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More simple pleasures…

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, books, domestic life, life on September 1, 2015 at 12:30 am

By Caitlin Kelly

That low, golden, slanting light of autumn

Lying by the pool, snoozing, listening to the symphony of cicadas, planes buzzing overhead and sprinklers

Dinner on the balcony at sunset

Frozen yogurt with sprinkles

Blueberry pancakes with bacon and maple syrup

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Watching “Casablanca” for the umpteenth time — “Of all the gin joints…”


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Maple syrup — on almost anything

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A stash of my favorite Canadian candy: Big Turk, Crunchie, Mackintosh toffee and Crispy Crunch

An icy gold gimlet, (expertly made by my husband)

Our balcony garden

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And its shadows

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Sitting at an oak table made 300 years ago, wondering who else has sat there over the centuries

Listening to Joshua Bell playing Mozart at Lincoln Center

Having my hashtag go viral — #MissingTheZero — because too many Big Name Publishers are paying us pennies now

Candles flickering, tapers and votives and lanterns

We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

Dinner on our balcony

A cotton vintage tablecloth

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Savoring a book I like so much I don’t want it to end (The Goldfinch)

A new pair of pretty shoes

Freshly ironed pillowcases

A cool breeze

Lighting a fire in the fireplace

Playing co-ed Saturday softball with the same friends for 15 years

Writing a story I know will make a difference, like this one

And you?

The most important thing school can teach you is…

In behavior, children, culture, education, life, parenting on August 27, 2015 at 1:37 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.

Still very much an experiental learner

Still very much an experiental learner

Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.

Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:

I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.

If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.

You need to why this shadow is here...

You need to why this shadow is here…

Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:

Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.

Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.

I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- the world ready for me to explore!

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — the world ready for me to explore!

I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.

What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?

To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions

To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.

To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.

To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.

To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.

I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.

I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.

What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?

Why?

Starting college? A few tips…

In behavior, domestic life, education, life, parenting on August 24, 2015 at 12:31 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Is your suitcase full of dreams?

Is your suitcase full of dreams?

Few moments are as exciting, and intimidating, as your first few weeks of college or university. Some students have flown thousands of miles, leaving far behind family, friends, pets and everyone they’ve known, now lost in a sea of new faces and new expectations.

I attended the University of Toronto, traveling a quick, direct 30 minutes from my parents’ home by city bus to campus. The adjustment was mostly intellectual, not physical.

But most of my pals, headed to different schools? And those three super-encouraging high school English teachers who insisted I become a writer?

Gone!

Instead, I had an English lit professor who wore a bowtie and a cape and who tossed off quotations in multiple languages. Terrifying!

I did like that he addressed us as Miss Kelly or Mr. Smith. It gave our class a gravitas that signaled clearly we had entered a new world. It was time to grow up.

When I taught freshman last year at an expensive private school in Brooklyn last year, it was obvious that some students had no idea what it meant to adjust to a more adult style of behavior: wandering into my class 30 minutes late without apology, blowing off clearly stated deadlines, sitting silent in a class of only six people.

A few tips:

Be careful with alcohol

Be careful with alcohol

Stay sober

If you think college life = getting drunk or high every day, (as, sadly, it does for some), stay home and save yourself, or your poor parents, a ton of wasted money. There’s no way you’ll be able to pay close attention in class, participate effectively or do decent work if the room is spinning or you’re bowing, once more, to the porcelain god.

If you find yourself in this pattern, head to the college counseling service for help.

Get enough sleep

A minimum of seven hours.

Fresh fruit is your friend!

Fresh fruit is your friend!

Eat healthy food

Protein, vegetables, fruit. Drink plenty of water. Carbs are quick, cheap and portable, (e.g. pizza, cookies, chips), but they don’t qualify as a smart steady diet.

Get to know a few of your professors beyond the classroom

Some profs are in a rush to flee after class; many of them are adjuncts, poorly-paid, with no office space and juggling multiple jobs on multiple campuses. Nonetheless, try to find a few whose classes you really enjoy and, if you’ve got time and interest, ask for their class-related advice and insights. Genuine interest in and enthusiasm for a teacher’s intellectual passion is something we enjoy and love to see.

High school, and its expectations, is another universe — don’t expect professors to cut you slack now

The greatest culture shock I saw in some of my students was their disregard for the serious business of higher education. If you’re paying $20,000 to $60,000, (yes, really), for a year of schooling, show up! Do the work on time. No professor wants to hear endless excuses why you can’t.

No monkeying around! Deadlines are real.

No monkeying around! Deadlines are real.

Meet your deadlines

Yes, you’ll get sick. Yes, someone in your family might die. Other than those reasons, get your work done and submitted on time. College is proxy for real life, the world in which your boss(es), every single day, will expect competence.

Develop good habits now and the adjustment won’t come as such a shock after you graduate.

Professors are human

Yes, really.

They may seem scary, or weird, or both. But they/we are human beings, juggling many responsibilities, and your urgent email at 2 a.m. is not going to get read or responded to. We’re asleep! (Or wish we were.)

Remember that your professors are people, too. Smile. Say good morning or good afternoon. If you actually enjoyed a class or lecture or presentation, tell us. Like everyone else, we like to hear good news.

