The big story: writing it!

thumbnail-7Drowning in data!

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

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

Five notebooks full.

Reports and books read.

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

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

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

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

I had a maximum of 5,000 words.

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

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

 

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Love these Muji notebooks, $1.70 apiece.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

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

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

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

 


 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

The social media dance

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Let’s keep it civil!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I bet some of you remember life before Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter.

It was a time of  social interaction that was, de facto, personal. We spent time sitting with someone, or walking with them or dancing or fishing. Not sitting at a keyboard and staring into a screen.

So we’re basically talking to total strangers and trusting in their goodwill and intelligence to respond civilly and calmly.

These days, that feels like more of a gamble.

I do see a lot of good thanks to social media.

You, for example!

Knowing that people still find value here — after ten years! — is heartening indeed. I really value the conversations and insights and humor and global perspective you bring.

I enjoy Twitter and have also made new friends from it, meeting them face to face, people I really enjoyed after months of tweets-only.

But a few downsides are increasingly diminishing my pleasure in using social media, and competitiveness is the primary driver.

In my business, of journalism and coaching and writing non-fiction, the LOUDEST voices seem to win, There’s a tremendous amount of chest-thumping, crowing over enormous success. Frankly, even with decades of my own accomplishment, I find it intimidating and exhausting.

I also see, increasingly, a sort of competitive victimhood, with millennials and Gen X vying for the title of whose life is most miserable — and it’s all thanks to those greedy Boomers. (My generation, of course.)

There is no legitimate argument to deny the challenges these two co-horts face. There are many and they intersect: high student debt, low wages, intermittent work, climate change…

I read some of those threads on Twitter, where even the calmest and most reasonable objection or alternate point of view is blocked for being unkind and invalidating — when it’s an alternate view.

I don’t dare mention on Twitter that Boomers like me have weathered three recessions, each of which slowed our careers and damaged our incomes. Then the crash of ’08.

 

This “lalalalalalalalala I can’t hear you” equivalent online is a disaster.

 

There’s little point in “connecting” with an enormous global audience, potentially, only to whine and rage and stamp your feet insisting your life is the worst ever.

For you, it is.

I get that.

 

But until or unless we can cultivate modesty and empathy, compassion and a clear understanding that we each see the world through our own filters of age, race, income, education, political views, sexual preference, gender identity, cultural norms….it’s a dialogue of the deaf.

And here’s a powerful plea about how to better handle other’s bereavement and grief on social media.

 

 

My decade: 2009-2019

By Caitlin Kelly

Another one gone.

It was a decade of some major triumphs and some really tough challenges…probably like yours as well!

Here are some of mine:

 

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2009

 

I began working as a retail sales associate in September 2007 for The North Face. I worked one day a week at $11/ hour, no commission. In the holidays, I worked three days a week to make more money, still no commission — even when selling a $400 ski jacket.

I wrote about it for The New York Times, which drew the attention of an agent who helped me polish a sample chapter about this experience. We sold the book to Portfolio on Sept. 11, 2009 and I was sitting at the counter of diner on Lexington Avenue when she called to give me the news.

Now, with a book deal in hand, I took much more detailed notes — not easy when you work under the watchful eyes of security cameras. I would scribble down dialogue or an event on a yellow layaway card and tuck it into the pocket of my uniform sleeve.

I quit that job on December 18, 2009, grateful by then to be earning $450 a month blogging for a website.

 

2010

 

My left hip is in agony, with severe arthritis. It hurts to walk even a few steps. I even resort to using short crutches for three months to get some relief. A surgeon gives me steroids to reduce the inflammation — and they destroy the bone in my hip. Now I will need full hip replacement.

 

I turn in my book manuscript in the summer of 2010 and get “notes” from the editor, who says “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.” I panic, and think I can’t possibly fix all of it. But I do.

 

 

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2011

 

In April, my second book is published and, luckily, wins nice reviews from People, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today and others.

I get married, for the second time, in a small wooden church on an island in the harbor of Toronto.

 

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Me, a cover girl — even at size 16

 

Hey, I’m a cover girl…in Arthritis Today! I’m given an outfit to wear (and keep!) and a whole photo crew jams into our small apartment. The photographer (of course!) who flies in from Atlanta to NY is the husband of a friend of mine.

