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11 ways to be a great host

In domestic life, family, life, parenting, travel, U.S. on November 18, 2016 at 3:24 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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After a long journey, time to relax…

Thanks to Jackie Cangro for the idea!

A few suggestions for those of you about to become a holiday host:

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No nagging, chivvying or political battles

Of all years, this is probably going to be the toughest for many of us. If you and your guests hold opposite political views, staying calm and civil is key. Garden-variety queries all guests dread — “So, why are you still single?” are bad enough!

Whatever it takes, try to avoid big arguments. Not much winning likely.

Private time!

Even the most social and extroverted among us need time to nap, rest, read, recharge. To just be alone for a while. Don’t feel rejected if someone needs it and don’t be shy about suggesting a few hours’ break from one another, every day.

A cheat sheet

Offer a sheet of paper with basic info: the home’s street address and phone numbers; nearby parks or running trails; an emergency contact; taxi numbers or the nearest gas station; directions to the nearest hospital, pharmacy and drugstore; how to work the coffee-maker and laundry facilities.

Anything guests need to know to stay safe and avoid creating inadvertent chaos.

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Thoughtful details: nice bath/shower gel or soap, bottles of cold water at bedside, setting a pretty table with a tablecloth, flowers and cloth napkins, a scented candle bedside, extras they might have forgotten or need (sanitary supplies, razors, diapers.)

Good guests really appreciate these.

A mini flashlight in their room

Especially helpful in a larger home, to navigate one’s way to the bathroom, on stairs or into the kitchen for a midnight snack.

A small basket of treats

Granola bars, crackers, some hard candy, almonds. We all get a bit hungry between meals.

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A selection of magazines

Nothing gloomy! Glossy shelter magazines always a safe bet.

Ask about and accommodate serious dietary preferences and allergies

Adding some half-and-half or a loaf of multi-grain bread won’t break the bank. If your guests have long lists of highly specific must-haves, it’s fair to ask them to bring some with them, (if traveling by car.)

If your guests are arriving with multiple ever-ravenous teenagers, maybe discuss splitting the grocery bill; it’s one thing to be a gracious host, but if your normal budget is already tight, don’t just seethe in silence at the need to keep buying more and more and more food.

A frank discussion about what you expect and all hope to accomplish: (lots of nothing? A tightly scheduled day?,  and at what speed

Few things are as grim as staying in a home that has vastly differing standards of cleanliness, timing, punctuality, tidiness, organization — even religiosity — than you do.

Some people are up at 5:00 a.m. every day on their Peloton or email while others’ notion of a holiday mean sleeping until noon. Do your best to coordinate schedules, at least for shared meals, then prepare to be easy-going and flexible.

A card in your room with your home’s wi-fi details and password

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The private home we stayed in in rural Nicaragua, while working for WaterAid. We felt deeply welcomed, and grateful for it!

A true sense of welcome

Most essential.

People know when their presence is really wanted and welcomed — and when it isn’t, (like the dirty cat litter box under my pull-out bed at one “friend’s” home and the empty fridge in another’s.)

If you really can’t bear having others staying in your home with you, (for whatever reason), don’t do it. It can be a difficult conversation and you may have to gin up some solid excuses (bedbug invasion?) but there are few experience as soul-searing (believe me!) as staying with someone — especially if your own home is a long expensive journey away — who doesn’t want you there.

11 ways to be a great guest

In behavior, children, domestic life, entertainment, family, life, love, parenting, travel on November 16, 2016 at 3:33 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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A shared meal is a gift

With American Thanksgiving looming and the holidays after that, many of us will soon become guests, whether meeting the parents of the one you love, (and maybe hope to marry — no pressure!), reconnecting with friends or with family you might see infrequently and who you don’t know very well.

Being a guest can also mean stepping into a potential minefield of mutually hurt feelings and/or unexpressed frustration.

Some hosts are explicit about their wishes, but many are not.

I’ve stayed with friends many times, some of whom live in fairly tight quarters; no one we know lives in a 4,000 square foot house or a stately mansion.

Fortunately, Jose and I have been invited back many times by the same hosts. (On a blessedly few occasions, it’s been a total shitshow, usually when staying with [sigh] my family.)

 

Here’s to a lovely holiday season!

 

 

Eleven  ways to hasten a return invitation:

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No political arguments!

The reason you’ve been invited into the sanctuary of someone’s home is to enjoy fun, friendship, fellowship not to engage in ferocious battles or shift them, suddenly, to your opposing worldview. (Or vice versa.)

When political conversation becomes (over)heated, contentious and ad hominem insults are flying — slow down long enough to ask yourself, seriously, what’s the upside? How much anger, even estrangement, is worth it?

(If it’s time to torch a bridge or two, have at it, but make sure there’s gas in your car or a taxi nearby and alternate lodging you can afford.)

Bring Scrabble, cards, Bananagrams, a good book, headphones and music you love, a sketchbook.

Head out for a long, head-clearing, blood-pressure-lowering walk.

Or, as some Americans are choosing to do this year after such a contentious election, just stay home, or at a hotel instead.

When asked for your dietary preferences, remember  — it’s not a full-service restaurant

Some people have life-threatening allergies, but others think nothing of imposing their impossibly long list of preferences.

