A cautionary tale about border crossing

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By Caitlin Kelly

Horrifying story about Customs and Border Patrol from The Intercept:

In retrospect, I was naive about the kind of agency CBP has become in the Trump era. Though I’ve reported several magazine stories in Mexico, none have been about immigration. Of course, I knew these were the guys putting kids in cages, separating refugee children from their parents, and that Trump’s whole shtick is vilifying immigrants, leading to many sad and ugly scenes at the border, including the farcical deployment of U.S. troops. But I complacently assumed that wouldn’t affect me directly, least of all in Austin. Later, I did remember reading a report in February about CBP targeting journalists, activists, and lawyers for scrutiny at ports of entry south of California, but I had never had a problem before, not in a lifetime of crossing the Texas-Mexico border scores of times on foot, by car, by plane, in a canoe, even swimming. This was the first time CBP had ever pulled me aside….

Cooperation didn’t earn me any leniency. Next up was a thorough search of my suitcase, down to unscrewing the tops of my toiletries. That much I expected. But then a third officer, whose name was Villarreal, carefully read every page of my 2019 journal, including copious notes to self on work, relationships, friends, family, and all sorts of private reflections I had happened to write down. I told him, “Sir, I know there’s nothing I can do to stop you, but I want to tell you, as one human being to another, that you’re invading my privacy right now, and I don’t appreciate it.” Villarreal acknowledged the statement and went back to reading.

That was just the beginning. The real abuse of power was a warrantless search of my phone and laptop. This is the part that affects everyone, not just reporters and people who keep journals…

Around the three-hour mark, I became completely passive. Confinement in a blank room is a soft form of torture, especially if you suffer from a crippling caffeine addiction, as I do. They were “fresh out” when I demeaned myself by meekly requesting coffee. For a long time, I sat slumped in the chair with a mounting headache while Moncivias finished typing up his report on me. He would pause, carefully consult something on my phone, and then go back to typing. This went on for another hour.

It was around 4 p.m. when Moncivias finally finished up and informed me, anticlimactically, that I was free to go. I couldn’t wait to get outside because the detention area was freezing. No wonder Spanish-speaking migrants call CBP detention la hielera — the icebox. I took my phone and laptop and silently packed up my luggage, which still lay disemboweled on the desk, underwear and all. Pomeroy was gone by this time. As I was walking out, I said to Moncivias and Villarreal, “It’s funny, of all the countries I’ve been to, the border guards have never treated me worse than here, in the one country I’m a citizen of, in the town where I was born.”

“Welcome back to the USA,” Moncivias said.

 

If you care about press freedom — hell, any civil rights — make time to read all of Seth Harp’s story.

It is chilling.

Taking a breather

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By Caitlin Kelly

People fantasize about freelance life — no boss! no meetings! no cubicle! no commute!

All true.

Also — no steady income! no security! no workday!

One great pleasure, though, is disappearing when we can find the time and money to do so.

So we’re off to Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, my first visit there in 20 years, right after we met.

We’ll visit childhood friends, hike, get a massage at 10,000 Waves, play golf.

Relax.

Jose just finished photo editing for the U.S. Open, held in Pebble Beach, California — sitting in the hallway of our one-bedroom New York apartment. His workday stretched from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. for a solid week. I don’t know where he gets the stamina!

I’ve spent the past week pitching a lot of stories, all of them to new-to-me markets, and now await (I hope) a few assignments to come back to.

In American life, workers feel lucky to even get two weeks’ paid vacation, while Europeans are accustomed to five. Working freelance, we generally take five or six weeks, although three-at-once is the most we can do because of Jose’s work.

So ready to recharge!

No laughing matter

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Want to write for one of these? Good luck, kids!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Hey, what’s more fun than punching down?

Apparently, nothing, thanks to the appalling lack of judgment by executives at Netflix who have ordered eight episodes of a TV series to — wait for it — “prank” job-seekers.

You know, like yanking away the cat toy just as it pounces.