Cute -- but not in my classroom!

Cute — but not in my classroom!

Politeness will go a long way to ease your transition

It’s hard to imagine for some people, but saying please and thank you, arriving to class more than 30 seconds before it starts, never arriving late, (or apologizing sincerely if you do), will make a real difference in how staff, administrators and teachers see and think of you. You’re not just the sum of your GPA.

Say please and thank you to everyone — from department secretaries to the janitors keeping the classrooms and cafeteria clean to dishwashers, groundskeepers, security staff. You never know when you might need their help. And their skill and energy are just as essential to your safe, clean, enjoyable college experience as your teachers or coaches.

Take advantage of every student group that can build your social and technical skills

Every school offers a wide range of opportunities to learn new and cool out-of-classroom skills, meet a more diverse group than those sharing your classes and, for those who want it, to develop your leadership abilities. The best experiences I had at school were working on the weekly campus newspaper, (which quickly gave me clips of published work which led to national magazine assignments while I was still an undergrad), and leading an exchange program between U of Toronto and UNC/Chapel Hill, a week spent on each campus. I still recall to this day some of what I saw and heard there, long after I’ve forgotten much class content.

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Be sexually smart

Whoever you decide to have sexual relations with, protect your health. Know where and how to readily access affordable birth control and the morning-after pill or, worst case, abortion facilities. Don’t confuse the heady thrill of feeling attractive with thinking someone loves, or even likes, you. Do not drink or drug yourself past the point of informed mutual consent.

If you have been sexually assaulted, please report it, quickly, to campus and city/town police.

Treasure new friends

My best friend from freshman English class, decades later, traveled across the continent for my first wedding (and my second!) We met when we eye-rolled at one another in class. My life has been immeasurably richer for knowing her, and for our long, strong friendship.

We're not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

We’re not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

Ask for help

You’ll hit roadblocks — emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical. But you’re also surrounded now by hundreds of people with wisdom, connections, contacts, experience and compassion. Whatever issue you’re struggling with, let someone know and don’t give up if you don’t get the response you need. Tell someone else.

Find someone to help you.

One of my students had a very difficult time and I was honored that she trusted me enough to share that with me so I knew what was going on and tried to do what little I could to help. Even after she dropped out of the program, she later let me know that my concern for her had made a difference.

Here are even more great tips from current American college students, published in The New York Times; I like all of them except for one — do not, do not, show up to class wearing pajamas. Seriously.

Have a great year!

My New York

In beauty, behavior, cities, culture, immigration, life, travel, U.S., urban life, US, work on August 21, 2015 at 12:49 am

By Caitlin Kelly

“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”
E.B. White, Here Is New York

I agree.

The railings have lacy, gilded dividers and the diamond-like lights repeat in the exterior and hall interior

Lincoln Center, where I’ve been watching ballet for decades (and once performed!)

I arrived in New York, with no friends or family or job or connections here, just in time for the first recession in my industry, journalism. To find my first job here, (which I finally found through an ad in The New York Times), I made 150 cold calls to total strangers.

I cried a lot.

After a terrific few years working for major Canadian daily newspapers, it was rough on my ego, and my aspirations, to realize that what I’d accomplished meant nothing here because it hadn’t happened in the U.S., let alone within the city’s five boroughs.

I finally did find a position, as a senior editor at  a well-respected, now-long-gone monthly magazine called World Press Review, at a salary $5,000 a year lower than what I’d earned in Montreal two years before as a reporter for the Gazette.

Welcome to New York!

Who doesn't need a pop-up Building and a few taxis?

Who doesn’t need a pop-up Empire State Building and a few taxis?

Why did I want to move here?

I’d been visiting since I was 12, so it was not wholly unfamiliar.

My mother was born here and was married at St. Bartholomew’s, a huge Romanesque pile on Park Avenue, where her grandmother lived. I was legally able to move here from my native Canada because I obtained my green card through my mother’s American citizenship.

As an ambitious journalist, I dreamed of being published and by the major American magazines and book publishers I grew up reading — Vogue, Glamour, The New York Times. I also knew that sustaining a 30+ year career in Canada, with a much smaller set of professional opportunities, wasn’t for me; I’d feel bored and always have wondered, what if…

We've survived this...

We’ve survived this…

Reinventing my life in New York was hard!

In some ways, it still is. For every full-time job or freelance opportunity, there are hundreds of ferociously determined and well-prepared competitors. Socially? I still find it lonely, although I’ve made a few friends; people focus on their families or their work and have long, tiring commutes.

If you arrive here without one second of American education — especially elite feeders to the best jobs, like prep schools and the Ivy League — you arrive severely deprived of crucial social capital. You need a lot of talent, drive, skill and luck to shove open some of these very heavy doors.

But the city is also a source of tremendous pleasure for me, even as I live in a small town north of the city, where I own an apartment; I’m easily in town, by car or train, within 40 minutes.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

I’ve had some of the best moments of my life here, like picking up the galleys for my first book at the Sixth Avenue offices of Simon & Schuster, and clutching them to my heart in ecstasy. I’d achieved my dream! A book published by one of the country’s biggest houses (Pocket Books.)

