Stand up and fight!

A dear friend sent me an e-card for Christmas, filled with birds and flowers and music.

Her message, typically feisty, ended with: “And in 2017 we fight!”

An avowed, life-long progressive — and one of the smartest science writers I know (here’s a link to her terrific book, “Fevered” , about climate change and its effects on health, globally) — she’s full of piss and vinegar as  I think we all should be in 2017, and for the next four years.

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There has been a shocking and dis-spiriting increase in hate crimes, physical attacks and appalling verbal abuse in the past few months, both in Britain post-Brexit and in the United States, after the election of a President who has vilified women, Muslims, Mexicans and many others.

Not acceptable!

By “fight” I don’t mean fisticuffs.

I don’t mean screaming abuse back at someone who’s clearly got boundary issues.

Nor do I mean seeking some shouty, nasty draaaaama, if that can be avoided.

But I do mean — stiffen your spine, no matter how scared you are of what might happen if you do. (Clearly, not if you live in an abusive situation, where your life and that of others is at risk.)

In the past month, after long deliberation and, yes, fearful of the consequences, I finally stood up and fought for myself in three difficult and enervating situations, one within my family (I wrote a long letter, snail mailed); one within my parish (ditto) and one with a client whose disregard for basic courtesy (and abysmal pay) were grim beyond words.

It takes guts to tell someone, (who can just blow you off completely): “Enough!”

It takes trust in your own judgment of what you truly most need.

It also means preparing for the potential consequences, the most frightening bit: loss of income, loss of affection, affiliation, respect, losing your welcome within a community.

But the costs of not fighting for what you know is right can be crippling to your mental, emotional and physical health.

To your self-esteem and confidence.

So, eventually, it must be done.

Ask for help before you do it, from a friend, a therapist, a loving partner, to steady your nerves and make sure you’re not about to self-immolate.

But we’re also living in strange and challenging times, politically.

So, it’s also time to go fight the good fight for social justice and economic progress that doesn’t , once more, simply re-enrich the already wealthy; 95 percent of Americans, according to a recent New York Times report, have seen no rise in their income in seven years.

If all we do is whinge and cringe, nothing will change.

So…

Write to your elected representatives.

Work hard – if you live in the U.S. — to get some Democrats elected in the mid-term elections, only two years away.

Donate your time, energy or money to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and other groups working daily to protect our rights, bodily and civil.

Write letters to the editor, in print; women, especially! Most of those appearing these days are written by men.

On-line, leave civil, smart comments.

If you’re a writer, send out some op-eds, essays and opinion pieces or reported stories to keep issues front and center.

If you see someone being verbally abused in a public setting, stand beside them to signal that you’re an ally. Speak calmly and quietly to them. Do not ignore cruelty; passivity signals assent.

It’s not the time to shrug and look away.

It’s not the time to say “Not my problem.”

It’s not the time to just soak up fake news and comforting lies.

It’s not the time to ignore the news because “it’s too depressing.” It’s our world.

Here’s a powerful example of exactly what I’m talking about — ignoring a child’s racist cruelty and why it’s a terrible choice:

There is never a “time and place” for cruelty. By staying silent, you robbed the little girl of the acknowledgment and the apology to which she was entitled. And you deprived the boy of learning the consequences of nasty behavior. He may not understand how mean he was. But your inaction ensured that his ignorance persists.

Here are some tools to help you be a useful ally.

If you oppose President-Elect Trump and his values and policies, here’s a 10-point plan of action.

 

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The unity march in Paris. January 2015

Six days of silence

By Caitlin Kelly

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Five years ago this week, my husband — then fiance — decided to take me to a silent Buddhist retreat.

It was a birthday gift, one he thought might prove calming and healing.

I went in like a sulky five-year-old, arms crossed, dubious.

I emerged with a lot of new insights — if you’re interested, search my archives for July 2011 and you’ll find them, as I posted every day, a bit stunned by how powerful my feelings were and how much they changed over that week.

I’m not a Buddhist, but have spent time at various sanghas with Jose, who is, so was already familiar with the language, precepts and rituals like mantras, chants and prayers. I also knew and was friends with his lama, Surya Das, so wasn’t intimidated by him or his presence. Had every single bit of it been unfamiliar, it might have been even more challenging.

