Birthday reflections

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m writing this at a friend’s house in Connecticut — a 220 year-old home full of history and memories.

Doves coo outside.

It’s our first visit to a friend’s home in more than a year and a half, since we are all fully vaccinated and our hostess had Covid a few months ago.

I’ve been very lucky to celebrate this day in Venice (once) and Paris three times, the most recent in 2017.

Last night for dinner, my husband Jose made his amazing short ribs and we had a carrot cake and champagne.

It’s the second year of a birthday without my mother being alive, even though we were estranged. To my shock, I found out she had left me some money, so that was a huge gift in itself.

The day of my birthday, June 6, is also one marked by two major world events — D-Day and the death of Robert Kennedy. My American-born mother cried that morning.

It’s been, so far, a good year. We are healthy and solvent and have savings and good work.

We have friends.

For the next year, I just hope for more of the same, with health always the most essential element.

I have great memories of some childhood birthday parties and a funny photo of my 12th. with a cake filled with sparklers. My high school best friend threw me a surprise party for my 16th. That was lovely.

In June 2018, I was found to have DCIS, a very early stage breast cancer. So that was a tougher birthday.

This year, cards have arrived from friends near and far.

Now I’m at an age I think….hmmmm…how many more will I be granted?

My father turns 93 in five days, so I hope for his healthful longevity.

Mostly, this year, I’m just grateful to be here.

Manhattan memories

One of my favorites!

By Caitlin Kelly

Thanks to a generous friend who lent me her Upper East Side studio apartment for three weekends recently, I got to explore the city at leisure.

I grew up in big cities: London, Toronto, Montreal and Paris, so my life in a New York suburb for the past few decades, certainly without the social connection of having children, has been a weird experience.

I would never have chosen to spend my life outside of a city, but we had (still here!) a great apartment with a river view and a pool and I can see the towers of downtown Manhattan, even 25 miles south, from my quiet, tree-lined residential street.

If I were super rich, Manhattan could be fun — a spacious, bright apartment and not being subjected to the stinky summer streets and sweaty subway. But I would never have been able to afford and enjoy the life there I have, so I stayed out here and head in as often as I have time and money for — a round-trip trainfare is $19.

I love the variety and people-watching and walking everywhere (so much healthier than driving!) of city life. So many dogs! Such great eavesdropping.

I had a great time meandering, re-visiting some favorite spots and discovering some new ones, like:

Rockefeller Center

If you’ve never been to NY, it is spectacular, built between 1930 and 1939, 19 commercial buildings in midtown, designed by Raymond Hood. Some of its details are very beautiful, especially those facing Fifth Avenue. One of my favorites — by (!?) Isamu Noguchi — is over the entrance to the Associated Press buildings, a massive metal bas-relief of various sorts of news reporting.

Here’s the famous statue of Atlas, now wearing a mask!

Fifth Avenue

Well, if you’ve ever watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you’ve seen Audrey Hepburn standing before one of its windows on the famous avenue.

It’s a street with so much elegance, starting at 42d Street with the massive NY Public Library and its entrance flanked by two stone lions, Patience and Fortitude, who in winter sport holiday wreaths. Today, the street — which once housed such elegant stores as Takashimaya and Bendel’s — is now much more mass-market and full of tourists buying all the stuff they could by at home in Oklahoma.

But it’s also home to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and St. Thomas.

The Plaza!

After 59th street, heading north, it becomes residential, with palatial buildings overlooking Central Park.

The Lexington Candy Shop

Last renovated in 1948, at the southwest corner of Lex and 83rd. this funky little place is a classic diner. I met a pal there for breakfast and it was great.

Donohue’s Steak House

How I love a classic NYC joint! This spot, in business since 1950, is perfect. I stopped by and had a club sandwich and a beer and rice pudding and it was just what I wanted and not a lot of money, hard to imagine at Lexington and 64th. The waitresses all wear crisp white shirts and black trousers — and in 2015, a regular left two of them each $50,000. That’s the UES, baby!

