Looking forward…

By Caitlin Kelly

 

We’re all living in the subjunctive now.

From Wikipedia (for Spanish):

The subjunctive is used to express desires, doubts, the unknown, the abstract, and emotions.

 

Americans, especially, are a nation accustomed — beyond those in the worst poverty — to a specific sort of aggressive optimism, the “American dream” that life will, through lots of hard work, get better.

A pandemic killing thousands every day has shredded this.

 

How can anyone look ahead with optimism?

How can anyone plan?

How can we make rational decisions without reliable information?

Can we stay healthy?

For how long?

 

It’s a challenge to keep moving ahead when you have no idea if you’ll get your job back or your health insurance or if your children will be back at school or college or university.

German schoolchildren are back in their classrooms.

My French friends are celebrating the end of “le confinement” — while a feckless America lurches deeper into recession and chaos and morons carrying guns storm a…Subway sandwich shop.

How are you coping with this uncertainty?

COVID’s challenge: moral injury

By Caitlin Kelly

I hadn’t heard that phrase until September 2019, when I sat down to interview an American physician, Dr. Emily Queenan , describing why she stopped working in her native country and moved to work in Ontario. It wouldn’t have been the easiest choice, choosing small-town Ontario with mixed-race children and having her husband leave a corporate job.

But it was absolutely the right choice for her.

From my 2020 story for The American Prospect:

 

Dr. Emily Queenan, who is American, also voted with her feet; after studying biology at Williams College, working for Americorps in Peekskill, New York, in community health, and attending medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, she did her residency in Rochester, New York. She opened a family medicine practice there in June 2009, closing it in May 2014—and moving to Canada.

After being recruited by an agency of the MOH, Queenan visited four cities selected from a list of rural communities needing a doctor, She chose Penetanguishene, a middle-class town of 8,962 in northern Ontario on Georgian Bay, a beautiful area that welcomes many summer-home visitors.

“It was a wrought decision to close my practice,” Queenan says, sitting in the 1920s-era red-brick house in small-town Ontario whose main floor is now her office. “I envisioned having my [U.S.] practice for decades. But I was really burned out by the burden of being someone’s family doctor and the moral injury of denying care versus the lack of payment versus dealing with your own medical bills. This is not asked of other professions.”

Still in New York, Queenan attended a local meeting of Physicians for a National Health Plan, an American advocacy group founded in 1985 by Dr. Steffie Woolhandler and Dr. David Himmelstein, “trying to decide what was next. I was on the cusp of turning 40 and saw a career of fighting stupid fights. Doctors across the country were going through exactly what I was going through. I am not unique.”

 

 

Maybe you are, or know, a physician or nurse or other healthcare worker; my first husband is a physician I met when he was finishing med school at McGill so I watched him through his residency and early practice — which brought him to some unpleasant realities.

Most healthcare workers choose their profession because it expresses their values — to help and to heal, whenever and wherever possible.

Covid has torn their world to shreds, as evidenced by the recent suicide of Dr. Lorna Breen, an ER physician who had worked in a New York City hospital under such terrible circumstances that her sister said she called it Armageddon.

Her father is also a physician, so she would have grown up with this moral code.

From The New York Times:

 

“She tried to do her job, and it killed her,” he said.

The elder Dr. Breen said his daughter had contracted the coronavirus but had gone back to work after recuperating for about a week and a half. The hospital sent her home again, before her family intervened to bring her to Charlottesville, he said.

Dr. Breen, 49, did not have a history of mental illness, her father said. But he said that when he last spoke with her, she seemed detached, and he could tell something was wrong. She had described to him an onslaught of patients who were dying before they could even be taken out of ambulances.

“She was truly in the trenches of the front line,” he said.

He added: “Make sure she’s praised as a hero, because she was. She’s a casualty just as much as anyone else who has died.”

