“Travel becomes a way of life and a comfort zone”
“Travel becomes a way of life and a comfort zone”
By Caitlin Kelly
Have you heard of “bitchy resting face”?
A piece in today’s New York Times has, so far, drawn 564 comments on the bizarre notion that a woman’s face is something total strangers can expect to make them feel happier:
RBF is now the topic of multiple “communities” on Facebook, dominated by women.
Plastic surgeons say they are fielding a growing number of requests from those who want to surgically correct their “permafrowns” (again, primarily from women).
The country star Kacey Musgraves recently helped Buzzfeed create a list of 17 more accurate names for RBF (among them, Resting “this wouldn’t bother you if I was a guy” face).
A New Jersey business journal, NJBIZ, even published a special report on the topic.
If you’re an American woman, the larger culture demands you be real friendly! all the damn time — and a woman who doesn’t walk through the world with a big fat reassuring smile plastered on her face is deemed angry, annoyed, frustrated and (wait for it), rude as a result.
I grew up in Canada, a British-inflected nation (see: stiff upper lip, emotional reticence, subdued expressions of feelings) where no one — thank God — expects you to be chatty and charming to every single person you meet. It’s exhausting!
I moved to the U.S. in 1989 and one of the biggest cultural adjustments I’ve made in the 25 years since then is the cultural norm of being genial to strangers. Why, exactly, is never made clear.
It’s just a cultural norm. I still don’t feel compelled to be “friendly” to anyone, and don’t feel compelled to apologize for not doing it. Civil, polite — of course!
Beyond that? I conserve my emotional energy for situations I think require it.
It was much worse in the 2.5 years (Merry damn Christmas, already!) I worked retail as a sales associate for The North Face, working in a suburban New York mall, serving customers who were often extremely wealthy and whose behavioral expectations were off the charts. Surrounded daily by minions they’d hired and could fire in a heartbeat — nannies, chauffeurs, au pairs, maids or their workplace employees — they were positively stunned when we dared to utter a one-syllable word to them.
As in, “No, we don’t have that jacket in your size/color.”
The only way to soften the terrible blow of their delayed gratification was by offering an automatic huge smile and a heartfelt apology — all on low wages. (This is called emotional labor and it is, very much, a thing.)
I wrote a book about that experience; the link is here.
I know I’ve got a severe case of BRF and I’ve even addressed it explicitly in job interviews because when I concentrate hard I don’t always keep eye contact (bad) let alone I fail to smile reassuringly (even worse) at the person trying to decide if I’m likeable enough to hire.
One reason I work freelance alone at home!
I have no doubt my lack of reflexive emotional appeasement helped tank some of my student evaluations this past year when I taught at a very expensive private college in Brooklyn. I don’t smile a lot. I don’t make an effort to ingratiate myself. I have a sense of humor and love to laugh, in the classroom and outside of it.
But sticking on a fake smile to soothe people for no apparent reason? No.
To me, learning is a serious business and those who feel cheated without fake bonhomie are a poor fit for my style.
So to tell women walking down the street, or buying groceries, or chairing a meeting or sitting on a park bench, “Smile, honey!” is a normal grotesquerie for many of us. Because, somehow, if we’re not making you feel better about yourself, we’re failing you.
It’s our face.
Have you been told you’re not perky enough?
How did you respond?
By Caitlin Kelly
When I asked a class of students I taught this year — whose families were paying $60,000 a year so they could study writing — for their least favorite words, one phrase immediately surfaced.
“Check your privilege,” said one.
In a nation where income inequality is growing at the fastest pace since the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, questions of who’s ahead, who’s (usually) getting ahead and, crucially, who’s consistently staying ahead are daily fodder in the American media.
Have you seen this BuzzFeed video?
As I write this post, it’s gotten more than 2 million views. In it, the participants step forward or back with every bit (or loss) of privilege. It’s worth watching, and the comments of those who did it are also interesting.
At least, that as defined by the terms of the questions.
1. If your parents worked nights and weekends to support your family, take one step back.
2. If you are able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault, take one step forward.
3. If you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, take one step forward.
4. If you have ever been diagnosed as having a physical or mental illness/disability, take one step back.
5. If the primary language spoken in your household growing up was not english, take one step back.
6. If you came from a supportive family environment take one step forward.
7. If you have ever tried to change your accent, mannerisms or name to gain credibility, take one step back.
8. If you can go anywhere in the country, and easily find the kinds of hair products you need and/or cosmetics that match your skin color, take one step forward.
9. If you were deeply embarrassed about your clothes or house while growing up, take one step back.
10. If you can make mistakes and not have people attribute your behavior to flaws in your racial group, take one step forward.
11. If your gender identity or expression matches the assigned gender on your birth certificate or drivers’ license, take one step forward.
12. If you were born in the United States, take one step forward.
13. If you or your parents have ever gone through a divorce, take one step back.
14. If you felt like you had adequate access to healthy food growing up, take one step forward
15. If you are reasonably sure you would be hired for a job based on your ability and qualifications, take one step forward.
16. If you see calling the police trouble occurs as a reasonable choice, take one step forward. If you see calling the police as a potential danger, take one step back.
