Archive for the ‘parenting’ Category

Home is…

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life, parenting on September 20, 2015 at 2:47 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The night-time view from one of the windows at my Dad's house...

The night-time view from one of the windows at my Dad’s house…

Where is it exactly?

Is it in the city or town where you grew up?

Your parents’ home?

Your rented apartment, maybe in a foreign country?

A college dorm room?

A house shared with room-mates?

Your current residence?

On a visit now back to Ontario, where I lived ages five to 30, it’s always a question for me, even though I left long ago for Montreal, (two years), then New Hampshire (1.5 years) and New York (20+ years now.)

We’ve been staying in my father’s house, reveling in all that luxurious space, a working fireplace, a spacious and private backyard and small-town charm only an hour’s drive from Toronto.

For some people, home is a place you can always retreat to, with parents, or one parent, always eager to see you and help you and set you back on your feet after a tough time, whether divorce or job loss, sometimes both.

For others, though, estrangement is the painful and isolating norm.

I left my father’s home when I was 19 and have never lived there since.

I left my mother’s care at 14 and have never lived there since.

Independence is a learned art, one I had to acquire early, as there was no physical and little emotional space for me in either place.

My father’s late wife didn’t like me much, so my stays on their sofa were pretty short; after 3 or 4 days, it was clear I had worn out my welcome.

My mother had a large house for only a few years, but then lived in a place that took me an entire day’s flying, bus and ferry to reach, so I didn’t enjoy much time there before she moved into a small one-bedroom apartment with no room for me at all; I stayed at a motel a block away. (Today she lives in a small nursing-home room, a sad and very costly end to a highly solitary life.)

So even when my first marriage ended quickly and badly, I had no “home” to rush back to. When I lost jobs and when I needed surgery, (four times within 10 years, all orthopedic), I had to call on local friends, even my church, to come and help me with meals.

So I really enjoy house-sitting while my Dad’s off traveling again, having plenty of time surrounded by the many familiar images and objects of my childhood and adolescence, the paintings and prints and sculptures I’ve been looking at my entire life. Many of them are images he’s created, paintings of his late, beloved dogs, of his late, beloved second wife and landscapes from Nova Scotia to Tunisia.

I find it deeply comforting to see them and touch them, even if they’re only inanimate objects. It’s my past.

They tell me I’m home again.

It’s also deeply comforting to even have this home to come to, as I haven’t seen or spoken to my mother in four years. (Long story, too tedious for here.)

Home is where I make it, now with my second husband, in a suburb of New York City. We talk about where we hope to retire, never sure whether we’ll return to Canada and/or live part-time in the U.S., France, Ireland…Not sure where home will be in the next few decades, if we’re fortunate enough to stay healthy and alive.

I moved to the U.S. filled with excitement and anticipation about my new life there; today, deeply weary of toxic politics, corporate greed and stagnant wages, I’m thinking more seriously about making a home elsewhere….yet Toronto, even in only two days this week, had shootings in downtown areas and not-nice houses sell, routinely, for $1 million, far, far beyond our means, even after a lifetime of hard work and saving and no kids.


How about you?

Where is home for you?

The most important thing school can teach you is…

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

Still very much an experiental learner

Still very much an experiental learner

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

Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:

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

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

You need to why this shadow is here...

You need to why this shadow is here…

Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

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

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

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

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

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

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


Starting college? A few tips…

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

By Caitlin Kelly

Is your suitcase full of dreams?

Is your suitcase full of dreams?

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

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

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


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

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

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

A few tips:

Be careful with alcohol

Be careful with alcohol

Stay sober

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

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

Get enough sleep

A minimum of seven hours.

Fresh fruit is your friend!

Fresh fruit is your friend!

Eat healthy food

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

Get to know a few of your professors beyond the classroom

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

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

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

No monkeying around! Deadlines are real.

No monkeying around! Deadlines are real.

Meet your deadlines

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

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

Professors are human

Yes, really.

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

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

Cute -- but not in my classroom!

Cute — but not in my classroom!

Politeness will go a long way to ease your transition

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

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

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

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


Be sexually smart

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

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

Treasure new friends

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

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

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

Ask for help

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

Find someone to help you.

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

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

Have a great year!

How do you define (or check) privilege?

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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

Shopping costs money many people don’t have…

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

“Check your privilege,” said one.

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

Have you seen this BuzzFeed video?

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

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

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

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

The questions:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Never enough?

Never enough?

One huge question missing here relates to age:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you feel privileged?

Have you been told to “check your privilege”?

What else would you add?

Toughen up, buttercup!