Gaten Matarazzo, a child actor starring in Stranger Things and way too many commercials, signed up for this steaming pile of garbage.

A reaction from Inc.com :

You know him as one of the kids dealing with the Upside Down on Netflix’s Stranger Things, but if you see him coming now–you should be the one to run. Gaten Matarazzo is producing and starring in a new prank show, Prank Encounters, and Netflix just ordered eight episodes. Deadline describes it as follows:

Each episode of this terrifying and hilarious prank show takes two complete strangers who each think they’re starting their first day at a new job. It’s business as usual until their paths collide and these part-time jobs turn into full-time nightmares.

Do you know what I have to say to this? No, no, no, and no.

Sure, we love to laugh at people’s misfortune–America’s Funniest Home Videos–made a fortune off people falling off step ladders and tripping over the dog. But, there’s a key difference here: people in that show submitted their own videos–they were laughing at themselves. This show sets people up for public entertainment with unasked for humiliation.

And it does it in a very vulnerable time of life–job hunting.

 

Looking for a job, or part-time work, or freelance work, is emotionally and intellectually exhausting — certainly if you are over 40, 50 or beyond when age discrimination already severely limits options for many people.

Just cancel the whole thing.

And, while we’re at it, for anyone interested in the brutal and absurd economics of freelance writing — witness the endless virtue-signaling, wagon-circling and knife-sharpening of late over an American magazine writer, now on staff at The New York Times Magazine (basically writers’ Everest, the coveted and unattainable peak of pay and prestige) and her crazy pay scale.

Some people have leaped to her defense — she works so hard! — while others simply wonder how so many other hard-working and talented writers are now, instead, desperately grateful to get paid even 25 percent of what she said she earns.

 

It’s a madhouse.

 

Work truly can be a four-letter word.

Can women handle 10,000 words?

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Frozen out…

By Caitlin Kelly

Just a taste of the obstacles so many women writers still face.

This, from Vox, quoting the editor in chief of The Atlantic magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg, which is considered one of the most prestigious outlets in American journalism:

 

It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

 

I really don’t have a lot to add to this.

I will say that any woman, like me, who has already written and published a non-fiction book — mine are each around 100,000 words — is fully capable of producing a terrific magazine piece one-tenth that length.

This kind of gate-keeping is annoyingly prevalent, and the magazines still deemed career-making in choosing and promoting their writers are extremely difficult to penetrate. When top editors are male, many keep choosing the guys they know already, not the fantastically talented proven women beyond their narrow purview.

His comment, not surprisingly, provoked a torrent on Twitter. The women writers I know, admire and respect flung up their hands…business as usual.

Here’s an analysis of it from The Cut:

You don’t even need to leave the Atlantic’s archives to see how wrong it is to believe the journalists in America who do this Very Special Thing are “almost exclusively white males.” (It’s Sisyphean to list all the writers out in the wider world he’s overlooked.) But it is also sadly true that Goldberg’s record on this front is better than the one that preceded him, when, of the 17 issues directly before his tenure, only three of the cover stories were written by women. That’s fewer than the number of men during that same time period who wrote cover stories AND attended Yale at some point during the 1980s, as did the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief James Bennet. (Boola boola to you, Messrs. Haidt, Beinart, Frum, and Rauch!)

It’s also painfully obvious that some of the most interesting magazine-style journalism is happening, of course, at places that don’t have cover stories. The Atlantic is the most Establishment of the Establishment magazines, and the fixation on a print cover story as the sacred, locked tabernacle to which only a few are granted a key is revealing of a certain value system. (As is the notion that high word count correlates with quality or importance.)

 

If this issue is of interest to you, to see how many women are getting their work published, read the VIDA reports; VIDA is a 10-year-old organization founded on the principle of getting more women published.

 

 

A fallow field

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By Caitlin Kelly

Two of my favorite journalism assignments in 2018 involved a six-hour drive from my home in New York to farms in Quebec, near Montreal. I worked in French and learned a lot, quickly, about agriculture, thanks to Messieurs Bachand and Bousquet.

