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Archive for the ‘urban life’ Category

Visiting Use-ta-ville

In aging, business, cities, culture, design, life, Style, travel, urban life on December 13, 2014 at 1:56 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Use-ta-ville…The place you go back to that’s now gone.

“It used to be…”

We’ve all got them, the places where we once lived or attended school or loved visiting or eating in or shopping at. As life changes, sometimes at a dizzying pace, it can be comforting to re-visit these spots. Many are filled with memories — great dates, a proposal, a graduation, a terrific meal — and the physical place becomes a touchstone.

One of the most-loved indie bookstores in Manhattan, Posman Books, is closing its Grand Central location on New Year’s Eve — to make room for (what else?) some costly new building. So annoying!

It’s been such a lovely respite, while awaiting a train or a friend, to browse its well-edited selection of books and cards. I’ve made some great discoveries on its front tables over the years, and was thrilled when my own book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” briefly ended up in their front windows.

I grew up in Toronto, a sprawling city of 3 million people, and moved to New York a long time ago, but I still go back once or twice a year to see old friends and to enjoy places I’ve been visiting for decades.

Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC

Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC

Like Courage My Love, one of the city’s best vintage clothing shops and The Papery, a great little stationery store I once sold my home-made envelopes to when I was in high school, and — for many years — a beloved cafe called The Coffee Mill, which served strudel and espresso and schnitzel on its lovely outdoor terrace and cosy interior.

It closed in September 2014, after 50 years in business, back in the day when those kinds of foods were exotic to white-bread WASPy Toronto.

We also lost a favorite restaurant on Queen Street, Prague Deli, who had renovated it into an even more welcoming spot, a perfect refuge on a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon. Gone.

Toronto also recently lost the 65-year nightclub, the El Mocambo, where the Rolling Stones once played.

I often go back to my high school, Leaside High School, to talk to the students about what it’s like to make a living as a writer. It’s very odd, but also oddly comforting, to walk those terrazo-ed hallways once more. It looks exactly the same!

Every city, especially when there are millions or billions to be made flipping and developing commercial real estate, loses bits of its past, and we stand by helplessly mourning all those lost memories.

One of my favorite Manhattan cafes, Cafe Angelique on Grove Street in the West Village, disappeared overnight in the fall of 2014 when the landlord demanded $45,000/month in rent — for 1,000 square feet. My lasting memory of it now was a lunch I had there with a fellow journalist I’d long admired and listened to on American Public Media’s business show, Marketplace.

Now its gutted space is one more about-to-be-gentrified spot filled with a mega-brand.

Soul?

Fuhgeddaboudit!

One of the most poignant of these moments happened for me early in my courtship by Jose, my husband, who grew up in Sante Fe, New Mexico. His father was the pastor of a small Baptist church and they lived in church housing — all of which was torn down and replaced by the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.

So we stood admiring one of her legendary paintings as Jose said, wistfully, “This used to be my bedroom.”

All that’s left of his childhood home is a small courtyard with an apricot tree, whose fruit his mother used to make into jam.

Is there a place like this from your past you (still) miss?

Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

What happens when a woman wanders, alone…

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, life, travel, urban life, women on December 10, 2014 at 11:57 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine going there alone!

Imagine going there alone!

By now, I may be the only woman who hasn’t yet read “Wild” the best-seller by Cheryl Strayed about her hike of the Pacific Northwest Trail alone; the film, starring Reese Witherspoon, was recently released.

I was intrigued by this piece about it in New York magazine:

Granted, men, too, sometimes seek out extreme environments in response to psychic wounds, in life as well as in literature. But for them, the wound is optional; men are free to undertake an adventure without needing trauma (or anything else) to legitimize it. By contrast, a woman’s decision to detach herself from conventional society always requires justification. Women can, of course, go out exploring for pleasure or work or intellectual curiosity or the good of humanity or just for the hell of it — but we can’t count to ten before someone asks if we miss our family, or accuses us of abandoning our domestic obligations.

I’ll soon be alone in Europe for several weeks, the first time I’ve been there alone in a long time. I’m excited. I love my husband, our home, the college students I teach, but to live untethered! Even for a while…

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My mother, now sadly confined to a small room in a nursing home, spent years traveling the world alone — from Afghanistan to India to Peru to the South Pacific. Freed from the need to work for a living or own property, with only one (grown) child and no husband or partner, the world was literally hers for the taking.

She taught me, by example, to behave appropriately when in other cultures (I wore long skirts in Tunisia and a wedding ring in Istanbul); to manage frugally; to tuck a chair beneath the door handle in a dicey hotel.

To  just…go!

It’s a life-changing experience for a girl or woman to travel alone — and yes, I’m very aware, this is a real privilege — having the money to do so, the mobility to do so safely, the freedom from family responsibilities and/or even paid vacation from your job, something Americans still (!) have no legal right to.

