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


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?


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!


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


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.


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!



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:


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.


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?

Rituals and routines



Bingeing on fabulous shows!


By Caitlin Kelly

In a time of basic chaos — pandemic life — it feels even more essential to have some rituals and routines to help us feel grounded and vaguely normal.

I liked this New York Times column on the power of tea and toast:

My go-to comfort food is toast with butter and flaky maldon salt (I could eat this all day long!), and I didn’t hold back from sharing this with the team. Inspired, producer Julia Longoria made some calls to food writers at The Times to ask about their favorite comfort snacks.

Lo and behold, Kim Severson’s comfort food was also toast — specifically, cinnamon toast. Kim is a food writer based in Atlanta. She was eager to share her method, which involves toasting a slice of bread, buttering it “to complete abandon,” and coating it with cinnamon and sugar. “One bite of this and I’m exactly back in my mom’s kitchen after school,” she says in the episode.

But as we got to work, I realized that an episode about toast felt incomplete. What goes with toast? Tea, of course.


My typical routines include (and how I miss it!) a spin class at 8:30 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. It was a perfect way to start my day energized, social and feel a bit less guilty about what I would later consume.

I still make a pot of tea almost every day around 4:30 or 5:00 pm, in a small pea-green teapot, often PG Tips, Constant Comment or Irish Breakfast. I love tea, and it’s a great break from one more boring bottle of healthy water. I like it strong enough — as an Irish neighbor once told my Dad — for a mouse to walk across.






My other routines and rituals:

— reading two newspapers a day, in print, The New York Times and Financial Times

— watching New York Gov. Cuomo’s daily press conference on CNN at 11:30 a.m.

— lighting tapers and votives when we sit down to dinner

— setting a pretty table, even just for us

— a nap

— listening to NPR talk shows like the Brian Lehrer show, The Takeaway (not food!) and All Things Considered

— whatever TV shows are my current favorite. I was loving my Sunday line-up on PBS: Call the Midwife, World on Fire, Baptiste, Endeavour….and all have ended their seasons.

— blogging! This keeps me engaged when not writing for income, and allows me to connect with you

— Twitter. I confess to spending much more time there than optimal, but it also brought me my two latest clients, so it works in that regard.

— In summer, long lunches outdoors with my softball team



And I wouldn’t call it a routine, I really miss having friends over for a meal, something we usually do at least once a month, often more. We will often do a Sunday lunch, lazing for hours over conversation, rather than a Friday or Saturday night.

Do you have rituals and routines you enjoy?


Has the pandemic altered them?


Listening well


Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.


By Caitlin Kelly

I listen for a living.

Most people think I write for a living, and, yes, the product I sell is an article or story or blog post for publication, for a company or for a journalism outlet.

But before I have anything to write about, I’ve listened carefully to strangers who have to place their trust in me to get it right, make their views known without distortion and communicate it all compellingly to even more strangers.

It’s a challenge!

I really enjoy it, but it can be difficult. My current project means speaking to a source in Europe and using a video interface, which can freeze or drop words or whole sentences. Add to that an accent and a complex topic, and away we go!

My interviews have sometimes been extremely delicate, like the young black women I spoke with for my first book about American women and gun use. Each had been arrested for a gun-related crime (not murder) and each had her own reasons for owning and using one.

My job was simply to listen quietly, non-reactively, kindly, without judgment.

I suspect it may have been a rare occasion for them to simply tell their story and just be listened to — not to a cop or a judge or a social worker, let alone a middle-aged, white stranger.

The photo above is fairly typical of me when I’m really focusing hard; I’m not looking at the speaker (not to be rude!) but really thinking.


An interview, journalistically, is a terrific experience but it’s not conversation in any conventional sense. It has elements of that — nods, laughter, echoing back what someone just said, asking a clarifying question, even swearing — but it’s also a controlled interaction where the writer must stay in the driver’s seat, even if done delicately and invisibly.


I recently did my first transcription for a fellow journalist, whose interview was with a major pop musician. Oh, I felt for them! The replies were often mumbled or mono-syllabic. I was as tired at the end of making sense of it as they probably were as well.

To conduct a really good interview requires both intellectual acuity (make it interesting for them! ask smart and incisive questions and follow-ups) and emotional sensitivity (don’t rush them!) 





