If you’re going to somehow get through a frightening time in your life — whether it’s health, work, family, marriage, kids’ issues — you need a rock, someone you can turn to who’s as firm and solid as a boulder, something steady and calm to lean against and take shelter behind, a fixed point you know will be there the next day and the next and the next, no matter what happens.
As I got my breast cancer diagnosis — ironically, sitting on rocks at the edge of the Hudson River in the New York town where we live — my husband Jose had just left for work in the city on the commuter train. I sat in the June sunshine alone absorbing this news, delivered by phone by my gynecologist.
Those vows include, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health…Sept. 2011
Since then, as he has been throughout our 18 years together, Jose has been my rock. For which I’m so damn grateful and so damn fortunate. He came with me to every meeting with every doctor, (and there have been five MDs), listening and taking notes as a second set of eyes and ears. I’m not a person who cries easily or often — maybe a few times a year — but in the past five months, have done a lot of that. He’s stayed steady.
There’s an old-fashioned word I really like — character. Jose has it. I’d seen it on multiple occasions as we were dating. I wanted it in my second husband, that’s for damn sure.
So lucky to have had the kindness of this fantastic team!
Then there’s gravel, a poor metaphor perhaps, for the pals and acquaintances whose love and sweet gestures have also proven hugely supportive, through letters, cards, calls, texts, flowers and even gifts. None of which I really expected.
Some live in distant countries. Some are editors I’ve worked with for years and have still never met. Some are women I went to school with decades ago. All of whom stepped up.
There were several putatively close friends I assumed would check in — and who proved wholly absent. That hurt. But it happens, and you have to know, especially with this disease, some people will flee and totally abandon you.
The most depressing thing I heard this summer — and it truly shocked me — is that some cancer patients have no one at all to turn to. No family. No friends. I can’t imagine facing the fears, pain, anxiety and many tests and treatments without someone who loves you sitting in the waiting room with you, driving you to appointments, holding your hand.
I recently got a call from a younger friend facing her own crisis, and was so honored and touched that she called me. I try to be a rock for the people I love. Sometimes I’ll fail them, I know.
A dear friend sent me an e-card for Christmas, filled with birds and flowers and music.
Her message, typically feisty, ended with: “And in 2017 we fight!”
An avowed, life-long progressive — and one of the smartest science writers I know (here’s a link to her terrific book, “Fevered” , about climate change and its effects on health, globally) — she’s full of piss and vinegar as I think we all should be in 2017, and for the next four years.
There has been a shocking and dis-spiriting increase in hate crimes, physical attacks and appalling verbal abuse in the past few months, both in Britain post-Brexit and in the United States, after the election of a President who has vilified women, Muslims, Mexicans and many others.
By “fight” I don’t mean fisticuffs.
I don’t mean screaming abuse back at someone who’s clearly got boundary issues.
Nor do I mean seeking some shouty, nasty draaaaama, if that can be avoided.
But I do mean — stiffen your spine, no matter how scared you are of what might happen if you do. (Clearly, not if you live in an abusive situation, where your life and that of others is at risk.)
In the past month, after long deliberation and, yes, fearful of the consequences, I finally stood up and fought for myself in three difficult and enervating situations, one within my family (I wrote a long letter, snail mailed); one within my parish (ditto) and one with a client whose disregard for basic courtesy (and abysmal pay) were grim beyond words.
It takes guts to tell someone, (who can just blow you off completely): “Enough!”
It takes trust in your own judgment of what you truly most need.
It also means preparing for the potential consequences, the most frightening bit: loss of income, loss of affection, affiliation, respect, losing your welcome within a community.
But the costs of not fighting for what you know is right can be crippling to your mental, emotional and physical health.
To your self-esteem and confidence.
So, eventually, it must be done.
Ask for help before you do it, from a friend, a therapist, a loving partner, to steady your nerves and make sure you’re not about to self-immolate.
But we’re also living in strange and challenging times, politically.
So, it’s also time to go fight the good fight for social justice and economic progress that doesn’t , once more, simply re-enrich the already wealthy; 95 percent of Americans, according to a recent New York Times report, have seen no rise in their income in seven years.
If all we do is whinge and cringe, nothing will change.
Write to your elected representatives.
Work hard – if you live in the U.S. — to get some Democrats elected in the mid-term elections, only two years away.
Donate your time, energy or money to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and other groups working daily to protect our rights, bodily and civil.
Write letters to the editor, in print; women, especially! Most of those appearing these days are written by men.
