Two chairs


That tiny crystal pyramid on the shelf? Jose’s Pulitzer!


By Caitlin Kelly

They came to us in a sad way, one we think about every time we sit in them.

In our co-op apartment building, we have many older folk — in their 80s and 90s — and some are long-married. One of them, always elegant, always together, went out one Friday afternoon for lunch.

On the drive home they were struck by a drunk driver, a woman. The wife was killed and her husband died later at the hospital.

Their children held an apartment sale to dispose of their belongings — so we went downstairs and found a pair of wing chairs, something Jose had wanted for many years. A good quality wing chair is easily $500-1,500+ so this had remained out of reach.

We got both of these for $450.

The upholstery is not 100 percent my taste, but neutral enough to work with our current color scheme. I’d like to change it to something else, but it will be costly.

Jose and I sit there and talk, sometimes for a long time. There’s something lovely and formal and intentional about sitting side by side in an elegant chair.

We think of that couple. We miss them.

But we cherish their chairs.


A barstool conversation

By Caitlin Kelly


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

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

It was about 6:30.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was a little drunk.

It made me a little sad.

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

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

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

(Just in case, though:

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


Do you ever sit at the bar?

Do you ever talk to strangers there?

Have we lost the art of conversation?

Talking in the evening. Porto Covo, Portugal
Talking in the evening. Porto Covo, Portugal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This recent think-piece in The New York Times argues that we have:

At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates…

We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.

One of the rituals my husband and I enjoy is my driving him to the commuter train station in the morning. It’s only about 10 minutes door to door, but it’s a nice chance to connect and chat before his 40-minute commute and a crazy life working at the Times, one with six meetings every day.

We talk a lot, usually two or three times, briefly, by phone and maybe an hour or two in the evening. That’s a great deal more than many couples, certainly those with multiple children juggling conflicting schedules.

But sitting across the table from someone, sharing a glass of wine or cup of coffee, seems to have become an unimaginable luxury. How else can we ever get to know one another? I’ve had two female friends tell me, only after many years of knowing them, that they had each been sexually abused as a child.

That took a lot of trust and courage. I don’t think most of us would want to share such intimacies only through a computer or phone screen.

I love road trips, six or eight or ten hours in a vehicle with my husband, or friends, or my Dad. You get a lot said, and the silences are companionable.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, (on Virgin Air, maybe the reason for such indie fellow travelers), my outbound flight had a career musician beside me, Homer Flynn, who has spent a long life making very cool music in a band called The Residents. Their Wikipedia entry is huge! We had a great conversation, for more than an hour, about the nature of creativity, about managing a long and productive worklife, about inspiration.

On the flight home — 5.5 hours — I had a similar conversation with my seatmate, a visual artist a little older than I.

Ironically, she’d just opened and started to read a book about introverts and I figured she’d never want to chat. But we discovered we had so much in common we talked the whole way! She had even attended the same East Coast prep school as my mother.

Another flight, from Winnipeg to Vancouver, placed me beside a coach for the Toronto Argonauts, a professional football team. Orlando Steinauer and I had a great time comparing notes on the world of professional sport and professional writing. We found it hard to decide which is more bruising!

As you can see, conversation is my oxygen. I love meeting fun new people and hearing their stories.

It’s why, after 36 years as a journalist, I still enjoy my work — and the comments I get here. I’m endlessly curious about people.

Do you make time in your life now for face to face conversations?

With whom and how often?

If not, do you miss them?

Sitting At The Bar

great dive bar in lower garden district, New O...
Image via Wikipedia

I usually have such good luck.

Not tonight. It was the end of the fireworks — 200,000 happy Vancouverites having thronged the beaches to watch them from a barge in the harbor. I sidled up to my hotel bar and found myself next to the most boring person I have ever met.


“I can’t believe how hot it is here,” he said; he being a contractor from a suburb of San Francisco. “I thought Canada had perpetual winter.”

Normally, I smile indulgently. Not this time.

“You’re kidding, right?”

He went on to rave about the novels of James Michener and how great they are, like “Hawaii.”

And, sue me, I hate it when men ask your name right away. Lively conversation first, ask name later. It’s the price of admission.

I make it a point to sit at the bar most of the time, especially when eating alone. It’s usually a lot more fun than reading or watching people read (please) their emails.

Earlier this week I met Homa and Babak, an Iranian couple, and had a great conversation — I had no idea Tehran has a ski hill. (Homa showed me a photo on her Iphone.) Then chatted with a young Australian girl who’s just moved here.