 

When patients die in the ambulance, on stretchers, in waiting room chairs, or after appearing to be recovering, your skills, strength, speed and teamwork still aren’t enough.

 

You just can’t help.

You can’t comfort.

You can’t save.

 

You feel angry and helpless and overwhelmed — for doing everything you know and it’s not enough.

Let alone re-using PPE.

Here’s a definition from a PTSD website run by the VA:

In traumatic or unusually stressful circumstances, people may perpetrate, fail to prevent, or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations (1). Moral injury is the distressing psychological, behavioral, social, and sometimes spiritual aftermath of exposure to such events (2). A moral injury can occur when someone is put in a situation where they behave in a way or witness behaviors that go against their values and moral beliefs.

Guilt, shame, and betrayal are hallmark reactions of moral injury (e.g., 3). Guilt involves feeling distress and remorse regarding the morally injurious event (e.g., “I did something bad.”). Shame is when the belief about the event generalizes to the whole self (e.g., “I am bad because of what I did.”) (4). Betrayal can occur when someone observes trusted peers or leaders act against values and can lead to anger and a reduced sense of confidence and trust (5).

 

Will New York City be gone for good?

 

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In true NYC spirit, on a miserably rainy day, these middle-school students went sailing for the first time on the East River, in tiny wooden boats they built by hand

 

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’ve never been there, it’s hard to imagine — a daily crush of energy, talent, ambition and haste.

It’s a city people flock to from across the globe and across the U.S., to study, work or enjoy a great vacation.

I first came to the city, (as suburbanites here call it, as if there were no other!) around the age of 12 or so, to visit my great-grandmother, Blanche, the Countess Casagrande. (Yes, really, thanks to an Italian husband I never met.) She lived on Park Avenue, still the ne plus ultra of Manhattan real estate.

I came back in my early 20s a few times, once to perform as an extra in Sleeping Beauty with the National Ballet at Lincoln Center for a week, other times for pleasure. I met a handsome young man in the shoe department of Brooks Brothers who took me that evening to the town’s most exclusive joint — Studio 54. Of course, we went to Fiorucci first to buy a pretty dress.

Back when Conde Nast — still the publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair and many other glossy magazines — was at 350 Madison Avenue (next to Brooks Brothers!) I met with editors at Glamour and Mademoiselle, leaving my enormous black portfolio of clippings there for a few days, hoping beyond hope one day to write for them. Amazingly, they read an as-yet-unpublished story tucked into my portfolio’s back pocket which was due to be published in a Canadian magazine, and re-bought it for Glamour.

That, at its best, has been my New York City — a place where even a young (very lucky!) Canadian, even wearing all the wrong clothes! — could quickly sell to a market of her dreams.

 

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Via Carota, Grove Street

 

So my New York is archeological, layered with memories over decades.

Since moving to a NYC suburb in 1989, I’ve spent countless hours in New York City, 95 percent of them in Manhattan; Brooklyn, now impossibly hip, is too far, as we say, a schlep.

So I miss it!

My hair salon — owned by Alex, a man in business for decades, whose three chairs welcome everyone from a Grammy-nominated musician to Brooklyn museum curators to Wall Street executives but also silver-haired seniors accompanied by their aides — is on Grove Street, in the West Village. (That’s Greenwich Village, which no local calls it. Either the West Village or East.)

Across the street from him is Via Carota, admired as one of the city’s best restaurants — and what a delight it is.

Was.

 

Will it be again?

 

That’s the question hitting everyone here, hard.

So many people rely on one another, economically and professionally, from the nannies and chefs and dog-walkers employed by the wealthy to the owners of the 25,000 bars and restaurants and all their staff to the thousands who work in orchestras and theater, not just Broadway.

And rent here is so high that many who’ve fled back to their parents’ for the duration — like one young woman who told the Times she was paying $1,800 a month with two room-mates —  may never return.