On-line, leave civil, smart comments.
If you’re a writer, send out some op-eds, essays and opinion pieces or reported stories to keep issues front and center.
If you see someone being verbally abused in a public setting, stand beside them to signal that you’re an ally. Speak calmly and quietly to them. Do not ignore cruelty; passivity signals assent.
It’s not the time to shrug and look away.
It’s not the time to say “Not my problem.”
It’s not the time to just soak up fake news and comforting lies.
It’s not the time to ignore the news because “it’s too depressing.” It’s our world.
There is never a “time and place” for cruelty. By staying silent, you robbed the little girl of the acknowledgment and the apology to which she was entitled. And you deprived the boy of learning the consequences of nasty behavior. He may not understand how mean he was. But your inaction ensured that his ignorance persists.
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” — coach John Wooden
This week, thanks to the media, (yes, of which I’m still a member), I saw two powerful examples of character in action.
The first, which I won’t belabor, was that of Presidential candidate Donald Trump, mocking and dismissing the 14 women who have come forward to share publicly a private and humiliating and angering moment they say happened to them in his presence when he groped them.
We weren’t there, so only he and they know what happened.
But it’s how someone behaves in private — and behaves consistently — that defines the essence of their character.
It’s what you do and say to people, usually people with much less power than you have, (i.e. you can lose your job, your home, your friendship, your marriage if you fight back or tell anyone what shit they’ve subjected you to).
Some people wield that power like a billy club, swinging it with a smirk — over and over and over.
We also live in an unprecedented era of personality, where The Famous boast of, and monetize, their millions of followers on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, as proof of their popularity.
Oh, how we rush to buy their music and books and line up to vote for them, cheering til we’re hoarse.
We literally idolize them, projecting onto them every possible good quality we so long to see and feel in our broken world.
Yet we have no idea whatsoever who they really are.
Last night’s episode was an astonishing and moving reminder of character, that quaint, old-fashioned, Victorian notion of behaving with integrity and honor.
When it came time for the losing team to name one of their fellow team members to send home for good, four of the six said something unlikely and unprecedented: Send me. I screwed up.
I’ve never seen the show’s host and mentor ,Tim Gunn, so moved and so impressed with the behavior of the man chosen to leave, who had also volunteered to take one for his team.
If you’ve watched previous seasons, (yes, I’m a serious fan!), you’ll recall moments when there was a virtual stampede, (remember Ashley Nell Tipton?), to toss someone else under the bus.
It was ugly to see and, yes, revealed character.
I’ve now been with my husband for 16 years, married for five.
The decisive moment for me was a revelation of his character, in a time of fear, unplanned expense and chaos, when so many other men, no matter how handsome or charming, would have wobbled or slithered away from the challenge or left me, once more, to pick up the pieces as her only, overwhelmed child.
My mother, living alone in a small town, had been been found — the door broken in by police after worried neighbors called them — lying in bed for days, unable to move.
A stroke? We had no idea. She lived, as she still does, a six-hour flight plus two-hour drive from us.
I called Jose, then working in one of the most senior and responsible photo editing jobs at The New York Times, and said, “We have to go. Tomorrow.”
He told his bosses and we went.
His decision to be a mensch was instant.
And invisible to everyone but me and his bosses.
It cost a fortune I didn’t have that he paid for — last-minute airfare, meals, car rental.
When we got to my mother’s house, he took her stained mattress to the balcony to scrub it clean. Not a word. No complaints. No whining.
I was flying home from Paris to New York on a wide-body 777.
The turbulence wasn’t, objectively, that bad at all and, really, could have been much worse. But I really dislike turbulence, especially at the start of a 7.5 hour trans-oceanic flight with Godknowshowmuch more of it ahead.
Even while mortified by my babyishness, I cried. Not a lot and not loudly.
A man sitting in the seat in front of me, an Indian man in his 60s or beyond, was gentle and kind.
“It’s all right. We’re all here with you,” he said.
His very simple words meant a lot to me, as someone who’s been through way too much emotional turbulence in my past life, which I sometimes think is why physical turbulence undoes me somehow. Nor did I grow up in family who did a lot of comforting or cuddling if/when I was scared. That was my job.
I was so touched by his words and later wanted to thank him, but he was too quickly gone.
Maybe he’s just that kind to everyone.
I’m forever amazed at the things we say to one another, whether strangers on an airplane or teacher to student (or vice versa), that can leave such a positive effect on us, years, even decades later.
