Journalism’s less-visible heroes

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The New York Times newsroom

 

By Caitlin Kelly

To those who’ve never worked in journalism, it’s easy to forget — or simply not know about — the many hidden talents that make radio, print, digital and television coverage possible.

They include coders, graphic designers, layout people, researchers, fact-checkers and copy editors.

While on-air anchors earn millions, and reporters and photographers, out in public are visible, without cameramen and women, young and hungry interns, production assistants and bookers, none of it is possible.

One of the things my husband, a career photographer and photo editor, and I enjoy is that journalism really is a team sport; without all those talents, it just doesn’t happen.

Here’s a fantastic story from The Walrus, arguably Canada’s quirkiest and most interesting national magazine (for whom I soon hope to be writing!), about the eight women who ran the switchboard of the Toronto Star. Their genius was essential in an era before Google and social media made our jobs  — i.e. finding people fast — so much easier.

 

To the reporters at the Star, the switchboard seemed capable of working miracles. And its feats were all due to dedication of eight women. Most came to the job with a background working switchboards, but the ones who stuck around were those who had the grit to call up dozens of people in the hopes of finding a source and then were persuasive enough keep them on the line. They took the job seriously: lugging yellow pages back from vacations abroad, leaving their home-phone numbers with reporters in case they were needed in a pinch, and working with reporters to revive leads that seemed long dead.

One of those operators was Eva Cavan, the switchboard’s supervisor for over three decades, who once tracked down the Star’s Washington correspondent by calling up every shop along Pennsylvania Avenue until a pharmacist was able to ID the reporter. During her tenure, Cavan’s team found the prime suspect in the 1972 Olympics massacre, located Terry Fox in Newfoundland by calling up stations he was likely to stop at, and convinced a control tower to delay takeoff so that the Ontario health minister could disembark and take a call with the Star.

I remember with fondness the operators at the Globe and Gazette, one of whom handed me the piece of paper informing me my French mentor had died.

This past weekend was a painful and emotional reminder that colleagues can be much more than the next guy or gal in the cubicle.

We attended the funeral of a man we all thought would live to his 90s, for sure, but who was struck down at 70 quickly and brutally by a rare cancer.

Zvi Lowenthal worked for 44 years at The New York Times, but you never read his name.

My husband worked for seven years inches from Zvi, an avid tennis player who — with Jose, his fellow photo editor — assigned and chose every photo for The New York Times’ business section. They were, according to their co-workers, an old married couple, and it was a good match: Jose is calm, steady, ice in his veins when the shit hits the fan. Zvi was warm, kind, meticulous, the kind of guy who made sure that freelancers got paper copies of their images, a gesture very few editors would ever bother to make.

And, when Jose was a Times photographer, Zvi had also been his editor. While Jose enjoyed seeing his name in the paper with every photo he took — in newspaper parlance his “agate” — editors never do.

The team managed to keep pictures coming through the most terrifying economic crisis since the Depression. It’s not easy to illustrate corporate malfeasance!

Today, American journalists are derided by the President, of all people, as “fake” and “disgusting”, inciting violence against us at his rallies.

 

Our skills and dedication  — visible or less so — remain essential to a functional democracy.

 

 

Do you live to work — or work to live?

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Do you ever just STOP and take a breather?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

This recent blog post by a good friend — an American living in London — once more reminded me of what I value most…time away from the grind of work:

Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.

And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state.

It’s not easy to take a proper holiday when you live far away from your family, losing a day each way to travel, (driving or flights, usually), plus cost.

You only get so many paid vacation days and then…they’re gone!

It’s also difficult if you’re burdened with debt, have multiple children and/or a very tight budget.

 

A holiday doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it does mean time for farniente — literally do nothing.

 

Relaxing.

People like Jose and I work freelance, which means that every day we don’t work we don’t get paid — and our bills don’t magically drop in size and volume. (Our health insurance alone is $1,400 every month, more than our mortgage payment.)