In behavior, books, education, journalism, life, parenting, photography, work on May 23, 2015 at 1:51 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A French laundromat washing machine...quite incomprehensible.

A French laundromat washing machine…quite incomprehensible.

Have you seen this interesting list of the seven habits of the mentally tough? From Inc. magazine, it includes no whining, acting as if you’re in control (even when you’re not) and refraining from the bad habit of freaking out endlessly over…everything.

It seemed quite a contrast from this post, from a blog about what it felt like for this writer when her agent wasn’t wild about her finished manuscript, from Women Writers, Women’s Books:

The sounds you just heard were my dreams and confidence being blown to bits.

Super Agent’s opinion – and she was right – was that I needed to do a major rewrite. The story concept was strong, but the story structure didn’t work at all. She said that she knew the audiences the editors who are interested in me are selling to, and the manuscript as I wrote it wouldn’t be a good fit. In publishing, not being “a good fit” is a death sentence.

You, shakily: But what about the betas, they liked it a lot. [My note: a “beta” is a “first reader”, someone you’ve asked to read your book before your agent and/or editor do.]

Super Agent, calmly: Betas know writing. Agents know the market.

I’m going to be honest with you. This was a very dark day. My lips and hands trembled. For weeks, my breathing would be shallow and intermittent…

It was a Thursday. By Monday, I had pulled myself together. This is not because I’m some kind of hero. I’m not. But what choice did I have? There are only two: leaving it wrong or making it right.* I love my story and my characters. I have big dreams for my career. Super Agent was right on every count. There was only one thing I could do. Write it again. I wrote her an email thanking her.

Then I dedicated myself to taking my magnum opus apart, scene by scene, word by word. It was excruciating, but that wasn’t the only problem. Firstly, I had no idea how to put it back together any better than before. Cue the panic. Secondly, my heart was still in pieces…

I found myself talking to a writer-friend who happens to be an award-winning, bestselling author..when I abruptly spilled to her what had happened and how I felt…

That is when I heard the words that put me back together. She said to me, “This is how it goes.”

I had a similar moment when I received the notes on my second book. “I really liked Chapters 11 and 12,” said my editor. Um…what about the first 10?

I felt the same panic, that I wouldn’t be able to make it good enough. Like the author above, I called a calm friend who said six fateful words: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

So I did.

My husband began his career as a news photographer working for a small town newspaper. He had a mentor, a highly accomplished older professional with national experience to whom Jose would proudly mail copies of his published photos.

A manila envelope would return — filled with confetti. Jose’s work. (He went on to a 31-year career at The New York Times as a photographer and photo editor, and helped them win a team Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of 9/11. Here’s his blog.)

But what if he had given up?

Sugar helps!

Sugar helps!

Maybe journalism self-selects people who can withstand pretty harsh criticism, even if it’s painful.

It certainly comes with the territory — our editors, highly-competitive colleagues, determined competitors from other outlets and readers are all quite delighted to tell us when we’ve screwed up. Our ass-whipping is also relentlessly public, whether in comments on a blog or website, nasty Amazon reviews or letters to the editor.

And newsrooms are rarely warm, nurturing places where someone will hand you a tissue if, ego battered, you start crying. No crying!

One super-talented award-winning friend of mine in his mid-40s recently won a prestigious and well-paid year studying, thanks to a fellowship. It was his third attempt.

My first book -- 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes

My first book — 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes

He did not give up.

I’ll probably re-apply for a similarly difficult-to-win fellowship this year, for the third or fourth time. It’s annoying to keep putting my hand up and never winning, but them’s the breaks.

As someone who’s competed at a national level as an athlete, I know what mental stamina it takes to just keep going in the face of frustration, exhaustion or disappointment.

So I really find it sad and surprising to see how fragile some young women are in the face of fairly standard forms of bullshit — sexism, chauvinism, rejection.


They freak out when people don’t admire their work or quickly promote them or don’t answer their emails quickly or don’t “like” their posts on social media.

Toughen up, buttercup!

I was sent off to boarding school at the age of eight, surrounded night and day by strangers, a place where comfort was elusive, at best. So maybe this is just a habit learned early.

I’ve been fired from jobs. I’ve been mercilessly bullied, in high school and in several workplaces. I’ve survived divorce, four orthopedic surgeries within a decade, criminal attack.

25 publishers said no to this one, too!

25 publishers said no to this one, too!

Both my books, both well-reviewed, were rejected by 25 publishers apiece before they finally found a home.


To some people, I appear mean and impermeable. I’m neither.

But I do know how to armor up.

How many things can you do well at once?

How many things can you do well at once?