 

2012

 

caiti flag

The day after surgery…

 

 

Hip replacement gives me back my mobility.

 

2013

 

Finally — our renovated kitchen! My design. Seven years later, still loving it.

 

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The left is before; the right is after. I designed the kitchen myself

 

My book is published in China!

 

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Malled’s Chinese version

2014

 

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

 

I get a teaching position at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn. I have to be up at 6:00 a.m. to get there by 8:30 and wait 90 more minutes before my class to avoid the worst of rush hour traffic. I teach a blogging class and a freshman writing class. The pay, for an adjunct, is good — $4,500 per class, $18,000 for the calendar year.

Knowing we have a solid income to rely on, I spend a month in Paris and London, three of those weeks staying with friends.

 

 

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One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua — now still friends with these three

 

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Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. It was a lot of fun, actually!

 

 

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe

 

In March, all expenses paid and a healthy fee for writing three stories, I fly to Nicaragua with a multi-media team from WaterAid. We work for a week in 90-degree heat and long days. It’s by far the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time, thanks to the high energy, skills and warmth of our team.

Not to mention the dugout canoe!

2015

 

 

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Time to just sit still and enjoy the beauty all around us

 

 

After 31 years as a photographer and photo editor — covering the White House for 8 years, two Olympics, Superbowls and more — my husband retires from The New York Times. He is not retired, but has chosen to take their buyout offer.

 

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Our amazing local bakery, Riviera Bakehouse in Ardsley, NY, made this great cake — on two days’ notice. I wrote the headlines; (Arthur was the publisher; Zvi, a colleague)

 

In June, we rent a cottage in Co. Donegal and visit friends in Dublin, taking a three-week break in Ireland.

 

 

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I loved seeing these gorgeous shawls — so much better to take a photograph than buy and regret…

 

2016

 

New curtains for the dining room! The floral.

 

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2017

 

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Istria, Croatia

 

 

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Budapest

 

Thankful for decent savings, and celebrating a milestone birthday, I spend six weeks, mostly alone, in Europe visiting Paris-Berlin-Budapest-Zaghreb-Rovinj-Venice-London.

 

2018

 

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48 seconds a day for 20 days. The radiation machine

 

Just in time for my June birthday, I’m diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, but will not need chemo. The summer disappears in a blur of tests-anxiety-decent results, then surgery (and decent results), then infection, then radiation.

My husband gets a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes.

 

 

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I finally go to the Met Opera and am dazzled by its beauty.

 

2019

 

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We revisit my husbands’ hometown of Santa Fe, NM for an eight-day vacation, badly needed and totally restorative.

I get a magazine assignment that’s the most difficult-but-welcome of the past decade. I travel far and wide and spend three months on it, nervous as hell about the final product.

“First-rate” and “great work” are the editor’s reply.

Whew!

 

And you?

Highlights?

Disasters?

 

A rough week

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So tired of financial thin ice

 

By Caitlin Kelly

By December 15, any American who doesn’t have health insurance has to sign up for it.

If you want to change plans, same.

I had to make four separate calls to get the information I needed. We are keeping our plan — now going up to $1800 a month.

There are no bargains.

 

If your plan costs less per month (and I’m talking $800 a month, not $200 to $400), you’re hit with huge “deductibles” — more money to pay out of pocket.

A plan that would offer dental “coverage” would limit us to basic care, and charge us a $25 co-pay every time we actually used it.

This is absurd, and our dentist is fine letting us pay over time. No co-pay.

American health insurance, when you work for yourself and it’s not subsidized by an employer, is a crippling cost. We’re reduced now to using retirement savings for it…wasting our hard-earned money to stave off potential bankruptcy.

I’ve recently been told to add two new medications, so a comprehensive plan is essential.

Having grown up in Canada, this “system” is just barbaric. But I left Canada seeking better work opportunities, and until recently, this was true.

Journalism, now, is in free fall.

Freelance pay rates are one-third of the 1990s.

And this is not the time or place to suddenly re-train for some whole new career. Just not going to happen.

Plus this week offered a nasty surprise financial disclosure that stunned me, not in a good way.

Not feeling the holiday spirit at all right now.

