Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

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

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, work 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, journalism, life, politics, U.S., urban life 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.


The most important thing school can teach you is…

In behavior, children, culture, education, life, parenting on August 27, 2015 at 1:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.

Still very much an experiental learner

Still very much an experiental learner

Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.

Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:

I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.

If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.

You need to why this shadow is here...

You need to why this shadow is here…

Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:

Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.

Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.

I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- the world ready for me to explore!

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — the world ready for me to explore!

I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.

What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?

To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions

To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.

To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.

To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.

To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.

I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.

I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.

What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?


My New York

In beauty, behavior, cities, culture, immigration, life, travel, U.S., urban life, US, work on August 21, 2015 at 12:49 am

By Caitlin Kelly

“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”
E.B. White, Here Is New York

I agree.

The railings have lacy, gilded dividers and the diamond-like lights repeat in the exterior and hall interior

Lincoln Center, where I’ve been watching ballet for decades (and once performed!)

I arrived in New York, with no friends or family or job or connections here, just in time for the first recession in my industry, journalism. To find my first job here, (which I finally found through an ad in The New York Times), I made 150 cold calls to total strangers.

I cried a lot.

After a terrific few years working for major Canadian daily newspapers, it was rough on my ego, and my aspirations, to realize that what I’d accomplished meant nothing here because it hadn’t happened in the U.S., let alone within the city’s five boroughs.

I finally did find a position, as a senior editor at  a well-respected, now-long-gone monthly magazine called World Press Review, at a salary $5,000 a year lower than what I’d earned in Montreal two years before as a reporter for the Gazette.

Welcome to New York!

Who doesn't need a pop-up Building and a few taxis?

Who doesn’t need a pop-up Empire State Building and a few taxis?

Why did I want to move here?

I’d been visiting since I was 12, so it was not wholly unfamiliar.

My mother was born here and was married at St. Bartholomew’s, a huge Romanesque pile on Park Avenue, where her grandmother lived. I was legally able to move here from my native Canada because I obtained my green card through my mother’s American citizenship.

As an ambitious journalist, I dreamed of being published and by the major American magazines and book publishers I grew up reading — Vogue, Glamour, The New York Times. I also knew that sustaining a 30+ year career in Canada, with a much smaller set of professional opportunities, wasn’t for me; I’d feel bored and always have wondered, what if…

We've survived this...

We’ve survived this…

Reinventing my life in New York was hard!

In some ways, it still is. For every full-time job or freelance opportunity, there are hundreds of ferociously determined and well-prepared competitors. Socially? I still find it lonely, although I’ve made a few friends; people focus on their families or their work and have long, tiring commutes.

If you arrive here without one second of American education — especially elite feeders to the best jobs, like prep schools and the Ivy League — you arrive severely deprived of crucial social capital. You need a lot of talent, drive, skill and luck to shove open some of these very heavy doors.

But the city is also a source of tremendous pleasure for me, even as I live in a small town north of the city, where I own an apartment; I’m easily in town, by car or train, within 40 minutes.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

I’ve had some of the best moments of my life here, like picking up the galleys for my first book at the Sixth Avenue offices of Simon & Schuster, and clutching them to my heart in ecstasy. I’d achieved my dream! A book published by one of the country’s biggest houses (Pocket Books.)

Here’s a link to it, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

What are some of the things I still love here?


Hard to imagine what you can’t find here, whether music, dance, opera, theater, fine art, museums…My favorites are a little obscure, like the Mint Theater, (which revives earlier works and which is housed, oddly, in a midtown office building), and the Japan Society, which mounts small, excellent shows in a lovely, quiet exhibition space in the east 40s.

I have a favorite painting at the Met I like to visit, this painting of Joan of Arc, first shown in 1880, by the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage.


This image stops me cold in my tracks — hung in a busy hallway — every time. It’s enormous.

I feel as if she’s standing right in front of me, close enough to touch. I love how dazed she looks, the overturned wooden stool, and the ghostly image of her, in armor, floating behind her, her awaiting future.

I love everything about this painting: its colors, details, mood and subject matter. And am so lucky I can see it when I want to.

Another favorite is a pair of gold Roman earrings at the Met, tiny cherubs riding astride birds, exquisite in every detail.

