A perfect Manhattan afternoon

By Caitlin Kelly

What a luxury it is to live so close to New York City!

I can drive in from our suburban town and (if lucky!) be parked on the street within 30 to 40 minutes.

I seem to have tremendous parking karma — which means, very often, I’ll find a spot on the street where I don’t even have to pay (on Sunday, for example), saving me as much as $50 for garage parking for 3-5 hours in fancier neighborhoods.

So I drove in last Sunday to Lexington and 83d, a neighborhood called the Upper East Side, UES, to meet a young friend for brunch at the Lexington Candy Shop, which is a tiny diner on that corner that opened in 1925.

They’re touchy about guests staying too long and by noon there was a line-up.

Then it’s an easy walk west along 83d to the Metropolitan Museum, which, for now has timed admission you reserve in advance.

If you’ve never yet been to New York or to the Met, the whole experience of the UES is well worth it; even the walk, across Park and Madison leads you past elegant townhouses and uniformed doormen, a guy smoking a stogie leaning on a car, a dog-walker with a huge, shaggy something and two pugs. The people watching is always good, and there are so many lovely architectural details to enjoy — from flower-filled window-boxes to carved gargoyles to the wrought-iron frames of pre-war apartment building entrance doors.

The Met has wide steps that make great seating, and musicians — competing! — settle in to entertain. There are plenty of food trucks — for $14 I got a falafel wrap and a lemonade.

New York state residents can pay as little or as much as we want for the Met’s admission fees — everyone else pays $12 (students), $17 seniors over 65 or the full fare of $25.

It’s tempting to think you have to see everything there if you’re a tourist, but that would be impossible! If you really do pay attention to objects, and read labels and wall signs, you’ll soon feel overloaded.

I find it all so moving — the Roman marble family sculpture from a cemetery; the tiny metal pins in the shape of animals that Roman soldiers wore (!); red and black Greek pottery; exquisite enamels of the 17th c; medieval tapestries —- and that’s just a few main floor galleries!

What amazing things have been produced by so many people. To see them close up is such a joy.

I love to visit a pair of gold earrings I find totally enchanting.

The place is quiet and civilized and there are plenty of benches to rest on. Everyone must be masked.

You can have the oddest moment of looking at something millennia old — and stare out the Fifth Avenue windows at the millionaires’ apartments across the street.

The gift shop is full of gorgeous things, jewelry and scarves, pens and pencils and books and puzzles and posters.

I remember it being full of astounding art and art history books — but not now?

It’s an interesting reminder that, without rich people’s generosity, many museums (certainly in the U.S.), would have a lot less stuff to show us; labels tell you what an item is and how old and maybe what it was used for, but also when it was acquired and using what funds. So the Jayne Wrightsman Galleries, for example, are huge and full of very ornate French material, not my taste at all.

Every room in the Greek and Roman galleries had the name of some wealthy benefactor.

These eyes, which would have been added to Roman or Greek sculptures are creepy — but also amazing.

I have a favorite painting I like to say hello to as well, on the second floor, of Joan of Arc, painted in 1879.

Have you been to the Met?

What are some of your favorite local museums?

The van Gogh immersive show

By Caitlin Kelly

This show is making the global rounds — at least in North America — currently in Manhattan at Pier 36 until September 6.

I recently saw it with a good friend and recommend it.

It is not cheap! Our tickets were $66 each, for an hour of entertainment, although we were able to see the show more than once by just staying in the room.

There are three rooms, the first being long and fairly narrow, the third, the most interior, is enormous — and has a totally different and overwhelming sense of scale; it also has a few benches, otherwise you’re sitting on the floor.

If you know some of his work, you’ll enjoy seeing some old favorites — like the Postman. If you’re new to it, dozens of images will move past you in a hypnotic array.

I have no idea how its creators got permission to use any of the images, or if anyone in the van Gogh family is getting income from this — I sure hope so!

They have somehow managed to make some of the images come to life, through animation — like this windmill.

The show, designed by three Italians, is accompanied by a variety of music, from a Mussorgsky piece to Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien” and it enhances the experience.

The site design also includes a variety of reflective elements, from bubbles to tall columns to what look like huge rocks — which bounce the images around the room even further.