Here’s a link to it, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

What are some of the things I still love here?

Culture:

Hard to imagine what you can’t find here, whether music, dance, opera, theater, fine art, museums…My favorites are a little obscure, like the Mint Theater, (which revives earlier works and which is housed, oddly, in a midtown office building), and the Japan Society, which mounts small, excellent shows in a lovely, quiet exhibition space in the east 40s.

I have a favorite painting at the Met I like to visit, this painting of Joan of Arc, first shown in 1880, by the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage.

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This image stops me cold in my tracks — hung in a busy hallway — every time. It’s enormous.

I feel as if she’s standing right in front of me, close enough to touch. I love how dazed she looks, the overturned wooden stool, and the ghostly image of her, in armor, floating behind her, her awaiting future.

I love everything about this painting: its colors, details, mood and subject matter. And am so lucky I can see it when I want to.

Another favorite is a pair of gold Roman earrings at the Met, tiny cherubs riding astride birds, exquisite in every detail.

You must get to Lincoln Center, both stunning visually (the fountain!) and culturally. I recently treated myself to a $65 box seat to see Joshua Bell play Bach and Mozart. Swoon!

Food and Drink:

If you can’t find a decent meal here, (and in Brooklyn and Queens as well), you’re not paying attention, from elegant old-school venues like Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, Sardi’s, the Campbell Apartment, the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis and La Grenouille to the newest, trendiest spots. (If you can’t afford a meal, you can probably afford a cocktail just to enjoy the atmosphere and history.)

The bar at Fanelli's

The bar at Fanelli’s

I tend to return to old favorites like Red Cat on 10th., Balthazar on Crosby St;, The Lion on West 9th, Toloache on 50th., and Cafe Cluny and Morandi in the West Village. I love Caffe Reggio and Bosie Tea Parlor for a long chat with a pal over coffee or tea and Grey Dogs, east and west versions, for breakfast.

Buying food is a joy in places like Eataly, Chelsea Market, the Union Square Greenmarket and the city’s many specialty stores, from Kalustyan’s (spices), Murray’s Cheese, Russ and Daughters to Porto Rico Coffee and Tea.

Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC

Porto Rico Coffee and Tea, Bleecker Street, NYC

Walking:

The smallest few blocks here will reward your attention, especially with amazing architecture and fenestration. The shaded and cobble-stoned streets of the West Village are lovely. So are the funky bits of the East Village, East 9th being a favorite for shopping, eating and looking.

The city has many extraordinary churches well worth a visit, like the second-oldest church in Manhattan, St. Mark’s in the Bowery, on East 10th. street.

The parks are an obvious choice and so is the Brooklyn Bridge, especially at sunset; I bet fewer than 5 percent of anyone in New York knows that the Brooklyn Bridge would never have been completed without the skills and determination of a 19th-century woman — Emily Roebling, wife of the engineer, Washington Roebling, whose job it was to design the bridge and who fell ill halfway through the project.

My favorite park is Bryant Park in midtown, filled in summer and fall and spring with folding dark green chairs and tables, plenty of shady trees, even a carousel. In winter there’s a skating rink with cheap rentals and great music.

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Schools:

I attended The New York School of Interior Design in the 1990s, intending to leave journalism and change careers. I didn’t, but now teach writing there. It’s an honor to head back through those huge red doors as a member of their adjunct faculty. (I’ve also taught at NYU [adults] and Pratt Institute.)

Columbia and many other schools are always putting on panel discussions and lectures open to the public, offering tremendous, free opportunities to keep learning.

Shopping:

Sigh. From indie spots like my favorite vintage store, Edith Machinist on Rivington to Saks, Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s to bookstores, specialty shops, (one selling nothing but umbrellas, for example), and pop-ups. Saks’ shoe department has its own zip code, a fun spot to watch oligarchs and their wives buying bagfuls of $1,500 stilettos and squealing girls from the heartland swooning over their first in-person sighting of Jimmy Choos and Manolos.

Ignore the stuff you can find in any other city, like Big Box and chain stores, and seek out treasures like Bigelow’s, the oldest apothecary in America.

If, like me, you looooooove unusual and exotic fragrances, (men’s and women’s), you cannot miss Aedes de Venustas on Christopher Street. Buy a box of this soap, (3 bars for $42), and sniff it happily all the way home.

History:

For a city so known for modernity and speed and haste, there’s much history here to savor as well. One of the quietest and most out-of-the-way places to visit is this, Manhattan’s oldest house — built in 1765 — the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

Check out the Tenement Museum for a truly immersive feel for NYC vernacular history and the Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island.

I love the atmosphere of the city’s classic 100-year-old-plus bars or restaurants, including Old Town Bar, Fanelli’s, the Landmark and the Ear Inn. If you sit in The White Horse, you’ll sit where my namesake — Caitlin Thomas, wife of the poet Dylan Thomas — once sat as well.

You can’t miss the cathedral of commuters, Grand Central Terminal, on 42d Street. It is breathtaking in its beauty and scale, with details from carved marble fountains to gleaming, enormous chandeliers and a brilliant turquoise ceiling with gold-painted constellations. Built in 1913, renovations were completed in 1996.

