Five questions about my 2 books

By Caitlin Kelly

 

This is a regular column that runs in the Arts section of The New York Times. As author of two works of nationally reported non-fiction — the second of which was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award and published in China — I thought I’d do this here as well.

 

 

BLOWN AWAY COVER
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions

 

 

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When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I worked at a trade publication in New York City as an editor and was friendly with a colleague there. One evening, having dinner at her apartment — where she had a doorman and a very large dog — I asked her (?!) if she owned a gun. She did, a handgun. I was a bit stunned and wrote an essay about this for The Globe and Mail, my former newspaper in Canada. I went on to attend a three day shooting class and wrote about that for the Wall Street Journal. After writing a much longer feature on it, I realized there had not been a book written about American women and gun use, whether they enjoyed it or feared it used against them or their loved ones. It was clear there was a lot of great material to be gathered and many stories to be told. For Blown Away, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens from 29 states. Here’s a link to the book.

 

For Malled, I was urged from the very start to write about it, but couldn’t see any narrative arc or story line to the menial job of folding, hanging and selling clothing for The North Face. But I worked part-time, at $11/ hour, for 2.5 years — much longer than the average retail sales associate, so I watched the economy plunge into recession (2007 to 2009) from a specific and unusual place. The book is also a story of how the retail industry works, from the inside, so it’s both a memoir and a business book. I was urged to produce the book after a column I wrote in The New York Times prompted a flood of appreciative comments and emails. Here’s a link to the book.

 

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

 

For Blown Away, the regional differences in how Americans view gun use and gun ownership is huge. People really don’t understand it and underestimate its political strength. It isn’t just the NRA’s powerful influence and deep pockets, but also strong cultural and historical attachment to gun use and gun ownership that’s deeply embedded, for millions of people, in the very idea of what it means to be American. But because those in your local area are likely to share your views on gun use — whether pro or con — you usually end up with confirmation bias, unable to envision or understand this.

For Malled, It was really depressing to hear the words “disposable” used over and over again to describe the hard-working, poorly-paid staff that stand for eight hours in all retail stores. The highly paid executives at corporate headquarters of every major retailer spend millions of dollars buying specialized software — designed to reduce the costs of labor. It was so demoralizing to do a job to the best of our ability and realize that no one (in corporate) cared or would ever compensate us accordingly. My “raise” in 2.5 years? Thirty cents an hour.

 

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

 

They’re both what I wanted them to be — a firsthand and intimate examination of two of the United States’ most intractable political issues: gun ownership and low-wage labor.

 

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

 

My parents and late stepmother. My father is a former documentary film-maker and my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote television series. All worked freelance in challenging and competitive creative industries. I learned early that your own great ideas, presented and sold well, can earn you a living. That was pretty revolutionary, and certainly inspired my own work as a writer.

 

Persuade someone to read “Blown Away” or “Malled” in 50 words or less.

 

Blown Away is the only book of its kind, a nuanced, balanced deep dive into how guns affect women in the United States, whether they use one for sport, work or self-defense, or have been traumatized by the use of one against them or a loved one.

Malled is similarly unique, offering a firsthand examination of low-wage labor in the U.S., and explains in detail what it is like to work for paltry wages in a large and crucial industry and in an economy based on consumer spending.

Take a break!

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

I know, for some of you — parents, caregivers, those on super-tight budgets, in school — that’s not easy to do.

2018 did not begin well for me — the first time in many years I earned no income at all from my freelance work, for two months.

And our fixed monthly living costs, even without children or debt, are more than $5,000 a month, so no income from my side meant digging into our savings. (Which we are lucky to have!)

Burned out, I recently took a two-week break, and that cost us even more lost income and savings, in hotel/gas/meals, for 2 weeks back in Ontario, where I grew up and have many friends. (A last-minute change of plans meant our free dog-sitting housing fell through.)

The “freedom” of freelance work also means that every minute we’re not working, we lose income. No paid vacation days for us!

But oh, I needed some time off, and so did my weary full-time freelance husband Jose, a photo editor.

We didn’t do very much: napped, read magazines and books, had some very good meals, enjoyed long evenings with old friends, took photos, hit some golf balls at the driving range. Visited with my Dad, who lives alone and who turns 89 in June.

I was burned out and deeply frustrated by endless rejections and some nasty encounters. Fed up!