You must get to Lincoln Center, both stunning visually (the fountain!) and culturally. I recently treated myself to a $65 box seat to see Joshua Bell play Bach and Mozart. Swoon!

Food and Drink:

If you can’t find a decent meal here, (and in Brooklyn and Queens as well), you’re not paying attention, from elegant old-school venues like Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, Sardi’s, the Campbell Apartment, the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis and La Grenouille to the newest, trendiest spots. (If you can’t afford a meal, you can probably afford a cocktail just to enjoy the atmosphere and history.)

The bar at Fanelli's

The bar at Fanelli’s

I tend to return to old favorites like Red Cat on 10th., Balthazar on Crosby St;, The Lion on West 9th, Toloache on 50th., and Cafe Cluny and Morandi in the West Village. I love Caffe Reggio and Bosie Tea Parlor for a long chat with a pal over coffee or tea and Grey Dogs, east and west versions, for breakfast.

Buying food is a joy in places like Eataly, Chelsea Market, the Union Square Greenmarket and the city’s many specialty stores, from Kalustyan’s (spices), Murray’s Cheese, Russ and Daughters to Porto Rico Coffee and Tea.

Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC

Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC


The smallest few blocks here will reward your attention, especially with amazing architecture and fenestration. The shaded and cobble-stoned streets of the West Village are lovely. So are the funky bits of the East Village, East 9th being a favorite for shopping, eating and looking.

The city has many extraordinary churches well worth a visit, like the second-oldest church in Manhattan, St. Mark’s in the Bowery, on East 10th. street.

The parks are an obvious choice and so is the Brooklyn Bridge, especially at sunset; I bet fewer than 5 percent of anyone in New York knows that the Brooklyn Bridge would never have been completed without the skills and determination of a 19th-century woman — Emily Roebling, wife of the engineer, Washington Roebling, whose job it was to design the bridge and who fell ill halfway through the project.

My favorite park is Bryant Park in midtown, filled in summer and fall and spring with folding dark green chairs and tables, plenty of shady trees, even a carousel. In winter there’s a skating rink with cheap rentals and great music.



I attended The New York School of Interior Design in the 1990s, intending to leave journalism and change careers. I didn’t, but now teach writing there. It’s an honor to head back through those huge red doors as a member of their adjunct faculty. (I’ve also taught at NYU [adults] and Pratt Institute.)

Columbia and many other schools are always putting on panel discussions and lectures open to the public, offering tremendous, free opportunities to keep learning.


Sigh. From indie spots like my favorite vintage store, Edith Machinist on Rivington to Saks, Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s to bookstores, specialty shops, (one selling nothing but umbrellas, for example), and pop-ups. Saks’ shoe department has its own zip code, a fun spot to watch oligarchs and their wives buying bagfuls of $1,500 stilettos and squealing girls from the heartland swooning over their first in-person sighting of Jimmy Choos and Manolos.

Ignore the stuff you can find in any other city, like Big Box and chain stores, and seek out treasures like Bigelow’s, the oldest apothecary in America.

If, like me, you looooooove unusual and exotic fragrances, (men’s and women’s), you cannot miss Aedes de Venustas on Christopher Street. Buy a box of this soap, (3 bars for $42), and sniff it happily all the way home.


For a city so known for modernity and speed and haste, there’s much history here to savor as well. One of the quietest and most out-of-the-way places to visit is this, Manhattan’s oldest house — built in 1765 — the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

Check out the Tenement Museum for a truly immersive feel for NYC vernacular history and the Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island.

I love the atmosphere of the city’s classic 100-year-old-plus bars or restaurants, including Old Town Bar, Fanelli’s, the Landmark and the Ear Inn. If you sit in The White Horse, you’ll sit where my namesake — Caitlin Thomas, wife of the poet Dylan Thomas — once sat as well.

You can’t miss the cathedral of commuters, Grand Central Terminal, on 42d Street. It is breathtaking in its beauty and scale, with details from carved marble fountains to gleaming, enormous chandeliers and a brilliant turquoise ceiling with gold-painted constellations. Built in 1913, renovations were completed in 1996.