17. If you can see a doctor whenever you feel the need, take one step forward.
18. If you feel comfortable being emotionally expressive/open, take one step forward.
19. If you have ever been the only person of your race/gender/socio-economic status/ sexual orientation in a classroom or workplace setting, please take one step back.
20. If you took out loans for your education take one step backward.
21. If you can practice your religion or wear religious dress without fear of prejudice or attack, take one step forward.
22. If you had a job during your high school and college years, take one step back.
23. If you feel comfortable taking a walk in your neighborhood at night, take one step forward.
24. If you have ever traveled outside the United States for your own enrichment or leisure, take one step forward. If you have traveled outside the U.S. for military combat, take one step back.
25. If you have ever felt like there was not adequate or accurate representation of your racial group, sexual orientation group, gender group, and/or disability group in the media, take one step back.
26. If you feel confident that your parents would be able to financially help/support you if you were going through a financial hardship, take one step forward.
27. If you have ever been a defendant in court without a paid lawyer, or have spent time in jail or prison, take one step back.
28. If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, take one step forward.
29. If you studied the culture or the history of your ancestors in elementary school take one step forward.
30. If your parents or guardians attended college, take one step forward.
31. If you ever went on a family vacation, take one step forward.
32. If you can buy new clothes or go out to dinner when you want to, take one step forward.
33. If you were ever offered a job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
34. If one of your parents was ever laid off or unemployed not by choice, take one step back.
35. If you were ever upset by a joke or a statement you overheard related to your race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.
Like every survey, though, this one also contains inherent biases and weaknesses.
1) If your parents worked nights and weekends (the implicit assumption they were working menial jobs and/or working several jobs at once) they might also have been working freelance or running their own business.
A much smarter question, especially in light of current on-demand scheduling in many food service and retail jobs, which is both disruptive and income-limiting: Did your parents have reliable, steady incomes? And key to that — was this their choice or imposed upon them by their employer(s)?
2) If you’re legally able to carry a gun, and wish to make that choice, you might no longer live in fear of sexual assault since you have chosen a way to defend yourself. It’s not a PC choice to carry a firearm for many Americans — or even to discuss it as an option — but it is for many others, like some of the women I interviewed for my 2004 book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”
4) I relied on crutches for three months in the fall of 2009 due to arthritis. Many of us will move in and out of periods of great(er) or lesser physical privilege as we age or face illness(es.)
12) Seriously? Talk about cultural bias! The United States ranks shockingly low now on many global measures of quality of life, from infant mortality, paid maternity leave (only one other nation does not offer it), income inequality and the stunning cost of post-secondary education. Having moved to the U.S. at the age of 30 from Canada — a nation with cradle-to-grave free health care — I find this assumption risible.
I paid $660 a year (yes) for my college education at Canada’s top university, a huge privilege I took for granted there; Americans who wish to continue on to college or university can face decades of enormous student debt that they cannot discharge through declaring bankruptcy.
22) What’s wrong with having had a job in high school or college? Yes, if it hindered your studies to the degree you could not graduate. For many people, that’s not the case.
One huge question missing here relates to age:
36) Have you ever lost out on an economic opportunity — an internship, freelance work or — most essential — a full-time job because of your age (i.e. over 40)?
American employers routinely shut out workers over the age of 50 because…they can. There’s no way to prove it and no consequence to their actions; I wrote about this for The New York Times.
Here are a few more I consider “steps back”:
37) Were/are one or both of your parents physically or emotionally abusive?
38) Were/are one or both of your parents alcoholic or addicted?
39) Have you and/or your spouse/partner suffered long-term (6 months+) unemployment?
40) Were/are one or both of your parents mentally ill?
41) Are you now or have you been financially responsible for siblings or other family members?
42) Can you afford to buy a comprehensive health insurance plan?
43) Have you ever had to declare bankruptcy? (Medical debts are the single greatest driver of American personal bankruptcy.)
44) Are you carrying any medical expenses you simply cannot (re) pay?
45) Have you always had ready/easy/affordable access to the technology used by your educational peers and competitors for work/jobs?
In the rush to competitive victimhood (or guilt), it’s rarely simple to determine who’s better off, beyond the 1 percent.
Do you feel privileged?
Have you been told to “check your privilege”?
What else would you add?
By Caitlin Kelly
Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”
Columnist David Brooks describes this idea in his recent column, expressing a Timesian surprise at one man’s joy in his garden:
This scale of purpose is not for everyone.
What makes people happy?
Not just having the newest-shiniest-costliest thing.
Nor the most well-paid powerful job.
Nor a private jet or three nannies and a $50 m apartment — which, believe me, when you live anywhere near New York City starts to seem somehow normal.
When I see an ad for a home, a house or an apartment, costing less than $1 million, and think “Yeah, that’s a decent price” I know it’s time for a reality check.
If you grow up, as I and my half-siblings did, in a family who highly values achievement and professional success — as many do — it’s tough to celebrate smaller, quieter, less-public moments.
And social media, with its non-stop parade of others’ effortless and luxurious fabulousness, offers a terrifying hall of mirrors for the chronically insecure, like one writer I know who makes the vaunted six-figures and has two Ivy League degrees, which she easily dismisses. She still wrings her hands constantly about her value.