If you insist on ready access to a specific food or drink, bring it with you — rural options can be distant and limited.

Stay quiet until you know your hosts are awake

This seems like basic good manners to me, but friends we recently stayed with at their country house upstate said they’re often awakened with pointedly heavy guests’ foot-steps as early as 8:00 a.m.

This is a couple who work 18-hour days running their own company and I know how weary they are!

Make sure you know how to find and (quietly!) make coffee or tea. Bring your own headphones and reading material.

Be a grown-up and entertain yourself and your kids in (relative) silence until everyone is fully conscious.

Sex? Keep it private and quiet

Ask any host about the worst guests they ever had, and the screamers and moaners will likely top the list. It’s great you’re so deeply in love (or lust), but sharing space with people you might not know very well is neither the time nor place to enjoy a noisy sexual marathon.

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An ex-boyfriend of mine had relative bring a sheep (yes, really) to his suburban home from upstate while visiting for Thanksgiving…

If you’re bringing your children and/or pets, have a full and frank discussion before arriving about what your hosts need and expect from them, and from you

Not everyone is used to plenty of high volume shrieking/barking, especially if they don’t have a child or a pet.

People who’ve chosen to “get away” are actually hoping to flee their everyday stresses, not add new and fresh hells to their time off. Promptly clean up every mess and apologize/offer to replace anything your kids/pet damage or break.

Buy groceries, pay for them or split food/drink costs with your host

Ditto for taking your hosts out for a few good meals. Don’t be a mooch.

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Quiche is a quick, easy and affordable way to feed a few people…

Bring a gift

Don’t arrive empty-handed: offer a great bottle of wine, some beautiful soap, a lovely coffee table book on a topic you know your hosts will enjoy.

On one visit we gave a set of gorgeous Laguiole steak knives; the ones we brought were different colors than these ones, but very welcomed.

On another, we gave our hosts a small handmade pottery serving dish. Most recently, we offered another couple a lovely wooden spoon and a rustic white bowl.

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Detach from, or put away, your electronics

While many of us now spend ours day on social media, time away with friends or relatives means enjoying (or trying to!) actual face to face conversation, in the house, walking through the woods or wandering the beach.

Everyone needs and deserves quiet private time, but focus on the people who’ve invited you, not only your technology and distant amusements. And no phones at the table!

Write a thank-you note, on paper, and send it within a week

Sure, you can email, and most hosts probably expect nothing more. But choose a pretty card or use your personal stationery and highlight the things you most enjoyed.

Help out wherever you can

Wash dishes or cook a meal or walk the dog or baby-sit for a few hours. Maybe you can help mow the lawn or weed the garden. Your hosts will probably say no, but might well appreciate the offer. It’s a home, not a hotel.

Avoid public grooming

I was once hosted by a younger friend who sat on the sofa watching television with his wife  — while both of them flossed their teeth. Not my style.

You may walk around your own home clipping, cleaning or polishing your nails or brushing your teeth in transit, but in someone else’s space please keep all of it within the confines of a bathroom with a closed door.

 

Create lovely shared memories, not regrets you’ll all spend years trying to forget.

 

Do you enjoy being a guest or host?

What other tips would you offer a guest — or host?

How much do our parents shape us?

In aging, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting on November 12, 2016 at 2:58 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Two recent films have me thinking, long and hard, about the effects our parents, and their behaviors and values, exert on us, whether we’re young or adult — American Pastoral, from the book by Philip Roth, and Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen.

One reviewer says Captain Fantastic is “the best movie about parenting I’ve ever seen.”

This Guardian reviewer calls it “strange and wonderful.”

The reviews of American Pastoral aren’t terrific, but I found much in it to think about — a solid citizen, owner of a Newark, NJ glove factory inherited from his father, ends up losing his rebellious daughter to an underground movement devoted to blowing up buildings and sowing social unrest.

It encapsulates the schism of the 1960s between the “squares” and the hippies, between those committed to the way things were and those determined to rend the social fabric edge to edge.

Dakota Fanning plays the daughter, moving from a stuttering teen simmering with suburban rage to a mentally fragile adult. Her father never gives up his search for her, a heart-rending theme for me, who has had many estrangements from my own.

The father in Captain Fantastic is a divisive figure, an authoritarian raising his six children in a teepee in the woods of Oregon, home schooling them and subjecting them to intense physical training. The breathtaking beauty of their surroundings is in contrast to their total social and cultural isolation — I thought, the whole way through it, of Cea Person, whose searing memoir of a similar childhood in the woods of Canada, North of Normal, is unforgettable.

Here’s my blog post about it, including an interview with Cea.

I’m fascinated by these two films for the questions they raise about how much we want to become our parents — or rush to flee their influence.

I never had children, but am always intrigued by how people choose to raise them and to impart their values, whether social, intellectual, creative or religious. I’ve seen a few adults I know work hard to break free of their family, often with painful consequences, and others still in thrall to patterns that make them unhappy but can’t find a way out.

I’m always in awe (yes, and envious) of happy, emotionally close families, the kind where an adult daughter and her mother remain best friends, and Sunday dinners en famille go on for decades.

Not us.

Both of my parents are free spirits, both of whom — not surprisingly — came from wealthy but emotionally difficult families. Neither of them ever talks about their childhood.