 

NY parking: shrieks, mayhem, cops!

 

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The parking garage below Lincoln Center

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

This post will make you extremely happy you don’t live anywhere near New York City.

I guarantee it.

Let’s stipulate from the outset — as lawyers say — that I generally enjoy amazing New York parking karma. In a city that has removed some 60,000 street parking spots in recent years for bike lanes and rental bikes and who knows why, I’m usually able to find a spot on the street, without a meter or any payment necessary, often, blessedly, right in front of the exact place I need to be.

To park, even on the street, can easily run $10.75 for two hours, and a parking garage (with its 18%+ tax) can pull $30 (at best) to $50+ from your pocket. That’s a fortune!

So, free parking is much prized.

 

Story One: scene, The Bronx, next to the Bronx Courthouse

 

It’s 2006.

Pouring rain. I’m late. I’m meeting someone to interview them for my then-job as a New York Daily News reporter. I’m also meeting a freelance photographer, a genial guy named Phil I’ve met before. So I’m frazzled.

I hate being late.

I see a parking spot!

I nose in and grab the spot…but oooohhhhhhh shit. It now appears I’ve unwittingly stolen a spot from someone who had been waiting for it. Part of me just doesn’t give a damn: I’m late, my damn News job is always in jeopardy, it’s pouring rain and I have no idea where else to park!

Then it gets ugly — she starts screaming at me. She’s an old lady. I am alone. I scream back, saying some…hmmmm…intemperate things. She shrieks for back-up and, like some really bad scene from West Side Story, windows in apartments all above us slam upward. Oh, shit.

 

Now she’s wielding a tire iron.

 

I call the cops. They arrive. I am shaking with fear. The cops, God bless them, are calm and kind. They listen to both of us.

She finally moves her car out of the way so I can escape.

Phil shows up with my interview subject. I burst into relieved tears. “Oh, the old lady with the tire iron,” Phil teases me kindly. “That’s Caitlin’s usual story.”

Interview subject and I head to the nearest bar — at 11:00 a.m. — and have a whisky.

Story Two: Ardsley, New York, a suburban town north of Manhattan

 

It’s 2019.

I’m rushing to a meeting with a tutoring agency, with the alluring possibility of earning some extra, needed income.

I’m driving on a very narrow, traffic-filled road and have to make a quick, sharp left-hand turn into a narrow alley that appears to have parking. I move to the very rear of the alley, literally facing a swamp.

This is not a town I know well at all.

There’s no indication this is not public parking — and that my car will be towed away.

I emerge from a terrific and successful meeting to find a tow truck and two men very aggressively  — and with NO explanation why — attaching our car (leased, cannot get damaged!) to their effing truck.

I lose my shit. I’m screaming. I’m shouting.

They curse me, shout at me, keep pushing their attachments onto my car.

I push the driver — a burly guy in his 50s — to get away from my damn car, (yes) and he curses at me and tells me he’s calling the police.

Awesome!

He demands instant payment of $150 cash to get his truck and its claws off my car. We have an amused audience of a construction crew — and another old lady who called the tow company because it’s her laundromat and I’d used one of her spots.

I hadn’t even seen the laundromat itself (hidden behind construction) — let alone her small warning sign, posted ONLY on the construction hoarding right at the street edge of the alley as I turned quickly out of traffic and did not see it.

There were no other signs anywhere to indicate that my car would be towed.

Cops come, two cars, show zero interest in what happened.

Truck leaves with my cash.

I eat lunch at a local diner, trying not to have a heart attack.

I go to Village Hall and tell the story (including my shitty — albeit terrified and utterly confused — behavior) to two blessedly kindly clerks before crying my way home, exhausted.

 

And, no, it’s not really possible to live in a New York suburb without a car.

 

Two Manhattan walks

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By Caitlin Kelly

Millions of people visit New York City every year. Many of them go to the official places and sights, which are often really crowded and noisy, like Times Square.

I treasure the quieter bits, and this week treated myself to two days’ exploration. What I still enjoy so much is that even a walk of barely 6 or 8 blocks can offer gorgeous architecture, a delicious meal or cocktail, great shopping and people watching.

