Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Routines and rituals

In behavior, culture, domestic life, entertainment, life on November 10, 2015 at 1:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

We eat by candlelight every evening

We eat by candlelight every evening

I’m writing this post with two different streams of music coming into our apartment.

In the living room, our new favorite station, TSFJazz, which we discovered during a taxi ride into Paris on our last trip there, in December 2014.

It’s terrific! We listen to it now as a default choice and I love hearing French all day (I speak it) as well their broad array of choices.

On Saturday mornings, I listen to a reggae show on WKCR, the radio station of Columbia University, learning new-to-me phrases like “large up” (to praise or remember.) On a cold, gray winter’s morning, what better way to start the weekend?

I love rituals and routines, for the rhythm they add to my life.

In a world where things change so often and so quickly, I increasingly appreciate unmoving touchstones.

My daily pot of tea, usually at 4 or 5pm

My daily pot of tea, usually at 4 or 5pm

From age 8 to 16, I attended boarding school and summer camp, each with decades-old routines and rituals, some of which I loved, (we sang en masse after every meal at camp), and some of which I hated, (we had to be back at boarding school by 6pm Sunday evenings to listen to yet another missionary talk about their good deeds overseas.)

What I did enjoy about that ritual was the closing song of every Sunday evening, the lovely hymn, Abide With Me,…fast falls the eventide, the darkness deepens, Lord with me abide…

I can still remember the timing of the school’s bells: 6:55 wake-up; 7:10 out for a walk around the block; 7:25 head to the dining hall for breakfast. Each afternoon someone would bring back to our boarders’ house a huge green basket filled with cookies for our afternoon snack.

For special occasions, like graduation, a bagpiper arrived in full regalia, another ritual I cherished.

Each one of these shaped our days, weeks and months, adding form and familiarity to the inevitable craziness and changes of growing up.

I like how, as an adult, we can create our own rituals and routines, for ourselves and our children. It’s comforting to have things we know we can look forward to, like the Saturday morning pancakes my husband makes.

Jose bought this book -- I look forward to reading it!

Jose bought this book — I look forward to reading it!

A few of ours:

We drink our morning coffee from a thermos, a habit of my parents when I was growing up, which seemed eminently sensible for people who like consuming a lot of caffeine over many hours.

The reassuring red of a British bus, post-box and phone booth

The reassuring red of a British bus, post-box and phone booth

I still plan ahead using a red leather Filofax, a beautiful and sensual way to store the information I need to stay organized.

I love cutting recipes out of magazines and newspapers, sticking them with a glue stick onto a piece of paper I three-hole-punch and put into a binder. Of course, I could do it all on-line and clear my home of all those cookbooks and stained bits of yellowing paper.

But I won’t.

After every game played with my co-ed pick-up softball team, now into our 15th season, we always head to the same local pub. We know the menu off by heart and have eaten everything on it a bazillion times. But it’s where we go.

We eat dinner at home by candlelight, and an overhead light dimmed low. I love the gentle mood that candles create.

Every afternoon at home, I get in touch with my British/Canadian/Irish roots and put on the kettle to make a fresh pot of hot tea. No sad little bag in a cup! I have a selection of herbal, Constant Comment, Earl Grey and fruit-flavored teas. Such a soothing, comforting way to take a break, relax and re-hydrate.

I tend to avoid mentioning religion here, but I also love the rituals of the Episcopal church services I occasionally attend: the liturgy, Nicene creed, the collect, my favorite hymns. In an ever-shifting world, there’s something grounding and, yes, deeply comforting to know what we will say and do collectively.

Every weekend, we dive into three newspapers (yes, in print), the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Our favorite, by far, is the FT and its magazine supplement entitled (yup) How to Spend It, filled with ads for custom-made yachts and editorial images of $100,000 jewels, an amusing peek into 1%-world. The paper, though, is filled with terrific writing on books, travel, food, gardening.

I’m reluctant to fully unpack and put away our suitcases after a great trip — until we’ve planned our next one.

For Jose, it’s an hour of quiet time every morning, listening to music, reading or just thinking, before I wake up. Plus his cup of hazelnut coffee.

Every year, the Rockettes perform their Christmas show here, a beloved tradition for many New Yorkers

Every year, the Rockettes perform their Christmas show here, a beloved tradition for many New Yorkers

What are some of your favorite rituals and routines?

The joy (and misery) of possessions

In aging, art, beauty, behavior, blogging, culture, design, domestic life, life, Style, travel on November 2, 2015 at 12:44 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

“I don’t believe in storage lockers” — prop stylist/blogger Chelsea Fuss

If you’ve never seen Chelsea’s blog, go!

I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls -- so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret...

I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls — so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret…

I’ve been following it for years, for which she’s won all sorts of awards. Fuss worked in Portland, Oregon for 14 years as a props stylist and lived like a nomad for a bit, (no husband or kids.) Now, at 37 — an age when some of us are deeply mired in conventional-if-bored-to-tears work and domesticity — is happily re-settled in, of all places, Lisbon.

I enjoy everything about her blog, and her spirit of adventure. She really has the perfect name for a woman who creates lovely images for a living!

I also share her values: a devotion to connection, to beauty, flowers, travel, quiet, making a pretty home, wherever you live, that welcomes you without spending a fortune.