The water:

It’s too easy to forget that Manhattan is, after all, an island. Get to the western edge and enjoy the sunset at one of the many pier-side restaurants and bars. Take a Circle Line ferry around the island. Rent a kayak.

Or jump on the Staten Island ferry and head out as the sun is setting to watch the city light up.

What do you enjoy most about living in — or visiting — New York City?

Rockefeller Center, as seen from Saks Fifth Avenue

Rockefeller Center, as seen from Saks Fifth Avenue

The boundaries of journalism

In art, behavior, books, culture, domestic life, entertainment, film, journalism, life on August 6, 2015 at 2:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

I recently watched two terrific films — one a feature, one a documentary — that raise interesting questions about when, how, why and where we, (I’ve been a journalist for 30 years) decide we see a story and decide we want to tell it.

Must tell it.

The feature, based on real life, is called True Story, and is quite extraordinary. I remember, even 13 years ago when it happened, the downfall of a then Golden Boy of journalism, Mike Finkel.

It’s a very rare journalist who gets to write a story, let alone multiple pieces all-expense paid to travel to some distant country to do original reporting, for The New York Times Magazine. It’s considered a real pinnacle for ambitious writers — and one I have yet to scale, even as I enviously read friends’ work being published there.

What Finkel did, combining several characters to make one more compelling, is completely taboo in news journalism, which is mean to rely wholly on verifiable, truthful fact.

But the pressures to stay well-paid and widely admired and respected by editors with the power to make or break our careers? Relentless. It’s only worse now in an age of social media, as my friend Karen Ho knows — her recent Toronto Life story about a murder-for-hire has won huge attention and kudos from the toughest editors in the business.

Yet she’s still working, for the moment, for a small and remote news outlet.

Ambition is crucial for a successful journalism career. But so are rigorous fact-checking and tight ethical boundaries — as the editors of Rolling Stone have also learned after the fiasco of a story about rape at the University of Virginia that rapidly fell apart and has resulted in firings and lawsuits.

In “True Story”, which features a chilling performance by James Franco as Christian Longo, who murdered his entire family, the mutual manipulation is quite amazing to see. (Another fine film examining this issue is Capote, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote.)

One of the many issues I found so compelling about TS is how it lays bare the ravening ego of a writer who’s fallen from grace — and how desperate he was to redeem himself professionally. Like throwing meat to the lions, he calls every editor he knows, all of whom now worry that he’ll just lie to them as well.

It’s also a painfully truthful film for anyone who’s still lusting to reach the higher rungs of the ladder of writing success — which is almost everyone!

You’ve just won a Pulitzer? Your best friend has a Neiman. You won a Neiman? Your college room-mate won a MacArthur “genius” grant or your former intern won a high six-figure advance/Hollywood contract/three-book deal/NYT best-seller list.

It’s a world of insecurity, self-doubt and perpetual status anxiety.

Yet — without credibility — even the most talented and hardworking journalist has nothing.

The documentary, The Wolfpack, is an astounding film, about six brothers — wearing dark sunglasses, waist-length glossy black hair and some very sharp suits — who grew up sequestered in one of the world’s largest cities, Manhattan. The Angulo brothers (they also have a sister) were essentially held hostage by their father, the only person with keys to the door of their huge apartment in a public housing project on the Lower East Side.

The pathology of his marriage to their mother, a gentle, soft-spoken Midwestern woman, is equally mysterious. Only one moment, and it’s brief, hints at even darker issues.

Darker than keeping your seven children locked up for decades?

As one of them tells film-maker Crystal Moselle, they’d leave their home maybe nine times a year — or one year, not at all.

The men are funny, engaging, stylish and blessed with extraordinary imaginations and empathy. It’s hard to even imagine their life before Moselle discovered them, and their story, on a city sidewalk.

From a recent review:

The Wolfpack is mesmerizing but not because it has stunning cinematography or dazzling effects: the footage is grainy, resembling home movies. Moselle’s camera is surprisingly non-judgemental, especially considering that the film’s subject matter screams “child abuse” and “domestic violence.”

Nevertheless, I couldn’t look away, and each cut felt like a cliffhanger, leaving me with questions that I had faith the filmmaker would answer (or at the very least, acknowledge). However, the documentary leaves many questions unanswered, and I couldn’t help but wonder why this family would volunteer to put their life on display considering the legal and moral questions the film was bound to raise.

In a press release, Moselle claims that she never felt the need to intervene, and that she sincerely believed that the children were well cared for. Perhaps the idea that all is well in the Angulo household is more clear to her than to the average viewer — she did spend years with the family — but a little on-camera reassurance (perhaps by a lawyer) would’ve made me feel slightly less uneasy.

It’s the boundary between voyeurism and value, between finding and telling an astonishing story and feeling squeamish knowing — as we do — that “astonishing” often means “bizarre” or “terrifying”.

One of my first national magazine stories

One of my first national magazine stories

Those of you working in journalism may have already heard this:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Janet Malcolm

I sometimes wonder how much of that is true.