William-Wayne

One of my favorite shops. This is the place to buy the perfect hostess or wedding gift, from gorgeous lacquer trays to Indian print tablecloths, small throw rugs, picture frames, scented candles, and a tiny selection of vintage glassware. Also at Lex and 64th.

Edith Machinist

I told a much younger stylish friend, NYC born and raised, how I’d just scored there — gorgeous brown suede knee-high boots, a fab 80’s oversize leather satchel and a burgundy cotton jacket — and she laughed. “I’ve been shopping there since high school!”

To stay in business for 19 years in fiercely competitive NYC is a feat in itself! This vintage clothing shop is always full of terrific clothes, bags, footwear and accessories. Prices aren’t stupidly high and none are Big Name Designers, which makes it more fun and affordable. I splurged $180 on a silk 80s Genny dress a long time ago and wore it a LOT and loved it. Rivington is a fun street, and Economy Candy is next door!

In the window of Economy Candy. How could you resist?

Balthazar

Oh, my dears! This place, a classic French bistro, holds one of my most cherished memories, meeting my first agent there for lunch on a scorching spring or summer day in 2001. He was handsome as hell, looking like a younger William Hurt, and, then being a new agent needing clients, was wooing me — which is now not the case for most writers!

The restaurant is one created by Brian McNally, opened in 1997, who is a legendary restaurateur here, a Briton whose venues are both hyper-stylish and skilfully weathered.

The agent ordred Kumamotos — which were…? Tiny oysters I’d never heard of or tried.

It was such a pleasure to return to this stalwart where I ate outside, and lunch came to $87. Yes, I know. It’s a bloody fortune!

But sometimes the experience — the food, the service, the street, the people-watching — is worth every dime.

Why to re-visit somewhere you’ve been

Jose’s hometown

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this recent blog post with 10 reasons why you should go back to places you’ve already been to, instead of some frenzied checklist or bucket list of all the places you haven’t yet visited.

Georgetown. D.C., November 2017.

A few of these:

You’ve changed

Oh yeah! I spent a year in Paris at 25 on a life-changing journalism fellowship on the Rue du Louvre. Since then I’ve been back many many times, as often as I can afford, and have spent three birthdays there. I’m still me, but my perspective has changed, as it would.

I’ve been to Ireland five times — in the 80s to visit a friend in Dublin, the mid-90s when my father owned a Georgian house near Athenry, Co. Donegal; in the aughts with my father driving around, alone to cover the Lidsoonvarna singles festival and in 2015 with Jose. Happy to go back many more times!

You know what to expect

I love Riana’s detail — of bringing your Old Oyster card (yes!) back to London with you. I keep little bags of euros and Canadian currency for those return trips. I know how long it will take to get around some cities by bus or subway. I learned — in the heat of July — that city blocks in Berlin are massive! I thought New York city blocks were long, but no.

Every first visit will bring surprises (ask my husband about the pre-dawn post-flight bus I said would take us into Paris…but didn’t) but if you go back, you know better now.

Montreal has such a distinct sort of architecture

You can revisit old favorites

Well, post-pandemic I suspect many have closed for good.

But the ones that remain are a lovely comfort, whether a diner or cafe or museum or even a favorite street or park.

Riana is a pistol!

Like me, she’s Canadian and has created some fantastic adventures for herself.

Paris — bien sur!

I hope to be back in Berlin, Paris and London this fall.

And yet, there are also so many places I do want to see the first time, like:

Morocco, Japan, Jordan, Namibia, Malawi, South Africa, Botswana, VietNam, Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia…

What are some spots you love to go back to?

A raucous blast of pure joy: American Utopia

By Caitlin Kelly

If you can access Spike Lee’s new film of David Byrne’s former Broadway show, American Utopia, do!

I’ve been rocking out to Byrne and his Talking Heads since their first album came out in 1977 when I was at University of Toronto. Psycho Killer with its chorus of fafafafafafafafafafa…better run, run, run, run, run, run away? No one before had made music quite like it.

