My tribe — journalism

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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One of the many reasons I still enjoy journalism  — after working in it for more than 30 years — is the people who choose to do it for a living: smart, sharp, a quick learner, down-to-earth and a team player.

I’ve worked as a staff reporter and feature writer for the Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News, each of which offered some wild adventures. At the Globe, I covered a Royal Tour across three provinces and met Queen Elizabeth aboard Brittania; at the Gazette I flew into an Arctic village of 500 people and came home through an iceberg and at the Daily News broke stories like the DHS — back in 2006 — holding onto migrant children.

If you’re not, always, insatiably curious — the kid who drove your parents and teachers and professors mad with questions and challenges — it’s not a great fit.

 

It is our job to challenge authority.

 

Right now in the United States, we’re massively and daily under attack, even to the point of murder — as five journalists, a mix of writers and editors, were murdered at a small local paper in Maryland, The Capital Gazette.

This is what I’m talking about:

One week after the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, President Donald Trump put an end to any speculation that the tragedy could lead to a truce in his unrelenting war on the news media.

“Fake news. Bad people,” Trump said, pointing at the news crews covering his rally Thursday in Great Falls, Montana, as the crowd went wild.

“I see the way they write. They’re so damn dishonest,” Trump said. “And I don’t mean all of them, because some of the finest people I know are journalists really. Hard to believe when I say that. I hate to say it, but I have to say it. But 75 percent of those people are downright dishonest. Downright dishonest. They’re fake. They’re fake.”

“They make the sources up. They don’t exist in many cases,” he continued. “These are really bad people.”

This, from the President whose latest Cabinet member just resigned mired in scandal, Scott Pruitt.

I’m appalled by Trump’s incessant lies and hostility toward us.

Watch his spokesman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, actually insult reporters during White House press briefings and you wonder why anyone keeps showing up to give her the opportunity.

Watch the 2015 film “Spotlight” –– which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and is based on a true team working at the Boston Globe to uncover sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — for one of the best and most truthful depictions of our work.

People who know nothing of journalism or why most of us do it or why we believe it’s of essential value to any functional democracy — at its best, speaking truth to power — can easily spit on us and scream at us or, as several have, kill us.

 

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 46 of us died on duty in 2017 — six of them freelancers like me.

One of them, Kim Wall, was a massively talented young woman who went out on a submarine in Denmark to profile its inventor. He murdered her, dismembered her and threw her into the water.

It stunned every one of us who — by definition  — have to be self-reliant and often go out alone on assignment to meet people whose character and motives we do not know.

It creates foxhole camaraderie.

So I wrote this story, which ran last week on Poynter, a website devoted to journalism, (named for its benefactor) about long-term newsroom friendships, quoting (among writers from the L.A. Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, a friend and highly accomplished science writer Maryn McKenna:

 

McKenna thinks that’s, in part, because of Foxhole camaraderie. Journalists work weekends and holidays and have to deal daily with sources who don’t want them there.

“That all tends to build a gestalt of: ‘The outside world doesn’t understand us, so it is up to us to appreciate each other.’ There’s definitely a journalistic personality — we’re simultaneously deeply cynical and utterly committed to old-fashioned virtues of truthfulness and accuracy and grinding hard work — and the stresses of journalistic practice make it clear pretty quickly who in the newsroom shares those values and who doesn’t. Once you find people who do share them, you cling to them.”

The power of comfort

By Caitlin Kelly

When we’re feeling anxious, few things are as helpful as comfort.

It can be difficult for some people — private, feisty, super-independent — to open up wide enough to admit: “I need help!”

*cough*

But if you can, and if people respond with love, my oh my…

Self-soothing is also a crucial life skill.

It might be food or drink or a hug or a hand to hold.

 

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My pre-op nerves soothed  by a tiny rhino. (Good band name!) It went well.

 

It might be a stuffed animal, whether you’re six, 16 or 60.

It might be a kind word in the middle of a tough moment or a gentle touch.

It might be a bright bouquet of flowers.

It might be a lovely notecard — on paper, sent with a stamp — that arrives just at the right time.

It might be the loving presence of your dog or cat — or husband/wife/partner.

It might be a view out the window of something lovely that soothes you.

It might be your favorite music.

It might be a familiar poem or prayer.

In a time of some personal anxiety, I have been truly grateful for all of these, arriving from Dublin and Paris and London and Hawaii.

Some of you have commented here and some have emailed me privately.

 

Thank you!

 

Carpe the damn diem!

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All the time in the world? Maybe not…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

You know how this goes.

I’ll do it: tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Sometime.

But not right now.