Paris, January 2015. I'd rather be free to travel than stay home, encumbered by stuff

Paris, January 2015. I’d rather be free to travel than stay home, encumbered by stuff

I loved her comments here, on another woman’s blog,

When you spend your day driving around town in a cargo van buying $1000’s of dollars worth of props from Anthropologie and West Elm [NOTE: chic chain-store shops, for those who don’t know them] for photo shoots, those products start to mean very little. I am very detached (possibly to the extreme) from possessions! There are very few stores I walk into and find myself ooh-ing and aww-ing. As a prop stylist, after a while, you’ve seen it all. What’s really special are the one-off pieces, the heirlooms, the perfectly weathered linens, or the family postcard with old script that tells just the right story.

As I sort through my stuff, organizing/ditching/selling/donating/offering for consignment as much as I possibly can, it’s a powerful time to reflect on what we own, what we keep and why.

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

This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions — bought in 1985. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it’s versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.

Even as I’m pitching, Jose and I are treating our home to a few nice new pieces: framing a lovely image by the talented pinhole photographer Michael Falco (a gift); a striking striped kilim we’re having shipped from Istanbul that I found online, rewiring and adding a fresh new white linen shade to an early pale grey ginger jar lamp we recently found in Ontario and a spectacular mirror, probably mid-Eastern in origin, I found dusty and grimy in an antique shop in North Hatley, Quebec.

So…how can I possibly advocate less stuff?

Because we live in a one-bedroom apartment, with very limited closet space. I’ve lived here for decades, and we both work at home now and don’t plan to move into a larger space any time soon, so a constant attention to add/pitch is crucial to our sanity and tidiness. (Yes, we do have a storage locker and keep some things in our garage as well: out of season clothing, luggage, ski equipment, etc.)

I grew up in homes where my parents’ primary interests were travel and owning fewer/better quality objects than piles ‘o stuff. My family home, and ours today, was filled with original art, (prints, paintings and photos, some of them made by us, Eskimo sculpture, a Japanese mask and scroll) and a few good antiques.

I’m typing this blog post atop a table my father gave us last year, which is 18th.century English oak.

One of the lovely Indian textiles my mother collected

One of the lovely Indian textiles my mother collected, atop an Art Deco-era Japanese vanity, a gift for my 35th birthday

It boggles my mind to enjoy and use every day in 2015 an object that’s given elegant service for multiple centuries. I prefer, for a variety of reasons, using older things (pre-1900, even 1800, when possible) to new/plastic/Formica/mass-produced.

Many people inherit things from their families and cherish them for their beauty and sentimental attachment. Not me.

I own nothing from either grandfather, and only a vintage watch and a few gifts from one grandmother — she was a terrible spendthrift who simply never bothered to pay three levels of tax on her inherited fortune. Her things were sold to pay debt; if I want to see a nice armoire she once owned, it’s now in a Toronto museum.

So…no big emotional draaaaaaama for me over stuff. I’ve bought 99% of what I own, as has my husband.

I’m also of an age now when too many of my friends, even some of them decades younger, face the exhausting, time-sucking, emotionally-draining task of emptying out a parent’s home and disposing of (keeping?) their possessions. One friend is even flying to various American cities from Canada to hand-deliver some willed pieces of jewelry, so complicated is it to ship them across the border.

When my mother had to enter a nursing home on barely a week’s notice four years ago, we had to clear out and dispose of a life’s acquisitions within a week or so. Most went to a local auction house.

It was sad, painful and highly instructive.

$31. Score!

$31. Score!

Today I’m lucky enough to enjoy a few of her things: a pretty wool rug by my bedside and several exquisite pieces of early/Indian textiles; she lived in a one-bedroom apartment so there wasn’t a lot to deal with.

But if we’re lucky enough to acquire some items we really enjoy, parting with them can feel difficult.

Maybe better to keep them to a minimum?

Check out this amazing 650 square foot NYC apartment with handsome multi-functional pieces and built-ins.

How do you feel about owning/cleaning/ditching your possessions — or those of others?

What it takes to be a professional writer

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, work on October 22, 2015 at 3:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

It looks so easy.

Write, hit send.


In an era when we’re inundated with a veritable verbal Niagara — blogs, websites, Twitter, legacy media (i.e. newspapers and magazines), television, radio and, oh yeah, books — writing looks like such an easy-peasy way to make your name quickly.

I’ve been doing this for a living since my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, where I started learning my skills — yes, really — writing for the weekly school newspaper. I never studied journalism, then or later. But I worked for demanding, smart editors. A lot.

I’ve since produced two works of nationally-reported non-fiction, won a National Magazine Award and worked as a reporter for three major daily newspapers; my website has details, if of interest.

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

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

Here are some of the skills and behaviors you need as a professional writer of journalism and non-fiction:


Without it, don’t even bother. If you’re the person who drove your teachers nuts — and maybe you still do! — with endless questions, this is a great skill. You’re not just being annoying. The best writers are endlessly fascinated by the world and the people around us, whether the woman sitting next to you in a cafe or the homeless man on the corner or the neighbor who never, ever smiles.

What’s their story?

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

Tact — aka wrangling strangers

I tell would-be journalists that our job is much less that of writing well (which matters, of course!) than the ability to wrangle strangers. If you can’t make a total stranger immediately comfortable in your presence, whether face to face or over the phone or Skype or email, you won’t be able to gather the information, color, detail and compelling anecdotes your story needs to come alive.