It’s never a bad thing to withdraw and retreat from the insanity of “normal” life and this was an opportunity to do so, and one — I admit — I would never have undertaken on my own.

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A play is on in New York City right now, Small Mouth Sounds, premised on exactly this thing — a group of people attending a week-long silent retreat —  and it addresses the emotional turmoil so many people bring with them into the meditation hall.

 

In a week of silence, your heart speaks very loudly indeed.

 

Every morning, as we nestled once more into our cushions or chairs for the morning teaching, more and more were empty as people fled, unable or unwilling to stay.

Even those who stayed rebelled, some driving off-campus in their cars to a local bar or standing deep in the woods, yammering on the cellphones — both a violation of the rules we agreed to when we arrived; 75 of us had come from across the globe to do this thing, knowing it would be difficult, and craving that discipline.

I emerged from it dazed, sharpened, newly and exquisitely aware of the daily noise we barely even notice, and had never been conscious of before: cars, sirens, animals, neighbors, airplanes overhead, people talking on their cellphones or listening to music too loudly through headphones.

Jose and I drove to a local bar — where two enormous television screens blared…something. Instead of it feeling, as it usually would, like background noise it was suddenly alien and very much in the foreground. We felt assaulted and exhausted by it.

I missed the precious, glorious, cocooning silence we’d bathed in all week.

I missed the inter-generational community we had created in our silence, sometimes with just a raised eyebrow or shy smile.

I missed sitting in the retreat’s luxurious garden, alone for an hour, my only companion a very bad bunny eating everything he could reach.

I missed the soothing simplicity of our days, from the waking early-morning hand bell rung down the long corridors to our meals eaten together at long wooden refectory tables, the only sounds the clinking of cutlery on china.

Here’s my first entry:

The retreat offers three teachings a day, the only time we’ll be allowed to speak. The food will be vegetarian. There will be no cocktail hour, or wine at dinner, both something we usually enjoy daily at home.

Steak? TV? Three daily newspapers? No, no, no. Ah, the things I cling to.

We’re taking my softball glove and ball, and my bike. I’m taking my camera and watercolors, and plan to write a speech due August 10 in Minneapolis.

I’ll sit in the teachings and meditations and chanting as much as feels comfortable. He and I will share a room, and plan to write notes back and forth. It will be very odd — and difficult — not to talk to him. We typically talk several hours a day and I really enjoy it.

So it’s already a powerful meditation on the loss of that comfort. We may whisper to one another in our room. We’ll see.

I’ve been the butt of jokes for weeks now. “Buddhist,vegetarian, silent — I can’t think of three words less likely to describe you,” said one friend.

 

 Have you ever taken a silent retreat?

 

Would you?

Do you know “the other”?

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.

 

Why journalism still matters — go see “Spotlight”

By Caitlin Kelly

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

Their clothes are drab, cheap, poorly- fitting.

All they do is sit at desks or talk on the phone or knock on doors.

Their work takes months.

Why on earth would this make a compelling film?

I admit it, I’m biased, having worked as a journalist for more than 20 years. I’ve been doing it since my undergraduate years at university and still enjoy it, even though 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and thousands more are losing their jobs every year now.

The film is about the Boston Globe’s investigative team, called Spotlight, and their controversial and much-challenged decision to look into allegations of child abuse within the Catholic church there.

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The cast is terrific — fellow Canadian Rachel McAdams, John Slattery (of Mad Men), Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci.

The newsroom looks like every newsroom everywhere, overlit, ugly, standard-issue desks and chairs, glass-walled executive offices. Its power structure,  (interesting how it parallels the church they investigate, and how every senior editor is male), also deeply familiar.

The mix of political cynicism and compassion for the people they’re covering — and the remorse they feel as they realize they knew about the story years before and ignored it — also resonate.

But what left me in tears was how truthful is the portrayal of my work, certainly as part of a daily newspaper staff; I worked at the Globe & Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

It takes patience.

It takes persistence.

It takes a ton of tedious-but-essential detail work like reading old directories and chasing down court documents.

It takes a belief that what you’re doing all day, for months, actually might make a substantive difference — at best — in the lives of your readers.