I’m too: busy, tired, broke, otherwise committed, ambivalent, not sure it’s going to work out perfectly.

It might be trying for a dream job.

It might be repairing a broken relationship — or starting a tender new one, romantic or platonic.

It might committing to a course of study.

It might mean selling everything you own and/or disappearing for a while (not abandoning your loved ones.)

 

Whatever it is, I urge you to get on with it.

 

It’s the worst cliche, but a cancer diagnosis — even one as incredibly hopeful as mine is — will instantly alter how you perceive time and its brevity and its value.

I’ve cut off useless drama. I’ve turned down invitations. I’m avoiding situations I know will stress me further.

But I’m also making and planting gorgeous new wooden planters for our balcony and accepting assignments for later this summer and planning a trip, possibly to Cornwall, in the late fall.

Two dear friends — one in London, one in California — were widowed in the same week. Both were, sadly, expected but still.

Now another friend’s husband is newly diagnosed.

 

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This time last year I was carefree, solo, sunning myself in a tiny, beautiful Croatian town on the Adriatic, Rovinj. I stayed in, and loved, a boutique hotel made up of two buildings from the 18th and 17th century, walking down smooth cobble-stoned streets.

If this had happened last year, I would have lost a ton of money on prepaid flights, tickets and hotels and had to cancel a trip that was absolute heaven.

This year I’m walking down hospital corridors and consulting with six physicians, submitting to seven presurgical tests and procedures — slightly less amusing!

I am so glad I was able, financially and physically, to make that journey as a birthday gift to myself.

To take it for myself.

To give it to myself without reservation or guilt or remorse for that “wasted” time or mis-spent savings.

 

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Whatever brings you joy, get out there and claim it.

 

Today!

 

 

 

 

This week’s best moment

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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It always starts with a bang.

We now know what it is — a tiny bird has hit our sixth-floor windows mid-flight and fallen, stunned and possibly injured, onto our balcony.

I heard it, jumped up and was there within seconds to find a tiny gray bird lying there.

We have a routine now. We get water and, very gently, pick them up, hold them and drop a tiny bit of water onto their beak.

If we’re lucky, they revive.

It takes a while — poor wee things are disoriented from the impact.

This little one sat very calmly in my left palm for maybe 15 minutes as (s?)he came back to himself.

What an amazing privilege it is to see and hold a wild creature, even briefly, and help them recover.

Our apartment is literally at the tree-tops so, after a few uncertain hops on the balcony, he flew back into them.

Loved this biography of Joni Mitchell

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re a fan of fellow Canadian, legendary musician and songwriter Joni Mitchell, it’s a book well worth your time.

You know how everyone has a song, or an album that indelibly marks a moment in your life and every time you hear it, there you are — catapulted back to being six or 18 or 27 or 43.

For me, living alone in a studio apartment at the back of an alley in a lousy Toronto neighborhood — all I could afford — it was Hejira, Mitchell’s album from 1976.

The word itself means migration, or flight from danger and the songs are all about movement and restlessness.

On it, Neil Young — another Canadian — plays harmonica and the stunningly talented Brazilian bass player Jaco Pastorius makes this distinctively different from her previous work.

It was a tough year for me, my sophomore year at University of Toronto, both of my parents traveling far away, long before cell phones or the Internet, when a long-distance call to Europe or Latin America was really expensive. I was living on very little, freelancing as a writer and photographer while attending the country’s most demanding school full-time.

I dated all the the wrong men, (as Mitchell did, for decades), discarding them as quickly as I found them. Connection was both alluring and exhausting, a theme of that album.

Mitchell also has a home where my mother — also a fiercely independent traveler for many years — lived for a while, the Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver.

Here’s the first verse of Refuge of the Roads. (Now, after reading this book, Reckless Daughter, by David Yaffe, I know she’s referring to a Buddhist monk.)

I met a friend of spirit
He drank and womanized
And I sat before his sanity
I was holding back from crying
He saw my complications
And he mirrored me back simplified
And we laughed how our perfection
Would always be denied
“Heart and humor and humility”
He said “Will lighten up your heavy load”
I left him for the refuge of the roads
The book offers a great ride through her life, from her years in small-town Saskatchewan to her initial success in the coffee-houses of Toronto to playing Carnegie Hall and touring with Bob Dylan.
It offers insights into her addictions — to cocaine and to cigarettes — and her deep ambivalence about marriage, which she tried twice.
It’s a compelling portrait of a fiercely independent woman.

Exploring Long Island’s East End

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Space bear! This little guy was in a vending machine at the movie theater in Ronkonkoma.

