And what do we really know about one another?

By Caitlin Kelly

I found this recent piece by New York Times writer Frank Bruni, about losing some of his sight, moving:

And that truth helped me reframe the silly question “Why me?” into the smarter “Why not me?” It was a guard against anger, an antidote to self-pity, so much of which hinges on the conviction, usually a delusion, that you’re grinding out your days while the people around you glide through theirs, that you’ve landed in the bramble to their clover. To feel sorry for yourself is to ignore that everyone is vulnerable to intense pain and that almost everyone has worked or is working through some version of it.

Imagine that our hardships, our hurdles, our demons were spelled out for everyone around us to see. Imagine that each of us donned a sandwich board that itemized them.

“Single parent, child with special needs, nowhere near enough help.” A woman I know would be wearing that, and her acquaintances would rightly find her ability to hold down a full-time job and her unflagging professionalism in it not just admirable but heroic. They’d instantly forgive her any tiny lapses of memory, any fleeting impatience, because they’d understand what a miracle it was that the lapses were only tiny and the impatience merely fleeting.

In a world that glamorizes money and power and objects, it’s easy to assume someone with more of these than you is gliding through life. Not true, not true at all.

One of the wealthiest people I know manages multiple chronic illnesses, runs her own business, raises two teenagers and faced cancer when I did, which is how we met. (We’re both fine!)

Only through true intimacy can we finally find out what others are facing, or have survived and somehow kept on going — terrible accidents, unemployment, being a refugee (even surviving torture and imprisonment), losing a child, or several.

While Americans often tell total strangers a lot about themselves — which more reticent cultures find weird and uncomfortable — it can take years for some people to share their darkest moments with us. Maybe it’s shame. Maybe it’s fear we’ll reject them or dismiss their trauma. Or, worst of all, try to best it.

One of my closest friends, after a truly terrible multi-year wait of endless surgeries and medical and legal appointments, finally won a major lawsuit against the company whose negligence damaged her body and altered her life for good.

I despaired of her getting what she so badly deserved, but she did. No one would know this to see her, smiling and well-groomed and well-dressed and calm.

But she somehow soldiered on.

Many of us do.

What friendship really looks like

Friends show up at their friends’ funerals — and to support their family

By Caitlin Kelly

The spread of social media — “friends” on Facebook you’ve never met, “likes” that mean nothing when the chips are really down — has done little to define true friendship.

Like this horrifying story from The New York Times:

In early 2020, after Ava noticed Mr. Justin angling for her attention on TikTok, she learned that friends in New Jersey and Florida were selling him photos of her as well as her personal information, including her cellphone number, which Mr. Justin used to call and text her. In another instance, Mr. Justin logged onto a classmate’s school account and did math homework in exchange for information about Ava, her family said.

In what world do your friends sell your image and personal information to a stranger?

The 15-year-old girl ended up with a dead teenager on her lawn after he fired a shotgun through her front door. Awesome.

This recently hit home for me, in a less physically violent way, after — one more time! — a bitter envious stranger decided to badmouth me and try to hurt me professionally.

Using social media, of course.

Last year a “friend” on Facebook took a screenshot of something I said on my private page in real anger about an editor — and sent it to the editor, costing me a professional relationship.

I cut 200 “friends” and won’t accept any more.

There are too many days now it’s really toxic media, destructive media and why-do-we-even-bother media.

It’s sort of funny, sort of disgusting.

Only those whose own lives are small and shitty and disappointing feel the need to take down people who are visibly happy and successful, as I am.

So this latest attack, a fellow writer I even worked with years ago on a story, came after a friend of mine to discredit me by making false accusations, which I won’t detail or dignify here.

Nice try.

A true friend defends us, and they did.

What a coward this attacker is…and so charming to assume I couldn’t possibly have a good friend ready to stand their ground.

As I’ve said here before, I come from a family typically unable to express love, affection, support and belief in my value — as a daughter, cousin, professional. There’s been a lot of anger and name-calling and bitterness, ironic from people with a lot of their own success and a lot of money.

