The lost art of listening

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Great essay, in The New York Times.

An excerpt:

High schools and colleges have debate teams and courses in rhetoric and persuasion, but rarely, if ever, offer classes or extracurricular activities that teach careful listening. You can get a doctorate in speech communication and join clubs such as Toastmasters to perfect your public speaking, but who strives for excellence in listening? The image of success and power today is someone miked up and prowling around a stage or orating from behind a lectern. Giving a TED talk or delivering a commencement speech is living the dream.

The cacophony of modern life also stops us from listening. The acoustics in restaurants can make it difficult, if not impossible, for diners to clearly hear one another. Offices with an open design ensure every keyboard click, telephone call and after-lunch belch make for constant racket. Traffic noise on city streets, music playing in shops and the bean grinder at your favorite coffeehouse exceed the volume of normal conversation by as much as 30 decibels, and can even cause hearing loss.

This past week was hectic and one day was sunny and clear and I needed some silence! I headed to our local reservoir and went for a walk — the only sounds the distant tapping of a few woodpeckers and the rustle of dry leaves as gray squirrels chased one another.

Bliss!

I really enjoy interviewing people, key to my work as a journalist, but — obviously — it demands close and careful and sustained attention, because I don’t use a tape recorder. I don’t want to waste unpaid hours transcribing or paying $1/minute to have someone else do it nor ever fear that the recording didn’t work.

A pen and notebook are fine with me, and force me to pay very close attention, not only to someone’s words, but their silences, pauses, hesitations, sighs, laughter.

My interviews are usually 30 to 45 to 60 minutes and after an hour, I’m tired! More than that gets really tiring — but it also creates a better bond, deeper conversation and, typically, better results in the form of great quotes or insights.

We’re rarely brilliant from our very first sentence!

A bit more from the essay:

How you listen can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you could actually make it so. Moreover, listening to other people makes it more likely other people will listen to you. This is partly because it’s human nature to return courtesies, but also because good listening improves your chances of delivering a message that resonates.

Listening is a skill. And as with any skill, it degrades if you don’t do it enough.

I also coach other writers, in 60-minute sessions by phone, Skype or face to face. They, too, are a challenge because my role is to help, quickly! I’m both diagnosing and prescribing solutions on the fly. I love it, but whew! Listening so intently and responding helpfully is serious work.

It’s fair to acknowledge that listening and paying attention are tiring, and so it can be tempting to tune people out, nodding but not really there. I’ve realized that journalism is a good fit for me because so much of it is experiential, and why studying interior design — as I did in the ’90s — was so joyful: it was tactile!

I didn’t have to just sit still and listen.

But I also listen carefully wherever I go, whether to silence in the woods or music on the radio or the distant honking of passing geese.

We’ve also had some recent moments in our 20-year marriage that have revealed how differently each of us listens and hears, and what very different language we choose to express how we see the world.

And, thanks to my recent healthcare story, I’ve received some very long and critical — albeit polite and smart — private emails from a reader, an American living in Canada. I could have dismissed her, or not replied, or been defensive but we actually exchanged several very long and thoughtful emails, even though we’re politically quite different!

 

We chose to listen to one another.

 

In today’s headphones-on, “lalalalala I can’t hear you!” deeply divided culture, that’s now a radical act.

 

Where do you listen most closely — and what do you gain from doing so?

How journalism happens

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Written by a documentary film-maker, daughter of the late, great NYT journalist David Carr

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s ironic — we each have more access now, thanks to the Internet, to thousands of media sources from across the globe than ever before.

Yet I see such tremendous ignorance of what journalism is.

What we do. Why we do it. What we earn. Our many constraints and challenges.

So, as we close out this decade, this is my stake in the ground, a sort of Media 101. (If this is all overly familiar, sorry!)

 

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Where does a “news” story come from?

The textbook definition of news means it’s new (something we haven’t seen or heard before); it affects the outlet’s audience (whether local, regional, national or global); it affects someone wealthy or powerful (a sad metric, but often used); it marks a significant change from prior experience; a natural disaster; a major crime.