It’s an essential skill for anyone who hopes to thrive professionally, and, often, personally. It’s essential to anyone doing creative work, whose income relies on the subjective opinion of others.

Oh, yeah…like…everything.

Here, from the brilliant blog Brain Pickings, is a post about Henri Rousseau, the French painter who worked as a toll collector, taught himself to paint and was nastily dismissed for decades. Without his persistence, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy his gorgeous, complex and mysterious paintings.

Are you mentally tough?

Stretching your comfort zone…to the breaking point

In aging, behavior, domestic life, education, life, love, parenting, women on May 16, 2015 at 1:31 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

We got up at 6:00 a.m. to attend Daybreaker -- an enormous dance party held in various NYC venues. That was a new adventure for both of us!

We got up at 6:00 a.m. to attend Daybreaker — an enormous dance party held in various NYC venues. That was a new and fun adventure for both of us!

If there’s a phrase I hate, it’s “comfort zone”.

How big is it?

Why is it so small?

Or so large?

Women, especially, are socialized to make nice — to make everyone around them comfortable. That can leave us hamstrung saying “Um” a lot, avoiding the difficult, when we really need to become comfortable with discomfort — extending the edges of that zone as far as we (safely) can.

And, really, what’s “safe”?

Many women are also still socialized to expect little of ourselves intellectually and economically beyond the tedious maternally-focused media trope of “having it all” — working yourself into a frenzy to be perfect at motherhood/work/friendship/PTA cupcakes.

To never show a moment’s vulnerability.

To do it all, all alone.

As if.

I do mean developing and consistently using and trusting your own power, a strength and resilience that sees us through the scariest and most unexpected moments.

They'll just keep going...

They’ll just keep going…

That might be physical, tested through sports or the military or parenting or adversity.

That might be intellectual — studying subjects so difficult they make your brain hurt — coming out the other side wearily proud of your hard-won new skills.

That might be spiritual/emotional — helping someone you love through a tough time. Or yourself. Probably both.

Jose and I have had an interesting, eye-opening few weeks caring for my 85-year-old father in Canada, where I grew up, after a hip replacement.

He’s the kind of guy whose biceps, still, feel like touching concrete. Who, in the past two years alone, sailed in Greece for a month and flew to Hong Kong and Viet Nam.

Like me, he doesn’t do “ill” or “weak” or “helpless.”

A comfort zone -- enjoyed far too long -- becomes a soul-cage

A comfort zone — enjoyed far too long — becomes a soul-cage

It’s been instructive, and sobering, for all three of us to see how intimately  — not our norm! — we’ve had to interact through this transition.

Seeing someone you care for ill, in pain, nauseated, is frightening and disorienting. You desperately want to fix it, right away, but all you might be able to usefully do is wash a bloodied bedsheet or empty a pail of vomit.

You become a reluctant witness.

They become reluctantly passive, forcefully humbled by the body’s new and unwelcome fragility, even if blessedly temporary, a painful way station on the road to recovery.

It’s not fun. It’s not sexy.

Nor can you hand it all off to someone else.

It’s your job to give it your best, no matter how scared or freaked-out or overwhelmed you might feel.

It is real.

You also, if you’re lucky, get to see your partner be a mensch. Jose is an amazing husband in this regard, a man who steps up and gets shit done, no matter how tired he really feels, no matter if it’s all new and unfamiliar.

No whining. No complaining.

We never had children and have no pets, so the whole cleaning-up-bodily-fluids-thing is not part of our daily life and never has been.

But drives to the pharmacy and laundry became daily activities, plus cooking, cleaning up, housework, helping him back into bed. By day’s end, we both needed, and took, a long nap.

And Jose’s caregiving of me for three weeks after my own hip replacement in February 2012 was, in many ways, easier: I had less pain, a nurse came in every few days to check my progress and our hospital at home is a 10-minute drive from home, not an hour, as it is for my father.

I’d never seen my father ill and he’s never spent a night in the hospital, so taking medications, (very few, but still), and constant attention to the physical came as a shock to all of us.

As a family, always, we tend to live in our heads, to focus on art and politics, to thump the dinner table in vociferous arguments over (yes, really) geeky shit like economic policy.

We don’t do a lot of hugging or “I love you’s”. We’re private, even shy in some ways.

We typically don’t inquire after one another’s emotional states nor really expect or even want a candid answer. (WASP, Canadian, whatever…)


Surely you jest.

Frailty? Pain?

Not so much.

And so three comfort zones now have entirely new boundaries. I doubt such extensions arrive without cost.

We now know one another better than after years of brief less-intense visits, and have forged deeper, richer bonds as a result.