Sometimes it’s like a stone whose initial plunk into the water ripples outward in many circles, having a much deeper and profound effect on you than the person speaking could possibly know or understand.
It seems such a little thing…
Maybe not everyone is as open or susceptible to these things as I seem to be, but I try to say nice things whenever and wherever I can; readers of this blog know I can be very tough indeed. I’m no Pollyanna, but it’s been so powerful in my life when someone has offered a nugget of passing wisdom.
Like the woman I met socially just as my now-husband and I had started dating. We were serious about one another from the start, but we argued a lot and were stubborn and hot-headed. Not a pretty combination.
“You can give this man his happiest years or his worst years,” she said. I knew her very briefly and maybe saw her once or twice after that.
That made clear to me what my wisest choice would be and, 15 years later, we are happily married.
I didn’t come from a family filled with cute, cosy homilies, so I learned to find much of my wisdom and comfort from people beyond that circle.
In my mid-20s, on a journalism fellowship in Paris, a perceptive friend about 15 years my senior noticed my obsession with antiques, one that continues today.
“You don’t have to buy other people’s histories,” she said.
That same year, back in the days before (yes, really!) the Internet and the cloud, I was shooting a lot of film and slides, and had hundreds of them, going back years and much global travel, in a big black portfolio I used to show editors to win work.
It was stolen and I was devastated. How could I possibly persuade people to trust me and invest their time and money in my skills?
“Nope,” said a fellow fellow, a woman a bit older than me, also from Toronto, said firmly. “Everything inside that portfolio is already inside you. You don’t need it.”
She was right.
What has someone said to you that changed your life for the better?
“When people are self-employed, you absolutely need to think of how you’re spending your time,” says executive coach Mike Woodward. “That said, charging for the occasional mentoring service is a slippery slope. It’s one thing to brand yourself as a consultant if that’s what you want to do, but monetizing mentoring could become a distraction from your own career goals.”
But call the concept “consulting” and all of a sudden it makes sense to charge.
‘It’s one thing to brand yourself as a consultant if that’s what you want to do, but monetizing mentoring could become a distraction from your own career goals.’
– Mike Woodward
The eponymous creator of Anne Chertoff Media, a boutique marketing agency that caters to the wedding industry, found a similar niche.
“I honestly got annoyed with people taking me to lunch and thinking that the cost of a meal could equal my contacts, expertise and advice, so I created a service called ‘Pick My Brain’ on my website. For $500, I give 90 or so minutes of whatever advice the customer needs,” she explains.
We’ve got two competing impulses — the urge to be generous and helpful to others, which reflects our better nature and realizes that other have done this for us, likely, along our own path.
But in an era of $4.05 (yes, here in NY) gallon gasoline, when my weekly grocery bill has literally doubled in the past few years — and when my industry is offering pennies on the dollar for the most skilled among us, what’s the upside?
Time is money! You take up my time, without payment in any form, you’ve cost me income.
And some skills take decades to hone and sharpen. Anyone who thinks that “picking my brain” will vault them into The New York Times is dreaming; I’ve helped one fellow writer get there because she deserved it.
So I bill my time at $150/hour for consultations and individual counseling. I’m going to raise it in 2015 to $200 an hour.
But…didn’t a lot of people help me? Frankly, not really. A few, yes.
I have mentored many other writers and am, very selectively, still happy to do so.
But when and where and to whom is my choice. In my younger and more idealistic days, I assumed that my generosity would be reciprocated, even thanked. Wrong!
Now I’m too busy funding my own basic needs, and a retirement. I can’t afford to give away hours of my time. It is what it is.
The people I choose to mentor are: bright, highly motivated, say thank you, follow through quickly, and don’t argue endlessly with my advice, (they can ignore it, but arguing feels rude to me.) They do whatever they can in return and, I trust, will share their good fortune with others as well.
It profiles Wharton professor Adam Grant, 31, whose compulsive generosity seems a little…weird…to the writer, who is, (I met her, competing on the same story), ferociously ambitious and competitive:
Grant might not seem so different from any number of accessible and devoted professors on any number of campuses, and yet when you witness over time the sheer volume of Grant’s commitments, and the way in which he is able to follow through on all of them, you start to sense that something profoundly different is at work. Helpfulness is Grant’s credo. He is the colleague who is always nominating another for an award or taking the time to offer a thoughtful critique or writing a lengthy letter of recommendation for a student — something he does approximately 100 times a year. His largess extends to people he doesn’t even know. A student at Warwick Business School in England recently wrote to express his admiration and to ask Grant how he manages to publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Grant did not think, upon reading that e-mail, I cannot possibly answer in full every such query and still publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Instead, Grant, who often returns home after a day of teaching to an in-box of 200 e-mails, responded, “I’m happy to set up a phone call if you want to discuss!”