My father was raised in Vancouver, his father, (an Irish immigrant from a small town in Co. Donegal), founded and ran a successful trucking company there; my mother, born in New York City, was raised by a wealthy mother from Chicago who had multiple husbands, divorcing the ones who annoyed her most.

Headstrong ‘r us.

My mother, who never attended college but married at 17, lived life on her own terms, whether wearing a sari, (her best friend for decades was East Indian), a different wig for every day of the week or moving us to Mexico when I was 14. That ended badly when she had a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve, stranding me and a friend on our own for a few weeks there.

My father, a successful and multiple award-winning filmmaker of features and documentaries, never met a cage he didn’t want to rattle, hard. Both are still alive, long divorced.

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My mother and I have no relationship at this point.

Even this late in life, I’m still their child in some ways — stubborn, creative, a world traveler, intellectually curious, with friends ranging in age from the 20s to 80s.

My tastes in art and music and food are both developed and wildly catholic, as theirs are, a gift I appreciate.

Both are smart as hell and super-competitive — family Scrabble games can get a little feral!

My father is ferociously agnostic, my mother for years a devoted Catholic; I occasionally attend Episcopal services. (My husband, a devoted Buddhist, was raised by a strict Baptist minister.)

In other ways, I’m quite different.

My mother has lived in such disparate spots as Lima, Peru, Bath, Roswell, New Mexico and B.C.’s Sunshine Coast; I’ve now lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years, am much less successful professionally and financially than my father was and, in some ways, more disciplined in my choices than either have been.

I’m also a product of my times, my adolescence in the hippie-ish late 1960s and 1970s and my native country, Canada, which remains socially liberal.

Which parent do you most resemble?

Or have you chosen to reject their values?

How much do you wish your children will be (are they?) like you?

Bullies and their victims

In behavior, family, life, men, news, parenting, politics, U.S., women on October 11, 2016 at 2:31 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s been quite a week for those of us who live in the United States and who watched the second Presidential debate on Sunday night.

Like many of my friends, male and female, gay and straight, I slept very badly that night and have been exhausted ever since.

The thought of Donald Trump with access to nuclear codes?

One of the elements of the debate that horrified so many women I know was Trump’s persistent moving around the small stage throughout, his scowling and his bizarre need to stay physically very close to Hillary Clinton throughout 90 minutes.

Defenders said he simply wanted to make sure he was always in the line of the camera’s gaze, even when she was speaking.

Asked about it later, she gamely laughed and admitted she felt his presence.

If you’ve ever been physically and/or emotionally bullied by a man who is relentless in his determination to scare the shit out of you, it leaves scars.

Most of us are physically smaller and less muscular than men, so they know they can “get away with it.”

Most of us are heavily socialized to make nice and stay calm, to laugh off, dismiss or ignore the appalling things some men say and do to us, at school, at work, on public transportation, in a bar or restaurant.

Very few of us have the appetite to lash back, fearful of physical harm, even death, if we retaliate with the full strength of the rage and disgust we really feel.

From The New York Times:

to many victims of sexual assault, Mr. Trump’s words struck a particular nerve. It was not simply that he is the Republican presidential nominee, and that a hot microphone had captured him speaking unguardedly. It was his casual tone, the manner in which he and the television personality Billy Bush appeared to be speaking a common language, many women said, that gave Mr. Trump’s boasts a special resonance.

What he said and how he said it seemed to say as much about the broader environment toward women — an environment that had kept many of these women silent for so long — as they did about the candidate. And Mr. Trump’s dismissal of his actions as “locker room talk” only underscored the point.

It creates a kind of PTSD that is very real — like many women, I was shaking with rage throughout his attacks.

My social media contacts blew up with women furious and terrified.

Canadian author Kelly Oxford asked women on Twitter to share stories of their own experiences.

From Vogue:

Less than half an hour later, Oxford tweeted: “I am currently receiving 2 sex assault stories per second. Anyone denying rape culture, please look at my timeline now.”

Like millions of other women, no matter our age or income level or education or where we live, I’ve been bullied emotionally and threatened physically by men.

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I don’t want a President of the United States who uses every tactic imaginable — economic, emotional, physical, legal — to punish and humiliate others.

 

Especially women.

 

 

Other people’s needs

In children, life, parenting, urban life on September 13, 2016 at 11:56 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Silence! Solitude!

 

Rant alert!

Unless you live (as some of you do!) in a rural and isolated area, we’re literally bumping into one another all day every — in stores and elevators, on the subway and bus and streetcar, at the movies and opera and theater, at work and in the park, in our houses of worship, at airports and bus stations and the grocery store.

To stay sane, to function as a civilized human being, means being aware of how our behavior affects others all around us.

I’m getting burned out by a growing (?!) epidemic of selfishness, rudeness, destructiveness and endangerment — I see people driving and texting every day.

A few recent examples, some personal, some not:

The three young men who thought it amusing to destroy an ancient rock formation in Oregon, their behavior caught on video.

— The family of six, with screaming baby and out-of-control seven-year-old boy who ignored two staff requests to be quieter and more considerate and much annoyed shushing from fellow diners and death stares from the rest of us.