A city girl, I’ve never lived on or worked on a farm, but I love one farming concept deeply — the fallow field.

The field left to recharge, empty, after being over-planted.

Welcome to my brain!

I started writing for a living as a full-time undergraduate at a demanding university, juggling term papers and exams with assignments for national magazines and newspapers.

I didn’t take a break until I was 30, completely worn out and — very fortunately — financially able to do so for three blissful summer months while living in a small town in New Hampshire.

I haven’t written much lately.

Many people dream of “being a writer”. The part often overlooked is the tremendous hustle required to sell that work.

I send out pitches for stories to various editors — five last week, three this week — and wait for replies, whether a paid/work/yes or a no…meaning more pitching and still no income.

I look daily for story ideas and, with some, do initial unpaid pre-reporting to see if there is a saleable story; one I’ve been chasing for six months and which (yay!) prompted an immediate “I’m intrigued” reply from an editor I’m dying to write for.

My latest book proposal is now with two editors at major New York City publishers, so I also await their decisions. I may apply for another fellowship, the application due June 26.

 

malled cover LOW

It’s been eight years since Malled was published.

 

I’ve recently attended two local networking events, as I’m long overdue getting out to meet local businesses that might be able to use my writing, editing, blogging and coaching skills. I enjoyed both events, but whew! It’s also tiring being charming to strangers.

Instead of writing all the time, I’ve been reading a lot (even fiction! Station Eleven, by fellow Canadian-in-NY Emily St. John Mandel), and going to the gym and shopping for some new summer clothes for a June vacation in Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

It’s disorienting to write less, mostly because that’s where the money eventually comes from!

But I’ve also been coaching other writers (details on my Welcome and About pages here), a nice income-producing break from word production.

 

Because one’s brain just gets tired!

 

Some thoughts about guns

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By Caitlin Kelly

Another week in the United States — which, every week, only means more gun deaths.

This week, one of them was a student about to graduate high school, Kendrick Castillo, killed trying to save his classmates from a shooter.

In their classroom.

From CNN:

The 18-year-old was watching “The Princess Bride” in his British literature class when the shooter pulled out a gun, demanding that nobody moved. After Kendrick lunged at the shooter, three other students also tackled the gunman and tried to subdue him while the rest of the class fled the room.
Kendrick was an only child, but his friends, including the members of the school’s robotics team, were like his siblings, his father said. They would host holiday gift exchanges at his home, shared his toys as a child and would pay for a friend’s movie tickets if someone didn’t have money.
“Be selfless, that’s what my son was, and it got him killed, but he saved others,” Castillo said.
Is there anything useful to say about this?
I don’t blog about guns because there’s so much coverage of the issue.
But there’s little substantive discussion of why Americans insist on owning one — some owning hundreds.
The state of California has 9,400 residents who legally should not now own one, but do. Officials are overwhelmed.
In the years 2002 and 2003, I traveled the United States, alone, mostly by car, to try and better understand this attachment to firearms, incomprehensible to millions of others — whether Americans or those living outside the country.
I did three sessions of handgun training, and have fired everything from a .22 rifle to an AR-15, a Glock 9mm (standard police issue) to a .357 Magnum.
I don’t own one or want to.
But, unlikely as a Canadian, I’m now considered one of the experts on the subject of Americans and guns.