But the blessing it gave me?

One — self-respect!

I don’t give a shit what they think of me because they’re a dry well.

And I have tremendously loving and loyal friends, in Canada, in Europe, in Australia and New Zealand.

They have my back, if not literally, emotionally.

Because, being an ambitious and successful woman of strong opinions (OH NO!), I’ve been pissing people off since my teens.

Not with the explicit goal to piss them off, but not kowtowing to their disapproval or envy or attacks.

Women are trained from earliest childhood to smile, be nice, don’t argue, don’t bite back, suck it up, it’s “just a joke.”

So those of us who shrug and laugh at this bullshit are even more scary.

Why aren’t we scared?????

Because we have pals, and allies, who know us and love us.

I try hard to be a loyal, loving friend — sending cards and flowers and gifts, making regular phone calls, showing up when times are shitty, not just celebrating a win.

I admit, I am shaken when someone tries to take me down. Who wouldn’t be?

But, really, the best revenge is to laugh, call a true friend, and enjoy a good old chinwag.

Define “freedom”

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a month from hell for many Canadians — watching truckers clog the Ambassador Bridge and destroy normal life in the national capital for thousands more living in the city center. Not to mention an arson attempt — including locking shut the building’s front doors — on an Ottawa apartment building.

For those readers here who are not Canadian, this thuggish bullying behavior (still felt by First Nations and Inuit) has come as a tremendous shock to the system, in a country where we are socialized heavily to be polite, civil, calm. To discuss issues, not block millions of dollars of global trade because you feel like it.

It has really struck at the heart of what Canadians, at best, like to think of themselves — and I was born there and lived there ages five to 30. We are generally well-educated, thanks to much more affordable university than the U.S., and with a stronger system of public education. We are proud of being less aggressive and violent, not shooting one another daily, our children not subjected to “active shooter drills” in school.

So persistent aggression is simply…not what we’re used to.

The pandemic and Trump and the GOP and reams of disinformation and misinformation and about zero media literacy have added up to a new and toxic form of “freedom” — spitting and coughing viral load onto others for amusement; punching flight attendants in the face for daring to insist every passenger wear a mask; screaming abuse at retail clerks for asking shoppers to wear a mask. (Data point — the Canadian Olympic women’s hockey team at Beijing 2022 beat the Russians wearing masks.)

Freedom has become weaponized into others’ fantasy we owe them deference, obedience, admiration, when all they’re doing is having the sort of public tantrum any weary parent hopes will fade after toddlerhood.

I am also really fed up watching fellow journalists — often trying to do a TV stand-up out in public — being shoved, shouted at and insulted for doing their job.

It’s incredibly selfish for anyone refusing vaccination to suck up ICU and ER and OR skills when others are getting sicker and sicker or dying for lack of access to the care they need.

People who were mature enough to care for themselves and their neighbors.

Ten cities’ hidden gems

By Caitlin Kelly

While COVID has made much travel nightmarish-to-impossible, some of us are still venturing out (vaxxed and masked!).

I recently enjoyed lunch in Manhattan with a friend in from London who I hadn’t seen in maybe a decade.

This list is highly personal and fails to include typical tourist must-see’s. I like to take my time when I travel, to settle in, to savor a few great spots for an entire day or afternoon instead of rushing all over an unfamiliar city.

If you’re still planning travel — maybe in a year or two! — here are some of my favorite spots.

Los Angeles

You know how you have a perfect day?

Mine was in L.A. in August 2000, flown in on assignment for SouthWest’s in-flight magazine. I had worked hard on the story and had some time alone. I went horseback riding through the hills of Griffith Park at sunset, then headed to Santa Monica, where I danced to live blues at Harvelle’s — in business since 1931. I really love L.A. and haven’t been back since then…is that possible?!

