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On not wanting to have children…

In aging, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, love, men, parenting, women on April 3, 2015 at 6:40 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

kid-gum

“Our son is in Tikrit!,” Jose announced last weekend.

Of course he was. Perpetually adventurous, Alex couldn’t have lingered — sensibly and safely for his final semester of college — in Istanbul.

He’s actually not our biological or even adopted son.

He’s one of a small group of talented young people we call our “freelance kids” — who happily call us their freelance Mom and Dad.

We can answer all the questions their parents generally cannot — like, how does an ambitious couple in our industry, (littered with divorce), keep their relationship thriving? How do we handle crazy schedules and work-imposed separations?

How do we handle burnout?

And what do you do when you fall off an elephant into the Mekong River and ruin all your costly camera equipment?

A talented, ambitious and successful photographer, we met Alex when he came to The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, open to any student members of the NAHJ or NABJ.

Since then, Alex, a Chicago student from Milwaukee, has slept on our suburban New York sofa many times as we’ve welcomed him, as we also have with Molly, another young shooter from Arizona we met the same way, now living in Portland, Oregon.

I didn’t want to have children, and nor did Jose. We’re giving, generous, fun people, quick with a hug. We love to hear our young friends’ stories, happy or sad, and have given much advice on matters both personal and professional. They know we’re there for them.

It gives us great pleasure and satisfaction to have become trusted friends, often even older than their parents.

But we didn’t change their diapers or rush them to the emergency room or coach them for their college essays.

I now teach two college classes and have so far had 26 students, whom I regularly refer to (not to them!) as “my kids”, and, for many of them, I feel affection, glad to sit down and chat with them at length outside of class. I worry about some of them and how they’ll turn out — as parents do.

But when the vast majority of men and women still do become parents, those of us who don’t seem weird.

People assume we “hate kids” — not true — or are selfish; (like all parents, de facto, are not?)

Jose and I each chose to make our careers within news journalism, a volatile and insecure field that at the very top still pays its award-winning veterans less than a first-year corporate lawyer. So we both knew, long before we met in our early 40s, that whatever money we earned there was it, and having children would be costly both to our ambitions and our savings.

It is.

Today we’re financially far ahead of anyone we know, (short of the truly wealthy) with our retirement savings, not having had to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to raise children or to buy/rent a larger home, (or live, cramped in too small a space for years),  or to pay for college. That’s a huge relief in an era when most Americans — even after decades of hard and/or decently-paid work– still barely have $100,000 saved to fund 20+ years of retirement.

And my own childhood just wasn’t much fun; an only child, I spent ages eight through 13 at boarding school and summer camp, living at home for only two years of that.

Parenthood looked like an overwhelming amount of work and I knew I would never be able to count on anyone in my family to offer help of any kind.

They're good company

They’re good company

As her only child, my mother’s own emotional and medical needs sucked me dry; by the time I was getting marriage proposals, I was busy carving out a career for myself in journalism, one so competitive — and poorly paid and with lousy schedules — I still couldn’t imagine adding the many enormous responsibilities of parenthood to that mix.

Let alone a husband!

I now teach freshman writing at a private college in Brooklyn and have a mix of sophomore, junior and senior students in my blogging class there.

I love the interaction with my students and have gotten to know a few of them personally. I really enjoy our conversations and am happy to offer advice when asked. It feels good to share wisdom with younger people.

But I don’t regret my choice.

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It is painful to know that no one will visit my grave, (if I even have one), or retain much memory of me once all my friends and family die.

There are days I’ve envied the pride and pleasure others feel in their children and grand-children.

But it is what it is.

I’ve realized how much I love emotional connection and nurturing others — with the freedom to stop if and when I feel depleted.

But utter and total dependency scares me to death.

Here’s an excerpt of an essay about this choice from Longreads:

People with children have told me that it is virtually impossible to put into words what they gain from their children. “I would be at a loss to describe it in any way other than clichés,” a friend told me. “You can’t know what you are missing until you are on the other side.” Well, I don’t know what it feels like to bungee jump either, yet people don’t try to convince me to hurl myself into a canyon. Besides, I might be able to jump once and then decide that it isn’t for me. With having children this obviously isn’t an option.

A new book, with the sad title, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, a collection of 16 essays about not wanting to have children, is just out this week.

It’s edited by Meghan Daum; here’s a recent seven-minute audio interview with her about the book and her choice, from NPR’s The Takeaway.

I attended an event in Manhattan this week with Daum and three of her authors, fascinated to see a SRO crowd of probably 75 people. That’s a big turnout for any reading, and especially in NYC where there’s probably 10 a night.

And here’s an excerpt from an interview with her about this most personal of choices in The New Yorker:

One reason I feel it’s important to talk about choosing not to have kids (as opposed to not being able to have them when you want them, which is a whole other story) is that, so often, the discussion is reduced to glib remarks or punch lines like “I’d rather have expensive shoes!” or “Instead of having kids, I bought a Porsche!” That stuff drives me crazy. First of all, it diminishes the serious thought that so many people who make this choice put into their decision. Secondly, it perpetuates the “selfish” chestnut by assuming that people who opt out of parenthood are therefore choosing to live self-absorbed, materialistic lives. As a mentor and an advocate, I’ve seen no end to the ways that childless people can contribute to the lives and well-being of kids—and adults, for that matter. Those stereotypes are tiresome and counterproductive.

 What’s been — or likely will be — your decision whether or not to have children?

Any regrets?