— The cafe patrons in my gentrifying suburban New York town, (where some riverside apartments now sell for $1 million), who blithely leave the front door open, not even stopping to consider the heat and noise that inflicts on those already sitting inside.

— The bro’s at the gym, apparently illiterate, (signs on the wall forbidding it), who heave and grunt with effort then let their weights smash into the floor with a terrifying crash.

— The ((*^$@@@ at our Japanese music concert, whose music was so quiet and subtle I could hear the man next to me digesting, whose cellphone on vibrate kept humming. It was so bad the host had to remind everyone at intermission that “silent mode” isn’t.

Our restaurant meal ended up a disaster; the food was expensive, the atmosphere chaotic and we’d dressed nicely, anticipating a relaxing night out. It wasn’t! We arrived at 7:30 and the noisy party didn’t even leave, (one patron even applauded when they did), until 9:00 p.m.

I wrote a polite two-page letter, with four suggestions how to avoid such a mess next time, to the restaurant manager.

I didn’t just dump a nasty Yelp review; I wanted to give them the chance to respond.

He did, quickly and well. We spoke, civilly, for about 20 minutes. He apologized, assured me that it wouldn’t happen again and gave us a $75 credit for our next visit.

 

But this selfish behavior is rampant…and it’s ruining too many of our daily interactions.

 

It’s a tough call.

No one, (and you all know me to be feisty!), is anxious to confront people who are already making clear they’re rude and obnoxious, in the vain hope they suddenly won’t be, let alone think of apologizing.

They’re so oblivious to the needs of others, even as they share public space with us all.

And sometimes our friends or partners hate it when we do speak up.

Do you ever confront someone behaving badly?

How did it turn out?

Here’s a recent New York Times story about how bad it can get; the writer is describing her own encounter with a nasty little boy in a terrific, classic Manhattan restaurant, Knickerbocker, one of my favorites:

Then I put on my invisible Urban Avenger costume, muster my courage for a confrontation with a thunderbolt-throwing, flesh-eating, but otherwise pleasant New York City mother, and as Herb beats it out the door because he knows what’s coming, walk over to the table and ask the adults which one of them is the mother.

“You don’t seem to be aware of this, but for the last 20 minutes your kids have been annoying the entire restaurant,” I tell her. “This isn’t a playground. If they can’t behave like adults, they shouldn’t be in here.”

Now, here is where it gets weird. This New York mother doesn’t scream at me or insult me. She doesn’t apologize. She just makes a request.

“Could you tell that to [the spawn we will call] William?” she says. Then, turning to the largest kid, “William, this lady has something to say to you?”

What? Now I have to be the enforcer? How did this happen? Urban Avenger’s job is to tell people how to bring up their children, not to do it herself. William, meanwhile, is standing there looking at me…

“William,” I say, as sternly as I can, “you’ve been bothering everybody in here. This is not a playground, it’s not a place for you to run around and yell.”

William doesn’t bat an eye.

Need an affordable EpiPen?

In behavior, business, children, family, Health, life, Medicine, Money, parenting, US on August 27, 2016 at 12:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Here’s how to find one, my story yesterday from Forbes.

The backstory, for those of you who don’t use or need one, is the staggering price increase for the EpiPen, an injectable device that pumps epinephrine into your system to address anaphylactic shock, an allergic reaction to nuts, shellfish, fish or any number of substances.

If someone goes into that shock, they need the injection within 30 minutes or they can die.

In the U.S. — whose entire healthcare “system” is run to wring the maximum profit from our inevitable physical needs — there’s only one company making them right now, Mylan, whose female CEO, Heather Bresch, the daughter of a Senator, no less, might be the most loathed individual in the country right now.

Knowing she has the market cornered, (as other competitors left the field), she spiked the price of EpiPens to $600 — a huge jump, and one that makes a lifesaving device unaffordable to many people.

(The company, now under tremendous public fire, is offering a $300 coupon.)

Imagine needing, (as some people do), three sets for each child: school, home and your vehicle, a cool $1,800 to start.

Oh, and Bresch earns $19 million for her.…ethics.

 

I’ve been following this story, not because anyone I know uses an EpiPen but because I’m so sickened by corporate greed.

 

I also grew up, to the age of 30, in a nation with strict government oversight and regulation of drugs, medications and device prices — so no one gets gouged.

That’s Canada.

I decided to pursue this story on Friday morning, and started at 10:00 a.m.

I put out calls and urgent emails to sources in the U.S. and Canada, racing the clock to get the story reported and written quickly; as a “trending topic”, I needed to get it posted as soon as I could, yet make sure I was producing a smart, well-written and well-sourced piece.

Social media saved my bacon — a request to a writers’ group I belong to on Facebook prompted a fast reply from someone who knew a physicians (!) who personally relies on EpiPens and who emailed me back quickly and in detail.

Score!

Working behind the scenes with my editor who, as usual and of course, I haven’t met, we discussed how to best present the story, an angle I hadn’t read anywhere else — yet.

We posted the finished story, about 1,200 words, by 5pm. (Good thing I’ve worked as a daily newspaper reporter. That kind of speed is normal for me.)

 

If you have time to read it, please share it widely; Forbes is a pay per view model, and this story offers an important way for people who need affordable access to get it.

Do you know “the other”?