Working as a news or investigative reporter is a weird mix of aggressive digging, pressure to stop digging, (by angry sources, power brokers, bosses worried you won’t bring home the goods), and the growing conviction that you’re on a huge story you have to get, no matter the cost.

Your co-workers may question and resent you — since they’re expected to crank out copy every day, possibly multiple times a day — and your team has yet to show anything in print, even after months of work.

The people you’re investigating will do anything to shut you down, from polite threats over a cocktail to appeals to your civic pride. (It can get much more bare-knuckled than that.)

The film shows reporters doing what no film ever shows — reporting.

That means knocking on door after door, some of them slammed in your face, some of them suddenly opened and a confession spilling out so fast you write it down as you walk away, as McAdams does in one scene.

It can mean sitting with, and witnessing, incredible pain when someone tells you they have been molested or raped, but not hugging them or saying anything — instead, as McAdams does — saying quietly, “We need specific language.”

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Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua.

To anyone but a reporter, she sounds shockingly callous and cold. Why isn’t she comforting the man telling her his secrets?

Because that’s not our job. (Even if, and it often is, our social impulse.)

I’ve been in that place, as someone who had been raped told me her story. It’s a delicate moment you’re neither trained or prepared for, like holding a water balloon — one false move and it shatters. You have to be calm, quiet, empathetic and just listen. Your job is to witness, not to emote or react.

I loved that the female reporter is portrayed as dogged and relentless as her two male peers. We are!

I love that her nails are bare, that she wears no jewelery but a plain wedding band and apparently little make-up. In the world of news journalism, that shit really doesn’t matter. It’s one reason I love it and felt comfortable within it.

It was powerful to see the conflict between the reporter’s private feelings — about faith, about the Church, about their own history — and the work they were doing. I know reporters personally who covered this story and what it did to them emotionally. This rang true.

I loved seeing a brief glimpse of a friend’s book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, and his name in the final credits; Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist, was one of the first to write about this issue. I met Jason in Paris many years ago when we were both chosen to participate in a year-long European journalism fellowship.

When I left the theater to use the bathroom, three women my age there had just seen it as well — and we got into a long, deep, impassioned and personal conversation about the film and why journalists want to do that kind of work. It was an amazing encounter for all of us, one of whom works with Catholic church abuse victims.

I told them about my two books and the kind of interviews I’ve done that were equally soul-searing, and my hope that sharing them with a larger audience would be useful somehow. It made me realize, sadly, how rarely I get to talk to non-journalists about my work and why I believe so deeply in the value of it, still. It moved me to hear from three others that it matters to them as well.

If you care at all about journalism and why, at best, people still want to do it for a living — and I know that many people simply hate journalists and don’t trust us — go see this film!

 

The having (or not) of faith

By Caitlin Kelly

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action -- that collective community response still matters
The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action — that collective community response still matters

I married a PK, a preacher’s kid.

Jose’s father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His parish numbered about 30 — with a church large enough to hold 200. He faced many empty pews, yet kept on going.

His mother was a kindergarten teacher.

She was, he says, the epitome of faith.

Money was often tight and Jose, the sensitive, often worried baby of the family, sometimes wondered if everything would be OK.

“Have faith,” his mother told him.

We tend to talk about faith in narrow religious terms, as faith in a deity or a set of guidelines.

I’m interested, here, in the faith we place in ourselves, in one another and in the world around us.

Without it, without even a shred of it, we’re paralyzed. Too scared to move.

I started selling my creative work to strangers when I was 12. I sat on a Toronto street corner and sold bead necklaces. At 15, I sold my home-made stationery and at 18, my photos — and was gratefully stunned when one of the city’s top fashion photographers bought one.

Maybe that flickering flame of faith in myself, in my nascent skills, in my ability to connect with others who found value in my work danced a little higher then.

Yes, this machine will work. If we feared it wouldn't, then what?
Yes, this machine will work. If we feared it wouldn’t, then what?

Without faith in ourselves we’re lost.

Without faith in our parents — to guide, teach, protect us — we feel un-moored and unsafe.

Without faith in our intelligence and stamina, we can’t accept that learning can be exhausting and difficult.