The film of the show makes me cry now because it’s full of all the things we can no longer enjoy — and who knows when we’ll be able to do so again — pack into an every-seat-filled theater, hollering out the songs we know and love at top volume, dancing in the aisles, savoring the conga line of musicians snaking through the audience.

The musicians each wear the instrument they play, whether a small drum or large drum or acoustic guitar or cymbals. They swerve and sway and own the stage, joyous and somber in turn.

The musicians come from all over: Toronto, Brazil, France.

Everyone wears a pale gray suit. Everyone is barefoot.

Two are dancers.

At times, they become a deeply moving gospel choir.

The film used 11 cameras, offering us views we would never have enjoyed in the theater.

What a badly needed joy this is right now!

Here’s the 1:10 trailer from HBO.

Two views of Little Women

By Caitlin Kelly

I may be the only person in the U.S., certainly the only woman, who has never read the classic of American literature, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, published in 1868 and 1869.

It’s the story of the March family, living in Massachusetts, and their daughters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.

I won’t synopsize it here, but recently saw two very different filmed versions of it, the film by New York director and actor Greta Gerwig and the BBC made-for-TV 3-part series, written by Heidi Thomas.

No wonder it’s so good — Thomas is the writer of the phenomenally popular BBC series Call The Midwife, another of my favorites.

The Gerwig version stars Irish actor Saoirse Ronan as Jo, whose ambition to be a published author are both emotional and practical — her family needs the income. She’s very high energy, sometimes exhaustingly so. In the BBC version, Maya Hawke — daughter of terrific actor Ethan Hawke — plays Jo, in a very different way. She’s calmer, quieter, driven but more complex.

The BBC version really won my heart, with beautiful cinematography and a cooler affect. It’s fascinating to see how differently two female writers and directors handle the same source material and what a difference casting can make.

Have you seen either version?

Which did you prefer?

21 questions, answered

By Caitlin Kelly

I miss travel the most!

Time for something lighter!

The FT’s glossy magazine How to Spend It runs a 21-question survey of people whose taste and opinions they consider interesting.

Here are my answers to their questions:

My personal style signifier

A scarf or muffler, in silk, cashmere, wool, linen.

The last thing I bought and loved

Two throw pillows from Svenkst Tenn, a Swedish department store.

On my wishlist

Travel! To leave the United States and travel far and wide, slowly.

The best gift I’ve given recently

A copy of this book, to a friend I met online (!)

The best gift I have ever received

The massive Times Atlas of the World, given by my then very broke medical student boyfriend, later first husband

In my fridge, you’ll always find

Cheese, half and half, selzer, lemons and limes

My favorite room in my house

House? House!? I wish! Have never owned a house and haven’t lived in one since 1989, a New Hampshire rental. (Our one apartment bathroom is gorgeous, if tiny. I designed it and delight in it.)

The last album I downloaded

I never download and have long lists of things I want to.

I have a serious collection of

Brown and white transferware 19th century china. Linen napkins.

An object I would never part with

My Canadian passport.

An unforgettable place I’ve traveled to in the past year

A nature sanctuary in Pennsylvania, filled with silence and very tall pine trees. Not another soul.

The best souvenir I ever brought home

A set of metal mixing bowls from my favorite cookware store in Montreal — now out of business.

Recently I’ve been reading

A variety of fiction and essays.

The best book I’ve read in the past year

A recent “find”

Doyle online auctions!

If I could, I would collect

Friends!

I had a memorable meal at

A basic, small-town Italian restaurant in Pennsylvania. Great food. Welcoming staff.

My style icon

Hmmmm. Tough one! Probably Auntie Mame.

My grooming staples

Sunscreen. Many fragrances: L’Eau de l’Artisan by l’Artisan Parfumeur; Chanel Number 5; Terre by Hermes, Prada Iris. Glossier eyebrow liner.

If I weren’t doing what I do, I’d have been

A radio talk show host. Interior designer. Retail store owner. Choreographer.

