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Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Three weeks in Ireland — the first few days…

In beauty, cities, culture, travel on June 21, 2015 at 8:45 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Silence. Wind. Birdsong.

The tang of burning coal. A whiff of the Atlantic.

The fuchsia of hollyhock and heather and the brilliant yellow of gorse and buttercup.

Piles of peat, cut up and laid out in rows to dry before burning for fuel.

This is my fifth visit to Ireland, the first for my American-born husband. My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in Rathmullan, County Donegal whose son emigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where my father and I were born.

Hence, back to Donegal!

We’re now in a rented cottage in Dungloe, Co. Donegal, the furthest northwest one can get in Ireland one can go; I found it through a quick Google search and hoped for the best. Then we’ll be back to Dublin for another week, with a likely trip north to Belfast to see the Titanic Museum and maybe a Game of Thrones location tour.

We love our new home for the next week: It is totally silent, filled with light thanks to its multiple skylights, and with clear views for miles across the inlets and hills. Custom-built for a local businesswoman and architect-designed, it’s simple, clean and modern, even with its gorgeous stone exterior.

We flew Aer Lingus  into Dublin on Bloomsday, June 16, and spent four nights with friends in Rathmines, a lovely residential neighborhood a mere four tram stops from St. Stephen’s Green, the heart of the city.

I wandered around to get oriented, too tired and jet-lagged to take in official sights. We enjoyed a meal out at Peperina, a neighborhood bistro and a drink at a local pub — just in time to watch a race from Royal Ascot on television. I had a fantastic meal at Avoca, a cafe/shop in Dublin, scored a great pair of suede sneakers and we drove the 4 hours north to Donegal.

There’s so much light! In Dublin there was still light in the sky at 11:45 pm, fully sunlit by 5:00 a.m. — here, further north, there’s even some light in the sky at 3:30 a.m. and it’s fully bright by 4:00 a.m.

While in the north we plan to: visit Rathmullan and Letterkenny, drive around the headlands, visit a few local islands, listen to traditional music, eat some lobster. I’m also hoping to get an Irish-language tutor for an afternoon while we’re in the heart of the Gaeltacht, those few remaining parts of Ireland where most people speak Irish and many road signs are only in Irish.

It’s a gorgeous-sounding language and I’d be thrilled to learn a bit of it.

Here are some photos of our trip, so far; with no phone or Internet access at the cottage, we have to head to a pub for that. Perfect!

From inside a terrific local seafood restaurant, The Lobster Pot, in Burtonport, Co. Donegal, The Lobster Pot, owned by a Minnesota emigre

From inside a terrific local seafood restaurant, The Lobster Pot, in Burtonport, Co. Donegal, owned by a Minnesota emigre

Along a local walkway -- the site of a former railway

Along a local walkway — the site of a former railway

The view from across the road. Can't walk down to the sea very far -- thorns and bog!

The view from across the road. Can’t walk down to the sea very far — thorns and bog!

The cottage, 3 bedrooms, great views

The cottage, 3 bedrooms, great views

Jose gazing out the window of our rented cottage

Jose gazing out the window of our rented cottage

I've never heard of a washed rooster -- Irish potatoes on sale in Dublin

I’ve never heard of a washed rooster — Irish potatoes on sale in Dublin

The range of shawls, sweaters, caps -- in the most gorgeous colors! These are shawls in Avoca, a Dublin shop

The range of shawls, sweaters, caps — in the most gorgeous colors! These are shawls in Avoca, a Dublin shop

Interior of the International Bar, Dublin

Interior of the International Bar, Dublin

A serious Dublin dive bar, founded in 1833, where my bar-mate offered me a quarter of his roast beef sandwich (Delicious!)

A serious Dublin dive bar, founded in 1833, where my bar-mate offered me a quarter of his roast beef sandwich (Delicious!)

A Dublin doorway

A Dublin doorway

My one-way ticket, 2 euros, 20. The fun bit? The voice telling riders to take their ticket and their change -- and announcing every tram stop in English and Irish -- is that of my Dublin friend, a career broadcaster

My one-way ticket, 2 euros, 20. The fun bit? The voice telling riders to take their ticket and their change — and announcing every tram stop in English and Irish — is that of my Dublin friend, a career broadcaster

The Luas -- a two-line tram system running through Dublib; Luas means

The Luas — a two-line tram system running through Dublin; Luas means “speed” in Irish

A question of trust

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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We can’t survive without it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all based on trust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You?