(As a full-time freelancer, I make this sort of time off a major priority above any other sort of spending and can take as much time, as often as I want, as I and my business can afford.)

My most precious belonging!

My most precious belonging!

Some women are eager to travel, and some prefer the ease, freedom and solitude of doing it alone. (Others find the notion terrifying and don’t even eat out or go to a movie by themselves when living in their own country.)

Almost every day since I posted them, readers have come to these posts about how to travel safely alone while female. Here’s one — the 10 lessons you’ll learn by traveling alone.

And this, with twelve tips for doing so safely and enjoyably. (I’ve been to 39 countries, many of them alone, including Turkey, Kenya, Mexico.)

I traveled alone for four months when I was 22, after graduating from university. I flew from my home in Toronto into Lisbon in March, spent a few weeks traveling through Evora and Beja, then crossed into Spain at Huelva, meeting a gorgeous young British man standing on the train platform. We spent two weeks on the road together in Spain before I went on to Venice and Florence alone, then back to France, Spain and Lisbon for my return flight.

Such adventures!

The kind one can only have — and allow for — when alone:

The Frenchman who met me aboard a ferry back from Ibiza who invited me back to his family’s apartment for a few days.

The German journalist in Barcelona who lent me her weekend home in Sitges.

The young Portuguese couple heading home to Lisbon who — yes, really — invited me into their Lisbon apartment the week of their wedding and asked me to photograph it. (I did.)

One of my favorite books of all time, recently also made into a film, is “Tracks” by Robyn Davidson, who wandered across the Australian outback in 1977, journeying with her dog and four camels.

Or consider Isabella Bird or Gertrude Bell or Nellie Bly…brave women of much earlier generations who ventured into the world.

It is deeply freeing (in many places, not all!) for a woman to wander, and to wander alone.

Women, in many places, are inevitably bound by social conventions; in some countries, if you’re out in public without a husband, child or parent, you’re considered fair game for sexual approaches, or worse.

But we’re so often judged as valuable solely by our tireless service to others — the woman who wanders off alone is often derided as selfish.

How dare she!?

The very first time Broadside was chosen for Freshly Pressed was this, my defense of Elizabeth Gilbert and her best-seller “Eat, Pray Love” – another paean to a woman’s journey of global and self-exploration.

As I wrote then, I think the chicken-necking and finger-waving was deeply, viciously envious:

Her choice challenges safer, more conventional choices. Instead of demonizing her free spirit, why not celebrate it? We can’t. What if everyone behaved that way?

What indeed?

I loved The Motorcycle Diaries and Easy Rider, two terrific films about two men exploring the world on their motorbikes.

Guys are allowed this freedom. We expect it of them.

Look at Thelma and Louise, a raucous road movie  — until the women have to drive off a cliff to atone for all that independent fun.

Yes, caring for other people is noble, loving, generous, etc.

But so is caring for ourselves.

Have you ever journeyed by yourself?

Dd you enjoy it?

Did it change how you feel or think?

My two books — take a look! I also coach and offer webinars

In books, Crime, culture, History, journalism, politics, urban life, US, women on October 15, 2014 at 12:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Every day, Broadside adds new followers, now at 11,893. Welcome, and thanks!

Some of you don’t know, though, that I’m also a non-fiction author of two well-reviewed books about national American issues and coach other writers.

BLOWN AWAY COVER

The first, published in April 2004, is “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, called “groundbreaking and invaluable” by one influential critic.

My goal in writing it was to approach the issue of gun ownership, and use, from both sides of the gun use “debate”.

I traveled across the country — New Orleans, Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas — to interview American women, of all ages, races, income levels and political views, whose lives had been altered forever by gun violence, (by them and/or against them or a loved one),  and those whose firearms are an integral part of their daily lives and identities, whether they work in corrections, law enforcement, the military or choose to hunt or shoot trap, skeet or clays.

Some have also chosen to buy a handgun, some carrying it with them everywhere, as their “protection firearm.”

In rural Texas, I met women who had saved their own lives with a handgun and a woman running a lucrative hunting operation on land she had inherited, land too dry and isolated for any other profitable use.

On 9/11, a woman named Patty Varone saved the life of then-mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani — I was the only reporter she ever spoke to about that horrific day; she was his NYPD bodyguard and her powerful story is in my book as well.

I don’t own a gun nor have any desire to — although I did a lot of shooting and weapons training, firing everything from a .22 to a Magnum 357 to a Glock 9mm. But I now know why so many American women who choose one for self-defense, or for hunting or for sport, make that choice for themselves.