In behavior, cities, education, life, news, parenting, politics, religion, travel, U.S., urban life, world on July 10, 2016 at 3:09 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

It’s been a week of horror, shock, dismay.

It’s been a week of disbelief that American police officers are gunned down in cold blood in Dallas during a peaceful march — and disbelief that even more black men have been shot and killed by police as well.

In Dallas, local residents are approaching police officers, many likely for the first time, to hug them and pray with them and thank them for getting up every day, ideally, to serve and protect them.

In normal life, barring bad luck or criminal behavior, very few of us ever talk to a police officer.

Few of us are likely  to know one socially unless police work, as it is often is, is part of your own family.

As a career journalist, for whom aggressively challenging hierarchy and questioning authority is key to doing my job well, interactions with police have been been few and far between — I didn’t cover “cops” as part of my job and, more generally, the way police are trained to think and behave is very different from that of journalists.

 

So how, then, do we ever meet, sit down with and get to know “the other”?

 

That “other” — i.e. someone whose race, religion, politics, ethnicity or socioeconomic class is wildly different from our own — is someone we really need to know and care about, more than ever.

The divisions, literally, are killing us.

How, then, and where, do we meet one another?

In a world now devoted to narrowed and narrower niches of communication — Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit, blogs, media slanted in one direction or another — how do we find and listen thoughtfully to other points of view than our own?

How do we sit down face to face and have a civil conversation?

 

It doesn’t have to be about anything serious. It might be about baseball or music or what books you’ve been reading or your theory about Dany and her dragons on Game of Thrones.

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A tram ticket in Dublin. Travel, to anywhere new to you — if you’re curious and open-hearted — can broaden your vision and understanding.

For me, there are only two places like this right now, and I wish I had more.

One is the church I attend, although less and less of late. It is in a small, wealthy, white and conservative town near me. Of those labels, I’m white.

It’s a polite crowd, but deeply corporate and high-earning, with no one who really understands why I and my husband would choose such a poorly paid industry as journalism. What we have done for decades, and done very well, seems like an amusing hobby to them.

I’ve stayed partly because of those differences, although they are starting to wear me down.

The challenge of engaging with “the other” — beyond stilted chit-chat — is initial discomfort. They might have grown up somewhere far away you’ve never seen or attended a college you’ve never heard of. Maybe they didn’t go to college.

They might out-earn you by a factor of 10, or vice versa. Your collar might be white, blue or none, because you work, as we do freelance, at home in a T-shirt.

The discomfort of “the other” — and theirs with you! — is the point of friction we have to move beyond to create and enjoy dialogue, understanding and friendship.

Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not well worth the effort.

The other place I frequently meet a wide range of people and experiences is with a group of men and women, ages 20s to 70s, who play softball on Saturday mornings. We’ve been doing that since 2001, an unimaginably long time to do anything in a world that changes daily.

Here’s my New York Times essay about them.

In a time of economic and political disruption, even chaos, it’s a haven of comfort and familiarity — even as it brings together a disparate group: a retired ironworker, several physicians, several lawyers, several editors, a gallerist.

After each game, about a dozen of us sit under a tree at a local cafe for a long lunch, whose conversations can turn surprisingly personal and intimate.

It’s not some Kumbaya moment and the group could be even more diverse — people find us through our friendships, generally.

 

If you never meet or talk to people who are very different from you, how can you credibly listen to their experiences and concerns, giving them the same validity you do your own group(s)?

 

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Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp! My week in rural Nicaragua, working with WaterAid, was an extraordinary education. Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere

I grew up in Toronto, one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities, in a country whose population of immigrants remains higher than that of the U.S. — 20.6 percent.

In the  U.S., with 10 times the population of Canada — it’s 13.3 percent.

Statistically, there, your odds of encountering someone very unlike you — in your classroom at school or college, on your hockey team, in your apartment building, on the subway or bus — are high in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver. Calgary now has a Muslim mayor (as does London.)

So it’s normal to know, like and respect people who worship on different days, wear different clothing, eat different foods. They’re just…different…not, per se, a threat.

When Jose and I think about moving elsewhere for retirement, our first question is not just “can we afford it?” or “what’s the weather like there”?

It’s — how comfortable will he feel as a man with brown skin?

Donald Trump’s dog whistles of hatred and racism are deeply shocking to many people, in the U.S. and beyond.

My husband is of Mexican heritage, and well established in his field so the taunts can’t hurt him professionally.

But they are a disgusting way to dismiss a nation of people whose hard work has helped the U.S. for decades, if not centuries.

In  a time of relentless, growing fear and xenophobia, I hope you’ll keep talking to, listening to and staying close to “the other”, however that plays out in your life.

Without that, we’re lost.

 

Lessons from Dad

In aging, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life, men, parenting, women on June 19, 2016 at 3:41 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Today is Father’s Day.

Some of you are fathers. Some wish to become one. Some of you love yours deeply, while others, like me, sometimes have strained and challenging relationships with theirs.

I spent much of my childhood, after my parents split up, between boarding school and summer camp. Even though his apartment building was, literally, across the street from my school, custody arrangements made it difficult to see him — and he traveled the world as a film director.

So the time I did get to spend with him was rare. I moved in with him and his girlfriend, later wife, when I was 14.5, and lived there until I was 19.

