Stay or go?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been very lucky of late to find an editor who likes my essays, so she bought this one on the  topic I have come back to many times — too many! — on this blog: whether to remain living in the U.S. or return to Canada.

Here’s a bit of it:

And so I left behind a perfectly good country, one with excellent and heavily subsidized university education, cradle-to-grave healthcare, a wide, deep social safety net, and a Constitution that promised “peace, order and good government” rather than “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

For years, Canadians had often guessed I was American, which is a veiled insult that means too bossy, too direct, too nakedly ambitious. I wanted faster decisions and a wider playing field, not the endless foot-shuffling of risk-averse fellow Canadians and a career limited to a handful of major cities.

I’d thought American was more egalitarian than it is, but that turned out to be silly idealism. When I dared suggest to someone at Dartmouth that I audit classes there, since we were in the middle of nowhere for the next four years, pre-Internet, the university administration refused. How about part-time study? Also no.

As I began to try to make sense of my new home, I read two seminal works of the early 1990s that explained the shadowed side of John Winthrop’s 1630 vision of America as a much-admired “city on a hill”: the first was Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, about two boys growing up in a decrepit Chicago housing project during the 1980s; the second was Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, a study of two school districts, divided by wealth and class, which were allotted wildly unequal resources by the American way of funding education through housing taxes. This was a key difference between my experiences in Toronto and Montreal.

In Hanover, a local social worker told me about the grinding poverty she saw on muddy backroads, the battered trailers with plastic on the windows, while Dartmouth’s most privileged students raced their shiny sports cars through town and dropped enormous sums in its few stores. There is poverty in Canada; this is particularly true for the shamefully neglected Indigenous people. But the shocking inequality of the United States, where the three wealthiest Americans collectively own more wealth than the bottom half of the population (while the middle class struggles to pay for healthcare and university tuition), is absent; Canada has its billionaires and millionaires, but they tend to be more discreet about their good fortune.

First American lesson: Prove you’re rich! Income inequality be damned.

 

I really enjoy the quality of life and the kind of professional opportunities that living in the U.S. — near New York City — has given me.

I would never have had these things had I stayed in my home country.

Canada is both geographically enormous — and really small!

 

 

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Montreal harbor — with the legendary housing Habitat, from Expo 1967

 

If you have (as I have) lived in a few of its major cities and have no wish to keep moving just to find a new job with a slightly different perspective, then what? I had lived in Toronto (a really ugly and expensive city) and Montreal (a charming city but with very limited prospects for an ambitious Anglo journalist). Vancouver was too far away (and also has very costly housing) Ottawa and Halifax and Calgary too far away or too small.

My half-brother, 23 years younger, married an American and has long lived in D.C. and recently became a first-time father, of twins — so now we have American citizens in the family.

And my husband, Jose Lopez, is also American, as was my first husband.

I know it hurts my Canadian father, who had a very distinguished career as a film-maker there, that we both have professionally and romantically dismissed Canada, even though we visit. I suspect many immigrants to the U.S. feel some of what I do — pride and pleasure in our accomplishments here (it’s HUGE) — but also something of a tug to our homeland.

It is an utter nightmare for many Americans to have a President like Trump. It is very frightening to imagine four more years of him, while also having little optimism about how much better Joe Biden would do.

 

 

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I love old diners, anywhere! This is on the North Fork of Long Island, NY

 

You choose to leave your home country, initially, for all sorts of reasons — education, marriage, adventure, a job, a fellowship.

You choose to stay elsewhere for a host of others.

I lived in Mexico at 14, in France at 25, and moved to the U.S. at 30.

Moving away is always a little scary, but — for me — so was the prospect of spending my life in a city I didn’t like much, and which still is the professional hub of my industry.

And the truth is that, being gone for decades, means re-entry can make you feel like a stranger in your original homeland.

 

Have you lived outside of the country of your birth?

If you returned, what brought you back?

 

And if you would never go back — why not?

Where will you go?

Renewing my green card

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I love the timeless beauty of the Hudson Valley, where I live. Here, looking south.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I won’t post the image here, obviously.

But it is green-ish — a pale image of the Statue of Liberty, a copy of my fingerprint (they take your biometrics), my photo (in black and white), my signature, gender and other details.

It also has a code that tells officials how I won this legal status — the drop-down menu of options as you go to renew it is very long. Last time I came back from Canada, the officer commented he rarely sees my category.

It’s a truly precious document.

I was born in Vancouver, Canada, lived in London, England ages two to five, then Toronto ages five to 30, with residence in Mexico, Paris and Montreal along the way.

