A searing documentary: Ken Burns’ “The VietNam War”

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe you know little about the VietNam war — you were too young then, or it didn’t affect you or maybe you didn’t care to learn about it.

This week, a 10-part series on the war has been airing on PBS in the U.S.; you can buy DVDs of the series or download episodes of it on ITunes.

It is unforgettable, moving, appalling, the result of nearly 100 interviews.

Each episode is 90 minutes to two hours long, and features a mixture of interviews with veterans of the war, both South and North Vietnamese and American, including an American doctor who was a prisoner of war, an anti-war protestor, the sister of a soldier killed early on in the conflict, journalists and others.

It is searing, disturbing, deeply sad; I see friends’ reactions on Facebook, left sobbing.

It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to (better) understand a war that lasted just under 20 years, from 1955 to 1975.

From Wikipedia:

Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 966,000[30] to 3.8 million.[52] Some 240,000–300,000 Cambodians,[53][54][55] 20,000–62,000 Laotians,[52] and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action.[A 2]

As someone who was born and raised in Canada, I had little conscious awareness of the war, which ended in my final year of high school. We knew about it, certainly, as Canadian media is forever saturated by all news from the United States, our largest trading partner.

It was a time, as today now feels again, when the country was deeply divided, between those who thought the war still worth fighting — and those staging enormous protests nationwide.

 

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It’s deeply depressing to hear — on audio of the time — the endless lies fed to Americans by their leaders year after year, their broken promises that produced more domestic rage and frustration and more and more dead bodies.

One surprising effect, which I and others felt personally, was draft-dodgers, some of whom were professors in our university, exotic Americans — some 30,000 Americans fled to Canada to escape the draft and (!) 30,000 Canadians apparently volunteered to serve in the war.

One of the best-known songs of the era — written by fellow Canadian Neil Young — commemorates the unimaginable, the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University in Ohio, shot by National Guardsmen while protesting the war:

“What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?”

The interviews in the film are raw and intimate, shot in tight close-up, as men and women now in their 50s, 60s or beyond recall the most terrifying moments of their lives. There are color images of them, young and strong, wearing camo, a stark contrast to the silk bow-ties and elegant jackets they wear as they recall the war for us.

The noisy, shocking film footage of battles and bombings and napalm, of ambushes and gruesome injuries and rows of dead bodies — both American and Vietnamese — makes looking away both tempting and cowardly.

There is, in Episode Nine, an astounding speech by John Kerry — then returned from the Mekong Delta wearing fatigues (who would later become U.S. Secretary of State.) That same episode includes an interview with photographer Nick Ut, whose image of a young girl who had just been napalmed, Phan Thi Kim Phuc (now living near my hometown, Toronto), remains one of the war’s iconic photos.

One of those famous images shown in the film sits on our living room wall — a signed gift from the late photographer, Bernie Boston, on assignment for the Washington Star.

 

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And we have a friend, a former colleague of my husband, a  “boat person” who fled VietNam after the war as a little boy, and who now works as an art director at The New York Times. He once told us his story, and it was difficult to reconcile the highly successful man we know today with the terrified refugee he was then.

Read the link and you’ll see an echo with the millions of refugees today fleeing in overcrowded boats from Syria and Africa. Plus ça change…

My father, a film-maker, also worked on a television series about the war, The 10,000 Day War,  — it was the first time I knew the name of General William Westmoreland, a key player whom he interviewed.

I Googled that film —– and found that the nearest copy of it to my home is (!) at West Point, the military academy just north of where I live on the Hudson River.

How apt.

 

Do you know much about this war?

 

Do you know anyone who served in the U.S.military in Vietnam?

 

That trouble-making student? Ask why first

By Caitlin Kelly

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If you’ve ever been a “trouble-making” student — or have tried to teach one — this recent op-ed might resonate:

 

The Department of Education estimates that 7 percent of the student population — nearly 3.5 million students in kindergarten through high school — was suspended at least once in the 2011-12 academic year, the last for which these data are available. Despite the Checkpoint Charlie climate in many urban high schools, where students are herded through metal detectors when they enter the building, suspensions are rarely prompted by violence. Ninety-five percent are for “willful defiance” or “disruption.”