It’s all very beautiful.

My main issue with it may seem pedantic — there’s nothing said about Vincent van Gogh, who died at 37, and who created this amazing art. The gift shop is, to my mind, overkill — crocheted keychains?!

But I enjoyed it and am glad we went.

Turns out there are many many versions of this idea!

Like this one…

Have you seen this one?

What did you think?

Ten reasons to love”Billy Elliot”

By Caitlin Kelly

I know, not a new film!

But one I’m so happy to watch over and over again…

Filmed in London, Esrington (Durham) and in studio, it’s the story of a young working-class boy , played by Jamie Bell, who dreams of studying ballet, despite the initial anger and shock of his coal-miner father — broke, scared and out on strike.

“Ballet?!” he shouts (sounding like Bally)

“Boys do things like…football, wrestling!”

The film was made for a small budget of $5 million in only seven weeks, and they could only shoot during weekdays because of the actor’s young age — child labor laws!

It has since earned $109 million.

Bell had to endure seven auditions before finally winning the role — beating out 2,000 others!

A few reasons I love it so much:

  1. If you love ballet and/or have studied it (as I did for years), it shows what discipline it really takes to even get started in this demanding art form as young Billy, then 11, learns turn-out and plies and arabesques.

2. Determination! Billy lives in a working-class neighborhood, surrounded by people whose dreams are usually small and local. It will take a lot of determination to break free, which he does.

3. How much a small boy misses his late mother. She has died young and there’s a lovely scene in the tiny kitchen where she appears to him again.

4. How the local, overwhelmingly macho ethos shapes a young boy — and what if you don’t fit the mold? His friend Michael, gay, is terrified Billy will reject him (set in 1984) and then what?

5. Why sometimes it’s someone far from your family who really sees you for who you are and will fight to make sure you get what you need — Mrs. Wilkinson, his ferocious local dance teacher.

6. The scenes of police chasing down striking coal miners — set to raucous tunes like the Clash’s London Calling — are both poignant and funny.

7. That opening scene with Billy bouncing on his bed!

8. Maybe my favorite scene of all — Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson on a car ferry, The Tees Transporter Bridge, while listening to Swan Lake as she explains the plot to him. The contrast between the industrial surroundings and the ethereal music is perfect!

9. The moment Billy is asked, at his audition for the Royal Ballet School, why he loves ballet…”I just disappear. It’s electricity.”

10. The final image of him soaring above the London stage, his father, brother and Michael there to watch him with pride.

And if you want to watch dancers in rehearsal — getting endless corrections to what already looks physically impossible! — check out the Australian Ballet’s Instagram feed.

Have you seen it?

Do you have a favorite scene?

Six great journalism movies

By Caitlin Kelly

There’s no way past it. If you’re going to read a blog written by a journalist…

The Devil Wears Prada

I’ve seen this 2006 film so many times I know much of the dialogue off by heart and always look forward to my favorite scenes.

It follows the trajectory of Andrea Sachs, a gormless fresh graduate, who is very serious about journalism, stuck in a first job — at a NYC glossy fashion magazine — she neither wants nor respects. It’s a job.

This one always hits me!

It’s set in Manhattan, with key scenes in buildings and locations holding some great memories in my own writing life.

It’s really about what it takes to pay dues, to go along and get along in a rough and unfamiliar environment.

The price of ambition.

There are some lovely scenes in Paris as well.

Lots of arguments about whether her friends are true friends, or people who have no clue what it really takes to get ahead in this brutally competitive industry.

Plus, Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci and acres of gorgeous clothes and accessories.

It was made for $35 million — and has earned almost 10 times that since.

Spotlight

I know of no other film that so abundantly makes clear what it takes to do really slow, really detailed, really deep reporting work, aka investigative journalism. It won Best Picture for 2015 and richly deserved it.

It follows a real team of four reporters at the Boston Globe who dug up a rats’ nest of priest’s abuse. There are scenes that should be required viewing in every journalism class, like the one where Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams) has to coax grim details from a male abuse victim.

No one who hasn’t done this work — and especially those who loathe and insult journalists — can really grasp the emotional intelligence (empathy, compassion, patience) it takes to get victims to share the stories that can, sometimes, create tremendous political and legal change.