 

Madison Avenue

Below 57th Street  lie all sorts of temptations, like Brooks Brothers for classic men’s and women’s clothing and the Roosevelt Hotel.

But the minute you start heading north at 57th. Street, the air thins as you enter one-percent-world. A young woman bashes me with her Chanel purse — and for next few hours it’s just a sea of Gucci, Chanel, Vuitton and Goyard bags, pricy tribal markers.

Alliance Francaise is on East 60th. where I went to buy a concert ticket, and discovered a gorgeous little cafe, Le Bilbouquet, next door. That area is very short of meal options so this is a good one.

New York is about to lose a retail icon, the department store Barney’s, (Madison at 60th.) once a place admired and revered for its style. Now it’s going out of business. I only shopped there a few times, but treasure the Isabel Marant jacket and private-label denim carryall I found there.

The Coach store staff were kind and welcoming, as were those at Fratelli Rossetti, (still wearing a pair of shoes I bought there in 1996!), and for the most amazing gloves, for men and women, Sermoneta.

The Hermes flagship store is gorgeous at 62d. St., opened in 2000. I love their fragrances, and wear Terre, a man’s scent that’s warm and woodsy and delicious.

The stores might be fancy, (and they’ll offer you a welcome bottle of water) but so, so many empty storefronts! I turned around at 68th or so and headed for home.

 

Bleecker/Bowery/Bond Street

 

Take the subway to Bleecker and start with a coffee and croissant at one of my favorite spots, Cafe Angelique. Bleecker crosses Greenwich Village east to west but also (!) north to south. How confusing is that?

 

 

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Bowery reflections

 

This is the easterly most bit. Head east to the Bowery, a north-south street once known as the last refuge of the down-and-and-out and now, of course, gentrified.

I turned south and hit one of the remaining restaurant supply stores, with a dizzying array of everything. I stood in the door, overwhelmed, and stammered: “Do you also sell retail?”

“You have money? All good,” was the reply; I bought a Christmas gift for my husband.

 

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A few doors north is a treasure trove of old New York antiques: chandeliers and tables — but also small, packable items like doorknobs, coat hooks and samovars, Olde Good Things, there since 2013. Want to own glassware or door numbers or cutlery from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel? Greg has them.

I admired a stunning Sputnik-esque enormous chandelier, that he found in a church in the Bronx, and asked his permission (always!) to photograph a few objects.

Same block, all on the west side, offers Caswell-Massey, which sells a tremendous selection of soaps and fragrances, including one George Washington wore. A massive oval bar of soap is $11, and comes in so many fragrances; I bought sandalwood.

Burkelman, at Bond Street, is well-edited and swoon-worthy: rugs, table linens, jewelry, clothing, baskets.

 

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Bar lighting at The Wren

 

I ate brunch at the bar of The Wren, and savored its atmosphere; cosy, old school.

Cross the Bowery for the elegant riot of John Derian, on East Second St. (north side), with his signature decoupage dishes and plates, Astier de Villatte tableware (at scary prices), notebooks, mirrors, stationery and more.

Next door is Il Buco Vita, filled with hand-made tableware and glasses, an offshoot of the longtime favorite — on Bond Street — Il Buco. Low-key, Italian, it’s been there since 1994, practically unheard of longevity in a city where restaurants open and close within months.

Staggering back west to Broadway along Bond, stop in at the enormous array of temptations at Blick, an art supply store I first discovered years ago in Chicago. I defy anyone to leave empty-handed.

I had a perfect four hours: shopped, ate, people-watched, snapped photos, got Christmas presents, wrapping paper (Blick) and ornaments (John Derian.) Score!

 

How (fill in nationality) are you?

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I remain a fan of long, long lunches — too French, for sure!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

A typical weekend scene in our home — my American husband, Jose, watching TV football or golf, the other day cheering the Ohio State University marching band, who are pretty amazing; here’s a video, 9:11 minutes long.

I admit it: I have yet to even see a football game live.

I’ve never seen a marching band live and — fellow Canadians, am I wrong? –– I don’t think Canada even has marching bands!

It’s been decades since I moved to the U.S. from Canada and I’m still stunned by some serious cultural/political differences, like the legal right in some states to “conceal carry” or “open carry” — i.e. walk around normal daily life with a handgun on you. (I spoke to 104 men, women and teens for my 2004 book about women and guns, and learned a lot.)