Those were our best years:

We played sports: badminton, squash, skiing, and went for long walks in the country, giving me a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors and for being athletic and active.

We played Scrabble almost every evening, with Jack the cat usually stepping right into all our carefully placed tiles.

We drove across Canada, sleeping in a tent, with a few stopovers in North and South Dakota where we attended several native American pow-wows. At night, they placed food at the door of our tent, a welcome gesture.

We drove and drove and drove and drove — Canada is enormous and we had started in Toronto.

I left home at 19 and never moved back. He recently turned 87 and is still in very good health.

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A scene from Dr. Zhivago, a film we saw together

 

Some of the lessons I learned:

 

Kick ass!

 

He was always eager to rattle the cage of received wisdom, challenging every source of authority, and his films, mostly documentaries, but one film for Disney and several television news series, reflected that.

Here’s his Wikipedia entry.

 

Be excellent, always

 

Life is short and wasting it producing mediocre bullshit is a terrible choice. It is, always, a choice.

 

Be frugal — but enjoy life

 

He’s always owned used (nice!) cars and spent his money on good food, travel, art. I’ve adopted his ways and enjoy my life as a result. I treasure my many memories and love looking at the the objects, photos and souvenirs I’ve collected over the decades.

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The view from our cottage rental in Donegal, June 2015 — visited my great-grandfather’s one-room schoolhouse in Rathmullan

Figure out your finances

 

He never gave me a dime for college or birthdays or graduation. Just not his style. So, from an early age, (and, luckily, I did inherit some money from my maternal grandmother), it was all up to me to figure out how to budget, what to buy and when and why, how to save and invest and not go broke, even in the toughest of freelance years.

A great lesson, even when difficult to manage.

 

You can indeed earn a living as a creative professional

 

This is likely the most essential of all, in a culture that both reveres the “artist” and all too often dooms him or her to penury and frustration. We had cotton years and cashmere years, some that were wealthier and some that were less so. But we never lost our home or felt terrified that was likely.

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Paris

The world is filled with wonders

 

He returned from his work travels — long before cell phones or the Internet, so a month of silence — bearing odd bits of the world I’d never see anywhere else: Inuit sealskin gloves, a caribou-skin rug, a woven Afghan rifle case, badges from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. There was an extraordinary world out there waiting for me to get into it, explore it and tell my own stories about it.

 

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Women can do anything

 

I graduated high school at the height of second-wave feminism, and thank heaven for that! It never — then or since — occurred to me that women should or could accomplish any less than their male competitors.

 

Insatiable curiosity

 

It’s how I earn my living, as a freelance journalist for The New York Times, author of two non-fiction books and world traveler. The world is bursting with untold stories.

His bookshelves, like mine, include art, history, biography, memoir, design.

 

Stay competitive, always

 

Pretty counter-intuitive lesson for a teenage girl, but also key to my ongoing success in the super-competitive world of publishing and journalism. If you have a great idea, keep it close to your vest, then sell it to the highest bidder.

 

Here’s my Reuters Money story this week about the best financial advice some well-known people got from their Dads.

 

I especially like this one:

Dara Richardson-Heron, MD

CEO, YWCA U.S.A.

“My Dad, father of four girls, made it clear to each of us that we should never be limited in any way by our race or gender, particularly true as it related to receiving equal pay for equal work. That’s why I’m so fortunate he was ahead of his time and also very intentional about discussing the tremendous importance of pay equity. Because of his advice and guidance, I am on a mission every day to use my skills, experience, and expertise to help all women achieve economic empowerment and equity.”

What did your father teach you?

 

What lessons are you sharing with your children?

Why I don’t celebrate Mother’s Day

In aging, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting, women on May 4, 2016 at 12:57 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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This lovely young girl survived a rough, strange childhood…

 

This week is awash with reminders from every direction to celebrate your mother — to buy her flowers and presents and take her out for dinner.

It’s a time of sentiment and emotion and gratitude for all that nurturing and support,  feelings we’re all meant to share.

Not for some of us.

My mother has one child.

She wants nothing to do with me; the details are too tedious to repeat here, but she can’t be bothered acknowledging my existence.

She lives a six-hour flight away from me in a nursing home.

She has plenty of money to pay for it so needs nothing material.

She has a devoted friend — a woman my age who is rude and nasty and bizarre to me — so she’s all set in that department as well.

She is bipolar and suffers several other conditions.

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My handsome hubby, Jose…who loves my independence and trusts me in the world

I lived with her to the age of eight, when my parents divorced and I was sent to boarding school and summer camp, arguably steeped in the kind of privilege that protected and cherished me and made me feel safe and secure and valued.

Not really.

Boarding school meant sharing a room with two or three or four strangers, most of them young girls like me who didn’t want to be there.

It meant a life regulated by bells — 6:55 wake-up, 7:10 go out for a walk around the block (neighbors set their clocks by us), 7:25 breakfast in the dining hall, seated at a table chosen for you.

We ate when we were told to and ate whatever we were given, whether we liked the food or not.

To make a phone call meant filling out a permission slip detailing the reason you needed to speak to someone.

No one hugged or cuddled or kissed us. That would have been weird.

