An American legend: John Lewis

By Caitlin Kelly

Americans are somehow surviving through a time of unprecedented misery — a loss of 30 percent of the economy, millions facing eviction and the loss of jobs and healthcare.

And now the loss of a man so many revered for his passion, commitment to social justice and civil rights, John Lewis. (To Britons, a department store.)

He died at 8o of pancreatic cancer and, this week, three former Presidents came to eulogize him and pay their respects.

Here is Obama’s, all 40 minutes, in full.

An excerpt:

John Lewis — the first of the Freedom Riders, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of this state and this district for 33 years, mentor to young people, including me at the time, until his final day on this Earth — he not only embraced that responsibility, but he made it his life’s work.

Which isn’t bad for a boy from Troy. John was born into modest means — that means he was poor — in the heart of the Jim Crow South to parents who picked somebody else’s cotton. Apparently, he didn’t take to farm work — on days when he was supposed to help his brothers and sisters with their labor, he’d hide under the porch and make a break for the school bus when it showed up.

Here is his final essay, published in The New York Times.

An excerpt:

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

Here’s his Wikipedia entry if you haven’t yet heard of him.

And this, a video I adore, reminding us all you don’t have to be po-faced and tedious to be a courageous and inspiring politician…at 78, natty in a gorgeous suit, dancing to “Happy.”

God bless this man for all he was and all he did!

 

I cannot think of anyone anywhere in American public life now with his character.

My American-born mother wept bitterly on my birthday morning in 1968 and I never understood why she cared so much about any politician —  Bobby Kennedy’s assassination.

Someone who carried and embodied so much hope for so many people.

Gone.

Now I do.

I only watched the last hour or so of Lewis’ 3.5 hour funeral, held at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

And when the pastor said this, in his closing prayer, I wept and wept:

 

Cut him into stars.

“First Cow” — great new film!

By Caitlin Kelly

If you don’t yet know the films of Kelly Reichardt, you’re in for a treat.

Her latest, First Cow, is set in the muddy woods of 1820s Oregon, where a weary cook working for a whiny band of trappers meets an on-the-lam Chinese man who murdered a Russian after they killed one of his friends.

It’s not the elegant Jane Austen 1820s of England, with lush green lawns and sprawling estates — but the messy, struggling, brawling world of men trying to establish some sort of life in still-new-to-them America. There are native characters and even un-subtitled dialogue in a native tongue. You feel absolutely in the era.

The contrast between most residents’ mud-floored shacks and the beautifully painted house of the area’s wealthiest man are something — he holds a tea party, yammering on about the latest fashions in Paris and London — while everyone else slips and slides in filthy, ragged clothes.

It’s full of quirky and unexpected moments, like when the wealthy man’s wife, in ruffled burgundy silk, speaks in native tongue and admires the ornate wampum necklace of a visiting chief’s wife.

The film centers on the friendship of the two men, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz and King-Lu, who both really need a break. They have no family or education or money but King-Lu, who has already traveled the world, is filled with ambition. So when the area’s first dairy cow arrives, by boat, their scheme is hatched — they’ll milk her at night and hope no one sees them.

The cow belongs to the wealthy man, the Chief Factor, so their secrecy is paramount.

Then they start making good money selling delicious fried bread made using the stolen milk — and the Chief Factor loves it….

The ending links back to the beginning in a powerful and unforgettable image.

I loved this film!

Reichardt is known for making quiet and powerful movies about marginalized people.

She also (!) writes, edits and directs, extremely rare to have all three skills.

Here’s the film’s trailer.

And here’s a 52 minute video of Reichardt discussing it.

American rage, multi-layered

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever had a pousse-café?

It’s a drink that contains two to seven layers of alcohol, added by weight, to create a colorful array of stripes in one glass.

 

America’s rage is a pousse-café, with so, so many layers.

 

People are being tear-gassed and shot by police with rubber bullets.

Protestors, including professional journalists, have been targeted by police and permanently blinded.

Stores have been attacked and destroyed and looted, from mass market Target to luxury brands like Chanel.

Some Americans are appalled, astonished, gobsmacked.

Not me.

Not millions.