If you persist in clinging exclusively or primarily to the ladder of professional status, ever seeking more income, status, achievement and admiration, you’re doomed.
There’s never enough.
Nor does the larger culture of the United States, a place addicted to ever-more-feverish productivity, wealth and status, offer much encouragement to those of us who actually prefer a slower pace, the lower costs of a smaller home, an older vehicle, (only one! OMG), or none.
Are our modern lives really that much more stressful? “The answer appears to be yes,” says anxiety researcher Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. “Anxiety rates have risen steadily over the past seven decades, during good economic times and bad.”
She believes the rise is related to a cultural shift, over the last 70 years, away from “intrinsic” values—appreciating things like close relationships and having a real love for your work—toward more “extrinsic” ones, like money and status. In fact, her research found that anxiety rates rose at the same pace with this change in mind-set. “Recent generations have been told over and over again, ‘You can be anything you want to be. You can have the big job title. You can have the big bank account.’ And in the case of women, ‘You can have this perfect body.’
That puts a lot on a person’s shoulders—and it’s also not really true. These are things that aren’t always under your control, but that disconnect creates a lot of anxiety about how hard you need to work to achieve them—and a deep fear of failure,” she explains. “And although these extrinsic values—the latest iPad, the cutest shoes—seem important, all the evidence shows that at the end of the day they don’t leave us very happy or satisfied.”
Anyone who reads this blog, or visits my website, can see that I’m a fairly ambitious, driven and productive writer — two non-fiction books, a Canadian National Magazine Award, 100+ freelance stories in The New York Times.
I’ve ticked enough boxes.
I know a woman who’s produced four children and four books in the space of a decade. And she has yet to hit 40. What on earth will she do to fill the next four decades of her frenetic life?
She’s obsessed with being productive. I admire her financial success and her love of parenting but I don’t wish to emulate her life or its choices.
I see the insane stress so many people feel — not surprising in an era of stagnant wages, record student debt and a shaky economy in many sectors. How much work is too much? How much is enough?
It is one of the few benefits of being decades into a career and having lived frugally; we don’t face the same pressures as some people I know, certainly those in their 20s, 30s and 40s juggling work/commute/kids/aging parents.
I’m writing this while sitting on our top-floor balcony, the only sounds that of birds and the wind in the leaves. We have stunning Hudson River views and sunsets that vary every day in their beauty.
I value taking time off, whenever possible.
I enjoy naps, whenever necessary.
I make time to meet friends face to face over a long, delicious meal or a walk instead of chasing yet another client.
I value our strong marriage.
I value our good health.
I value our dear friends, people who welcome us into their homes in Dublin, Paris, Toronto, London, Maine, Arizona.
What we may lack in prestige/power and visible tokens of fiscal wealth we enjoy in abundance in other forms.
Sure I’d like to write a best-seller or win a fancy fellowship.
But my boxes are mostly ticked and, for now, I’m focusing on small(er) wins and pleasures.
For which I’m grateful.
How do you feel these days about your life?
By Caitlin Kelly
If there’s a phrase I hate, it’s “comfort zone”.
How big is it?
Why is it so small?
Or so large?
Women, especially, are socialized to make nice — to make everyone around them comfortable. That can leave us hamstrung saying “Um” a lot, avoiding the difficult, when we really need to become comfortable with discomfort — extending the edges of that zone as far as we (safely) can.
And, really, what’s “safe”?
Many women are also still socialized to expect little of ourselves intellectually and economically beyond the tedious maternally-focused media trope of “having it all” — working yourself into a frenzy to be perfect at motherhood/work/friendship/PTA cupcakes.
To never show a moment’s vulnerability.
To do it all, all alone.
I do mean developing and consistently using and trusting your own power, a strength and resilience that sees us through the scariest and most unexpected moments.
That might be physical, tested through sports or the military or parenting or adversity.
That might be intellectual — studying subjects so difficult they make your brain hurt — coming out the other side wearily proud of your hard-won new skills.
That might be spiritual/emotional — helping someone you love through a tough time. Or yourself. Probably both.
Jose and I have had an interesting, eye-opening few weeks caring for my 85-year-old father in Canada, where I grew up, after a hip replacement.
He’s the kind of guy whose biceps, still, feel like touching concrete. Who, in the past two years alone, sailed in Greece for a month and flew to Hong Kong and Viet Nam.
Like me, he doesn’t do “ill” or “weak” or “helpless.”
It’s been instructive, and sobering, for all three of us to see how intimately — not our norm! — we’ve had to interact through this transition.
Seeing someone you care for ill, in pain, nauseated, is frightening and disorienting. You desperately want to fix it, right away, but all you might be able to usefully do is wash a bloodied bedsheet or empty a pail of vomit.
You become a reluctant witness.
They become reluctantly passive, forcefully humbled by the body’s new and unwelcome fragility, even if blessedly temporary, a painful way station on the road to recovery.
It’s not fun. It’s not sexy.
Nor can you hand it all off to someone else.
It’s your job to give it your best, no matter how scared or freaked-out or overwhelmed you might feel.
It is real.
You also, if you’re lucky, get to see your partner be a mensch. Jose is an amazing husband in this regard, a man who steps up and gets shit done, no matter how tired he really feels, no matter if it’s all new and unfamiliar.
