver who spoke not a word of English.

I’m still friends with several of these fellow journalists, looking forward soon to seeing my Irish friend and meeting her two daughters, one of whom is now also a serious and ambitious journalist.

When I came back to Toronto, with the glittering dust of a recent fellowship gilding my resume, I got my first staff job at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. I had never written to a daily deadline in my life.

I stayed there 2.5 years then went to the Montreal Gazette, to work in French and enjoy Montreal. There I met my first husband, an American medical student finishing up at McGill, and followed him to New Hampshire, then to New York, where I’ve stayed ever since.

I hope to retire within the next few years and for now would like to focus all my energy, ideally, on writing non-fiction books, long-form stories and teaching. I love telling stories but also want to travel longer and further away than a deadline-driven life allows.

Journalism is an industry in a state of upheaval — usually politely termed disruption — and I’m grateful beyond words, (ironic for a writer!), that I was able to find staff work at three major dailies (my last staff job was at the NY Daily News, then the sixth-largest in the U.S.) along the way.

If there’s a more fun way to see the world and learn about it and tell others about it — and talk to everyone from Admirals and Prime Ministers to convicted felons and Olympic athletes — I’ve yet to discover it.

This long-defunct national Canadian magazine nurtured some of the nation's best writers, thanks to brave editor, the late Jane Gale Hughes

This long-defunct national Canadian magazine nurtured some of the nation’s best writers, thanks to brave editor, the late Jane Gale Hughes

What are your skills really worth?

In behavior, business, culture, food, life, news, work on May 7, 2015 at 12:04 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

In a time when American CEOs now, unapologetically, take home 354 times the wage of their average worker, what we earn is finally becoming a larger part of the national conversation.

From this week’s New York Times, an op-ed by New York governor Andrew Cuomo:

President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the minimum wage a national law in 1938. Years earlier, he said, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.” But minimum wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living.

Nowhere is the income gap more extreme and obnoxious than in the fast-food industry. Fast-food C.E.O.s are among the highest-paid corporate executives. The average fast-food C.E.O. made $23.8 million in 2013, more than quadruple the average from 2000 (adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile, entry-level food-service workers in New York State earn, on average, $16,920 per year, which at a 40-hour week amounts to $8.50 an hour. Nationally, wages for fast-food workers have increased 0.3 percent since 2000 (again, adjusting for inflation).

Many assume that fast-food workers are mostly teenagers who want to earn extra spending money. On the contrary, 73 percent are women, 70 percent are over the age of 20, and more than two-thirds are raising a child and are the primary wage earners in their family.

I spent 2.5 years — part-time, one shift a week except for holidays — as a retail sales associate for The North Face, selling $600 ski jackets to hedge fund managers from Greenwich, CT headed out to Aspen for their vacation. I made, from 2007 to 2009, $11/hour, a wage some in the U.S. — whose federal minimum is still a paltry $7.25/hour — consider munificent.

I did it because I needed a steady income, even a small one, in the depths of the Great Recession. It was, to say the least, eye-opening, to work for low wages and see how little they bought.

I wrote my last book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, about this life, including many interviews with other such workers across the U.S.

malled cover HIGH

Many customer-facing jobs, often in retail, food service and hospitality, are deemed “low skill.”

Which — as anyone who’s done one of them — knows is utter bullshit.

Some of the many skills you need to do this work include:

— patience

— excellent listener

— empathy for/with your customer and their needs

— the ability to quickly pick up, retain and use information

calm under pressure

— multi-tasking gracefully and competently

— physical stamina

— emotional stamina

— how to initiate and close a sale

Have you heard the phrase “emotional labor”?

It’s the expectation of customers and management that, even if your feet are swollen and painful from eight hours standing/running/walking without a break, even if you feel ill or nauseated or had to re-open the store barely hours after you closed it (and cleaned the toilets) — you’re happy. Smiling. Perky.

Riiiiiiiight.

One of the least amusing aspects of working through the holiday season, when wealthy shoppers in our affluent suburban New York mall entered the store already laden with pontoons of loaded shopping bags, was being told to be nice(r.)

All the time.