In the years since, I’ve appeared many times on television and radio, from NPR to NRA radio to Al Jazeera America to BBC’s radio program, World Have Your Say, to explain — as best anyone can — the ongoing allure of gun ownership in the U.S., where an estimated 30 percent of homes contain at least one firearm.

malled cover HIGH

My second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, came out in April 2011, and is three books in one: my own story of working part-time for $11/hour as a retail associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban New York mall; many stories from other associates, part-time and full-time, and a business analysis of why retail still pays so badly and treats many of its staff so poorly.

Fifty percent of those working in low-wage retail are gone within months of being hired.

They quit in disgust or are fired. No wonder — the work is exhausting emotionally and physically, the pay usually appalling, the number of hours ever-shifting and the odds of a raise or promotion to a better-paid managerial position slim-to-none.

Yet shoppers need and want smart, informed help, and an army of well-paid retail consultants line up at major conferences to yammer on about the “customer experience”. It’s a mess!

I worked the job not with any initial intention to produce a book, as many cynics alleged, but because, in 2007, the American economy fell off a cliff, and by 2009, when I quit, was deep in the throes of recession.

Like millions of scared Americans unable to find better work, I needed steady cash.

The book began with this personal essay I published in The New York Times, for whom I write frequently, and which received 150 emails from all over the world. People were clearly interested in the topic!

It was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award, given each year to a work of journalism “in the service of the common good.”

I’d love to write more books and am often asked if I’m deep into the next one. Not yet!

These days, I’m teaching writing here in New York where I live, at Pratt Institute and the New York School of Interior Design. My writing clients include The New York Times, Investopedia and WaterAid, a global charity that took me to rural Nicaragua this March.

I also offer other ambitious writers individual coaching at $150/hour, with a one-hour minimum — (that price will rise to $200/hour in January 2015) — and webinars focused on specific topics like:

freelancing, writing personal essays and finding and developing story ideas, whether for digital, print or books.

I schedule the webinars to match your needs, working by phone or Skype, and have helped satisfied writers and bloggers from Germany to New Zealand to D.C. to Rochester, N.Y.

What can I do to help your writing?

Details here.

 

Small town life — bucolic relief or isolating hell?

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, immigration, life, travel, urban life, US on September 16, 2014 at 12:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I love to visit them --- this one is in Florida -- but not sure I want to live there again

I love to visit them — this one, Appalachicola, is in Florida — but not sure I want to live there again

As a scarred survivor of 18 miserable months in a small New Hampshire town, this recent New York Times essay resonated with me:

In November 2012, I flew out to start work…We bought a house for maybe one-fifth of what we would have paid in San Francisco, less than what my parents paid for my childhood home in rural Pennsylvania.

We were betting on the fact that we wouldn’t be alone in fleeing the big city for a small town. Urban living has become unthinkably expensive for many middle-class creative types. A 2010 study from the Journal of Economic Geography found a trifecta of reasons some rural areas have grown instead of shrunk: the creative class, entrepreneurial activity and outdoor amenities. In 2012, a University of Minnesota research fellow called the influx of 30-to-40-somethings into rural Minnesota towns a “brain gain” — flipping the conventional wisdom on the exodus from the boonies to the big city.

Predictably enough, they end up abandoning what initially looked like a great choice.

I know another writer, fed up with the cost and craziness of New York City life, who fled north to the Catskills for silence, low rent and creative freedom. She lasted two years.

Another writer friend recently quit her job and traded a major American city for….the Catskills:

It’s remote. The other day I had to drive 45 minutes (one way) and pay $2.00 in tolls to get to my bank. So much is done online these days, it might not be that much of an issue, but it’s definitely an adjustment. I’m thinking I’ll have to coordinate trips into the larger towns to coincide with other errands.

It’s clean. I haven’t seen one piece of litter or trash — which is not to say I haven’t seen junk in people’s yards, but that’s different.

It smells good. The air is pure and fresh. On rainy, chilly days like today the air was filled with the scent of burning firewood and wet grass. The other day I walked by someone’s house and smelled the sweet buttery scent of an apple pie baking. I actually paused in front of the window and when the lady inside looked at me, I waved. “Smells delicious!”

It’s really dark at night. The other night I drove home after dark and needed my high beams the whole time. I try not to think of slasher movies when walking at night. Actually, I try not to walk at night.

It’s friendly. Some people are quicker to talk to me than others, but those who have were extremely friendly. People have given me their phone numbers, invited me to events and introduced me to other folks within minutes of meeting.

It’s intellectual and creative. I’ve received more bookstore and library recommendations in the past five days than I have in 19 years living in Los Angeles, and heard there are many other writers and artists up here.

It’s cheap. Not only are the prices of necessities and services lower, but there are fewer opportunities to spend money. I’m not eating out, going to the movies, walking by stores or cafes. I literally haven’t reached for my wallet to buy anything in three days.

I had that fantasy too.