Even so, I usually take at least six weeks every year to not work, even if it’s just sitting at home.

American work culture isn’t as bad as Japan’s where karoshi — death from overwork — is real. But its savage demands of low wages, a thin social safety net, precarious employment, almost no unions — plus the insane costs of a university education — combine to keep too many Americans working with few breaks.

And —  how dare you look “unproductive”?!

Here’s my whip-smart pal Helaine Olen, writing on this in the Washington Post:

The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.

Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn.

I still enjoy writing, but I’ve been doing it for a living for decades and no longer seek the career-boosting thrill of a Big Magazine byline.

I’d love to write a few more books, but this year has been dis-spiriting — both of my book proposals, (which cost unpaid time to produce), have each been rejected by more than three agents. Not sure if I’ll keep trying with the second one.

 

Do you work to live or live to work?

 

Has that changed for you over time?

A literary con artist exposed

 

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Wannabe an author?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Few things are as seductive to newer/less-published writers as the glittering promise of smoothly guaranteed access to an agent and editors and movie deals and television series.

Workshops in Irish castles and Tuscan villas.

Baring your soul in a room full of other ambitious writers, guided gently by a wise, kind mentor.

Feeling lucky and grateful to have found someone who wants to help you and whose charm and skills and self-confidence are deeply reassuring.

You, too, can be just like her!

 

Here’s a wild tale now racing around American social media circles, about a woman named — (most recently!) — Anna March, whose name I immediately recognized as someone who belonged to several on-line women’s writing groups I participate in.

Turns out, she changed her name repeatedly, took money from writers to help with their manuscripts and promised them access to some of the toughest outlets — she’d sold an essay to The New York Times’ column Modern Love, the equivalent in our world of winning a Nobel Prize; at a NYC conference this spring, I heard its editor, Daniel Jones, tell a crowded room the odds of getting published there are worse than getting into Harvard, (whose acceptance rate is 5.6 percent.)

March knew exactly which buttons to push to enlist ambitious women and lure them into her schemes:

Access

Everyone’s desperate for access to the top editors and agents. Rejection is wearying and dis-spiriting and anyone who says they’ll make it easier…sign me up!

Mentoring

No one can do this work alone, and many of us (me, included) coach other writers. Isolation often means over-relying on social media to connect with people who says they’re a peer, and assuming the people offering you their help — for money — are legit. The difference? I’ve actually published two books.

Sisterhood

Puhleeze. She was quite skilled at persuading women what a great and supportive feminist she is. I’m a tough old boot so this shit doesn’t do a thing for me; actions, not words.

Solidarity

Writing is a lonely and difficult business so when someone is supportive and kind, you think, whew! She gets it.

Here’s a bit of the story:

March had never published a book but had been quietly working literary Los Angeles’ social media connections for months. A spunky, unapologetic, sex-positive feminist ready to raise hell, she was supportive and flattering. She was also conspicuously generous — concerned about the line of people waiting to get into the party, March asked a pair of new acquaintances if she should give $20 bills to those stuck on the sidewalk. The bill for the night would total more than $22,000.

Why is she doing this? people asked, stealing glances at March.

Some had a larger question:

If something or someone sounds too good to be true…it usually is.

NY Daily News halves staff; an ex-reporter, some of my memories

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One of my notebooks, complete with coffee stains! That funny thing in the middle is a stylized early camera, and the News’ logo, as it was once the city’s picture paper…

By Caitlin Kelly

It was, when I worked there in 2005 and 2006, the sixth-largest newspaper in the United States, with 600,000 readers, a real source of pride. Today it’s down to 200,000.

This week its owners Tronc (ugh, what a name) fired half of the Daily News staff — including almost every photographer and sports reporter– insisting their latest gambit will be a focus on breaking news.

Oh yeah, that thing that Twitter already owns…

Some details:

 

Media conglomerate Tronc bought The Daily News in September, adding it to a stable of other newspaper and magazines that includes The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun.

