Talking to strangers…

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

 

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

It’s good to find common ground.

It’s great to share a laugh!

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

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

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

We could not have less in common!

And yet, a lively, friendly chat ensued.

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

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

 

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

 

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

A must-see film: Capernaum

By Caitlin Kelly

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

In a good way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the film’s trailer.

Find it. 

Watch it.

Extraordinary.

Learning to say no

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By Caitlin Kelly

Anyone poorly parented and/or the victim of bullies and narcissists knows how extremely difficult it can be for their victims to say no.

Ever.

To anyone.

To anything.

To the most absurd and unrelenting demands.

 

Because what happened after I’ve said no is…abandonment. Estrangement. Rejection. Verbal or physical cruelty. Job loss.

I’ve lived in fear for decades — and readers know I express plenty of strong opinions here and in my writing and books and on social media — of these outcomes in my personal and professional life.

My industry, journalism, is in such utter chaos — with the most job cuts in 2019 since 2008 — that those with jobs will do anything to keep them, and the hell with us freelancers, seen by many as disposable commodities, easily and cheaply replaced with someone, always, terrified and docile.

I have never seen such shitty behavior.

The past two weeks made me snap.

First, a baby editor with zero social skills — who I later found out has been this rude and aggressive with other veteran writers. Then, this week, a source decided it was appropriate to throw me and my skills under the bus.

Then stalk me on Twitter.

 

Done.

 

In both instances, their entitled behavior — unprovoked and insistent — left me shaking and shaken.

From now on, I’m just walking.

This is,  a great luxury, and a measure of privilege because it’s possible only with the explicit agreement and financial and moral support of my husband and a bank account plundered to make up the lost $1,050 in anticipated/needed income from these two stories.

Most Americans don’t even have the savings to say…I’m gone. I’m not putting up with this.

Because without savings, and the ability to never engage with them again, we’re all left groveling to bullies.

 

DONE.

How’s your summer going?

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By Caitlin Kelly

How did it get to be August already?!

But here we are.

Have you been enjoying yours? Did you take any time off? Travel?

June is my birthday month, so we always plan something fun. We flew to Jose’s hometown of Santa Fe for eight perfect days, and really splurged. We got first class airline tickets, and that’s it. My future life! (I wish.)

 

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We stayed four days with friends then enjoyed a comfortable and quiet hotel room a few blocks from downtown, ate great good, saw friends, played a round of golf. I haven’t been that relaxed in a long, long time. It was bliss!

July has been the usual frenzy of seeking and completing freelance work for a variety of people — nbcnews.com, a blog post for branded content, three short pieces for a magazine focused on hemophilia, for which I got to interview a UK cyclist who’d just finished the Tour de France. That was fun!

I’ve committed to a major reporting project that takes us north to Canada on the 31st for a few weeks. I can’t say more until it’s published but am really excited to finally once more tackle a serious, challenging story. I enjoy my work, but writing 300 words or 500 words or even 1,000 words barely scratches the surface of most issues.

This story proposal was rejected by at least six other places, so it’s also a relief to have found a good home for it.

And Jose is coming with me! We have never really worked together, so that’s exciting.

Fun this summer has included enjoying afternoons — usually 3pm to 5:30 — at our building’s swimming pool and lots of time on our balcony IDing bird calls and the many many flights overhead, using FlightRadar24.

For aviation geeks like us — living beneath the flight paths to four New York City/area airports: Westchester, NY; Newark, JFK and Laguardia — it’s a lot of fun to see who’s up there and in what aircraft and where they’re headed.

 

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Love our sunsets!

 

We’re on the top floor, so it’s lovely and private at treetop level, still with a bit of Hudson River view.

I tend to avoid New York City all summer — too hot, humid, smelly and crowded — with too many days of delayed subway service. Hell is standing on a super-jammed platform drenched in sweat with no ventilation. I’ve ventured in a few times for work and play.

This coming week I’ll visit Boscobel to see Into the Woods, a musical, for the first time. Looking forward to it!

We still have a few months to enjoy our town’s lively Saturday morning farmer’s market, complete with live music, and on the steamiest days I flee to our gorgeous town library, with its tall ceilings, silence and very good air conditioning! They even have private conference rooms so I can do phone interviews as well.

 

What fun have you been up to?

 

Getting older, becoming invisible

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By Caitlin Kelly

I live in a building dominated by older people.