 

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The Koch Theater, Lincoln Center

 

Here’s an analysis of what the city faces going forward (as we say, fah-ward):

It took just a matter of days to shut down New York City, once the coronavirus took hold. Restarting it will take much, much longer.

The economic impact in the city from the global pandemic has been striking: Hundreds of thousands are already out of work; at least $7.4 billion in tax revenue is projected to be lost by the middle of next year.

And the changes will be felt long after New York begins to reopen its economy.

How New York City, the epicenter of the country’s outbreak, begins to recapture its vibrancy is a question consuming political, business and cultural leaders.

The very features that make New York attractive to businesses, workers and tourists — Broadway, the subway system, world-class restaurants and innumerable cultural institutions — were among the hardest-hit in the pandemic. And they will take the longest to come back.

 

 

The city has lost 13,000 people, so far, to COVID-19.

 

 

So many have died so quickly — 400 to 700 every day for weeks — that hospitals now have refrigerated trucks outside as morgues, with bodies stacked on makeshift bunks three high. That plain wooden coffins, stacked, are being planted on Hart Island, the place for unclaimed bodies.

 

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The annual orchid show at The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx

 

Friends in the city are traumatized by the constant wail of ambulance sirens.

Beloved neighborhood haunts are closing, like Coogan’s:

 

Coogan’s was the promise of New York incarnate: multiethnic, friendly, welcoming, smart. The premise of the business was the opposite of social distancing.

It opened in 1985 and in time became an Irish place where the bartenders were Dominican-Americans and the waiters African-American and the customers, all of the above and more. So many held court there over the years, it is hard to keep them straight. Did Mr. Walsh still remember the Israeli karaoke singer?

 

There’s the New York City you’ve all seen in films and TV and commercials.

Then there’s the real New York, home to millions, some for generations, others for a few years.

My mother was born there and married my Canadian father — who she met in the south of France — at St. Bartholomew, one of the city’s most beautiful churches, on Park Avenue and enormous. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like, at 17, to walk down that aisle. They moved to his hometown of Vancouver, where I was born.

But New York City always beckoned me; for an ambitious Canadian journalist who could get a green card thanks to my mother’s citizenship, why not try?

I’ve had some great adventures here.

Found two agents who sold my two books to major publishers.

 

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The first time, after a meeting on a bitterly cold winter’s day at Simon & Schuster, (its hallways lined with the framed covers of all their best-sellers — SO intimidating!) I went around the corner to another city institution, The 21 Club, and had a strong cup of coffee and some celebratory profiteroles.

The second time I almost fired my agent after we met with editors at Portfolio, downtown on Hudson Street — she later called with their offer as I sat at the chipped and worn Formica counter in one of my diner haunts, Neil’s, on Lexington. (Which you can see in the terrific recent movie Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Spent a glorious afternoon, on assignment for the Daily News, aboard a tugboat.

Stood on a Broadway stage to interview a woman for The New York Times making history in the theatrical industry.

 

This is the city I’ve known well, worked hard in, wept a few times in — and mostly enjoyed.

 

It’s layered with my own memories now:

— the office building at 200 Madison, my first magazine job

— Central Park, around which I once roller-skated and where, after winning a softball game with my Canadian team-mates we burst into the Canadian national anthem in French, to the astonishment of our opposition.

— the block on Mercer which held the Coles Center, NYU’s athletic wing, and now (of course) will be condos

— Fanelli’s,the 173-year-old bar a block south of there with its gorgeous etched glass doors and crazy mix of patrons.

When I arrived — with no family, friends, job or alumni network, and a recession — I took up fencing. Of course! The NYU coach,  a former Navy man, was a two-time Olympian. Where else could this happen?

It’s never been an easy place for a newcomer.

People walk fast, talk fast, prize social capital and Ivy League degrees, genuflect to the right addresses and clubs, to money and power.

It’s normally expensive, intimidating, crowded, noisy, dirty…

But what will become of it?

Rights? How about responsibilities?