In January 1988, I followed an American man I met in Montreal, where he was finishing medical school and I was a newspaper reporter, and moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, a small town two hours north of Boston best known for Dartmouth College, one of the most elite and costly universities in the nation. I worked there for three months on a visa, then moved permanently, expecting to stay there for the next three years while he finished his medical residency.

Yes, please!

Yes, please!

I barely lasted another year.

Summer was heaven: sailing, hiking, canoeing, soaking up the beauty and silence of the Upper Valley. Fall, with the leaves turning color and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, was glorious.

By January, though, I was ready to shoot myself: completely bored, lonely, broke and isolated. Unlike virtually everyone around us, I didn’t have a job and wasn’t married, pregnant or already a mother. I didn’t jog nor have the slightest desire to do so.

We had a great apartment, the main floor of a big old house in Lebanon, NH. I loved our large kitchen with its deep wooden flour bin and 1950s stove. It was a beautiful part of the country, and I loved exploring its backroads and rivers. Every Friday I took a folding chair at a local auction house and got a great education in antiques.

But my boyfriend, (later husband), was gone most of the time working and when home was exhausted and withdrawn. We struggled to live decently on his $22,000/year salary and my meager savings. Oddly, for being in the country surrounded by open land, there was nowhere to go for a walk, because all that land was privately owned.

I hate to admit it, but I also had no idea how to connect with anyone there; my primary identity, then as now, was my work. Not there.

And rural economies, I quickly learned — having only lived in large cities like London, Paris, Toronto and Montreal — were two-tier: you were lucky enough to find a decent, solid job (teacher, nurse, government) or toiled for pennies in a low-wage position.

In utter desperation, I once called a maple syrup farm that had advertised for workers, but was dismissed out of hand for having no prior experience.

(Here’s a sobering piece about rural homelessness in Missouri.)

Our phone rang all the time, each time a wrong number, and each time with the same request: “I need a new windshield”; ours was the former number for Upper Valley Glass. No matter how many times I entertained his co-workers, almost no one ever reciprocated. Without a job or friends, life was grim and lonely. There was no internet then, no Skype.

We moved to a suburb of New York City in June 1989, to a Hudson river town, and I’m — very happily! — still here. I know the people who run our coffee shop and gourmet store and hardware store. I’m at our YMCA a few days every week so have friends there as well. Even though it’s officially a village, it never feels claustrophobic.

On our main street, a terrific concert hall

On our main street, a terrific concert hall

I’m not sure I’d ever live in a rural small town again. I can see Manhattan’s mid-town towers from my street and be walking among them within an hour. I know how badly I need that balance.

How about you?

Do you live in — and love — a small town?

Have you tried it and abandoned it?

What exactly is college good for, again?

In behavior, culture, education, life, travel, urban life, US on September 12, 2014 at 12:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

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

Have you followed the “debate” begun (again) about the putative value of an Ivy League education?

Here’s former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, in Salon:

In his new book, “Excellent Sheep,” Deresiewicz expands his argument into a full-on manifesto about the failures of the meritocracy. His timing is good. Ambitious families continue to arm their children with APs, SAT prep courses and expensive admissions advisors. At the same time, despite big financial aid packages, the student bodies at elite schools remain staggeringly affluent.

So do the schools. Yale has an endowment of some $20 billion; the University of Connecticut, 90 minutes down the road and with a student body three times as large, has an endowment one-sixtieth that size. As public institutions suffer round after round of cuts, Ivy League endowments keep swelling. When we speak of inequality, it’s not just in individual income where the disparities have grown starker.

And here’s a powerful op-ed  about the value of college from The New York Times’ Frank Bruni:

I’M beginning to think that college exists mainly so we can debate and deconstruct it.

What’s its rightful mission? How has it changed? Is it sufficiently accessible? Invariably worthwhile?

As the fall semester commenced, the questions resumed. Robert Reich, the country’s labor secretary during the Clinton administration, issued such a pointed, provocative critique of the expense and usefulness of a traditional liberal arts degree that Salon slapped this headline on it: “College is a ludicrous waste of money.”

Meanwhile, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa were out with a new book, “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” in which they assessed how a diverse group of nearly 1,000 recent graduates were faring two years after they finished their undergraduate studies. About one-quarter of them were still living at home. And nearly three-quarters were still getting at least some money from parents.

But Bruni goes on to make some interesting (to me) arguments in favor of mixing things up on campus, as one of the increasingly few places left (in an economically and racially divided United States) where people can — and should, he argues — meet “the other”.

That might, for the first time, mean meeting someone covered with tattoos and piercings, or someone wearing head-to-toe designer labels.

It might mean working in class on a project with someone transgendered and/or someone happily married, even with a few children. Or someone deeply devoted to their religious life  — or someone fervently atheist.

I remember a preppy blond guy named Chris who was even then active in the Conservative party — my first (and useful) exposure to someone with strong, opposing political views.