African-American students are hit hardest. They are more than three times as likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled. As a result, as early as middle school, many black students have concluded that when it comes to discipline, the cards are stacked against them. They stop trusting their teachers, and their negative attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fall behind when they’re suspended, and many drop out or are pushed out…

In short, this kind of discipline is a lose-lose proposition. What’s to be done? Enter empathy.

 

This one hit me hard.

I’m white, female and grew up with privilege.

None of which exempted me from being in a lot of trouble, and eventually asked to leave the private all-girl school I’d been attending since fourth grade, when I was eight, which was when I went into boarding.

I spent every summer at summer camp, all eight weeks, so my life between the ages of eight and 14 was largely spent, (except two years living with my mother at home), surrounded by strangers and subject to their rules.

At the end of Grade Nine, I was told I would not be welcome there again.

If you’ve ever been suspended, expelled or told to leave a school, you’ll also know the feelings of rage, shame, humiliation and possible loss I felt then.

I loved our uniform, (a Hunting Stewart kilt and tie), and the rambling Victorian buildings of campus, its ancient chestnut trees and long afternoons of playing sports in the sunshine.

I would lose contact with some close friends, girls whose names I remember clearly decades later.

I lost my place as someone whose intelligence, and writing, had been winning prizes, respect and recognition for years.

None of which, of course, was ever discussed.

My bad behavior never included drugs or alcohol or physical fights — it was all very WASP-y and Canadian.

Instead, I talked back to teachers.

My bed and dresser, (we were marked every morning on neatness on a sheet of paper at the entrance to our shared bedrooms), were always a mess.

I once thew an apple core across the room, aiming at a waste basket below — instead it hit ancient paper wallpaper, leaving a tell-tale stain. I was 13 at the time.

I was excoriated for my deliberate vandalism.

It was nuts.

I’ve since taught at four different colleges and have had a few tough students.

I’ve not had the challenge of fighting, shouting and blatant disrespect of me or other students — so I wouldn’t presume to say how to manage that.

But I will say this — if a child or young adult is behaving like a monster in class, they’re quite likely plagued by demons outside of it.

They might be being bullied.

They might have parents or siblings with substance abuse issues.

They might be being abused.

You can be sure they are deeply unhappy and may well have no one who cares enough to get past their rage and rebellion to find out why. I still wish someone had done that for me.

You will only know if you care enough to ask them, kindly.

In my case, it was parents who were rarely there, off traveling the world for work or pleasure, or just not particularly interested in knowing I was troubled, just as long as I kept winning academic prizes and keeping my grades high enough to get a bursary.

I was sick to death of being ignored.

Instead of empathy, I was shouted at by ancient, furious housemothers, increasingly disdained by fed-up teachers, shunned by scared fellow students, and moved from bedroom to bedroom to bedroom as punishment.

My worst punishment made me very happy — a room all to myself.

I was later bullied for three years in high school, and didn’t much enjoy my four years at a very large and deeply impersonal university.

As a result, I pretty much hate school.

Also not fond of (useless) authority figures, most of whom insist on obedience with no interest in empathy.

What a waste.

 

Have you been the bad boy or girl?

Have you taught one?

How did it turn out?

How has it affected you long term?

 

A reminder from your host…

By Caitlin Kelly

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Now that Broadside is closing in on 18,000 followers worldwide — eight years after I started writing it — it’s time once more to remind newer readers who exactly they’re reading!

Based in Tarrytown, New York, a gorgeous little town on the east bank of the Hudson River 25 miles north of Manhattan, I’m a published non-fiction author and career journalist, with staff experience at three major daily newspapers, several magazines and numerous digital outlets, from Reuters Money to bbc.com.

Here’s my website, with sample articles from my thousands of published stories — in outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, MORE magazine, Marie Claire, House Beautiful and many others.

A generalist, my work in June ranged from a profile of an L.A. designer for House Beautiful, a story about 3D printing for farmers for a custom publication and this story, about the growing dangers faced by truckers working across the United States.