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By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

If you want to.

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

Welcome to mayhem.

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

They feel oppressed.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Sounds lovely.

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

Twice the number in one week.

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

“Only” a tiny percentage, many scoff.

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

New York City does.

How does this happen?

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

They resent being told what to do.

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

Sitting shoulder to shoulder at a bar!

Attending a church jammed with other selfish “Christians.”

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

Pretty snoozy, right?

Not HAPPINESS!!!!!!???

Not LIBERTY!!!!!???

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

How about you?

Resilience is earned

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How did our ancestors do it?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

On social media, I’m seeing a lot of people freaking out, marinating in terror and anxiety, desperate for this pandemic to just be over.

There’s no way to remain unmoved by this crisis.

There’s no way to ignore the tremendous grief and shock it has imposed, certainly for anyone who’s lost a friend, colleague, neighbor or loved one — and in New York, where we live, that’s more than 10,000 people, with 600-700+ people dying every day.

But, every morning, New York governor Mario Cuomo addresses us, and one of his repeated refrains is this:

Emotion is a luxury.

If you spend every day and night for weeks, even months, terrified, your body is going to be ravaged internally by adrenaline and cortisol — the chemical reactions urging us unto “fight or flight” — when we can do neither.

That alone is wearying and exhausting!

And perseverating really is bad for your health, as this New York Times health writer explains:

 

There are important health reasons to tamp down excessive anxiety that can accompany this viral threat. We have a built-in physiological response to imminent danger called fight-or-flight. Hearts beat faster, blood pressure rises and breathing rate increases to help us escape the man-eating lion.

Underlying these stress-induced changes are hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that can cause trouble if they persist too long in our circulation. Sustained anxiety increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, clinical depression and, ironically, infectious diseases like Covid-19 by weakening the immune response to a viral infection.

 

Some of you have already weathered serious storms: cancer, job loss, unemployment, sexual assault, abusive workplaces and/or families.

 

The only silver living to any of this is resilience.

 

When you get a cancer diagnosis, people rush to cheer: “You’ve a trouper! You’ve got this!” and mostly, unhelpfully: “You’re so brave.”

But there’s only two choices — get on with it, or give up.

We live in a county north of New York City with a wide array of income levels, a few towns more working-class and some studded with millionaires, even billionaires, like Martha Stewart or the Clintons.

The town just south of us is an affluent one, where some people see “hardship” as their child not winning elite college admission.

So there are endless books and articles published to help the pampered and protected somehow learn to artificially acquire grit and resilience, when those are qualities one tends to discover — often unwilllingly, through circumstance — only through lived experience.

You walk through fire, emerging singed.

Scarred.

Wary.

Wiser.

Here’s former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, writing in The New York Times:

My life in the decades since, both in and out of government, has been enriched by the survivors of other extraordinary times. During my time as secretary of state, I met a 6-year-old boy in Uganda whose mother had been killed in a massacre. He had pulled himself out from under her body and walked several miles, carrying his little sister on his back, to a camp run by a religious organization. In Sierra Leone, I held a 3-year-old girl who had lost her arm to a bullet; she was later adopted and lived on the same street I do in Washington.

In Bosnia, I grasped hands with women whose husbands and sons had been murdered and dumped in a mass grave near the village of Srebrenica. In Thailand, I met teenage girls who had been rescued from sex traffickers; they braided one another’s hair while telling me of their determination to live fearlessly despite scarred minds. At Georgetown University, back in Washington, I taught alongside a professor, Jan Karski, who had escaped from wartime Poland carrying to Britain and America some of the earliest eyewitness accounts of the transport of Jews to killing centers ordered by Hitler.

During my tenure in the State Department, I worked closely with Vaclav Havel, leader of my native Czech Republic, and with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela; both had spent years as political prisoners. I also visited American soldiers, aviators, diplomats, aid workers and Peace Corps volunteers deployed to regions where each day brought intense suffering and renewed conflict.