 

 

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A classic image, taken by the late photographer Bernie Boston

 

 

There are so many layers to American rage now:

— the endless lethal parade of African Americans who are shot and killed by police (ooops, wrong apartment!) or hunted down by gun-happy civilians, and here are only a tiny few of them: George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery…

— the daily fears this has created, for generations, that simply being black, going for a walk, walking too fast or in the “wrong” neighborhood or wearing a hoodie or even birding in Central Park, is an invitation, as it is, for some people to wield their white privilege and entitlement and choose to endanger or end others’ lives.

— the “talk” every black parent has to have with their children, especially teen males, about how to walk through their lives on eggshells because so many others will choose to see their basic existence in the same spaces as a threat.

— the income inequality that has kept so many Americans at such deep disadvantage in a nation whose comforting myth is “just work harder!”

— the extraordinary costs of attending even a public university or college, acquiring massive debt that dogs graduates for decades, even as they drift into poorly-paid jobs that make it impossible to repay those loans, and loans that — unlike any other — cannot be discharged by declaring bankruptcy.

— health disparities that have killed many more people of color thanks to COVID-19 because POC have underlying health conditions (“co-morbidities” in medspeak) that left their bodies more vulnerable, like obesity, asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure.

— 100,000 Americans — with many more to come — already dead of COVID-19.

— a Federal minimum wage of $7.25 that has not been raised since 2009; only 29 of 50 states have made theirs higher, more than $11/hour.

— extortionate costs for health insurance.

— the loss of millions of jobs.

— the loss for millions of their health insurance coverage — because that’s how many Americans get the only coverage they can afford, when their employer picks up some of its cost (i..e. benefits.)

— widespread police brutality, even blinding permanently some protestors, including journalists

— a deep, abiding despair at the lack of political leadership, and shocking passivity on all sides, to address any of this.

 

It’s a drink that tastes very, very bitter.

 

Time for virtual museum visits!

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Charlotte Bronte’s dress and shoes, from an exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a quick overview of some great museums now showing their works online.

Let’s face it — one of the great joys of living in or near New York or London or Paris or Berlin or Copenhagen or so many cities worldwide — is ready access to its great museums and galleries.

It’s such a luxury to drop into the Met or MOMA or the Tate or the Carnavalet and cruise through, knowing you’ve got all the time in the world, as a resident and not a rushed tourist, to return when you please.

I was so lucky, the last day of my time in D.C., March 8, to see a show of Edgar Degas at the National Gallery. In retrospect, I should not have been in any crowded space! But we didn’t really know that yet.

 

 

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A detail, taken from the poster outside

 

It was a fascinating show and I learned a lot about him and how he captured his images of ballerinas, often in the studio. Where he never went! Photography was in use by then and he often, apparently, relied on those images.

And, if you know anything about ballet, there were a few of his paintings that were bizarrely fanciful — like one of a ballerina sitting on (!?) a bass and another sitting on top of the accompanist’s piano.

Nope! No dancer would ever dare.

And now, with tremendous loss of revenue, one of my favorites is truly under siege, unlike the Met which has billionaires on its board. This is the Tenement Museum on the lower East Side.

From The New York Times:

 

Experts said its loss would be significant because, while many museums chronicle the history of the rich — their mansions, art collections and aesthetic tastes — few depict the history of the poor, and the cultural life of everyday Americans.

“The Tenement Museum has so magnificently reconstructed that,” said Tyler Anbinder, a history professor at George Washington University who specializes in immigration, “right down to the soap boxes and the scouring pads that immigrants used. If an institution like that were to go under, it would be a real tragedy.”

Other museums around the country are losing at least $33 million a day because of coronavirus closures, according to the American Alliance of Museums.

Founded in 1988 in two once-dilapidated buildings, the museum offers tours of the restored tenement rooms as well as a permanent collection of artifacts, including document fragments, photographs and furniture.

 

I’ve been twice to the Tenement Museum and it was unforgettable.

 

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I went there in my early 20s, on my only visit to Hawaii. I have very few objects from that period…but here it is!

 

Some of my other favorites include:

The Gulbenkian, Lisbon…small, eclectic, surrounded by beautiful gardens

The Morgan Library, New York

Japan Society, NYC…small, intimate, often overlooked

The Neue Galerie, New York City…Secessionist art

Bishop Museum, Honolulu

The Guimet, Paris…Asian art

The Carnavalet, Paris…the history of Paris

The Cluny, Paris…medieval art

The Imperial War Museum, London

The Victoria and Albert, London

The Prado, Madrid

The Bardo, Tunis….which has an astonishing collection of mosaics

The Sackler, D.C….Asian art

The Canadian Canoe Museum, Peterborough, Ontario….canoes and kayaks!

The Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson

Palazzo Fortuny, Venice…the studio of the legendary textile and lighting designer

Venice Naval Historical Museum…amazing array of boats

The Vasa Museum, Stockholm…devoted to one ship that sunk in Stockholm harbor the morning it first sailed in 1628

National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

 

What are some of your favorite museums — and why?

 

Rights? How about responsibilities?

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By Caitlin Kelly

The pandemic has laid bare many behaviors we didn’t really see clearly before, or not as clearly.

If you grew up — as I did — in a nation with a clear commitment to the common good, Canada (yes, with terrible treatment for a long time, and still, of First Nations) — the American fetish for individual rights just seems weird.

It’s possible to live freely and still actively care about others’ health and welfare.

If you want to.

There’s actually quite a continuum from being controlled and monitored 24/7 by your government and selfish, lethal mayhem.

Welcome to mayhem.

Check this out.…images of protesting Americans determined to keep infecting themselves and others because the whole social distancing thing is such a drag.

They feel oppressed.

They’re angry that they’ve been told to stay at home, to wear a mask, to stay distant from others to protect them.

Because the number of Americans potentially walking around feeling just fine — still  shedding virus everywhere they go — could be as high as 50 percent

 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Robert Redfield told NPR that an estimated 25 percent of coronavirus carriers experience no symptoms. Meanwhile, data out of large-scale testing for coronavirus in Iceland found 50 percent of those who tested positive with COVID-19 said they were asymptomatic, according to CNN.

“Information that we have pretty much confirmed now is that a significant number of individuals that are infected actually remain asymptomatic. That may be as many as 25 percent.” Redfield told NPR Tuesday.

 

The American Constitution — amended 27 times since it was first written — promises “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Sounds lovely.

It is lovely, except that 40,000 Americans have died  — so far — from COVID-19, a lethal virus whose ability to destroy the human body is quick, powerful and still little understood.

Twice the number in one week.

Read this chilling, detailed look at its whole-body effects from Science.

“Only” a tiny percentage, many scoff.

It’s all a hoax, right-wingers still insist — maybe because their cities don’t have refrigerated morgue trucks with corpses stacked three deep outside their hospitals, crematoria running 24/7.

New York City does.

How does this happen?

Because so many Americans really hate and mistrust any government intrusion into their lives and behaviors.

They resent being told what to do.

They think no one else’s life could possibly be more important than their going to the beach!

Sitting shoulder to shoulder at a bar!

Attending a church jammed with other selfish “Christians.”

Canadians, derided as boooooring, have a wholly different Constitution, one that instead promises “peace, order and good government.”

Pretty snoozy, right?

Not HAPPINESS!!!!!!???

Not LIBERTY!!!!!???

Right now, living in a country “led” by a lying grifter of a President, I’d be thrilled for some peace, order and good government.

How about you?

Getting through this

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We need this tree’s determination to thrive. Split rock, as needed.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s not a joke or a hoax.

It’s forcing everyone to re-think every element of our lives: work, relationships, employment, money, access to government aid, education, worship, mourning, celebrations, trust in government, the safety and reliability of medical and hospital care.

Many people have died. Some are very ill. Some wonder — without easy access to testing — if they’ve even been infected with COVID-19, its now official name.

 

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It’s forcing Americans, especially, to behave in ways that run counter to how they’ve been socialized for decades — i.e. to behave as individuals, to behave as they please, free of most government interference, (but also government aid.)

Writing in this week’s New York Times, Donald McNeil says:

Is that what some countries are missing? This sense of collective action and selflessness?

That is absolutely what many Americans are missing — that it’s not about you right now. My parents were in the World War II generation and there was more of a sense of, “Hey, we did something amazing; we ramped up this gigantic societal effort.” It was this sense of we’re all in this together.

We’ve got to realize that we’re all in this together and save each other’s lives. That has not penetrated yet and it needs to penetrate because we all have to cooperate.

 

 

When you grow up not giving a damn about “the other” — people unrelated to you or you’ve never met and why would you even consider universal healthcare for the “undeserving”? — a pandemic throws this thinking out the window.

The nation’s addiction to capitalism and for-profit healthcare and limited government has also led to this crisis — you can’t keep an economy centered on consumer spending alive when no one is shopping or traveling or buying a house or a car.