Old friends

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, immigration, life, love, travel, urban life, US, women on March 28, 2015 at 3:31 am

By Caitlin Kelly

“Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (1939)

 

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Every year, at least once and sometimes several times, I head north to Toronto and to a cottage on a lake near Peterborough, Ontario, to visit my friends I’ve known for decades.

I left Toronto in 1986, afire with ambition, ready to marry. I met my first husband, an American, in Montreal and followed him to rural New Hampshire; neither took.

By 1994, I was a divorcee (no children) living in a pretty lonely suburb of New York City. Moving back to Canada felt like a retreat. I liked New York. I had yet to satisfy my professional ambitions.

And so I stayed.

In the decades I’ve lived in the U.S. I’ve made friends.

But they’ve come and gone, sometimes with a stunning rapidity. I arrived in New York at the age of 30 — long past the traditional ages when the powerful emotional glue of shared schools, colleges and/or post-graduate training seem to create lifelong bonds for many Americans, some of whom are still pals with their freshman room-mate.

Many of my friends now live very far away...

Many of my friends now live very far away…

So I’ve found my American friends through other means — a work colleague (briefly), my freelance life, serving on several boards and attending/speaking at conferences, several colleagues of my husband’s from the newspaper he worked at for 31 years and for whom I freelance as well.

Luckily, I have a friend now living directly across the street from me — we met (yes, really) through a local man we both dislike heartily. But, a new pal!

Without children or hobbies or many non-work passions I’ve found it challenging to find people with whom I can create new deep ties. The world is full of friendly acquaintances, “Heyyyyyy!” — but less filled with people with the time, inclination or interest to start a new chapter with a stranger.

One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua -- now still friends with these three

One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua — now still friends with these three

So when I see my long-time friends in Canada, we’re also revisiting our earlier selves:

P., once a curly redhead, is now gray, long-married to his husband. We met on a rooftop in Colombia, and still laugh at the same things but our last conversation also included our spouses’ searches for new employment and the struggle over a parent’s estate.

M., also a decade older than I, has known me since I was in my early 20s. We both visited New York City together when I appeared on stage as an extra in the ballet Sleeping Beauty for a story. I’ve stayed in her home many times since then and belatedly realized she’s more family than much of my own.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, where I met M in freshman English class

Victoria College, University of Toronto, where I met M in freshman English class

M, who I met in freshman English class when we eye-rolled at one another. A teacher and college administrator, she came all the way to N.Y. from the northern wilds of British Columbia for my first wedding to be my maid of honor; (my last, fateful words as I headed down the aisle: “Just be my friend if this doesn’t work out”. Thank heaven she did), and all the way to Toronto for my second. We still talk every few months from her home in B.C. and I still use the battered, stained cookbook she gave me in 1986.

L, a fellow journalist, whose home brims with beauty: hand-made pottery, drawings and oil paintings and colorful rugs. Her cooking, and hospitality, is astounding. We met in the 1980s, covering the same story for competing newspapers and re-met decades later on a fellowship in Florida.

S, 20 years my junior, a fellow ferocious jock and adventurous traveler. We’ve set new records for unbroken conversation — on my most recent trip, last week, we sat down in a restaurant for lunch at noon. We got up again at 5:30.

S, my age, who I’ve known since high school when we were both mad about J. — all of us now long since married. Like me, she’s artistic, creative, a free spirit with no children but who shares a deep love of the natural world and travel.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment in rural Nicaragua — we’d never met and had a blast!

I find it comforting to know people over time, to be loved and valued and accepted and forgiven through the jobs, (and losses of same), the husbands, (and loss/gain of same), through illnesses and surgeries.

Fatter, thinner, happier or broken-hearted, lustily single or placidly married, they’ve seen me through it all, and vice versa.

You can safely fight and make up with these emotional distance runners — while others slink away or keep conversations perky, polished and politely, always, distant.

You know these friends’ partners and pets, (including the dead ones), their parents and siblings. Also, perhaps, their children and grand-children.

You know about the grant they didn’t win or the dream they never tried. They know why your brother hates you, and don’t care.

They know what makes you cry, even if they haven’t seen you  — or seen you do it — in years.

They see us through the rapids!

They see us through the rapids!

We hold one another to a high standard, knowing, sometimes far better than a late-arriving partner or spouse, what lies beneath our bravado and bluster.

We are witnesses to one another’s lives.

(Longtime readers of Broadside know that my family is not especially close or loving, so these long-lasting friendships mean the world to me.)

Here’s what I definitely do not want — “ambient intimacy”.

From New York magazine:

The British user-experience researcher Leisa Reichelt coined the term “ambient intimacy” in 2007 to describe the unfocused closeness we maintain by following friends’ day-to-day on platforms like Twitter. Soon, though, the signals that we continuously broadcast to our friends and followers promise to get more … not intimate, perhaps, but certainly creepy by today’s standards.

The Apple Watch’s ability to stream one user’s heartbeat to another through vibrations is one example of this closeness. As is Meerkat, the suddenly popular live-streaming app that lets users send live video to their followers, turning the previously static culture of webcams into a mobile, always-on experience. Soon enough, we’ll be able to live vicariously alongside anyone we choose at any moment of their life — the ultimate future of the selfie stick is a system that can photograph or record you from any angle and any distance at any time.

No, thanks.

I want to sit at a table, or side by side by the fireplace or lazing on the dock, and talk for hours to someone whose face I can see, and vice versa.

Someone I can hug.

Do you have friends you’ve cherished for decades?

 

 

 

The little thing someone said that meant the world to you

In behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, travel on February 25, 2015 at 1:11 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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I was flying home from Paris to New York on a wide-body 777.