Many people are afraid of, or even hate, journalists and their nosy questions. People are shy or scared and/or fear they’ll be misquoted or taken out of context.

It’s your job to soothe their fears — ethically! — and allow them to share their story.


No functional journalist can do a good job without it. No matter who your subject is, or how different they are from you, you must seek to understand and convey their experience of the world.

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

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


We live in a noisy and distracted world. The greatest gift you can offer someone now is your undivided attention — and you theirs. People have much to tell us, but in order to hear them clearly we need to listen attentively.

Put down your phone!

Shut the door and eliminate all possible interruptions (dogs, kids, coworkers) while you’re conducting an interview.

Read others’ writing

Every ambitious creative makes time and spends money observing the best of their field — musicians, dancers, film-makers, artists. How else to appreciate the consummate skill and technique they’ve honed?

I now see younger writers sneering at the antiquated notion they actually need to learn their craft. They do.

I read many magazines and newspapers, a few longform websites, (Aeon, Medium, Narratively) and many works of non-fiction. I’m still hungry, even decades into my own successful career, to watch others being excellent and to learn what I can from them.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

Listen to others’ interview techniques

Like the legendary NPR host Terry Gross; here’s a recent profile of her.

Social capital — aka connections


It’s not as difficult as some imagine to forge connections with writers, agents, editors, even those with a lot more experience than you have right now. Attend every conference you can, like this one — for women only, in New York City, November 7 and 8.

Create and carry with you everywhere a handsome business card and be sure to collect others’.

When you meet someone whose work you admire, let them know. If you want to break into this world, reach out to other writers on Twitter, through their blogs, at classes and seminars and workshops.

Writers can be shy and introverted but no one makes it alone.


No one, I guarantee you, is an “overnight success.” You may only see their front-page byline or NYT best-seller tag, but it probably took them years to achieve the social capital, skills, experience and insights to get there. I weary of newer writers stamping their feet and expecting it all to happen on some accelerated timeline.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011


Both of my books, (well-reviewed), were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major New York house bought them, the first by Pocket Books, (a division of Simon & Schuster) and Portfolio, (a division of Penguin.) My agents (two different ones for each book) did not give up.

Many successful writers face tremendous rejection along the way to eventual success.

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

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

Attention to craft

I can’t say this too strongly.

Learn your craft!

Take a class, find a mentor or coach, read books on how to write well — there are many, from Stephen King to Anne Lamott to Roy Peter Clark.

It’s arrogant and naive to think that simply pushing hard on the heavy doors of the publishing and journalism world will gain you access.

If they do swing open, you’d better bring a strong set of skills!

And now that editors are busy and overwhelmed, very few have the time, interest or energy to mentor you or help you improve your writing and reporting along the way.

So….how to conduct a terrific interview?

How to gather the reporting your story most needs?

How to come up with great, timely, salable ideas?

I offer webinars, (individually, scheduled at your convenience) and have coached many writers worldwide to improved skills and confidence.

One of them, a 22 year old Harvard grad traveling the world alone by bicycle to gather stories of climate change, hired me to get her work into The Guardian — with no prior journalism experience.

Here it is.

Take good care of yourself

In behavior, culture, Health, work, life, domestic life, aging, beauty on October 14, 2015 at 12:30 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Beauty helps!

Beauty helps!

Button up your overcoat, when the wind is free, Oh, take good care of yourself, you belong to me!

— Ray Henderson lyric, 1928

After a few decades of running around — and four orthopedic surgeries within 12 years — I’m finally treating my body with a little more respect.

I grew up in Canada, but now live in the U.S., and near New York City, the epicenter of a workaholic, gogogogogogogogogogo culture, one that solely encourages and rewards “productivity”.

We’re all exhorted daily to move faster, do more, sleep less, earn more money, get the promotion.

Watch a great movie!

Watch a great movie!

Vacation? Hah! Even the few Americans who get paid vacations beyond 10 days a year are too scared to take the time off.

The notion of actually nurturing our souls, bodies and minds is anithetical to the industrial mindset of production. There’s no profit (for anyone else) in it!

Here’s a thought-provoking essay from The New York Times on the subject:

On my last day of work at the American ad agency, something strange happened: I was smiling. A weight had been lifted, and I felt like a prisoner about to be freed. And despite my fear that no one would hire me, I soon found a job in Zurich doing exactly what I had been doing in the United States: copywriting for an ad agency.

My job title was the same, but I worked part time — and for a higher salary than I had received working full time in the United States. When I was politely asked to work additional days beyond the ones specifically mentioned in my contract, the agency paid me for that extra work.

Not only that, but instead of two weeks of vacation, I had five. And I was encouraged to use every single day of it, guilt-free. Once, when I went to Spain for “only” 10 days, my Swiss colleagues chastised me for not going away long enough.

Instead of worrying about working weekends and holidays the way I had in the United States, I planned trips like the rest of my colleagues: Paris. Prague. Zermatt. For the first time in my working life, I was living, too. Because of this, my creativity flourished. I had both time and money, and because I had real time off, I was more productive when I was at work. In my spare time I wrote blogs and essays and I swam in the lake.

I’m firmly and decidedly out of step with American values in this regard.