This, as you face long lines of shoppers who, by the time you can help them — (stores cut labor costs by under-staffing, even during busy periods), are pissed off and taking it out on you — not the staffing/scheduling software your company paid millions for.

That’s emotional labor.

Malled's Chinese version

Malled’s Chinese version

There’s a current trend in the U.S. — where labor union participation remains at an all-time low despite record corporate profits and stagnant wages — called Fight for 15.

The movement wants a wage of $15/hour for low-wage work; a day or week’s wages for workers in places like India, China, Nicaragua — where they make most of the clothes we sell and wear.

But it’s still very little income if you live in a large American city.

I’m forever fascinated by what people are paid and how they — and others — value their skills. Most of us have to work to earn a living, and many of us will do so for decades. Most of our lives will be spent earning an income for the skills we have acquired.

Time is money!

Time is money!

As a fulltime freelancer, knowing how to negotiate is one of my top skills.

It’s also a skill many women fail to acquire or practice — women offered a salary far too often say “Thanks!”, grab it and begin.

Men, statistically, have been shown to negotiate for more. They also get it.

You don’t ask — you don’t get.

One of my favorite books on this issue is called Women Don’t Ask, and I highly recommend it.

I grew up in a family of freelancers and have also spent much of my journalism career without a paycheck.

I know that negotiating is every bit as essential to my income as knowing how to write well and meet a deadline.

One example: a major magazine assigns me a story, the fee $2,400. The “kill fee”, i.e. if the story cannot be used, was $600 — a loss of three-quarters of my income. Nope, I said. They raised it to $1,000. The story, for reasons completely beyond my control, couldn’t be used; they offered me more than the agreed-upon fee.

But what if I hadn’t asked for more in the first place?

I also network, every single day, with other writers at my level; only by sharing information, candidly, can we know what people are actually paying — and not just jump at the first lowball offer.

You also need to be extremely honest with yourself and know what the current marketplace most values in your industry; if your skills are weak or out-of-date, you’re not going to be able to effectively compete and negotiate for more.

It’s scary to operate without a safety net, the security of a paycheck and paid sick days. But I thrive on the freedom to set my own hours, to work when and where and for whom and for how long I deem necessary. I set my own hourly rate — $225/hour with a one-hour minimum for coaching and consulting — and work only with clients I know will help me meet my goals, both intellectual and financial.

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It’s a sadly American mindset, in a nation addicted to freedom and liberty, to see how dismissively many workers are treated and how little they’re paid.

And how many put up with it.

The tribe meets…

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, work on May 4, 2015 at 3:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

1. A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. 

Whether you write poetry, fiction, journalism — or unanswered emails — writers’ conferences are the place where the tribe finally meets.

In the past few weeks alone, there’s been AWP, the AHJC, The Washington Independent Review of Books and ASJA.

You might be a high school student trying to choose a college writing program, or her mother, seeking advice after decades of experience, like the Texas woman I mentored.

You might be a Toronto tech writer teaching us all how to use Twitter by tweeting with a few astronauts in the International Space Station.

You might be a legendary biographer telling us how gender affects your choices.

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

We meet to compare scars — rejected manuscripts, lousy agents, silent editors, killed stories, the-fellowship-we-didn’t-win (again!).

We meet to celebrate triumphs — the fellowship finally won, the grant, the residency, the award(s), the teaching position(s.)

We meet to fiercely hug people we’ve only spoken to, for months, maybe years, by email or Skype or in writers’ online groups.

We meet to learn how to (better) use social media, how to conduct research more effectively, how to sell to trade magazines, how to avoid being sued and having to sue a deadbeat publisher.

We meet to hear how to win a fellowship that, as one dear friend said so well, will pay us more to not write a word for a year than a year’s hard work writing.

We — professional observers — get to see who arrives wearing cowboy boots or a very large hat or a silk floral dress.

We — paid to listen carefully for our living — hear who offers a loud monologue to a polite-but-bored fellow writer.

Like every ambitious professional — whether 10 minutes into their career or decades — we’re all eager to learn new skills and polish the ones we have. We want to hear what the latest technology tools can do to help us work better/faster/more efficiently.

My first book

My first book

It is a very small world, and one where an incautious word chattered in a hallway, or over lunch or in the ladies’ room, or tweeted in haste, can haunt you years later.