It also, ideally, covers all levels of government. Ideally, also we cover major issues like income inequality/poverty, health, education, environment, etc.

Do journalists pay their sources?

No. This is common in some British tabloids, but not in North America, where it’s taboo. It demands cooperation from sources, yes, but it means (ideally!) that money doesn’t buy access or coverage.

Do sources pay to be in a story?

No! There is now the absurd belief — based on “journalism” like Forbes’ blogs — that you just pay to play. I’ve been offered payment many times by sources to write about them. Unscrupulous journalists accept, creating the fantasy this is normal. It is not.

 

 

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How do I know who or what to trust?

This is now a huge and troubling issue — I recently attended a powerful and sobering event at the New York HQ for Reuters, with terrific panelists addressing this very question.

The first speaker, who flew in from London, showed the audience five videos and asked us to vote on whether they were fake or real. Some were fake, and so carefully created it was really difficult to tell.

In an era of such deceptive deepfakes, question carefully!

 

Who writes the headlines?

Not the reporters! Every outlet has a series of editors above the reporters and they will oversee the headlines and write them. No reporter writes their own headlines; freelancers can and do suggest one when pitching, and some will be kept.

Same for book titles; I named my first book and my editor (thankfully!) named my second.

Who writes the captions for photos?

Editors. Sometimes the photographer.

 

How much do reporters make?

Hah! So much less than people imagine. In 2019, the American average was $40,081. To put this into context, I earned $45,000 as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette  — in the 1980s. If you’re fortunate enough to get hired by a major national outlet, like Reuters wire service or The New York Times, you might get $90,000 or more.

How much do TV reporters make?

A lot more, depending if regional or national. Those working at the national level — sometimes more experienced and skilled — will make more. Locally, $56,455.

 

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How much do authors make?

Some, millions. Some, pennies!

There are many, many tiers of book publishing, from academic houses to small indies to the mega’s like Simon & Schuster or Harper Collins, able to offer enormous advances to those they think worth the investment — like Michelle and Barack Obama, who got (reportedly) $65 million.

An “advance” may be divided into three or four parts: one on signing the deal, one on acceptance of the manuscript; one on publication and one (!) a year or more after publication. Hardly “advance”!

Every payment will likely lose 15 percent off the top to the agent who sold it.

Every book sold means more money, right?

Nope.

If your advance is $100,000, you must “earn out” that sum before getting another dime from the publisher.

And the game is rigged, since every book sold does not give the author the cover price!

We get eight percent of the retail price.

So this belief that a TV or radio or podcast appearance means a huge boost to our income from our books is wishful fantasy.

What exactly do TV and radio producers do?

There are “bookers” and producers who find and pre-interview people they think will be good on-air. You may have noticed a predominance of white men. People with no discernible accent.

 

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How do people actually end up getting interviewed by the media?

A variety of ways. Some have in-house communications departments or PIOs (public information officers) to handle requests formally. Some have a public relations firm pumping out press releases all the time! Some know a journalist or producer personally.

If it’s a major news event, like a shooting or natural disaster, we speak to as many people there as possible — traumatic for them, often.

 

How do you get access to documents?

Some use a Freedom of Information Act — FOIA — to get at them. It’s been in American law since 1967, the legal right to access any document from any federal agency.

Sometimes we get them offered to us by an internal whistle-blower.

 

How are freelance writers paid?

Bizarrely, by the word. Sometimes a flat fee. These range from $150 to $10,000 or more. No rules. No guidelines. It’s every-man-for-himself. So a story of 500 words at .50 cents per word will pay less than a magazine piece at $2/word for 3,000 words.

We are not paid until the story is accepted — and that can take months. It’s a huge problem.

Stories also get “killed” — not used and maybe not even paid for, maybe 25 percent of the original fee.

 

A glossary:

 

Hed

The headline.

Sub-hed

A sub-heading within the body of a story, often used to break up copy and keep the reader moving.

Pull-quote or call-out

A phrase or quote that’s memorable, meant to entice the reader into the story.

Dek

A brief description of the story.

Lede

The first sentence or paragraph. Crucial!