I’ve been reveling in its sights through seven seasons of the cop show Bosch, which is set there. I can’t wait to hit the classic bars and restaurants in it: Frank & Musso, Formosa, Smog Cutter and Frolic.

I hope to take a solo trip back there this spring.

Toronto

My hometown is a huge, sprawling city whose waterfront has been marred with hundreds of glass box condo towers. But it also still has some less-obvious charms.

One of my favorite Toronto sights — the ferry to the Islands

The Islands — easily reached in all seasons by public ferry (maybe a 20 minute ride) — offer a spectacular vision of the city, especially at sunset. In summer, you can bike for miles, enjoy a beach, go for swim in Lake Ontario. In winter, stroll and admire the hundreds of small houses where the fortunate few live year round.

Our wedding church, St. Andrew by The Lake, Centre Island, Toronto

Jose and I were married in September 2011 in the tiny, wooden church on Centre Island. Even if you’re not religious, or Anglican, it’s a lovely spot to visit!

One of my favorite stores anywhere is Gravity Pope (no explanation for that name!) The best selection of men’s and women’s shoes anywhere, including some familiar brands, and others. Styles are hip but practical. I love everything I’ve bought from them.

New York

Overwhelming, right?

Not if you flee midtown.

Old Town Bar is a classic, filled with wooden booths and an upstairs that feels like a world apart. It opened in 1892.

It’s easy to spend a few hours here (and I prefer it to noisy, costly Eataly)Chelsea Market. Lots of great meals and food shopping, even for tourists (tea, chocolate, coffee, pastas) and Sarabeth’s, a classic Manhattan bakery. Posman Books is a terrific indie bookstore. A great way to while away a freezing winter day.

Restrooms downstairs. Its only downside — no seating unless you pay for something. Very NYC.

Montreal

I love a great spa and Bota Bota is truly unique — a former boat, in the harbor — offering every amenity possible. It’s the perfect place to melt your bones on one of YUL’s bitterly cold afternoons.

It opened in 1942 and loyal locals still line up to sit in one of its booths. Beauty’s diner is a great spot and I treasure my Beauty’s T-shirt.

Vancouver

My grandmother lived there for a while when the Hotel Sylvia was apartments. I’ve stayed there a few times. It’s not fancy, but has a great history and right near the beach. Built in 1912, it’s cosy and welcoming.

Granville Island is hardly secret, but like New York’s Chelsea Market, it’s a terrific all-day place to hang out — restaurants, shopping, flowers, food and a gorgeous location.

Paris

Le Bon Marche

So many pleasures!

I do love an elegant department store — and Le Bon Marche really fits the bill. On my last visit, in June 2017, I stocked up on gorgeous linen napkins, swooning over its tabletop offerings. The shoe department is just a stunning physical space; that’s its roof pictured above.

The Musee Guimet is much less known than the Big Boys, the Musee D’orsay and the Louvre. Jose and I love Asian art, the Guimet’s focus. A smaller, more manageable museum, its cafe and gift shop are also well worth a visit.

London

Sue me — it’s Liberty or death! Liberty, the store, filled with the loveliest of basically everything.

I’m also a huge fan of flea markets — Portobello Road or Bermondsey.

Lisbon

Few non-Europeans would know Calouste Gulbenkian (what a name!) — but the museum named for him in Lisbon , holding his private collection remains one of my favorite places ever, and it’s been decades since my only visit. It’s filled with a wide array of treasures and surrounded by beautiful gardens.

D.C.

There are a few restaurants that just make you feel happier settling onto a stool at the counter, surrounded by hustle and bustle. Ted’s Bulletin, (described as an upscale diner) is one such place for me.

A few blocks away is a terrific shop, Goodwood, which opened in 1994, that offers a superbly-edited mix of clothing, shoes, fragrance, stationery, antiques, rugs. I never miss visiting and always find something lovely.

Zagreb

I loved this city, having arrived there in July 2017, alone, with few expectations.