A powerful player who shared my lunch table in Bethesda a week earlier — where I spoke on a panel at the Washington Independent Review of Books meeting — passes me in the Manhattan hotel hallway a week later at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which just ended and which I also attended.

A writer who moderated a panel in Maryland now sits as an audience member in Manhattan.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

The rooms are perfumed with that writer-specific blend of insecurity/ambition/ego/nerves/excitement/hope/dread/fear…

We’re bound to — as I did — run into the woman whose fellowship I have applied to three times (so far) but never won.

We’re bound to run into the younger writer we taught or mentored whose career has sky-rocketed while our has not — offering them, our brightest smile tightly fixed, our congratulations.

We’re bound to run into a colleague we love and admire who finally, deservedly, got a fantastic fellowship — and the one we’ve loathed for years now crowing over her six-figure advance and/or annual income.

Like other creative fields — acting, art, film, dance — there is no level playing field. Even if we never publicly acknowledge it, we all know it; talent does not guarantee financial success. Hard work may never produce the results — prestige, respect, national attention — some of us so crave.

photo(45)

People you love personally may flail for years creatively while people you find socially vile thrive and chest-beat via social media to remind us all how amazing they are.

All the academic credentials — the costly BA, MFA, even (maybe especially), the Phd — can’t protect a writer from a book that just doesn’t find a publisher or fails to net glowing blurbs or reviews from the right people.

The tribe knows that.

You can, always, hide deep within its folds.

The having (or not) of faith

In aging, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, design, education, life, religion, work on April 19, 2015 at 12:35 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action -- that collective community response still matters

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action — that collective community response still matters

I married a PK, a preacher’s kid.

Jose’s father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His parish numbered about 30 — with a church large enough to hold 200. He faced many empty pews, yet kept on going.

His mother was a kindergarten teacher.

She was, he says, the epitome of faith.

Money was often tight and Jose, the sensitive, often worried baby of the family, sometimes wondered if everything would be OK.

“Have faith,” his mother told him.

We tend to talk about faith in narrow religious terms, as faith in a deity or a set of guidelines.

I’m interested, here, in the faith we place in ourselves, in one another and in the world around us.

Without it, without even a shred of it, we’re paralyzed. Too scared to move.

I started selling my creative work to strangers when I was 12. I sat on a Toronto street corner and sold bead necklaces. At 15, I sold my home-made stationery and at 18, my photos — and was gratefully stunned when one of the city’s top fashion photographers bought one.

Maybe that flickering flame of faith in myself, in my nascent skills, in my ability to connect with others who found value in my work danced a little higher then.

Yes, this machine will work. If we feared it wouldn't, then what?

Yes, this machine will work. If we feared it wouldn’t, then what?

Without faith in ourselves we’re lost.

Without faith in our parents — to guide, teach, protect us — we feel un-moored and unsafe.

Without faith in our intelligence and stamina, we can’t accept that learning can be exhausting and difficult.

Without faith in our elected and appointed officials, we can’t function — imagine the rage and distrust so many African-Americans are feeling in the face of the five unarmed black men recently shot in the United States by police.

It takes tremendous faith to forge ahead in the face of despair, illness, fear and anxiety.

To wake up with pennies in your pocket and to find the faith that, somehow, things are going to get better.

To face a diagnosis that terrifies you, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

To inhabit a home that once welcomed  your husband or wife, now fled to the arms of someone else, wondering if anyone, anywhere, will ever love you again.

I think faith is forged in the fire of fear.

Phoenix-like, we have to rise from the smoking embers of what-we-thought-would-happen, while we figure out what happens next instead.

Without some solid skills we know we can trust, without friends and family who know and believe in the best of us, without some notion it will all be OK, we’re toast.

Having survived some horrendous episodes in my own past — a mentally-ill parent, family alcoholism, divorce, job loss, criminal attack — I know I’ll make it through. Somehow.

Faith + I’ll-get-through-this-somehow = resilience.

The past few weeks, for a variety of reasons, have demanded I stolidly move forward, in spite of sometimes paralyzing doubt in a few outcomes. Without the faith I’ll survive them, emotionally and physically, I’d consider staying in bed in the fetal position.