Kicker

The final sentence or paragraph. Crucial!

Graf

A paragraph.

The 5 W’s and H

Who, What, When, Where, Why and How….every story should answer these.

B-roll

Images to illustrate a TV story or video that aren’t the main event. Sometimes shot in advance.

Nut graf

High up in a story, the graf that explains why the story is even worth reading.

Explainer

A detailed story to explain a complicated issue.

Presser

A press conference.

On the record

Everything you say is now for permanent, public consumption. (Off the record means it’s not — but only if you preface your remarks with this phrase, not afterward.)

Writing is lonely! Solutions…

 

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There are some great words in there somewhere!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Sure, some people can write well in a noisy and crowded coffee shop.

Not me.

For truly focused, uninterrupted work, I need quiet, either at home alone or at a library.

Writing really means often wondering — does this sentence/paragraph/chapter even make sense?!

So I’m fascinated by two recent reports of writers meeting face to face to help one another thrive, one in Hollywood and many others more private.

The one in Hollywood is called Rideback.

From The New York Times:

Mr. Lin is betting that Rideback will strengthen and accelerate the creative process. It is a Hollywood twist on WeWork, the shared office space company. Mr. Lin said he was also inspired by Pixar’s “brain trust” sessions, in which directors and writers candidly critique one another’s work, and by “The Medici Effect,” Frans Johansson’s 2004 book about the ignition of the Renaissance.

“If you put a bunch of creative people from different backgrounds into one space, something magical will happen,” Mr. Lin said. “Studio lots used to be just that. You would walk around and everyone would be there. But studio lots aren’t as much fun anymore. They can feel corporate.”

Mr. Lin has 15 employees of his own. They work on the Rideback campus, where they are focused on finding a way forward for the “Lego” series, most likely with a new studio partner. (Universal is one option.) Other front-burner projects include an “Aladdin” sequel and a television spinoff; “Lethal Weapon 5,” with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover signed up to return; movies based on Cirque du Soleil shows; and a remake of the TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

 

 

Writers also meet face to face with trusted peers:

 

Writing is often considered a solitary act, but some writers have figured out a way to make the process more collaborative even before editors, agents and other publishing professionals get involved. Zhang’s group, which includes Alice Sola Kim, Karan Mahajan and Tony Tulathimutte, has been meeting about every month since most of them were undergraduate students at Stanford University. Their sessions are highly structured, with deadlines for submitting drafts and detailed manuscript notes, while other groups gather more informally to talk about their careers, commiserate over deadlines or gossip about the publishing industry.

“You will feel like writing is very lonely and very difficult and very frustrating and that you don’t really know what you’re doing,” said the Chicago-based writer Mikki Kendall. But in a writing group, “you can talk to other people in that place and that are feeling their way out.”

 

I don’t belong to any such group, but I do belong to at least six on-line writers’ groups — and have done so online for many years, still close friends with a few people I only initially knew that way. One, a writer now living in California, and I shared a room at a Boston writing conference never having even met in person, launching a long and treasured friendship.

It really cuts the loneliness to be able to talk your ideas and challenges through with people at the same level of skill and experience and, if you’re lucky, those a few steps beyond you, willing to be generous.

One such group (many are private Facebook groups), is small — only 200 — and only those with a decade’s experience can join. I know, even if I don’t like the answers, I’ll get a quick and candid reply from someone else who’s been around the same block a few times.

 

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Writing books makes me really happy — but also very nervous!

 

The challenge of all writers’ groups, in any form, is the classic writers’ combo of insecurity and ego. I’ve seen several such online groups explode in outrage and vicious bullying. It can get weird and ugly quickly.

And to share, let alone publish your work — poetry, fiction, non-fiction, essays, journalism — demands the courage to have a voice, to put it out there for comment, criticism and potential disagreement. That opens you up, de facto, to potential hurt.

So I have what I consider a bit of a brain trust; to gather feedback on a recent story of 5,000 words — my longest and most complex in a decade — I enlisted the fresh eyes and expertise of three people whose judgment I trust. One is a man half my age who’s very good; one is a woman my age whose writing I deeply admire and the third is a professional book editor. These “first readers” are so helpful and so important.