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s hard to believe that this lovely bit of the state is only a few hours’ drive east of crowded, crazy New York City, not my favorite place in the hot, humid and smelly summer.

Long Island — lying to the southeast of the city’s five boroughs — on its north shore devolves as you keep moving northeast, away from wealthy suburban enclaves to the endless vineyards of the East End.

We stayed for five days in Islandia, (where my husband Jose was photo editing the U.S. Open nearby), and I went off exploring alone every day from there.

In about an hour’s drive — headed northeast on what’s known as the North Fork, I retreated a few decades to flat green fields, weathered shingled houses and left the suburban chain-store sprawl far behind.

This diner in Cutchogue was perfect!

 

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Built in 1941, its prices were the lowest I’d seen in years. I had blueberry pancakes with sausage on heavy diner china; if you go, it closes at 3pm.

 

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I managed to miss the turnoff to Route 48 and ended up driving instead on 25, which was slower and much prettier, passing white churches and farm stands and fire halls and schools — and two llamas!

I spent a few hours exploring Greenport, which is lovely and filled with elegant shops and restaurants. One sells an astonishing array of hand-painted Italian pottery and Murano glass, and some amazing high-end costume jewelry.

 

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The area is so gorgeous I started looking at real estate prices. Hah! The lowest-priced house was $525,000.

I pushed on to the literal end of the road in Orient, the furthest northeastern tip of the Island, and was so glad I did. The town has 743 residents, settled in the 17th century, making this part of the state one of its oldest.

 

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For $8, I visited Orient State Park and lay on the beach, savoring only the soothing sounds of wind and waves. The place was virtually empty, and the road in is lined with osprey nests and huge signs warning drivers to look out for box turtles.

I came home with a handful of the most beautiful white stones, smooth as eggs, as a souvenir.

Here’s a tips-filled, links-packed guide to the region from Vogue, 2017.

 

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These Hamptons estates range from $29.5 million to $35 million. Welcome to 1-percent-world!

I also drove southeast one day to Westhampton, one of the legendary Hamptons on the Island’s South Fork — filled with enormous mansions, some of which rent seasonally for tens of thousands of dollars. Whew! The parking lots were full of Range Rovers, Mercedes and a Maserati, a very moneyed crowd.

 

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A hanging flower basket in Westhampton. Love these colors!

But I had a great day — lunch at the Bakery Cafe, a bit of shopping and people were friendly and welcoming.

I spent another day in the nothern side hamlet of Stony Brook, and drove its tree-shaded Harbor Drive, peeking through the woods at massive mansions facing the water. So beautiful! Had a great lunch at Crazy Beans, twice, in a low, white-shingled shopping center built in 1941 that includes elegant outdoor tables and benches, shady umbrellas and even a waterfall.

The town holds Avalon Park, a large pond that’s home to so many birds! I saw swans, ducks, cormorants, heron.

 

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Near Stony Brook is this amazing bit of history — a general store from 1857 still in operation.

It was a really relaxing break and left me eager to return.

Some thoughts on being touched

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By Caitlin Kelly

Touch can be soothing or frightening, a source of comfort or terror.

The past few weeks have made clearer — personally and politically — the importance of touch, physical and emotional.

Since telling people about my DCIS diagnosis, Jose and I have been deeply moved and touched by so many people, worldwide, young and old, friends, neighbors and colleagues, who have called and emailed to share their love and concern.

It’s been surprising to us — tough old boots of journalists that we are, working for decades in a fact-based business — to feel such a powerful wave of love and emotion.

We are very grateful.

The business of diagnosing breast cancer, (like other forms, perhaps),  also means your body gets touched by many strangers, compressed repeatedly, punctured with needles and having markers inserted and written on your skin. By the time of my surgery, July 6, I will have had seven different medical appointments and five different pre-op tests.

When a medical professional, who does this job every day, is kind and compassionate, communicating it through their gentle touch — the nurse who held my hand through my biopsy, the phlebotomist so skilled I didn’t feel a thing as she took my blood, the radiologist who stroked my other wrist even as he guided the needle — it is deeply moving and so comforting.

As someone who has always really lived in her head — a thinker, not a feeler — and a lifelong athlete who sees (and appreciates!) her body not for its size or shape or putative beauty — but instead for its strength, flexibility and resilience, this is all disorienting in the extreme.

Of course, grateful for a medical team we like, but it is so odd to suddenly be — as of course we all are, every day (even as we may deny it) — so corporeally vulnerable and now so…handled.

The larger political current context — of tiny children being taken from their parents and shut into cages by American officials — is so grotesque it would be a parody, if it were not.