A few reasons why getting rid of guns is so incredibly difficult:

Sentimental and emotional reasons. A gun is often handed down as a family heirloom, generation through generation, as revered as a set of delicate china or a favorite armchair. A father’s service weapon, a great-grandfather’s hunting rifle.
— Hatred and fear of government. This is intensely and unchangingly American in a nation founded on the hatred and fear of centralized authority. I’ve “debated” on BBC a man absolutely convinced the government is likely to burst into his home one day and grab all his guns.
Self-defense. Linked to fear and hatred of government, the belief (true in some communities) that law enforcement simply won’t be there, or quickly enough, to save your life from an attack.
— Autonomy and independence. Deeply American is the value that it’s all up to you to take care of everything.
Regional differences. For every urbanite who disdains the very idea of touching a gun, let alone owning one, there are many Americans who love to hunt, whether for sport or for food to feed their families.
— The National Rifle Association, which offers letters grades (like elementary school) to elected officials, dinging those they dislike with an F. Voters vote accordingly.
— The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. If it didn’t exist, the entire debate could change overnight: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  An analysis, here.
I spoke to 104 Americans from 29 states, from teens to seniors,  and asked each one of them how a gun has affected their lives. Some love them, some fear them.
This is the book I wrote about it.
BLOWN AWAY COVER
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

Niksen, farniente, lassitude. REST!

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I lay for long lazy hours alone on this beach in July 2017 in Croatia. Heaven!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s all sort of sad, really.

In this recent New York Times story — putatively touting the benefits of doing absolutely nothing, aka niksen — the whole reason for doing nothing is…to be more productive:

 

More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense.

We at Smarter Living have long been fans of taking regular breaks throughout the day, as study after study shows that feeling drowsy, exhausted or otherwise mentally depleted during the workday drastically hinders performance and productivity.

In other words: Whether at home or at work, permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out.

 

Insert my very loud scream right here.

 

I did something unthinkable to the old me today.

I skipped the second jam-packed day at an annual writers’ conference: missing appointments and new potential clients, not seeing old friends and basically wasting the money I paid for all of it.

Instead, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I stayed home, alone and quiet.

I didn’t do this to become more productive!

I did it because I was tired.

I really needed to rest.

I did this because my body told me to sleep 9.5 hours last night, which I gratefully did.

I did it because I cried to a friend in a NYC tea room, worn out with anxiety.

We live in a time when millions of us are being forced into economic precarity — aka the “gig economy”, a phrase I loathe. Because this kind of work is always somewhat unpredictable (I lost my two anchor clients overnight), and can be poorly paid, one is very reluctant to turn away income, to slow down, to just….be still.

Which makes it even more important to just do that.

Nothing.

And plenty of it, dammit!

 

Do you find it hard to slow down, unplug, unwind and just rest?

 

Reframing rejection

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One of my coffee-stained notebooks from my last staff job. Laid off, not fun!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and necessary part of every working day.

— Anonymous

 

Does anyone anywhere relish rejection? Not really.

I recently interviewed for a dream job — didn’t get it. I applied for a very well paid corporate job and was interviewed, didn’t get it. Jose and I both applied for very good journalism jobs at major outlets in D.C.

Not even an interview.

So, yeah, we’re quite familiar with the concept!

My first two books were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major NYC house took each one on. So, even after a lot of rejection, you can achieve a goal.

If you don’t give up.

 

 

BLOWN AWAY COVER
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

 

 

An interesting piece by Adam Grant  on this topic in The New York Times:

A good starting point is to remove, “It’s not you, it’s me” from your vocabulary. Sometimes it really is them! But the real reason to ban that phrase is because most of the time when we get rejected, it’s not you. It’s not me either. It’s us.

Rejection often happens because of a lack of fit in the relationship: Your values were a mismatch for that interviewer, your skills didn’t quite suit that job, your ratty conference T-shirts failed to overlap with the taste of your decreasingly significant other. New research reveals that when people are in the habit of blaming setbacks on relationships instead of only on the individuals involved, they’re less likely to give up — and more motivated to get better.

It also helps to recognize that our lives are composed of many selves…When one of your identities is rejected, resilience comes from turning to another identity that matters to you.

This is the only way I’ve really stayed sane through so many rejections.

While American life is determined to reduce us all to more productive automatons, who feel guilty if we do anything that’s not income producing, we are all so much more than that!