Bruni writes:

We live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization. And I wish we would nudge kids — no, I wish we would push them — to use college as an exception and a retort to that, as a pre-emptive strike against it, as a staging ground for behaving and living in a different, broader, healthier way.

As we pepper students with contradictory information and competing philosophies about college’s role as an on ramp to professional glory, we should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency fuels the little and big misunderstandings that are driving us apart. It’s at the very root of our sclerotic, dysfunctional political process.

And college is the perfect chapter for diversifying friends and influences, rummaging around in fresh perspectives, bridging divides. For many students, it’s an environment more populous than high school was, with more directions in which to turn.

I also found this Times story – about how much effort selective American colleges are actually making to attract and retain lower-income students:

I think college-as-sorting-mechanism, as it often ends up being — at least in the U.S. — is a sad misuse of its potential for personal and intellectual growth.

I’m not embarrassed to admit how much I learned by attending the University of Toronto, a huge (53,000) and highly traditional university.

Not only about my subjects of study, but about Marxism, soul music, what it’s like to be married young. I learned it over coffee or at frat parties or while working on the student newspaper, from the people I met, the men I dated, the friends I made and my classmates.

I met the first gay people my age, male and female. (My high school may well have had some, but none were out.) Toronto is an enormous, diverse and cosmopolitan city, but even then I knew who I knew….and not much more than that. As it was meant to, college opened my eyes to other realities and ways of thinking and behaving.

My classmates arrived from homes wealthy and poor, from elegant estates and shared, battered downtown housing.

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In my mid-30s, after moving from Canada to New York, I attended another school, The New York School of Interior Design. That experience was wholly different and I loved it. Teachers were demanding and wise, but also nurturing. Classes were small, making my experience pleasant and intimate in comparison to overwhelming and impersonal undergrad.

Now I’m teaching two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, rated one of the 20 best schools in the Northeast U.S. I’m intrigued by the mix of students I see there, all of whom have chosen to attend a school focused on specific crafts and skills, from industrial design to fashion to writing to architecture. There’s a lot of green and purple and blue hair. Many of the women smoke.

One of the issues that I find really shocking is the skyrocketing cost of an American education; Pratt’s tuition is more than $41,000 a year while my alma mater, U of T, is now only $6,040 for my former course of study.

(I paid $660 a year. Yes, really.)

Colleges look so serious and authoritative. They can fail you in life-altering ways

Colleges look so serious and authoritative…don’t they?

If you are a student, what do you want or expect college to “do” for you?

If you’re a professor, how do you feel about the expectation that a college degree is meant as a ticket to a job?

 

Where’s your community?

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, education, family, immigration, life, love, travel, urban life, US on September 3, 2014 at 12:24 am

By Caitlin Kelly

With the New York Times trivia team --- the year we won!

With the New York Times trivia team — the year we won!

So I’m a member of an on-line women/writers’ group, now my go-to site, a place I waste spend wayyyyyy too much time.

It’s a place where women across the U.S. and Canada, from the UAE to India, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, with varying views on sexual preference, ranging in age from 20s to 50s (very few of us!) rant, rave, laugh, weep, share, support and are forging some powerful emotional bonds.

There are women with multiple tattoos (I have none); women in graduate school and women teaching college; women working on some of the biggest television shows out there (!), those happily pregnant and those who never want to have children, and women frustratedly un or under-employed.

In American culture, at least, it’s rare to find a group of women who both raucously and respectfully disagree, let alone share stories and support that are not exclusively focused on one issue.

We talk about everything: work, men, women, family, drunken misadventures, marriage/divorce/dating, how to navigate new situations…Interestingly, we rarely talk about the mechanics of work. We have plenty of other places to do that.

Some of us finally met face to face last week. What a joy!

It was such a pleasure to just sit for hours and get to better know an eclectic, smart, funny, passionate group of women.

A view of my town, Tarrytown, NY

A view of my town, Tarrytown, NY

The one thing I’ve always craved, sought and struggled with is a sense of community.

Most people think of a geographic location when they use that word, but today, thanks to social media, we’re often much more connected — emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, professionally — to people we have yet to meet IRL (in real life), yet who passionately share our convictions, values and/or interests.

As I’ve written here before, I live in a place — the wealthy suburbs north of New York City — where I typically fail to connect meaningfully with many people. Women my age are corporate warriors with high six-figure salaries and husbands to match or stay-at-home mothers in enormous mansions grooming perfect children.

I don’t have children and we are not wealthy.

Not my crowd, for sure!

I began attending a local church in 1998 that Jose and I still visit every few weeks or so. But it, too, is too safe, white, wealthy and non-political for my tastes.

I also have been working alone at home, with kids or pets, since 2006. That solitude and isolation can start to feel claustrophobic without the company of others.

So community matters deeply to me.