The turbulence wasn’t, objectively, that bad at all and, really, could have been much worse. But I really dislike turbulence, especially at the start of a 7.5 hour trans-oceanic flight with Godknowshowmuch more of it ahead.

Even while mortified by my babyishness, I cried. Not a lot and not loudly.

A man sitting in the seat in front of me, an Indian man in his 60s or beyond, was gentle and kind.

“It’s all right. We’re all here with you,” he said.

His very simple words meant a lot to me, as someone who’s been through way too much emotional turbulence in my past life, which I sometimes think is why physical turbulence undoes me somehow. Nor did I grow up in  family who did a lot of comforting or cuddling if/when I was scared. That was my job.

I was so touched by his words and later wanted to thank him, but he was too quickly gone.

Maybe he’s just that kind to everyone.

I’m forever amazed at the things we say to one another, whether strangers on an airplane or teacher to student (or vice versa), that can leave such a positive effect on us, years, even decades later.

Sometimes it’s like a stone whose initial plunk into the water ripples outward in many circles, having a much deeper and profound effect on you than the person speaking could possibly know or understand.

It seems such a little thing…

Maybe not everyone is as open or susceptible to these things as I seem to be, but I try to say nice things whenever and wherever I can; readers of this blog know I can be very tough indeed. I’m no Pollyanna, but it’s been so powerful in my life when someone has offered a nugget of passing wisdom.

What could you say today to change someone's life for the better?

What could you say today to change someone’s life for the better?

Like the woman I met socially just as my now-husband and I had started dating. We were serious about one another from the start, but we argued a lot and were stubborn and hot-headed. Not a pretty combination.

“You can give this man his happiest years or his worst years,” she said. I knew her very briefly and maybe saw her once or twice after that.

That made clear to me what my wisest choice would be and, 15 years later, we are happily married.

I didn’t come from a family filled with cute, cosy homilies, so I learned to find much of my wisdom and comfort from people beyond that circle.

In my mid-20s, on a journalism fellowship in Paris, a perceptive friend about 15 years my senior noticed my obsession with antiques, one that continues today.

Probably 200 years old, found at a country auction in Nova Scotia

Probably 200 years old, found at a country auction in Nova Scotia

“You don’t have to buy other people’s histories,” she said.

That same year, back in the days before (yes, really!) the Internet and the cloud, I was shooting a lot of film and slides, and had hundreds of them, going back years and much global travel, in a big black portfolio I used to show editors to win work.

It was stolen and I was devastated. How could I possibly persuade people to trust me and invest their time and money in my skills?

“Nope,” said a fellow fellow, a woman a bit older than me, also from Toronto, said firmly. “Everything inside that portfolio is already inside you. You don’t need it.”

She was right.

What has someone said to you that changed your life for the better?

What have you said?

When did you finally feel like an adult?

In aging, behavior, culture, domestic life, family, life, love, men, urban life, women on February 11, 2015 at 1:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

 

 Crossing the Atlantic -- thumb firmly in mouth. Adulthood? Nope, not yet!

Crossing the Atlantic — thumb firmly in mouth. Adulthood? Nope, not yet!

It happened to me at 14, when a series of frightening events beyond my control collided within a few days while I was living in Mexico.

My mother became ill and suddenly incapacitated; a friend my age had just arrived from Canada for a two-week visit and, while staying with us — we were then on our own — she burned her eyelashes and eyebrows off while lighting our hot water heater.

We had no phone, few friends and no relatives anywhere nearby.

We figured it out. Mostly because we had to.

I left my mother’s care after that and have never lived with her since. I keep reading blogs by women who talk about being “unmothered.” After 14, that was pretty much my new normal; my step-mother, only 13 years my senior, was not a nurturer.

So I’m always fairly fascinated by discussions of what it means to be(come) mature and responsible.

A recent New York magazine article focused on women in their 30s choosing to freeze their eggs as they have no luck finding a man eager — let alone willing — to take on the responsibilities of marriage, let alone of parenthood:

Before he was a fertility specialist, Dr. Keefe was a psychiatrist…

“There are a lot of options,” he said, “and people have to choose the one that’s right for them. But in order to know what’s right, you have to ask yourself, why are you here?”

“I wasted a lot of time in my last relationship,” I admitted. “I want to make sure that I take care of myself.”

He leaned forward and paused. “There’s something wrong with the men in your generation,” he said. I was stunned. Here was a doctor who had just been talking about the importance of considering statistical significance, and now he was chalking my dating problems up to the broadest of generalizations. But he was articulating two forms of truth: the mathematical and the personal.

“It isn’t you,” he said. “All day long, I see patients like you. You’re smart, beautiful, accomplished, nice. It makes no sense. I go home to my wife and I say, ‘There’s something wrong with the men in this generation. They won’t grow up.’”

People who fetishize parenthood assume that only by getting married and/or having and/or raising children can you truly become an adult.

I don’t buy it.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

I’ve seen too many sloppy, careless brutes wearing wedding rings, running their vows ragged. I’ve also seen too many careless parents.

I do think that caring for others, actively and consistently, is key to maturity and generativity, the desire to give back. It might be a pet or a child or your neighbor or your students.

I recently watched an odd indie film, Obvious Child, in which the main character, a young comic named Donna Stern, gets pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to have an abortion.

I enjoyed the film in some ways, but found her neurotic compulsion to date losers and make lousy life choices in general, even with loving  and solvent parents nearby, depressing and irritating.

Grow up, I wanted to shout at the screen!