The studio and home belonging to the former sculptor Ivan Mestrovic is here — and I was stunned by the beauty of his work. He later became a U.S. citizen and taught at several American universities.

Berlin

I stayed there, my first visit, for 10 days in July 2017, at the Hotel Savoy, an oldie-but-goodie — currently closed for renovations. I can’t wait to go back! The street it’s on also proved a treasure trove, two blocks away from the Kathe Kollwitz Museum, the bookstore and cafe Literaturhaus. And the name! Fasanenstrasse — pheasant street.

Aaaah, far niente! The joy of being lazy

My favorite clock — in a Zagreb cafe

By Caitlin Kelly

I always thought I was ambitious and driven — and I am! — but hoo, boy, living in the United States, and especially in New York, can make people working 24/7 feel lazy, slow and — the worst insult here — “unproductive.”

If there is a word I loathe, it’s “productive”, and wrote one of my most popular and controversial early blog posts about it.

It assumes our only value in the world is financial — making lots and lots of money and proving to everyone how hard-working you are, when many of us, so many, would have preferred more available parents or friends or relatives to just hang out with for a while. I mean, working way beyond financial need or your work’s requirements to keep proving to someone (who?) you are a valuable person.

We are.

No one, I assure you, no one, dies whispering regretfully they wish they’d been more productive.

They mourn lost or broken relationships, the travel they never enjoyed, the loss of health and strength.

I love to look at beauty

I was too driven for my native Canada but am far too European for the U.S. — because I nap almost every day, vacation as often and for as long (pre-COVID) as affordable, and keep urging others to lay down tools and rest.

So I loved this piece in The New York Times on the unfashionable joys of being lazy:

America in 2022 is an exhausting place to live. Pretty much everyone I know is tired. We’re tired of answering work emails after dinner. We’re tired of caring for senior family members in a crumbling elder care system, of worrying about a mass shooting at our children’s schools. We’re tired by unprocessed grief and untended-to illness and depression. We’re tired of wildfires becoming a fact of life in the West, of floods and hurricanes hitting the South and East. We’re really tired of this unending pandemic. Most of all, we are exhausted by trying to keep going as if everything is fine.

Increasing numbers of people are refusing to push through this mounting weariness: There are currently 10 million job openings in the United States, up from 6.4 million before the pandemic.

This trend is being led by young people; millions are planning to leave their jobs in the coming year. Some middle-aged people decry the laziness of today’s youth, but as a chronically sick Gen X parent, and as a rabbi who has spent much of my career tending to dying people as their lives naturally slow, I am cheering young people on in this Great Resignation.

I have seen the limits of the grind. I want my child to learn how to be lazy.

I also like this, from Seth Godin’s blog:

In our fast-moving world, it’s easy to get hooked on personal velocity. What’s in your inbox? Did someone follow you in the last ten seconds? Where’s the beep and the beep and the beep from your last post?

Perhaps we talk faster, interrupt, talk over, invent, dissect, criticize and then move on to the next thing. Boom, boom, boom.

Don’t want to fall off the bike.

But life isn’t a bike. It works fine if we take a moment and leave space for the person next to us to speak.

Are you going fast without getting anywhere?

The power of edited style

By Caitlin Kelly

I loved this, a quote from the late Andre Leon Talley, a somewhat mythic figure in American fashion circles, who recently died at 73:

I grew up in a stylish family — a mother who sported silk saris in the 60s, with a glossy black mink, a father in the most elegant of shirts and shoes and a step-mother whose costly clothing filled multiple garment racks, most often described as “chic.”

So I’m deeply fond of style — but, working in an industry that doesn’t pay a fortune, acquiring it frugally.

The quote above really resonates with me.

This year, I needed a pretty winter hat, blue. Good luck! The choice was beanies, beanies and more beanies (a simple knit cap Canadians call a tuque). I despaired of finding one that was flattering and affordable. I found one this week, on sale in Greenwich, CT, and paid a fortune — because it’s cashmere, two-tone blue and exactly what I wanted. Sometimes frugal is over-rated.