But I was forever being mistaken for American — which every Canadian knows is not a compliment: too loud, too bossy, too driven, too direct. Walks too fast. Talks too fast. Wants too much.

Canadians prize quiet modesty and indirectness. They loathe conflict and are ambivalent or reluctant about celebrating heroes, money or celebrity — which is why Harry and Meghan chose wisely to move to Victoria, British Columbia. Most Canadians just don’t care.

My mother was born in New York and lived in a few places in the U.S., but she never liked it much and was glad to flee permanently to Canada. The irony is that I now live near her birthplace and she, in Victoria, near mine.

 

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I love this elegant NYC restaurant, Via Carota

 

Why did I want to move to the U.S., and to New York?

My one word answer remains unchanged after all these years — ambition.

Canada is small, and offers limited opportunities for a big career in journalism and publishing, Even in a recession, and I’ve weathered three of them in New York since arriving in 1989, there are a lot of decent opportunities here and, key, people willing to hire me, staff or freelance.

There are many things about the U.S. — as you know if you read this blog regularly — that deeply trouble me: racism, violence, guns, sexism, income inequality. Not to mention current electoral politics.

But I’ve always been surprised by — and much appreciated — the willingness here to give me chances to prove myself. I am privileged, for sure: well-educated, white, able-bodied. And this is a country where money talks, so when people choose me, I know they do so with the confidence I’ll help them make more and not let them down.

 

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Downtown Montreal has re-purposed some gorgeous bank buildings into cafes and co0-working spaces

I get it. I almost welcome the nakedness of this transaction.

Canadians are a different breed. Much more averse to risk. Slower to commit and quick to scuttle away from conflict.

In a smaller country, failure sticks and is more difficult to erase, deny or flee. I get it.

So I feel more at ease, in some ways, and certainly in New York, than I ever did in Toronto or Montreal.

I miss elements of my life in Canada and I really miss the deeper quality of those friendships.

And boy I do miss its cooler emotional temperature and impulse to discretion — sometimes I want to holler, here: “Enough! I don’t want to hear all your damn feelings!”

I find it exhausting and unwelcome.

I’ve also been fortunate here: owning an apartment, finding a loving, hard-working and accomplished husband and a few friends.

I’ve luckily ticked many of my life boxes, and have — still — some serious professional ambitions yet to satisfy, like hoping to write and sell two more non-fiction books.

I also came here because I had some cool American relatives and ancestors, like a Chicago developer, or the bullfighter, or the archeologist or the diplomat or the small aircraft pilot with the almond farm.

I found them all so intriguing.

So, for $540, my new green card will buy me another American decade.

I pray to be alive and healthy when it expires.

 

Have you left your native country to settle permanently abroad?

 

Are you happy with how it turned out?

 

Who exactly is “middle class” in the U.S.?

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Can you afford a house? We can’t. Not anywhere near where we live….Maybe this is why I enjoy reading about others’.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

And, another hate read from The New York Times, somehow insisting that an annual income of $100,000 to $200,000, even $400,000 (!) or more means “middle class”:

This is the introduction, while the story focuses on seven families, with only one single man.

Being middle class in America used to come with a certain amount of leisure and economic security. Today it involves an endless series of trade-offs and creative workarounds, career reinventions and an inescapable sense of dread.

We asked readers to tell us what it’s like, and more than 500 people, with widely varied incomes, submitted responses. They described not just their financial worries but also he texture of daily life. Even those with very good incomes expressed fears of instability. They have seen their wages and bargaining power stagnate and wealth spiral to the top, while they struggle to acquire the markers of middle-class life — a college education, health care, the deed to a home.

As one reader, Kristin DePue, put it, “There is an extraordinary burden on my generation to fund our own retirement and also afford college costs for our children.” Indeed, “middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was 20 years ago,” the journalist Alissa Quart writes in “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.” And yet, for all the talk of “everyday Americans” among the presidential candidates, politicians do not seem to understand what it takes to get through the day, or what would really help.

 

 

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Georgetown, DC. Pricey but lovely

A few thoughts:

 

— No American — unlike some Britons who will proudly say they are “working class” — will use that language to describe oneself, even if it’s true. There are so many euphemisms for poor: broke, impoverished, low-income, underprivileged, each of which is vague and subjective. One man’s “broke” is another man’s notion of luxury.

— Many factors affect how far one can stretch a budget: housing, health insurance (if you’re on Medicare or Medicaid, free), educational costs, number of children, etc. If you’ve chosen to raise a child, or many children, that’s an assumed cost bringing many additional costs with it: food, clothing, medical care, etc. Plus childcare!