The water:

It’s too easy to forget that Manhattan is, after all, an island. Get to the western edge and enjoy the sunset at one of the many pier-side restaurants and bars. Take a Circle Line ferry around the island. Rent a kayak.

Or jump on the Staten Island ferry and head out as the sun is setting to watch the city light up.

What do you enjoy most about living in — or visiting — New York City?

Rockefeller Center, as seen from Saks Fifth Avenue

Rockefeller Center, as seen from Saks Fifth Avenue

Would you rather buy more stuff — or have more fun?

In aging, behavior, business, culture, domestic life, entertainment, Money on August 17, 2015 at 12:08 am

By Caitlin Kelly

This piece in The New York Times piqued my interest:

American consumers are putting what little extra money they do have to spend each month into eating out, upgrading their cars or fixing up their homes, as well as spending on sports gear, health and beauty. Spending at restaurants and bars has jumped more than 9 percent this year through July compared with the same period last year, and on autos by more than 7 percent, according to the agency.

Analysts say a wider shift is afoot in the mind of the American consumer, spurred by the popularity of a growing body of scientific studies that appear to show that experiences, not objects, bring the most happiness. The Internet is bursting with the “Buy Experiences, Not Things” type of stories that could give retailing executives nightmares.

Millennials — the 20- and 30-something consumers whom marketers covet — would rather spend their hard-won cash on out-of-town vacations, meals with friends, gym memberships and, of course, their smartphones, many surveys suggest.

More stuff!

More stuff!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we’re finally, gratefully, at a point in our lives we need very little additional stuff. We’ve renovated two rooms of our apartment and own an array of sports gear, art supplies, camera equipment, the things we use for pleasure and for work. (We do need to replace our old car.)

It’s a huge relief.

I’ve never been a mall rat, the sort of person whose favorite activity is shopping. I enjoy it and sometimes take an entire day to do it, but rarely come home with more than one or two things, and usually nothing huge or expensive.

Like everyone, I have specific weaknesses — anything seriously antique, jewelry and lovely things for setting a pretty table.

One of the most fun things you can possibly do -- dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC

One of the most fun things you can possibly do — dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC

We’ve also saved really hard for years for our retirement, so can now release a bit more of our income for pleasure; saving 15 per cent a year is no fun, but — yes, really — it adds up.

I’m more eager now to spend what extra money we earn on travel, dining out, enjoying the many plays, concerts, dance performances and conferences available to us in and near New York City. We do not have children or grandchildren, nor, as many of our younger friends do, huge student debts to discharge. Frankly, we feel like outliers — we are very far from 1%ers but we’re not panicked about money the way many people are; the average American has saved stunningly little for retirement.

A ticket to the theater is a joy --- and privilege

A ticket to the theater is a joy — and privilege

In the next few months, we’ll attend a weekend workshop (for business purposes); travel back to Canada (by car), attend a few shows and concerts. We hope to be back in Europe after Christmas for several weeks.

My Dad heads off soon for a month sailing with a friend in Greece; at 86, with a new hip, he’s lucky enough to have the good health, strength and finances to keep enjoying his life. In this regard, he’s very much a role model.

How many things do you want to own? How many experiences would you like to enjoy?

Unless you’re wealthy, every expenditure of money means making a choice — the time needed to invest in earning the taxable income to buy the stuff, store the stuff, clean and polish and upgrade the stuff — or an amazing afternoon/evening/week/month/year creating indelible memories.


We spent a recent Sunday in Manhattan (a 40 minute trip into the city from our home) seeing a show, On The Town, on Broadway, and splurged on box seats, at $101 each. I felt like royalty — they offered amazing sightlines and no squished knees; we sat in comfortable elegant Louis XIV-style armchairs. Before the show, we stopped in at Sardi’s, the classic, old-school bar and restaurant, for a Bloody Mary and a snack.

What a lovely, lovely day, creating memories we’ll cherish for years to come.

I’ve never once regretted any of the money I’ve spent on travel or meals or a day of skiing or a game of golf. But I’ve deeply regretted the money I’ve wasted on a pair of too-high heels (worn once!), clothing that just looked like hell or a really boring book that was, after all, a best-seller.