I also left behind my country, culture and friends when I moved to New York in 1989. As a professional writer, I belong to several groups, on and off-line, that revolve around our work. But they are often simply transactional — Who’s the editor? What do they pay? — not social.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

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

I recently began teaching at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and have already attended a four-hour orientation session, where I met a fellow instructor, a lively, friendly young woman. The school’s president invites us all to his home in mid-September for a reception, and I attended a celebration of their new MFA program, a two-hour affair (after four hours of class that day!)

It feels good to be welcomed, even as an adjunct, into a new, thriving and creative community.

Where, when and how do you find or build a sense of community?

 

Back to school!

In blogging, culture, education, life, urban life, US on August 28, 2014 at 2:24 am

By Caitlin Kelly

"It's the one with he goats in front"...deKalb Hall, built in 1955

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

Guess what Robert Redford and I have in common?

The Brooklyn-based school where this week I start teaching freshman writing and a small mixed-year class on blogging, Pratt Institute.

The college, ranked in the top 20 in the Northeast U.S., occupies its own campus, a long rectangle in Clinton Hill, whose collection of handsome buildings made it, in 2011, named by Architectural Digest as one of the nation’s most attractive campuses.

When I went there for my interview, I was running through thick snow. I’d never been on campus and wasn’t sure which building it was, so I asked a passing student.

“It’s the one with the goats in front.”

And it is…a row of goat statues stands in front of the building, itself, designed in 1955 by the legendary firm of McKim, Mead and White.

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If I get the enrolment we hope for, I’ll also be teaching students at the New York School of Interior Design, in Manhattan on East 70th. Street. I’m excited and honored to return to the school, where I was a student myself in the 1990s, hoping to leave journalism for a new career; my marriage ended abruptly and I decided to stop my studies.

I did very well there, learned a lot I’ve used ever since in my own home and helping others design theirs. I loved the school and its small, rigorous classes and passionate instructors. I had only happy memories of my time there.

One of their foundation classes, Historical Styles, required memorizing every element of interior design from ancient Egypt to the year 1900. What did a 16th century Italian bedroom look like? What fabric would you find on an 18th century Swedish chair? Would an English floor in the 14th century be tile? Earth? Wood?

Nor would I ever again confuse Louis IV, V or VI again! (We called it Hysterical Styles. It was tough!)

I still remember the passion of my English professors from my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, especially our Chaucer prof, who has us all reading Middle English aloud. Practical? No. Amazing and fun and a great lesson in the power of language? Yes.

It’s been an interesting challenge to find and choose readings for my syllabi, and I’ve got everyone from David Finkel (on war) to Rose George (on the shipping industry.)

I enjoy teaching and know that a terrific teacher can forever inspire a student and alter their course, just as a rude, dismissive one can crush young idea(l)s very easily. It’s a challenge to balance cracking the whip for excellence with scaring the shit out of everyone; one friend, who teaches journalism in Arizona, has been called “tough” and “difficult” in her student evaluations.

Both of which are really code for “demanding.”

If you aren’t required to produce excellence in college, it won’t magically occur to you when you’re competing to keep and get a good job. College is about much more than graduating and “getting a job”, certainly, but understanding what it means to meet high standards — to me — is as much a part of the experience as any specific subject matter.

My English degree from U of T never won me a job. No one asked for my GPA nor about Chaucer nor my understanding of 16th. century drama or Romantic poetry. But the ferocity and passion of my profs in those four years made very clear to me, from my very first freshman class, what excellence looked like, and what it takes to achieve.

That has proven valuable.

My college experience wasn’t one of partying and drunken escapades. I was far too busy freelancing every spare minute, for national newspapers and magazines after my sophomore year, to earn the money to pay my bills, living alone in a small studio apartment. So I have only a small handful of college friends, never had a college room-mate and, when my alma mater calls me for donations — as it did recently — I decline.

College was helpful to me, but it was also often a lonely time with a lot of financial stress; U of T is huge (50,000+ students) and, then, paid little to no attention to undergraduates as individuals. So I don’t have the sort of gauzy nostalgia, or deep gratitude for a lucrative later career, that would prompt me to open my checkbook.

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

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

Are you headed back into the classroom?

If a student, what year and what are you studying?

If a teacher or professor, how about you?

 

We’re just another species

In animals, beauty, behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, life, nature, urban life on August 13, 2014 at 12:14 am

By Caitlin Kelly

 

This is an amazing backlit mural at our local Tarrytown commuter train station, by Holly Sears. I love it!

This amazing backlit mural is at our local Tarrytown commuter train station, by artist Holly Sears. It is filled with all sorts of creatures in unlikely juxtapositions

I assume many of you have already seen this amazing video of a seal climbing onto a surfboard in England?

If not, spare 2:04 minutes of your life for a lovely, charming reminder of something we often forget — we’re just another species.