 

I’m always seeking new clients with a clear sense of what they need and a budget to support a high level of skill and experience

 

A two-time author of nationally reported non-fiction, I also teach other writers and bloggers, through specific webinars of 90 minutes, (30 minutes reserved for your questions),  at $150 and individual coaching, also arranged at your convenience, at a cost of $225 per hour, payable in advance through Paypal.

I work with clients in person, by phone or Skype.

 

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My second book, published in 2011

I’ve helped dozens of writers and bloggers worldwide — from Germany to New Zealand to Singapore to Maryland — and my students are delighted with the results and improvements they see, quickly, as a result.

 

One of my coaching clients was published in The New York Times, and another in The Guardian — and neither one are professional writers.

 

I also help public relations professionals better understand how to tell their clients’ stories more effectively, and have worked with teams in New York and California.

 

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com!

Pushpushushpush = success! Maybe not…

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s a deeply American belief that if you never ever ever give up you’ll eventually get what you want.

It’s charming in its meritocratic faith — but it’s also often bullshit.

Some doors, for all sorts of reasons, stay shut, locked and barred to us, whether social or professional.

Maybe not forever, though.

Patience, it turns out, really can be a virtue. (Oh yeah, and tenacity, in it for the long haul.)

I recently broke through to a market I’ve been wanting to write for for, literally, a decade or more. I wanted it soooooo badly, and wrote to the editor in chief several times, even as every new one arrived.

I had all the right experience and credentials.

Crickets.

Then (yay!) someone who works on staff there followed me on Twitter and I asked, nicely, for an introduction to someone higher up the ladder. She did it. Now I have an assignment I’d finally given up ever attaining.

Sometimes it’s best to just lay down your tools and walk away.

We’re taught from childhood that winners never quit and quitters never win.

But sometimes it’s wisest to retreat and re-think strategy, to ask ourselves why we even want this thing we think we need so desperately.

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Patience — such a Victorian ideal in this era of instant everything —  can produce results.

I won a New York Times national exclusive, a story about Google, (and I don’t cover tech nor live anywhere near Silicon Valley), by waiting six months after learning about it. During those months, my contact and I exchanged more than 100 emails, as the negotiations were so delicate and protracted.

Here’s the story.

Sometimes you just have to wait:

— For the right person to get the hiring/budgetary authority to appreciate you and your skills. That might take months, even years.

— To develop the emotional intelligence to handle a situation you’re sure is yours right now. Maybe you’re really not quite ready for it.

— To nurture social capital, and its referrals to the players who can help you achieve your goals. Trust takes time!

— To polish the social skills required to network well with senior people in your field or industry. Not everyone will respond to your texts or emails just because you’re in an unholy rush. Buy and use high-quality personal stationery. (It works, I know.)

— To acquire the requisite technical skills to add real value to whomever you’re approaching. Just because you want it rightnow! doesn’t mean you’re offering what they need. Your urgency is not theirs.

— To realize, by thinking about it calmly for a while, that a golden opportunity is…not so much.

— To accumulate the savings you need to be able to ditch a crappy marriage or live-in relationship, a nasty job, abusive internship or freelance gig. Once you have a financial cushion, (or, as we call it in journalism, a fuck you fund), your choices become true options. You don’t have to rush into a decision, or stay miserably stuck in a bad situation.

— If you’re mired in endless conflict and confrontation with someone, withdrawing for a while, (maybe even years, if social/family),  might be the best option while you decide what’s best for you, not just for them. It takes time to reflect deeply and to process difficult or painful emotions.

What success(es) have you gained by waiting and being patient —  even when you didn’t want to?

 

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

Do we need role models?

By Caitlin Kelly

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A favorite TV series, about an older Swedish detective

Once you become an adult, certainly if you’re female and choose an unconventional life — maybe not marrying or not having children or working in a creative field — you might crave a role model.

Someone who took the path less traveled by, and thrived.

As American poet Robert Frost wrote, in 1916:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Mainstream, mass market American women’s magazines are too generic, hence unhelpful.