I came home renewed, and have been pitching up a storm of fresh ideas and projects, trying for some new and much more ambitious targets. I’ve also been asking others for more help achieving some of my goals than I used to — doing everything alone is exhausting and demoralizing.  (It’s really interesting to see who follows through, generously, and who — for all their very public social media all about how they believe deeply in mentorship — won’t lift a finger.)

In a country, (the U.S., where I live) and state (New York) where costs are so high and many people work insane hours, it’s counter-cultural to even admit to wanting a break, let alone taking one.

Not a glamorous brag-worthy Insta-perfect exotic and foreign vacation.

No poolside fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them.

Just a break.

I’m really glad that we did.

 

Are you able to carve out time to recharge?

 

Daily? Weekly? Every few months?

 

 

What do you do to re-energize?

A New York City museum of everyday life

By Caitlin Kelly

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If you’ve never been to New York City, you’ve still probably heard of the Met Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Maybe the Guggenheim.

If you’re planning a visit, I urge you to visit one that will forever change your perception of the city, and of the early immigrant experience in the U.S. — the Tenement Museum.

It is simply extraordinary, in telling the true stories of the lives of early immigrants to New York City, who lived in these two narrow buildings on Orchard Street, on the Lower East Side at the start of the 20th century.

It’s also extremely popular, with tickets selling out months in advance. 

I visited it years ago, and never forgot it. This week I was lucky enough to be able to have a quick group tour in the evening and it left me, once more, deeply moved.

I can’t show you any images as photography is not allowed.

You climb steep metal stairs into a brick building, constructed in 1863, and step into a narrow dark hallway with battered metal mailboxes set into the wall on the left-hand side.

The building stood empty from 1935 to 1988, so you’re stepping into a time capsule. The walls are cracked and the front wooden doors to each apartment still have their original panes of glass above them.

Inset into the front hallway walls are large oval paintings and bas-relief curlicues, attempts at elegance.

The steep stairs to the second floor have pressed metal treads and the banister is thick, smooth dark wood. A narrow hallway there offers one tiny public room containing a toilet — shared by all occupants of the floor’s four apartments.

We visited one apartment that had belonged to an Italian family, and which contained some of their personal belongings: a lace dresser scarf, photos, other objects.

It’s a stunning reminder what life was life for these newcomers, who left their hometowns and villages and cities many miles behind them, mostly from Europe.

They might have once enjoyed gorgeous, sweeping sunlit views of woods and farmland and fields and mountains — and now their two front windows faced east over a grimy, noisy, narrow city street lined with brick buildings in an unfamiliar city in a new country.

The apartments are very small: a front room with two windows; a middle room with a deep sink, a minuscule bathtub and a coal stove, with a window between the front room and kitchen to allow light to penetrate, and a small rear room.

The total square footage? Maybe 250 square feet, a space that held, at least, two adults and children, maybe more. (This is the size of my suburban New York living room, for context.)

No closets.

No telephone.

No privacy.

No silence.

No outdoor space beyond the steps — aka the stoop.

Thanks to simple, thin cotton curtains and other objects, the rooms feel as though their occupants have simply stepped out for a while — kitchen cupboards full, a checkers game on the kitchen table with its colored tablecloth, a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on one wall.

It’s also a so different from the exquisite, costly objects on display in most museums, remnants mostly of the wealthiest lives and their rarified tastes. This is a museum of real life, as everyday working New Yorkers lived it.

The flooring is weathered linoleum designed to look like woven textiles and beneath that you can see weathered wooden floorboards.

To stand in that space is to feel intimately and viscerally what it must have been to leave everything behind except your hopes.

To: the world. From: The U.S. We apologize on behalf of our President

By Caitlin Kelly

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One of the pleasures of producing this blog is the incredible range of visitors who end up here — in the past three days alone, from Kazakhstan, Trinidad and Tobago, India, Malaysia, France, VietNam, Brazil and a dozen more.

My goal, always, is to civilly engage with readers from around the world. Having been to 40 countries (so far!) and having lived in five, I’m deeply aware of how interconnected we are.

I now live in the U.S., although born and raised in Canada.

I moved to New York in 1989 and have, until the election of Donald Trump — a lying, cheating racist real estate developer who was a pathetic joke for years to anyone near New York City — enjoyed living in this nation.