Boarding school also meant having no privacy, ever — even the toilet stalls and bathtub surrounds didn’t reach the ceiling and girls would throw paper bags of cold water over the walls.

Fun!

So I quickly learned to be private, self-reliant and extremely cautious about opening up to others.

Luckily, I loved summer camp and looked forward to it every year.

But this life meant I spent little time with my mother; I lived with her full-time only in Grades 6 and 7.

She threw great birthday parties and we enjoyed a comfortable life. Over the years, living very far away from her, I saw her once a year or so.

She taught me a variety of skills: how to be frugal, how to travel safely and alone, how to set a pretty table with linen napkins and candles, to read widely and voraciously.

But I’m not sure she really ever wanted to be someone’s mother; her own mother was often a selfish monster to her, although very kind to me.

Then I left her care forever when I was 14 after she had a breakdown in Mexico, where we were living. I couldn’t take how scared this made me feel.

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She inherited money so, in my early 20s, she traveled the world alone for years.

The only time I saw her was flying, at her expense, to wherever she was at the time — Fiji, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica. Some of the trips were terrific, others less so.

If I didn’t get on a plane and go to her, I would not have seen her.

I learned to do what she wanted.

It all looked so glamorous from the outside.

But she had many breakdowns and hospitalizations, starting when I was 12 and continuing for decades. As her only child, I had to make snap decisions about her care with no outside advice or guidance. It was exhausting and overwhelming.

I rarely told anyone. What would I have said?

She drank. She had multiple health crises. She had no male companions and few close friends interested in helping out.

We later had about a decade where we got along, seeing one another once a year or so while exchanging regular, loving letters and phone calls and birthday cards and Christmas gifts.

For the past six years, we have had no contact and likely never will again.

This makes me sad and angry.

When I see women enjoying their daughters, and vice versa, my heart hurts.

 

If you and your mother love one another, this is a great gift.

Cherish it.

 

If you have children — which I don’t, by choice — cherish their love for you and devotion to you. Savor it and protect it.

Millions of people hate Mother’s Day, for a good reason.

And reasons usually only our very closest friends ever really understand.

It’s socially taboo to not love your mother deeply, these days professing it loudly and repeatedly over social media.

This holiday?

We just want to get through it.

 

 

 

“North of Normal”: Q and A with best-selling Canadian author Cea Person

In behavior, books, children, culture, domestic life, family, journalism, life, parenting, women on January 13, 2016 at 3:03 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Sometimes you read a book and think…how did the author survive this?

The best-selling Canadian memoir “North of Normal” was that book for me in late 2015. I immediately started following its author, Cea Person, on Twitter.

I told her how much I admired her memoir and her ability to survive a childhood spent living in tipis in the Canadian wilderness with a family with very few boundaries.

An only child, she also had few friends and very little contact with others beyond the chaotic and isolated world her family created.

Cea, whose book was optioned as a possible film, and whose next book, “Nearly Normal” will be published by Harper Collins in early 2017, very kindly agreed to do a Q and A with me for Broadside, which we conducted via email.

When did you first decide you would write this book?

I first decided in my teens that I would write it — one day. I knew I had a crazy story to tell, and I just trusted that the right time to write it would reveal itself. I was finally prompted to start writing it at age 37, when my mother was ill with cancer and my marriage was falling apart. I knew I had to look into my past to find answers to my present.

(Her book is somewhat similar in tone and experience to the American best-seller The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.)

Did Glass Castle strike you as a better/worse/wholly different sort of childhood than yours?

I think our childhoods were equally hard in that we had to struggle to have dignity and get our basic needs met every day, and to try to make our parents realize how misguided they were.

Jeanette had siblings, which in a way was probably both a comfort and added burden to her troubles, whereas I was on my own — so I think we were probably equally challenged. I would love to chat with her one day, but haven’t had the opportunity yet.

Was it hard to remember and to recreate your early life?

Yes, I had a hard time with some memories, my mother and family members helped me fill in a lot of details and straighten out the chronology before they died. I also used photos, but I didn’t keep journals. Also, I used storytelling devices to recreate some scene details and dialogue, as remembering every detail is of course impossible.

Did you ever study writing?

I did not take any writing classes — I just wrote and rewrote my book (about 25 times!) until I got it right! I would not recommend this method to others who want to write their memoir, however😉

 What other books like that one were helpful in conceiving of and structuring your own narrative?

My structure and narrative came from many drafts of trial and error, trying many different voices and structures until I found the right one. I was a lot like a person feeling my way through the dark with no idea where I was going! But I must say that all that experimentation really benefitted me in the end, because I really know what does and doesn’t work for me now — and I was able to complete my second book in a fraction of the time it took me to write my first.

I remember being greatly inspired by Angelas Ashes, White Oleander and Shes Come Undone. As I read them, I dreamed that I could one day write a book that would move people as much as I’d been touched by them.

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 Can you describe the writing process — how did you decide what to include and what to exclude? It’s a tough job with memoir to know what’s (most) important to the reader as it may have felt most important to us, the writer.

For me, this was by far the most challenging part of writing. In the beginning, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, because I didn’t know where I was going to end up.

This is key: you should know where you will end up before you begin. Once I decided that my story would go right up to present day, things became a lot easier. Deciding that three-quarters of the story would be devoted to my childhood was also an important decision, because it determined the pacing.