When my ideas are rejected — as they are all the time,  by which I mean every week, sometimes every day! —

 

I’m still:

 

— a much beloved wife

— a welcomed neighbor

— a valued friend

— a member of my spin class

— a member of my church

— a wise contributor to many on-line writing groups where others seek advice

— athletic and flexible and strong

— multi-lingual

— a traveler

— a very good cook and hostess

It looks as though my latest book proposal will get looked at by an editor. I should be more excited, but until it sells, if it does, I’m holding my fire.

It was roundly rejected last year by multiple agents, which — I admit — left me really frustrated and dejected.

 

How well do you handle rejection?

How does a story become a story?

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These large laminated tags are usually press credentials that make clear who’s allowed into an event and allowed to get close to the action.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

For those of you who still care about the quality of journalism, a few insights from a career journalist who has been a reporter for three major daily papers and who freelances (i.e. sells individual stories I come up with) often for The New York Times.

 

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The NYC food bank — which I visited in 2015 while working on a story about it

Where do story ideas originate?

Some of the many ways:

A press release from a company, individual or organization. It’s unlikely that only one release is the entire story, unless for the trade/industry press. Journalists, staff and freelance are pelted daily with hundreds of press releases from people who want us to write (favorably!) about them.

A tip from someone inside an agency or organization who wants this information made (more) public and possibly deeply investigated for misdeeds or wrongdoings.

A conversation with someone in an industry or field about interesting or new developments.

A cultural trend we hear, see or notice out in the world on our own.

An upcoming event, for which we write or produce a “curtain-raiser”, a story than runs in advance of the event.

An anniversary of a major event, five, ten, 20 or more years later. What, if anything, has changed since then?

Breaking news: natural disasters, shootings, weather stories, terrorism, crashes. etc.

— We all really want a “scoop” — a powerful story no one else has

 

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The New York Times newsroom

 

How do we know if it actually is a story?

Fact-check. We make calls, send emails and texts, check in with sources we know are smart and trustworthy to confirm or deny the basic facts of the story.

Firsthand reporting. Always the ideal to have a reporter/photographer/video crew on-site.

Talk to firsthand witnesses, but that’s also tricky because they may be lying. It’s happened, which is deeply embarrassing.

 

 

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The Charlie Hebdo march in Paris

What happens next?

 

— Every reporter, in every medium, has a boss! That person (or people) have the final say as to whether this story will even ever appear or get the time and energy needed to report, research, revise and edit it that they think it deserves; five minutes on-air (a lot!) or 500 words in the paper or on-line or 5,000 words in a glossy magazine.

— The reporter/producer (teams, generally in broadcast) work together to decide how to proceed and in what  depth and at what speed. Breaking news is insanely competitive so there’s a mad rush to get the story first or exclusively.

— If the story needs a lot of reporting and interviewing (documents, on-site reporting, speaking to sources) the reporter needs to decide who to speak to, when, why and in what order. If the story is controversial or potentially damaging, many people will refuse to discuss it, which means digging for more sources and/or persuading some to speak without using their names or affiliations to protect them.

— If the story is happening very far away from the newsroom, the decision will be made to send a staff correspondent (costly) or possibly use a local freelancer, called a stringer, exclusively or in addition to the staffer’s reporting.

— On truly major stories, there can be as many as a dozen reporters sending in various elements they have gathered and a writer in the newsroom (originally called rewrite) will craft it all together into one cohesive narrative, with credits for each contributor added at the bottom.

 

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My favorite reporting trip! I flew to rural Nicaragua on assignment for WaterAid in this really small plane, so small they weighed US and our baggage!

Pre-Publication/Broadcast

 

— For anyone who loves to insist it’s all “fake news”, I can assure you much of it is not. Every major news/publishing outlet has a lawyer either on staff or someone they turn to regularly to make sure the story is safe to publish.

— If the magazine or outlet has the staff and budget, and many do not, they hire and pay fact-checkers to do exactly what the name implies; check every fact to make sure it is accurate, after the reporter is finished.