Today, along with millions of others here (and everywhere!), I’m cringing in embarrassment and shame at his latest outburst, using language no other President has stooped to before publicly.

Here’s a brief report:

Mr. Trump grew angry as the group detailed another aspect of the deal — a move to end the diversity visa lottery program and use some of the 50,000 visas that are annually distributed as part of the program to protect vulnerable populations who have been living in the United States under what is known as Temporary Protected Status. That was when Mr. Durbin mentioned Haiti, prompting the president’s criticism.

When the discussion turned to African nations, those with knowledge of the conversation added, Mr. Trump asked why he would want “all these people from shithole countries,” adding that the United States should admit more people from places like Norway.

About 83 percent of Norway’s population is ethnic Norwegian, according to a 2017 C.I.A. fact book, making the country overwhelmingly white.

 

It is hard to anyone living beyond the U.S., perhaps, to even fathom how a man like him could win the Oval Office, and with another three years in his term, with only the 25th Amendment a way to impeach (i.e. get rid of) him. It allows for the removal of a sitting President only if he is deemed unfit to serve, a term vague enough no one has dared try to use it.

Yet.

 

I write this post only to say — we’re sorry!

By “we” I mean millions of Americans (and those living here) who find this man utterly contemptible in every possible way: racist, rude, deliberately ignorant (he boasts of never reading), sexist and crude.

 

But there he sits, aided and abetted by a Republican House and Senate reveling in their power to stick it to a country they disdain as weak and lazy  — now proposing to require the poor receiving Medicaid (free medical care) to work to “earn” it.

Just know this, please: millions of voters are appalled, furious — and, for the moment, politically impotent.

Do not think, for one minute, that he and his views and his behavior, represent what many Americans want the world to respect and admire.

 

He is an abomination.

 

Two winter days in D.C.

By Caitlin Kelly

Georgetown

I’ve been coming to Washington since I was a child, since some cousins lived nearby whose father was a member of the U.S. Foreign Service.

I finally saw the inside of the White House in the year 2000 thanks to my husband, who served eight years in the White House Press Corps as a New York Times photographer — and even got us into the Oval Office for a quick peek.

Here’s a list of 8 semi-tourist-y things to do, there, written by a travel writer.

As usual, I was a very bad tourist so my post won’t extol all the usual sights, but some more personal pleasures.

We started our Saturday at a D.C. legend, the bookstore Politics & Prose, which is a treasure!

We could have spent hundreds of dollars and many hours there; I was researching the competition for a potential book idea and picked up a great present for Jose. I loved dropping my pile at the information desk where they laid atop it a bookmark “Customer Shopping” to make sure they didn’t get re-shelved. The staff was plentiful and helpful, and we picked up Christmas cards as well.

 

Georgetown

Then I dropped into Goodwood, one of my favorite stores anywhere; picture a smaller, hipper indie version of the American chain Anthropologie, with a mix of well-priced vintage lighting, decorative accessories and furniture with great new clothing, shoes, jewelry and accessories.

They had a pair of gggggggorgeous camel colored Prada knee-high boots for $165. If only they’d been my size! I scored a pair of burgundy patterned tights, another present for Jose, a black mohair sweater and a silk jacket. Splurge!

The store has been in business for 33 years, a huge accomplishment on its own. It’s on U Street NW in an neighborhood that has massively gentrified — head around the corner and a few blocks down 14th street to Ted’s Bulletin for a fun, fab lunch.

 

Georgetown

We met old friends for lunch at yet another D.C. institution, Clyde’s, and settled into a deep, comfortable booth to catch up — three photographers and a writer made for plenty of good stories and industry gossip. The service was excellent, the food delicious and the cocktails perfect. The interior, filled with paintings and enormous palm trees and dark wooden blinds filtering the November sunshine, offered a calm and pretty respite from holiday crowds.

 

Georgetown

 

On Sunday I went by Metro and bus to Georgetown, an elegant and historic enclave filled with narrow townhouses and herringbone brick sidewalks. Here’s a list of 16 things to do in Georgetown — including (!) seeing the steep staircase featured in the terrifying film The Exorcist.

 

Georgetown

 

I ate lunch, enjoyed a terrific gin & tonic, and wandered.