Without faith in our elected and appointed officials, we can’t function — imagine the rage and distrust so many African-Americans are feeling in the face of the five unarmed black men recently shot in the United States by police.

It takes tremendous faith to forge ahead in the face of despair, illness, fear and anxiety.

To wake up with pennies in your pocket and to find the faith that, somehow, things are going to get better.

To face a diagnosis that terrifies you, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

To inhabit a home that once welcomed  your husband or wife, now fled to the arms of someone else, wondering if anyone, anywhere, will ever love you again.

I think faith is forged in the fire of fear.

Phoenix-like, we have to rise from the smoking embers of what-we-thought-would-happen, while we figure out what happens next instead.

Without some solid skills we know we can trust, without friends and family who know and believe in the best of us, without some notion it will all be OK, we’re toast.

Having survived some horrendous episodes in my own past — a mentally-ill parent, family alcoholism, divorce, job loss, criminal attack — I know I’ll make it through. Somehow.

Faith + I’ll-get-through-this-somehow = resilience.

The past few weeks, for a variety of reasons, have demanded I stolidly move forward, in spite of sometimes paralyzing doubt in a few outcomes. Without the faith I’ll survive them, emotionally and physically, I’d consider staying in bed in the fetal position.

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Instead, I went out this weekend to play softball with my co-ed pickup team, a posse of people, some 50 years apart in age, that I’ve known, loved and shared post-game, beneath-the-trees lunches with for a decade.

I stepped up to the plate, picked up the bat, wondered, in my first game of the season what would happen next — and hit a single.

Do you have faith in yourself?

In others?

Men telling women what to do with their bodies, from FGM to lunch

By Caitlin Kelly

Al Araibya reports that women in Iraq now face the prospect of FGM — female genital mutilation:

The al-Qaeda-Inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has ordered all girls and women between the ages of 11 and 46 in and around Iraq’s northern city of Mosul to undergo female genital mutilation, the United Nations said on Thursday.

“It is a fatwa (or religious edict) of ISIS, we learnt this this morning,” said Jacqueline Badcock, the number two U.N. official in Iraq.

The “fatwa” would potentially affect 4 million women and girls, Badcock told reporters in Geneva by videolink from Arbil.

“This is something very new for Iraq, particularly in this area, and is of grave concern and does need to be addressed,” she said, according to Reuters.

Tired of feeling trapped by sexist, misogynist assholes!
Tired of feeling trapped by sexist, misogynist assholes!

And here’s a story from The Guardian about how men feel completely comfortable telling women they do not know personally what or how to eat:

That so many women have reported this frankly quite incredibly patronising experience, is testament to the strength of the myth that a woman’s physical form exists, above all else, to titillate men. It’s the same mistaken assumption that lies behind the command to “give us a smile”, or the belief that a woman in a low-cut top must be looking for male attention.

As incredible as it seems, some women actually experience moments in their lives when their entire sentient being isn’t focused exclusively on providing men pleasure. They might wear a strappy top because they are hot, for example; eat a burger because they are hungry; or drink a diet soda because they quite like the taste. Explosive revelations, I know.

You might laugh, but for some, the belief that a man has an automatic “right” over the body of any woman he encounters in a public space is worryingly ingrained.

Should we laugh, cry, get angry — or start an MGM movement in reply?

Seriously.

 

 

The curse of binary thinking

By Caitlin Kelly

When we started dating 14 years ago my now-husband drove me nuts with the phrase he still uses, (and which I now just laugh at):

“We could do one of two things”…

I’m sure — Broadside readers being a smart, educated bunch — some of you surely know, and can explain to me, the underpinnings of such a narrow worldview.

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It feels these days as though everyone has joined one side of another. Our worldview is binary:

All or nothing.

Black or white.

Right or wrong.

Gay or straight.

Liberal or conservative.

Pro-choice or pro-life.

Gun control advocate or “gun nut” (not my phrase!)

It feels absurdly and, to me increasingly, stupidly, American.

Hello…Congress?

When most of us know, or realize, that life is a hell of a lot more complicated than that. It is shaded and nuanced. And our most firmly and fixed beliefs can change over time.

I had two moments of this recently, both within an hour, one on-line arguing, (and quickly withdrawing from useless online arguments), with some woman I don’t know in a on-line forum, and the other at my local hardware store.