Sunrise from our friend's bedroom window in Maine

Sunrise from our friend’s bedroom window in Maine

Nothing that arrives in a box or bag is ever as pleasurable and satisfying to me as walking down a Paris street or having tea with a friend in London or catching up face to face with my sister-in-law in Toronto over a very long lunch.

How about you?

What makes you happier — stuff or experiences?

Any good ones you can share?

The boundaries of journalism

In art, behavior, books, culture, domestic life, entertainment, film, journalism, life on August 6, 2015 at 2:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

I recently watched two terrific films — one a feature, one a documentary — that raise interesting questions about when, how, why and where we, (I’ve been a journalist for 30 years) decide we see a story and decide we want to tell it.

Must tell it.

The feature, based on real life, is called True Story, and is quite extraordinary. I remember, even 13 years ago when it happened, the downfall of a then Golden Boy of journalism, Mike Finkel.

It’s a very rare journalist who gets to write a story, let alone multiple pieces all-expense paid to travel to some distant country to do original reporting, for The New York Times Magazine. It’s considered a real pinnacle for ambitious writers — and one I have yet to scale, even as I enviously read friends’ work being published there.

What Finkel did, combining several characters to make one more compelling, is completely taboo in news journalism, which is mean to rely wholly on verifiable, truthful fact.

But the pressures to stay well-paid and widely admired and respected by editors with the power to make or break our careers? Relentless. It’s only worse now in an age of social media, as my friend Karen Ho knows — her recent Toronto Life story about a murder-for-hire has won huge attention and kudos from the toughest editors in the business.

Yet she’s still working, for the moment, for a small and remote news outlet.

Ambition is crucial for a successful journalism career. But so are rigorous fact-checking and tight ethical boundaries — as the editors of Rolling Stone have also learned after the fiasco of a story about rape at the University of Virginia that rapidly fell apart and has resulted in firings and lawsuits.

In “True Story”, which features a chilling performance by James Franco as Christian Longo, who murdered his entire family, the mutual manipulation is quite amazing to see. (Another fine film examining this issue is Capote, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote.)

One of the many issues I found so compelling about TS is how it lays bare the ravening ego of a writer who’s fallen from grace — and how desperate he was to redeem himself professionally. Like throwing meat to the lions, he calls every editor he knows, all of whom now worry that he’ll just lie to them as well.

It’s also a painfully truthful film for anyone who’s still lusting to reach the higher rungs of the ladder of writing success — which is almost everyone!

You’ve just won a Pulitzer? Your best friend has a Neiman. You won a Neiman? Your college room-mate won a MacArthur “genius” grant or your former intern won a high six-figure advance/Hollywood contract/three-book deal/NYT best-seller list.

It’s a world of insecurity, self-doubt and perpetual status anxiety.

Yet — without credibility — even the most talented and hardworking journalist has nothing.

The documentary, The Wolfpack, is an astounding film, about six brothers — wearing dark sunglasses, waist-length glossy black hair and some very sharp suits — who grew up sequestered in one of the world’s largest cities, Manhattan. The Angulo brothers (they also have a sister) were essentially held hostage by their father, the only person with keys to the door of their huge apartment in a public housing project on the Lower East Side.

The pathology of his marriage to their mother, a gentle, soft-spoken Midwestern woman, is equally mysterious. Only one moment, and it’s brief, hints at even darker issues.

Darker than keeping your seven children locked up for decades?

As one of them tells film-maker Crystal Moselle, they’d leave their home maybe nine times a year — or one year, not at all.

The men are funny, engaging, stylish and blessed with extraordinary imaginations and empathy. It’s hard to even imagine their life before Moselle discovered them, and their story, on a city sidewalk.

From a recent review:

The Wolfpack is mesmerizing but not because it has stunning cinematography or dazzling effects: the footage is grainy, resembling home movies. Moselle’s camera is surprisingly non-judgemental, especially considering that the film’s subject matter screams “child abuse” and “domestic violence.”

Nevertheless, I couldn’t look away, and each cut felt like a cliffhanger, leaving me with questions that I had faith the filmmaker would answer (or at the very least, acknowledge). However, the documentary leaves many questions unanswered, and I couldn’t help but wonder why this family would volunteer to put their life on display considering the legal and moral questions the film was bound to raise.