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Instead, I went out this weekend to play softball with my co-ed pickup team, a posse of people, some 50 years apart in age, that I’ve known, loved and shared post-game, beneath-the-trees lunches with for a decade.

I stepped up to the plate, picked up the bat, wondered, in my first game of the season what would happen next — and hit a single.

Do you have faith in yourself?

In others?

The writer’s life — MIA sources, LOIs, the quest for ideas

In behavior, business, culture, journalism, Media, news, US, work on April 7, 2015 at 12:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

As some of you know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with work published many times in The New York Times, in Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, and on-line for Quartz, Rewireme.com, Investopedia and many others.

Samples of my work are here, if you’re interested. I’m always looking for new clients!

The first quarter of 2015 has been seriously weird.

While in England in early January, I reported two fun stories for Our Minutes, a website devoted to watches. I also went out to High Wycombe, a suburban town 45 minutes from London, to report on a well-established social service organization, one that their major funder considered extremely innovative. I spent a full day there and interviewed six people, plenty of data for an 1,800 word story.

This was to have been my first piece for a major international magazine. A big deal. A chance to impress a new client.

The editor, as is typical, had a few questions after reading my story, which I sent along to my sources. They failed to answer two of them — so I persisted.

Silence.

Multiple emails and phone calls went un-returned. This was a bizarre first for me in 30 years of journalism.

I finally emailed their funder, reluctant to embarrass the group, but stymied.

They had shut down.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

That would have been difficult and unlikely enough, had a similar thing not happened a month earlier with a different story, a long (3,500 word) feature for a major American women’s magazine. I’d spent weeks on it, eight hours alone with the profile’s subject, a woman with a long and impressive track record in her field. I’d spent more hours interviewing a dozen of her family, friends and colleagues.

The editor liked my first draft and we were set to start on revisions when I saw a story about the woman in The New York Times — being investigated by the mayor for an ethical breach.

Boom! That story?

Dead — in magazine parlance, literally, killed.

I was, as is only fair, paid in full for my work; I can’t control the ethics or behaviors of the people I cover. I choose people and groups with a proven track record. I’m neither naive nor gullible.

But this? Two stories exploding in two months, both before (thank heaven!) publication?

Now I wonder how much tougher I’ll need to be with every single person, company and organization I think is worth covering.

I interviewed 104 people for this book -- all original interviews. Yes, they're real people!

I interviewed 104 people for this book — all original interviews. Yes, they’re real people!

For someone who — like Scheherezade — stays alive only by telling story after story — this is a daunting prospect.

I’m not sure what’s happening these days, but wrangling sources — i.e. finding real people to talk to me and be quoted and/or photographed for a story — is getting tougher. Even those who agree tend to disappear on deadline. Failure is not an option! Without sources, I have nothing to write, sell and get paid for.

People who fantasize about freelance writing full-time picture a life of ease — up at the crack of noon, Auntie Mame-style, noodle about, make some calls, write something the editor loves, prints and promptly pays for.

Riiiiiiight…

20131111171501

I enjoy what I do, but it is, always, a hustle: for new clients, for more work from existing clients, finding interesting stories to tell, finding sources willing to speak on the record.

The Times, for years an anchor client of mine, recently severely slashed its freelance budgets, cutting loose several people with columns that had run there for years.

So I’ve been sending out LOIs — letters of introduction — letting editors who don’t know me or my work know that I’d love to work for them.

The problem?

Pay rates can be laughably low for even the most august and putatively well-off, so when they write back, (if they do), you discover, for example, that Harvard’s alumni magazine offers — wait for it! — 50 cents a word.

That’s $500 for 1,000 words, a story that would pay $2,500 from a Conde Nast publication, possibly even more.

Harvard’s current endowment? $36.4 billion — as of June 2014.

You have to laugh, really.

Then move on.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

One of the interesting challenges of writing journalism is that of playing man-in-the-middle — finding and wrangling good sources while also pleasing your editor(s.) Writing skills matter, of course, but terrific people skills, the willingness and ability to negotiate diplomatically for everything from contract terms to whether someone is on or off the record, are also paramount.

When these two stories headed for the delete pile, I kept my editors in the loop every step of the way to let them know this might happen.

