Some thoughts on”Succession”

By Caitlin Kelly

Start with the bizarre, crashing theme music by Nicholas Britell, for which he won the 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Main Title theme. Insistent, discordant, it signals the emotional chaos to follow.

If you haven’t yet seen it — now that Season Two has ended — it’s worth your time. We’ve watched both seasons twice. It follows the fortunes of the Roy family, led by 80-year-old patriarch Logan Roy, whose favorite phrase, growled, is “Fuckoff!”

He has four children by two previous wives: Connor, the oldest, who lives in New Mexico on a ranch and does nothing, and Kendall, Siobhan (nicknamed Shiv, and how it fits!) and Roman, who jostle hourly for their father’s favor and power within his global media company.

Other characters include Geri, the company lawyer and Marcia, the mysterious Lebanese stepmother and Greg, gangly and gormless…or is he?

Here’s an interview with the costume designer.

You don’t have to be a journalist (like me) or come from a father who delights in manipulation (ditto) to enjoy the show. It also offers a peek into the fly-private, driven-everywhere, never-touch-money lifestyle of the .00001 percent, where Shiv, dismissively referring to a six-figure sum says: “It’s only money.”

The four adult children are a mess: Kendall’s a cokehead; Shiv’s marriage to Tom is a sham; Connor wants to be President and Roman…who knows? But their competitive in-fighting for Logan’s approval is both sad and understandable…they have no other measures of value. None of them have children or, apparently, any friends. Papa means everything.

It’s both fascinating and sad to see spoiled, wealthy adults so deeply tethered to their father and his every move. Hmmmm, sound familiar?

They have no other identities, no other sources of joy, power or connection. Every surface gleams, all sweaters are cashmere, all meals served on costly china.

It’s also an interesting look at the challenges of managing a global business empire and the secrets that can destroy it.

Check it out!

Some (belated) thoughts on Fleabag

By Caitlin Kelly

I hope by now you’ve heard of this show, and seen it…a two-season television series created by and starring 33-year-old Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who this year won the Emmy for Best Comedy, Best Comedy Actress and Best Writing.

The show’s first season — deeply British — probably turned off a lot of viewers: her character, whose only name is Fleabag, is sex-obsessed, sarcastic, guarded and has behaved really badly at times. She’s mourning the recent deaths of her mother (breast cancer) and best friend and London fellow cafe-owner (traffic accident.)

She’s not perky and likeable. You want to shake her by the shoulders as much as give her a hug.

But the second season, which I recently binged, is much less comedy and so often the smartest and deepest look I’ve ever seen at what we want when we think we want sex — and we crave something much deeper and more lasting.

And so much more elusive.

And, of course, she wants it from….a Catholic priest.

It’s really difficult, if you have a certain kind of family of origin and a certain kind of sexual history — OK, mine — to watch Fleabag and her out-sized and inchoate yearnings and not feel deeply seen.

Her sister Claire is spiky and angry and married to a really awful American. Her father is  unable to share emotions or show Fleabag how much he loves her, instead forever kowtowing to his new wife-to-be, who is (the amazing Olivia Colman, winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Actress in The Favourite) an even more awful person, simpering and selfish and passive-aggressive.

This brought back wayyyyyyyy too many memories for me of how my father (equally allergic to feelings and discussion of same) always makes sure the women in his life take precedence. Fleabag seems to have no pals and her sister is too often freaking out over something to be a reliably loving presence.

Fleabag also bounces off men (literally) like a pinball, until she meets the hot priest. I’ll save you the spoilers, but suffice to say he’s the only character finally able to challenge her and puncture her flip, glib defenses.

I also recently saw the original one-woman show that was the initial idea for all of this and it is astonishing, with lightning-quick shifts in mood and tone.

She is a bloody genius.

 

Have you seen it?

 

Thoughts?

Recent reading…

By Caitlin Kelly

Trying hard to get off the computer and read more books.

Lots more books!

Five recently read:

Range, by David Epstein.

I wouldn’t have read it normally but got a free copy as research for an article and it was edited by a super-smart editor, (my editor on Malled.) The basic premise, comforting to me, is that being a generalist able to shift gears quickly and easily between ideas and industries (as needed) is a useful skill and one much derided in favor of being a specialist. I’ve seen this in my own worklife and as the (loathed word) “gig economy” forces millions of us into insecure work, these skills may be more important than ever.