The Daily News, once the country’s largest-circulation newspaper, has been among the most aggressive New York City publications in its coverage of President Donald Trump, with the newspaper’s cover often needling Trump about recent scandals or missteps.

The paper has received 11 Pulitzer Prizes including one in 2017 in conjunction with nonprofit investigative organization ProPublica for coverage of evictions based on obscure laws that pushed business owners and residents from their property.

My year at the News was the weirdest, most stressful and eye-opening of my career in journalism — and I’d already worked for the Toronto Globe & Mail and the Montreal Gazette, both broadsheets, a name that denotes the physical size of a newspaper as much as its more sombre approach to news.

The News is a tabloid, a whole new world.

I hadn’t worked in a newsroom in 20 years when I was hired there, thanks to a manager I’d known and worked with in Montreal who came to New York from Chicago to run the paper.

For him, and for me, it was a poor match; he’s British and Canadian and didn’t know the five boroughs of New York City intimately, tribal lore for anyone working at the News. Neither did I.

The paper used to inhabit a gorgeous Art Deco building on 42d Street; I arrived to their offices on the very western end of 33rd Street, sharing a building with the Associated Press.

The newsroom didn’t even have cubicles, just a huge bullpen stretching a full city block, sunlight straggling in through clerestory windows.

I stepped into a 1940s movie, full of guys in suspenders and gold chains who liked to yell at one another and saw two co-workers edge up to a fist-fight over a noisy cellphone.

As my manager-to-be greeted me for my job interview, he eyed my outfit, (no blazer or jacket): “You packing?” My first book was about women and guns.

Never dull!

As a reporter there, I quickly discovered a city I hadn’t known before — the News’ reader’s median household income was $44,000 — maybe a healthy salary elsewhere but not much in New York City.

I drove alone to Harlem and the Bronx and Queens, getting to know its lower-income neighborhoods and residents. (I once got into such an altercation in the Bronx over a street parking spot I had to call the cops in fear of attack.)

I did a stake-out in Midtown in sweltering summer heat and humidity, which meant sitting on the sidewalk for hours — surrounded by all the competing press — waiting to nab an interview with a Quebec tourist who’d been attacked. (I got the assignment after the city editor hollered into the newsroom: “Who speaks French?!”)

I kept sneaking into the hotel to find her, only to be caught and thrown out by a furious security guard. This, after a New York Times reporter followed me into the elevator, guessing I knew where I was going and trying to match it.

I ducked into the ladies’ restroom to ditch him.

I interviewed an African-American family who showed me a blanket with images woven into it of their slain son.

I spoke with legal aid attorneys in the Bronx.

I interviewed the father of a soldier whose helicopter had fallen off a mountaintop in Afghanistan and women soldiers suffering from PTSD.

I broke a national story about how many crimes occur on cruise ships that, for many reasons, go unreported and unaddressed.

We spent a brutal afternoon listening to 911 calls from the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Digital advertising has stripped away newspapers’ primary income stream, and newsgathering — even with crappy salaries — isn’t cheap.

It’s a tough time now to be a staff newspaper reporter.

I’m glad I had the chance.

 

 

 

Exploring Long Island’s East End

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Space bear! This little guy was in a vending machine at the movie theater in Ronkonkoma.

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s hard to believe that this lovely bit of the state is only a few hours’ drive east of crowded, crazy New York City, not my favorite place in the hot, humid and smelly summer.

Long Island — lying to the southeast of the city’s five boroughs — on its north shore devolves as you keep moving northeast, away from wealthy suburban enclaves to the endless vineyards of the East End.

We stayed for five days in Islandia, (where my husband Jose was photo editing the U.S. Open nearby), and I went off exploring alone every day from there.

In about an hour’s drive — headed northeast on what’s known as the North Fork, I retreated a few decades to flat green fields, weathered shingled houses and left the suburban chain-store sprawl far behind.