Smile, honey! Why what I do with my face is none of your business

In aging, beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, life, women on August 2, 2015 at 2:42 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

No one tells him/her to smile!

No one tells him/her to smile!

Have you heard of “bitchy resting face”?

A piece in today’s New York Times has, so far, drawn 564 comments on the bizarre notion that a woman’s face is something total strangers can expect to make them feel happier:

RBF is now the topic of multiple “communities” on Facebook, dominated by women.

Plastic surgeons say they are fielding a growing number of requests from those who want to surgically correct their “permafrowns” (again, primarily from women).

The country star Kacey Musgraves recently helped Buzzfeed create a list of 17 more accurate names for RBF (among them, Resting “this wouldn’t bother you if I was a guy” face).

A New Jersey business journal, NJBIZ, even published a special report on the topic.

If you’re an American woman, the larger culture demands you be real friendly! all the damn time — and a woman who doesn’t walk through the world with a big fat reassuring smile plastered on her face is deemed angry, annoyed, frustrated and (wait for it), rude as a result.

FFS.

I grew up in Canada, a British-inflected nation (see: stiff upper lip, emotional reticence, subdued expressions of feelings) where no one — thank God — expects you to be chatty and charming to every single person you meet. It’s exhausting!

London -- where no one expects me to be all cheerful all the time

London — where no one expects me to be all cheerful all the time

I moved to the U.S. in 1989 and one of the biggest cultural adjustments I’ve made in the 25 years since then is the cultural norm of being genial to strangers. Why, exactly, is never made clear.

It’s just a cultural norm. I still don’t feel compelled to be “friendly” to anyone, and don’t feel compelled to apologize for not doing it. Civil, polite — of course!

Beyond that? I conserve my emotional energy for situations I think require it.

It was much worse in the 2.5 years (Merry damn Christmas, already!) I worked retail as a sales associate for The North Face, working in a suburban New York mall, serving customers who were often extremely wealthy and whose behavioral expectations were off the charts. Surrounded daily by minions they’d hired and could fire in a heartbeat — nannies, chauffeurs, au pairs, maids or their workplace employees — they were positively stunned when we dared to utter a one-syllable word to them.

No.

As in, “No, we don’t have that jacket in your size/color.”

The only way to soften the terrible blow of their delayed gratification was by offering an automatic huge smile and a heartfelt apology — all on low wages. (This is called emotional labor and it is, very much, a thing.)

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011

I wrote a book about that experience; the link is here.

I know I’ve got a severe case of BRF and I’ve even addressed it explicitly in job interviews because when I concentrate hard I don’t always keep eye contact (bad) let alone I fail to smile reassuringly (even worse) at the person trying to decide if I’m likeable enough to hire.

One reason I work freelance alone at home!

I have no doubt my lack of reflexive emotional appeasement helped tank some of my student evaluations this past year when I taught at a very expensive private college in Brooklyn. I don’t smile a lot. I don’t make an effort to ingratiate myself. I have a sense of humor and love to laugh, in the classroom and outside of it.

But sticking on a fake smile to soothe people for no apparent reason? No.

Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua. No smile? OMG!

Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua. No smile? OMG!

To me, learning is a serious business and those who feel cheated without fake bonhomie are a poor fit for my style.

So to tell women walking down the street, or buying groceries, or chairing a meeting or sitting on a park bench, “Smile, honey!” is a normal grotesquerie for many of us. Because, somehow, if we’re not making you feel better about yourself, we’re failing you.

It’s our face.

Have you been told you’re not perky enough?

How did you respond?

More simple pleasures…

In beauty, behavior, cities, culture, design, domestic life, entertainment, food, life on July 15, 2015 at 12:09 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

At my Dad's house

At my Dad’s house

The smell of Jose’s cigar

A fab new watch — $11

IMG_20150608_115938965My first facial. Oooooohlala.

Having friends come for dinner, savoring hours of good food, good wine and lively conversation

We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

The sound of wind soughing through the trees

The fragrance of sun-warmed pine needles

Birdsong to start the morning

Sunset over the Hudson river, our view

IMG_20150604_203602942_HDRA mid-afternoon nap

A birthday phone message from my best friend who lives a six-hour flight away, who I met in freshman English class a bazillion years ago

A fun pair of sunglasses, scored for $12 at a London flea market

A silly winter selfie...

A silly winter selfie…

Treating myself to lunch at Cafe Saks, at Saks Fifth Avenue, with its great view of midtown

IMG_20150606_135522501Fireflies

A bouquet of roses

Lunch under the trees at Maud’s with my co-ed softball team, friends ages 20-something to 70-something, a group that includes a former network TV producer, a retired ironworker and a few lawyers

Watching tugboats pushing huge barges along the Hudson River

Living in a town filled with beauty, even in unlikely places, like the walls of a newly-emptied store

IMG_20150227_115203336

A cocktail on the roof at Red Hat at sunset at the river’s edge

The thwack of a well-hit golf ball

Pretty earrings, a gift from Jose for my recent birthday

An X and an O, one for each ear

An X and an O, one for each ear

Butterscotch pudding — only 130 calories!