The wealthy? They’ve already hopped aboard their private jets, and are safely ensconced in their third or fifth home, like the guy writing to The New York Times who fled New York for his house in Rhode Island.

In a time when Americans have never been more divided racially and economically and politically, this virus doesn’t care.

 

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Like it or not, ready or not, we’re all intertwined now

 

People may look, sound, earn and vote just as you do — and still be carrying and widely spreading this lethal virus.

I finally went out for a walk yesterday on our town reservoir path — lots of people (safely distant!) walking, running, biking. It felt great to be out of the apartment and moving.

It’s no fun being stuck indoors all the time.

It’s really hard not to get irritable and snappish if you share a small space with others.

Yes, people are really disappointed by cancelled parties and weddings and kids’ sports and graduations.

But seriously?

Stay home and be responsible.

We have to buck up.

 

I wish,  more than anything, we could still hear the wise and seasoned voices of those who survived WWII, who knew the kind of shared terror we’re only now beginning to feel — and who can share the mental strength and stamina they all needed to get through it.

 

Here’s my new theme song, from one of my favorite bands, The Talking Heads:

 

 

The creative life has never been easy

 

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The bright lights of Broadway

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine needing a job.

Imagine having 20 children to support.

Meet Johann Sebastian Bach, who in 1721 presented six concertos — now named the Brandenburg Concertos, named for the Margrave for whom they were written — to a local official he hoped would offer him a job.

Today, these much beloved pieces resonate still.

The Margrave did not hire him and it’s possible he never even heard them.

The 1946 Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, is equally hailed as a great of the film classics.

It failed at the box office and the original story met with such rejection that its author decided to self-publish and send it to 200 friends instead.

At museum shows of the legends Michelangelo, Charlotte Bronte and the Japanese print-maker Hokusai — whose Great Wave is one of the most familiar of all images — I learned the more nuanced truth of these lives, of penury and struggle, their lost and cancelled commissions.

It’s tempting to think that all the great art and music and literature we still enjoy today was produced from warm homes filled with good food, with healthy children and wives and husbands. In fact, there was much sorrow to endure.

 

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Bronte’s dress and boots

 

Bronte suffered the early death of all her siblings, married late (37) and died the following year.

 

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Bronte’s writing desk

 

I so admire anyone who chooses the creative life.

My father made films and documentary television shows. His second wife wrote and edited television scripts. My mother worked as a print and radio journalist.

I get it!

We lived its ups and downs, emotionally, intellectually and financially. Rejection can feel annihilating, most often wielded by people with salaries and pensions, unwilling to take creative risks themselves while harshly judging those of us who do.

Without a wealthy family or partner (and some have this) it can mean many years of financial struggle, and the endless hope of recognition.

No one needs a new novel or oratorio or painting!

So I gave my husband — a freelance photo editor and photographer this book for Christmas.

 

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One of my favorite sources of inspiration is Tharp’s first book, The Creative Habit; she’s a choreographer, but the challenges she faces, and her wisdom and practical advice, are just as fitting to many other creative efforts.

 

If you’re working to create something new, keep going.

The world needs it.

You need to make it.

 

The week I learned some family secrets

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By Caitlin Kelly

Intimacy isn’t easy.

A new friend — of about a year, someone a decade younger than I but the mother of teenagers — recently told me I had disappointed her. She took the risk I wouldn’t listen or that I would get angry or get defensive. I didn’t. It wasn’t a huge thing (to me) and I apologized for disappointing her and she seemed mollified and relieved we had discussed it calmly.

I am glad she took that risk because a friendship soured by unspoken disappointment can’t last.

But on reflection I wrote her an email to explain why, in some ways, I’ve hurt and disappointed people I care for unintentionally. I’ve done a lot of therapy so at least I have a clearer understanding why.

Intimacy with oneself is often a work in progress.

When you come from a family where everyone’s feelings were routinely ignored or dismissed, taking others’ seriously and responding to them quickly, just isn’t how you behave.

I really hate unpacking my family history, since it’s weird and painful and the polar opposite of the Hallmark card closeness, trust and kindness that is soon about to be celebrated again in the U.S. with Thanksgiving and then Christmas and Hanukah.

 

The very word “family” is used in much American advertising as a proxy for close, loving stability — when for many people it’s just not that at all.

 

A total stranger who writes a blog about crime fiction has been researching my American maternal grandmother, great grand-mother and grandfather — whose marriages were legion and some deemed so scandalous, (thanks to their wealth and social prominence), they made the newspapers.