I feel the same way (cliche alert!) when I hate-watch the HBO series Girls, which follows the lives of four whiny white girls in their 20s as they try to find jobs, men and friendship in Manhattan. I know many young women lovelovelove the show and its outspoken young creator Lena Dunham.

I just can’t.

We all make terrible choices and we usually get most of them out of the way in our 20s and 30s. (I married the wrong man, moved to NYC with no job in sight, etc.)

When I met the man I’m now married to — 15 years together this spring! — I wondered if he was mature enough to be a husband, which is both a noun and a verb meaning to care for. (Well, actually to manage frugally and carefully, which is close enough for me.)

He ticked all the boxes, as the Brits would say: handsome, great job, funny, snappy dresser, global travel, devout Buddhist. But he felt somehow rooted in single life.

Newlywed!

Newlywed!

My doubts blew away in one powerful action, when we flew out to help my mother after she was found to have a very large benign brain tumor and we had to take care of her home, dog and paperwork with only three days in a foreign country.

He dragged her soiled mattress onto the verandah without a word and started scrubbing it clean. I’d never seen someone so nonchalantly do a nasty job with no drama, foot-dragging or avoidance. It meant a lot to me.

He stepped up.

I now teach college freshmen and am intrigued to see which of them are more mature than others and why. I’ve also met some lovely young people in their early to mid-20s, maybe old souls, who seem able to just get on with it, with grace, style and humor.

I don’t believe you have to be old to be wise nor do I assume that someone young(er) is de facto foolish and unable to make excellent decisions.

But I do fear for the current crop of children and teens whose parents and grandparents hover incessantly over them in a desperate and misguided attempt to protect them from every possible owie.

The world does not arrive with a big pile of bandaids to hand out.

Do you feel like an adult?

What did it for you?

Being rich and being happy don’t always go together

In behavior, children, Crime, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting on January 31, 2015 at 1:00 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Would you be happy shopping all day?

Would you be happy shopping all day?

It’s a world so many people desperately aspire to, the one where you finally have, literally, millions or billions of dollars, where your car(s) and homes are costly and many — and your worries, one assumes, become small and few.

Like the couple who rent out their Paris apartment part-time as they jet between it and their other six homes worldwide. I sat in it recently and admired a lovely framed graphic on one wall, thinking it looked a lot like the enormous posters all over the Metro for the largest show by Sonia Delaunay in decades.

It was a Delaunay.

Here’s a sobering recent reminder of how toxic that world can be for some, a New York man who murdered his father, after being raised in a life of privilege and power.

From The New York Times:

They were alike in many ways, Thomas Strong Gilbert Sr. and the son to whom he gave his name and who, prosecutors say, would eventually kill him.

Graduates of elite boarding schools and Princeton University, the two men were handsome, gifted athletes who — on the surface at least — seemed to be navigating the exclusive glide path of wealth, social position and success that has long defined life inside America’s upper crust.

All this exploded, however, when, the police said, Thomas S. Gilbert Jr., 30, marched into his parents’ apartment this month and shot his father in the head — after asking his mother to run out and get him a sandwich and a soda.

The attack shocked not only those who knew the Gilberts but also many more who live in their rarefied and intertwined world of hedge funds, private clubs and opulent homes in Manhattan and the Hamptons.

The Times received 500 emails commenting on that story, many of whom — perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not for an upscale publication — expressed pity for the alleged killer.

I know someone whose partner recently became a millionaire after a decade of intense effort. He built his entire company from scratch, both of them sacrificing mightily to do so. But he hasn’t slowed down a bit and his partner is not, as I hoped, now lounging in hard-won luxury.

When more is never enough...

When more is never enough…

If you can handle a searing glimpse into the folkways of the wealthy — and have a strong stomach — you must read the Patrick Melrose novels. Written by Edward St. Aubyn, from an aristocratic English family, they reveal what lies behind some intimidatingly elegant and polished facades.

For years, people kept telling me these were astonishing books.

How good could they really be?

Amazing.

Gasp-inducing.

And, for some of us, far too close for comfort.

Here’s a bit from a long and fascinating interview with him from The New Yorker:

The irony in the title of St. Aubyn’s third Melrose novel, “Some Hope,” published in 1994, points both to a career-long interest in the idea of psychological deliverance and to a desire not to be mistaken for an artless writer. To read the novels is to watch a high intelligence outsmart cliché (or, to use a more Melrosian word, vulgarity), and so protect his protagonist’s literary distinction. Similarly, St. Aubyn has been careful to protect his own life from the dull tarnish of remembrance-and-release; it would pain him if readers mistook a twenty-year literary project for a therapeutic one. “What he wanted was a very pure success,” Oliver James, an old friend of St. Aubyn’s, and a clinical psychologist, told me.

But the awkward fact is that writing saved St. Aubyn’s life. Years of psychoanalysis, and the controlled fiction that followed, deferred the threat of suicide. St. Aubyn describes Patrick as an alter ego, though there are some differences. Patrick ends up with a day job—he’s a barrister—which St. Aubyn, with a seeming shrug of privileged incomprehension, barely makes convincing. More important, Patrick has no experience of therapy, beyond a group meeting or two in rehab. Instead, he ruminates, and makes sour, studied jokes. The novels enact, and describe, therapeutic progress, but St. Aubyn, led by a literary taste for compression, and by the desire to create “vivid and intense and non-boring” fiction, left out much of the process that helped him survive to midlife.

I read the Melrose novels finally a year or so ago.

It felt as though my own life had been X-rayed and thrown up onto a large white lightbox.