Here’s my essay published this week about it on nbcnews.com:

If you really want to know what old age looks like and feels like and sounds like — forget playing around with FaceApp, whose AI technology can age your appearance in seconds on your phone. Simply plug in a current photo and the app will generate a falsely wrinkled face, sagging jowls and wispy white hair. But while the app has quickly gone viral, with artificially aged photos of celebrities and friends alike popping up all over social media, such images have almost nothing in common with the true experience of aging in America.

You just can’t imagine old age. You have to live it firsthand.

I was prompted to write it after our next door neighbor, Flo, died last week, at 91, after a final year at home bed-ridden. All we ever saw were visits from her daughters and the Russian woman who was her in-home aide.

Flo was deeply private, with a head of thick white curls and bright eyes. Only at her funeral did I learn she’d been widowed at 44 with three daughters to raise, aided by a large and supportive family.

Living in a place surrounded by seniors — a word I dislike (we don’t call people juniors!) — has shown me what aging really looks like. The same week my first husband walked out, some 25 years ago, was the week L’s husband had a stroke and never spoke again. He later died and she dated a jaunty older man who wore cool sneakers. He died.

She is now so impossibly frail, sitting with her aide.

It’s sobering. It’s instructive.

As someone with no children, I’m acutely aware, should I live into old age, I will need money and physical help to live well, safely and independently, if lucky enough to do so — my 90-year-old father does.

I lost my grandmothers the same year, when I was 18 and never met my grandfathers.

So this is what I know.

But we also have people here in their 80s looking great and living an active life.

You can’t understand what you don’t see.

The challenge of finding love

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My sweetie, making photo history by photographing the Pulitzer Prize journalism judging — his idea!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In the romantic sense, anyway.

I see a lot of anguish among my friends who are single, no matter their age. One is desperate to have children but has no partner. Another has had her heart broken a few too many times.

Another already knows men her age insist on dating women decades younger.

One of my Sunday morning pleasures is reading The New York Times wedding announcements, aka the social box scores. I admit it — my mother’s wedding and both of mine made the cut. And, for every kindergarten teacher marrying an investment banker, or a Harvard-educated physicist marrying a former White House speechwriter, there are a few fun couples you just want to cheer for, like the 71-year-old therapist and mandolin player who married an 80-year-old — and met him while sharing their love of vintage Porsches.

I married for the first time at 35 and he bailed after barely two years, re-married to a colleague within a year. He was “perfect on paper” — a tall, handsome, medical student who played clarinet and guitar and also loved to travel. But it was not to be.

Divorced (no kids) for six years, I had plenty of time to re-think who or what I most wanted — as I missed being married. One of my hopes (realized!) was to find a partner who was interesting, well-traveled, accomplished yet also modest. In New York, that’s almost impossible; I was way out of most leagues, not having an Ivy degree, let alone several.

In those years I dated a computer geek of Greek origin, a ship’s engineer and a Jewish man whose parents’ first question to me was: “Are you Catholic?” (No.)

I met a few charming liars, as anyone does when meeting people on-line. Even a convicted con man. Terrifying!

Then I wrote about online dating — still a novelty then — for Mademoiselle, a now-defunct national women’s magazine. My profile headline read, truthfully: Catch Me If You Can. Jose, now my husband, liked the challenge and we met and…that was it!

 

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In sickness, surgery and in health…

 

We would never have met any other way, as he lived 30 miles south of me in Brooklyn and worked full-time, an odd schedule, at The New York Times. The day he was to have moved in with me was 9/11.

Yes, the 9/11.

Our first few years weren’t smooth. We loved one another, but were tough, prickly, set in our ways and, typical of successful journalists, extremely competitive. Whew!

But we’ve also always been quick to laugh, to hug, to forgive. We share a ferocious work ethic. We love to mentor and entertain, to share what we have with those we love. Our sofa is well-used by visiting younger pals.

We love to travel, whether in a tent (rarely!) or an elegant city hotel. We both have spiritual practices — mine, Episcopal church, his Dzogchen Buddhism; you can see his mala beads on his left wrist below and the stained glass of the tiny wooden church on Toronto’s Centre Island.

 

5th-anniversary

September 2011

 

It’s never easy or simple to find a great match, especially later in life as career and education and children enter the picture and each of which can make a commitment more challenging.