In Atlanta last fall, I sat in a great old dive bar and had an hour-long chat with a terrific local guy, so when it works, it works well.

Do you sit at the bar and talk to strangers?

Are You Paying Attention? No, Really

Image by Aidan Jones via Flickr

It’s been said we now live in an age of CPA — “continuous partial attention” — as everyone texts and tweets and IMs and scans their Blackberry in the middle of a first date or a funeral. Writes tech expert Linda Stone, who says she created the phrase:

Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert.  We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves.  We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities.  If we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus.  What’s ringing? Who is it?  How many emails? What’s on my list?  What time is it in Bangalore?

In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in.  This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER?  How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.

Over the last twenty years, we have become expert at continuous partial attention and we have pushed ourselves to an extreme that I call, continuous continuous partial attention.  There are times when cpa is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing; and, in small doses, continuous partial attention serves us well.  There are times when cpa and ccpa compromises us.

The “shadow side” of cpa is over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment. The latest, greatest powerful technologies are now contributing to our feeling increasingly powerless. Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.

To look someone in the eye and give them our undivided attention for minutes, maybe hours, at a time seems now as quaint, and wearying and unlikely, as chopping wood to heat your house or hauling water from a well for every bath.

Attention is our most valuable resource. That you are taking, making, the time to read this sentence is — for me — an honor. I know there is no greater gift than that of attention.

A mother, nursing her baby. The hospice worker, adjusting an oxygen line or morphine drip. Great sex. Helping your kid learn to play piano or bunt or make an omelette. That’s one on one time. Focused attention. It builds trust. It’s intimate.

Here’s my question.

When someone blogs clearly to get a lot of attention, millions of hits and shrieking arguments and name-calling and links and fist-waving, what do you, the reader, perceive as their goal? What is its value?

From my side of the computer screen — however fun it all is for you and me and all those other bloggers and their readers — the attention of thousands of strangers (unless you’re supporting yourself, as some do, exclusively through blogging) will not pay your mortgage or student loan or drive you to the hospital or make your dinner or laugh at your jokes.

Is it simply the ego thrill that people are actually listening to you? Talking to you and about you to one another?

What real, essential difference does this make, to the blogger and to their readers? Is it the creation — or consolidation of — (new) community?

Or (fogey that I am) is the whole point simply to be watched/listened to/admired/quoted/linked?

Are we so starved now for anyone’s undivided attention in any form? (Clearly, yes, as reality television seems to prove. Do you really want to be known and remembered and memorialized for appearing on “Wife Swap”?)

And why are we, then, unwilling to give it?

I value connection more than attention. To sit across a table or sofa or bedside with someone I know well and who knows me or who’s taking the time to get there, a deeper relationship a valuable destination, as I am.

It takes a long time, if you are in fact at all private, as some of us  (even bloggers) still are, to slowly and respectfully unpeel the onion of someone’s personality and character. It took two friends of mine many years to confess, tearfully and fearfully, that each had been sexually abused as a child, or another, to tell me he is gay. It takes time and trust. A pearl is created slowly by accretion, layer upon layer of nacre finally producing something lovely and gleaming and precious.

I fear we’re becoming diamonds — or worse cubic zirconia — all hard and shiny, glittery things merely reflecting back to one another the shiny, polished side(s) we deem more marketable or publicly appealing. More eyeballs!

Without deeper connection, which only attention can spark and nurture, (think of a really great date), what are we doing? Or is ongoing, attentive connection now simply too…tedious?

ChatRoulette Misses The Point — Sharing Physical Space

This false-color satellite image shows Manhatt...
There is, I am sure, someone here to talk to ...Image via Wikipedia

Get out of your home. Get off your computer or gadget.

Go sit in a bar/cafe/restaurant/bus/train/airplane/ferry boat/park. Strike up a conversation with someone who is a total stranger to you. Face to face. Share physical space and conversation with that person — unless they are endangering you — for a minimum of 15 minutes.

Can you do it? Will you do it?

It’s cold. It’s rainy. It’s too hot. It’s too windy. I’d have to put my kid in a stroller. I feel fat today. There’s a big zit on my nose and no one will talk to me. They might not talk back. They might be mean or boring or stupid or not even speak English. What if they hit on me? What if they don’t?