No whining. No complaining.
We never had children and have no pets, so the whole cleaning-up-bodily-fluids-thing is not part of our daily life and never has been.
But drives to the pharmacy and laundry became daily activities, plus cooking, cleaning up, housework, helping him back into bed. By day’s end, we both needed, and took, a long nap.
And Jose’s caregiving of me for three weeks after my own hip replacement in February 2012 was, in many ways, easier: I had less pain, a nurse came in every few days to check my progress and our hospital at home is a 10-minute drive from home, not an hour, as it is for my father.
I’d never seen my father ill and he’s never spent a night in the hospital, so taking medications, (very few, but still), and constant attention to the physical came as a shock to all of us.
As a family, always, we tend to live in our heads, to focus on art and politics, to thump the dinner table in vociferous arguments over (yes, really) geeky shit like economic policy.
We don’t do a lot of hugging or “I love you’s”. We’re private, even shy in some ways.
We typically don’t inquire after one another’s emotional states nor really expect or even want a candid answer. (WASP, Canadian, whatever…)
Surely you jest.
Not so much.
And so three comfort zones now have entirely new boundaries. I doubt such extensions arrive without cost.
We now know one another better than after years of brief less-intense visits, and have forged deeper, richer bonds as a result.
(Dad is doing great, so we’re now back at home; he’s well on the road back to normal, active life. No more tinkling of the bedside bell for help, a tradition we used for me as well.)
Have you been stretched recently?
How did it turn out?
By Caitlin Kelly
“Our son is in Tikrit!,” Jose announced last weekend.
Of course he was. Perpetually adventurous, Alex couldn’t have lingered — sensibly and safely for his final semester of college — in Istanbul.
He’s actually not our biological or even adopted son.
He’s one of a small group of talented young people we call our “freelance kids” — who happily call us their freelance Mom and Dad.
We can answer all the questions their parents generally cannot — like, how does an ambitious couple in our industry, (littered with divorce), keep their relationship thriving? How do we handle crazy schedules and work-imposed separations?
How do we handle burnout?
And what do you do when you fall off an elephant into the Mekong River and ruin all your costly camera equipment?
A talented, ambitious and successful photographer, we met Alex when he came to The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, open to any student members of the NAHJ or NABJ.
Since then, Alex, a Chicago student from Milwaukee, has slept on our suburban New York sofa many times as we’ve welcomed him, as we also have with Molly, another young shooter from Arizona we met the same way, now living in Portland, Oregon.
I didn’t want to have children, and nor did Jose. We’re giving, generous, fun people, quick with a hug. We love to hear our young friends’ stories, happy or sad, and have given much advice on matters both personal and professional. They know we’re there for them.
It gives us great pleasure and satisfaction to have become trusted friends, often even older than their parents.
But we didn’t change their diapers or rush them to the emergency room or coach them for their college essays.
I now teach two college classes and have so far had 26 students, whom I regularly refer to (not to them!) as “my kids”, and, for many of them, I feel affection, glad to sit down and chat with them at length outside of class. I worry about some of them and how they’ll turn out — as parents do.
But when the vast majority of men and women still do become parents, those of us who don’t seem weird.
People assume we “hate kids” — not true — or are selfish; (like all parents, de facto, are not?)
Jose and I each chose to make our careers within news journalism, a volatile and insecure field that at the very top still pays its award-winning veterans less than a first-year corporate lawyer. So we both knew, long before we met in our early 40s, that whatever money we earned there was it, and having children would be costly both to our ambitions and our savings.
Today we’re financially far ahead of anyone we know, (short of the truly wealthy) with our retirement savings, not having had to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to raise children or to buy/rent a larger home, (or live, cramped in too small a space for years), or to pay for college. That’s a huge relief in an era when most Americans — even after decades of hard and/or decently-paid work –– still barely have $100,000 saved to fund 20+ years of retirement.
And my own childhood just wasn’t much fun; an only child, I spent ages eight through 13 at boarding school and summer camp, living at home for only two years of that.
Parenthood looked like an overwhelming amount of work and I knew I would never be able to count on anyone in my family to offer help of any kind.
As her only child, my mother’s own emotional and medical needs sucked me dry; by the time I was getting marriage proposals, I was busy carving out a career for myself in journalism, one so competitive — and poorly paid and with lousy schedules — I still couldn’t imagine adding the many enormous responsibilities of parenthood to that mix.
Let alone a husband!
I now teach freshman writing at a private college in Brooklyn and have a mix of sophomore, junior and senior students in my blogging class there.
I love the interaction with my students and have gotten to know a few of them personally. I really enjoy our conversations and am happy to offer advice when asked. It feels good to share wisdom with younger people.
But I don’t regret my choice.
It is painful to know that no one will visit my grave, (if I even have one), or retain much memory of me once all my friends and family die.
There are days I’ve envied the pride and pleasure others feel in their children and grand-children.
But it is what it is.
I’ve realized how much I love emotional connection and nurturing others — with the freedom to stop if and when I feel depleted.
But utter and total dependency scares me to death.