Hitting to the outfield, (ok, the edges anyway)

My crisp, citrus-y new fragrance, Oyedo, by French brand Dipthyque. The original name of Tokyo — Edo — is apt, given my love of Japanese design and ukiyo-e prints

Yuzu -- yum!

Yuzu — yum!

Setting a pretty table for guests, place cards and all

IMG_20150530_152345263_HDR

Late afternoon tea, loose leaves, made in a pot and drunk from my Moomin mug

IMG_20150603_173122437

What are some of yours?

Which habits are you trying to break?

In aging, behavior, business, culture, domestic life, entertainment, life, Technology, work on July 11, 2015 at 2:18 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Sunset in Donegal -- at 10:15 pm

Sunset in Donegal — at 10:15 pm

One of the best things about taking vacation — and the longer, the better — is shedding some bad habits (ideally!) while savoring the pleasures and challenges of a new or different environment.

So much easier to do when I’m not triggered by the same old patterns into the same tired behaviors.

For example:

I’ve been working alone at home in an apartment in the suburbs of New York for nine years. It’s lonely!

Hence a growing reliance upon social media for interaction that doesn’t require me to get dressed, get into a car, drive somewhere and….enjoy my life.

It’s become, as they say, thin gruel.

It’s too easy, too time-consuming and, most of all, increasingly frustrating because it doesn’t, at least for me, deepen intimacy, which is one of my joys in life.

Habits do make life easier; we don’t have to stop and think through why we’re making a specific decision. We just do it.

It was a great break for a week in Ireland to rent a cottage with no wifi or cellphone access. I didn’t miss it a bit! Badly burned by a huge data-usage bill from social media use when in Canada, I left my phone at home in New York this time. Jose dropped and broke his.

Instead we read, slept, took photos, drew, went for walks, talked at length to one another. Connected, with friends and with nature and with ourselves.

When we did have access to wifi by going to a nearby pub, we limited it to an hour or so a day to catch up on email, (some of it for work as we’re both freelance), and social media.

But it provoked some self-reflection on my part to realize how much time I’ve been wasting on “connecting” with others through social media, not face to face.

In fact, social media offers an easy way to procrastinate. It does almost nothing for my income. It rarely makes me much happier.

One habit I intend to keep -- a daily pot of tea

One habit I intend to keep — a daily pot of tea

The question?

What new and healthier habit can I — must I — now create to replace it?

Another habitual behavior of mine, is a default position of feeling anxious. It’s wearying and no fun and it’s been a habit of thought for decades. It comes from a very real place — when you work freelance, your income is precarious!

But it’s also exhausting.

As one wise friend says, “Don’t borrow trouble.”

My media habits need a shake-up as well, so I recently signed up (yes, on Twitter) to follow a French magazine and a Spanish newspaper, both to find story ideas and to expand my worldview far beyond the terribly limited one offered by American media.

On vacation, between jet lag and different light, we were up both much later and much earlier than usual — the summer sky was full light by 4:30 a.m. and remained light until 11:30. I took some of my best photos, walking barefoot on gravel in my nightgown, at 6:00 a.m., catching the light on dew in thick spiderwebs, a sight I never see at home because I never get up that early.

And yet I saw one just like it the other day on our front lawn. Why not start getting up early here?

Habit.

I need to broaden my horizons at home, not only when traveling.

Like…when I have a free day, I’d normally stick at home or head into Manhattan.

Habit.

Last night I behaved as though I were still on vacation — i.e. adventurous enough to try something I’d never done at home before. (Why is that?)

I went to our commuter train station and bought a ticket heading north an hour to a renowned concert venue to hear Cherish The Ladies, a terrific all-female band playing traditional Irish music.

It required a taxi to and from the station and a change of trains — would any of that be possible at 11:00 after the show? Fingers crossed!

Instead, I said hello to the pianist we’d met in Dungloe in a pub; she dedicated a song to me from the stage and mentioned my town and a dancer with them drove me home — as he turned out to be a next door neighbor.

Talk about positive reinforcement for breaking a habit!

Loved this recent story about a young Vancouver woman, and blogger, who declared a ban on shopping for a year — and lived well on 51 percent of her income. She’s eloquent and inspiring on how much of her shopping was habitual and, in some ways, mindless.

Now it’s gotten to a weird place where I feel not only uncomfortable spending money but I had to go into a mall to buy a baby present in a mall recently, and I felt almost sick in there because I was surrounded by ads. I felt overstimulated from being inside the mall. I don’t like the energy in there.

I felt this way in the Dublin airport when we were leaving to return to New York, surrounded by shops selling liquor and cosmetics and clothing and electronics….too much stuff! Overwhelmed, and grateful for the things I already own, I bought nothing — maybe a pre-flight first for me.

I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls -- so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret...

I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls — so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret…

Being mindful about what we do, how often and why takes some serious reflection.

It can be painful, and some of our habits, of thought and behavior, can be deeply rooted in emotions we don’t especially want to face or change.

Do you read Seth Godin’s blog? Loved this one:

Stop rehearsing the easy fears that have become habits.

Do you have a habit, or several, you’re also trying to break or shed?

How do you define (or check) privilege?