As president, Bill Clinton talked often about “the quiet miracle of a normal life.” But what we customarily think is “normal” is neither as common as supposed, nor as inevitable. A generally contented society is a rarity that humans must do our best to establish and sustain.

 

 

Tough love for tough times

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As someone with a green card, I can’t vote — so my enthusiasm for how New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo is handling this crisis will carry no political weight.

But every morning now, at 11:30 a.m. EDT on weekdays and noon on weekends, we watch his 30-minute press conferences, live, and listen to another 30 minutes of questions from reporters and his replies.

Jose , (my husband), spent eight years in the White House Press Corps as a New York Times photographer, covering Presidents Reagan, GW Bush, Clinton. He’s heard plenty of political spin and is not easily impressed, but is a huge fan of Cuomo’s handling  of the COVID-19 crisis — and New York City is the hardest-hit city in the United States.

Unlike the joke in the White House, Cuomo — another born-and-bred New Yorker — doesn’t bullshit or blather on about how great he is.

Nor does he insult the press corps, whose job it is to question every elected official and keep them accountable, as 45 does, most recently telling two veteran reporters: “Don’t be a cutie pie” and “Be nice. Don’t be threatening.”

During the conferences, Cuomo’s team also shows viewers clean, clear graphics with the numbers of infected, where, in the hospital, recovered — and dead. He explains who is most likely to die from the disease and why.

We live in a small suburban town, so density and crowding are less pressing for us than in the five boroughs of New York City.

Yet the state’s patient zero lives in a suburban town on the other side of our county. He went to synagogue (infecting many), traveled into the city by commuter train (more) and went about his business there (more again.) He’s alive and out of the hospital.

In the past few days, the National Guard equipped the enormous Javits Convention Center on the western edge of Manhattan as a hospital with 3,000 beds.

The Javits Center is an amazing facility,” said Semonite, [Gen. Todd Semonite, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers.] “Every 10 feet there’s a great big steel door in the floor, you open it up in there is all the electrical; there’s cold water, there’s hot water and there’s a place for sewers, so you can actually do things like sinks, right in the middle of a convention center to be able to make that happen.”

The hospital will be staffed by 350 medical personnel from FEMA and 600 medical personnel serving with the two Army hospitals.

Non-COVID-19 patients will be transported from hospitals in the New York City area to the convention center, just as they will be at the 1,000-bed Navy hospital ship the USNS Comfort when it is operational in New York Harbor on Tuesday.

 

Here’s a New York Times piece about Cuomo:

 

To the surprise of many who did not associate the name “Andrew Cuomo” with the word “empathy,” the governor has become a sort of national shrink, talking us through our fear, our loss and our growing stir-craziness.

“This is going be a long day, and it’s going to be a hard day, and it’s going to be an ugly day, and it’s going to be a sad day,” he told officers from the New York National Guard on Friday, charging them to fight this “invisible” and “insidious” beast and “kick coronavirus’s ass.”

Because New York is at the epicenter of the epidemic in the United States, with 519 deaths and 44,635 confirmed cases, as of noon Friday, Americans have their eyes on the state. Cuomo knows this. “New York is the canary in the coal mine,” he said during one of his passionate televised pleas for the president to provide more ventilators.

It is more than passing strange that in this horror-movie moment, with 13 people dying on Tuesday at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and a refrigerated truck parked outside to collect the bodies, the nation’s two most prominent leaders are both Queens scions. Both men grew up in the shadows of their fathers, the hard-working sons of European immigrants.

The Trump family is a model of bad nepotism — noblesse oblige in reverse. Such is their reputation as scammers that congressional Democrats felt the need to put a provision in the coronavirus rescue bill to try to prevent Trump-and-Kushner Inc. from carving out a treat of their own.