The cashmere and jewels and lovely homes. The literary and cultural references. The shrugging assumption that everyone lives a life of privilege and ease — or should.

Or could if they just did things right.

Oh, but you’re struggling?

To some ears, it’s a foreign language. They try to understand a few words, but it doesn’t really register and just isn’t very interesting.

Other Melrose-isms rang true:

The sycophants and hangers-on, skilled in the art of flattery.

Those slickly determined to displace children in the eyes of their own parents, able to remain so much more amusing and so much less demanding than flesh and blood.

The ability to find almost everything in the world worthy of intense interest, except your own children.

The missed holidays and birthdays and celebrations.

There are, of course, many people with a lot of money who have terrific relationships with their families.

But there are also some unimaginable darknesses behind the glittering veneer and the-stuff-we-all-want-so-badly — the Benchleys and Goyard handbags, the Dassault Falcons waiting on the tarmac at Teterborough.

I recently met a couple a decade older than I; she, smooth and assured, he a tenured professor secure in his stature.

We talked about my family and, she, probing far more deeply and quickly than I was used to, elicited far more of my candor than usual — and, later, that would leave me feeling regretful and queasy.

It’s not a fun tale in some respects.

And then he asked:

“Have you read the Patrick Melrose novels?”

I had.

“I could barely get through two of them,” he said.

Indeed.

The kindness of strangers

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, life, love, travel, women on January 24, 2015 at 1:37 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

An offering in rural Nicaragua -- fresh from the tree!

An offering in rural Nicaragua — fresh from the tree!

Without which, most of us can’t survive.

I know one reason travel moves me emotionally, and why I so enjoy it, is that — 99 percent of the time — it has rewarded my (cautious) trust in the kindness of strangers with what I hoped for. Not robbery or rape or someone out to do me harm, but someone funny and generous and smart who is willing to open their heart and home to me.

Ironically, I’ve only become a crime victim — twice in Canadian cities (break-in, assault) and twice here in suburban New York (auto theft, fraud) — when supposedly safely “at home.”

Many people fear venturing beyond their safe and familiar world, certain that terror and mayhem will ensue.

Not for me and not for my mother, who traveled the world alone in her 40s.

Not for the many women I know who have ventured forth to places like Uganda and Haiti and Nicaragua, alone or with company, for work or for pleasure.

Not for for my many colleagues, male and female, working worldwide in journalism, who often have to rely on local interpreters and fixers and drivers, any one of whom might, in fact, prove to be a kidnaper. Using your smarts, network and instincts, you learn to be discerning.

Not for my young friend, 22-year-old recent Harvard graduate Devi Lockwood, now traveling the globe alone on a post-grad fellowship studying climate change, spending her year surrounded by strangers very, very far away from her Connecticut home; her blog is here.

Here’s a tiny excerpt from her journey:

Sharon retrieves an orange, plastic dreidel from the inside the pocket of her sweater. “With a dreidel, like in life, you have no control. You have to enter into the mystery and take your chances.”

I can’t help but smile at the gesture, the tears of upstairs now dried on my cheeks. Sharon closes her eyes for a moment to bless the object before she passes it into my hands. It is small but larger than itself. She could not have known that orange is my favorite color. I press the object into my own pocket.

It takes an interesting blend of courage, resilience, stamina, self-confidence,  and the humility to know and respect local customs of dress and behavior to trust yourself amongst strangers. You need self-reliance and gumption. You need to know how to read a map, (apps don’t always do the trick),  and manage in metric and Celsius and other languages.

And — of course — you don’t have to any sort of exotic foreign travel to have this experience. Try a neighborhood in your city you’ve never visited!

I’m in awe at my freshmen writing students’ bravery as so many of them have come from very distant parts of the world, and the U.S., to live, work and study among strangers. I’ve had students from Rome, France, Guam, Hawaii, Mississippi; Canadian college students, in distinct contrast, tend to attend their local universities (partly because there are many fewer of them to choose from and the quality is generally very high.)

How far would you go and feel safe?

How far would you go and feel safe?

You need, in my favorite French verb, to se debrouiller — figure shit out.

My blog posts about how to travel alone as a woman continue to be my best-read.

I’ve finally realized why this sort of unexpected kindness matters so much to me and why it touches me so deeply. Sometimes I’m so thankful it seems overdone, but it’s heartfelt.

I come from a family with plenty of money but one with little time or aptitude for emotional attentiveness. I left my mother’s care at 14 and my father’s home at 19, so have long been accustomed to fending for myself.

As an only child for decades, (step-siblings came later), I simply had to rely on the kindness of strangers in many instances because my own family was nowhere to be found — off traveling the world, long before the Internet or cell phones. Even when they lived nearby, I couldn’t rely on them for emotional or financial support and never, once, had the option of “moving home” back into their houses.

My solo week in Corsica, July 1995, was one of the best of my life!

My solo week in Corsica, July 1995, was one of the best of my life!

So I discovered that people I had never met before could overwhelm me with their kindness and generosity.

— Gudrun, the wife of a sporting goods executive living in Barcelona, who was then a stringer for Reuters. She welcomed me into her home, left me alone while they went out to dinner, and immediately trusted me. As I did with them. She later let me stay again and even lent me her weekend home.

— Tala, who, hearing we were planning to visit Paris at Christmas, immediately offered us her apartment there.

— Gillian, who invited me to her suburban home there and cooked a lovely meal.

— The young Portuguese couple I met on a train as they headed home to Lisbon to marry. They invited me into their apartment for that week and I ended up becoming their wedding photographer.

It’s instructive to see, also, how sometimes the people with the least to offer materially are so open.