Impossible to relate to corporate warriors like Sheryl Sandberg or Arianna Huffington in their $4,000 sheath dresses and multi-million-dollar lives.

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I hope to keep traveling!

In North America, older women are typically offered a depressingly bifurcated path — turn dumpy and invisible or spend every penny on Botox, fillers and plastic surgery. Look younger, or else!

Neither appeals to me, so I’m forever in search of inspiration, i.e. role models.

In June — where I’ll be celebrating in Paris — I’ll hit a milestone  birthday.

Since my mother and I don’t speak and my stepmother died nine years ago, I don’t have many older women to talk to intimately about what lies ahead.

So it was a great pleasure recently to run into a friend from my dance classes — I was out walking in our small town in the sunshine — and catch up with her, a woman about to hit her next milestone birthday, a decade beyond mine.

She really is an inspiration to me, about to fly to Japan, again, where she’ll be teaching writing and staying with her partner, who has a home there. Last time we met up, she was off to Barcelona to visit one of her daughters.

She always looks terrific, trim and fit, wearing flattering colors and — most importantly — has a real infectious joy and spirit of adventure.

I lost both my grandmothers the year I turned 18, so it’s been a long, long time without a much older woman in my life to talk to.

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Members of  my team, Softball Lite taking a CPR class, March 4, 2017 in Hastings, NY.

But our apartment building is pretty much an old age home, the sort of place people move into at 65 or 75 or 85 after they’ve sold the family house.

So I watch people decades older than I navigate their lives, whether romantic, professional or personal. We don’t hang out, but we do socialize and chat in the hallways or lobby or driveway, our shared spaces.

One woman — in her late 80s, maybe older — on our floor, has a fab new Barbour tweed jacket and looks amazing, even with her walker. I told her so, and as I walked away, heard her say, happily: “That made my day!”

Older people get ignored.  They aren’t listened to. Their needs and desires get dismissed.

That’s not what I want! That’s not what anyone wants.

My father, at 88, is still blessed with enough income and health to be traveling internationally and deciding where to live, still on his own. In his own way, he’s a role model — my husband, a late-life surprise baby, lost both his parents when he was still in his 20s.

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Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds; Cruit Island, Donegal, Ireland

I know the elements of a happy later life, especially after retirement, will be many of the same things as today:

good health, enough money to enjoy some pleasures, intimate friendships, a strong sense of community, a well-tended marriage.

I’m also deliberately trying new-to-me things and learning new skills, like CPR and how to play golf. I debated trying to learn German, but I admit it — I wimped out!

Like both of my parents, I enjoy knowing several much younger friends — people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, each of us at a different stage of life, perhaps, but often struggling with similar, life-long issues, whether intimacy, work or how to handle money well.

We don’t have children or grand-children, (putting us very much out of step with our peers.) So we enjoy others’ when we can.

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I like having chosen the road less traveled, with its many twists and turns.

But a compass and a guide are helpful.

Do you have role models to help you figure out your life?

Who, and how?

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her practical tips, offered through one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, have helped many other writers and bloggers worldwide, quickly increasing their sales, reader engagement and followers; details here.

Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

A morning filled with orchids

By Caitlin Kelly

Are you as mad for flowers as I am?

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My friend Pam is crazy for orchids, so we made our first-ever journey this week — about a 20-minute drive south of our town — to the New York Botanical Garden, a legendary destination we had never seen.

The show, which filled room after room of the enormous conservatory, was spectacular, complemented by hanging lanterns and tinkling exotic music.

It ends April 9.

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I’ve been fortunate enough to see huge baskets of orchids when I visited Thailand, but typically have only admired them in nurseries and flower shops.

This was an astonishing array — and this year’s show, their 15th focused on orchids, was all about Thailand, which has 1,200 species of orchids.

The displays included several small altars, enormous topiary elephants and a temple.

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The challenge(s) of teaching writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe it’s really unfair to teach writing without ever having formally studied it, or having been taught how to teach; (I studied English literature at the University of Toronto.)

Yet I’ve been teaching others how to write better for decades, starting with an undergraduate journalism class in Montreal at Concordia University. I was then only 30, barely a few years older than some of my students, some of whom were…not terribly motivated.