After revising your work over and over and over and over — you’re tired! You have blind spots. The material has become so familiar you’re likely to miss places that it’s still confusing to someone who has never read it at all. So these trusted peers are so valuable.

I’ve done this for others, of course, helping to review their stories and book manuscripts. I’m honored to do it.

If you’re lucky and talented and persistent, you will find a peer group and they will help steer you through.

How (fill in nationality) are you?

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I remain a fan of long, long lunches — too French, for sure!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

A typical weekend scene in our home — my American husband, Jose, watching TV football or golf, the other day cheering the Ohio State University marching band, who are pretty amazing; here’s a video, 9:11 minutes long.

I admit it: I have yet to even see a football game live.

I’ve never seen a marching band live and — fellow Canadians, am I wrong? –– I don’t think Canada even has marching bands!

It’s been decades since I moved to the U.S. from Canada and I’m still stunned by some serious cultural/political differences, like the legal right in some states to “conceal carry” or “open carry” — i.e. walk around normal daily life with a handgun on you. (I spoke to 104 men, women and teens for my 2004 book about women and guns, and learned a lot.)

Or tailgating — in which you serve food from the back of a parked vehicle, usually in the parking lot of a sports stadium. What?!

Or words, and concepts, like a Hail Mary or a do-over.

I like the French formality of a cheek kiss or handshake whenever you meet someone. I really prefer the discretion of not blurting out a lot of highly personal detail allatonce the way Americans can do. I find it odd and overwhelming.

 

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A bit of classic Americana on Long Island, NY

 

I do love the directness and speed of New York, and it’s one reason I moved here, as I was always being mistaken for an American anyway — (too fast, too direct, too ambitious!) — in Toronto, my hometown. Canadians, for a variety of reasons, tend to be much more risk-averse and can move at a glacial pace in business, needing months or years to establish a sufficient relationship; New York, anyway, is highly transactional and people here want to do business, and (at a certain level) quickly and decisively.

And being “American” means quite different things in different areas — whether being overtly highly religious or owning a gun, to name only two regional examples.

One of the reasons Jose and I matched so quickly, even between a Canadian and American, an Anglo and a Hispanic, was our shared values, like a quiet sort of modesty, regardless of accomplishment — normal in Santa Fe, NM and for Canadians. Bragging is declassé!

I’ve lived in Canada, Mexico, England, France and the U.S. so my values and attitudes are all a bit of of these.

 

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Love this delivery, in the Marais, Paris

 

I miss Paris, where I lived at 25 — style, elegance,  history.

I miss Mexico, where I lived at 14 — gorgeous countryside, kind people, history and design.

That may sound pretentious, but it’s true.

When you have powerful experiences while living in a distant country your memories are highly specific and often unshared. When you leave that place behind, you carry all those memories, but who can you talk to about them?

They’re called “invisible losses.”

I really value friendship and emotional connection — which take time to nurture, and prefer them to the constant chase for money and power — which is pretty darn un-American. I also work to live, not live to work, also bizarre in a nation addicted to being productive above all.

 

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I always visit St. Lawrence Market in Toronto — and who doesn’t love a Mountie?

 

And yet I’m also very competitive, which works here.

I have friends, like the author of Small Dog Syndrome, who are TCK’s — third culture kids — who have spent much of their lives out of their country of origin. This gives them tremendous global fluency, sometimes multiple languages, and the very useful ability to fit in well almost anywhere. (Barack Obama is one, too.)

The downside?

You can feel forever a bit of a nomad, enjoying many nations, but perhaps loyal to none.

Here’s an interesting TedX talk on life as a TCK — from a white woman born in Nigeria.

 

 

How I got my latest NYT story

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The poor kids! It poured rain all day….but they went out anyway!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

So, I have no kids and I don’t live in Brooklyn and I’ve never attended school in New York nor visited a middle school here.

Yet I found this terrific story for The New York Times about an after-school program for students who, in their classroom, build a wooden boat by hand from scratch — then set sail on an inlet of the East River, with huge boats passing and the skyscrapers of Manhattan as a backdrop.