From Arizona Family:

Dr. Colleen Kraft, the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that she visited a small shelter in Texas recently, which she declined to identity. A toddler inside the 60-bed facility caught her eye — she was crying uncontrollably and pounding her little fists on mat.

Staff members tried to console the child, who looked to be about 2 years old, Kraft said. She had been taken from her mother the night before and brought to the shelter.

The staff gave her books and toys — but they weren’t allowed to pick her up, to hold her or hug her to try to calm her. As a rule, staff aren’t allowed to touch the children there, she said. [italics mine]

“The stress is overwhelming,” she said. “The focus needs to be on the welfare of these children, absent of politics.”

 

From Texas Monthly:

Sometimes mothers—I was talking to one mother, and she said, “Don’t take my child away,” and the child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, “Can I at least have five minutes to console her?” They said no. In another case, the father said, “Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?” The officer said, “You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.” So, threats. So the father just let the child go.

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.

 

 

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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.

A light-hearted post about golf!

By Caitlin Kelly

Time for something fun, dammit!

 

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So my husband Jose is a freelance photo editor for the United States Golf Association, a job he’s had, and loved, for three years. Typically, he works from our apartment, sitting in the hallway editing on a desktop computer but also heads west to Short Hills, NJ a few times a week to work out there at their headquarters as their archivist.

 

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This time of year it’s all about the tournaments!

Here are some of my photos from the recent Curtis Cup, created by a pair of sisters; it’s a competition between two teams, made up of the best amateur American women and the best British/Irish women. It was so fun to see young women playing astoundingly — the youngest was 15 (!) and the oldest on the UK team 24.

 

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The golfers all wore patriotic tattoos on their ankles and faces, and the spectators — aka the gallery — were a hoot, with lots of people draped in their country’s flag. Everyone applauds a great shot and there are some whistles, but it’s a genteel and fairly low-key crowd, which I appreciated.

Annoyingly — because it’s women and amateurs — the crowds weren’t huge, but that also made for a much more intimate experience.

 

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Volunteers helped, holding aloft large signs saying quiet whenever the women were on the putting green, (the final stroke meant to drop the ball in the hole.) And it was quiet indeed!

 

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That weird black thing with the wire is a microphone — to hear the sounds of putting and whatever the players are saying on the putting green

 

I’m starting to learn some of golf’s etiquette, lingo and lore — like the R & A (Royal and Ancient), the British equivalent of the USGA. I do know what a mulligan is and a hole-in-one but still can’t remember what a birdie is or a bogie or an eagle…

I came on Saturday afternoon and stayed only for a few hours, but loved the experience. It was held about a 30 minute drive east of where we live, in Westchester County, New York, at the Quaker Ridge Golf Club.

The Americans won the tournament overall.

 

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This week we’re out on Long Island while Jose photo edits the U.S. Open, being held out there this year.

It’s fun to see my husband in his element. He loves this work and it’s a joy to see him so happy.

Feelings?!

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Do you start most sentences with “I think” or “I feel”?

Having, managing, expressing (or suppressing) feelings is a big deal in my life.

As someone who faced and had to cope alone with mental illness and alcoholism in one parent and frequent work-related absence in another, I learned early that no one had much interest in hearing how I felt about all of this.

So I learned to bottle it up, or to share only with close friends.

Living in boarding school and summer camp ages eight to 13 (school) and eight to 16 (camp) also meant being surrounded by strangers, some of whom became close friends — but some of whom were bullies.

You learned to keep your counsel.

So a recent workshop at a writers’ conference — where the audience was urged to write “I remember” and dredge up some memories — proved both painful and illuminating for me.

Some of us then read our initial sentences to the room, maybe 150 other professional writers; I did, as well.

I was amazed and moved by what I heard.

It made me much more aware of how limited my ability to express some feelings still is — even later in life.

I’m reluctant to show vulnerability.

I very rarely say “I love you” to someone, even when I feel it.

I’m much more comfortable (which tends to unnerve others) expressing dismay, outrage or frustration — less tender and delicate emotions.

Except — thanks to a diagnosis I received since writing this post (tiny/early/contained breast cancer) — my view has shifted radically and I’ve told a number of friends, neighbors and even professional colleagues.

This is not something to face alone.

It’s also exhausting keeping up a brave face when I don’t feel at all brave or badass but feel worried and tired dealing with six (!) doctors, even if all of them are people I like.

The greatest challenge so far has been managing my anxiety, a battle in itself, while absorbing and making lucid decisions about treatment. It’s a lot to manage.

 

Are you at ease having and expressing your feelings?