This diner in Cutchogue was perfect!

 

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Built in 1941, its prices were the lowest I’d seen in years. I had blueberry pancakes with sausage on heavy diner china; if you go, it closes at 3pm.

 

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I managed to miss the turnoff to Route 48 and ended up driving instead on 25, which was slower and much prettier, passing white churches and farm stands and fire halls and schools — and two llamas!

I spent a few hours exploring Greenport, which is lovely and filled with elegant shops and restaurants. One sells an astonishing array of hand-painted Italian pottery and Murano glass, and some amazing high-end costume jewelry.

 

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The area is so gorgeous I started looking at real estate prices. Hah! The lowest-priced house was $525,000.

I pushed on to the literal end of the road in Orient, the furthest northeastern tip of the Island, and was so glad I did. The town has 743 residents, settled in the 17th century, making this part of the state one of its oldest.

 

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For $8, I visited Orient State Park and lay on the beach, savoring only the soothing sounds of wind and waves. The place was virtually empty, and the road in is lined with osprey nests and huge signs warning drivers to look out for box turtles.

I came home with a handful of the most beautiful white stones, smooth as eggs, as a souvenir.

Here’s a tips-filled, links-packed guide to the region from Vogue, 2017.

 

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These Hamptons estates range from $29.5 million to $35 million. Welcome to 1-percent-world!

I also drove southeast one day to Westhampton, one of the legendary Hamptons on the Island’s South Fork — filled with enormous mansions, some of which rent seasonally for tens of thousands of dollars. Whew! The parking lots were full of Range Rovers, Mercedes and a Maserati, a very moneyed crowd.

 

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A hanging flower basket in Westhampton. Love these colors!

But I had a great day — lunch at the Bakery Cafe, a bit of shopping and people were friendly and welcoming.

I spent another day in the nothern side hamlet of Stony Brook, and drove its tree-shaded Harbor Drive, peeking through the woods at massive mansions facing the water. So beautiful! Had a great lunch at Crazy Beans, twice, in a low, white-shingled shopping center built in 1941 that includes elegant outdoor tables and benches, shady umbrellas and even a waterfall.

The town holds Avalon Park, a large pond that’s home to so many birds! I saw swans, ducks, cormorants, heron.

 

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Near Stony Brook is this amazing bit of history — a general store from 1857 still in operation.

It was a really relaxing break and left me eager to return.

Some thoughts on being touched

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By Caitlin Kelly

Touch can be soothing or frightening, a source of comfort or terror.

The past few weeks have made clearer — personally and politically — the importance of touch, physical and emotional.

Since telling people about my DCIS diagnosis, Jose and I have been deeply moved and touched by so many people, worldwide, young and old, friends, neighbors and colleagues, who have called and emailed to share their love and concern.

It’s been surprising to us — tough old boots of journalists that we are, working for decades in a fact-based business — to feel such a powerful wave of love and emotion.

We are very grateful.

The business of diagnosing breast cancer, (like other forms, perhaps),  also means your body gets touched by many strangers, compressed repeatedly, punctured with needles and having markers inserted and written on your skin. By the time of my surgery, July 6, I will have had seven different medical appointments and five different pre-op tests.

When a medical professional, who does this job every day, is kind and compassionate, communicating it through their gentle touch — the nurse who held my hand through my biopsy, the phlebotomist so skilled I didn’t feel a thing as she took my blood, the radiologist who stroked my other wrist even as he guided the needle — it is deeply moving and so comforting.

As someone who has always really lived in her head — a thinker, not a feeler — and a lifelong athlete who sees (and appreciates!) her body not for its size or shape or putative beauty — but instead for its strength, flexibility and resilience, this is all disorienting in the extreme.

Of course, grateful for a medical team we like, but it is so odd to suddenly be — as of course we all are, every day (even as we may deny it) — so corporeally vulnerable and now so…handled.