He recently emailed me to share his findings. They were…enlightening. But also unsettling to read about people I knew as entries in public documents.

My grandfather, an author, who my mother only met twice and I never met, (long since divorced anyway), apparently added a “von” and the letter “H” to create the name von Rhau — which sounds pretty Euro-aristocratic, as he hoped.

He was actually Henry Rau from Staten Island.

I knew none of this until last week.

If of interest, here are his blog posts; first part, second part.

My maternal great-grandmother ended up as the Countess Casagrande on Park Avenue in New York City, (yes, really), while her daughter kept marrying and re-marrying at dizzying speed.

I knew my mother had a very rough emotional childhood, despite plenty of material wealth.

 

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An extraordinary story of survival

 

So when it comes to “normal” behavior, our family is not the place to look for role models or sterling behaviors.

My late paternal grandfather, a self-made millionaire in Vancouver, had an affair with his sister-in-law and kept the boy with his own family; my father has four adult children, two by wives (divorced, dead) and two women he did not marry. I haven’t even met one of them.

Why tell you any of this?

Because when you meet someone new, as my friend did when she met me  — and they might be fun and funny and charming — and I am all of these things, they might also be carrying some tough history as well.

And when you hit those spots,  which I call emotional bone bruises because they’re not visible, it can be difficult to open up or to explain.

No wonder I married a small-city preacher’s kid whose emotional life and financial history could not be any more different than my own.

I also find it ironic that I come from a family that so resolutely avoided discussing our tangled histories — while I have made my living persuading total strangers to share some of their toughest moments with me for my two books and decades of journalism.

Do you carry some difficult stuff from your own family of origin?

Do your intimates know about it?

 

How does it affect you and your life today as an adult?

 

Two new stories of American labor

By Caitlin Kelly

Happy Labor Day!

As regular readers here know, how people work and earn their living — and for what pay and under what conditions — is a bit of an obsession of mine.

I’ve had many staff jobs: at three big daily newspapers and at several magazines, (trade and consumer) — and worked 2.5 years selling stuff for $11/hour as a sales associate for The North Face, by far the most difficult job of my life and the most humbling. It became my second book.

Since losing my last staff job in 2006, I’ve remained freelance, which means I am only paid for whatever work I can find, negotiate and successfully complete. Pay rates for journalism are now much lower than in the early 2000s,. when I easily brought home $60,000 a year. Not now.

It’s crazy.

 

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I grew up in Canada — a country with unions! — and moved to the United States in 1988. It is a truly eye-opening experience to live in a land of such brute, bare-knuckled capitalism! No paid maternity leave and very little unpaid. No paid vacation days, by law. At-will employment, which literally means anyone can fire you anytime for no reason at all.

Then, no severance!

Weakened unions at their lowest membership ever.

Stagnant wages — while CEOs “earn” 254 times the pay of their lowest-paid staff.

So, hey — try these!

Former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, a friend, has finally just published his new book about American labor, The Big Squeeze.

I can’t wait to read it.

Just one of its many rave reviews…


“The power of Greenhouse’s book lies . . . in its reporting, especially on low-wage workers . . . his best material vividly focuses on the always difficult and often abusive working conditions of low-paid employees. Such stories get far too little airing and rarely are they so well told.” —Business Week

Here’s an earlier book on the same topic, from 2014.

And a new documentary,  American Factory, takes a close look at one American factory taken over by the Chinese.

From The New York Times’ review:

In 2016, Cao opened a division of Fuyao, his global auto-glass manufacturing company, in a shuttered General Motors factory near Dayton, Ohio. Blaming slumping S.U.V. sales, G.M. had closed the plant — known as the General Motors Moraine Assembly Plant — in December 2008, throwing thousands out of work the same month the American government began a multibillion dollar bailout of the auto industry. The Dayton factory remained idle until Fuyao announced it was taking it over, investing millions and hiring hundreds of local workers, numbers it soon increased.

The veteran filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who are a couple and live outside of Dayton, documented the G.M. plant when it closed. They included the image of the last truck rolling off the line in their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” That crystallizing image also appears in “American Factory,” which revisits the plant six years later. The feature-length story they tell here is complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor. (This is the first movie that Barack and Michelle Obama’s company Higher Ground Productions is releasing with Netflix.)

 

Hoping that you have work you like, and well-paid!