Grant suggests we each fall into one of three categories: takers, matchers and givers.
Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders…The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.
I find this question of professional generosity interesting — and always have. I’ve been a giver for decades.
Oh, I’ve seen the looks of confusion or bemusement or pity when American colleagues — big-time takers, highly skilled matchers — see me giving away my time, expertise, contacts or skills.
The idea of actually helping a potential competitor best me, at anything, marks me, in zero-sum America, as slow-witted, a rube, someone who simply doesn’t know any better.
The default position, certainly in journalism in New York City, is to stab everyone in the eye who stands in your way and suck up really hard to anyone you think could possibly advance your career.
Trick is — which one is which?
The old farts who used to rule this town journalistically are all desperately trying to re-invent themselves at 55 or 63 or 47, while the 23-year-olds are running the ship. Even A. J. Jacobs, a 38-year-old best-selling author, only half-jokingly, describes himself as “doddering.”
So I make a point of being nice to some people half my age — these days, in my industry, they’re the ones with jobs and work to hand out!
I also give away my time far less often than I used to, I admit. I’ve watched some people I once helped skyrocket to positions of power and acclaim. And, yes, it pisses me off that they’ve never once thought to reciprocate or even drop a “Thanks!” email or note or call.
But that just tells me what sort of selfish ingrates people they are.
In my view, helping someone succeed (intelligently), doesn’t mean choosing a life of ramen and homelessness. It means we both get to celebrate success, maybe not at the same time.
It does mean having the self-confidence you, too, will succeed. So, for me, being helpful is also a powerful measure of confidence in what I can do, and have done. And will still do.
I’ll still extend a helping hand whenever and wherever it feels right.
Because — it feels right. Helping others, judiciously, is the right thing to do.
“A decent and humane society requires a shared language of the good. The one our society lives by — a language of rights — has no terms for those dimensions of the human good which require acts of virture unspecifiable as a legal or civil obligation.”
Religious organizations receive about one-third of the nation’s total charitable contributions, not including donations to religious hospitals, schools and social charities. Donations to human services charities, by contrast, which work to ease poverty, feed the hungry and the like, amount to less than 12 percent of the total.
It’s a question I ask myself frequently — what, if anything beyond our taxes, do we owe to others in our world, whether that’s in our town, county, province/state, country, hemisphere?
Others’ needs for help are boundless and our individual resources with which to alleviate them — unless we are very wealthy or have no need, ourselves, to earn a living — extremely limited.
In the same edition of the Times containing Porter’s column is the full-page ad announcement of a multi-million gift to a college, bearing, of course, the generous donor’s name.
As the government grapples with how to address the nation’s deficits over coming decades, Americans have an opportunity to reassess the role of philanthropy in addressing the nation’s problems. Should we continue to provide lavish tax breaks? Should we demand that in return for preferential tax treatment, programs target more clearly the needs of the poor?
Many Americans might think that keeping tax breaks for donations to build, say, a new university football stadium when so many poor students can barely afford college, is not the best way to spend scarce resources.
Those on the right end of the political spectrum scoff at the notion of handing money to the poor and indigent, arguing that it merely enables them to continue their shiftless, lazy behaviors. Those on the left feel it’s immoral to let needy people starve, suffer and die from restricted or non-existent access to the basics of human dignity: food, shelter, medical care.
Last week my church, a small Episcopal parish in a wealthy town north of New York City, held its annual clothing sale, in which we donate our own clothes and shoes, for adults and children, sell them for low prices, then distribute the money earned to local charities. I worked a few days at the sale, and a few people asked when prices would drop to half-off, when they could better afford a wool hat at $2.50 instead of $5, or a pair of leather shoes for $7 instead of $14.
We raised more than $50,000, far more than if we’d been asked to open our wallets individually.
It’s humbling and sobering to see what sale shoppers need and can afford, and somehow ironic that the sale depends on volunteer labor — all the stay-at-home mothers with high-earning husbands flee at 2pm to pick up their children — and the only people who can offer their time are retired, unemployed or, in my case, who work freelance and may have a flexible schedule.