— Some areas of the country are brutally and punitively expensive for housing and if, for reasons of employment, health and/or reliable family support you can’t leave, that cost alone is going skew what you need to survive.

— If you have multiple children and every one of them attends a private university or college, let alone graduate or professional school, it will cost a fortune. Yet it remains a very loaded and un-American idea to suggest trade school or vocational training instead, even though many such workers, unionized, make very good incomes, have plenty of work life-long and tremendous pride in their skills.

— This story generated 1,358 comments (that’s a lot for the Times), as “class” is a loaded word for Americans, raised from birth on the “American dream” of social mobility.

Here’s one of them:

The median household income is $59,000 per year. All of these people in the article are far above that, but they are still struggling to afford basic things like education for their children because life is very expensive. Imagine what a family making $25,000 is going through, trying to send children to college. Everyone that is thinking about this election needs to realize that the real middle of the country is hurting. All of our security has been turned to risk, and the billionaires pay themselves as if they carry the risk, instead of us. The corporate establishment “center” has completely discredited itself, by telling us how great the economic numbers are, how “free trade” has really been great, and that there “is no money,” for the things that most people need, because, according to the owners of capital and the media they own, the only way for capitalism to work is for their corporations to get fat, no-bid, cost-plus contracts, while those same corporations have their taxes cut to zero.

Jose and I live in a suburb of New York City, in a one-bedroom apartment. Our monthly housing cost is $2,000, health insurance $1,700, various other insurances another $400+. Add food, gas, the $95 cost of a 10-trip off-peak train trip into New York City for work or pleasure, parking, dental, etc.

In our good years, we make just over six figures, as full-time freelancers — i.e. wholly self-employed; in bad years, we have had to tap our retirement savings (and thank heaven we have some.)

That, for many people, is a fortune!

But our combined income can also disappear at any moment without warning if one of our clients cuts their budget or management changes. We have no paid time off or paid sick leave.

At this point, effectively shut out of any full-time job (that would cut $20,000 a year in costs with job-supplied health insurance) by age discrimination, we are OK, partly because we have no children or dependents, and have stayed in this home for decades, driving a 20 year old vehicle.

 

How about you?

 

Where do you fit?

Why (worship) work?

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Do you ever just sloooooooow down and savor life? Not just work?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

A recent story in The Atlantic tries to unpack why Americans are so obsessed with work:

Workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.

What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

Homo industrious is not new to the American landscape. The American dream—that hoary mythology that hard work always guarantees upward mobility—has for more than a century made the U.S. obsessed with material success and the exhaustive striving required to earn it.

No large country in the world as productive as the United States averages more hours of work a year. And the gap between the U.S. and other countries is growing. Between 1950 and 2012, annual hours worked per employee fell by about 40 percent in Germany and the Netherlands—but by only 10 percent in the United States. Americans “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later, than people in comparably rich societies,” wrote Samuel P. Huntington in his 2005 book Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity.

Working in a free-market, winner-take-all capitalist country like the U.S. is…instructive if you’ve lived in any other country that treats workers as slightly more than fuel. I grew up in Canada, ages 5 to 30, and spent a year in France at 25, so I have experienced (and enjoyed) life and work in two other nations that actually provide social safety nets, paid vacation and even paid maternal leave.

To arrive in 21st. century American work culture is to feel one’s been catapulted back to some feudal era — except even serfs got something. Women are still fighting every day for better wages. Age discrimination is rampant. Unions are the smallest and weakest in a century.

Wages remain stagnant for many of us despite record corporate profits.

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Time….or money? If you want more private time, it’s likely to cost you income

 

Yet Americans are exhorted daily to work harder! Be more productive! Longer hours!

If you’re struggling financially — as many are — work is what you have to do, and a lot of it to just survive. But once you’re past survival, then what? Oh, right. Work more, because…

Because it’s the only identity many Americans are truly comfortable taking pride in.

Being a parent? Good luck with that! A fortune in childcare, daycare and skyrocketing higher education costs. Hobbies? Who’s got time? Private passion projects? Quick, turn them into financially profitable side hustles.

Being creative artistically or musically? Quick, get an Etsy site or YouTube channel. Monetize every breath!

When I recently announced on Facebook that I’d be addressing a photography conference — and had begun my career as a shooter — one friend expressed (admiring) astonishment that I had “another skill set.”

I have plenty! But this is so deeply unAmerican. Every thought, action, book, conference,meeting must — de facto — provide financial profit to someone or, it seems, you’re just wasting time.

How about:

Friendship?

Inspiration?

Connection?

Learning?

Pleasure?

 

American work culture leaves no room, no time and — most toxic and crucial — no respect for those things. Patting your dog or making a fantastic meal for your wife or spending two hours consoling a heartbroken friend?