I can’t wait to get back to

Canada, to see all our friends. Europe, for the same. Travel!

Zoom! Zoom!

By Caitlin Kelly

A week or so ago I made an offer on Twitter — I would Zoom into high school or college journalism classes, pro bono, to talk to them about my writing career and answer their questions.

Work is really slow right now, so rather than just being bored and restless, I thought of Zoom as an easy way to connect easily and quickly, if anyone was up for it — and I could be useful to students and teachers just as frustrated by this weird new way to learn.

Ironically, the only college professor who replied is a local woman who insulted me in 2006 (yes, I nurse grudges!) at a New York City media party. So I never even answered her.

I’ve so enjoyed this new adventure!

My first one was with a class in California, the second in Michigan, the third a low-income school in Texas. I still have three more to go, in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.

Questions included:

— How do you cope with a male-dominated profession? Do you find it intimidating? (Nope!)

— What story of yours had the most impact on readers? (One about Mirapex, a drug prescribed for Parkinson’s Disease that was also causing bizarre side effects like addictions to gambling, shopping and sex. One grateful reader said the story, which prompted her to go back to her doctor — who’d been denying these side effects — had saved her life.)

— How do you handle writer’s block? (I never get it. If I do, it means I haven’t done enough reporting to gain the depth and clarity I need to get started.)

I also spoke with students at Brigham Young University this week, seniors studying sociology, about my story on Canadian healthcare for the American Prospect, published in January 2020 — and what a fantastic group they were! Such thoughtful questions.

One of the hardest parts of working alone at home since 2006 is the lack of intellectual exchange it imposes.

It’s also rare — and enjoyable! — to discuss any of my stories with anyone after publication:

Why did I do this one?

What was the hardest part?

What was the most fun?

What did I hope it would accomplish?

It’s depressing to work for weeks or months to produce a story I’m really proud of — and have it sink into the ether with almost response.

In the past, because students were busy and getting access to teachers or their classes a bureaucratic mess, this wouldn’t have been possible. Now, with most students learning from home, and learning by Zoom, it is. There are often cats in the background, some students yawning, some without their video on, so a faceless voice.

I love teaching and sharing ideas and discussing challenging subjects with smart people. I really miss that!

So, while this is technically a giveaway of my skills and experience, it’s a great gift to me as well.

So if you’re a teacher and this interests you — my email is on my About and Welcome pages.

What’s journalism for?

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By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s one explanation, from the media writer for The New York Times:

If you’re a reader, you can enjoy journalism, appreciate its role in a free society and resist the search for heroes who will take down evildoers and save our democracy

The alternative to heroes are strong institutions, and a recognition that the people who work in them are human. Reporters, for all the preening from cable news to social media, are normal working people whose strengths are often connected to what would seem in other contexts to be personality flaws: obsessiveness, distrust, appetite for confrontation, sometimes a certain manipulativeness. You don’t get revelatory news from strange people with bad motives by giving the impression that you’re a saint...

This dynamic presents itself with particular clarity on the television interview circuit. It’s an enduring global mystery why British and Australian interviewers are so much better than ours at pinning down politicians and forcing clarity out of confrontation, as Kay Burley of Sky News demonstrated in demolishing a cabinet minister last Thursday.

The answer, I think, is that American television hosts need to be liked.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while knows I work as a journalist — and have done so in Toronto, Montreal, Paris, New Hampshire and New York, as a daily newspaper reporter, a magazine editor and a freelance writer for a wide array of outlets.

The industry has lost thousands of journalists this year, exacerbated by the pandemic.

This hurts the quality of the work you see — and I do as well — as much as it over-inflates the egos of those who still have a job, especially at a major outlet like The New York Times or Washington Post or on television, where salaries are usually much higher.

Local journalism is disappearing.

Here’s a truly depressing tracker of every American newsroom losing staff since March when the pandemic started to hit.