The ability to tolerate discomfort

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

From The New York Times:

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

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

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

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

THAT was difficult

THAT was difficult

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

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

It’s likely the generation we grew up in.

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

I do know one thing.

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

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

Life has sharp edges!

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

— Disagree and ignore them

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

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

— Cry

— Quit

— Never try that path of endeavor again

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

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

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

— Cry

— Yell at someone

— Run away

— Deal with it

— Use drugs or alcohol to numb your unpleasant feelings

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

– Change as much of the situation as possible

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

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

Drinks help!

Drinks help!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discomfort isn’t fatal.

A small, happy life

In beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, life, love, women, work on June 2, 2015 at 12:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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From The New York Times:

Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”

Columnist David Brooks describes this idea in his recent column, expressing a Timesian surprise at one man’s joy in his garden:

This scale of purpose is not for everyone.

What makes people happy?

There's a simple pleasure!

There’s a simple pleasure!

Not just having the newest-shiniest-costliest thing.

Nor the most well-paid powerful job.

Nor a private jet or three nannies and a $50 m apartment — which, believe me, when you live anywhere near New York City starts to seem somehow normal.

When I see an ad for a home, a house or an apartment, costing less than $1 million, and think “Yeah, that’s a decent price” I know it’s time for a reality check.

If you grow up, as I and my half-siblings did, in a family who highly values achievement and professional success — as many do — it’s tough to celebrate smaller, quieter, less-public moments.

Our view

Our view

And social media, with its non-stop parade of others’ effortless and luxurious fabulousness, offers a terrifying hall of mirrors for the chronically insecure, like one writer I know who makes the vaunted six-figures and has two Ivy League degrees, which she easily dismisses. She still wrings her hands constantly about her value.

If you persist in clinging exclusively or primarily to the ladder of professional status, ever seeking more income, status, achievement and admiration, you’re doomed.

There’s never enough.

Nor does the larger culture of the United States, a place addicted to ever-more-feverish productivity, wealth and status, offer much encouragement to those of us who actually prefer a slower pace, the lower costs of a smaller home, an older vehicle, (only one! OMG), or none.

From a story about young women’s rising levels of anxiety in Glamour:

Are our modern lives really that much more stressful? “The answer appears to be yes,” says anxiety researcher Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. “Anxiety rates have risen steadily over the past seven decades, during good economic times and bad.”

She believes the rise is related to a cultural shift, over the last 70 years, away from “intrinsic” values—appreciating things like close relationships and having a real love for your work—toward more “extrinsic” ones, like money and status. In fact, her research found that anxiety rates rose at the same pace with this change in mind-set. “Recent generations have been told over and over again, ‘You can be anything you want to be. You can have the big job title. You can have the big bank account.’ And in the case of women, ‘You can have this perfect body.’

That puts a lot on a person’s shoulders—and it’s also not really true. These are things that aren’t always under your control, but that disconnect creates a lot of anxiety about how hard you need to work to achieve them—and a deep fear of failure,” she explains. “And although these extrinsic values—the latest iPad, the cutest shoes—seem important, all the evidence shows that at the end of the day they don’t leave us very happy or satisfied.”

When more is never enough...

When more is never enough…

Anyone who reads this blog, or visits my website, can see that I’m a fairly ambitious, driven and productive writer — two non-fiction books, a Canadian National Magazine Award, 100+ freelance stories in The New York Times.

I’ve ticked enough boxes.

I know a woman who’s produced four children and four books in the space of a decade. And she has yet to hit 40. What on earth will she do to fill the next four decades of her frenetic life?

She’s obsessed with being productive. I admire her financial success and her love of parenting but I don’t wish to emulate her life or its choices.

I see the insane stress so many people feel — not surprising in an era of stagnant wages, record student debt and a shaky economy in many sectors. How much work is too much? How much is enough?

It is one of the few benefits of being decades into a career and having lived frugally; we don’t face the same pressures as some people I know, certainly those in their 20s, 30s and 40s juggling work/commute/kids/aging parents.