 

Conversations With Friends, Sally Rooney

Here’s a Vox story about Rooney and her books’ popularity. I have to admit I didn’t love this book, about two young Dublin women who used to be lovers and one of whom is now having an affair with an older married man. I would have enjoyed this book in my 20s or maybe 30s. Not now.

 

The Wych Elm, Tana French

Also by a hugely popular Irish author, whose other books I’ve enjoyed. Much as this set the scene well — also in Dublin,  a city I’ve visited a few times — and offered powerful characters, this one also left me cold. It felt too long. Maybe I really am not a fiction reader?

 

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick

Loving this one so far — the 1968 basis for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, two of my favorite films ever. I don’t normally read sci-fi but this is great.

 

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All That You Leave Behind, Erin Lee Carr

Hmmmmm. This one was a reminder that privileged young women with powerful and connected parents can quickly and easily carve out a path in cut-throat New York media while dozens of talented and hard-working journalists able to even get a job can do  theirs without drinking and drugging and breaking things — and getting second and third chances. Like many readers, I picked this up because I admired her late father, New York Times media writer David Carr. I also admire her skill as a documentary film-maker, and enjoyed her film about Olympic athletes and Larry Nassar, At The Heart of Gold.

 

What have you read recently you’d recommend?

What does it take to do good journalism?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I know two people right now whose teenagers, both from very privileged backgrounds, are eager to become journalists.

They like to write and are determined and curious.

Good start!

But the sheer number of factors and skills — soft and hard — that allow for decent journalism go far far beyond knowing or liking how to write.

Like:

Knowing how to listen, carefully and attentively, to everyone you interview — whether face to face, by Skype or phone. Email is the worst because you have no way of knowing who actually wrote it. Listening carefully is tiring and difficult sometimes. Without it, we get nothing of value.

Knowing how to make total strangers feel (more) at ease with us. This runs both ways, as it can be also be highly manipulative. But unless we can get people we’ve never met, and who may be very different from us in education, ethnicity, race, religion or political views, to open up, we’ve got nothing. This requires the ability to tune into others quickly and effectively.

Knowing how hard it is to get a job anywhere but in three expensive major cities.

The journalism job hunt can be particularly challenging between the coasts. Last year, Emma Roller, 30, took a buyout after working as a politics writer for the website Splinter, which was part of Univision’s Gizmodo Media Group. She got married and moved from Washington to Chicago to be closer to family. But as she looked for a new job, she found many positions required that she live in New York, Washington or Los Angeles.

 

— Knowing you’ll even have a job a week or a month later. Not a joke. In 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs — and 2019 has been a bloodbath.

 


 

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Knowing what makes a story compelling. You can waste a lot of time and energy — yours and theirs — asking stupid or irrelevant questions. Know what your readers/audience care most about. Get that.

Knowing when to stop digging, and when to dig harder. Too many lazy, tired and overworked journalists, mostly digital, are merely rewriting press releases or aggregating others’ work. But when you’re reporting a real story, you have limited time and budget to get it. What’s key? What haven’t you understood fully yet?

— Knowing that some stories are going to harm us, physically and/or emotionally. For every corporate blablabla “profile”, there’s a powerful and important story being reported about rape, sexual abuse, violence, crime, gun massacres, war…These are the stories that can boost a writer’s career but at a significant cost in secondary trauma.

— Knowing we represent our audience. Too many journalists think it’s all about them. They preen on social media and prize their thousands of “followers”….and say nothing interesting. The job of a journalist is to dig, question, challenge authority and be accurate.

— Knowing our work has consequences. For better or worse. If someone cannot be safely identified as a source, you don’t do that.

There’s a new (to me!) six-part UK TV show, “Press” I just started watching, about the values and ethics and behaviors of two rival newspaper staffs, both their reporters and the editors who tell them what to do.

It’s got a lot of truth in it.

The value of “slow fashion”

 

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My faithful sewing kit

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve never been a fan of “fast fashion” — rushing to snag some of the thousands of garments pumped out by cheap labor for mega-corporate brands like Zara and H & M. Zara, for example, releases a staggering 20,000 new designs a year, the idea to keep luring shoppers in for more, more, more merch.