I’ve watched this one many times and never tire of it.

It also makes very clear the tremendous pressure often placed on senior newsroom management by powers-that-be eager to shut down some unwanted attention.

And the military chain-of-command that still runs most newsrooms.

And the balls-to-the-wall determination it demands of reporters to keep chasing elusive answers.

Plus, again — Stanley Tucci!

Absence of Malice

This is an older one, from 1981, with Sally Field as a reporter and Paul Newman as the subject of her story.

Nominated for three Academy Awards, and written by a former newspaper editor, it addresses when, how or if a reporter should ever have a romantic relationship with someone they’re writing about it.

It also shows that speaking to “civilians” — regular people who don’t understand how journalism works — can wreak havoc on their lives.

Some of our collection of laminated press credentials….

All The President’s Men

Better known to those who love it as ATPM, this follows the Watergate scandal that brought down former U.S.President Richard Nixon, and the two Washington Post reporters — Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) — who broke the story after many months of reporting and a lot of internal and external doubt whether the story was true and verifiable.

Jason Robards is terrific as the Post’s patrician editor, Ben Bradlee, with his Gucci-clad feet on every desk.

It’s a total boy-fest, with almost no women involved in the editing or reporting, but still so worth watching.

For an entire generation of would-be journalists, Woodward and Bernstein were the ultimate role models.

The Paper

Hilarious!

Michael Keaton and Marisa Tomei — and Glenn Close — star in this send-up of New York City tabloid journalism. Having worked at the NY Daily News, I get it now!

If you want a glimpse of what newspaper tabloid life is like, this is it.

A Private War

This is a recent film, from 2018, about the legendary American foreign correspondent, Marie Colvin, played by the excellent British actress Rosalind Pike.

Colvin had already lost an eye covering the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka but never stopped worked in dangerous places.

She was killed while on assignment in Homs, Syria, Feb. 12, 2012.

And guess who’s in the cast?

Stanley Tucci!

What word games do you play?

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve always been proud of my vocabulary and I’ve been writing for a living since university.

But it’s humbling indeed to realize how many words I still don’t know or just don’t use.

I recently began playing the New York Times Spelling Bee and am officially addicted!

It’s shaped like a flower, with seven letters — six around a central letter that must be included in every word of four or more letters.

Its feedback as you play is so New York-ishly competitive….as you make more words and score more points (with more points for longer words) it goes from Nice to Solid (!) to Great to Amazing.

The highest level (which I have yet to attain) is Queen Bee.

And I’m such a nerd that when I come up with a word that uses all the letters — that they didn’t include — there is much gnashing of teeth. How dare they!

It teaches me a lot about how I perceive, how I think, how I see (or don’t!) see patterns.

And words I never use or have never heard before.

How could I have missed anime?

I don’t follow it as an art form, even as I know what it is. So my eyes didn’t discern it.

And let’s not forget tontine — an obscure 17th-19th century word for a kind of insurance.

DONEE?!

It’s really interesting to work hard at it for a bit, get tired and frustrated, then go away for a while. Maybe an hour or more.

Almost without fail, the minute I see it anew — boom! –– there’s a word right in front me I hadn’t noticed.

I like that it forces me to take breaks and refresh my brain.

I also play Scrabble with my husband, but more often now solo against the computer at the advanced level. It drives me nuts when it — often — makes obviously French words! Like quai.

I also need to memorize a lot more words using q, j, and z.

He and I play Bananagrams and he’s gotten very good!

What I like most about it, other than it’s easily portable (the tiles come in the cutest little yellow cotton sack that looks like a banana), is it forces players to move fast and be super flexible. If the word patterns you’ve made aren’t allowing for the next letters, break ’em up and move them as needed.

This is huge, this sort of instant destruction. It’s the opposite of Scrabble, where you aim for the highest possible score every time. With Bananagrams, the goal is to use up all the letters as fast as possible then shout “Bananas!” when you win.

It’s a little odd that I work with words and also play with them. But I like that they’re not only my bread and butter but a source of real pleasure and relaxation.