In aging, behavior, culture, domestic life, education, life, men, parenting, politics, US, women on July 8, 2015 at 7:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

That takes money many people don't have...

Shopping costs money many people don’t have…

When I asked a class of students I taught this year — whose families were paying $60,000 a year so they could study writing — for their least favorite words, one phrase immediately surfaced.

“Check your privilege,” said one.

In a nation where income inequality is growing at the fastest pace since the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, questions of who’s ahead, who’s (usually) getting ahead and, crucially, who’s consistently staying ahead are daily fodder in the American media.

Have you seen this BuzzFeed video?

As I write this post, it’s gotten more than 2 million views. In it, the participants step forward or back with every bit (or loss) of privilege. It’s worth watching, and the comments of those who did it are also interesting.

At least, that as defined by the terms of the questions.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater...College costs money, too!

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater…College costs money, too!

The questions:

1. If your parents worked nights and weekends to support your family, take one step back.
2. If you are able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault, take one step forward.
3. If you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, take one step forward.
4. If you have ever been diagnosed as having a physical or mental illness/disability, take one step back.
5. If the primary language spoken in your household growing up was not english, take one step back.
6. If you came from a supportive family environment take one step forward.
7. If you have ever tried to change your accent, mannerisms or name to gain credibility, take one step back.
8. If you can go anywhere in the country, and easily find the kinds of hair products you need and/or cosmetics that match your skin color, take one step forward.
9. If you were deeply embarrassed about your clothes or house while growing up, take one step back.
10. If you can make mistakes and not have people attribute your behavior to flaws in your racial group, take one step forward.
11. If your gender identity or expression matches the assigned gender on your birth certificate or drivers’ license, take one step forward.
12. If you were born in the United States, take one step forward.
13. If you or your parents have ever gone through a divorce, take one step back.
14. If you felt like you had adequate access to healthy food growing up, take one step forward
15. If you are reasonably sure you would be hired for a job based on your ability and qualifications, take one step forward.
16. If you see calling the police trouble occurs as a reasonable choice, take one step forward. If you see calling the police as a potential danger, take one step back.
17. If you can see a doctor whenever you feel the need, take one step forward.
18. If you feel comfortable being emotionally expressive/open, take one step forward.
19. If you have ever been the only person of your race/gender/socio-economic status/ sexual orientation in a classroom or workplace setting, please take one step back.
20. If you took out loans for your education take one step backward.
21. If you can practice your religion or wear religious dress without fear of prejudice or attack, take one step forward.
22. If you had a job during your high school and college years, take one step back.
23. If you feel comfortable taking a walk in your neighborhood at night, take one step forward.
24. If you have ever traveled outside the United States for your own enrichment or leisure, take one step forward. If you have traveled outside the U.S. for military combat, take one step back.
25. If you have ever felt like there was not adequate or accurate representation of your racial group, sexual orientation group, gender group, and/or disability group in the media, take one step back.
26. If you feel confident that your parents would be able to financially help/support you if you were going through a financial hardship, take one step forward.
27. If you have ever been a defendant in court without a paid lawyer, or have spent time in jail or prison, take one step back.
28. If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, take one step forward.
29. If you studied the culture or the history of your ancestors in elementary school take one step forward.
30. If your parents or guardians attended college, take one step forward.
31. If you ever went on a family vacation, take one step forward.
32. If you can buy new clothes or go out to dinner when you want to, take one step forward.
33. If you were ever offered a job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
34. If one of your parents was ever laid off or unemployed not by choice, take one step back.
35. If you were ever upset by a joke or a statement you overheard related to your race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.

Like every survey, though, this one also contains inherent biases and weaknesses.

Like:

1) If your parents worked nights and weekends (the implicit assumption they were working menial jobs and/or working several jobs at once) they might also have been working freelance or running their own business.

A much smarter question, especially in light of current on-demand scheduling in many food service and retail jobs, which is both disruptive and income-limiting: Did your parents have reliable, steady incomes? And key to that — was this their choice or imposed upon them by their employer(s)?

Many retail workers have completely insecure schedules -- and not nearly enough hours to make a living

Many retail workers have completely insecure schedules — and not nearly enough hours to make a living

2) If you’re legally able to carry a gun, and wish to make that choice, you might no longer live in fear of sexual assault since you have chosen a way to defend yourself. It’s not a PC choice to carry a firearm for many Americans — or even to discuss it as an option — but it is for many others, like some of the women I interviewed for my 2004 book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

4) I relied on crutches for three months in the fall of 2009 due to arthritis. Many of us will move in and out of periods of great(er) or lesser physical privilege as we age or face illness(es.)

photo(41)

12) Seriously? Talk about cultural bias! The United States ranks shockingly low now on many global measures of quality of life, from infant mortality, paid maternity leave (only one other nation does not offer it), income inequality and the stunning cost of post-secondary education. Having moved to the U.S. at the age of 30 from Canada — a nation with cradle-to-grave free health care — I find this assumption risible.

I paid $660 a year (yes) for my college education at Canada’s top university, a huge privilege I took for granted there; Americans who wish to continue on to college or university can face decades of enormous student debt that they cannot discharge through declaring bankruptcy.