A bushel of freshly-gathered clams, mid-coast Maine

A bushel of freshly-gathered clams, mid-coast Maine

In 2015, I’ve spent 3 weeks in Europe in January, another three weeks in June in Ireland, 10 days in Maine and 10 days in Ontario.

Because my husband and I are, as of this year, now both full-time freelancers, (he’s a photo editor and photographer, I write for a living), we can work from anywhere there’s wi-fi and can take as much time off as we can afford.

We’re not wealthy and we live a fairly frugal life, with a small apartment and a 14-year-old car. Nor do we have the financial responsibilities of children or other dependents.

We’ve had terrific careers and won awards and the respect of our peers and while we still need to work for income…it’s time for us.

I’m not fond of the word “self-care” but it’s a concept I believe in strongly, especially for women who are socially encouraged to give everyone else their time, energy and attention — but often feel conflicted or guilty when they stop long enough to take equally thoughtful care of themselves.

Stay hydrated!

Stay hydrated!

Self care can take many forms:

— massage, manicures, pedicures, facials

— dressing well

— a barbershop trim or shave

— regular medical and dental checkups

– cooking or baking something delicious, especially “just” for yourself

— a pot of tea in the afternoon, possibly with a biscuit or two (no sad little teabag in a cup!)

— naps!

drawing, painting, taking photos, nurturing your creative self

— doing yoga

— playing music

— singing, alone or with others

— exercise

— dancing (check out this amazing early morning event I go to)

— keeping a calm, clean, lovely home, (or at least a dedicated space within it)

— the company of dear friends

— reading for pure pleasure

— visiting a gallery or museum

— wearing a lovely scent

— gardening

— taking a luxuriously long bath or shower

— spending time in nature

— silent solitude

— listening to music

— candlelight

— unplugging from all devices and social media

— attending a religious service

— volunteer work

coloring (have you seen the latest trend — adult coloring books?)

— cuddling and/or caring for your pet(s)

– handiwork like knitting, crochet, quilting, sewing embroidery — or woodwork

— meditation

— prayer

Making art can be a way to decompress

Making art can be a way to decompress

Do you take good care of yourself?


As fall arrives…

In culture, design, Style, urban life, life, domestic life, beauty on October 10, 2015 at 1:20 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

A vintage tablecloth scored this summer in Maine

A vintage tablecloth scored this summer in Maine

As some of you know from my previous posts, I’m obsessed with, addicted to…ahem..enjoy designing our home.

I studied interior design at the New York School of Interior Design, which has trained some of the best designers in the U.S., and learned a great deal about color, texture, materials and how to create a welcoming interior space. I had hoped to change careers from journalism but decided, for a variety of reasons, to continue as a writer, albeit one passionate, always, about beauty and assembling a space that’s both elegant and comfortable.

We live in a one-bedroom apartment that overlooks trees and the Hudson River. The building itself is nothing special. I find it pretty ugly, frankly — a 1960s red brick slab, six stories, with no architectural merit, even after 20+ years here.

But the landscaping is lovely, and we sit atop a high hill with great views…from our building’s southern exposure, (we face northwest), you can literally see the towers of lower Manhattan.

Inside our (nasty beige metal) door?

I love patina! This is the doorknob to our friend's home in Maine

I love patina! This is the doorknob to our friend’s home in Maine

It’s English country house:

— layered textiles, a mix of old and new, of flea market finds and some valuable photos and antiques, my father’s oil paintings, my husband’s images and my photos, photos of us and our families, etchings and engravings, posters from Paris and Mexico and Australia…

Fresh flowers and plants, always!

A table set for one of our dinner parties

A table set for one of our dinner parties

I buy and read a range of design magazines, from Elle Decor, House Beautiful and Architectural Digest to Period Living, Country Living, House & Garden (all British) and, occasionally, one of the gorgeous Cote series from France or World of Interiors.

It’s one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon. And I learn something every time I read one — about color, tone, mixing things up, design history. Even if the home featured is, (and in the UK ones, it is sometimes!), a castle or enormous mansion, I always find some inspiration and sheer visual pleasure.

I haven’t lived in a house since 1988 when we rented a flat in a New Hampshire house. I often hanker for a house, (a small, old one — 1840s or earlier), but our finances don’t allow for a second home and I like where we live right now.

My esthetic is eclectic, a little bohemian, but polished.

I like bold and interesting prints (in small doses.) I like patina, craquelure, weathered wood (but immaculate walls, windows and sills.) I love candles in all shapes and sizes, from votives to pierced lanterns that show glorious shadows. Textiles, especially vintage or ethnic.

I find things affordably everywhere: flea markets, auctions, department stores, discount stores, consignment shops, thrift shops, garden supply stores. (Yes, I’ve even traveled with bubble wrap).

From London, Paris, Stockholm, Istanbul, Mexico, Toronto, I’ve brought home early ceramics, 18th century prints, a tray and even our bathroom sink — ($32, handmade copper)  — from Mexico.

Over the decades, I’ve invested most heavily in a few fine case goods, (two armoires, three chests of drawers) and Jose and I both enjoy a small but good collection of classic photos.

I’ve furnished our home (with Jose’s approval!) as I do my wardrobe, a mix of vintage and new, classic and funky, some playful bits, some very good bits.

Fresh flowers -- a must!