The cost to the environment — terrible!

The New York Times just published a smart guide to buying less, and less frequently:

Even though many retailers say they’re addressing sustainability, “the clothing that they make still doesn’t have any greater longevity,” said Elaine Ritch, a senior lecturer in marketing at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Faced with this reality, the concept of “slow fashion” has emerged over the past decade as a kind of counterbalance to fast fashion. The idea: slow down the rapid pace of clothing consumption and instead buy fewer more durable items. It’s an idea championed, for example, by the fashion blogger Cat Chiang, Natalie Live of the brand The Tiny Closet, and Emma Kidd, a doctoral researcher in Britain who launched a 10-week “fashion detox.”

They are sounding the alarm, in part, because the negative impacts of clothing extend beyond the landfill. The chemicals used in making, dyeing and treating many fabrics are so harmful that the E.P.A. regulates many textile factories as hazardous waste generators. And overall, apparel and footwear produce more than 8 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions associated with the harmful effects of human-caused climate change.

To anyone living on a tight budget, the suggestion to buy less is risible — if you can’t afford stuff, you aren’t buying it.

But also laughable to anyone who grew up  before the very idea of “fast fashion”, as I did, pre-Internet, in a country (Canada) with fewer retail choices, lower salaries and higher taxes. We just didn’t buy a lot because…who would?

 

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I lived in Paris the year I was 25, life-changing in all the very best ways, and have returned many times since, ideally every two or three years.

French women, beyond the wealthy, are discerning and typically very selective, adding a few key items a year — not every day or week or month. Small city apartments don’t have enormous suburban dressing rooms, for one thing.

They also know that great grooming matters just as much.

Although I live near New York City, with ready access to some of the world’s fanciest stores, I often spend my clothing and accessories budget in Canada (I know where to go!) and Europe. I like the colors much better (lots of navy blue, browns and camel — American color options often glaring and weird) and the styles and, key — higher quality.

I’ve always had a sewing kit, accustomed to mending and sewing buttons back on. I’ve always used a cobbler to re-heel and re-sole shoes; I have one pair bought in 1996 still looking amazing, (OK, Fratelli Rosetti on sale.)

I don’t enjoy shopping for clothes (needing to lose a lot of weight is certainly very de-motivating in this regard) but am a sucker for great accessories: boots, earrings, shoes, scarves, a fab handbag. (My latest — which draws daily compliments everywhere — is a black woven leather handbag found in a Santa Fe consignment shop for $120, less than half the price of a store downtown.)

 

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My beloved Birks, bought in Berlin, seen here on the streets of Rovinj, Croatia

 

I prefer neutral colors to prints, low or flat heels to higher ones, simple cuts to anything with frills or flounces. I shop maybe two or three times a year. I find it tiring and there’s no one to help in any meaningful way.

Recently back in my hometown of Toronto I bought a pair of boots, low, black suede; with tax, $280 Canadian ($211.00 U.S.) Yes, pricy, but with my typical intent of wearing them for at least three to five years, a lot.

This year I finally tossed out a pair of black suede flats that had seen a decade of wear.

ENOUGH!

With CPW, cost-per-wearing; the more you use an item of clothing, the more you amortize out its initial cost. A black pleated ankle length dress I bought in 2016 from Canadian brand Aritizia ($100 on sale, reduced from $150) is still an elegant, hand-washable four-season stand-by for every occasion, from a professional meeting to date night to a very elegant Toronto summer wedding reception.

Were I a wealthy woman, and lost the weight, I would — I admit — buy a few more clothes, but much nicer ones, from my favorite designers: The Row, Dries Van Noten and Etro.

Having terrific style is rarely a matter of being wealthy, but being selective and consistent.

As Coco Chanel once said: Elegance is refusal.

Everyone needs an editor

By Caitlin Kelly

Like those narrow bits of whalebone that once shaped women’s corsets — invisible aids to visible beauty — editors save writers daily.

They catch our grammatical errors, query an assertion, challenge an opinion. The very best are gentle-but-firm and help us create terrific material. The worst are butchers.

Yet writers very rarely publicly acknowledge how essential their skills are to our more obvious success.