I was unhappily single for years in Toronto because I knew I really wanted to move to New York — and who would move with me, legally? It all worked out (moved here with first husband who I met in Montreal), but who knew at the time?

I’m so grateful for how it worked out.

How have you found romantic love?

What’s your legacy?

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Few events will raise this thorny question as powerfully as a funeral.

 

Who came?

How many?

Who spoke and what did they say about the deceased?

 

I spent an hour Thursday morning at the funeral of the 91-year-old woman who shared a wall with us for 17 years. We didn’t know her well. We knew her name, and that she was a local, and that she had several adult daughters in town.

She was always friendly, but deeply private.

I learned a lot about her and her life — widowed at 44 with four daughters — when I listened to the eulogy.

The pews were filled with friends and neighbors, children and grand-children, including a very small baby.

This time last year, we attended a funeral for a much beloved and eccentric New York Times colleague, who worked, literally, side by side for eight years with my husband Jose. They weathered the storm of the crash of 2008, fought, made up, laughed and became close.

Zvi, who played tennis every week into his 70s and was lean and fit, was hit by a rare and aggressive cancer and dead within months of his diagnosis. Jose was asked to give the eulogy.

When you sit in the pews attending someone’s funeral, it’s natural to wonder what those left behind would say of you and how you chose to live your life.

 

Did you give back?

Were you generous and kind?

Did you laugh often?

Did you mentor?

 

If you don’t have children or close younger relatives — and I do not — this question of legacy is a real and pressing one, and only grows with every year I’m still alive.

 

Am I leaving a good life behind?

Am I doing enough for others?

 

Legacy isn’t only about your family or your work or whatever financial assets are left in your estate.

Nor need you be wealthy enough to be an official philanthropist or have your name on a building, as most of us never will.

Every day we create our legacy.

Yes, including weekends!

Do you ever think about this as well?

 

Sewing by hand

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By Caitlin Kelly

When was the last time you sewed anything by hand?

It’s now considered such a retro idea. Get new clothes! Take them to the dry cleaner for repairs!

Do you even own a sewing box, filled with needles and pins and a rainbow of spools of thread?

 

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When I was at boarding school, we each had a two-tier sewing basket. I loved it and the sense of always being ready, that it gave me. We learned only a few stitches but I’ve never needed more, and have made tablecloths and pillows without a machine using these simple stitches.

I admit, embarrassedly, I don’t know how to knit or crochet or embroider, all arts I truly admire. So this, for now, is the extent of my skill.

 

 

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Instead of being attached to yet another screen, touching more plastic and metal, there’s the softness of linen or cotton or silk.  The endless challenge of threading that damn needle!

As someone always curious about pre-industrial life, I love how this simple action repeats one made over millennia and across every geographic boundary.

I find it meditative and soothing and love making little repairs or making small sachets filled with dried lavender out of vintage textile scraps, tucking them between ironed pillowcases in the linen closet or thrown into our suitcases when we travel.

I also have some lovely antique buttons, with no official use (yet!)

Here’s a pillow cover I recently made from some flea market white linen and a great 30s bit of cutwork I found in a Paris flea market that someone dyed indigo.

 

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Having extra means feeling rich

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Custom made pillow covers. A splurge.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

She had in her early teens what some would call “a reversal”, my late step-mother, and so, later in life when I knew her, she owned a lot of stuff.

She never talked about her family of origin; in 40 years of knowing her, I only learned the names of her mother, brother and sister — none of whom I ever met — but never that of her father, who had been well-off, then wasn’t.

Never having gone to university, needing to work right away, she later worked as a highly successful writer and editor of TV show scripts and, in good years, made a lot of money, which she spent on expensive shoes and jewelry, amassing garment racks filled with designer clothes, her cupboards bursting with products and cosmetics…all of which proved even more overwhelming to dispose of for my father when she died of lung cancer at 63.

I never understood why having so much stuff — basically, extras of everything — could feel so satisfying.

Now I do.

When Jose and met and started dating 20 years ago, times were tough for me and he was extremely generous, buying me everything from a colander and toaster to new air conditioners. I was living alone,  divorced, paying — in the 1990s — $500 a month health insurance as a freelancer. There was very little money left over after paying all the bills.

 

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I certainly had no need for this lovely early 19th. century tea set. But it gives me such pleasure to use.