How?

Jeopardy.

I watch the game show often and, a year or so ago, a contestant said he volunteered with Brooklyn Boatworks, a non-profit program founded by two naval architects.

As a lifelong sailor, I was immediately intrigued — when you think of Brooklyn, you don’t necessarily think first of boats or sailing.

So I did some digging and contacted the program’s executive director and asked her enough questions to pitch the idea, which was accepted. I do this a lot with my potential stories, pre-reporting them enough to create a compelling pitch — that means persuading people to talk to me even though I don’t yet have a definite assignment.

I knew I had to watch a team of students working on the boat so I visited MS (Middle School) 88 on February 14 for two hours and again for two more hours on April 18, the length of each week’s building session. I observed, listened, eavesdropped and took far more notes than I would ever be able to use — I was only allowed a maximum of 1,500 words for the story.

How would I be able to encapsulate this amazing adventure?

I took photos with my phone for later reference and interviewed several students and their two teachers. The students were friendly and easy to talk to. It was great to watch their teamwork and self-confidence easily handling tools as they built a boat together, my favorite being two young Muslim girls in hijab working with cordless drills.

 

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The boats are seven foot, six inches — those buoyancy bags help keep them afloat!

 

Few of the students had ever even been on a sailboat before and, likely, none as tiny as the Optimist, aka Opti. It all seemed like some sort of dream. Would it ever really be a boat? Was it possible? Would it sink?!

 

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Students wrapped in plastic tried to stay dry while cheering on their team-mates. That’s the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. The orange thing in the photo is a PFD, a personal flotation device every sailor needs to wear in case of capsize.

 

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Program director Marjorie Schulman was the soul of patience for the many, many emails and calls I needed to report the story. This was June 10, the day of “graduation” when every student who participated got a certificate and public recognition of their months of hard work.

 

Launch day was June 10 — a day of non-stop rain!

The event was held at Pier 2 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with speeches beforehand and a few special guests. I met the freelance photographer there for the Times and introduced her to some of the people I needed her to focus on; typical of my freelance work, I had never met her before yet we would have to work well together quickly and under uncomfortable conditions.

That’s journalism!

 

Here’s the story, and an excerpt:

Dana Garcia, a sixth-grader, said she really enjoyed building the boat. “I sawed many pieces of it and we got to use epoxy, which my parents thought was pretty cool,” she said. “Sawing is actually pretty hard. You have to practice a lot. You have to be safety conscious and patient. We wear gloves so we don’t get cut and safety glasses so no sawdust gets into our eyes.”

Students also had the opportunity to use math and science in the workshop. “When it came to our measurements, we were always trying to get everything right and we had a lesson in the science of sailing, how to use the wind,” Dana said.

Dana, it seems, has caught the building bug. “I’d like to do a sculpture or another boat or a treehouse,” she said.

Other students felt empowered from the experience, too.

“I love learning new stuff,” Karla Miranda, a seventh-grader, said. “Before I was just doing basic girl things —- I’d watch TV, go outside, do homework. I got more comfortable using tools and how to control them,” she continued. “I didn’t know I could do all this.”

 

 

Climate change: what next?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I won’t repeat the endless warnings I read daily.

If you follow the news, you’re also well aware.

We were back up in Montreal last weekend where I was heartened to see this large street protest — calmly protected by multiple police officers — as students took to to the streets for their Friday school strike.

 

 

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“Don’t adapt — act” …

 

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They were inspired by a high school student far away across the ocean, Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, recently profiled by Time magazine as their cover story, extraordinary in itself.

An excerpt:

Castigating the powerful has become routine for the 16-year-old. In December, she addressed the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poland; in January she berated billionaires at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her London speech was the last stop of a tour that included meeting the Pope. (“Continue to work, continue,” he told her, ending with, “Go along, go ahead.” It was an exhortation, not a dismissal.)