The larger political current context — of tiny children being taken from their parents and shut into cages by American officials — is so grotesque it would be a parody, if it were not.

From Arizona Family:

Dr. Colleen Kraft, the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that she visited a small shelter in Texas recently, which she declined to identity. A toddler inside the 60-bed facility caught her eye — she was crying uncontrollably and pounding her little fists on mat.

Staff members tried to console the child, who looked to be about 2 years old, Kraft said. She had been taken from her mother the night before and brought to the shelter.

The staff gave her books and toys — but they weren’t allowed to pick her up, to hold her or hug her to try to calm her. As a rule, staff aren’t allowed to touch the children there, she said. [italics mine]

“The stress is overwhelming,” she said. “The focus needs to be on the welfare of these children, absent of politics.”

 

From Texas Monthly:

Sometimes mothers—I was talking to one mother, and she said, “Don’t take my child away,” and the child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, “Can I at least have five minutes to console her?” They said no. In another case, the father said, “Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?” The officer said, “You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.” So, threats. So the father just let the child go.

A light-hearted post about golf!

By Caitlin Kelly

Time for something fun, dammit!

 

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So my husband Jose is a freelance photo editor for the United States Golf Association, a job he’s had, and loved, for three years. Typically, he works from our apartment, sitting in the hallway editing on a desktop computer but also heads west to Short Hills, NJ a few times a week to work out there at their headquarters as their archivist.

 

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This time of year it’s all about the tournaments!

Here are some of my photos from the recent Curtis Cup, created by a pair of sisters; it’s a competition between two teams, made up of the best amateur American women and the best British/Irish women. It was so fun to see young women playing astoundingly — the youngest was 15 (!) and the oldest on the UK team 24.

 

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The golfers all wore patriotic tattoos on their ankles and faces, and the spectators — aka the gallery — were a hoot, with lots of people draped in their country’s flag. Everyone applauds a great shot and there are some whistles, but it’s a genteel and fairly low-key crowd, which I appreciated.

Annoyingly — because it’s women and amateurs — the crowds weren’t huge, but that also made for a much more intimate experience.

 

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Volunteers helped, holding aloft large signs saying quiet whenever the women were on the putting green, (the final stroke meant to drop the ball in the hole.) And it was quiet indeed!

 

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That weird black thing with the wire is a microphone — to hear the sounds of putting and whatever the players are saying on the putting green

 

I’m starting to learn some of golf’s etiquette, lingo and lore — like the R & A (Royal and Ancient), the British equivalent of the USGA. I do know what a mulligan is and a hole-in-one but still can’t remember what a birdie is or a bogie or an eagle…

I came on Saturday afternoon and stayed only for a few hours, but loved the experience. It was held about a 30 minute drive east of where we live, in Westchester County, New York, at the Quaker Ridge Golf Club.

The Americans won the tournament overall.

 

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This week we’re out on Long Island while Jose photo edits the U.S. Open, being held out there this year.

It’s fun to see my husband in his element. He loves this work and it’s a joy to see him so happy.

Is college worth it?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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

 

Tis the season of graduations and commencements.

For thousands, it’s a hard-earned moment of excitement and trepidation.

For many Americans, though, it also means facing decades of debt.

And educational debt is a form of fiscal servitude from which it’s very difficult to escape via declaring bankruptcy.

 

In the United States — where all post-secondary education is called “college”, while in Britain, Canada and elsewhere it’s “university” — it’s anathema to suggest the very possibility of not attending college.

By this I mean a four-year degree —  (Americans don’t confer three-year bachelor’s degrees) — from a private or public institution whose annual costs can be up to $60,000 a year.

This in an era when many blue-collar/manual labor jobs are begging for employees and, once you’ve finished your apprenticeship, (and usually gained union membership, which protects your wage-earning power), can make up to $100,000 a year — far more than many jobs that require multiple degrees.

In 2014 and 2015, I was an adjunct writing professor at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn best known for the arts.