Fresh mint tea. And the time to enjoy it...

Fresh mint tea. And the time to enjoy it…

I’m writing this while sitting on our top-floor balcony, the only sounds that of birds and the wind in the leaves. We have stunning Hudson River views and sunsets that vary every day in their beauty.

I value taking time off, whenever possible.

I enjoy naps, whenever necessary.

I make time to meet friends face to face over a long, delicious meal or a walk instead of chasing yet another client.

I value our strong marriage.

I value our good health.

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I value our dear friends, people who welcome us into their homes in Dublin, Paris, Toronto, London, Maine, Arizona.

What we may lack in prestige/power and visible tokens of fiscal wealth we enjoy in abundance in other forms.

Sure I’d like to write a best-seller or win a fancy fellowship.

But my boxes are mostly ticked and, for now, I’m focusing on small(er) wins and pleasures.

For which I’m grateful.

How do you feel these days about your life?

Simple pleasures

In beauty, behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, life, travel on May 10, 2015 at 2:25 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Some of the past week’s small town pleasures have included:

Walking two blocks to a local cafe for breakfast

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The local variety store — owned by the same man for 31 years

Walking past heritage homes

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Boxes filled with penny candy — even if it’s now five cents a piece

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Patting a gorgeous 11-week old puppy outside the pharmacy named Otis

Patting a huge white Bernese dog in the park named Sugar

Chatting to a stranger in the park and learning more about this town, where he was born, raised and now works

Saying hello to people walking and cycling past

Butter tarts!

This is a butter tart. Yum!

This is a butter tart. Yum!

The frogs’ singing from the backyard pond

Watching the robins and doves lining up — bird spa! — to bathe in the backyard pond

A cold beer and a bowl of peanuts

The best!

The best!

Reading a great new novel given to us in a stack of free books

Naps

More naps

Not driving

Tulips in the park across the street

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Washing cars in the driveway (and spraying Jose “by accident”)

Climbing the stairs (we live in an apartment)

Having to holler across the house to be heard (ditto)

A big backyard

Sitting on the verandah and staring into the sky

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Not needing to know what time it is

Beating Jose at Bananagrams

Being able to keep up with my freelance writing work even while sitting at the kitchen table in Canada

Blueberry pancakes for breakfast

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The haunting sound of passing train whistles

Meeting our old friends for a long lunch

The warm sun on bare skin after an endless and bitter winter

A Canadian farmer’s market specialty (which Americans call Canadian bacon)

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Tossing a softball in the park at sunset

Silence

Having the maitre d’ at a local restaurant remember me from our last visit

Hitting a big bucket of balls while listening to a nearby woodpecker

Finding a 1960 black Ford pick-up truck for sale

$8,000 Canadian or best offer...

$8,000 Canadian or best offer…

What are your skills really worth?

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

By Caitlin Kelly

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

malled cover HIGH

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

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

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

— patience

— excellent listener

— empathy for/with your customer and their needs

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

calm under pressure

— multi-tasking gracefully and competently

— physical stamina

— emotional stamina

— how to initiate and close a sale

Have you heard the phrase “emotional labor”?

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

Riiiiiiiight.

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

All the time.

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

That’s emotional labor.

Malled's Chinese version

Malled’s Chinese version

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

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

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

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

Time is money!

Time is money!

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

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

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

You don’t ask — you don’t get.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how many put up with it.

The tribe meets…

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first book

My first book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tribe knows that.

You can, always, hide deep within its folds.

The having (or not) of faith

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

I married a PK, a preacher’s kid.

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

His mother was a kindergarten teacher.

She was, he says, the epitome of faith.

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

“Have faith,” his mother told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without faith in ourselves we’re lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think faith is forged in the fire of fear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have faith in yourself?

In others?

Dancing with 800 strangers at 7 a.m? It’s Daybreaker!

In behavior, culture, entertainment, life, Style, urban life, US on April 10, 2015 at 2:05 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

all photos: Jose R. Lopez

all photos: Jose R. Lopez

Seriously?

Hell, yes!

It’s a thing that started in Europe.

Dancing before work?

Dancing without drugs or alcohol?

Dancing wearing workout clothes?