And, from New York magazine:

Cuomo, most definitely, is not a fan of Trump:

“Government, presidential elections, it was tweets, it was all one-liners, it was all personality, character, celebrity. That’s what politics had become. And all of a sudden you have changed the lens,” he said while an aide brought him a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. “Government is about real capacity and real consequences and really knowing what you’re doing and real leadership. Elect the people who know what they’re doing, because you elect somebody because they are a celebrity, or because they have a great slogan, and then you ask them to perform. What do they say?’ ‘I never told you I could perform. I told you I was good looking. I told you I tweeted a lot. I told you I had a great slogan. I never told you I was competent.’ And by the way, it’s really serious. It’s not about celebrity and slogans. That is a stark shift. This is government at wartime.”

 

And, in a lighter vein, this from Michelle Collins, in Marie Claire magazine:

 

But the one thing I do have to look forward to every day like clockwork has been New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings at 11 a.m. (Sometimes he’s late, and starts them at 11:30. I’ve started referring to this waiting time as “Cuomo FOMO.”) Like a velveteen gravity blanket for my soul, the second I see this man’s perfectly weathered face and tousled curls, the moment his Pacino-like accent fills my living room with its mafia-like authority, my blood pressure drops, my breasts seem to perk up on their own, and a tingly feeling of optimism washes over my imprisoned body as I think to myself… I think we’re gonna be okay.

Also: I think I’m in love with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

 

Trying to be normal

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

So we’re doing some of our usual silly banal things, like watching Jeopardy and playing gin rummy and tossing a softball into our battered leather gloves then sitting for a while on a bench in the sun — far away from anyone on our building’s property.

They are comforting and familiar and we need them so so badly.

We haven’t yet, thank God, lost anyone we know to COVID-19 but our minister has it and two of our parishioners, (who are recovering.)

Those of us old enough to remember it, the only time, domestically, that feels like this was the 1980s and the AIDS crisis, which I covered for The Globe & Mail and the Gazette in my native Canada.

Thank God, we still (for now!) have the same smart, tough, wise, no-bullshit public health expert today that we turned to back then, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

But, no matter where you live, we’re all grappling with a sort of life that makes no rational sense right now:

— millions out of work

— no idea if, how or when the economy will recover

— millions still at work endangering their lives and those of others, whether healthcare workers, first responders, police, grocery staff, delivery staff, to care for us

— the world’s richest nation with so few ventilators, let alone trained ICU staff, that triage is going to become brutal for everyone

— a “leader” who babbles and lies and and sneers at and insults any journalist who dares to challenge or question him

 

We are lucky, so far, to be healthy.

 

We are lucky, so far, to have continued freelance work.

 

We are lucky to live in a quiet suburb with places we can go out for a walk safely without dodging dangerous/selfish crowds of people.

 

We are lucky to live in New York, a state massively whacked by this disease, but led by a governor, Andrew Cuomo, who is calm, empathetic, tough. His daily 11:30 EDT press briefings (available on CNN) are a morning ritual for us now.

 

From The New York Times:

The governor repeatedly assailed the federal response as slow, inefficient and inadequate, far more aggressively than he had before.

Mr. Cuomo was once considered a bit player on the national stage, an abrasive presence who made his share of enemies among his Democratic Party peers. He was too much of a pragmatist for his party’s progressive wing, too self-focused for party leaders and too brusque for nearly everyone.

But now, he is emerging as the party’s most prominent voice in a time of crisis.

His briefings — articulate, consistent and often tinged with empathy — have become must-see television. On Tuesday, his address was carried live on all four networks in New York and a raft of cable news stations, including CNN, MSNBC and even Fox News.

 

How are you doing?

 

What are some of your coping mechanisms?

Getting through this

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

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s not a joke or a hoax.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

But seriously?

Stay home and be responsible.

We have to buck up.

 

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

 

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

 

 

Writing “longform”: 12 tips

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

My 5,000 word story for The American Prospect is by far the longest I’ve written in a decade.