In a press release, Moselle claims that she never felt the need to intervene, and that she sincerely believed that the children were well cared for. Perhaps the idea that all is well in the Angulo household is more clear to her than to the average viewer — she did spend years with the family — but a little on-camera reassurance (perhaps by a lawyer) would’ve made me feel slightly less uneasy.

It’s the boundary between voyeurism and value, between finding and telling an astonishing story and feeling squeamish knowing — as we do — that “astonishing” often means “bizarre” or “terrifying”.

One of my first national magazine stories

One of my first national magazine stories

Those of you working in journalism may have already heard this:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Janet Malcolm

I sometimes wonder how much of that is true.

Smile, honey! Why what I do with my face is none of your business

In aging, beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, life, women on August 2, 2015 at 2:42 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

No one tells him/her to smile!

No one tells him/her to smile!

Have you heard of “bitchy resting face”?

A piece in today’s New York Times has, so far, drawn 564 comments on the bizarre notion that a woman’s face is something total strangers can expect to make them feel happier:

RBF is now the topic of multiple “communities” on Facebook, dominated by women.

Plastic surgeons say they are fielding a growing number of requests from those who want to surgically correct their “permafrowns” (again, primarily from women).

The country star Kacey Musgraves recently helped Buzzfeed create a list of 17 more accurate names for RBF (among them, Resting “this wouldn’t bother you if I was a guy” face).

A New Jersey business journal, NJBIZ, even published a special report on the topic.

If you’re an American woman, the larger culture demands you be real friendly! all the damn time — and a woman who doesn’t walk through the world with a big fat reassuring smile plastered on her face is deemed angry, annoyed, frustrated and (wait for it), rude as a result.


I grew up in Canada, a British-inflected nation (see: stiff upper lip, emotional reticence, subdued expressions of feelings) where no one — thank God — expects you to be chatty and charming to every single person you meet. It’s exhausting!

London -- where no one expects me to be all cheerful all the time

London — where no one expects me to be all cheerful all the time

I moved to the U.S. in 1989 and one of the biggest cultural adjustments I’ve made in the 25 years since then is the cultural norm of being genial to strangers. Why, exactly, is never made clear.

It’s just a cultural norm. I still don’t feel compelled to be “friendly” to anyone, and don’t feel compelled to apologize for not doing it. Civil, polite — of course!

Beyond that? I conserve my emotional energy for situations I think require it.

It was much worse in the 2.5 years (Merry damn Christmas, already!) I worked retail as a sales associate for The North Face, working in a suburban New York mall, serving customers who were often extremely wealthy and whose behavioral expectations were off the charts. Surrounded daily by minions they’d hired and could fire in a heartbeat — nannies, chauffeurs, au pairs, maids or their workplace employees — they were positively stunned when we dared to utter a one-syllable word to them.


As in, “No, we don’t have that jacket in your size/color.”

The only way to soften the terrible blow of their delayed gratification was by offering an automatic huge smile and a heartfelt apology — all on low wages. (This is called emotional labor and it is, very much, a thing.)

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011

I wrote a book about that experience; the link is here.

I know I’ve got a severe case of BRF and I’ve even addressed it explicitly in job interviews because when I concentrate hard I don’t always keep eye contact (bad) let alone I fail to smile reassuringly (even worse) at the person trying to decide if I’m likeable enough to hire.

One reason I work freelance alone at home!

I have no doubt my lack of reflexive emotional appeasement helped tank some of my student evaluations this past year when I taught at a very expensive private college in Brooklyn. I don’t smile a lot. I don’t make an effort to ingratiate myself. I have a sense of humor and love to laugh, in the classroom and outside of it.

But sticking on a fake smile to soothe people for no apparent reason? No.

Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua. No smile? OMG!

Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua. No smile? OMG!

To me, learning is a serious business and those who feel cheated without fake bonhomie are a poor fit for my style.

So to tell women walking down the street, or buying groceries, or chairing a meeting or sitting on a park bench, “Smile, honey!” is a normal grotesquerie for many of us. Because, somehow, if we’re not making you feel better about yourself, we’re failing you.