I’m writing this on our top-floor balcony, listening to the wind in the trees and the buzzing of passing bumblebees. Birds twitter. One recent evening, at 2:40 a.m. we bolted awake to the howling of a pack of coyotes.

 

Tired of feeling trapped by sexist, misogynist assholes!

 

But we live 25 miles north of New York City, able to see the city’s skyscrapers from our street, not some Montana ranch!

Our planters are bursting with flowers and our woods are filled with deer, raccoon, squirrels, chipmunks.

I fear for our planet when so many children and teens are suffering from nature deficit disorder, because you can’t fight for legislation and other protective behaviors if “nature” remains something you’ve only seen or heard mediated through a glass screen.

You have to feel it, taste it, touch it, know it. We all need intimate, consistent, ongoing connections to the natural world, not just simulacra or a packaged bit of it in plastic at the grocery store.

I’m grateful for having spent my childhood and teen summers in the wild of northern Ontario at summer camp and on multi-day canoe trips. I love a loon call, the peel of a birch tree, the striations of granite.

We are still, as homo sapiens, only one of millions of other species in our world, some furry, some feathered, some scaled, some noisy and some mostly (to our ears anyway) silent.

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A few years ago, a red-tailed hawk landed on our 6th floor balcony railing, which is only 12 feet wide. He stared at me silently, and I felt like prey. Having written about raptors, I know they can see for many miles. I wondered what he saw when he gazed into my eyes.

We don’t have any pets, so any encounter with a (non-threatening!) animal or bird is a real joy for me — especially horses and dogs; I’m the person who always stops to say hello and pat other people’s dogs (with permission.)

My young friend Molly recently fell off an elephant into the Mekong River.

I don’t envy the fall, or her ruined camera and lens, but elephants are my favorite animals of all. I rode on one myself in Thailand, sitting on his neck, and dreamed of a second career as a mahout.

Here’s a review of a spectacular new book, of photographs of the earth.

Do you (and your kids and/or grandkids) spend much time in natural surroundings?

 

Living on next to nothing…while we shell out $6.2 billion to broke Walmart workers

In behavior, blogging, domestic life, life, Money, urban life, US, work on July 31, 2014 at 1:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

No travel...too expensive!

No travel…too expensive!

Have you lived in poverty?

A recent 150+ comment thread at, of all places, Apartment Therapy — a design blog usually devoted to featuring people’s fun, cool homes worldwide — offered a painful, insightful, timely conversation on how some of its readers survive(d) on low or minimum wage jobs.

A few of them:

Charities can only do so much for people, and frankly, when I was living below the poverty line, I chose not to take advantage of a lot of those programs, even though I likely could have, because there were other people who needed it more than I did, and I was getting by, if only just. I was lucky to have no car payment, and a car that was in good condition so the maintenance costs were relatively low. I did, however, end up with pneumonia, because although I had health insurance (I was paying out of pocket for it) I couldn’t afford the copay to go to the doctor and get my Prevacid (not OTC at the time) and as a result I got sick, because untreated acid reflux can do that to you.


 

Even though I pared down to the absolute bare minimum and had a roommate, I was constantly worrying about my car (but couldn’t manage without it), and paying for food, heat, and health care. Any time I got a few dollars ahead, I had some money-sucking but necessary expense. Living on the edge of poverty wore me out. The kicker was that making minimum wage, I made too much to get food stamps and other “help for the poor”. (Adults with children could get help, and adults with disabilities, but the thinking was that if you could work, you didn’t need “hand-outs”.)


For many years, I made more than enough money so I could comfortably afford a house, buy food & necessities, invest and have some fun, too. Approximately two years ago, my position was eliminated from a very reputable company in the area where I live. I can say that I have never fully “recovered”, financially and emotionally speaking. I’ve run the gamut from tearing through my 401k, applying for assistance, working my share of odd jobs and asking family for help. I’ve been forced to learn a new way of living and the bottom line is that living on minimum wage is DIFFICULT…period. Navigating assistance applications can be daunting and because of my assets (owning a home-by some miracle-still) it just wasn’t happening. I can tell you that I have learned to live simpler, though, w/less trips to the clothing store, no more manicures/pedicures every two weeks, etc. Is it such a bad thing? Not really, but “living simpler” ends up going hand in hand with “what do I do now” in reference to the next utility bill, grocery bill, financial emergency, etc. I do believe the sad thing is that individuals that “do the right thing” such as going to school, working hard, etc can still find themselves in this situation. It constantly makes me think “what did I do wrong” and “what do I do now?”

Having lived in five countries — my native Canada, Mexico, France, England and the U.S. (since 1988) — I’m never clear why Americans, some of whom protest that they have “played by the rules,” are so stunned to find their laissez-faire capitalist system has turned against them.

The rules are not made for their benefit!