— Graphics, design, podcast, video and photo editors decide the best ways to present visuals to accompany the story: a drawing? a graph? a map? a photo essay or slideshow gallery?

— For anything going into print, careful space measurements allow for design and page placement of all elements: copy, visuals and the all-essential advertisements that help pay for all of this! For digital, visuals count as well, plus SEO.

My best advice for consuming any form of media/reporting is to choose multiple sources, not only one set of political or national views. I read The New York Times and Financial Times (UK) daily, listen to NPR and occasionally the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. I also see news from many other sources, like Canada’s CBC, through Twitter.

 

Is there something you’d like to better understand about journalism? Ask away!

The $$$$ cost of American college: a fix?

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Aaaaaaah, the “promise” of higher education!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I generally avoid wading into political issues here  — we get enough of that elsewhere! — but this is a subject I care a lot about, the skyrocketing costs of American university/college education. In an elbows-out nation addicted to capitalism, being hampered in any meaningful way from being able to compete effectively for well-paid work is a huge problem.

Many colleges now charge $60,000 (!) a year, to a wealthy family mere pocket change — and for many others, an unfathomable sum to assume. That’s assuming only undergrad, not graduate school or further professional training.

I taught in 2014-2015 at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn, to students who had decided that paying $60,000 a year to study writing was a wise investment.

But seriously?

Few writers, whether of fiction, poetry or journalism, will ever earn $60,000 a year; a very fortunate few will make it to that level and beyond, and generally those who were able to afford and attend and graduate from Big Name Schools. Hence the crazed arms race to get into them, which will likely send a few celebrities to prison for paying bribes for this purpose.

I recently read the comments of an entry-level newspaper reporter — yes, a “real job” — paying $14/hour.

Yes, there are state schools.

Yes, you can spend the first two years at a community college and save a lot of money and transfer for the name on your diploma.

But still.

It shocks me deeply — in a nation that fetishizes college (they never call it university) as the golden key to prosperity –– that student debt is the only form of indebtedness you can’t discharge by declaring bankruptcy.

I know people in their 40s and beyond (!) who still owe a significant sum on loans they took out decades earlier.

Here’s potential Democratic Presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, with her bold proposal, published on Medium to help millions of American shed this burden:

An excerpt:

 

Higher education opened a million doors for me. It’s how the daughter of a janitor in a small town in Oklahoma got to become a teacher, a law school professor, a U.S. Senator, and eventually, a candidate for President of the United States.

Today, it’s virtually impossible for a young person to find that kind of opportunity. As states have invested less per-student at community colleges and public four-year colleges, the schools themselves have raised tuition and fees to make up the gap. And rather than stepping in to hold states accountable, or to pick up more of the tab and keep costs reasonable, the federal government went with a third option: pushing families that can’t afford to pay the outrageous costs of higher education towards taking out loans.

The result is a huge student loan debt burden that’s crushing millions of families and acting as an anchor on our economy. It’s reducing home ownership rates. It’s leading fewer people to start businesses. It’s forcing students to drop out of school before getting a degree. It’s a problem for all of us.

 

I first saw this piece posted on Twitter — where, not surprisingly, it had gathered 17,741 re-tweets and 66,877 likes.

I paid $660 a year in the mid 1970s to attend University of Toronto, Canada’s top school. Today, resident tuition for and arts & sciences undergraduate is about $5,000.

Not $50,000.

That four-year degree gave me the self-confidence and skills to compete effectively against the most expensively groomed and educated writers in New York, the publishing capital.

But if I had graduated burdened by decades of debt, my life — and my career — would have looked very different. Jose, my husband, had all four years at New Mexico State paid for because his father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe. He, too, rocketed out of school with a degree, a ton of ambition and the freedom to take chances and learn needed professional skills wherever he best could.

We were really lucky.

Success should not be predicated on luck.

Are you — or your kids — saddled with American college debt?

 

How does it affect you?