Or tailgating — in which you serve food from the back of a parked vehicle, usually in the parking lot of a sports stadium. What?!

Or words, and concepts, like a Hail Mary or a do-over.

I like the French formality of a cheek kiss or handshake whenever you meet someone. I really prefer the discretion of not blurting out a lot of highly personal detail allatonce the way Americans can do. I find it odd and overwhelming.

 

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A bit of classic Americana on Long Island, NY

 

I do love the directness and speed of New York, and it’s one reason I moved here, as I was always being mistaken for an American anyway — (too fast, too direct, too ambitious!) — in Toronto, my hometown. Canadians, for a variety of reasons, tend to be much more risk-averse and can move at a glacial pace in business, needing months or years to establish a sufficient relationship; New York, anyway, is highly transactional and people here want to do business, and (at a certain level) quickly and decisively.

And being “American” means quite different things in different areas — whether being overtly highly religious or owning a gun, to name only two regional examples.

One of the reasons Jose and I matched so quickly, even between a Canadian and American, an Anglo and a Hispanic, was our shared values, like a quiet sort of modesty, regardless of accomplishment — normal in Santa Fe, NM and for Canadians. Bragging is declassé!

I’ve lived in Canada, Mexico, England, France and the U.S. so my values and attitudes are all a bit of of these.

 

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Love this delivery, in the Marais, Paris

 

I miss Paris, where I lived at 25 — style, elegance,  history.

I miss Mexico, where I lived at 14 — gorgeous countryside, kind people, history and design.

That may sound pretentious, but it’s true.

When you have powerful experiences while living in a distant country your memories are highly specific and often unshared. When you leave that place behind, you carry all those memories, but who can you talk to about them?

They’re called “invisible losses.”

I really value friendship and emotional connection — which take time to nurture, and prefer them to the constant chase for money and power — which is pretty darn un-American. I also work to live, not live to work, also bizarre in a nation addicted to being productive above all.

 

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I always visit St. Lawrence Market in Toronto — and who doesn’t love a Mountie?

 

And yet I’m also very competitive, which works here.

I have friends, like the author of Small Dog Syndrome, who are TCK’s — third culture kids — who have spent much of their lives out of their country of origin. This gives them tremendous global fluency, sometimes multiple languages, and the very useful ability to fit in well almost anywhere. (Barack Obama is one, too.)

The downside?

You can feel forever a bit of a nomad, enjoying many nations, but perhaps loyal to none.

Here’s an interesting TedX talk on life as a TCK — from a white woman born in Nigeria.

 

 

Life, wealth adjacent

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A program that gets low-income New York students out onto the water — into boats they built by hand

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you heard of the Gini coefficient?

It’s a measure of income inequality, invented in 1912 by Italian statistician Corrado Gini.

I pay attention to it since I live in the United States — whose income inequality is the greatest in a century — and grew up in Canada, a nation with a much greater sense of the common good, and which creates public policy accordingly.

I’m also so aware of this because, living in a wealthy county north of New York City, I see it every day.

My town, 25 miles north of New York City, has massively gentrified in the 30 years I’ve lived here, as Brooklyn hipsters, priced out, have stampeded north, bringing man buns and McLaren strollers and Mini Cooper cars with them.

The other day a black Maserati blasted past me on the road and I’ve even seen a Lamborghini in town, a place once mostly filled with dusty Saturns and Civics. Today we have a local restaurant whose owner and whose ambition we love, but we watched three separate customers look at the menu and leave, saying his prices were too high.

And yet, our town retains real diversity — with public housing projects, multi-family homes, many rentals and, recently, million-dollar riverside condos.

I drove into Manhattan the other day to my hair salon and watched a woman laden with shopping bags struggling into her West Village 1800s brownstone townhouse door — a home that today would easily sell for $5 million or more; here’s one — just down the street from my salon — for a cool $28 million.

We are OK, compared to so many Americans, in even having savings, in owning our apartment (OK, still with a damn mortgage!) and having decent health and work.