I did a series of interviews in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, years ago, for Chatelaine, a national women’s magazine, which meant asking sources — all women — to revisit an extremely painful experience, a side effect of a drug, Mirapex, all had taken for their Parkinson’s disease or for restless leg syndrome.

The side effect was an excess of dopamine over-stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, and the women had unwittingly become compulsive gamblers, terrifying their families and confounding their physicians.

Between their emotion and the disease, they shook and/or cried through the interviews and one’s family raged about her behavior — without really understanding, medically, what was even happening or why. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported and I apologized to each beforehand and thanked them afterward for how exhausting it was for them to share their stories.

Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than a journalist.


When I listen for work, I bring tools to the table with me:





cultural sensitivity (what’s taboo, what’s likely to elicit passion or emotion or silence)

prior research (to know what to ask)

patience (not every word or sentence is riveting)

editing as we go (see above!)

attentiveness to their pauses, hesitations, laughter, emphasis, repetition

Here’s a recent and interesting New York Times piece about how to listen well:


Start out by talking about something the other person likes, or maybe doesn’t like, and finding out why that is. It could be music, art, books, films, food, favorite childhood toys or even other people. The point is to explore one another’s affinities, attitudes, beliefs and opinions — but never argue about them. As the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.”

Likes and dislikes develop through experiences, and those back stories are willingly told if you ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. These don’t necessarily have to be long, drawn-out conversations.


Even when I interview super-smart eminent scientists, as I did for a recent story, I make time for some casual personal conversation as well. I discovered that one of the leaders in water treatment shared my experiences of flying Nicaragua’s domestic airline — and eating at a great Indian restaurant in Montreal (where he attended McGill, across the street.)

Those fun, personal, quirky moments make even the most serious interview more human and playful.

We talk most easily to other human beings, not robots.

Jose and I talk to one another a lot.

It’s one of my favorite elements of our marriage — because really listening to someone is an active form of love.

The end of My Brilliant Friend, season 2

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a series of four books that everyone I know rhapsodizes over, by Elena Ferrante.

I tried to read the first one years ago, and gave up.

But the HBO series has been extraordinary.

If you haven’t seen it, and can, I urge you!

It’s the story of two women, who meet as young girls in a rough Naples neighborhood, one extremely beautiful, uneducated, Lila, who uses her beauty over and over as her most powerful weapon — even though she ends up pregnant by one man and miserably married, at 19, to another. Suddenly she is wearing elegant shifts and enormous pearls.

While she’s wildly tempestuous and rebellious compared to her friend Elena, (Lenu), who is quiet, shy, bookish, Lila’s life is a rollercoaster.

Both women, even as very young girls, see each other as their “brilliant friend”, both admiring and envious of the other’s skills and talents and ways of navigating their world — a tough and insulated world always dominated by money and by men, who have all the money.

Their world, post WWII Naples, in a town without a single tree or flower, is violent and allows them only one legitimate choice — to marry young and well, if possible, and have children. To attend university, as Elena eventually does, is the only true escape.

It’s mesmerizing, although sometimes so painful to watch — to see two women grow up, sometimes deeply committed and sometimes in such fierce competition with one another, for male attention, for family respect, for work with any meaning, for a life they define as theirs in any way.

If you — as I have — have had a best friend for decades, watching one another grow and change, through joy and despair — this will resonate deeply.

Set in the 50s and 60s, the sets, locations, costumes are all perfect — Italy!

The music is beautiful and evocative, the themes totally relatable.

And here’s a link to a documentary about the two terrific actresses — who had never before acted…!

And a Vogue story about them and the show:


I’m surprised to find a quiet and even bashful girl. From a small seaside town south of Naples, she says she shares with Lila “her energy, the fragility of her sentiments, her determination.”

She and her mother have moved to be close to the set. Unlike the other girls, who burned to tell their friends about the role of a lifetime, Girace wanted to keep it a secret. “It was a thing for me,” she says softly. “A personal thing.”

Margherita Mazzucco, the fifteen-year-old who plays the older Lenù, is fairer, with thick, wavy hair. She welcomes me to the courtyard, “where I live,” she jokes, and complains that the costumed padding is making her seem heavier.

“I’ve never acted, never done anything,” she says. “Even today, I asked myself why they picked me.” In the course of devouring the books, she at first saw nothing of herself in the naive “and nice” Lenù. But as an actress, she has learned they both “observe everything.”


Have you read the books and/or seen the show?