The best shopping? There are many great options, but check out  The Opportunity Shop at the corner of P Street and Wisconsin Avenue, with two floors crammed with consignment goods. Because D.C. is a town full of affluent and well-traveled people, the merch is amazing and prices reasonable — everything from a fuchsia silk Moroccan caftan ($85) to Asian pottery to sterling silver cutlery to Waterford crystal to prints and rugs.

Best of all, the proceeds go to support 5,000 needy children in and around the city.

 

Georgetown

 

The area’s side streets are stunning, house after house from the early 1800s; in 1967 the neighborhood was designated a National Historic Landmark district and it was founded in 1751. If you love architecture as much as I do, make time to walk slowly and enjoy!

 

Georgetown

 

I climbed steep 32d. street to Dumbarton Oaks, a stunning mansion that was once a private home and is now a small museum with an eclectic mix of pre-Columbian art and textiles, Byzantine art and textiles, ancient books and a legendarily lovely garden. Like much of D.C.’s attractions, admission is free.

I went to see a small show of paintings of women, and loved most the Degas oil of two of his relatives, two women singing to one another, on a visit to New Orleans.

It was a perfect weekend!

 

Georgetown

 

Have you been to D.C.?

 

Do you have a favorite spot there?

 

A searing documentary: Ken Burns’ “The VietNam War”

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe you know little about the VietNam war — you were too young then, or it didn’t affect you or maybe you didn’t care to learn about it.

This week, a 10-part series on the war has been airing on PBS in the U.S.; you can buy DVDs of the series or download episodes of it on ITunes.

It is unforgettable, moving, appalling, the result of nearly 100 interviews.

Each episode is 90 minutes to two hours long, and features a mixture of interviews with veterans of the war, both South and North Vietnamese and American, including an American doctor who was a prisoner of war, an anti-war protestor, the sister of a soldier killed early on in the conflict, journalists and others.

It is searing, disturbing, deeply sad; I see friends’ reactions on Facebook, left sobbing.

It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to (better) understand a war that lasted just under 20 years, from 1955 to 1975.

From Wikipedia:

Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 966,000[30] to 3.8 million.[52] Some 240,000–300,000 Cambodians,[53][54][55] 20,000–62,000 Laotians,[52] and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action.[A 2]

As someone who was born and raised in Canada, I had little conscious awareness of the war, which ended in my final year of high school. We knew about it, certainly, as Canadian media is forever saturated by all news from the United States, our largest trading partner.

It was a time, as today now feels again, when the country was deeply divided, between those who thought the war still worth fighting — and those staging enormous protests nationwide.

 

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It’s deeply depressing to hear — on audio of the time — the endless lies fed to Americans by their leaders year after year, their broken promises that produced more domestic rage and frustration and more and more dead bodies.

One surprising effect, which I and others felt personally, was draft-dodgers, some of whom were professors in our university, exotic Americans — some 30,000 Americans fled to Canada to escape the draft and (!) 30,000 Canadians apparently volunteered to serve in the war.

One of the best-known songs of the era — written by fellow Canadian Neil Young — commemorates the unimaginable, the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University in Ohio, shot by National Guardsmen while protesting the war:

“What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?”

The interviews in the film are raw and intimate, shot in tight close-up, as men and women now in their 50s, 60s or beyond recall the most terrifying moments of their lives. There are color images of them, young and strong, wearing camo, a stark contrast to the silk bow-ties and elegant jackets they wear as they recall the war for us.

The noisy, shocking film footage of battles and bombings and napalm, of ambushes and gruesome injuries and rows of dead bodies — both American and Vietnamese — makes looking away both tempting and cowardly.

There is, in Episode Nine, an astounding speech by John Kerry — then returned from the Mekong Delta wearing fatigues (who would later become U.S. Secretary of State.) That same episode includes an interview with photographer Nick Ut, whose image of a young girl who had just been napalmed, Phan Thi Kim Phuc (now living near my hometown, Toronto), remains one of the war’s iconic photos.

One of those famous images shown in the film sits on our living room wall — a signed gift from the late photographer, Bernie Boston, on assignment for the Washington Star.

 

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And we have a friend, a former colleague of my husband, a  “boat person” who fled VietNam after the war as a little boy, and who now works as an art director at The New York Times. He once told us his story, and it was difficult to reconcile the highly successful man we know today with the terrified refugee he was then.