It’s a radical notion — a club scene without the usual bullshit dramas of standing in line, wearing the wrong clothes or paying way too much money for drinks you don’t want.

Here’s a bemused story about it from June 2014, when 400 people showed up:

What I found was an amiable crowd of corporate employees and artists, mostly in their 20s; they seemed appreciative of the multiple chaste offerings, including massages, pre-dancing yoga and a “Free Haikus” corner, where a pair of poets who call themselves the Haiku Guys hammered out verses on attendees’ topics of choice. At 7, the atmosphere felt a bit awkward, and the dancing was tentative, but the room soon became rowdy and enjoyable.

“You get some exercise in, you feel great physically, and it’s an incredible dance party,” said Matthew Brimer, 27, a co-founder of Daybreaker. “Dance culture and underground music tends to be boxed in to this idea that you need alcohol or drugs to enjoy. What we’re trying to say is that there’s a whole world of creative experience and dance, music and art.”

And, more recently:

Two friends in New York — Radha Agrawal, 36, the founder of Super Sprowtz, a children’s nutrition company, and Matthew Brimer, 28, a founder of the adult-education school General Assembly — came up with the concept two years ago over late-night falafel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“We were talking about how the morning space in general is pretty boring, people have their routines and that’s about it, and the night-life scene in New York is so dark and synthetic and not community driven,” Mr. Brimer said over the phone. “You know when you leave a nightclub and feel depleted? We wanted to turn that concept on its head.”

Daybreaker holds regular events in not only San Francisco (in places like the Yerba Buena Center and Supperclub), but also in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, London and São Paulo, Brazil. The cost: generally $20 to $40 a person, depending on whether you opt into predance party yoga or not.

This week, on a cold, gray Manhattan Wednesday morning, Jose and I — who are long past our 20s — got up at 6:30 after staying at a friend’s apartment. A bagel and some coffee and a cab ride over to the Highline Ballroom, on the far west side of the city.

Acrobats, too!

Acrobats, too!

We’d paid $25 per person ahead of time; you have to be on a list to know when and where the next one is being held.

I got my hand stamped with Daybreaker’s symbol — a stylized rising sun.

The cavernous space was filled with a yoga class finishing up. The floor cleared and it was our time.

Nothing makes me happier than dancing and I’ve missed it terribly.

So for the next two hours, surrounded by 700+ other happy people, I danced; I think I sat down for about 10 minutes.

The mood felt oddly innocent, joyous, free — for once — of the chronic and terminal status anxiety that infects most of us who live and work here.

Very not New York.

It felt like one big playground, the kind without bullies or cold wet cement onto which you’d probably fall.

 A man playing electric violin came through the crowd.

A man played a didgeridoo from one corner of the stage.

03 digeradoo

The bravest came and danced in the middle of the stage while the female DJ, in from L.A., spun her tunes.

A pair of very large vegetables appeared — apparently a broccoli and a celery, although one looked more like okra to me — guys or women inside huge costumes.

It was sweaty and frenetic like any club scene, but, blessedly, never weird or scary.

People caught Jose’s eye, noticed his age and gray hair, and smiled. I saw perhaps a dozen people our age.

Some people wore work clothes and many began streaming out around 8:30 as they headed off to their office jobs; it ends at 9:00 a.m.

To close, a young man performed a terrific rap poem about the New York subway — and how we so studiously ignore one another, eyes safely down or staring down the tunnel waiting for the train, instead of potentially connecting.

Then it ended as we all sat on the floor and, handed this card, all read aloud a segment of this lovely poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson — written in 1833 and published in 1842.

We read it quietly, in unison, a sort of secular prayer, the 21st century sweetly colliding with the 19th, read by 20-year-olds in gold spandex shorts and rainbow platform shoes.

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Then, exhausted, drenched, ablaze with endorphins, we scattered back into the city and out into our day.

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

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

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

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

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

The first quarter of 2015 has been seriously weird.

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

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

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

Silence.

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

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

They had shut down.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

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

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

Boom! That story?

Dead — in magazine parlance, literally, killed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riiiiiiight…

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

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

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

The problem?

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

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

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

You have to laugh, really.

Then move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all begins with trust:

— trust that your sources are being truthful

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

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

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

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

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