(Dad is doing great, so we’re now back at home; he’s well on the road back to normal, active life. No more tinkling of the bedside bell for help, a tradition we used for me as well.)

New horizons!

New horizons!

Have you been stretched recently?

How did it turn out?

On not wanting to have children…

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

By Caitlin Kelly


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

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

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

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

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

How do we handle burnout?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is.

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

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

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

They're good company

They’re good company

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

Let alone a husband!

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

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

But I don’t regret my choice.


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

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

But it is what it is.

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

But utter and total dependency scares me to death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any regrets?

Being rich and being happy don’t always go together

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

By Caitlin Kelly

Would you be happy shopping all day?

Would you be happy shopping all day?

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

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

It was a Delaunay.

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

From The New York Times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

When more is never enough...

When more is never enough…

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

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

How good could they really be?



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or could if they just did things right.

Oh, but you’re struggling?

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

Other Melrose-isms rang true:

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

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

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

The missed holidays and birthdays and celebrations.

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

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

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

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

It’s not a fun tale in some respects.

And then he asked:

“Have you read the Patrick Melrose novels?”

I had.

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


Should a teacher publicly praise or shame their students?

In behavior, business, children, culture, education, parenting, Technology, US on November 18, 2014 at 1:02 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

In a few short weeks, I’ll finish the first semester teaching college at Pratt Institute, a highly-regarded private college in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

I’ve loved it, but I’m pooped!

“Teaching” is really a one-word shorthand for describing the multitude of feelings, behaviors and interactions that happen in each classroom, ranging from pride, joy and satisfaction to shame, frustration, even anger — those of the students’ and the teacher’s!

I really enjoy teaching — I teach writing to freshmen and blogging to four seniors — but was taken aback by how much emotion also swirls around my classrooms. I knew that adolescents like, and need, to push back against authority figures, especially in college as they start to discover their own intellectual abilities, and their limits, in a tougher setting filled with strangers.

I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to manage those emotions publicly, making snap decisions in the moment how to respond to pushback or rudeness while knowing the wrong choice could destroy whatever classroom environment of trust and enjoyment I had been able to create.

One of the many challenges I’ve faced as a teacher is when, how, where and if to chastise a student for their laziness or poor work and when to praise them.

Publicly or privately? Face to face or in an email?

I remember all too well what both feel like as a student.

So I was intrigued, and a little horrified to read this New York Times story about the ClassDojo app now being used by many American teachers:

ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.

“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.

The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.

ClassDojo is used by at least one teacher in roughly one out of three schools in the United States, according to its developer. The app is among the innovations to emerge from the estimated $7.9 billion education software market aimed at students from prekindergarten through high school.

I was badly bullied in my Toronto high school, and every day meant listening to the taunts and jeers of a small group of nasty boys. Praise and kindness, from any source there, meant the world to me in contrast.

One day — and thank god for Mr. Stickney’s compassion — I lost my shit. The redheaded asshole, whose nickname (yes, really) was Moose, kept droning onandonandonandon, a litany of the same old insults toward me, as he sat in front of me in 12th Grade math class.

Our textbook that year was hardcover, thick and heavy. I raised it, and whacked him, hard, on the back of his head.

Finally, blessed silence. All I wanted was to be left in peace, to learn.

“Caitlin, can you please sit at the back of the classroom?” Stick asked.

I could, and did.

Being a student, whether you’re four, 14 or 20, means making yourself deeply and publicly vulnerable to the judgments about you made by fellow students, your teachers and school administrators.

If they’re kind and sensitive, (and it’s usually a mixed bag), school can be a place you look forward to and thrive in — or a special daily sort of hell.

In my early teens, I had become something of a troublemaker in my Toronto boarding school, miserable and frustrated to be parked there while my parents were….elsewhere. By the end of Grade Nine, I was asked to leave.

An app like ClassDojo would have made my life even more nightmarish, making clear to every class how much trouble I was in and dragging them down with me. It would have further concretized the alienating and shaming consensus that I was something annoying to be gotten rid of — instead of the deeply unhappy and smart little girl that I was.

It was bad enough that our area’s neatness, and our behavior, was graded every single day on a chart by the door of our shared bedroom. Public shaming is not an effective way to motivate!

No one simply bothered to sit me down and ask: “How are you? What’s going on with you these days?”

There’s no app for compassion.

There’s no app for sensitivity.

Teacher — students — what do you think of this sort of thing?

Would you use it? Are you using it?


The power of apology

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

By Caitlin Kelly



“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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


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

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

Who raises these people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever refused to offer an apology?

Have you ever wanted one that never came?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 15,664 other followers