People with children have told me that it is virtually impossible to put into words what they gain from their children. “I would be at a loss to describe it in any way other than clichés,” a friend told me. “You can’t know what you are missing until you are on the other side.” Well, I don’t know what it feels like to bungee jump either, yet people don’t try to convince me to hurl myself into a canyon. Besides, I might be able to jump once and then decide that it isn’t for me. With having children this obviously isn’t an option.
It’s edited by Meghan Daum; here’s a recent seven-minute audio interview with her about the book and her choice, from NPR’s The Takeaway.
I attended an event in Manhattan this week with Daum and three of her authors, fascinated to see a SRO crowd of probably 75 people. That’s a big turnout for any reading, and especially in NYC where there’s probably 10 a night.
And here’s an excerpt from an interview with her about this most personal of choices in The New Yorker:
One reason I feel it’s important to talk about choosing not to have kids (as opposed to not being able to have them when you want them, which is a whole other story) is that, so often, the discussion is reduced to glib remarks or punch lines like “I’d rather have expensive shoes!” or “Instead of having kids, I bought a Porsche!” That stuff drives me crazy. First of all, it diminishes the serious thought that so many people who make this choice put into their decision. Secondly, it perpetuates the “selfish” chestnut by assuming that people who opt out of parenthood are therefore choosing to live self-absorbed, materialistic lives. As a mentor and an advocate, I’ve seen no end to the ways that childless people can contribute to the lives and well-being of kids—and adults, for that matter. Those stereotypes are tiresome and counterproductive.
What’s been — or likely will be — your decision whether or not to have children?
By Caitlin Kelly
“Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (1939)
Every year, at least once and sometimes several times, I head north to Toronto and to a cottage on a lake near Peterborough, Ontario, to visit my friends I’ve known for decades.
I left Toronto in 1986, afire with ambition, ready to marry. I met my first husband, an American, in Montreal and followed him to rural New Hampshire; neither took.
By 1994, I was a divorcee (no children) living in a pretty lonely suburb of New York City. Moving back to Canada felt like a retreat. I liked New York. I had yet to satisfy my professional ambitions.
And so I stayed.
In the decades I’ve lived in the U.S. I’ve made friends.
But they’ve come and gone, sometimes with a stunning rapidity. I arrived in New York at the age of 30 — long past the traditional ages when the powerful emotional glue of shared schools, colleges and/or post-graduate training seem to create lifelong bonds for many Americans, some of whom are still pals with their freshman room-mate.
So I’ve found my American friends through other means — a work colleague (briefly), my freelance life, serving on several boards and attending/speaking at conferences, several colleagues of my husband’s from the newspaper he worked at for 31 years and for whom I freelance as well.
Luckily, I have a friend now living directly across the street from me — we met (yes, really) through a local man we both dislike heartily. But, a new pal!
Without children or hobbies or many non-work passions I’ve found it challenging to find people with whom I can create new deep ties. The world is full of friendly acquaintances, “Heyyyyyy!” — but less filled with people with the time, inclination or interest to start a new chapter with a stranger.
So when I see my long-time friends in Canada, we’re also revisiting our earlier selves:
P., once a curly redhead, is now gray, long-married to his husband. We met on a rooftop in Colombia, and still laugh at the same things but our last conversation also included our spouses’ searches for new employment and the struggle over a parent’s estate.
M., also a decade older than I, has known me since I was in my early 20s. We both visited New York City together when I appeared on stage as an extra in the ballet Sleeping Beauty for a story. I’ve stayed in her home many times since then and belatedly realized she’s more family than much of my own.
M, who I met in freshman English class when we eye-rolled at one another. A teacher and college administrator, she came all the way to N.Y. from the northern wilds of British Columbia for my first wedding to be my maid of honor; (my last, fateful words as I headed down the aisle: “Just be my friend if this doesn’t work out”. Thank heaven she did), and all the way to Toronto for my second. We still talk every few months from her home in B.C. and I still use the battered, stained cookbook she gave me in 1986.
L, a fellow journalist, whose home brims with beauty: hand-made pottery, drawings and oil paintings and colorful rugs. Her cooking, and hospitality, is astounding. We met in the 1980s, covering the same story for competing newspapers and re-met decades later on a fellowship in Florida.
S, 20 years my junior, a fellow ferocious jock and adventurous traveler. We’ve set new records for unbroken conversation — on my most recent trip, last week, we sat down in a restaurant for lunch at noon. We got up again at 5:30.
S, my age, who I’ve known since high school when we were both mad about J. — all of us now long since married. Like me, she’s artistic, creative, a free spirit with no children but who shares a deep love of the natural world and travel.
I find it comforting to know people over time, to be loved and valued and accepted and forgiven through the jobs, (and losses of same), the husbands, (and loss/gain of same), through illnesses and surgeries.
Fatter, thinner, happier or broken-hearted, lustily single or placidly married, they’ve seen me through it all, and vice versa.
You can safely fight and make up with these emotional distance runners — while others slink away or keep conversations perky, polished and politely, always, distant.
You know these friends’ partners and pets, (including the dead ones), their parents and siblings. Also, perhaps, their children and grand-children.
You know about the grant they didn’t win or the dream they never tried. They know why your brother hates you, and don’t care.
They know what makes you cry, even if they haven’t seen you — or seen you do it — in years.