At this point in my life, time really is money. I don’t enjoy wasting hours and hours shopping, whether on-line or in-store; once I find what I want, I’m doing it!

I really appreciate the discipline that editing always imposes — it may not look like it, but by the time you read any of my blog posts here, I’ve revised them many many times!

The writing is easy.

The editing makes it readable.

Scored this terrific tribal rug at Doyle auctions for $850 (including buyer’s premium and tax.)

I’ve lived in the same one-bedroom apartment (!) since 1989 in a rivertown on the Hudson, with easy access to Manhattan, gorgeous views and sunsets, and in a charming historic town. Our street is hilly, quiet, winding and completely residential, our housing costs, for this area, manageable. Moving never seemed appealing.

But sharing 1,000 square feet with my husband — and we both work at home — means very carefully editing anything we choose to bring into our home, what we keep and what we discard. (And yes, we have multiple external storage spaces, including a garage!)

We have a gallery wall of art and rotate other pieces in the bedroom and hallway and sitting room, whether our own photos, our photo collection, posters, prints.

We’re both very thoughtful about what we look at, including furniture, rugs, lighting. Less is more, and better quality always the best option — I’ve found many great things at antique shows, auctions and flea markets, i.e. for not a huge amount of money.

Our gallery wall — different art now and now the wall is pale gray (Skimming Stone, Farrow & Ball)

I do the same with my wardrobe and accessories. I find life simpler and more efficient to own only things I really love and enjoy using and wearing.

I lived in Paris at 25 and have been back many times. Classic French style — buying fewer/better quality pieces — is very much my own as well; I have a pair of monk-strap shoes I bought in 1996 that still look new (hello, cobblers! tailors! dry cleaners!)

I prefer neutrals: black, cream, navy, brown, gray, green. I own almost no prints or patterns beyond those on a scarf or maybe a sweater. This allows me to buy and keep clothing for a long time that still looks great with the addition of that season’s colors or accessories without spending a fortune or shouldering the guilt of consuming “fast fashion”, a huge burden on the environment, both in its production and destruction.

Even though I live in NY — with every store imaginable! — my go-to brands are still often Canadian, Aritizia, and Ca Va de Soi (lightweight sweaters.) Canadians typically earn smaller salaries than Americans with similar jobs, and and pay fairly high taxes — which makes frugality and selectivity, of everything we purchase, a smart choice.

I’ve also bought and worn quite a bit of vintage clothing, now more than a decade enjoying a triple-ply cashmere cardigan found in a consignment shop in…Greenwich, CT. It’s a massively wealthy town about a 20 minute drive east of us, whose designer “cast-offs” are of astounding quality as a result. I have no shame or embarrassment buying and enjoying what other women have worn and enjoyed, as long as it’s in excellent condition — and I often re-sell it later myself.

One reason I’ve always been wary of owning a house is the overwhelming potential cost of furnishing it, at least to my standards! All those windows and walls and beds and linens. Whew!

I’m not a Marie Kondo person or Swedish Death cleaner. I just hate mess and clutter and excess.

Living smaller/better/heavily edited works for me.

How about you?

Living with pain

By Caitlin Kelly

Some of you, I know, live with/in chronic pain. It’s exhausting and demoralizing and you measure your available energy in “spoons”, a word I learned from Twitter.

I have a severely arthritic right hip now, and it hurts whenever I do basically anything — get into the shower, roll over in bed, stand up. Like many people with arthritis it diminishes my appetite for exercise, which makes it worse. I just suck it up and rarely take painkillers. It is what it is. I have to bear the pain until I get the damn thing replaced.

I’m used to living in pain.

My husband has recently suffered a kidney stone whose 24/7 pain has been driving him mad.

But it’s been a real education for a man who has enjoyed superb health his entire life since childhood: no surgeries, broken bones or hospitalizations.