Just nine months ago, Thunberg had no such audiences. She was a lone figure sitting outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, carrying a sign emblazoned with Skolstrejk for Klimatet (School Strike for Climate). She was there for a reason that felt primal and personal. While Thunberg was studying climate change in school at the age of 11, she reacted in a surprisingly intense way: she suffered an episode of severe depression. After a time it lifted, only to resurface last spring.

“I felt everything was meaningless and there was no point going to school if there was no future,” Thunberg says. But this time, rather than suffer the pain, she decided to push back at its cause, channeling her sadness into action. “I promised myself I was going to do everything I could do to make a difference,” she says.

 

I confess to feeling daily despair over a changing climate wreaking havoc worldwide: floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, incredible heatwaves, all of which are damaging agriculture and the oceans, drying up crucial sources of water and causing millions of people living in vulnerable areas to wonder where else they might possibly live safely.

Indians recently fled a cyclone thanks to receiving in advance millions of warning text messages —- while Ottawa, Canada’s capital, recently coped with the worst flooding in 25 years.

 

No one is safe.

 

What, if anything, are you doing to deal with climate change?

 

Is it affecting your life?

 

Will it affect how you vote?

 

Some thoughts about guns

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By Caitlin Kelly

Another week in the United States — which, every week, only means more gun deaths.

This week, one of them was a student about to graduate high school, Kendrick Castillo, killed trying to save his classmates from a shooter.

In their classroom.

From CNN:

The 18-year-old was watching “The Princess Bride” in his British literature class when the shooter pulled out a gun, demanding that nobody moved. After Kendrick lunged at the shooter, three other students also tackled the gunman and tried to subdue him while the rest of the class fled the room.
Kendrick was an only child, but his friends, including the members of the school’s robotics team, were like his siblings, his father said. They would host holiday gift exchanges at his home, shared his toys as a child and would pay for a friend’s movie tickets if someone didn’t have money.
“Be selfless, that’s what my son was, and it got him killed, but he saved others,” Castillo said.
Is there anything useful to say about this?
I don’t blog about guns because there’s so much coverage of the issue.
But there’s little substantive discussion of why Americans insist on owning one — some owning hundreds.
The state of California has 9,400 residents who legally should not now own one, but do. Officials are overwhelmed.
In the years 2002 and 2003, I traveled the United States, alone, mostly by car, to try and better understand this attachment to firearms, incomprehensible to millions of others — whether Americans or those living outside the country.
I did three sessions of handgun training, and have fired everything from a .22 rifle to an AR-15, a Glock 9mm (standard police issue) to a .357 Magnum.
I don’t own one or want to.
But, unlikely as a Canadian, I’m now considered one of the experts on the subject of Americans and guns.

A few reasons why getting rid of guns is so incredibly difficult:

Sentimental and emotional reasons. A gun is often handed down as a family heirloom, generation through generation, as revered as a set of delicate china or a favorite armchair. A father’s service weapon, a great-grandfather’s hunting rifle.
— Hatred and fear of government. This is intensely and unchangingly American in a nation founded on the hatred and fear of centralized authority. I’ve “debated” on BBC a man absolutely convinced the government is likely to burst into his home one day and grab all his guns.
Self-defense. Linked to fear and hatred of government, the belief (true in some communities) that law enforcement simply won’t be there, or quickly enough, to save your life from an attack.
— Autonomy and independence. Deeply American is the value that it’s all up to you to take care of everything.
Regional differences. For every urbanite who disdains the very idea of touching a gun, let alone owning one, there are many Americans who love to hunt, whether for sport or for food to feed their families.
— The National Rifle Association, which offers letters grades (like elementary school) to elected officials, dinging those they dislike with an F. Voters vote accordingly.
— The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. If it didn’t exist, the entire debate could change overnight: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  An analysis, here.
I spoke to 104 Americans from 29 states, from teens to seniors,  and asked each one of them how a gun has affected their lives. Some love them, some fear them.
This is the book I wrote about it.
BLOWN AWAY COVER
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

A new challenge: Les Mis en francais

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Because I need to do something with my brain that’s just for me.

I play Scrabble on the computer at the advanced level and read a lot but want to keep the old head in gear and sharpen my wits as best I can.