No economic value!

Here’s a beautiful piece on Quartz about the value of slowly and carefully building a community, not just a bank balance:

 

In seeing his community, I became acutely aware of the feeling that I did not have my own. I had friends and a loving family. But as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And I spent my days focused on optimizing myself: Endlessly working and improving, on a permanent quest to do as much as possible in the unforgiving confines of 24 hours. It was the only way I knew how to be. Compete. Excel. Win.

I had never considered there might be a cost to a life of high-octane, high-reward competition.

 

I spent my own 20s making myself and many people around me nuts with my white-hot ambition and professional drive. By 30 I was fried. Since then, I’ve worked to live, amassing enough money to pay for the things we need (including retirement) — but also taking as much vacation as we can afford. Some years that’s a few months’ worth, albeit in two or 3-week increments.

Even that’s considered weird since even many Americans who get paid vacation are too scared to actually use it (OMG you’re….relaxing?!) or too broke to go anywhere.

Nor do I work nights and weekends or when we go away to rest and recharge.

I know most of my competitors do. I also know how tired and resentful they are.

 

Do you live to work?

Why?

How do you define success?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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An interesting/depressing essay in The Paris Review by Alexander Chee on becoming an American writer:

There’s another Alexander Chee in my mind, the one who I would be if I’d only had access to regular dental care throughout my career, down to the number of teeth in my mouth. I started inventing him on a visit to Canada in 2005 when I became unnerved by how healthy everyone looked there compared to the United States, and my sense of him grows every time I leave the country. I know I’ll have a shorter career for being American in this current age, and a shorter life also. And that is by my country’s design. It is the intention.

…Until recently, I struggled to get by, and yet I am in the top twenty percent of earners in my country. I am currently saving up for dental implants—money I could as easily use for a down payment on a house. But I’m not entirely sure I’ll see the end of a mortgage or that any of us will.

*

Only in America do we ask our writers to believe they don’t matter as a condition of writing. It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing.

And this is from a writer many others likely envy and admire.

A younger friend, who makes most of her income doing Spanish translation work, (and some journalism), posted the link on her Facebook page; almost every journalist I know today feels vulnerable, underpaid and disposable — just as Chee (who writes fiction) does.

It is deeply American to undervalue — even scorn — those who work as writers or creators of music, art, dance, theater, film, until or unless we become powerful, secure and wealthy, which (as many of us know well), may less reflect talent than acquiring useful connections and well-placed allies.

Some of the most professionally successful people I know are really good at sucking up to working well with powerful people, (who have the money and authority to hand out good jobs, plum assignments, grants, fellowships and other funding).

Others have (also) had the emotional, physical, financial and mental stamina to just stay in their field long enough to survive, rise and thrive.

Many fall by the wayside, bitter, broke and envious.

But a larger cultural and political American context elides the realities of slower progress, aiding in the deception that only the most wealthy and highly visible artists and creatives are truly successful.

In a nation that only offers affordable healthcare to the indigent, employed and old, the rest of us are left vulnerable to medical bankruptcy. I lived in Canada, ages five to 30, so I know what it’s like to live as a self-employed writer and not worry constantly about the cost of healthcare. Unless an American has lived abroad, they have no idea.

Which affects many creatives and often curtails how much time and energy we can devote to creativity.

 

But what defines success?

 

For some:

an enormous salary

lots of money in the bank

having and wielding power

owning your home

a (fancy) job (and maybe several promotions)

surviving tours in the military

having a healthy/happy child(ren)

a happy relationship with your spouse/partner

achieving an athletic goal — completing a marathon or triathlon, climbing a mountain or setting a personal record

regaining (or losing) weight

acquiring formal education, gaining enough credentials to get and keep well-paid work

helping someone else achieve their dream(s) through your mentoring and volunteer efforts

If you’re ill, it can simply mean being able to get out of bed, stand upright and complete a lucid sentence.

Some people consider me a successful writer — which is flattering, but which I also tend to shrug off, having accomplished less than I’m capable of, and with peers who have published many more books, won the fellowships I’ve lost out on, etc.

But I do feel satisfied and successful in other ways: I own a home; have a lasting and happy (second) marriage; have deep and lasting friendships, to name a few. I am very grateful for good health and some savings.

 

Success can be an ever-receding horizon line, one that’s forever maddeningly elusive — or one more easily claimed and enjoyed

 

If we don’t allow ourselves to savor, enjoy and share our smaller “wins” we can end up frustrated and enraged, neither healthy nor attractive choices.

 

How do you measure and define success in your life?