Fresh flowers — a must!

As fall arrives, here are some of the changes I’m making:

— Adding two lovely new fabrics, one for our headboard and the other for our bedside tables. I totally blew it on the scale of the check! But, you know what? Better bold than bitsy. (total cost $150.)

The ikat is for the headboard, the checks for the tables

The ikat is for the headboard, the checks for the tables

— An antique Chinese ginger jar lamp we recently found at an antiques dealer in Grafton, Ontario. It needed a new shade and cord.

— A dramatic new hallway rug, a kilim. I love these flatweaves, with their bold-but-faded colors and intricate designs; this one is striped: faded teal, faded carmine with a narrow black and white stripe. I found it roaming on-line; it will be shipped to us from Istanbul after they repair it.

Switching out our art from summer, (pale colors and bleached frames), to winter: deeper hues, gold frames.

Our living room, reflected in that mirror

Our living room, reflected in that mirror

— Rehanging the Victorian mirror I scored in Ontario.

Five of these for $10 at our local thrift shop

Five of these for $10 at our local thrift shop

— Using deeper-toned pillows, table covers and rugs: reds, oranges, bits of black for drama.

As the days shorten and daylight so quickly fades and disappears, I wrap our home in color, texture, style and beauty.

Here in New York, winter lasts from November to March, at least, and we’ll soon miss the brilliant external colors of fall leaves and summer flowers.

Lucky you, readers in more tropical climes and countries — with gorgeous year-round greenery, flowers and and brightly colored birds!

We love these two -- one early folk art, the smaller...who knows?

We love these two — one early folk art, the smaller…who knows?

My husband is a photographer and photo editor (here’s his wedding website and his blog), and we both work at home — so clutter, mess and ugly, especially in a small space, are too much!

Every day, our pretty home soothes and nurtures us both — and the people we welcome.

How about you?

Does nesting appeal to you?

Why there’s no such thing as a low-skilled job

In behavior, books, business, culture, journalism, life, U.S., work on October 8, 2015 at 3:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to feed their family. Fair?

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to feed their family. Fair?

Great op-ed recently in The New York Times:

Most people walking through casino employee hallways — janitors, housekeepers, retail workers — are categorized as unskilled laborers, and the laws of capitalism clearly state that we are all easily replaceable: Anyone can be trained to do our jobs.

Headlines tell us that “College Graduates Are Wasting Their Degrees in Low-Skilled Jobs,” that “Skilled Workers Are in Short Supply.” We’re raised, in the culture of American capitalism, to believe certain things, without question, namely that the value of work is defined by the complexity of the task and not the execution of it, that certain types of work are not worthy of devoting a lifetime to…

Like an athlete, a worker completing the same task for the thousandth time knows that muscle memory and precision are powerful tools. But in the workplace, there are no advanced graphics or slow-motion replays highlighting the efficiency of movement, the prioritizing of tasks or how a more meticulous approach can mean the difference between a chaotic shift and a seamless one.

Instead, the routine, repetitive nature of these jobs is perceived to define workers’ limitations, rather than their capabilities. And although most low-skill work requires a constant interaction with people, because of its low-paying status it is deemed a dead end, rather than a testament to an individual’s ability to acquire, adapt and specialize.

This is a subject I feel passionate about, selfishly, because I lived this experience when I moved, after losing my well-paid professional reporting job at the New York Daily News, then the nation’s sixth-largest daily, into a part-time $11/hour retail sales associate position.

malled cover LOW

The recession hit journalism hard and early; by 2008, 24,000 of us had lost our jobs and many fled — into other industries, to teaching. Lucky ones retired early and many of us, like me, went freelance; huge drop in income but complete control of my workload and schedule.

I hadn’t earned so little since I was a teenager, a lifeguard in high school in Toronto. But it was the stunning lack of respect I felt behind the counter, wearing my plastic name badge, that stung more.

Working retail was like entering a whole other world, as I wrote in this New York Times essay:

Sometimes I feel like Alice slipping through the looking glass, toggling between worlds. In one world, I interview C.E.O.’s, write articles for national publications and promote my nonfiction book. In the other, I clock in, sweep floors, endlessly fold sweaters and sort rows of jackets into size order. Toggling between the working class and the chattering class has taught me a lot about both: what we expect of ourselves, how others perceive us, ideas about our next professional step and how we’ll make it.

The contrasts between my former full-time job and my current part-time one have been striking. I slip from a life of shared intellectual references and friends with Ivy graduate degrees into a land of workers who are often invisible and deemed low-status.

In journalism, my workplaces often felt like rooms filled with balloons, enormous and fragile egos rubbing and squeaking up against one another until, inevitably, several burst with a bang

In retail, divas are fired or soon quit. In journalism, I’ve had managers who routinely shrieked abuse. In retail, I’m managed by a man who served in the United States Air Force in Mogadishu and who wears his authority comfortably and rarely raises his voice.

What became obvious to me within a few weeks of working retail was how difficult and physically grueling it is. (Like food service in any capacity as well.)


But that’s not a big surprise, right?

What was striking to me was how crucial people skills — aka EQ — were to selling successfully and getting along with a team of 14 co-workers, a very mixed bag.

Hardly a low-skill job!