My book chapters are usually that long, but a book is a very different animal.

Today’s journalism too often demands writing “light, bright and tight” — jamming a story into 700 or 900 words.

So reporting and writing at length demands a wholly different approach and strong skills.

 

Some tips:

 

1. Who is your (ideal) audience? How much do they want to know? What are their most burning questions? Who else has so far answered them poorly — and how much better can you do?  How will you achieve that?

2.  Make sure from the very start, after you’ve found an editor who wants this story, that you’re both clear on expectations: story length (is there wiggle room?), date of publication, what illustrations or graphs or charts or photos does it need and who will be responsible for obtaining those, who’s handling social media, payment (how many days after acceptance? after invoice?), what about a kill fee, who owns copyright and make sure you will be given a chance to read the edited story with enough time before publication to make sure it is accurate.

 

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Get clear on your story’s direction!

 

3. Check in with your editor — and don’t be annoying. If the story, for any reason, might be delayed or is changing shape or focus, they need to know now. On my healthcare story, I sent my source list early on.

4. What is the key issue your story will address? The clearer your initial focus, the clearer your roadmap of who to interview, what documents to read, what videos or podcasts you need to listen to, etc. Time is money and you have to be efficient.

5. Who will you interview? Stories develop as you go, but you should have a solid idea of your key characters before you start. And bear in mind that senior/high-level sources are super-busy with work, teaching, conferences, travel. You may need weeks or even months to get some of them to agree to speak with you. Be strategic.

6. If you need help — a fixer, translator, researcher — use them, and give them clear direction. Pay as much as possible, ideally no less than $20-25 an hour; 20 years ago I was paying $15/hour to my researchers. Quality costs!

 

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Coffee stains optional!

 

7. It’s a line of dominoes. Every source you speak to on a lengthy and investigative story of any true complexity will be assessing you…not just vice versa! Are you smart, well-prepared, asking intelligent and incisive questions? Are you polite and patient? Every source who decides you, too, are of value may then refer you — often unasked — to others at their level of wisdom, access and insight.

8. Share as much as you can with your sources. Some writers refuse. It’s totally personal, but I typically share quite a bit. In my decades of experience, I find that it establishes trust, credibility, a human connection. Sources aren’t gas pumps! Some will appreciate being included and feel respected.

9. How will you structure your piece? What’s your “lede” — the opening few sentences that have to lure your reader in at once? Do you have a terrific “kicker”, the final few sentences that leave your reader thinking, remembering, moved? Here’s an excellent and helpful book, “Follow the Story”by a legendary American journalist. What are your “golden coins” — bits of material (a great quote or anecdote, a compelling data point) that will continue to lure your reader deeper and deeper. You can’t lose them!

10. Find at least three “first readers” whose fresh eyes on your copy will immediately see what’s missing, what’s over-written or under-explained. These should be people whose solid judgment of the issues and how to write well you know and trust. They will help you polish your story even more before it goes to your editor.

 

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11. Pace yourself! My interviews are usually at least 60 minutes, sometimes 90 and sometimes even (whew!) 120. By that point, we’re just pooped. Two a day doesn’t seem like much, but these days it is. So if your story — like mine — includes 30 sources, do the math and plan our your time accordingly. Same for writing. I write quickly, and produced this story within maybe three days, plus revision time. But everyone works at a different pace. Do what works best for you.

12. Savor the result! It’s a serious accomplishment to win an assignment of this length and to complete it to the editors’ satisfaction. 

The big story: writing it!

thumbnail-7Drowning in data!

This shot of Niagara Falls snapped during my return trip to New York after three weeks in Canada, 12 hours by train back from Toronto

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

Five notebooks full.

Reports and books read.

Thirty original interviews completed, some by phone, some face to face.

Five towns visited in five days to meet and interview sources in each one.