 

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Each story we read has been edited,  some more rigorously than others…

 

One editor recently made a whole pile of new enemies on Twitter when he declared that  most of the writing he reads is only made useful thanks to editors. That self-satisfied burn was not appreciated.

But a recent New York Times Book Review piece recounted how zealously and carefully one writer had been managed by her book editor. And nowhere does she explain (!) that this is now as rare and luxurious an experience as having a car and driver, butler or valet, let alone all three. I know no writers getting this kind of literal hands-on attention to their work.

By Ruth Reichl:

Susan’s ability to read my mind astonished me; our editing sessions often felt like a visit to a psychiatrist. I’d arrive at her cluttered office every few months to find my latest pages sitting in the middle of her desk, covered with pencil scrawls and festooned with little yellow Post-its. We’d pull up chairs, eat lunch (always sushi), chat about our families. Then we’d push the plates away and go through the manuscript page by page. Susan would lean across the desk, fix those large expressive eyes on me, point at a paragraph. “Are you sure he’d do that?” “What are you really trying to say here?” “I have a feeling you don’t like this woman. Can you put it into words?” Answering her questions, I’d find myself saying things I hadn’t even known I thought.

The late editor, Susan Kamil, sat beside her in her office, going over Reichl’s work line by line. This, in an era when even agents have little time or energy to spare the plebes, let alone the P & L-obsessed editors they hope to sell us to.

 

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I won’t soon forget getting the notes on my last book, sitting in a motel room in Victoria, B.C. while visiting my mother. My editor, who had previously worked for NASA (it is rocket science!) liked chapters 11 and 12.

What about Chapters 1 through 10?

I panicked. That is a lot of revision!

A dear friend, also a writer, gave me very good advice: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

Thanks to Courtney’s calm and thorough suggestions — certainly not in her office, nor line by line or page by page — we got it done. Then, just as the book was going into final production, we went at it again, tweaking a few pages.

Digital story-telling makes it too easy to later fix a published mistake. Book editing is a high-wire act in comparison.

This past summer offered me the highs and lows of what it means to work with an editor. One, a rude young woman with very little understanding of the collaborative nature of this endeavor, left me shaking with frustration. Another, a man my age, has offered some direction, but has given me tremendous autonomy on a major story, the most complex in many years.

Like all writers, I will be nervous until it goes live, hopefully in the next few months.

That final moment of submission — yes, double meaning — is always scary!

 

The deep comfort of seeing old friends

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By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine opening your kitchen door to someone you haven’t seen in 50 years.

That just happened for me and a woman I knew at boarding school in Toronto, with whom — both of us bad girls asked to leave the school at the end of that year — I then, briefly, shared a room there.

She’s an incredibly talented art photographer, with three books to her credit; here’s her website.

After we lost touch, she moved to Ireland, then back home to Toronto, then to the U.S. — as I did, and there married and divorced without children (as I did.) Now she’s back in Canada and we caught up on so many stories! It was eerie how much we had in common and so comforting to feel like it had not been so many years; she, too, had DCIS (early stage breast cancer) and reached out to me on Facebook last year when I was diagnosed, then living in New Mexico — my husband’s home state.

On this trip we also caught up with a man I’ve known since my very early 20s, married for years to his husband, now retired to the country. We met their gorgeous Airedale and enjoyed a great meal together. We hadn’t seen them in a few years and look forward to returning. How nice to know we’re welcome again.

We also spent an evening with yet another friend of many, many years — who I met when he was a tenant in an apartment in a house my father owned. It’s lovely when you’re out on the road for three weeks, most of it working, to sit at a friend’s table and savor their hospitality. (We arrived there with a big box of delicious bakery goodies.)

I finally, after many lonely years there, have several good friends in New York, and one who’s known me for about 20 years — but the depth and breadth of my earliest friendships, the ones who knew me before my first husband, (pre-1986), are so precious to me. They knew me “when” — and, still, gratefully, know me now.

On this trip, I’ve also made several new younger friends through Fireside, and I am really enjoying getting to know them better.

 

Friendship sustains me.

Talking to strangers…

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For this New York Times story, I spoke to this woman and teachers and volunteers and many middle school students

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I spend my professional life speaking with strangers, an odd way to describe journalism — since everyone focuses on the (cough) fame, fortune or fake news that’s the written or broadcast end result.