I was struck, hard, by the realization how easy it is to fall into a habit of thinking (why?) in terms of either/or, not both. Exclusion, not inclusion. Narrowing, not expanding, our notions of the possible.

People who speak several languages and/or have lived for long periods outside of their home culture and/or are married to or partnered with someone of a very different background often move beyond this limited thinking because it is challenged every day.

What we consider “normal” is simply normal for us.

The first argument was over work and its relative importance in our lives.

Americans — especially those who have never lived beyond their borders — often feel that working really hard all the time is the single most useful thing to do with one’s life. Being “successful” materially is the classic goal. And a very skimpy social safety net ensures that few can stray far from the grindstone because unless you’re debt-free, rich and/or have a shit-ton of savings, you will soon be broke and homeless and then, missy, you’ll be sorry!

The woman I was arguing with, a manager within my industry, kept positing two poles — marathoner/ambitious/admirable or useless/annoying/slacker. For fucks’ sake.

Very few people love their work every day until they die. If they do, awesome! But making anyone who doesn’t agree feel the same way somehow less than, or imputing slackerdom to their ambivalence, is bullshit.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Some people actually work for the money. Not passion.

For many people — and not simply “slackers” — their true passions and joys lie beyond the workplace: faith, family, travel, volunteer work, pets, and/or creative projects that simply make them, and others, happy.

My second “Duh!” moment happened while trying to buy gray matte-finish paint for our balcony railings. There was only white and black on offer. The sales clerk and I stood there staring at the cans, my frustration growing, his boredom blossoming.

I was pissed there wasn’t exactly what I wanted — when it was right there in front of me for the seeing of it, and making it myself.

Black plus white = gray.

How embarrassing that it took us so long to figure that out. I felt like an utter fool for not noticing that right away. It was a great wake-up call.

Do you find yourself trapped into this way of thinking?

What would it take for you to even consider the value of the other side of an argument?

Meeting the other

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a recent blog post by American author and business guru Seth Godin:

It might be someone in a different state, religious, atheist, straight, gay, in a developing country, a lawyer, a politician, struggling to pay the bills, ill, recovered, in recovery, a dedicated athlete, a computer programmer, angry at the system, an insider, an inventor, from a very different political stance, a pilot, unemployed, a millionaire, an inventor, a tax cheat, a gun owner, a rabble rowser oran adult without a driver’s license.

Can you see them? Understand them? Ask them about what it’s like to be them? Would you miss them if they were gone?

I grew up in Toronto, a city known for being diverse multi-culturally. I knew few people beyond my own circle but my life since then has exposed me to many more sorts of people.

Moving to the U.S. and living in three other countries — Mexico, France and England — has put me in situations and around others with some very different behaviors and attitudes, toward government’s role in our lives, toward women, toward the importance of work or education or family.

At 25, I spent eight months living in Paris and traveling across Europe on a journalism fellowship with 28 others from 19 countries, from Togo to New Zealand to Ireland to Brazil. It was a fascinating year, fraught with cultural misunderstanding. The four Canadians, one Irishwoman, two Britons, one New Zealander and four Americans all had quite different notions of proper spoken and written English!

The man from Togo — who worked for his government, (i.e. not even a journalist in our North American definition), was deeply offended that we did not always shake his hand hello or spend 10 minutes chatting with him. In his culture, this was very rude. In ours, haste = efficiency. Lessons learned, for both of us.

When I moved to Montreal in the mid-1980s, I found that being Anglophone was enough to make some people hate me. That was weird. Instructive, certainly. At press conferences, everything was done in French and only at the very end were Anglo journo’s allowed to ask our questions in English, (which everyone else spoke.)

Growth-in-Social-Networking-in-developing-coun...
Growth-in-Social-Networking-in-developing-countries (Photo credit: Analectic.org)

I read Seth’s list and thought, yes, I do know people in 21 of his categories — but not a millionaire, inventor or politician.

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Au...
Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth realms) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the things I enjoy most about being a journalist is how it forces you into meeting people, on almost every assignment, who are very different from you. For me, that’s included Queen Elizabeth, a female admiral, convicted felons, two Prime Ministers, scientists, computer programmers, Olympic athletes, an Inuit village, an Italian construction worker, a French truck driver and a Dutch politician.