Here’s my post from August 13, as I was starting to work on my biggest story in years:

https://wordpress.com/post/broadsideblog.wordpress.com/52759

I had a maximum of 5,000 words.

Here’s the link to my story about Canada’s healthcare systems— there are several — and how they work. It’s for The American Prospect, a liberal quarterly publication.

I spent more than three months on it, and lost money in the process, as the basic cost of a room in Toronto alone cost twice my allotted travel budget and I spent four days there working.

 

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Love these Muji notebooks, $1.70 apiece.

 

But, rarely, a story is worth it and I hope this one is.

 

There were some challenges along the way, which is normal, some of them less so:

 

— I knew from the start this would cost me money, not earn nearly enough to cover three months’ exclusive attention, plus travel. I applied for grants from two American organizations offering them to journalists and was denied by both. The ugly truth is that I’m making less than a third of what I would have earned for this story in the 1990s, back when journalism paid well, and when my health insurance cost $500 a month, not $1,700.

— I suddenly developed gout (!), an excruciatingly painful right toe condition, making every step painful for weeks.

— At the same time, I got a bad leg infection on my right shin, so bad it really scared me. I finally saw my doctor when I got back home after a three-week absence, and knocked it out with antibiotics. The pain, at its worst, was breathtaking, That, plus gout, made it  hard to focus on interviews that lasted up to two hours. I popped plenty of painkillers!

 

 

David Dennis

The son of a friend of mine, David Dennis, proved a perfect interview subject, and the lede (top) of the story. photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— As often happens, I set up a few interviews fully expecting to discuss X…and Y proved to be much more interesting. Gotta roll with the punches!

— One key source remained, even after months, hopelessly elusive, so overworked that his secretary and I got to know one another well, and he sent many apologetic last-minute-cancellation emails. Fortunately, I found two long and helpful videos of him speaking and quoted from them instead.

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

Sitting in a cafe in Picton, Ontario, interviewing Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada. Photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— The top-level sources I spoke to all know one another and realized that my reporting was deep and serious in including them all.

— You do eventually reach a point of total saturation, when you think you can’t possibly do another interview, but someone urges you strongly to do so and recommends someone else. I did, and the guy was astounding, possibly the best of the lot.

 

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I got off a bus at 3:30 after an hour’s ride to/from a source to meet another at this downtown Toronto hotel bar at 3:45 so he could run for his train at 4:15. Gotta do whatever’s possible!

 

— I rarely went into each interview with a set list of questions, but kept them more conversational, which allowed for unexpected and welcome diversions and insights.

 

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— I bought a huge white-pad to help me visualize what to do next. I decided to structure my story around the Four Ps: patients, providers, pundits/academics and policymakers/politicians.

— Others’ generosity and good humor made this very challenging project not only manageable but a pleasure to work on; every source was helpful and smart, referred me deeper into their expert networks and shared their insights and wisdom.

— Three “first readers” helped me as I revised: a veteran American health and science writer, a young, progressive writer in D.C. and a Canadian editor. Fresh eyes matter!

 


 

Family Doctor Wanted Sign

Smaller towns are having a rough time attracting and keeping local physicians…Photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

— It took a lot of self-confidence to tackle this complex topic. So I felt much better when a man who’s an acknowledged leader in this field, when I admitted that I felt a bit overwhelmed by it, said that after decades studying it, he sometimes is as well.

Here’s a fantastic piece — written in 2005 for the journalism website Poynter — on the iceberg theory of journalism…that only a tiny fraction of what you’ll see, hear and read will actually be visible in the final public version, no matter all the invisible hard work that preceded and informed it:

 

What makes a story powerful is all the work — the process of reporting and writing — that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many of us fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that give writing its greatest strengths.

As someone prone to turning every story into a project (only because it lets me postpone publication, which will reveal all my inadequacies), I have to keep reminding myself that you can never over-report but you can under-think, under-plan, under-draft and — worst of all — under-revise.