We hold one another to a high standard, knowing, sometimes far better than a late-arriving partner or spouse, what lies beneath our bravado and bluster.
We are witnesses to one another’s lives.
(Longtime readers of Broadside know that my family is not especially close or loving, so these long-lasting friendships mean the world to me.)
From New York magazine:
The British user-experience researcher Leisa Reichelt coined the term “ambient intimacy” in 2007 to describe the unfocused closeness we maintain by following friends’ day-to-day on platforms like Twitter. Soon, though, the signals that we continuously broadcast to our friends and followers promise to get more … not intimate, perhaps, but certainly creepy by today’s standards.
The Apple Watch’s ability to stream one user’s heartbeat to another through vibrations is one example of this closeness. As is Meerkat, the suddenly popular live-streaming app that lets users send live video to their followers, turning the previously static culture of webcams into a mobile, always-on experience. Soon enough, we’ll be able to live vicariously alongside anyone we choose at any moment of their life — the ultimate future of the selfie stick is a system that can photograph or record you from any angle and any distance at any time.
I want to sit at a table, or side by side by the fireplace or lazing on the dock, and talk for hours to someone whose face I can see, and vice versa.
Someone I can hug.
Do you have friends you’ve cherished for decades?
By Caitlin Kelly
It happened to me at 14, when a series of frightening events beyond my control collided within a few days while I was living in Mexico.
My mother became ill and suddenly incapacitated; a friend my age had just arrived from Canada for a two-week visit and, while staying with us — we were then on our own — she burned her eyelashes and eyebrows off while lighting our hot water heater.
We had no phone, few friends and no relatives anywhere nearby.
We figured it out. Mostly because we had to.
I left my mother’s care after that and have never lived with her since. I keep reading blogs by women who talk about being “unmothered.” After 14, that was pretty much my new normal; my step-mother, only 13 years my senior, was not a nurturer.
So I’m always fairly fascinated by discussions of what it means to be(come) mature and responsible.
A recent New York magazine article focused on women in their 30s choosing to freeze their eggs as they have no luck finding a man eager — let alone willing — to take on the responsibilities of marriage, let alone of parenthood:
Before he was a fertility specialist, Dr. Keefe was a psychiatrist…
“There are a lot of options,” he said, “and people have to choose the one that’s right for them. But in order to know what’s right, you have to ask yourself, why are you here?”
“I wasted a lot of time in my last relationship,” I admitted. “I want to make sure that I take care of myself.”
He leaned forward and paused. “There’s something wrong with the men in your generation,” he said. I was stunned. Here was a doctor who had just been talking about the importance of considering statistical significance, and now he was chalking my dating problems up to the broadest of generalizations. But he was articulating two forms of truth: the mathematical and the personal.
“It isn’t you,” he said. “All day long, I see patients like you. You’re smart, beautiful, accomplished, nice. It makes no sense. I go home to my wife and I say, ‘There’s something wrong with the men in this generation. They won’t grow up.’”
People who fetishize parenthood assume that only by getting married and/or having and/or raising children can you truly become an adult.
I don’t buy it.
I’ve seen too many sloppy, careless brutes wearing wedding rings, running their vows ragged. I’ve also seen too many careless parents.
I do think that caring for others, actively and consistently, is key to maturity and generativity, the desire to give back. It might be a pet or a child or your neighbor or your students.
I recently watched an odd indie film, Obvious Child, in which the main character, a young comic named Donna Stern, gets pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to have an abortion.
I enjoyed the film in some ways, but found her neurotic compulsion to date losers and make lousy life choices in general, even with loving and solvent parents nearby, depressing and irritating.
Grow up, I wanted to shout at the screen!
I feel the same way (cliche alert!) when I hate-watch the HBO series Girls, which follows the lives of four whiny white girls in their 20s as they try to find jobs, men and friendship in Manhattan. I know many young women lovelovelove the show and its outspoken young creator Lena Dunham.
I just can’t.
We all make terrible choices and we usually get most of them out of the way in our 20s and 30s. (I married the wrong man, moved to NYC with no job in sight, etc.)
When I met the man I’m now married to — 15 years together this spring! — I wondered if he was mature enough to be a husband, which is both a noun and a verb meaning to care for. (Well, actually to manage frugally and carefully, which is close enough for me.)
He ticked all the boxes, as the Brits would say: handsome, great job, funny, snappy dresser, global travel, devout Buddhist. But he felt somehow rooted in single life.
My doubts blew away in one powerful action, when we flew out to help my mother after she was found to have a very large benign brain tumor and we had to take care of her home, dog and paperwork with only three days in a foreign country.
He dragged her soiled mattress onto the verandah without a word and started scrubbing it clean. I’d never seen someone so nonchalantly do a nasty job with no drama, foot-dragging or avoidance. It meant a lot to me.
He stepped up.
I now teach college freshmen and am intrigued to see which of them are more mature than others and why. I’ve also met some lovely young people in their early to mid-20s, maybe old souls, who seem able to just get on with it, with grace, style and humor.
I don’t believe you have to be old to be wise nor do I assume that someone young(er) is de facto foolish and unable to make excellent decisions.
But I do fear for the current crop of children and teens whose parents and grandparents hover incessantly over them in a desperate and misguided attempt to protect them from every possible owie.