I admit it — I’m not the best teacher for people who just don’t care to work, and work hard. Writing can be fun, and deeply satisfying, but it always has to resonate with your reader.

It’s not just all about you!

And if you’re not reading a lot, and widely, across genres and styles, you’re unlikely to be, to to become, a terrific writer.

You’ve got to read a lot, and some tough, smart stuff, to analyze and appreciate the skill and structure of great writing.

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Just because the tools — laptops, phones, tablets — are now easy to acquire for so many people, there’s a fantasy that writing should be easy as well. Thanks to computers, anyone can now bang out a gazillion words and hit send or publish and say — DONE!

(Oh for the long-lost days of typewriters, the bang and clash and clickety-click. Best of all, the ripping out of an offending piece of paper, {what was I thinking?!} the crumple and toss of it. How far can I throw the damn thing!?)

A few steps the best prose requires:

Have you revised the hell out of it?

Have you read it in hard copy?

Have you read it aloud?

Have you shared it with a few critical beta readers?

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I’m now teaching, again, a four-week class at the New York School of Interior Design, on East 70th St. in Manhattan, where I studied in the 90s, thinking I’d leave journalism and change careers. I loved my classes there, and did well, but my first marriage ended and it didn’t feel like a great decision to start a new career at entry-level wages.

I love the variety of people who take my classes there, a mix of ages, experience and nationalities. I never assume a specific level of skill, which makes it even more challenging — where to begin?

This time I kicked off our first two-hour class, only one of four, with a song lyric by one of my favorite musicians, British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, whose work is astonishing.

The song, Train Don’t Leave, is only 2:21 but tells an entire story of conflict and resolution. That’s tight writing!

Here’s a few lines:

She’s sitting on the train, the train’s gonna to leave
Bags in her hand, tears on her sleeve
Banging on the window with all of my might
But she won’t look to the left or the right
We had a fight and it wasn’t pretty
Now she’s leaving, ain’t it a pity
Going to wait tables, down in the city
Hold that red light one more minute
6:18’s got my baby in it

Note the verb tense; the conversational voice; the visual and auditory details (bags in her hand, banging on the window), the emotion…

The best writing combines the personal and universal.

It connects with the reader quickly and deeply, whether the work is a news story, a poem, a novel, a letter to the editor.

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One of my favorite books, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

It’s not easy!

What do you find most challenging about writing?

How are you learning to do it better?

(And, yes, I coach and offer webinars! Here’s the link.)

A life, saved

By Caitlin Kelly

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Jeff is the man wearing the blue checked shirt and vest.

It happened on a suburban September Saturday afternoon.

Our co-ed softball team, who’ve been playing together for 16 years, was in the middle of a game when Jeff, a 61-year-old teacher, ran to first base — and collapsed.

“Don’t be so dramatic!” scoffed Paul, the first-base coach.

He wasn’t.

He was having a heart attack, in the middle of a ball field.

Luckily, one of our team-mates, a physician, was there and immediately knew — and knew how — to start chest compressions.

Police came, and EMTs and a paramedic and took Jeff to a local hospital, where he was placed in a medically induced coma.

He’s fine now.

He’s back to teaching.

He’s back to playing softball.

I wasn’t there that day, but it terrified everyone who witnessed it, helplessly, fearful that our friend would die in front of them.

He could have.

It happens.

So, wanting to be sure we’re prepared should it ever happen again, 28 of us paid $35 apiece to take a two-hour Saturday morning class last weekend to learn how we, too, might be able to save a life if needed.

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(Here’s a link to a video about how to do it.)

It was deeply sobering — you have barely four to six minutes to get someone’s heart pumping again before their brain is damaged.

There’s no time to waste!

You can’t panic.

You can’t want someone else to fix it.

You have to do it, and do it quickly and do it with strength and speed — 120 compressions per minute. You’re mimicking a heartbeat for someone who doesn’t have one.

We each practiced on plastic dummies, both child and adult-sized.

We also learned how to do the Heimlich maneuver, on adults, children, infants and (worst case) even ourselves if we’re ever alone and choking. (Lean hard against a chair back and push down on your diaphragm.)