I taught freshman students in their four-year-writing program, amused and appalled by their parents’ willingness to cough up more per year — $60,000 — than 99.9% of the students will ever earn in a year of actually selling their words to anyone outside of Hollywood.

My husband attended New Mexico State University at no cost because his father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe and he was given scholarships. I attended the University of Toronto (Canada’s best) and paid full freight — a fat $660 (yes) per year, also graduating debt-free.

 

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Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

 

What did I learn at university that has stayed with me?

 

Intellectual confidence

Having to argue my ideas in front of smart fellow students has helped me in a business where I have to do it every day.

Social confidence

I led a student event in my junior year and that reminded me I do have leadership skills.

Professional confidence

I wrote so much for the college weekly newspaper in freshman year I was writing for national media before I turned 20, still an undergrad.

Language skills

I studied French for three years (fluent, thanks to a year spent in Paris) and four years of Spanish, both of which I’ve reported in.

— Dislike of authority

I got virtually no support from my professors or administrators beyond a (much appreciated) shout-out in a freshman English lit class. A year later, when I dared to ask for college credit for being nationally published, the chair of the English department sneered in reply without a word of congratulations or praise.

I’ve never given my alma mater a penny since.

Almost none of these was my course material — not Conrad or Chaucer or Locke or Plato. 

 

The best thing university did for me was to force me to work hard for demanding professors who basically didn’t care if I succeeded or not, competing with smart and determined people around me.

 

Sounds like the “real world” to me!

Unless you’ve mastered specific technical skills — engineering, architecture, dentistry, law, medicine, business, computer science — I often wonder if college/university is truly the best preparation and the wisest investment of time and money.

What do you think?

What did you study and how has it helped you succeed professionally?

Who do you believe?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

In an era some are calling “post-truth”, who do you believe?

Whose media voice(s) do you listen to and trust?

Personally, I listen most often to BBC (television and radio,), NPR, read The New York Times and the Financial Times. I also listen to other news sources, albeit mostly those leaning to the left.

I suspect some of you read my blog because (?) I’m a career journalist working for decades as a freelancer for The New York Times, which which many consider a great and trustworthy newspaper.

 

A career journalist who actually hopes to keep working in our industry (even as it’s in chaos!) simply can’t afford to make shit up because you get found out and you lose your job and you lose your reputation for honesty and…you’re done, son!

 

I don’t make shit up, here or elsewhere.

I adhere to the unofficial motto of the Canadian Press, a wire service, who taught me in my early 20s: “When in doubt, leave it out.”

That was also pre-Internet when the pressure to publish was less frenzied, and no one cared about likes or clicks or whether an algorithm favored your work above that of your competitors.

Back in Toronto recently, I visited the new newsroom of my first newspaper job, the Globe & Mail — which, like most major newsrooms now, has screens visible to everyone showing them data on what’s being read, for how long and how often.

 

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A recent take on this issue from the front page of The New York Times:

Last week, President Trump promoted new, unconfirmed accusations to suit his political narrative: that a “criminal deep state” element within Mr. Obama’s government planted a spy deep inside his presidential campaign to help his rival, Hillary Clinton, win — a scheme he branded “Spygate.” It was the latest indication that a president who has for decades trafficked in conspiracy theories has brought them from the fringes of public discourse to the Oval Office.

Now that he is president, Mr. Trump’s baseless stories of secret plots by powerful interests appear to be having a distinct effect. Among critics, they have fanned fears that he is eroding public trust in institutions, undermining the idea of objective truth and sowing widespread suspicions about the government and news media that mirror his own.

“The effect on the life of the nation of a president inventing conspiracy theories in order to distract attention from legitimate investigations or other things he dislikes is corrosive,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and biographer. “The diabolical brilliance of the Trump strategy of disinformation is that many people are simply going to hear the charges and countercharges, and decide that there must be something to them because the president of the United States is saying them.” (emphasis mine)

In an era of blame and recrimination, who are we to believe?