That leaves local residents unable to track their taxpayers’ funds or local sports teams or board of education budgets. There’s simply no way to know what’s going on in your community, for sure, without skilled, trained reporters able to ferret out data and make sense of it — and who are willing to confront those with power, elected and un-elected — with tough questions.

It’s called accountability. Every functioning democracy needs not only a free press but one digging deeply at every level, not just changing a few paragraphs of a press release.

From a career perspective, the loss of smaller outlets also makes any traditional ladder impossible for many, if not most, new/young journalists to start climbing — leaving those more privileged to attend the elite colleges most hiring managers prefer and able to move to the major cities where living costs are very high and entry level salaries not great.

I’ve seen this through the experiences of young independent journalist Abby Lee Hood, who I met through Twitter, a writer in Nashville, who studied journalism at a great school (Columbia College), but whose current pay rates are so low it just makes serious reporting a costly hobby.

That’s a loss for all of us!

AND YET….

This has also been a very bad week for journalism ethics — yes, they exist — with the revelation from the legendary former Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that Trump knew months ago, admitted to him on the record months ago, that the Corona virus was deadly.

So, yeah, 200,000 dead Americans later…

Only now —- to boost book sales — is this public?!

For shame!

 

When friendships fray

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What happens when your deepest values clash?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

There are many moments in life that can test, end or even strengthen a friendship — graduation from years of shared classes and experiences, engagement, marriage, divorce, becoming a parent, miscarriage, serious illness, injury or disability.

Politics!

What is friendship really based on?

What keeps it alive for months or years or even decades — and what causes it to wither and die?

I’m really fortunate to have friendships that have lasted for decades, even through many major life changes on my end: leaving my home city, leaving my home country, getting married and divorced and re-married, getting (early stage, all gone) breast cancer in June 2018.

The people I became friends with in my teens or 20s are people who share my social, professional and ethical values, just as they are now.

They tend to be people who have traveled widely — and not necessarily in luxury or comfort — they’ve worked for an NGO or as a journalist or physician or photographer.

Many have also weathered some tough issues in their lives, like mine — like a mentally-ill sibling or parent or someone who’s alcoholic or abusive.

Many have lived outside their home cities or towns, and most have lived outside their native country, often many times, adapting to new languages, cultures and customs. It has taught them to be open-minded, flexible, aware that there are many ways to work, relate, worship, vote, savor leisure.

They’re really curious about the rest of the world and how it works, or why it doesn’t. The rest of the world can mean anything outside their postal code or zip code — not some tedious, annoying abstraction, but a place as filled with contradictions and joy as our own.

Sometimes, though, a friendship springs to life through the least likely — and such fun! — common interests. On Twitter I became friends with a Berlin-based archeologist because we started tweeting the lyrics to Time Warp (a song from the Rocky Horror Picture Show) at one another.

Other friends share my passion for books or writing or design or antiques or travel.

My oldest friend is a mother of three adult women and lives a very different life from mine and very far away. I have no children and have only met her husband maybe once or twice in decades, thanks to our geographic distance.

But we have deep roots, thank heaven! We met in freshman English class at U of Toronto, rolling our eyes at one another.

We dated two men who were also best friends, both of them faithless shits!

She was my maid-of-honor at my first wedding, when I whispered to her before it started — “Just be my friend if this doesn’t work out.”

It didn’t and she did.

Sometimes friendships end, as our lives diverge or our values shift — or our tolerance for bullshit just finally evaporates.

I had three female friends a decade or so ago I thought, like my earlier Canadian pals, were likely to remain my friends for many more years to come. They were not.

Weary of biting my tongue, I confronted all three of them, as politely as I knew how, asking them to examine their privilege and be more sensitive to the difference between their income level (never enough for them!) and my own. Two chose to end the friendship instead.

A third married a man whose values just appalled me, boasting to me about his enormous income as a corporate executive — while making my friend work non-stop through chemo for her breast cancer.

I didn’t want to be a part of their lives any longer, and vice versa.

One friend, who was really supportive of me through a work crisis in 2014-2015, was weird when I got breast cancer and said some really stupid things. When you’ve gotten a cancer diagnosis, even the least threatening, everything changes forever.