But it’s bizarre to be surrounded by people with so many more zeros to their annual income, property values and assumptions about what’s “normal” — many women casually sporting a Goyard carryall that sells for $1,150, more than our mortgage payment.

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The organ was a $250,000 donation — from one parishioner

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We attend a gorgeous little church, built in 1853 by the same architect who designed New York’s famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and some parishioners are extremely well-off. (The photos on their website are all by Jose Lopez, my husband.)

Some women live nonchalantly supported  by husbands working in corporate law or on Wall Street, in enormous houses. Annoyingly, they seem to think my  career in journalism is some cute hobby, as they chirp: “Are you still writing?” or just ignore me because I’m clearly not rich and raising a brood of ferociously ambitious children,

This is the time of year when we’re asked to pledge, i.e. make a firm monthly financial commitment, to the church. There’s a chart in the parish hall showing a small group of people — fewer than 10 — give $20,000 to $30,000 a year, which is more than I’ve earned in some freelance years.

We’re debating how much to give. I admit that we’ve never pledged, but almost always add to the collection plate.

My family of origin had plenty of money, on both sides, and I enjoyed a childhood of material privilege, attending boarding school and summer camp. So wealth doesn’t intimidate me, nor do I spend my days lusting for more stuff.

But American “success” is always predicated on highly visible signs of wealth and power — hence the need for status-signaling clothing, accessories, housing, cars, nannies (some have three), exotic vacations, etc. So if you’re not “keeping up” you must be some sort of loser.

 

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East 70th Street, Manhattan

Jose and I chose a much less lucrative career path, journalism, which is why we drive a 20-year-old Subaru and have lived for decades in a one-bedroom apartment. (We also have decent retirement savings, a less visible decision.)

And yet, you have to be wilfully very ignorant to ignore the incredible poverty that also surrounds us, poverty I finally confronted personally for 18 months when I was a Big Sister to a 13 year old girl, a formal mentoring/matching program.

Sharing a squalid house with a bunch of relatives, her mother having disappeared years before, she lived only a 20-minute drive east across the county from me, but might have lived on another planet. I had never grasped that even knowing how to use a public library was a specific and essential skill for future success in a highly competitive economy; she didn’t know.

It snapped me into a deeper awareness of how wide these divisions are.

I wish I had some smart answer to this.

I do not.

 

Do you see this kind of income divide in your area?

 

 

Two new stories of American labor

By Caitlin Kelly

Happy Labor Day!

As regular readers here know, how people work and earn their living — and for what pay and under what conditions — is a bit of an obsession of mine.

I’ve had many staff jobs: at three big daily newspapers and at several magazines, (trade and consumer) — and worked 2.5 years selling stuff for $11/hour as a sales associate for The North Face, by far the most difficult job of my life and the most humbling. It became my second book.

Since losing my last staff job in 2006, I’ve remained freelance, which means I am only paid for whatever work I can find, negotiate and successfully complete. Pay rates for journalism are now much lower than in the early 2000s,. when I easily brought home $60,000 a year. Not now.

It’s crazy.

 

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I grew up in Canada — a country with unions! — and moved to the United States in 1988. It is a truly eye-opening experience to live in a land of such brute, bare-knuckled capitalism! No paid maternity leave and very little unpaid. No paid vacation days, by law. At-will employment, which literally means anyone can fire you anytime for no reason at all.

Then, no severance!

Weakened unions at their lowest membership ever.

Stagnant wages — while CEOs “earn” 254 times the pay of their lowest-paid staff.

So, hey — try these!

Former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, a friend, has finally just published his new book about American labor, The Big Squeeze.

I can’t wait to read it.

Just one of its many rave reviews…


“The power of Greenhouse’s book lies . . . in its reporting, especially on low-wage workers . . . his best material vividly focuses on the always difficult and often abusive working conditions of low-paid employees. Such stories get far too little airing and rarely are they so well told.” —Business Week

Here’s an earlier book on the same topic, from 2014.

And a new documentary,  American Factory, takes a close look at one American factory taken over by the Chinese.