I’ve spent a lot of time inside the hammering sounds of an MRI machine and when my left hip was destroyed by a course of steroids meant to help me (!) the pain became so relentless I went on crutches for a while; it was replaced in February 2012.

Living with any sort of pain — mental, physical, emotional — is a challenge for everyone, but especially for those whose lives have, so far, been pretty pleasant and unscathed.

It can seem like a personal affront: how dare you inconvenience me!?

But, as the cliche says, you only develop resilience by going through some serious shit, and usually coming out of it aware that millions of us are also carrying some burden of pain, but often quietly and invisibly.

Witness the national meltdown chronicled in The New York Times:

In Chicago, a customer service agent for Patagonia described how a young woman became inconsolable when told that her package would be late. Another customer accused him of lying and participating in a scam to defraud customers upon learning that the out-of-stock fleece vest he had back-ordered would be further delayed by supply-chain issues.

In Colorado, Maribeth Ashburn, who works for a jewelry store, said that she was weary of being “the mask police.”

“Customers will scream at you, throw things and walk out of the store,” she said.

I flew only once in 2021, in late November, on a flight on Air Canada to Toronto from New York, then to Halifax, and back. Thank God, everyone wore their masks and were polite and calm — since more than 5,779 incidents of rage erupted on American domestic flights, 4,000 of them related to wearing a mask.

I have zero patience with this!

Every flight, I guarantee you, also contains people who are weary, grieving, scared to fly — and the last thing they need is the terror and anxiety (and delays) created by selfish aggressive babies, aka fellow adult passengers with no self-control.

I recently witnessed, at the local pharmacy in our suburban New York town, a similar adult tantrum — by a grown man raging at the clerk for limiting his purchase of at-home COVID tests to only four. Hah! Good luck finding any anywhere now.

As some of you know, I worked retail at $11/hour for 2.5 years at a suburban upscale mall, for The North Face, and, yes, I saw and felt some of this behavior there as well; I wrote about it in my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

Americans cherish the weird fantasy that anyone can become President or a billionaire, maybe both! But their consistent contempt for low-wage, customer-facing work — retail, hospitality, etc. — is really ugly, as if lower-paid workers deserve to be treated like shit because…they don’t (yet) have a better-paying and more prestigious job.

If we can’t get our collective act together — and behave like the adults we are — 2022 is going to be even more of a shitshow; we’re already losing so many burned-out, talented healthcare workers, sick of being yelled at, spat on, now even scared to leave the hospital in their scrubs.

When things get rough — or, as the British would say, go pear-shaped — it’s an adult choice to use your strength and maturity to not whip others with your misery.

I found this, from former Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman’s final column, really smart:

The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower. It’s shocking to realise how readily we set aside even our greatest ambitions in life, merely to avoid easily tolerable levels of unpleasantness. You already know it won’t kill you to endure the mild agitation of getting back to work on an important creative project; initiating a difficult conversation with a colleague; asking someone out; or checking your bank balance – but you can waste years in avoidance nonetheless. (This is how social media platforms flourish: by providing an instantly available, compelling place to go at the first hint of unease.)

It’s possible, instead, to make a game of gradually increasing your capacity for discomfort, like weight training at the gym. When you expect that an action will be accompanied by feelings of irritability, anxiety or boredom, it’s usually possible to let that feeling arise and fade, while doing the action anyway. The rewards come so quickly, in terms of what you’ll accomplish, that it soon becomes the more appealing way to live.

Pain is an inevitable part of life.

The Dior show at the Brooklyn Museum. Swoon!

By Caitlin Kelly

This is really one of the best museum shows you will ever see anywhere — even if you’re not a fashionista.

Christian Dior, the French fashion designer who died so young at 52, and who was quickly succeeded by 21-year-old (!) Yves St. Laurent, left an indelible mark on fashion and fragrance.

I love the contrast here between the simple rope and layers of crisp tulle!