Read the link and you’ll see an echo with the millions of refugees today fleeing in overcrowded boats from Syria and Africa. Plus ça change…

My father, a film-maker, also worked on a television series about the war, The 10,000 Day War,  — it was the first time I knew the name of General William Westmoreland, a key player whom he interviewed.

I Googled that film —– and found that the nearest copy of it to my home is (!) at West Point, the military academy just north of where I live on the Hudson River.

How apt.

 

Do you know much about this war?

 

Do you know anyone who served in the U.S.military in Vietnam?

 

8 reasons I rarely blog about politics

By Caitlin Kelly

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Some of you follow the news avidly,  aware that there is tremendous racial division in the United States. and that a 32-year-old activist named Heather Heyer was killed this week by a car driven into a crowd of protestors in Charlottesville.

Some of you may wonder why I haven’t added my voice to the chorus of outrage and fury at the growth of what some call the alt-right, what others call Nazism.

Don’t I care?

Yes, very much, but…

 

  1. Some of you, including me, are simply worn out from only six chaotic months of the Presidency of Donald Trump, a man for years before his election well known to New York residents like me to be a man who routinely lies and cheats, who bullies and shames everyone he considers an opponent. Much as I loathe this man and all he stands for, I’m not the least bit surprised by anything he now says or does — or fails to do. If you knew Trump then — and millions did not — little of this comes as a shock.

 

 

2. As someone who has also lived in France, Canada, Mexico and England, I don’t view the Presidency with the same awe and reverence as many Americans do. It’s not a matter of disrespect; I chose to move to the U.S. and am grateful for what that choice brought me — a fulfilling career, a home I love and a marriage I treasure. But other political systems are less rigid and most hold their elected leaders in much less regard. My greatest frustration with this Presidency is how utterly impotent his opponents, in and out of office, seem to be,

 

 

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3. My husband, in his capacity as a New York Times photographer, spent eight years in the White House Press Corps — photographing Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He’s flown aboard Air Force One and stepped into the Oval Office, the President’s domain. (He took me there as well.) He’s covered campaigns, heard the speeches and witnessed some backroom behavior no one else has. There’s little mystery to us about this man, or his actions, or the Republicans who turn their gaze away from his chicanery, He’s seen it all up close before.

 

4. Because I feel worn out by living under this Administration, I avoid mentioning POTUS’ name. I mute his voice on the television. Daily exposure to him, for me, is just too enervating. In my six weeks traveling through Europe, itself a luxurious escape, I avoided all conversation about him as well.

Really, what is there to add?

 

5. Like me, many of Broadside’s readers —  no matter how much you might also care about American politics — you either live very far away, (as many of you do), can’t vote in the U.S., (I have a green card, so that’s my situation), or just crave a break from it all.

 

6. If you’re as active as I am on social media, (i.e. Facebook and Twitter, especially, possibly Reddit for some of you), you’re already bombarded there by outrage and fury and dismay and face-palming, some of it hourly. I want this blog to be something of a respite from that — for you and for me.

 

7. I was recently interviewed for Maclean’s magazine, Canada’s national magazine of current affairs, by another Canadian journalist who lives and works in New York, Chris Taylor. His relief from this daily insanity is escaping into books, and, for him, the classics. I’ve begun reading books more than ever again, fleeing the radio and television and endless endless chatter. Here’s the Maclean’s piece.

 

8. I work full-time as a journalist and writing coach. In my ongoing capacity as a journalist, and someone who writes frequently for The New York Times, it’s not helpful to be seen as a wild-eyed partisan, no matter my personal feelings. American journalists are expected to be impartial in our reporting.

Do we need role models?

By Caitlin Kelly

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A favorite TV series, about an older Swedish detective

Once you become an adult, certainly if you’re female and choose an unconventional life — maybe not marrying or not having children or working in a creative field — you might crave a role model.

Someone who took the path less traveled by, and thrived.

As American poet Robert Frost wrote, in 1916:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Mainstream, mass market American women’s magazines are too generic, hence unhelpful.

Impossible to relate to corporate warriors like Sheryl Sandberg or Arianna Huffington in their $4,000 sheath dresses and multi-million-dollar lives.

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I hope to keep traveling!

In North America, older women are typically offered a depressingly bifurcated path — turn dumpy and invisible or spend every penny on Botox, fillers and plastic surgery. Look younger, or else!