From The New York Times’ review:

In 2016, Cao opened a division of Fuyao, his global auto-glass manufacturing company, in a shuttered General Motors factory near Dayton, Ohio. Blaming slumping S.U.V. sales, G.M. had closed the plant — known as the General Motors Moraine Assembly Plant — in December 2008, throwing thousands out of work the same month the American government began a multibillion dollar bailout of the auto industry. The Dayton factory remained idle until Fuyao announced it was taking it over, investing millions and hiring hundreds of local workers, numbers it soon increased.

The veteran filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who are a couple and live outside of Dayton, documented the G.M. plant when it closed. They included the image of the last truck rolling off the line in their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” That crystallizing image also appears in “American Factory,” which revisits the plant six years later. The feature-length story they tell here is complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor. (This is the first movie that Barack and Michelle Obama’s company Higher Ground Productions is releasing with Netflix.)

 

Hoping that you have work you like, and well-paid!

Life on the Hudson River: 7 joys

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

I grew up in Toronto, a city that has managed, except for a few exceptions at its most eastern and western edges, to cut off easy access to Lake Ontario.

So it’s been a tremendous joy to spend decades living on the eastern edge of the Hudson River, with terrific views from our every window.

Some of our many riparian pleasures include:

 

 

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The new bridge

 

It’s gorgeous! The old one, in use between 1955-2017, was desperately overdue for replacement and finally was torn down and replaced with this stunning new version spanning the Hudson. It glows at night in lavender. Details here.

 

Sunsets and sunrises

 

We have a gloriously clear view from our bedroom window of the exact moment the rising sun hits all the windows of homes across the river, high on its opposite shore, lighting them up in a stunning, brief blaze of red. I call it the ruby moment and love to track how that time changes with the seasons.

Sunsets are always spectacular, whether streaks of orange and purple or a single red ball dropping over the horizon.

River traffic

It’s very much a working river, with plenty of big barges being shoved ahead by small, powerful tugboats. There is some sailing, kayaking and canoeing as well, with boat clubs up and down the river.

 

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Boscobel

 

Swoon! It’s embarrassing to admit that only this year, thanks to a discount ticket and a musical I had longed to see — Into the Woods — did I finally drive 45 minutes north to this exquisite early 19th century estate that holds an annual Shakespeare Festival on the grounds. The house, painted mustard, is gorgeous from the outside (I intend to go back for a tour), and the theater was a hoot. It’s like a circus big top, with seats on 3 sides, and a sand-filled stage with three exits.

 

 

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People arrived a few hours before the Broadway show, which debuted in 1986, spreading out picnic blankets on the lawn, enjoying the sunshine and spectacular river views, and starting their meals with bottles of wine and friends.

 

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The performance I saw was fantastic, prompting a standing ovation well-deserved.

Olana

 

Built in 1872, this spectacular hilltop mansion — with stunning views — was the home of legendary painter Frederic Church. It’s filled with fantastic, high Victorian art and architecture.

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I was married there, the first time, in May 1992, in a lovely and austere chapel right at the river’s edge — shown in period engravings — built in 1833 and abandoned in 1906. It has no electricity, just a huge chandelier lit by candles. Our Lady of Restoration is now non-denominational. From its website:

 

the first Catholic church north of Manhattan.

Its designer was another immigrant, a 19-year-old from England, Thomas Kelah Wharton. Built in 1833 of locally made red brick covered with stucco, the chapel was in the Greek Revival style, then in vogue. Its columns were of the Tuscan order, a simple, unfluted version of the Doric, whose supreme expression is the Parthenon in Athens..

Contemporary press describes a festive dedication, September 21, 1834, with people arriving by boat. A large choir performed, along with a band from West Point, “whose notes might be heard in the recesses of the mountains,” for dignitaries of church and state.

The town is a fun easy day trip from Manhattan, 50 miles north, easily accessible by commuter train.

It’s also a spot where the river is very narrow and the landscape feels timeless, like you’ve been whisked back to 1773 or 1842.

Metro-North’s Hudson Line

A paean to a commuter train line?

Yes.

It’s almost always on-time, with cars that are usually clean and always air-conditioned.

Its tracks — most compellingly — run parallel to, and very close to, the Hudson River.

As the train heads north from Grand Central Terminal, it skirts the Harlem River before turning north. If you sit in the window seat on the river-facing side, you’re always guaranteed one of the prettiest rail commutes in the U.S.