I studied French for three years at University of Toronto, decades ago, but only to make sure I could work in it as a reporter, which I did in my 20s and 30s.

But I never studied French literature! Never poetry! What a loss.

I’ve been watching and enjoying the BBC series of “Les Misérables”, which prompted me to get a copy of the book — written in 1832 by Victor Hugo — from our library system.

I still have my trusty French-English dictionary from college, so feel ready to go.

I read out loud to practice my accent and had forgotten what a workout it is physically to speak French! I began studying it in Toronto in elementary school and later lived for eight months in Paris and have been back many, many times.

I like to say I am fluent, and am confident in most situations that don’t demand highly specialized vocabularies (science, tech, medicine, etc.)

We’ll see how many of its 1,651 pages (!) I can get through in the six weeks the library allows.

Have you ever read it, in any language?

 

Have you read other books in a language that is not your native tongue?

 

The $$$$ cost of American college: a fix?

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Aaaaaaah, the “promise” of higher education!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I generally avoid wading into political issues here  — we get enough of that elsewhere! — but this is a subject I care a lot about, the skyrocketing costs of American university/college education. In an elbows-out nation addicted to capitalism, being hampered in any meaningful way from being able to compete effectively for well-paid work is a huge problem.

Many colleges now charge $60,000 (!) a year, to a wealthy family mere pocket change — and for many others, an unfathomable sum to assume. That’s assuming only undergrad, not graduate school or further professional training.

I taught in 2014-2015 at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn, to students who had decided that paying $60,000 a year to study writing was a wise investment.

But seriously?

Few writers, whether of fiction, poetry or journalism, will ever earn $60,000 a year; a very fortunate few will make it to that level and beyond, and generally those who were able to afford and attend and graduate from Big Name Schools. Hence the crazed arms race to get into them, which will likely send a few celebrities to prison for paying bribes for this purpose.

I recently read the comments of an entry-level newspaper reporter — yes, a “real job” — paying $14/hour.

Yes, there are state schools.

Yes, you can spend the first two years at a community college and save a lot of money and transfer for the name on your diploma.

But still.

It shocks me deeply — in a nation that fetishizes college (they never call it university) as the golden key to prosperity –– that student debt is the only form of indebtedness you can’t discharge by declaring bankruptcy.

I know people in their 40s and beyond (!) who still owe a significant sum on loans they took out decades earlier.

Here’s potential Democratic Presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, with her bold proposal, published on Medium to help millions of American shed this burden:

An excerpt:

 

Higher education opened a million doors for me. It’s how the daughter of a janitor in a small town in Oklahoma got to become a teacher, a law school professor, a U.S. Senator, and eventually, a candidate for President of the United States.

Today, it’s virtually impossible for a young person to find that kind of opportunity. As states have invested less per-student at community colleges and public four-year colleges, the schools themselves have raised tuition and fees to make up the gap. And rather than stepping in to hold states accountable, or to pick up more of the tab and keep costs reasonable, the federal government went with a third option: pushing families that can’t afford to pay the outrageous costs of higher education towards taking out loans.

The result is a huge student loan debt burden that’s crushing millions of families and acting as an anchor on our economy. It’s reducing home ownership rates. It’s leading fewer people to start businesses. It’s forcing students to drop out of school before getting a degree. It’s a problem for all of us.

 

I first saw this piece posted on Twitter — where, not surprisingly, it had gathered 17,741 re-tweets and 66,877 likes.

I paid $660 a year in the mid 1970s to attend University of Toronto, Canada’s top school. Today, resident tuition for and arts & sciences undergraduate is about $5,000.

Not $50,000.

That four-year degree gave me the self-confidence and skills to compete effectively against the most expensively groomed and educated writers in New York, the publishing capital.

But if I had graduated burdened by decades of debt, my life — and my career — would have looked very different. Jose, my husband, had all four years at New Mexico State paid for because his father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe. He, too, rocketed out of school with a degree, a ton of ambition and the freedom to take chances and learn needed professional skills wherever he best could.

We were really lucky.

Success should not be predicated on luck.

Are you — or your kids — saddled with American college debt?

 

How does it affect you?