The world does not arrive with a big pile of bandaids to hand out.
Do you feel like an adult?
What did it for you?
By Caitlin Kelly
Is it possible? It is for Jose and I. Maybe because we have no children, nor even nieces or nephews to enjoy and hang out with. If we want to savor the company of people decades our junior, in a purely social setting, how does that happen?
For me, it’s been finally meeting a few blogging friends, women whose work I’ve known for years, and vice versa, but who’ve never met face to face.
Blogging blind date!
What if — we both feared — the other person was actually awful IRL? Had bad breath or terrible manners or was a nasty snob who edits her work so carefully that none of that shit leaked out into their blog posts?
I had followed Cadence Woodland, who writes Small Dog Syndrome, since she was writing it from a police department (what?!) of a “religious university” she discreetly refused to name in some far-off American state. I had no inherent interest in that sort of work, but her voice, then as now, was witty, funny, observant.
A good blog lets you feel the personality of its writer; if you like them on-line, then, it seems logical you’d enjoy one another’s company just as much in person. She and I then worked together for a year when I needed help with my freelancing business and she needed some extra income — and we got to know one another better, by phone, email and Skype.
But we still hadn’t met, until I asked if I might stay with them in London in their small flat.
For a week.
(Would that wreck it all?)She and her husband Jeff have moved permanently to London, so our first meeting was at St. Pancras train station, as I came off the Eurostar from Paris. Wearing, natch, a brown fedora. She flew at me with a ferocious hug. It was adorable. We sat down for a coffee and talked for so long that Jeff called to ask: “Where are you? Are you OK?” And we were.
She was all I’d expected, and more, moving at the speed of sound through London’s crowded Underground, touring me to all her favorite spots, from Borough Market to Portobello to Spitalfields. We had a blast.
I can’t decide if you have to be an “old soul” in your 20s — or someone with a very young spirit in your 50s — to have such a friendship. I’m not sure it really matters why it works, as long as both people enjoy it. It’s also, like any friendship, reliant on shared values, interests and tastes, whether medieval history, where to find a great lipstick or how to navigate ex-pat life.
For me, these transcend age or life experience.
Same with Mallory Guinee, a recent Carleton College grad teaching high school English in Paris and who blogs at May Meander. She impulsively invited me out for coffee while I was there, then thought “Oh…what if….?” We, too, had a terrific time, so much so that we spent my last night in Paris having dinner together again. She’s only 23, but has traveled to Mali, plays the harp and has a sense of the world that is far beyond that of many people decades older.
The other way Jose and I have made several friends in their 20s is through his mentoring of young photojournalists through The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, an annual event open to anyone who’s a student member of NABJ or NAHJ.
While we’ve remained close to many of our “kids”, two of them — Alex and Molly — feel like our own in some ways. Both have spent many nights on our sofa, (we live in a one-bedroom apartment), and we’re in touch with them via Facebook, Twitter, phone and email. Alex just moved to Istanbul for his final semester of college and I’m hoping we can visit him there. Here’s his portfolio and hers; Molly spent all last summer traveling SouthEast Asia as a working photographer. Not bad for someone who is barely halfway through her 20s!
I feel lucky to know these people, for a few reasons. Selfishly, they’re just great fun! Like Jose and I, they, too are bright, ambitious and fairly driven, determined to carve out creative success in a difficult world. We’re happy to mentor them as well.
But, I admit, I feel out of step with my 50-ish female peers. We live in an affluent suburban New York county and women there have mostly followed predictable paths: early marriage, motherhood and stay-at-home life supported by high-earning husbands or their own corporate incomes. They live in big houses, drive new cars and dote on their kids and grandchildren. Few have traveled widely, beyond luxury resorts, or have taken the financial and social risks of ex-patriate life.
None of which I can relate to.
And, by my age, you have (ideally!) some life wisdom to share, about work, love, friendship. If you have no younger relatives, no one wants to hear it. But our younger friends are often hungry for advice and insight from a loving adult who’s not their parent or boss.
It’s an interesting relationship in other respects — we’re looking at (we hope!) retirement within the decade and our younger friends are still seeking their first or better jobs. I watch their anxiety and excitement over this with relief that I’m mostly done with that part of my life; they can see, looking at us, what decades of hard word and frugality can bring: a nice home, retirement savings, a good partner to share it with. I’ve also seen my parents’ lifelong enjoyment of younger friends, so this just seems normal to me.
How about you?
Do you have enjoy friendships with anyone decades older or younger than you?
By Caitlin Kelly
Without which, most of us can’t survive.
I know one reason travel moves me emotionally, and why I so enjoy it, is that — 99 percent of the time — it has rewarded my (cautious) trust in the kindness of strangers with what I hoped for. Not robbery or rape or someone out to do me harm, but someone funny and generous and smart who is willing to open their heart and home to me.
Ironically, I’ve only become a crime victim — twice in Canadian cities (break-in, assault) and twice here in suburban New York (auto theft, fraud) — when supposedly safely “at home.”
Many people fear venturing beyond their safe and familiar world, certain that terror and mayhem will ensue.
Not for me and not for my mother, who traveled the world alone in her 40s.