These games are a fun and easy way to stay mentally sharp, to grow my vocabulary, to savor a bit of competition.

Do you play any word games?

Seven pandemic questions

By Caitlin Kelly

I really enjoyed this New York Times special section where they asked a range of artists — 75 in all –these questions:

Some produced nothing.

Some went into overdrive.

Some did a lot of cooking.

Some binged on much older works of art, from the Iliad to old movies.

My replies:

If you’d known you’d be so isolated for so long, what would you have done differently?

I would have rented a house somewhere upstate and fled our apartment. It’s been a challenge with two people home all the time working, between no privacy and noise and endless cooking and cleaning. Even fled overseas or back to Canada.

Did you find a friendship that helped you through this time?

My husband has been the best and most consistent.

What’s one thing you made this year?

My book proposal.

What’s the one moment you’ll remember most?

Two…my last gasps of non-COVID travel, seeing friends in D.C. in early March 2020, and a Degas show there. And the (thank God) defeat of Trump.

What art have you turned to?

I watch way too much television: new shows, older shows, new movies, older movies. Have tried to read books but with less success. My Insta account includes several people who highlight works of art and this has been really sustaining. Music, every day, thanks to my vinyl and global radio and Sirius XM.

What bad idea did you have?

My book proposal — so far proving impossible to sell. Very frustrating.

What do you want to achieve before things return to normal?

Lose more weight. Get really thoughtful about who I will spend time with.

How about you?

How would you answer any or all of these?

Kim Wall’s murder: “The Investigation” on HBO

By Caitlin Kelly

In the summer of 2017, Kim Wall, an adventurous, ambitious 30-year-old Swedish freelance journalist made a last-minute phone call to Peter Madsen, a Danish inventor in Copenhagen. She wanted to ride in his home-made submarine, a potential story.

It’s the sort of thing many freelancers do all the time, without deep concern about the risks, as the rewards are obvious.

It would be her last.

He killed her, dismembered her and threw her into the water.

Now, HBO Europe has released a six-part series about the hunt for her killer, The Investigation, on in the U.S.

The show never once names him, referring to him only as “the accused.”

If you, as I do, loved the Danish show Borgen, this brings back two very familiar faces — Pilou Asbek as the prosecutor (who played the spin doctor in Borgen) and Soren Malling as the chief of Copenhagen police (the TV director in Borgen.)

We never see or hear much about Kim herself except through the characters who play her parents, who were as committed to her independence and freelance life as she was. It’s never an easy life, and one many parents find too worrisome and penurious, so this is an interesting piece of the story.

The show moves slowly, with many setbacks and confusion and a lot of frustration — just as much detective work actually unfolds in real life. Madsen was not tried and convicted until April 2018.

I found the show emotionally hard to watch — (I didn’t know Kim)– as it could easily have been me or many other freelancers. Our lives are full of such crazy adventures — many quite risky — we undertake in order to find and tell compelling stories.

And we go alone.

At 25, for a story about the many challenges of trucking goods across the EU, I climbed into an 18-wheeler French truck, met its driver, Pierre Boue, and set off from Perpignan to Istanbul (eight days.) We had never met or spoken. We were both single and he was 35. We. slept on tiny bunks in the truck cab, with no privacy possible. There was no Internet then or cell phones.

It proved one of the best weeks of my life and my career.

But it looked risky as hell.

Here’s a story about it from Vox:

The 2017 murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall is one of the most haunting true crime cases in recent memory. If you worked in New York media four years ago, there was a high chance you knew someone who had worked with Wall. She was a vibrant, award-winning freelancer who reported complex investigations all over the world, often fearlessly navigating unfamiliar regions.

That facet of her life served to heighten the irony around her death: Two days before she was about to move across the world to begin yet another adventure, she arranged a last-minute interview in Copenhagen with a man who should have been an easy subject: Peter Madsen, a high-powered tech guru and inventor. Madsen was part of Wall’s home region. He was a renowned public figure; she was a renowned, well-connected journalist. It should have been her safest assignment yet.

This, from IndieWire:

Some audiences may balk at the ways the HBO show (now available in full on HBO Max) removes some of these standard elements of biographical crime stories. In staying as close to its title as possible, though, “The Investigation” managed to address a recent tragedy in a surprisingly clear-headed way.