It’s our face.

Have you been told you’re not perky enough?

How did you respond?

Ten days in Maine…

In beauty, culture, domestic life, food, travel, U.S. on July 25, 2015 at 1:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Sunrise from our bedroom window

Sunrise from our bedroom window

If you’ve never been to Maine, go!

As the furthest northeastern state in the U.S. with only a few regional airports, it’s probably not high on the list of Europeans or Canadians on their first-ever visit to the U.S. but it’s so well worth it, even with the hours and hours of driving on winding country roads that its coastal geography requires — getting almost anywhere can take 30 to 45 minutes, even if it’s only 10 miles or so.

But such gorgeous landscapes.

We’ve been staying in a tiny town called Brooklin, home to Wooden Boat magazine, to several boat-builders, including the grandson of legendary American writer E.B. White, and to Franklin Roosevelt, the American President’s great grandson.

We were last up here about six years ago, visiting our New York friend who owns a rambling 19th century farmhouse here. I love, and am so grateful for, the privilege of settling into an easy and relaxed week of bare feet, a lit woodstove on a rainy evening, nights of total silence, the cold, clean ocean a quick bike ride away.


The kind of place I can leave my bike outside unlocked while I get a library card and take out a few thrillers.

We cook and eat and sleep in and read and play gin rummy. We dry our clothes on a long clothesline. We eat dinner on a long screened-in porch (mosquitoes!)

Dinner on the verandah

Dinner on the verandah

Turned out our friend’s next-door neighbor knew my father, visiting from Canada, 30 years ago in small-town Nova Scotia. The world can feel very small!

We’ve also eaten some terrific meals, like very good Mexican food at El El Frijoles, (a Spanish pun on the legendary Maine retailer L.L. Bean), and burgers at Tasha’s a roadside restaurant just past it on Route 15.

Brooklin has a beautiful small library, a general store, a few shops and…that’s it. It’s on the Blue Hill peninsula, a mix — fairly typical of coastal Maine, at least mid-coast — of wealthy second (third and fourth) homeowners from as far south as Virgina and Florida and locals working as lobstermen, clammers and running local businesses.

A bushel of freshly-gathered clams

A bushel of freshly-gathered clams

Blue Hill is a town where you can buy a $300 sweater or $8/pound tomatoes — or just sit and stare at the harbor.

It’s hard not to develop severe house lust here — one enormous, 8-bedroom Victorian home for $239,000 (not cheap but oh this house!) and a pale mauve Customs House on the ocean’s edge for $300,000. Why, remind me, did I choose such a poorly-paid field?

The sky here goes on forever, with views of distant hills, islands and inlets. The closest major city, Portland, is 2.5 hours southwest. The backroads are lined with potters, weavers and artists.

We’ve played golf several times at the local club, founded in 1928; several tee boxes had miniature lighthouses as markers. One misty afternoon we heard a low, moaning sound as we played — a foghorn.

As we were about to turn into the club driveway, we spotted a red fox who gazed back at us.

Seagulls fly overhead, the sun gleaming through their feathers.

Thick yellow-green beds of seaweed line the shore, weathered granite covered with shattered lavender mussel shells dropped from on high.

Rough, boulder-studded fields bristle with blueberries, a Maine specialty — with 44,000 acres of them under cultivation.

I love its timelessness.

Have you been here yet?

A jug of cool water sitting on a table down a nearby road on a hot afternoon

A jug of cool water sitting on a table down a nearby road on a hot afternoon

What’s Twitter for exactly?

In behavior, business, culture, design, entertainment, Media, Technology on July 20, 2015 at 2:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Who's got time for Twitter? Do you?

Who’s got time for Twitter? Do you?

Interesting recent piece by New York Times tech writer Nick Bilton:

Wander the halls of Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters and ask random employees in a black T-shirt with a little blue bird and they will give you a different answer, too. I’ve heard people tell me it’s a place for real-time communication, a second screen for television, a live-events vertical, a place for brands to connect with people and a media communications platform.

The conflicting vision about Twitter may be the company’s biggest flaw and may explain why Twitter has failed to grow beyond its 300 million users (compared with Facebook’s 1.4 billion).