This show, which ends February 22, is a massive, gorgeous, mesmerizing tribute to Dior and all the in-house designers who followed him — Marc Bohan, Raf Simons, Maria Grazia Chiuri and John Galliano. Each brought a specific vision to their work, from the clean-cut elegance of Bohan to the riotous OMG-ness of Galliano.

1949, silk taffeta

The show begins with Dior’s earliest work, sober-suited dresses and coats from the 1940s, as Europe was emerging from the misery of WWII — and a fantastic tomato-red coat with deep patch pockets and a cravat-type collar is a hit of joy.

One of the many terrific elements of this show is how well it also explains and unveils some invisible design processes — like the creation, for every garment, of an initial muslin prototype, which is refined until it’s time to use and cut expensive fabrics. (If you’ve never watched the film Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a fashion British designer, it’s a great primer.)

A wall of paper sketches, each with a tiny swatch of fabric pinned to each design, helps us see how designers plotted out an entire season, as do the “inspiration books”, (which reminded me of “The Book” taken home every evening by Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada.)

There’s a wall of magazine covers, vintage and contemporary, showing how the house of Dior has stayed fresh and relevant decades later.

I’m obsessed with textiles and fabric (no idea why!) so seeing the spectacular fabrics used here — in addition to the final design — was a great joy for me, like this, by Fortuny.

I loved the gallery of photos, black and white and color, of models and celebrities wearing Dior. If you know and love Richard Avedon’s classic 1955 image, Dovima with Elephants, the dress she wore is here!

The museum’s central atrium is astounding, with dresses somehow stacked all the way to the ceiling and a dazzling light show and music, leaving you happily awestruck by so much elegance. The curators also showcase a few gowns in glass cases you can literally sit beside, soaking up every detail, like a gown with embroidered tarot cards.

A detail of a French Revolution inspired gown by John Galliano
Oh, no big deal — just a skull and snake of gold lace guipure.

There are dozens of mannequins to admire and benches to sit on for a bit to just savor it in comfort.

As you finally leave, a bit drunk on beauty, there’s a room full of the dresses worn by current celebrities at the Oscars or Golden Globes or at Cannes. I’m not really a celebrity follower but I do love fashion, so it was actually a thrill to see the exquisite pale pink gown, a sort of damask with roses, worn by Jennifer Lawrence when she won her Oscar — I remember her working hard to gracefully scoop up the enormous train to climb those steps to the stage.

And — oooooh! — Absinthe, the stunning chartreuse satin cheongsam with fur trim worn by Nicole Kidman.

Why read a grim book?

By Caitlin Kelly

There are happy books and there are books you think…really?

I’m expected to get through the whole thing?

There are books, whether novels or non-fiction, about alcoholism, drug use, family abuse, that can feel like a real slog. The subject is undeniably depressing, frightening, even terrifying and most of its characters are people you would never want to meet.

I admit, I didn’t enjoy reading a huge 2018 best-seller, Educated, by Tara Westover, about the terrible family she grew up with, eventually escaping to a better life. I was (however unfairly) impatient with her for staying so long in an environment that was so awful. An earlier best-seller, also by a white woman, Jeanette Wells, was 2005’s The Glass Castle. But I did enjoy a Canadian book like this, North of Normal.

One of the best books I read last year was also emotionally difficult, In The Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado, a memoir of lesbian domestic abuse. Now that sounds appealing! But her writing is extraordinary and it’s a great book.

I recently read the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain. As I described it to a friend, a fellow journalist, she said she just couldn’t do it. I found that interesting as journalism, with our decades of exposure to some very tough stories, tends to harden us somewhat.

I did enjoy it, but it’s rough — a young boy, Shuggie, living in Glasgow poverty with an older brother and sister and a severely alcoholic mother, abandoned by his father.

I also found elements of it painful and hard to read because my mother was also an alcoholic, and the novel is filled with his hopeless hope that someday, someday, she won’t be — a fantasy painfully familiar to any child of an alcoholic.