Much of that stems from the way that “The Investigation” handles the passage of time. Though the season spans months, writer/director Lindholm resists putting down easy markers to wring tension out of breaks in the case. There’s a sameness to the way it unfolds, the kind where a whiteboard sits with words and diagrams written on it that no one’s bothered to erase because there’s nothing new to add, either from detective Jens Møller Jensen (Søren Malling) or prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen (Pilou Asbæk). Finding Wall’s body becomes the overwhelming part of their pursuit — if the show returns to the details of the retrieval process and an item-by-item timeline of everything that happened on the submarine, it underlines how singular their pursuit is.

It’s not an easy show to watch, obviously, and some of the details are very grim.

But what made it most compelling to me was the police’s shared dogged determination to solve this crime and the incredible teamwork it took — including months of diving to find her and her belongings.

Have you watched it?

What did you think?

Living in the past. Long past!

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this Guardian story about people who choose to live in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s — estehtically, anyway.

And I recently did a lot of global reporting — speaking to people in Seattle, DC, Ontario, Genoa, L.A., Stockholm, London, Finland and Philadelphia — about a hobby they all share, historical costuming. (The man in Philly does it for a living!)

It means making and wearing clothing of much earlier eras and centuries, finding patterns and appropriate fabric, and wearing the correct undergarments to create the correct silhouette. (No sports bras allowed!)

It’s an amazing obsession, and demands a lot of patience and skill and meticulous attention to detail. It’s mostly enjoyed women, and mostly white women — something they’re well aware of! I did include an Iranian-American.

One of the women I spoke to is a mechanic in Finland. One is an Army wife in Ontario. One is a jewelry appraiser in Stockholm.

All were a joy to speak with! I could have spent hours geeking out with Jenny Tiramani, a legendary costume designer who worked for years at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre — and who founded and runs London’s School of Historical Dress.

Here’s the piece, my first sale to the Styles section of The New York Times, for whom I write fairly often:

Here’s the start:

It’s a world of corsets, stays and chemises. Of weskits, bum rolls, breeches and hoop panniers. For actors, wearing period costume has long meant literally stepping into the past: lacing soft modern flesh into antique shapes and learning how to use the toilet without peeling off multiple layers.

“Bridgerton,” Shonda Rhimes’s racially diverse Netflix series set in 1813 England, has suddenly ignited new interest in Regency fashions. But a global community of hobbyists has been designing, making and wearing clothing from the 19th century and earlier for many years. Long a private obsession fueled by films like “The Leopard” and “Pride and Prejudice,” social media has widened the conversation, with fans of all ages and backgrounds worldwide now trading notes on how best to trim a sleeve or adjust a straw bonnet.

Pre-pandemic, they gathered in Los Angeles at Costume College, an annual conference, at Venice’s Carnival and the Fêtes Galantes at Versailles. Some lucky Europeans, like Filippa Trozelli, find themselves invited to wear their historical clothing to private parties at ancient local estates.

As someone who loves vintage/historical textiles — and who wore an Edwardian day dress for her first wedding — I totally get the appeal of this obsession. I love the notion of time travel, of swishing through a garden in yards of silk or meeting up in Venice with equally obsessed pals from around the world.

I had long wanted to write about this subculture, as I follow several of the women on Instagram, but never had a “peg” or “hook” — i.e. what relevance would it have now? Thanks to Bridgerton, it does!

The joy of seeing art again

By Caitlin Kelly

I hadn’t been to a museum since early March 2020, after attending a conference, where I saw a show of Degas at the National Gallery, which I loved.

I really miss seeing art face to face!

So when a very good friend got us tickets to to see a show at the Whitney (closing this weekend), and an outdoors lunch afterward (30 degrees be damned!) I eagerly said yes.

I had planned to double-mask but my one mask was so hot and so uncomfortable I couldn’t.

The show is fantastic. I’ve been to Mexico several times and so I knew the work of the big three muralists — Rivera, Siquieros and Orozco. I’d seen some of their work in situ. The scale is astonishing, truly monumental. You really need to step back a good. few feet to really grasp it all.