Neither appeals to me, so I’m forever in search of inspiration, i.e. role models.

In June — where I’ll be celebrating in Paris — I’ll hit a milestone  birthday.

Since my mother and I don’t speak and my stepmother died nine years ago, I don’t have many older women to talk to intimately about what lies ahead.

So it was a great pleasure recently to run into a friend from my dance classes — I was out walking in our small town in the sunshine — and catch up with her, a woman about to hit her next milestone birthday, a decade beyond mine.

She really is an inspiration to me, about to fly to Japan, again, where she’ll be teaching writing and staying with her partner, who has a home there. Last time we met up, she was off to Barcelona to visit one of her daughters.

She always looks terrific, trim and fit, wearing flattering colors and — most importantly — has a real infectious joy and spirit of adventure.

I lost both my grandmothers the year I turned 18, so it’s been a long, long time without a much older woman in my life to talk to.

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Members of  my team, Softball Lite taking a CPR class, March 4, 2017 in Hastings, NY.

But our apartment building is pretty much an old age home, the sort of place people move into at 65 or 75 or 85 after they’ve sold the family house.

So I watch people decades older than I navigate their lives, whether romantic, professional or personal. We don’t hang out, but we do socialize and chat in the hallways or lobby or driveway, our shared spaces.

One woman — in her late 80s, maybe older — on our floor, has a fab new Barbour tweed jacket and looks amazing, even with her walker. I told her so, and as I walked away, heard her say, happily: “That made my day!”

Older people get ignored.  They aren’t listened to. Their needs and desires get dismissed.

That’s not what I want! That’s not what anyone wants.

My father, at 88, is still blessed with enough income and health to be traveling internationally and deciding where to live, still on his own. In his own way, he’s a role model — my husband, a late-life surprise baby, lost both his parents when he was still in his 20s.

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Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds; Cruit Island, Donegal, Ireland

I know the elements of a happy later life, especially after retirement, will be many of the same things as today:

good health, enough money to enjoy some pleasures, intimate friendships, a strong sense of community, a well-tended marriage.

I’m also deliberately trying new-to-me things and learning new skills, like CPR and how to play golf. I debated trying to learn German, but I admit it — I wimped out!

Like both of my parents, I enjoy knowing several much younger friends — people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, each of us at a different stage of life, perhaps, but often struggling with similar, life-long issues, whether intimacy, work or how to handle money well.

We don’t have children or grand-children, (putting us very much out of step with our peers.) So we enjoy others’ when we can.

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I like having chosen the road less traveled, with its many twists and turns.

But a compass and a guide are helpful.

Do you have role models to help you figure out your life?

Who, and how?

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her practical tips, offered through one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, have helped many other writers and bloggers worldwide, quickly increasing their sales, reader engagement and followers; details here.

Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

A barstool conversation

By Caitlin Kelly

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Grand Central Terminal; the view from Cipriani. What’s not to love?

Sitting at the bar is where I’ve had some of my best conversations — in Corsica, in Atlanta, in San Francisco and last Friday evening in New York City.

It was about 6:30.

Commuters were rushing to their trains north, to Connecticut and to Westchester, tourists, as always, posing on the steps and slowing rushed New Yorkers down as they raced for the 6:47 or whichever train was next.

Never get in the way of a New Yorker in a hurry!

I settled in at Cipriani , an elegant Italian restaurant in a balcony overlooking the station. I had a magazine and a Mr. C, a citrus-based cocktail. The bartender kindly plugged in my cellphone to charge it.

A handsome young man in a navy suit and white shirt, no tie, slid onto the stool to my left; a slightly older man with a head of wild black hair and oversized sunglasses sat to my right.

“How’s your week been?” I asked the man to my left.

He told me he’d just gotten a new job, and we toasted, clinking our cocktail glasses.

He seemed surprised I was happy to toast a stranger’s success. Why not? Who would be too churlish to deny him that pleasure?

It’s a big deal to flee a job that’s a poor fit for one you hope will be a much better one. Been there, done that.

That’s the beauty, I suppose, of being near the tail end of a long career. For someone only a decade in, every decision can still feel problematic because you’ve yet to make that many of them.

An investment banker, he admitted he didn’t much like the field, but — probably like many people, especially those unhappy at work — he had pretty much fallen into it. If you know anything about I-banking, the income is certainly seductive, but golden handcuffs are still handcuffs.