Nor is food service, waitressing or bar-tending. Any job that’s deemed “customer-facing” — and which adds the exhausting component of bending, stretching, carrying, reaching and standing for hours plus staying calm and pleasant (aka emotional labor) is not low-skill.

My retail job pushed me to my outer limits, physically and emotionally, while being intellectually deadening. Not a pretty combination.

But I saw how many unrewarded skills it took:

There’s no college degree in patience

There’s no MBA in compassion

There’s no Phd in common sense

There’s no MA in stamina

I saw much less common sense and EQ among some of the college students I taught, teenagers paying $60,000 for a year of formal education at a fancy private school, than among the young people I worked retail with — almost all of whom had a college degree or were working toward one.

The “low-skilled.”

Demeaning and financially undervaluing these skills — the same ones that keep the U.S. economy humming as much as any Wall Street billionaire — completely misses the essential contributions that millions of low-paid, hard-working people make every day.

Have you worked a low-wage, “low skill” job?

How did it — or does it — affect you?

Are reporters vultures — or just doing their job?

In behavior, blogging, business, Crime, culture, journalism, Media, news, television on October 4, 2015 at 1:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

Here’s a recent story about what it feels like to be a reporter, a rare glimpse into the feelings we’re never allowed to share publicly:

Over the coming hours and days, millions of people are going to watch millions of hours and read millions of words on the Umpqua Community College shooting. They will learn what it looked like, from witnesses who escaped with their lives; they will learn about the victims—their lives, their hobbies, their dreams—from their friends and families; they will learn about the killer’s (or killers’) backgrounds and motives. Many of the same people who will eagerly consume this heartbreaking and enlightening information are the ones now criticizing the reporters gathering it for them. Where the fuck does the public think this news comes from?

The public may say it doesn’t want the horrible details; ratings, circulation, and traffic say the public is lying. The public may claim it values accuracy over speed, and that it is monstrous to contact witnesses this soon after a tragedy; the broad and voracious consumption of breaking reports, and the tendency to spread them as far and wide as possible, argue otherwise. The public will definitely immediately turn on CNN when news is breaking, then mock CNN for having clueless reporters uselessly speculate because there’s nothing to report yet, then turn to another channel to see if they’ve got something to report.

No outlet could conceivably think of sitting out the race to report something like this.

I’m grateful I’m no longer a hard news reporter, let alone at a tabloid  — my last staff job, and literally my last staff position in journalism — ended in 2006. I was a reporter at the New York Daily News, then the U.S.’s 6th-largest daily newspaper.

It felt like an out-take from some 1930s film: tough-talking dames, foul-mouthed editors in suspenders, eager young interns, aggressive photographers. There was a guy in a corner of the enormous open newsroom called Gypsy.

I had only worked for broadsheets — The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and, freelance, for The New York Times. Even at their most aggressive, we didn’t behave like tab reporters who would, and did, do anything to beat their competition and win the wood, the paper’s entire front page.

The news we all read, see and listen to doesn’t erupt spontaneously — it’s the result of decisions made by top editors, often middle-aged white men — about what they deem most important and interesting.

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

At the News, I was sent on a stake-out, in Manhattan’s summer heat and humidity, to stand outside a midtown hotel and await the arrival of two Quebecoise visitors, one of whom had been attacked and injured, not critically. I was sent because I speak French, not a common skill in that newsroom. My job was to — in News parlance — get the quote, some pithy summation of their fear and shock.

That no other reporter would have.

It was tiring, boring and bizarre to stand there for hours, to clog the sidewalk beside competing reporters from the Times, Post and others. With an intern, our photographer busy chatting to her pals, I tried to sneak into the hotel several times, eventually caught by an irate security guard.

I’ve never felt so stupid or ashamed of my role.

When there’s a shooting — which in the U.S. is sadly common — reporters descend on the scene, desperate to speak to anyone involved and to be aggressive about it.

Because if they’re not, and a competitor for eyeballs, clicks, pageviews and revenue beats them to a source, they’re in deep shit.

Hence the comparison made to vultures — journalists swooping in the second they see blood, death, destruction, tragedy, to dig through its entrails and feast.

Some reporters are fine with this behavior. I’m not.

Partly because there are complex issues that rarely get discussed outside of newsrooms or journalism conferences: what to cover, when to cover and when to stop, what to ask.

Because the assumption is: everything, as fast as possible.

One reason reporters can look like vultures is that those of us working differently, not on breaking news — writing longer features or profiles, covering business or sports or government — remain invisible to the public.

We spend our days ferreting out information we hope will be useful, not merely that hour’s latest tragedy, which can appear titillating or voyeuristic.

So, the public often think “the media” are only those they suddenly come into contact with when we’re at our most aggressive and, yes, our ugliest.

When I teach journalism, I also remind my students — especially women — that we’re paid to break social rules: to run across a room, to interrupt, to ask tough, probing questions, repeatedly when necessary, to challenge authority, whether political, religious or the wealthy.

At our best, to speak truth to power.

That, too, sometimes offends the more decorous or docile.

Reporters don’t contact victims and bystanders because they get off on it; they do it because they’re a small part of a long-established news ecosystem that begins and ends with an audience that understandably wants to know what the facts are, which is to say that it wants to hear what victims and bystanders saw.

I got out of tabloid reporting because I couldn’t take feeling awful anymore. One former co-worker said she got out of it the moment she realized she had been doing it long enough to stop feeling awful.