It may also explain why the social media platform hasn’t changed much in nearly a decade.

It’s utterly insane that you still need to put a period before a person’s Twitter handle, such as “.@twitter,” if you want everyone to see it. Could you imagine Facebook doing that? Twitter still uses “favorite” instead of the more universal “like.” And Twitter still expects people to use Boolean search commands.

As a user experience, the product is still a drip-drip-drip stream of seemingly random tweets. It feels like a deranged video game, where players are blindfolded and win only if they accidentally come across a good tweet among a mudslide of drivel.
I started using Twitter — extremely reluctantly — about a year ago. I usually tweet five to 15 times a day when I have time, and I probably re-tweet 55 percent of the time, although less than I once did.
I have a love-hate relationship with it. I hate feeling like I’m spitting into the wind; as Sree Sreenivasan — who tweets as @sree — and who is the digital officer for the Metropolitan Museum in New York told my blogging students this year: Expect to be ignored!
The CBC's logo -- one of the many news sources I follow on Twitter

The CBC’s logo — one of the many news sources I follow on Twitter

Now that’s encouraging…
What I have come to enjoy most about Twitter are the weekly Twitterchats that create community, allow me to be as playful and/or as serious as I wish — knowing that each tweet is public and permanent — and connect me quickly and easily with some fun and interesting peers.
Every Wednesday night at 8:00 pm ET is #wjchat, which focuses each week on a topic of interest to journalists. Those who show up range from 30-year award-winning veterans like me to radio and digital journos worldwide to young, naive students who mostly lurk.
I also really enjoy #TRLT and #CultureTrav which are focused on travel and which draw a terrific crowd of serious globetrotters. One of them and I ended up tweeting a Rocky Horror Picture Show song at one another the other day — he’s an archeologist in Berlin who studies the Bronze Age.
Of course we’d meet on Twitter! (Where or how else?)
My desk -- Twitter allows me to connect globally, quickly and easily

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

I only follow 900 people. most of whom are, in fact, news organizations from Toronto, New York City, France, Spain, Canada, England.

The first thing I check when I wake up now is Twitter — because that’s where I hear the news first.
Do you use Twitter?
What value do you find from doing so?

More simple pleasures…

In beauty, behavior, cities, culture, design, domestic life, entertainment, food, life on July 15, 2015 at 12:09 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

At my Dad's house

At my Dad’s house

The smell of Jose’s cigar

A fab new watch — $11

IMG_20150608_115938965My first facial. Oooooohlala.

Having friends come for dinner, savoring hours of good food, good wine and lively conversation

We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

The sound of wind soughing through the trees

The fragrance of sun-warmed pine needles

Birdsong to start the morning

Sunset over the Hudson river, our view

IMG_20150604_203602942_HDRA mid-afternoon nap

A birthday phone message from my best friend who lives a six-hour flight away, who I met in freshman English class a bazillion years ago

A fun pair of sunglasses, scored for $12 at a London flea market

A silly winter selfie...

A silly winter selfie…

Treating myself to lunch at Cafe Saks, at Saks Fifth Avenue, with its great view of midtown


A bouquet of roses

Lunch under the trees at Maud’s with my co-ed softball team, friends ages 20-something to 70-something, a group that includes a former network TV producer, a retired ironworker and a few lawyers

Watching tugboats pushing huge barges along the Hudson River

Living in a town filled with beauty, even in unlikely places, like the walls of a newly-emptied store


A cocktail on the roof at Red Hat at sunset at the river’s edge

The thwack of a well-hit golf ball

Pretty earrings, a gift from Jose for my recent birthday

An X and an O, one for each ear

An X and an O, one for each ear

Butterscotch pudding — only 130 calories!

Hitting to the outfield, (ok, the edges anyway)

My crisp, citrus-y new fragrance, Oyedo, by French brand Dipthyque. The original name of Tokyo — Edo — is apt, given my love of Japanese design and ukiyo-e prints

Yuzu -- yum!

Yuzu — yum!

Setting a pretty table for guests, place cards and all


Late afternoon tea, loose leaves, made in a pot and drunk from my Moomin mug


What are some of yours?


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