People who sneer at the idea of accepting (or asking for) government assistance may never have struggled in utter desperation, saddled by illness, disability, injury and/or the collapse of their industry. And many people can never hope for a penny from their friends or relatives.

You can’t bootstrap without bootstraps.

Nor why some of them feel ashamed even asking for help when they have done everything possible to help themselves.

According to this National Geographic story, (August 2014), a staggering six percent of Americans are now “food insecure” and the number of those needing help paying for this food in the suburbs has doubled; here is a radio interview with the author, Tracie McMillan.

While some people can move in with a friend or relative, many don’t have that option and have to figure it out on their own. New York pays a maximum of $410/week in in unemployment benefits, taxable income. Yet in New York City, very few people of any age can find housing for less than $1,000/month. Do the math!

If you’re young, highly-educated, willing to move anywhere a job requires it, in excellent health and flexible — you’ll probably survive. But every one of those categories can shift, as does the labor market and the larger economy.

Nicaragua -- the second-poorest nation after Haiti -- where annual income is $1,080

Nicaragua — the second-poorest nation after Haiti — where annual income is $1,080

I struggled financially for all four years of university, even though my annual tuition was only $600/year. I was living on $350/month and the rent on my studio apartment was $160. I still had to pay for food, phone, books, public transportation, dental work, clothing, etc. My family had too much money for me to get student aid, yet were uninterested in helping me.

So I started selling my photos and writing freelance at the end of my sophomore year — and missed a lot of classes and other cute/fun college activities — in order to bring in additional income. My GPA is a bad joke, one reason I’ve never even considered graduate education. I had to survive!

images-3

Luckily, I was able to feed, house, clothe and educate myself. I can still tell you exactly what was in my wardrobe during those years as there was so little of it. I lived in a rough neighborhood until I was attacked in my apartment and moved.

I never, ever want to feel that anxious about money again.

Low-wage or minimum-wage work offers wages so low and hours so few that some workers have to go on food stamps.

Walmart, reports Forbes, cost us $6.2 billion in public assistance to its struggling staff. They “can’t afford” to pay better, so it’s up to us to bail out a for-profit corporation. Don’t you love the irony of corporate welfare?

Have you struggled to survive financially? Are you now? How are you managing?

Dumping the past, boxes and boxes of it…

In aging, domestic life, life, urban life on July 23, 2014 at 1:38 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!

Holy hell, people!

Have you ever gone through all your stuff: in the attic, in the basement, in the garage, in your storage locker(s)?

Jose and I have ruined spent the past few weekends, for two to four hours each time, cleaning out the dozens of boxes containing the detritus memorabilia of our shared and separate lives.

We live in, and I work in, a one-bedroom apartment with few closets, so we need additional storage space for out-of-season clothing, sports and camping gear, luggage.

But you know the deal — when you don’t know quite what to do with something, you tend to postpone a decision, instead tossing it (if you have space) into the attic, basement, garage or extra bedroom(s.)

Then one day you actually notice how many boxes and tubs there are — enough! Time to sort through it it all.

It’s exhausting, both physically and mentally: sort, decide, dump, donate, sell, keep, give away. Then photograph, measure and list it on Craigslist, Freecycle or Ebay, or drive it to the thrift store or consignment shop.

Or, if it really has potential monetary value, calling in an appraiser and/or dealer.

It’s hard to let go of things if, as many do, they also carry strong, happy emotional memories — your baby’s clothes, your wedding dress, notes for your thesis. It’s who we are, or once were.

It felt very weird to throw my hard-won early New York magazine clips into the garbage, (none of them on-line), but I’m not that person anymore. And no one is going to look at a story from 1995 or 1997!

We were dealing with/deciding about stuff like:

The box filled with all the gorgeous textiles my mother collected in her solo world travels: silk saris, embroidered cotton molas, exquisite woven wool mantas from Peru, all of which have value to a collector or dealer. (Kept them.)

All the wedding photos from my first wedding, filled with a blond, naive, hopeful 35-year-old pretending it was all going to be OK when I knew I was not. (Kept them.)

Huge, heavy piles of yellowed newsprint and tattered magazine pages, some of the hundreds of articles I’ve produced since I began working as a writer 30+ years ago. (Tossed them all. Gulp.)

The research notes for my two books. (Tossed.)

But we also made some happy re-discoveries, like my very first professional business card from the journalism job I loved most, as a feature writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s then only national newspaper.

And my sketches, paintings and journals from my trips to Kenya and Tanzania and New Zealand and Australia.

Jose found a signed note on heavy white card stock — The President — from George HW Bush, whom he photographed many times while in the White House Press Corps. I found a signed thank-you letter from the late great American choreographer Bob Fosse, to whom I had written a fan letter.

I still have the small, battered trunk I first took to summer camp when I was eight years old. Yes, I do, dammit!

Have you been cleaning out/tossing stuff?

Yours or someone else’s?

 

 

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