But…I draw a line that others are failing to do now.

I do not want sentimentality or hand-wringing.

I do not want to hear one more slick television reporter — NBC Nightly News, I’m looking at you — yammer on inanely about a community’s gathering together to “heal.”

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist -- much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

I’m so done with cliches, false emotion and bullshit.

Here’s what I want from fellow journalists:

— Insight, analysis, hard data, fact patterns, trends.

Here’s what I don’t want:

— Drama, emotion, speculation, guessing, uninformed opinion.

What do you think of reporters’ behavior?

Do you watch or listen to the news?

What do you find missing — or most valuable?

What does community mean to you?

In behavior, culture, education, entertainment, immigration, the military, travel, urban life, life, domestic life, blogging, U.S. on October 1, 2015 at 3:28 pm

By Caitlin Kelly


Is it your town?



Your running/cycling/yoga pals?

Your place of worship?

Maybe all of these…

I’ve lived in five countries and seven cities and towns in my life. That’s a lot for some, and nothing for people like TCK’s, third culture kids who move a lot around the world, with parents in the media, military or missionaries, to name only three.

It’s when, how and and where you find a sense of community, of truly belonging to a tribe of like-minded people, that intrigues me.

For some of us — like you, here! — it’s on-line. A place, 24/7, we know we’ll find some other fun, cool people who share our beliefs or concerns. It might be a widows’ support group or gamers or people coping with a chronic illness.

Real-life community interests me the most because that’s where, you should pardon the phrase, shit gets real. On-line people can quickly block, unfriend or delete posts they dislike or disagree with.

Face to face? Meeting people of different religions, politics, races and nationalities is what makes community vibrant, in my view. It’s where we hear different perspectives and learn (or practice!) our social skills. It’s where we see the value, at best, in one another and our individual and shared experiences.

It’s where diplomacy, tact, civility keep us from utter mayhem.

On a good day.

Our view of the Hudson River

Our view of the Hudson River

I belong to several communities, each of which nurture me in different ways:

a local Episcopal church. I attend infrequently, usually every 4 to 6 weeks or so. I’ve been attending there since 1998, though, so am known and know others to some degree. The people there are generally my age or older, many of them far wealthier and more politically conservative. No one seems to really understand what I do for a living or why. But I also think it valuable for us to be there for that reason, to meet “the other.”

a co-ed softball team. We’ve been playing together for 15 years. In a place like New York City, where work and family always trump anything else, that’s pretty amazing. I love these people. We range in age from 20s to 60s, from lawyers and doctors to a retired ironworker, editors, schoolteachers. When one of our members recently died, more than a dozen of us drove hours to his memorial service to show our love and respect for him and his widow. Here’s an essay I wrote about them for The New York Times.

several writers’ groups, both on-line and off-line. As someone who’s been earning her living as a journalist for decades, I need to know my industry intimately and hear what others are up to. I offer advice and support, as others do for me.

My desk -- Twitter allows me to connect globally, quickly and easily

My desk — Twitter allows me to connect globally, quickly and easily

my dance classes. I’ve been studying ballet and jazz for decades and take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday (when I am being consistent!) I’ve gotten to know my teachers personally and really value the camaraderie they create in their classrooms. My fellow students live in my town and I run into them at the grocery store, concerts, on the street. I like that.

— our apartment building. It’s hard for me to even believe it, but I’ve lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years. So I’ve gotten to know some of my neighbors quite well as it’s the sort of place people like to stay, often moving into in their 70s and beyond. I’ve watched people’s children grow up and go to and graduate from college. As someone without children or close relative with children, it’s a way to mark the passage of time.

Which communities do you belong to and why?

How do they nurture you — and vice versa?

My writing workshops Oct. 17 and 18, near New York City

In behavior, business, culture, education, Media, work, journalism, blogging, books on September 25, 2015 at 12:10 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

Some of you are already writing non-fiction, memoir, journalism, essays.

Some of you would like to!

Some of you would like to find newer, larger, better-paying outlets for your work.

Some of you would like to publish for the first time.

Maybe you’d like to write a non-fiction book, but where to start?

I can help.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

As the author of two well-reviewed works of nationally reported non-fiction, Blown Away: American Women and Guns and Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, winner of a Canadian National Magazine award and five fellowships, I bring decades of experience as a writer for the most demanding editors.  I’ve been writing freelance for The New York Times since 1990 and for others like More, Glamour, Smithsonian and Readers Digest.

My website is here.

I’ve taught writing at Pace University, Pratt Institute, New York University, Concordia University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center — and have individually coached many writers, from New Zealand, Singapore and Australia to England and Germany.

My students’ work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

Here’s one of them, a young female cyclist traveling the world collecting stories of climate change.

malled cover LOW

On Saturday October 17, and Sunday October 18, I’m holding a one-day writing workshop, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at my home in Tarrytown New York, a town named one of the U.S’s 10 prettiest.

It’s easily accessible from Grand Central Station, a 38 minute train ride north of Manhattan on Metro-North Railroad, (round trip ticket, $20.50), plus a five-minute $5 cab ride to my home — we have an elevator so there’s no issue with mobility or access.

Coming by car? Tarrytown is right at the Tappan Zee bridge, easy to reach from New Jersey, Connecticut and upstate.