If you’re not insatiably curious about the world, and open to hearing other points of view, journalism is not for you! You can’t just cover your ears and go lalalalalalalalalalalala.

If you’re not working in journalism, travel helps — especially international — if you actually talk to people beyond the hotel staff and cab drivers and make a point of meeting people there beyond your conference or classrooms.

Volunteer work helps.

Jose and I negotiate multiple differences in our marriage: he’s American and I’m Canadian; he grew up the son of a Baptist minister and my family did not attend church; he is Hispanic and I’m a WASP.

It makes for some interesting moments — but we’re also alike, both workaholic career journalists who love to eat and travel and read and listen to music and laugh. So for all our differences, (which I initially thought made us unworkable as a couple), we share essential values.

As technology and growing income inequality help us tribally sub-divide into ever-narrower niches — only consuming media that echoes our political point of view, for example — we often have no idea how others think and feel, or how essential some issues are to them that we find silly or unimportant. It’s too easy to hang out in echo chambers of people who sound and look just like us.

Then what do we do about it?

Godin points out in that blog post that blogging is a great way to “meet” the other, whether that’s someone much richer or poorer materially, someone whose political views are not your own or simply someone for whom $10 is a day’s — or week’s — wage, not the price of a (cheap!) Manhattan cocktail.

When I traveled the U.S. to write my first book, about American women and guns, I ended up being a guest on NRA radio, (asked to explain those lefty-liberals in the Northeast) and on NPR (asked to explain gun-owners to the horrified lefty liberals.)

A funny position for a non-gun-owning Canadian!

I’d rather hear another viewpoint (politely!) and debate it intelligently from data (not red-faced emotion) than live in unopposed, cocooned silence. That’s easy, and has become comfortingly normal for many of us.

How about you?

The value of speaking a second (or more) language

As the world — or Catholics — reeled from the sudden and unexpected news that Pope Benedict is stepping down, an interesting fact emerged. The reporter who broke the story, i.e. who was first to report it, Giovanna Chirri, a staffer for the Italian wire service ANSA, was able to do so because she could read Latin, a language relatively few people choose to study any more.

English: Pope Benedict XVI during general audition
English: Pope Benedict XVI during general audition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From The Huffington Post:

I gave the news, then I started crying.”

Giovanna Chirri, who covers the Vatican for Italy’s ANSA news agency and is the editor of a lay people’s newspaper, immediately understood what was happening. When Pope Benedict XVI started whispering his farewell speech in Latin, “my brain short-circuited: I thought it was absurd,” Chirri said. “I knew, just like everybody else, what he’d written in his book. But I was convinced he would never quit.”

A journalist who has covered Vatican affairs since 1994, Chirri was able to break the news under pressure. “As a person, I was really, really sorry. I admire Ratzinger. I respect him,” she said. “I knew the importance of the news: I tried to contact the agency, to get the information verified, even though I didn’t doubt my Latin, then they took care of breaking the news. That’s how I communicated the information.”

As this story reminds us, being able to speak multiple languages — normal for many Europeans, less common for most North Americans — is a terrific skill. It not only helps reporters, but anyone trying to work across borders: translators, aid workers, non-profit employees, pilots, medical professionals, academics and students.

I decided to study French and Spanish during my years at the University of Toronto because I wanted to be able to work in both languages, ideally as a foreign correspondent. I did some volunteer work while an undergrad, interpreting the testimonies — grim, graphic and heartbreaking — of Chilean political refugees seeking asylum in Canada. I later used my French to win an eight-month journalism fellowship in Paris and a job at the Montreal Gazette, where we often worked in French.

I used my French again last week while reporting in Montreal, delighted at the chance to use it and refresh it naturally, not just sitting in a classroom or language lab.

I know some Broadside readers, like Kate, speak multiple languages.

How many do you speak? Which ones?

Why did you learn them and when?

Do you find it helpful personally and professionally?

What do we owe one another?

Donations
Donations (Photo credit: Matthew Burpee)

In 1984, Canadian writer, academic — and later politician — Michael Ignatieff wrote a book, “The Needs of Strangers”. In it, he says:

“A decent and humane society requires a shared language of the good. The one our society lives by — a language of rights — has no terms for those dimensions of the human good which require acts of virture unspecifiable as a legal or civil obligation.”