Personally, I was deeply embarrassed, worried, stupefied by my hard work simply going to waste through no fault of my own. But I couldn’t just focus only on my many feelings — these editors have magazines to fill, deadlines to meet and demanding bosses of their own to please.

When you work alone at home, year after year, often never even meeting your clients face to face, it’s too easy to forget that you’re part of a team, only one link in the editorial supply chain.

Writing journalism means remembering that you’re one domino in a long line — and if one falls, others will as well.

If you’ve been following the Rolling Stone debacle (?)…

It all begins with trust:

— trust that your sources are being truthful

— that they (if you’re interviewing by email) are in fact the people you think they are

— that you, the writer, have done your due diligence and aren’t handing over a pack of lies to your unwitting editor.

It’s a big responsibility and one I never take lightly. At lunch a few years ago with a fellow veteran, we discussed the very few times we had made an error in our work — and how physically ill it made us feel. If you’re not a perfectionist, this isn’t the job for you.

Here’s a recent popular post I wrote about this life.

After 31 years, life begins outside the NYT newsroom…

In aging, behavior, business, journalism, life, photography, work on March 31, 2015 at 2:53 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Michele McNally, director of photography for The New York Times, pays tribute to Jose as colleagues gather round

Michele McNally, director of photography for The New York Times, pays tribute to Jose as colleagues gather round

My husband, Jose Lopez, has had a career few can match — eight years in the White House press corps, photographing Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He’s flown on Air Force One and been in the Oval Office.

He covered the end of the Bosnian war, sleeping in an unheated shipping container, unable to shower for six weeks, his Christmas “dinner” a packet of chicken soup.

Our amazing local bakery, Riverside Bakehouse in Ardsley, NY, made this great cake -- on 2 days' notice. I wrote the headlines (Arthur is the publisher; Zvi a colleague)

Our amazing local bakery, Riviera Bakehouse in Ardsley, NY, made this great cake — on 2 days’ notice. I wrote the headlines (Arthur is the publisher; Zvi a colleague)

He traveled to Rekjavik to cover a summit with Gorbachev.

For a decade, he also chose and mentored young photographers through The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, creating a new generation of talent — some of whom now work at the Times.

His goodbye cake was enjoyed by all

His goodbye cake was enjoyed by all

His own blog, Frame 36A, is here.

And here is his story on the Times’ Lens blog.

He covered two Olympics and five Superbowls and then worked for 15 years as a photo editor in sports, Foreign/National, real estate, business and — lastly — as photo editor of the NYT Now app, working with men and women half his age.

He leaves the newsroom today — 31 years after arriving from his first few newspaper jobs in Texas and Colorado, a cocky young guy with a thick head of hair.

The great "Grey Lady" has some fun staffers! Cornelius, a fellow NYT Now app colleague...

The great “Grey Lady” has some fun staffers! Cornelius, a fellow NYT Now app colleague…

Gulp!

It was a very difficult decision for him to leave — he loves his work and his colleagues — and one we did not make lightly; great journalism jobs within great organizations have become unicorns.

But this buyout offer was munificent, and he still has excellent skills and boatloads of energy he’s bringing to his job search.

It was an emotional afternoon and evening as staff and freelance photographers, editors and reporters lined up to hug him fiercely and to wish him well. I was so touched, although not at all surprised — having written freelance for the paper for decades and knowing many of these people as well — to see how well-loved and deeply respected he is.

There were staffers barely out of college and retirees who came back to the newsroom — and a nearby bar after work — to congratulate him.

I love this tradition! Every time a NYT staffer leaves, they mock up a fake NYT front page with funny/loving headlines, stories and photos...here are pix of Jose from 1984 onwards, the year he arrived

I love this tradition! Every time a NYT staffer leaves, they mock up a fake NYT front page with funny/loving headlines, stories and photos…here are pix of Jose from 1984 onwards, the year he arrived

Jose blends the unusual and terrific mix of tough-as-nails under pressure and diplomatic, gentle manners. (Very Timesian!)

More essential to a job search in 2015 — he combines the gravitas and deep wisdom of a career news photojournalist with the most up-to-date digital skills he used selecting images for the NYTNow app.

On to the next adventure!

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