 

Now we do have extras: cloth napkins and tablecloths, rolls of toilet paper, candles, rubber gloves, multiple computers. Summer and winter clothing.

We own sports equipment for bourgeois pursuits like skiing and golf.

I feel alternately guilty and weird for having more when so many have less,  but I admit it also comforts me.

When you’ve run in survival mode for years, extra is luxury.

Who exactly is “middle class” in the U.S.?

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Can you afford a house? We can’t. Not anywhere near where we live….Maybe this is why I enjoy reading about others’.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

And, another hate read from The New York Times, somehow insisting that an annual income of $100,000 to $200,000, even $400,000 (!) or more means “middle class”:

This is the introduction, while the story focuses on seven families, with only one single man.

Being middle class in America used to come with a certain amount of leisure and economic security. Today it involves an endless series of trade-offs and creative workarounds, career reinventions and an inescapable sense of dread.

We asked readers to tell us what it’s like, and more than 500 people, with widely varied incomes, submitted responses. They described not just their financial worries but also he texture of daily life. Even those with very good incomes expressed fears of instability. They have seen their wages and bargaining power stagnate and wealth spiral to the top, while they struggle to acquire the markers of middle-class life — a college education, health care, the deed to a home.

As one reader, Kristin DePue, put it, “There is an extraordinary burden on my generation to fund our own retirement and also afford college costs for our children.” Indeed, “middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was 20 years ago,” the journalist Alissa Quart writes in “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.” And yet, for all the talk of “everyday Americans” among the presidential candidates, politicians do not seem to understand what it takes to get through the day, or what would really help.

 

 

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Georgetown, DC. Pricey but lovely

A few thoughts:

 

— No American — unlike some Britons who will proudly say they are “working class” — will use that language to describe oneself, even if it’s true. There are so many euphemisms for poor: broke, impoverished, low-income, underprivileged, each of which is vague and subjective. One man’s “broke” is another man’s notion of luxury.

— Many factors affect how far one can stretch a budget: housing, health insurance (if you’re on Medicare or Medicaid, free), educational costs, number of children, etc. If you’ve chosen to raise a child, or many children, that’s an assumed cost bringing many additional costs with it: food, clothing, medical care, etc. Plus childcare!

— Some areas of the country are brutally and punitively expensive for housing and if, for reasons of employment, health and/or reliable family support you can’t leave, that cost alone is going skew what you need to survive.

— If you have multiple children and every one of them attends a private university or college, let alone graduate or professional school, it will cost a fortune. Yet it remains a very loaded and un-American idea to suggest trade school or vocational training instead, even though many such workers, unionized, make very good incomes, have plenty of work life-long and tremendous pride in their skills.

— This story generated 1,358 comments (that’s a lot for the Times), as “class” is a loaded word for Americans, raised from birth on the “American dream” of social mobility.

Here’s one of them:

The median household income is $59,000 per year. All of these people in the article are far above that, but they are still struggling to afford basic things like education for their children because life is very expensive. Imagine what a family making $25,000 is going through, trying to send children to college. Everyone that is thinking about this election needs to realize that the real middle of the country is hurting. All of our security has been turned to risk, and the billionaires pay themselves as if they carry the risk, instead of us. The corporate establishment “center” has completely discredited itself, by telling us how great the economic numbers are, how “free trade” has really been great, and that there “is no money,” for the things that most people need, because, according to the owners of capital and the media they own, the only way for capitalism to work is for their corporations to get fat, no-bid, cost-plus contracts, while those same corporations have their taxes cut to zero.

Jose and I live in a suburb of New York City, in a one-bedroom apartment. Our monthly housing cost is $2,000, health insurance $1,700, various other insurances another $400+. Add food, gas, the $95 cost of a 10-trip off-peak train trip into New York City for work or pleasure, parking, dental, etc.

In our good years, we make just over six figures, as full-time freelancers — i.e. wholly self-employed; in bad years, we have had to tap our retirement savings (and thank heaven we have some.)

That, for many people, is a fortune!

But our combined income can also disappear at any moment without warning if one of our clients cuts their budget or management changes. We have no paid time off or paid sick leave.

At this point, effectively shut out of any full-time job (that would cut $20,000 a year in costs with job-supplied health insurance) by age discrimination, we are OK, partly because we have no children or dependents, and have stayed in this home for decades, driving a 20 year old vehicle.

 

How about you?

 

Where do you fit?