This show offered insights into how the Mexican muralists inspired American artists between 1925 and 1945, years of economic upheaval.

There’s the Bonus Army.
There are riots and police brutally putting them down with guns and batons.

There’s a powerful shared spirit of rebellion.

The show includes this huge, wall-length black and white photo of an L.A. mural — commissioned to show happy Mexicans — that instead is a powerful, damning repudiation.

Note the rapacious eagle — the symbol of American might and power — hovering above a crucified Mexican.

Of course, the mural, like so many, was quickly destroyed or painted over.

Their rage and honesty are searing and challenged, then as now, corporate and political power.

Today’s many #BlackLivesMatter murals — honoring the many Blacks shot dead by police — seem to be the contemporary equivalent.

These muralists did not mess around!

Rivera was hired to paint a mural at the then-new Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, a hugely prestigious commission — but failed to curb his politics as expected.

From Wikipedia:

The Rockefeller family approved of the mural’s idea: showing the contrast of capitalism as opposed to communism. However, after the New York World-Telegram complained about the piece, calling it “anti-capitalist propaganda”, an image of Vladimir Lenin and a Soviet Russian May Day parade were secretly added in protest. When these were discovered, Nelson Rockefeller – at the time a director of the Rockefeller Center – wanted Rivera to remove the portrait of Lenin,[2] but Rivera was unwilling to do so. In May 1933, Rockefeller ordered the mural to be plastered-over and thereby destroyed before it was finished, resulting in protests and boycotts from other artists.[3] Man at the Crossroads was peeled off in 1934 and replaced by a mural from Josep Maria Sert three years later. Only black-and-white photographs exist of the original incomplete mural, taken when Rivera suspected it might be destroyed. Using the photographs, Rivera repainted the composition in Mexico under the variant title Man, Controller of the Universe.

The controversy over the mural was significant because Rivera’s communist ideals contrasted with the theme of Rockefeller Center, even though the Rockefeller family themselves admired Rivera’s work.

The Whitney show is large, with works by others, like Ben Shahn and Philip Guston. There are works by Canadians and Japanese, also influenced by the muralists and their commitment to social justice.

From the Whitney:

With nearly 200 works by over sixty Mexican and American artists, this exhibition reorients art history by revealing the profound impact the Mexican muralists had on their counterparts in the United States during this period and the ways in which their example inspired American artists both to create epic narratives about American history and everyday life and to use their art to protest economic, social, and racial injustices.

It’s sea shanty time!

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re a TikTok fan — I confess I enjoy it but don’t follow people — you’ll have noticed a sudden interest in, of all things, sea shanties.

Here’s a nice piece from Vulture (part of NY Magazine) explaining why:

On the surface, it’s a little weird that digital culture in 2021 would become suddenly obsessed with 200-year-old folk songs about men on whaling boats. They sound like prehistoric oddities, which is part of the appeal. Simplistic in structure, they are deliberately repetitive and full of ideas and references that feel very, very far from life right now. Aside from the word Wellerman, they’re full of harpoons and pierheads and the specifics of butchering whales; the most recognizable lyrics are lines about “rounding the Cape” and the love of bonny brown-haired lasses.

Sea shanties are also resiliently uncool. They’re songs about whaling and strong winds…

One of my favorite songs ever, all nine verses, is by the late great Canadian folksinger, Stan Rogers, Barrett’s Privateers. Few things are as lovely for me as when I find a gang of fellow Canadians to belt out the words — some of which of course curse Americans!

Written in September 1976, it even has a detailed and helpful Wikipedia entry!

Here are some of the lyrics:

Oh, the year was 1778
How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now
A letter of marque came from the king
To the scummiest vessel I’ve ever seen
God damn them all! I was told
We’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns, shed no tears

But I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s Privateers

It’s a good time to sing and sing loudly and sing together.

There’s so much now we just can’t calmly discuss:

Politics

Massively divisive.

Money/income/economic status

Millions in desperate straits, facing eviction, job loss, unemployment — while the wealthy keep scooping up the gold

Race/Religion

Who dares?

Feminism

Same

Here’s a gorgeous, haunting song about heading out to hunt whales, Farewell to Tarwathie, sung by Judy Collins.