But if I don’t speak to strangers — and those have included Queen Elizabeth, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, a female Admiral and a few celebrities (like Billy Joel at the very start of his career) — I have nothing to work with. Just as every builder needs bricks and mortar and windows and doors and HVAC to create a functional home, I need to assemble quotes, facts and anecdotes to write interesting stories.

People assume that, because it’s a journalist’s job to talk to strangers, we each find it comfortable and easy. But sometimes it’s excruciating, like speaking to the survivors of or witnesses to rape, genocide, war, mass shootings — meeting people in their most vulnerable moments, sensitively (at best!) managing their tender emotions even as we struggle to mask or contain our own.

But it’s also the part of the work I most enjoy. People are so different, and yet we all want to be listened to attentively and respectfully.

We want to be met with interest, empathy, compassion.

It’s good to find common ground.

It’s great to share a laugh!

I also talk to strangers when I’m out and about — at the gym or grocery store or on the train and, especially, when I sit alone at a bar and chat (when welcomed) to the person beside me.

And because I’ve traveled widely and often alone — Istanbul to Fiji, Peru to the Arctic — I’ve also had to rely many times on the advice, kindness and wisdom of strangers. It does require good judgment and the confidence to suss out a baddie from a perfectly kind soul. So far my only misjudgement, of course, happened at home in suburban New York.

This past week was a perfect example of why, (and yes I’m careful)…I sat at the bar, as I usually do when I eat out alone, at a fun restaurant, and the man beside me was heavily tattooed, had a thick, gray lumberjack beard and was on his second or third tequila. His name was Joe and we had a terrific conversation — he’s a tattoo artist and former Marine.

We could not have less in common!

And yet, a lively, friendly chat ensued.

The power of journalism, in forcing its front-line staff to talk to hundreds of strangers every year, is that it shoves us out of any self-defined “comfort zone” — a phrase I truly loathe. No matter how I personally feel about a specific subject (and, as a freelancer I won’t take on something I know will revolt me), I have to remain polite and respectful to my interlocutor.

If only every teen and every adult would make time to civilly engage with people they don’t know, whose politics they haven’t predetermined and admired, whose race and gender and sexual preference and age and clothing and demeanor and house and vehicle don’t signal they’re predictably and cozily “one of us.”

 

Would the U.S. — or Britain — be any less divided?

 

Do you speak to strangers beyond necessary commercial or medical interactions?

A must-see film: Capernaum

By Caitlin Kelly

Sometimes you watch a film that feels like a punch to the solar plexus.

In a good way.

I was bored and channel-surfing this week on yet another stiflingly hot evening when, at 10:00 pm, I found a film I had really wanted to see in 2018 when it came out. It received rapturous reviews, including a 15 minute standing ovation when screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Capernaum — also named Chaos — was filmed in a dusty, crowded Beirut for $4 million, starring a 12 year old Syrian refugee named Zain who’d already survived eight years in that city’s slums. The stars of the film include the most gorgeous baby — not more than a year old — and an Ethiopian woman, his mother, living and working there in menial jobs illegally.

If there is a film that more powerfully shows what it’s like to scrape every single day for food, water, income and dignity, I don’t know what it is.

The child who plays Zain is also named Zain, and was 12 at the time of filming, then illiterate. He is so tiny he looks like he might be eight or ten. (He now lives in Norway.)

Every element of this film is searing: the fate of his sister Sahar, a child bride; his abusive parents unable to care for him in any way; his resilience; the empathy and compassion Rahil shows for him (the mother of the baby) and his, in turn, for her toddler.

There’s a kind of intimacy and immediacy to this film that renders everything more slick and produced meaningless in comparison. It is in Arabic and Amharic with subtitles.

Slumdog Millionaire made in 2008 for $15 million — and which made $377.89 million — is the only other film that comes to mind like this, and Capernaum is much better.

Like Slumdog, it was made on  a small budget of $4 million (thanks to a producer who mortgaged his home), and has so far earned $68.6 million becoming a huge and unexpected hit in China.

Ironic that two films about desperately impoverished street children have proven so popular and lucrative.

I sure hope these child actors have also enjoyed some of that wealth!

Here’s the film’s trailer.

Find it. 

Watch it.

Extraordinary.