In the United States, those who give money to charity, it turns out, are least likely to give it to those most in financial need, writes columnist Eduardo Porter in The New York Times:

Religious organizations receive about one-third of the nation’s total charitable contributions, not including donations to religious hospitals, schools and social charities. Donations to human services charities, by contrast, which work to ease poverty, feed the hungry and the like, amount to less than 12 percent of the total.

It’s a question I ask myself frequently — what, if anything beyond our taxes, do we owe to others in our world, whether that’s in our town, county, province/state, country, hemisphere?

Others’ needs for help are boundless and our individual resources with which to alleviate them — unless we are very wealthy or have no need, ourselves, to earn a living — extremely limited.

In the same edition of the Times containing Porter’s column is the full-page ad announcement of a multi-million gift to a college, bearing, of course, the generous donor’s name.

Asks Porter:

As the government grapples with how to address the nation’s deficits over coming decades, Americans have an opportunity to reassess the role of philanthropy in addressing the nation’s problems. Should we continue to provide lavish tax breaks? Should we demand that in return for preferential tax treatment, programs target more clearly the needs of the poor?

Many Americans might think that keeping tax breaks for donations to build, say, a new university football stadium when so many poor students can barely afford college, is not the best way to spend scarce resources.

Those on the right end of the political spectrum scoff at the notion of handing money to the poor and indigent, arguing that it merely enables them to continue their shiftless, lazy behaviors. Those on the left feel it’s immoral to let needy people starve, suffer and die from restricted or non-existent access to the basics of human dignity: food, shelter, medical care.

Last week my church, a small Episcopal parish in a wealthy town north of New York City, held its annual clothing sale, in which we donate our own clothes and shoes, for adults and children, sell them for low prices, then distribute the money earned to local charities. I worked a few days at the sale, and a few people asked when prices would drop to half-off, when they could better afford a wool hat at $2.50 instead of $5, or a pair of leather shoes for $7 instead of $14.

We raised more than $50,000, far more than if we’d been asked to open our wallets individually.

It’s humbling and sobering to see what sale shoppers need and can afford, and somehow ironic that the sale depends on volunteer labor — all the stay-at-home mothers with high-earning husbands flee at 2pm to pick up their children — and the only people who can offer their time are retired, unemployed or, in my case, who work freelance and may have a flexible schedule.

Those who came to shop included parents buying children’s clothes, teens snapping up fun stuff and a nun in her habit who, after I folded and bagged her sweater, asked with a smile: “Do you do closets?”

For many of us, the world has become a place where we rarely encounter, touch or speak to people whose lives are circumstances are unlike our own, whether richer or poorer. We attend different schools and colleges — if at all — travel by different conveyances, shop in different stores.

The clothing sale brings us together in a week-long fellowship. Like many people in this economy, I’m liquidity-poor, but time-rich.

I also serve on the board of a 30-year-old volunteer group that offers aid to non-fiction writers who have hit a financial crisis. We can mail a check for up to $4,000 within a week of getting an application. Usually, they have suffered the “triple whammy” — they’ve lost work, lost their health and lost the financial support of a spouse or partner.

Every letter we receive is a “there but for the grace of God” experience.

If I didn’t have a generous, loving husband with a steady job and excellent health insurance — which so many people do not — I might be writing one of those letters myself.

Few of us will escape our lives financially unscathed, without a crisis in which we desperately and suddenly need help from people who do not know, or owe, us — a dying parent, an ill child, a lost job (or several), a hurricane or flood — or both.

Poverty, misery and physical devastation are frightening. They smell bad. Storm-ravaged houses, crying children, old people huddled around a trash can fire. No one wants to be that person.

It’s easier to pretend they don’t exist than meet them face to face, seeing in their weary eyes and lined faces the existential terror that, one day, might be ours.

Blaming the poor and indigent is an easy out. There are few quick, simple solutions, as the miserable and angry survivors of Hurricane Sandy are still learning.

What do you think we owe one another?

Are taxes the only way to re-distribute funds from the better-off?

Do you do volunteer work and/or give money to charity?