We stayed in this house in a village with no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water.

We stayed in this house in a village with no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water

When I visited Nicaragua for work in March 2014 with WaterAid, the second-poorest Western Hemisphere nation after Haiti, I was struck by how genuinely welcoming people were. Yes, we were introduced by locals they know and respect, but I expected little beyond civility. Warmth and genuine connection were a joy, whether in Miskitu through a translator or Spanish, which I speak.

I sat one afternoon, lazing in the blistering heat on a shady verandah chatting with a woman. Marly, a little girl of five, came and sat with me, and let me braid her hair, a sort of easy intimacy I can’t imagine any American child allowing with a stranger, or their fearful parents allowing.

Here’s a sobering/sad New York Times story about Lenore Skenazy, a former colleague of mine at the New York Daily News, who has become (!?) an expert in telling terrified Americans that it’s OK to let their children play outside alone:

A second result is the Free Range Kids Project and a 13-part series, starting Thursday on Discovery Life Channel, called “World’s Worst Mom.” In it, Ms. Skenazy intervenes to rescue bubble-wrapped kids from their overprotective parents by guiding the children safely through a sequence of once-forbidden activities and showing their anxious parents how well the children perform and how proud they are of what they accomplished.

The term “helicopter parents” applies to far more than those who hover relentlessly over their children’s academic and musical development. As depicted in the first episode of the series, it applies to 10-year-old Sam’s very loving mother who wouldn’t let him ride a bike (“she’s afraid I’ll fall and get hurt”), cut up his own meat (“Mom thinks I’ll cut my fingers off”), or play “rough sports” like skating. The plea from a stressed-out, thwarted Sam: “I just want to do things by myself.”

In an interview, Ms. Skenazy said, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger.” The widespread publicity now given to crimes has created an exaggerated fear of the dangers children face if left to navigate and play on their own.

I’m simply sad for these children and the cringing, world-fearing adults they might become.

How will they successfully navigate the many steps toward full economic and emotional independence?

The only way to discover the potential kindness of strangers is to allow for its very real possibility.

Home…family…holidays…

In behavior, domestic life, family, life, love on December 23, 2014 at 4:48 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Three little words.

Three loaded words.

Where will you be this holiday?

With (some of [the]) people you (most) love?

Or going solo, no matter the family fallout, avoiding people whose behaviors keep making you miserable — substance abuse, alcoholism, homophobia — maybe a trifecta!

Where is home for you now?

Is it where you grew up, living with your parents?

Or maybe a hotel or apartment on the road, thousands of miles from people who speak your language?

Which holiday, if any, are you celebrating?

Will you attend a Christmas Eve church service?

I know one person spending it on an island deep in the Pacific Ocean, on Tuvalu. (Merry Christmas, Devi!)

Another two women, one from Philadelphia, one from Dublin, are each heading to Chile.

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Christmas, with its rush of sentiment, shopping and song, can be a season of great joy, reuniting with people whose love and acceptance raise us up…or a time of intense loneliness.

At a time when people scurry home to their warm, well-lit refuges, some of us are mourning the loss of a partner, a child, a pet.

Some of us are battling serious illness. Some of us are seeking well-paid work and having little luck.

Anyone facing their first holiday season without a dearly loved one, as one recently widowed friend knows, will need the armor of light, (my favorite phrase), to carry them through.

I remember vividly the very first Christmas after my divorce. I’d been with my first husband for seven years and had left Canada, friends, family and career to follow him to the U.S.

I sat for the gorgeous solstice service offered each year by Paul Winter in the enormous New York City cathedral of St. John the Divine, with a dear friend and new beau beside me — loved, valued and deeply grateful not to be alone in a time that so celebrates togetherness.

Even gift-giving can be laden with emotion and anxiety.

I worked part-time in retail for 2.5 years. One man had no notion what his teenage daughter might enjoy while another practically begged me for help: “I need to find a present for a pain in the ass!

For many years, my family gave me “gifts” that were clearly last-minute afterthoughts or the little free samples that come with cosmetic purchases. Nor were my gifts to them graciously or happily accepted.

The season can so quickly sour!

The first Christmas I introduced my husband Jose to my loud, argumentative family was typical. As usual, we were expounding on politics and economics, each of us thumping the table for emphasis, voices raised and fingers pointed, certainty — as usual — thick in the air. We never discuss emotion or feelings, never simply ask, “How are you?”

Poor Jose!

He finally slapped the table in exasperation: “Everyone take a turn!”

Like fighting dogs sprayed with a garden hose, we paused for a minute — stunned. Then, on we went.

Welcome to the family!

Christmas Eve is also difficult for me, the night that, when I was 14, my mother had a nervous breakdown in the foreign country where we were living, leaving me and a friend in an unfamiliar city at midnight. Within a few weeks, I had left the country and her care, returning to live with my father and his girlfriend; I barely knew her and I hadn’t lived with him since my parents’ divorce seven years earlier.

I never lived with my mother again. We since spent some crazy Christmases — like the one in Cartagena, Colombia, (where the police stopped our cab and asked us to step out to be frisked), and later got sunstroke.

But in the past four years I haven’t seen or spoken to her.

Nor will I see my father and two half-brothers, spending their Christmas together in Canada; one brother nurses a long-held grudge against me so that’s it for family holidays that include me.

So the words family and home don’t make much sense to me in any traditional “home for the holidays” way.

Instead of focusing on lack, I’m choosing joy.