Like every relationship, a truly intimate friendship allows enough room for disagreement, conflict and, ideally, resolution. Over time, we reveal our tenderest bits to one another, confident those soft spots will be met kindly and with respect.

It was decades before one friend of mine even knew I had/have a half-brother. It wasn’t a subject I wanted to discuss.

I’m watching my friendships carefully now, since it’s been more than three months since I’ve seen most of them face to face as we continue to isolate due to this pandemic.

It’s a time of real reflection and re-assessment.

 

Have you had, and lost, friends?

Did you ever reconcile — or just move on?

 

 

Oh, to be airborne again!

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By Caitlin Kelly

As some here know, I live to travel — 41 countries so far and so many more I’m so eager to visit:  Iceland, Finland, Morocco, Japan, maybe back to New Zealand and definitely back to Scotland, Ireland, England and France.

That also means hours airborne and I have bizarrely mixed emotions about flying:

 

I love flying, in theory, but loathe wide-body aircraft and being jammed into one with 300+ other people. I know that smaller aircraft, especially the very smallest, can be more dangerous and bumpy. I just hate being surrounded by so many people 35,000 feet in the air for hours.

I can’t wait to go somewhere far away!

Ohhhhh, I hate turbulence.

And now, the notion of. 6,8, 9 hours wearing a mask?

 

So, in the meantime, I’m watching every possible film and TV show set far from the United States, like Baptiste (Amsterdam), Happy Valley, Broadchurch, Shetland, Hinterland (England, Scotland, Wales), Wallander (Sweden, UK) and many others.

Jose and I are total #avgeeks, and on our Facebook and Instagram feeds watch JustPlanes.com— with the coolest aviation videos of planes taking off and landing all over the world, mostly from the cockpit!

I once had the most amazing experience — as an adult! — flying home into LaGuardia airport in New York from Toronto on Air Canada. The flight path goes down the Hudson River then turns east then south again to land.

The flight attendant, seeing me peer excitedly out the window as we got closer and closer to the airport — pre 9/11 and prohibited cockpit visits — asked if I’d like to see the landing from inside the cockpit.

Are you kidding!?

What a fantastic thrill!

I’ve had a few aviation adventures over the years:

 

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Our flight from Managua to Bilwi, Nicaragua

 

 

The domestic Nicaraguan airline whose aircraft was so tiny they weighed our baggage — and us!

Or the Russian-built aircraft I flew in in Venezuela, with all its interior markings in Cyrillic.

The flight from Valetta to Tunis, in a smallish aircraft and some turbulence, with all communications in Arabic only.

Or the BOAC flight I took on Christmas Eve as a child to London — with holiday decorations hanging from the ceiling across the single aisle.

Flying as a courier (no ticket!) to Stockholm, Caracas, London and Bangkok.

Or the flight to Scotland, age 12, for a summer staying with a friend — smuggling my hamster Pickles underneath my coat in his custom-designed cage made by a friend’s father.

And the Faucett Air flight into Cuzco, Peru, a small landing strip surrounded by mountains and one with low cloud cover. That was a white-knuckler.

And the tiny plane that flew me and a Gazette photographer and a CBC reporter and a cameraman — and hundreds of boxes of donated clothing — from Kuujjuaq to Salluit, Quebec, flying north for hours about the treeline, with nothing but ice and snow to see and eventually land on.

 

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Our aircraft from Managua to Bilwi — and back!

 

One of my favorite books, ever, is one written by a former 747 British Airways pilot Mark vanHoenacker, (still flying for them, but not that aircraft), Skyfaring. It is the most lyrical and lovely book about how the world appears from the air, and the cockpit.

I admit to being a total fangirl, in awe of all pilots and their skills.

Jose knows, if he’s meeting me at the airport arriving, I’m often last out because I’ve had a quick chat with the pilots, if possible.

 

Do you have a favorite airline?

Type of aircraft?

Or a great aviation tale to share?