I also knew that I had to begin with my grandparents’ history before I was born, because that information was critical to the reader understanding their motivation for moving to the wilderness. After that, I literally just made a long list, chronologically and in point form, of all the scenes that I wanted to include in my book.

Then I asked myself how and why each scene was critical to the themes of my story. If I couldn’t find a connection, I either scratched it or found a way to make a connection to my story in the way I wrote that scene. As I wrote each into my book, I would simply cross it off my list. This list waxed and waned as I wrote, but it kept my vision of what I wanted to convey to the reader clear. The scenes at first were pretty bare-bones, and I went back and filled them in and connected them to each other in later drafts.

For me it’s about keeping the momentum going and not allowing negative self-talk to sabotage my process . . . so if my excitement about a scene starts to wane, I’ll move on to another one that I’m excited about and go back to the dud scene later, with a better attitude.

 How did you find an agent?

I actually queried for agents four times over the six years it took me to write the book. On my second round of query letters I actually got one, but he wasn’t able to sell the book. I went back and rewrote it many times after that, and when I finally did get it right I had offers from five agents. After so much rejection, it was exhilarating! I got my dream agent, Jackie Kaiser, who has been the best thing to happen to my writing career.

 Was this a difficult book to sell?

As I mentioned, I had some false starts and difficult times when I wondered if I should just give up. The whole writing/querying/selling process was extremely hard to go through. But I always had this feeling that if I just stuck with it, I would find success.

When I finally got my agent, she sold it in Canada within 24 hours and then in the US in a bidding war between three publishers. So, I have experienced the full range of writer’s dismay and joy!

How long did you take to write it — and what were some of the toughest challenges in doing so?

Six years of writing, and besides the challenges mentioned above, there was the tough part of wondering how my family would react to it, reliving difficult memories, and mostly just finding the time to write at all.

When I started writing it I had a toddler, no childcare, and a business I ran from home, and when I finished writing it I had three small children and no childcare. I wrote the book in ten-minute increments and during stolen moments on the weekends when my husband would take the kids to the park for a few hours. I still think it’s amazing that I got it written at all!

 What sort of reader reaction did you get and do you still? Do you get personal emails from people with similar untold stories?

The reader reactions have been by far the most amazing and rewarding part of this whole experience. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who related to my story in one way or another—the mental illness, counterculture family, young single mother, little girl who never fit in—all of these are elements that people have related to.

I’ve also been shocked by the number of people out there who’ve told their own stories to me that are similar to mine. And I’ve been humbled by the friends and acquaintances I assumed had led “normal” lives who revealed their own troubled pasts to me after reading my book. It’s funny, because when my book first came out I was expecting some negativity, but it’s been completely positive. My readers were my inspiration for writing my second book.

 Were you at all concerned (many memoirists’ fear) how your own family would react? How did they?

Of course it was a concern to me. But I also knew that I had to tell my truth, and that if you tell the truth fully and show your characters as human, both good and bad, there isn’t much people can get upset about. I think that if we are upset about being written about, we should probably take a look at ourselves and the choices we’ve made and why.

In my case, because it took so long for my book to be written and published, most of my family had passed away by the time it came out. My father was the only family member who was in the book that was still alive and/or that I was in touch with, and he embraced it wholeheartedly after he got past his guilt. There have been a lot of people who knew me and my family when I was young, who stayed with us in the tipis or knew my grandfather in more recent years. I was afraid they would find my writing about my past too unvarnished, but they have come forward to tell me how well I captured the Persons in all their strengths and weaknesses. It’s been amazing.

 What were your happiest memories of that childhood?

Riding my stick horses through the meadows, close moments with my mother and grandparents when the rest of the world wasn’t yet a concern to me.

Your worst?

The constant instability I felt, never knowing what was coming next, fear of losing my mother to the cops or to her boyfriends, the open sex and drugs, feeling I didn’t fit in, feeling like a freak from the wilderness, knowing my mother and I were reliant on her boyfriends for our survival, wondering how I would ever escape and find the life I wanted.

 What strengths do you think it gave you long-term?

Definitely resiliency and courage.

I’m very proactive — if something isn’t working for me, I change it. I’m always striving for something better for myself and my family. And I have a deep appreciation and gratitude for the life I’ve created now — the stability, my wonderful husband and children and friends.

Wisdom can be slippery for me, because the little realizations I have don’t always stick with me long enough for me to change my habits, and I think a lot of my current happiness comes from the reality I’ve created for myself rather than the lessons I’ve learned from my past.

I don’t know that there’s any one thing that I know for sure, except that I value courage, strength and the ability to laugh at life and oneself perhaps more than anything else in people. I have learned that I can do anything if I want it badly enough — I wanted to have a normal life, to have a modeling career, a happy marriage and to write my book, and I achieved all that by being tenacious.

I have my grandfather to thank for that — he succeeded at the lifestyle he wanted against all odds, and though I wanted the exact opposite of him, it was his courage that inspired me. Also that we so often repeat the patterns of our family members despite our best efforts, and recognizing those patterns are key to changing them — but they are sneaky!

Thank you, Cea!

Your book is extraordinary and I’m so grateful you made time to talk with me for Broadside.