Not for the many women I know who have ventured forth to places like Uganda and Haiti and Nicaragua, alone or with company, for work or for pleasure.
Not for for my many colleagues, male and female, working worldwide in journalism, who often have to rely on local interpreters and fixers and drivers, any one of whom might, in fact, prove to be a kidnaper. Using your smarts, network and instincts, you learn to be discerning.
Not for my young friend, 22-year-old recent Harvard graduate Devi Lockwood, now traveling the globe alone on a post-grad fellowship studying climate change, spending her year surrounded by strangers very, very far away from her Connecticut home; her blog is here.
Here’s a tiny excerpt from her journey:
Sharon retrieves an orange, plastic dreidel from the inside the pocket of her sweater. “With a dreidel, like in life, you have no control. You have to enter into the mystery and take your chances.”
I can’t help but smile at the gesture, the tears of upstairs now dried on my cheeks. Sharon closes her eyes for a moment to bless the object before she passes it into my hands. It is small but larger than itself. She could not have known that orange is my favorite color. I press the object into my own pocket.
It takes an interesting blend of courage, resilience, stamina, self-confidence, and the humility to know and respect local customs of dress and behavior to trust yourself amongst strangers. You need self-reliance and gumption. You need to know how to read a map, (apps don’t always do the trick), and manage in metric and Celsius and other languages.
And — of course — you don’t have to any sort of exotic foreign travel to have this experience. Try a neighborhood in your city you’ve never visited!
I’m in awe at my freshmen writing students’ bravery as so many of them have come from very distant parts of the world, and the U.S., to live, work and study among strangers. I’ve had students from Rome, France, Guam, Hawaii, Mississippi; Canadian college students, in distinct contrast, tend to attend their local universities (partly because there are many fewer of them to choose from and the quality is generally very high.)
You need, in my favorite French verb, to se debrouiller — figure shit out.
My blog posts about how to travel alone as a woman continue to be my best-read.
I’ve finally realized why this sort of unexpected kindness matters so much to me and why it touches me so deeply. Sometimes I’m so thankful it seems overdone, but it’s heartfelt.
I come from a family with plenty of money but one with little time or aptitude for emotional attentiveness. I left my mother’s care at 14 and my father’s home at 19, so have long been accustomed to fending for myself.
As an only child for decades, (step-siblings came later), I simply had to rely on the kindness of strangers in many instances because my own family was nowhere to be found — off traveling the world, long before the Internet or cell phones. Even when they lived nearby, I couldn’t rely on them for emotional or financial support and never, once, had the option of “moving home” back into their houses.
So I discovered that people I had never met before could overwhelm me with their kindness and generosity.
— Gudrun, the wife of a sporting goods executive living in Barcelona, who was then a stringer for Reuters. She welcomed me into her home, left me alone while they went out to dinner, and immediately trusted me. As I did with them. She later let me stay again and even lent me her weekend home.
— Tala, who, hearing we were planning to visit Paris at Christmas, immediately offered us her apartment there.
— Gillian, who invited me to her suburban home there and cooked a lovely meal.
— The young Portuguese couple I met on a train as they headed home to Lisbon to marry. They invited me into their apartment for that week and I ended up becoming their wedding photographer.
It’s instructive to see, also, how sometimes the people with the least to offer materially are so open.
When I visited Nicaragua for work in March 2014 with WaterAid, the second-poorest Western Hemisphere nation after Haiti, I was struck by how genuinely welcoming people were. Yes, we were introduced by locals they know and respect, but I expected little beyond civility. Warmth and genuine connection were a joy, whether in Miskitu through a translator or Spanish, which I speak.
I sat one afternoon, lazing in the blistering heat on a shady verandah chatting with a woman. Marly, a little girl of five, came and sat with me, and let me braid her hair, a sort of easy intimacy I can’t imagine any American child allowing with a stranger, or their fearful parents allowing.
Here’s a sobering/sad New York Times story about Lenore Skenazy, a former colleague of mine at the New York Daily News, who has become (!?) an expert in telling terrified Americans that it’s OK to let their children play outside alone:
A second result is the Free Range Kids Project and a 13-part series, starting Thursday on Discovery Life Channel, called “World’s Worst Mom.” In it, Ms. Skenazy intervenes to rescue bubble-wrapped kids from their overprotective parents by guiding the children safely through a sequence of once-forbidden activities and showing their anxious parents how well the children perform and how proud they are of what they accomplished.
The term “helicopter parents” applies to far more than those who hover relentlessly over their children’s academic and musical development. As depicted in the first episode of the series, it applies to 10-year-old Sam’s very loving mother who wouldn’t let him ride a bike (“she’s afraid I’ll fall and get hurt”), cut up his own meat (“Mom thinks I’ll cut my fingers off”), or play “rough sports” like skating. The plea from a stressed-out, thwarted Sam: “I just want to do things by myself.”
In an interview, Ms. Skenazy said, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger.” The widespread publicity now given to crimes has created an exaggerated fear of the dangers children face if left to navigate and play on their own.
I’m simply sad for these children and the cringing, world-fearing adults they might become.
How will they successfully navigate the many steps toward full economic and emotional independence?
The only way to discover the potential kindness of strangers is to allow for its very real possibility.