Each workshop is practical, tips-filled, down-to-earth and allows plenty of time for your individual questions. The price includes lunch and non-alcoholic beverages.

$200.00; payable in advance via PayPal only.

Space is limited to only nine students. Sign up soon!


Freelance Boot Camp — October 16

What you’ll learn:

  • How to come up with salable, timely story ideas
  • How to decide the best outlets for your ideas: radio, digital, print, magazines (trade or consumer), newspapers, foreign press
  • How to pitch effectively
  • Setting fees and negotiating
  • When to accept a lower fee — or work without payment

Writing and Selling a Work of Non-Fiction — October 17

What you’ll learn:

  • Where to find ideas for a salable book
  • The question of timing
  • What’s a platform? Why you need one and how to develop it
  • The power of voice
  • Why a book proposal is essential and what it takes
  • Finding an agent
  • Writing, revising, promoting a published book

Questions or concerns? Email me soon at learntowritebetter@gmailcom.

You’ll find testimonials about my teaching here, as well as details on my individual coaching, (via phone or Skype), and webinars, (by phone or Skype), offered one-on-one at your convenience.

Want to register now?


Email me at and I’ll send you an invoice and share travel details.

American life, 2015 — income inequality ‘r us

In behavior, business, cities, culture, politics, urban life, journalism, life, U.S. on September 14, 2015 at 2:21 pm

By Caitlin Kelly


Are you familiar with the Gini coefficient?

It measures income inequality — the chart linked above lists it for every U.S. state.

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack, were raised in a NYC apartment by their hyper-controlling father

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack, were raised in a NYC apartment by their hyper-controlling father

New York, where I’ve lived since leaving my native Canada in 1989 — ranks 50th. i.e. second worst in this regard in the United States.

The worst? You have to laugh, albeit bitterly, Washington, D.C., home to the Capitol and the nation’s federal legislators.

I recently re-lived it, while working on a story for a New York City website about a company giving out food to bring awareness of food insufficiency — aka not having enough to eat every day — in the city’s five boroughs.

Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fresh flowers, always on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a bequest from a wealthy patron. A gorgeous side of Manhattan many tourists see….but there are other, darker realities as well

Last week, I spent two broiling hot, humid days — 95 degrees — working in the poorest part of the poorest Congressional district in the country, the South Bronx. Local residents lined up that day, as I walked over from the subway, some carrying parasols against the brutal heat, some arriving from the public housing complex across the street, for a van offering medical care.

Many of them line up, three days every week, for whatever the food pantry has on offer; I saw many bags of bread and rolls, crisp green apples and cookies.

I was there to watch a company hand out food, and to write about it.

I did this with mixed feelings.

Yes, charity is a good thing.

Yes, alleviating hunger and poverty is a good thing.

But everything is a very small bandage on a large gaping wound.

It is deeply shocking, if you still have gauzy fantasies of America!!!!!! to see the reality of American poverty face to face.

I stopped that day for a quick lunch, (I never eat fast food!), at McDonald’s, one of a dozen fast or fried-food joints lining 125th Street in Harlem. Parts of that street, even in sunny mid-day, have some people nodding off after using a new synthetic form of marijuana.

The restaurant’s clientele that day was, possibly, 10 percent Caucasian.

I had a long conversation, half in French, half in English, with a young librarian from Normandy, traveling for a month with his wife. They planned to visit New York, Philadelphia, D.C. L.A. and San Francisco, which, I told him, would also offer some insights into the income inequality now splitting the country in a way unseen since the Gilded Age, some 100 years ago.

“I can’t believe what I see,” he told me, gazing around at our fellow diners, many using crutches, canes and motorized wheelchairs, some the result of diabetes and obesity.

Welcome to the U.S., I said.

The next day I visited another part of the Bronx; (for you non-New Yorkers, that’s one of the city’s five boroughs, north of Manhattan, a place very few tourists are ever likely to see), this one an astounding and essential part of the city, the Hunt’s Point Food Center.

I saw the warehouse for the Food Bank for New York City, an entity I was certainly well aware of; you can’t live here for any length of time without some idea of their work.

From their website:

Hunger is caused by food poverty, a lack of geographic and/or financial access to nutritious food. In New York City, one of the richest cities in the world, food poverty is around every corner. Throughout the five boroughs, approximately 1.4 million people — mainly women, children, seniors, the working poor and people with disabilities — rely on soup kitchens and food pantries. Approximately 2.6 million New Yorkers experience difficulty affording food for themselves and their families.

Their warehouse has nine bays, each loading millions of pounds of food each month, in and out.


We were given a tour by the warehouse manager, running the place since 1994, a burly, lively whiz running a team zipping about in hand-trucks in a space so enormous it simply boggled the mind.

Imagine the biggest store you’ve ever seen, in the U.S. a Home Depot, for example. Try again!

This warehouse is 90,000 square feet — the above image, (mine), gives you some idea how enormous.

In my 25 years living here, few experiences have struck me as powerfully as these past few days, powerful and visceral reminders that there are many New Yorks, not just the ones tourists see or the ones shown in movies and on television.

It’s hard sometimes, living here, to manage the cognitive dissonance that comes with being even vaguely socially conscious in New York — the size oo’s in their Prada and Gucci, stepping out of their driver-chauffeured Escalades into helicopters to fly to their mansions in the Hamptons.



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