22) What’s wrong with having had a job in high school or college? Yes, if it hindered your studies to the degree you could not graduate. For many people, that’s not the case.

Never enough?

Never enough?

One huge question missing here relates to age:

36) Have you ever lost out on an economic opportunity — an internship, freelance work or — most essential — a full-time job because of your age (i.e. over 40)?

American employers routinely shut out workers over the age of 50 because…they can. There’s no way to prove it and no consequence to their actions; I wrote about this for The New York Times.

Here are a few more I consider “steps back”:

37) Were/are one or both of your parents physically or emotionally abusive?

38) Were/are one or both of your parents alcoholic or addicted?

39) Have you and/or your spouse/partner suffered long-term (6 months+) unemployment?

40) Were/are one or both of your parents mentally ill?

41) Are you now or have you been financially responsible for siblings or other family members?

42) Can you afford to buy a comprehensive health insurance plan?

43) Have you ever had to declare bankruptcy? (Medical debts are the single greatest driver of American personal bankruptcy.)

44) Are you carrying any medical expenses you simply cannot (re) pay?

45) Have you always had ready/easy/affordable access to the technology used by your educational peers and competitors for work/jobs?

In the rush to competitive victimhood (or guilt), it’s rarely simple to determine who’s better off, beyond the 1 percent.

Do you feel privileged?

Have you been told to “check your privilege”?

What else would you add?

Three weeks in Ireland…final reflections

In beauty, cities, culture, life, travel, urban life, world on July 3, 2015 at 9:19 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- Europe's highest cliffs

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — Europe’s highest cliffs

It took a while to determine the bird we heard everywhere in Donegal, and whose trilling song sounds just like a modem, (Google it, young ‘uns!). It turned out to be a skylark, an unforgettable sound.

Our rented house, which was ear-ringingly silent, awoke on our final morning to a distinct tap-tap-tap. It was a fat magpie rapping its beak against the window before fanning its feathers indignantly and strutting off into the grass.

After a glorious week in the cottage — a three-bedroom house, architect-designed, (and it’s available the week of July, book here!)  — in Donegal, we returned to Dublin, a four-hour drive. My husband was kind enough to do all the driving. We rented a VW Golf, diesel, and liked it a lot: quiet, comfortable and very economical on fuel.

It was tough to find hotel rooms for the week in Dublin on a month’s notice, and every single hotel was booked the night of July 1 — for an AC/DC concert!

There’s a flea market in Dublin but only on the final Sunday of every month, which happened to be the one we’re here for. I love exploring flea markets so that was a definite.

I scored! A hand-knit wool sweater for five euros, a mirrored Indian bag for 10 euros and five silver-plate forks for five euros. That’s my kind of flea market.

Our vacation has been filled with surprises, most lovely, a few less so.

Like:

— The driest Dublin June in 40 years. Yay! We had only one day of rain. I’m returning with, (yes, really) an Irish tan.

— The tree-shaded canal a block from our hotel, lined every few feet with comfortable benches, where I sat and watched a duck with her five palm-sized ducklings

The Luas -- which means "speed" in Irish

The Luas — which means “speed” in Irish

— The worst public transit system I’ve seen in any major city of comparable size. There are only two tram lines and they’re very short and they don’t intersect. Yes, there are plenty of yellow double-decker city buses, but no official bus map available. Even locals agree it’s a disaster.

— A ton of construction all around Trinity College (as they expand the tram system), making road traffic and pedestrian traffic a big mess.

— The best foie gras I’ve ever eaten at L’Gueleton. Go!

— Sunset in Dun Laoghaire, a quick DART ride from Dublin, and dinner at there at Fallon & Byrne in People’s Park

— The shocking loss of three people suddenly swept out to sea while walking on shore in Baltimore, Co. Cork

An amazing collection of Asian art at the National Museum of Decorative Art, including a room filled with Buddhist tangkas

The Titanic Museum in Belfast, (a 2.5 hr train ride north of Dublin) was well worth the cost of trainfare and the time to travel there. We spent 3.5 hours at the museum itself, which is typical, and enjoyed every minute.

— Getting to know a dear Dublin friend’s husband and adult daughter, and renewing a 30-year-old friendship forged on a fellowship we shared in Paris

— Salmon, salmon and more salmon!

— Oysters, oysters and more oysters!

— Cheap and plentiful Dublin taxis

We will dearly miss a nation of people who still thrive on lively, engaged conversation. It was blessedly very rare indeed, anywhere, to see people staring at their damn cellphones while sitting with others in a social space like a pub, bar or restaurant.

We will miss the extraordinary light, a sky that stays lit until almost midnight.

We will miss the glowing green of stone-walled fields.

We will miss the warmth of new friends.

Jose gazing out the window of our rented cottage

Jose gazing out the window of our rented cottage

We will miss the silent, craggy beauty of Donegal, where only the wind could be heard.

We will miss being able to cross an entire country within a few hours’ driving.

I will miss seeing my family name — Kelly — on shops and trucks and signage everywhere.

We hope to return soon!

Have you been to Ireland?

What did you enjoy most?

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