Rue Cler, around the corner from our borrowed apartment

Rue Cler, around the corner from our borrowed apartment

We’re now in Paris, a city filled with sweet memories for me, a city I lived in at 25 for a year while on a journalism fellowship. It was a year that changed my life and my career, and I’m still in touch with some of my fellow fellows decades later.

Paris for me — a Canadian living in New York — still feels like home for that reason, even after years between visits.

Jose is my family now. He proposed to me at midnight on Christmas Eve after church, standing beneath our church’s lych gate as snow hissed around us. He knew how sad that night had been for me and decided to re-brand it with a happier memory.

I hope — wherever you are and whoever you’re with and whatever you celebrate — you have a calm, loving, happy holiday!

Thank you all for the gift of your attention to Broadside. It means a lot!

 

 

 

Here we go again! 30 fab holiday gifts

In culture, design, domestic life, family, Fashion, life, love, Style on December 5, 2014 at 2:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Pressies!

For those of you new-ish to Broadside, one of my annual pleasures — my gift to you, as it were — is compiling a list of presents you might find useful to include in your holiday shopping.

I don’t have children or teens in my life, so these are all for adults, some young at heart.

Have fun!

In my native Canada, these sweaters are typically white, gray and cream, called Cowichan sweaters, named for the First Nations tribe that makes them on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Trust the groovy hipsters at J. Crew to culturally appropriate re-style them into this navy and red version, an eye-watering $400. But still sorta cool.

If you’re in a warm place, or spend time in a pool, this navy polka-dot women’s swimsuit from British retailer Boden is a winner; I own this model in stripes. It’s durable, comfortable and flattering. $66.00

I love the old-school elegance of cufflinks. These sterling silver Dalmatians from the oldest of old-school American haberdashers, Brooks Brothers, are charming. $195.00

This black wire bowl is dead simple, simply elegant. 40 euros

Almost anyone with a laptop would appreciate a handsome leather laptop sleeve. I own this one, in tobacco color, from legendary Canadian retailer Roots. $78.00

Come on, it’s time to finally get your sweetie/son/daughter/spouse (stylishly) organized for 2015! I love my Filofax personal-size organizer in soft red leather; this one is in gorgeous electric blue leather (unisexy!) $72.45

Yes, it’s a $93.00 silk pocket square — but it’s awesome! Hand-drawn examples of the Great Men of London, from Drake’s.

This deep charcoal gray velour floral bath towel is both unusual and elegant, (perfect for a stylish guy or woman fond of hard-to-find neutrals), from one of my favorite sites, Zara Home; $39.90

For the tree-hugger who actually sends thank-you notes after dinners/job interviews/parties, these woodcut pattern notecards are lovely, and have brown paper envelopes. $15.95

I love curling up for a nap or an afternoon buried in the weekend papers under a cozy throw; this one is in one of my favorite colors, what the French call tilleul, a soft yellow-green $85.00

Have you heard (of) The Hot Sardines, whose French/Canadian vocalist, Miss Liz, (and the lone woman in a band of eight), have recently released their first album? Maybe you’ve seen them perform in New York City, Toronto, London, on their national U.S. tour…? I’ve known Miss Liz for a few years and love their renditions of 1920’s and 30’s music. Check it out!

 

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I’m writing this post under the halogen-bright pool of light cast by this extraordinary classic lamp, The Tizio, designed in 1972 by Richard Sapper. I bought mine in 1985, after many long months of sitting in the dark and saving up my money, as a young newspaper reporter with expensive taste! I’ve owned and loved it ever since then. It comes in black, white and silver, and various (less costly) sizes.  Unregrettable. $395.00

Here’s a roundup of graphic novels worth a look, according to The New York Times.

They call this a make-up pouch, but it could be a pencil case, or (as I use mine for) to keep your cellphone easy to find, protected and clean from all the other junk in your purse or backpack. Silver leather, kids! (OK, also available in solid colors like red, black and purple.) $55.00

 

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Tuck these luxuriously fragrant soap bars between your folded sheets in the linen closet, or in your suitcase or lingerie drawer– before use. Their scent is fresh and distinctive. I use and love them, Eau d’Italie. $42.00 for three

Come on, you know someone who’ll swoon for these Charlotte Olympia velvet slippers/flats, with (of course, what else?) a be-spectacled kitty embroidered on them. And a steal at only (shriek) $595.00

OK, maybe these? Who doesn’t want to wear a pair of yellow patent leather flats that resemble a New York City taxicab? So cute! $278

Someone will love this five-inch tall blue bear — with a jaunty red scarf! — handmade in the Ukraine and sold on Etsy for $17.99

Oh, my! If you’re ready to pop the question — or have deep enough pockets to simply knock her socks off with this gorgeous and unusual diamond ring (seriously, you’ve never seen anything like it), take a gander at this, on Etsy. $2,610.00

Yes! Baby blue pencils, stenciled in gold with words like Smell of Rain and Cups of Tea, shipped from Melbourne, Australia, on Etsy, $12.25

Oooooooh, this alpaca stuffed lion. $88.00

The books, magazines, newspapers and websites you read are written — of course! — by professional writers, many of whom (like me) are full-time freelancers whose incomes can vary year to year, even month to month. No matter how hard-working, talented or experienced we are, when disaster strikes, financial mayhem can ensue. Please consider donating to the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, on whose board I serve; we send out a one-time grant, and quickly, for up to $4,000.

I’m a size 9/40….hint! These brown leather Sorel (Canadian made!) women’s winter boots are both practical and super-stylish, a rare combo. Plus, they have the best name ever, Joan of Arctic. $240.00

Shameless plug — how about an hour of fab/helpful consulting on a blog/thesis/pitches/article? That would be an hour with me, devoted to turbo-charging your ambitious writer pal’s skills for 2015 and beyond, $150.00; or a webinar, at your convenience; $125.  Or a copy of my 2011 memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”?