Yesterday, I had a business meeting in Manhattan, in the lower 20s at Broadway. There are plenty of fun and cool restaurants nearby but I headed for one of my absolute favorites — The Old Town Bar, on 18th. Street, in business since 1892. The ceiling is dark brown painted tin. The lights are low-hanging and dimly-lit. The booths are battered wood, the floor old tile. The cash register has plastic keys and is made of metal.

I sat at the bar, as I almost always do whenever I am out and eating alone, and read my book and ate my burger. The guy to my left, a 20-something Master of the Universe in his $600 sport coat, Persol eyewear, his skis (?) propped against the bar, spent the whole time staring into his Blackberry. The guy to my right, two stools over, was nice enough to watch my coat while I went to the bathroom.

He looked to be in his late 30s, short, graying hair, wedding ring. I thanked him and started a conversation.

Turned out to be a smart and interesting computer guy originally from Ireland, in NYC as long as I, who came here for work with the same (God help us) stars in our ex-pat eyes. He and I shared notes on our favorite Manhattan 19th-century bars — “geezer bars” as he called them, The Landmark, Fanelli’s, The Ear Inn. Then I told him about my book and he suggested a writer I had never heard of whose ideas will likely be deeply helpful to me.

We both took a chance. I’m engaged and live with my partner, but I talk to strange men, and women, all the time. In person.

The moment wasn’t a flirtation in any way; he was wearing a wedding ring and I was only looking for a bit of chat. Two strangers, briefly and happily and thoughtfully, connecting. We didn’t trade business cards. Not the point.

What is so terrifying about sitting down and talking to someone you do not know in the same room?

You can always get up and leave. (Maybe not on a airplane, but just about anywhere else.) Maybe they will insult you. Maybe they will laugh at your jokes. Maybe you’re wearing the same color or love the same music on your separate little Ipods, but if you don’t take the risk of speaking, you’ll never know.

Even famously grouchy selfish New Yorkers are now — yes, really — sharing cabs. And liking it.

From today’s New York Post:

Who needs Facebook?

New Yorkers are making new friends and business partners in the back seats of shared taxicabs.

In just its second day, the cab-sharing program proved to be a great networking tool for several riders commuting yesterday from the Upper East Side to Midtown.

David Alper, a hedge-fund manager, and Adam Gehrie, a corporate financial-services lawyer, swapped business cards and agreed to set up a power lunch after grabbing a group ride from the stand at 72nd Street and Third Avenue.

“We should get together,” Alper suggested as the two exited their ride at 42nd and Park, the farthest the discounted rides will take up to four passengers

Along the way, they bantered about their educations: Gehrie said he attended Georgetown Law School, while Alper reported on his days at Antioch Law, both in Washington, DC.

“It’s a lot of fun to meet new people. I’d do it again,” Gehrie said.

Human beings are not cable channels to flip through at will and click away from the second they annoy or confuse or bore us. We need to connect. We need to connect deeply and intimately.

We are all going to die, some of us much sooner, some in truly agonizing ways that none of us even want to think about. I want my funeral filled with people who knew me personally, face to face, and cared for me. I want people all over the world — and they exist — to notice my absence, whether Matthew, the ggggggorgeous young man I met in 1980 on the train station platform in Huelva, Spain and traveled with for two weeks or Guillemette, my dear friend from Paris, or Pierre, the French truck driver with whom I shared his cab for eight days driving from Perpignan to Istanbul.

We couldn’t shower the whole time — hotels and motels cost money. My hair was filthy and my face broke out from constant road filth. We slept in the cab, his bunk maybe a foot below mine. I had never spent so much time so physically near anyone, let alone a strange man who spoke not a word of English.

I was 25 and he was 35 and we had never met and everyone I knew (it was for a story) thought I was insane.

Insane. How could I possibly do anything so risky?

Best eight days ever!

The way to make connections with strangers is not in ten-second clicks. The way to meet new people and learn how they think or feel or believe or pray or vote (or don’t) or what they eat for breakfast or who they read is not from the stupid safety of your machine.

Look into someone’s eyes two feet from you. Enjoy their perfume (or hate it) or their choice of socks or notice the little scar over their left eyebrow. Maybe they’ll tell you how it got there.

When I was 20 years old, I spent four months traveling along throughout Portugal, France, Spain and Italy. It was a really, really long time to be alone. If I wanted emotional contact with people I did not know, I had to negotiate it and do it safely. These are life skills.

You will not meet or get to know anyone when all you have to do to flee them is hit “next”.