The author, Douglas Stuart, survived a very similar childhood, so his ability to turn such grim fare into a compelling novel is impressive. And his background isn’t the standard trajectory of writing classes, workshops and an MFA — he worked in fashion design for decades and was writing it while working as the senior director of design for Banana Republic.

From Wikipedia:

In a conversation with 2019 Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo on 23 November, livestreamed as a Southbank Centre event, Stuart said: “One of my biggest regrets I think is that growing up so poor I almost had to elevate myself to the middle class to turn around to tell a working-class story.”[22] Discussing the “middle-class” publishers’ rejections he had received for Shuggie Bain, he told Evaristo: “Everyone was writing these really gorgeous letters. They were saying ‘Oh my god this will win all of the awards and it’s such an amazing book and I have never read anything like that, but I have no idea how to market it’.”[22] Stuart said in a 2021 conversation with the Duchess of Cornwall that winning the Booker Prize transformed his life.[36]

But I also liked a very tough book, Triomf, from 1994, by Marlene van Niekirk, the most celebrated Afrikaans author of South Africa. It’s dark as hell; the family she features even includes incest.

What, then, is the appeal of such books?

For some, voyeurism….thank God it’s not me!

For some, curiosity, having never experienced poverty and/or alcoholism, or life in a cult in the woods.

I hope, for some, as a way to develop or deepen empathy for people whose lives are wholly different from their own, as — in non-fiction — the storytellers have clearly been able to survive and thrive despite a really difficult earlier life. It becomes a narrative of resilience, not despair.

I admit, I cried hard at the end of Shuggie Bain, as it brought up a lot of unexpressed and painful memories of my own experiences of being “parentified”, always worrying about my mother’s health and safety instead of my own, (even though we were not, thank God, poor), and tied to a woman who was unable or unwilling to create a larger social safety net for herself. So reading a similar book can be painful but also cathartic — someone else really gets it. And, God forbid, someone else had it much worse.

Do you ever read books like this?

Which ones?

How have they left you?

NOTE: I refuse to use Amazon for any purchases, (I loathe its labor policies), so links to these books will not connect to their site.

More simple pleasures

By Caitlin Kelly

Happy New Year!

As we plunge into 2022, COVID raging, so many of us confined to quarters, we all really need some extra cheer!

First — a big thank you to everyone still showing up here. It’s been (!) 13 years since I posted for the first time, and here we all are.

Also — I am very much hoping you will stay healthy, but if this terrible disease catches you, you are well-vaxxed and it won’t be too grim.

A few things I enjoy:

Regaining our full northwest view of the Hudson River now that the treetops are bare

The exact moment, easily missed and so lovely, when the rising sun behind us on the east bank of the Hudson hits a row of windows on the west bank — making them look like signal fires. I call it the “ruby moment.”

Twinkling lights on a Christmas tree

Getting up for a morning bath, then back to bed under the duvet for more snoozing

Lying in bed reading

The astonishing burst of brilliant orange just as the sun sets

Enjoying all the Christmas cards we stick to the back of our front door

Fruitcake! (yes, really)

Fresh flowers in every room because the skies are so gray — and so are our moods

Silence, broken only by the hissing of radiators

So much great music on Sirius XM: jazz, classical, Classic Rewind, Deep Cuts

The endless beauty of the sky and clouds — just look up!

English and French decorating magazines — all those charming 17th c Cotswold cottages and rambling chateaux!

Playing my vinyl records, from Rocky Horror Picture Show to Vivaldi to Billy Bragg

Clipping and organizing recipes

Trying out new recipes

Clearing out clothes, shoes, household goods for donation or sale

Organizing every drawer and closet, ready for 2022

Re-watching beloved TV series (Derry Girls!) and movies I know so well I can quote the dialogue (The Devil Wears Prada, Casablanca, all the Bourne movies.)

Starting every cold dark morning with the gentle glow of a scented bedside candle

What are some of yours?