We also learned how to use and apply the two pads of a defibrillator and how to do so safely.

It was a lot to absorb, physically, intellectually and emotionally.

“No matter what happens, you tried your best,” the instructor cautioned.

Not everyone will survive even the best rescue attempt — unlike a recent local save who needed 25 minutes of CPR to return, literally, from the dead.

After the class, there was a lovely, moving ceremony in the town’s volunteer ambulance garage, with the town mayor and the nine people: EMTs, two police officers and a paramedic whose quick action and excellent skills saved our friend’s life.

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Jeff gave a quick, graceful speech and served us a lemon cake at lunch to celebrate his second life.

If you’ve never learned CPR, I’d urge you to consider doing so.

It’s not as complicated as you’d think and there’s nothing worse than feeling helpless in a life-threatening situation.

(story told with Jeff’s permission!)

New books!

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s hardly as though we need any more books. We have hundreds already, many of them (ugh) still unread, even years after buying them, whether reference, history or fiction.

But who can resist a brand new book?

(I’ve just bought three more books: Transit by Rachel Cusk, The Hustle Economy [a bit too basic for me, 12 years into full-time freelance] and Hillbilly Elegy, a New York Times best-seller that I’m enjoying but not bowled over by.)

The top three books in this stack were requests, given to me by my husband Jose for Christmas 2016.

I love the names of wine: gewurtztraminer, gruner veltliner, Vouvray, Muscadet, grenache, Montepulciano. (Dream second career? Sommelier, except for all that memorizing!) Jancis Robinson is someone whose work we read every week in the Financial Times. (My other favorite wine writer, a friend, is another woman, Lettie Teague, who writes for The Wall Street Journal.)

The next two books are a holdover from my childhood years growing up in Canada, where most of my reading material was published by Penguin; I’d read rapturous reviews of MacFarlane in the FT and am fascinated by landscapes and how we experience them.

The bottom four books were the happy result of browsing an indie bookstore, Logos Books, in Manhattan while recently waiting to meet a friend.

I so rarely spend time in bookstores — I would easily spend hunreds of dollars each year! — so I really enjoyed a good long browse.

The collection on offer was deliciously eclectic.

If you don’t know her or her work, Martha Gellhorn was a legendary war correspondent, ferocious and admired — and, incidentally, the third of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives. She was the only woman to land in Normandy on D-Day and covered every war, determined to be there to record every detail, no matter what the obstacles.

I long ago read a biography of Antoinette May, another war correspondent — a birthday gift from a friend and Globe & Mail colleague. Smart, tough determined fellow female  journalists give me role models!

I’ve never read anything by John O’Hara and, frankly, I just loved the cover. The story is set in 1930. I love reading about earlier eras.

A Little Life has received rave reviews, although some say it’s a very sad book. I very rarely read fiction — as you can see, with five of these seven being non-fiction — so I hope it’s good. (I was given The Goldfinch as a birthday gift two years ago and put off opening it for a year, having heard it was far too long. But I absolutely loved it, even though it is too long.)

The bottom book is my main man, Ray Bradbury, one of the best writers of the 20th century. While his genre is technically science fiction, his voice is calm, quiet, compelling and unforgettable.

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I recently started re-reading The Illustrated Man, which I first read when I was 12. I was so impressed with it that I wrote Bradbury a fan letter, from my summer camp in northern Ontario, and sent it to his New York City publisher, Ballantine.

Within two weeks, I had a hand-signed reply, with his home address in California, a postcard I treasure to this day.

He was real!

He wrote back!

To a little girl in Ontario!

What I could not have known then was that he — also age 12 — was magically transformed by a chance meeting. This, from his official website:

Throughout his life, Bradbury liked to recount the story of meeting a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico, in 1932. At the end of his performance Electrico reached out to the twelve-year-old Bradbury, touched the boy with his sword, and commanded, Live forever! Bradbury later said, I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard. I started writing every day. I never stopped.

Books can do this to us.

They connect us to the past, to an imagined future, to ideas and questions and challenges and gorgeous images.