I urged him to start creating an exit strategy. Life is far too short to stay in a field or industry you really don’t enjoy, I said.

He looked surprised by my vehemence, and my insistence one could actually enjoy one’s work life.

We ended up talking for about an hour, sharing stories of family and work, of dating woes and East Coast snobberies, and the classic diss we’d both experienced: “Where’d you go to school?”, a tedious sorting mechanism. (The only correct answer being the coy, “In New Haven” (Yale) or “Providence” (Brown University) or another of the Ivy League.)

“I’m strapping, right?” he asked me, at one point. He was, actually.

It was a bit awkward to be asked, even though the answer was affirmative.

He was a little drunk.

It made me a little sad.

He was single, and just under half my age, a fact he finally realized but managed to handle with grace.

We had a good conversation with lots of laughter, a few of of life’s more painful challenges and a few high fives.

I like how the right bar and a drink or two can connect two strangers companionably for a while.

(Just in case, though:

  1. Make sure you don’t get drunk; stay safe!
  2. Make sure no one has access to your drink except you (beware someone dumping rohypnol; i.e. getting roofied.)
  3. Make sure you feel 100 percent comfortable with the tone and content of any conversation. If not, move or leave.
  4. Make sure you can leave quickly and safely, if necessary; trust your instincts.)

 

Do you ever sit at the bar?

Do you ever talk to strangers there?

A NYC firefighter, and his engine

By Caitlin Kelly

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In every city I know, firefighters remain somewhat mythical beasts, people you typically only see — or hope to see! — on television or racing to help someone in distress or trying to save a burning building.

Socially, you might run into many different people, but in 20+ years in New York, I’ve only known one firefighter, married to a friend who was then, like me, a magazine editor.

They’re known as New York’s Bravest.

They also have truly legendary status here because so many of these men — 343 — died in the attacks of September 11, running into the Twin Towers to try to save those trapped within.

This week I happened to pass by Ladder Company 3, on East 13th street, on my way to a store next door.

It’s so often like that here, that I accidentally stumble onto a serious piece of the city’s long and complex history.

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Ladder Company Three was one of the worst-hit of  the city’s battalions, losing most of its men. Ironically, it’s one of the city’s oldest, founded — of course — on September 11, 1865. They lost 11 men, and the front of their firehouse is covered in plaques naming the men. Just inside the door is an elegant wooden wall with gallery lighting honoring them, and there’s a comfortable wooden bench in front, where grateful passersby like me can sit for a moment.

Like many people, I’m in awe of the work firefighters do: terrifying, dangerous, often lethal. They run, by choice and by profession, into the worst situations imaginable.

I stared into the firehouse’s open door, mesmerized by the enormity of its ladder truck parked within. I could see a coat rack, with each firefighter’s coat, his name on its back in huge reflective letters and a uniform, with its boots, ready to step into.

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A firefighter came to the doorway with two small portable bright orange chainsaws — one with serrated teeth, one with a smooth metal wheel. He fired them up to full strength, a task, he said, he does twice every day. Because so many people here live in apartments, they often need to cut through security gates.

I learned the difference between an engine (whose primary function is to spray water) and a ladder, needed, obviously, to reach the upper stories of taller buildings.

I also learned a new word — “taxpayer” — which refers to a small one or two-storey building in the city, both a real estate term and one used by firefighters.

Then — oh, beating heart keep still! — another truck pulled up, giving me a chance to see it up close. I got into conversation with a young, new firefighter, whose name was Middle Eastern, (many here, traditionally, are Irish), who’d previously served in the British military.

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He was super-nice and answered my torrent of questions: the truck carries only enough water to last three (!) minutes, so quick and ready access to a hydrant is essential; the truck carries a crew of five, including a commanding officer and driver; and they have a special set of tools to allow them access to people trapped in a subway tunnel.

I scrambled to take as many photos as I could, knowing the odds of being that close to a New York City firetruck again were slim.

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I essentially started my interviewing career — at the age of 12 — when I had to do an oral presentation for school and went to our local firehouse, in Toronto, to ask them about those little red boxes in the wall and all the drills we did, (this was a boarding school.)

I suspect everyone not wearing that uniform is as in awe and wonder as I am at their skill and bravery.

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