The suave, debonair entertaining type might love this, a 1930s cocktail book with 750 recipes, updated. $19.95

For the budding artist, this fun book of drawing prompts — 642 Things to Draw;$16.95

You know someone — surely!? — who would be thrilled to have this popcorn maker in the shape of the Stanley Cup. $99.95

Or this, for the literate/stylish Jane Austen fan in your life, a Pride and Prejudice book scarf. $42.00

If you live anywhere within driving distance of New York City, I know a terrific portrait photographer ready to shoot a lovely headshot or family portrait. (Yup, my husband, Pulitzer Prize winning career photographer, Jose Lopez.) Here’s a photo he shot of me last spring, which I love…

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Whichever holiday you celebrate — may it be lovely, safe, warm and filled with joy!

 

 

Four blogs worth a visit — my Pratt Institute students!

In behavior, blogging, culture, education, life, love, women on November 30, 2014 at 2:51 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

"It's the one with he goats in front"...Pratt's deKalb Hall, built in 1955

“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

It’s been a great semester with the four senior students who signed up for my blogging class at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a small art school with a justifiably excellent reputation.

It’s been fairly challenging to teach and engage so small a group, but we’ve had fun and we’ve had some fantastic guest speakers, three who came out to Brooklyn in person and two via Skype.

My husband, Jose Lopez, a photo editor at The New York Times, explained how to use photos legally and well; Troy Griggs, a Times graphic designer, shared his thoughts about how to design a blog that will really engage readers and Rani Nagpal, who works with a major Manhattan real estate firm, taught us about SEO.

Anne Theriault, a Toronto feminist blogger whose work on the Belle Jar has been featured many times by Freshly Pressed, Skyped in, as did Sree Sreenivasan, who is the chief digital officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Both were funny, lively and super-helpful. Much to my surprise, Anne told us she breaks several blogging “rules” — she doesn’t revise every post to death before posting, she posts only once a week and she rarely answers comments from readers.

Here are two of my students, Grace Myers (left) from Bowie, Maryland, and her bestie Ellen Trubey, from California.

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Grace’s blog is Rough Guide to Life, a lovely, thoughtful guide to meditation, breathing exercises and ways to slooooow down and enjoy life; the photo of her in a tree on her blog is very Grace! She graduates soon, so I hope her blog will continue, and continue to attract and inspire readers.

Darnell Roberts, our only male student, and an illustration major, writes this blog about video games. A passionate gamer, his drawing work is charming — one of his super-heroines is called GravityGirl. It’s been a sea of estrogen with four chatty women in the class, but he’s held up well.

Ellen’s blog, He Is Out There Somewhere, details the ups and downs of dating in 2014 and beyond, especially the travails of using sites like Tinder and OKCupid. Ellen is also an illustration major, and uses many of her own drawings to illustrate her posts. Like her, the blog is chatty, down-to-earth and practical.

Tiffany Park’s blog, Morning Calm, follows Asian artists exhibiting in New York City; her blog has won her three internships so far and she’s even been re-blogged by major artists like Takashi Murakami.

I also privately teach blogging webinars, and offer individual coaching at $150/hour (one-hour minimum), so if you feel it’s time to up your own blogging game, please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com. I work by phone or Skype, at whatever time suits you best.

I’ve helped bloggers from New Zealand to D.C. to Rochester, NY improve their writing, photo selection, graphic design and theme, whether for a blogs that’s personal or one that’s professional, designed to attract new clients; some testimonials here.

Please visit my students’ terrific blogs — and please comment!

So proud of them all…

 

The power of apology

In behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting on November 11, 2014 at 1:20 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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“I’m sorry.”

Two simple words — but impossible for some people to say.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power of an apology, and its limitations.

As I head into the home stretch of the fall semester teaching college, a mix of freshmen and seniors, it’s been interesting dealing with a few students whose behaviors, whether selfish, short-sighted or just plain rude, seemed an obvious prelude to their prompt, sincere apology.

Hah!

One keeps wandering into our class late, apparently mistaking it for a 24-hour diner, something she can graze at will; only by informing her I would lock the classroom to the tardy did she get my point to arrive early or on time.

Another took a week to express regret for an outburst in class, after I emailed him and made clear how deeply offended I was.

Who raises these people?

But apologies are merely the opening statement, as some people are skilled at offering pretty, apparently sincere “sorry!” sound like something they actually mean.

Until they do the same thing again. And again. And again.

An apology worth its weight is one followed by the words: “It won’t happen again” — and the active proof of same. As a writer, I earn my living through words, but words impress me little. Action is what counts.

An apology also requires, even demands, the listener’s forgiveness, which itself requires their trust, relying on the very bond that’s been broken by bad behavior, whether the offender’s rudeness, insubordination, incompetence, forgetfulness, abuse, infidelity…

And some people can find offense in the mildest of statements, misreading tone or language as an insult when none was meant, plunging you into an abyss of faux repentance just to keep the peace.

I grew up around people who offered plenty of reasons to apologize for their behavior, but rarely did.

Apologizing isn’t easy, but it’s an essential skill, both personally and professionally. I’m fortunate enough to have been forgiven by most of those to whom I’ve apologized, and grateful when they have.

We all screw up. It’s what happens next that determines the outcome.

Have you ever refused to offer an apology?

Have you ever wanted one that never came?

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