They transport us, without a need for tickets or passports or jet lag.

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The words of Charlotte Bronte…

What are you reading these days?

 

 

 

 

Money: getting/spending/saving it

By Caitlin Kelly

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One of my pleasures is enjoying culture — and yes, it costs money!

A friend recently saw an ATM receipt that left her gobsmacked — $139,000 — in the hands of a young woman, maybe in her 20s.

My friend is a single mother who works in a creative field, frustrated that she has yet to hit the level of income she craves, deeply envious of the stranger with so much more than she.

I get it — when I found out that a friend of ours, someone our age, earns $500,000 a year, I was stunned.

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The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

My husband and I are both working full-time freelance, with a mortgage that won’t be finished for another five years unless, somehow, we make a lot more money and can pay it off sooner.

What’s currently killing our ability to save — or enjoy much beyond basics — is $1,800 month in health insurance costs; his, heavily subsidized by his former employer as a retiree while they soak me the full price.

Yes, there is cheaper insurance, but it all comes with huge deductibles and co-pays.

The getting and spending, (and saving and investing, ideally), of money is often a lifelong challenge for all but the very wealthy.

But it comes down to basic economics: if you’re always broke, you’re under-earning or living beyond your means.

If you’re mired in poverty — with little education and/or weak job skills, multiple dependents and/or health issues — it can feel, and be, almost impossible to climb out.

And I know far too many women, of any age, who remain somehow terrified of money — especially when asking for it or more of it, (i.e. negotiating an initial salary, asking for raises/bonuses/commissions/better freelance rates), and handling their finances confidently and intelligently.

As if, for some reason, we don’t deserve it.

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It does mean taking charge.

It does (gulp) carry consequences, no matter how much action (or inaction) you choose.

I once attended an information session at the U.S. firm where I keep my retirement money.

It was laughable.

As in laughably bad, full of jargon and weird, arcane advice possibly of value to people with millions to manage — or waste.

Not me!

Selfishly, as a journalist, I get paid to learn, and, in writing about personal finance for the Times and Reuters and others, have learned (and taught readers!) a lot about handling money.

I also read the financial pages of two newspapers daily and read several business magazines to keep abreast of what’s happening in the domestic and global economy.

If you don’t know the word fiduciary, learn it and make sure anyone going near your money professionally is one.

One of my favorite people, and bloggers, is writing candidly about getting smarter about money. I admire her for being forthright and questioning her decisions publicly.

People rarely do.

I urge anyone thinking about how to better handle their finances to read this fantastic book, (which I reviewed in The New York Times, and am now friends with its author), Pound Foolish. It’s not a how-to, but a smart and insightful overview of the personal finance world.

She also writes a smart and helpful advice column for Slate.

My other favorite money columnist is Michelle Singletary, with the Washington Post.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.
Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona — travel has always been a priority for me

Jose and I were were lucky to both have attended and graduated from college debt-free; he on full-ride scholarships, I attending Canada’s best university for $660 a year. (No, there’s no missing zero.) Neither of us attended (or needed) graduate or professional school.

Nor did we have children, saving us an estimated $200,000+ per child to raise.

Nor do we have dependent relatives.

My priorities have been travel and retirement.

But I admit it — it really did feel useless and annoying to keep putting money away year after year after year for what I hoped would one day help fund a retirement, denying myself so many purchases, (newer car, nicer clothes) and pleasures in order to do so — until that sum finally grew to six figures and I thought, with relief and pride: I did that!

And, yes, for many reasons, saving money is difficult for some people, and impossible for those who don’t earn enough to get past subsistence.

But it’s also urgent (and tedious!) to distinguish between wants and needs, between what everyone around you may boastfully own, often on credit, (new phone, new car, huge and lavish wedding, bigger house, etc.), and what fits your financial priorities.

Peer pressure to keep up — i.e. spending! — will kill you and your financial future.

It’s one reason I constantly urge women, especially, who earn less and live longer, to always, always ask for more — and to read this book that tells them how to do it.

Do you find handling money frightening or intimidating?

Any great tips to share?