If not those given the highest authority (and who does now, whether religious or political) who?

Some thoughts from wired.com:

What we politely call “fake news”—a formulation that presupposes some antecedent credible truth called “news” that we’re now abandoning—is just the tribal folklore of a certain (and usually opposing) tribe. Our exhausting and constant absorption in a transitory but completely overwhelming media cycle is our own preliterate eternal present. Who thinks now of Cecil the Lion and the villainous dentist who shot him, whose practice was promptly ruined by an online mob? We’re too busy dealing with the third huge Trump scandal this week, which we’ll forget in due course thanks to next week’s school shooting….

The post-internet generation, weaned almost since birth on touchscreens and fractious digital media, navigates this raucous world with an equanimity that we dinosaurs beholden to a dead-tree age find impossible to muster. It is a different world, one where the universally acclaimed expert or editor has been replaced by internet-enabled rumor and hearsay arbitrated only by algorithms. There are some dominant media outlets with a claim to primacy, just as every village has a particularly well-informed local gossip, but the capital-T Truth, so beloved by the French encyclopedists, will no longer exist across a broad spectrum of society.

Are there official news sources you still actually trust and believe?

 

Which ones, and why those?

Four harrowing tales — but worth it

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Whew.

I recently saw a feature film — made by British director Andrew Haigh — called “Lean on Pete”, which is the name of the horse who’s central to the story. It was shot in Portland, Oregon and tells the story of Charley, a young man (played by Charlie Plummer) who’s initially stuck with a deadbeat father, absent mother and MIA aunt.

Here’s the Guardian’s review of it.

It’s a powerful and moving story of how a young man somehow manages to walk, drive and run away from a solo life of misery back to a place of safety and comfort.

I won’t give away all the details, but it’s a searing portrait of what it means to be young, broke, desperate and unconnected to anyone who cares for you. It’s also beautifully filmed and Plummer is fantastic.

There are very few films made today about what it’s like to be poor and alone in the United States — the last one I saw (and I admit, I didn’t enjoy it) was The Florida Project, starring Willem Dafoe as the manager of a Florida motel housing a number of women-led families of very young children.

I found it impossible to like or sympathize with its main female character, while Charlie — maybe being a teenager? maybe being someone doing his best? — was someone I could stick with, even as his trajectory becomes so grim.

LOP cost $8 million to make — and has so far only earned back $222,816 — a terrible return.

I’m not surprised. It’s not a funny, cute, perky escape and box-office catnip.

But it’s a great film and I urge you to see it.

I also just saw First Reformed, which is winning rave reviews for its writer/director Paul Schrader and its lead actor, Ethan Hawke, playing a disillusioned, divorced upstate New York Episcopal (i.e. Anglican) minister.

Like LOP, it’s not an easy film, but also deeply moving and raises essential questions of what we’re doing to the environment.

I recently read Born A Crime, the memoir by South African mixed-race comedian Trevor Noah. Not an easy read and you come away awed by what he survived with grace.

Last summer, traveling alone through Europe with multiple 12-hour train journeys, I dove into another harrowing story, A Little Life, written (!) in 18 months on top of the author’s full-time job at The New York Times.

It won five awards, including being short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker prize.

It, too, is an emotionally tough slog and it’s a doorstop of 814 pages.

The central character is Jude, and his friendships with a small circle of equally educated and accomplished New Yorkers. Jude was abused and injured as a child, and this trauma plays out throughout his life and the novel. (If you’re up on your saints, you know that Jude is the patron saint of desperate and lost causes.)

While it’s a story with much pain, it’s also one with deep and abiding love and sustaining friendships — the kind that those whose families are absent or useless must find if they are to survive this world, let alone thrive in it.

As someone who has turned many times to strangers and friends to replace absent family, these narratives hit a chord in me.

I don’t believe that great art has to make us happy or smile or feel better.

If it touches the deepest part of our heart, it’s done its job.