Those who came to shop included parents buying children’s clothes, teens snapping up fun stuff and a nun in her habit who, after I folded and bagged her sweater, asked with a smile: “Do you do closets?”
For many of us, the world has become a place where we rarely encounter, touch or speak to people whose lives are circumstances are unlike our own, whether richer or poorer. We attend different schools and colleges — if at all — travel by different conveyances, shop in different stores.
The clothing sale brings us together in a week-long fellowship. Like many people in this economy, I’m liquidity-poor, but time-rich.
Every letter we receive is a “there but for the grace of God” experience.
If I didn’t have a generous, loving husband with a steady job and excellent health insurance — which so many people do not — I might be writing one of those letters myself.
Few of us will escape our lives financially unscathed, without a crisis in which we desperately and suddenly need help from people who do not know, or owe, us — a dying parent, an ill child, a lost job (or several), a hurricane or flood — or both.
Poverty, misery and physical devastation are frightening. They smell bad. Storm-ravaged houses, crying children, old people huddled around a trash can fire. No one wants to be that person.
It’s easier to pretend they don’t exist than meet them face to face, seeing in their weary eyes and lined faces the existential terror that, one day, might be ours.
Blaming the poor and indigent is an easy out. There are few quick, simple solutions, as the miserable and angry survivors of Hurricane Sandy are still learning.
What do you think we owe one another?
Are taxes the only way to re-distribute funds from the better-off?
Do you do volunteer work and/or give money to charity?
Much is made of mentors — finding one, keeping one, making sure you have the right one.
Many younger and/or less experienced writers look to me for help. I just got an email from another of the many Caitlin Kellys out there, this one a college sophomore who hopes to become a writer or editor and asked my advice.
I, too, look to my peers and colleagues for their wisdom. I turn in the final manuscript (yay!) of my second book today, and it’s much stronger for the generosity and skill of my four “first readers”, fellow professional writers who made the time to read it and offer their comments and insights.
The secret of mentoring is that we’re all doing it, all the time.
My two most helpful mentors, recently, are women both 10 to 15 years younger than I. In this economy, even the most seasoned of us have to change gears mid-career — ready or not!
Where to find wise and generous help? Maybe not from the equally dislocated people our age, but from those successfully navigating different fields or industries a few steps down the ladder.
It’s counter-intuitive to look down instead of up, but these two women have taught me a lot. One comes from the world of business and corporate life — where people use words like “value-added” and “deliverables” — helping me prepare for a speech this week to some of the nation’s largest retailers.
My other friend is a successful blogger who began her career on-line. When True/Slant, my paid blogging gig for a year, was sold and 95 percent of the contributors who had built its value to 1.5 million uniques a month were tossed away, she consoled me. Print is brutal, but editors have loyalties. Not so in the online world, she explained.
This week, my partner spent an hour on the phone with a young photographer who turned to him for his wisdom — while he, too, is being mentored by several veterans of the new niche he is moving into.
I like this story a lot, from The New York Times. It’s about a young man, Alex Carno, whose leg was shattered by a bullet who met a suburban Mom when he was in rehab:
With dizzying speed, the pace of his life slowed to a crawl. It now takes patience no teenager has to move to the door with a walker, to wait for a visit from a friend, to wait for someone to call someone who could arrange for the right paperwork.
But once or twice a week the phone rings or the apartment ringer sounds, and a woman with no official title or longstanding relationship to Alex tries to move his life into fast-forward.
Jenny Goldstock Wright met Alex in the recreation room of a Westchester rehabilitation hospital where her grandfather, 95, was recovering from a stroke. It came out that the two men — one young, one old — had both grown up in Harlem, three blocks away and 80 years apart. “It was like he was a neighbor or something,” Alex said.
Bonds form fast in hospitals: Families see each other’s pain and fear, and they understand it, from fierce firsthand experience.
“I just felt instantly he was a good kid, and lonely and scared,” said Ms. Goldstock Wright, a 39-year-old philanthropic adviser who lives in Katonah, N.Y. She doesn’t know all the details of Alex’s injury — he told her he had been shot over a Marmot winter jacket he was wearing — or even much about his past life. (The police said the case was still under investigation.)
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” she said. “The system’s treating him like a throwaway. He deserves better.”
Real compassion demands action. It’s so much easier to write a check to charity — or not, or to ignore or turn away from another’s needs, especially if they don’t look or talk or behave like us or live in the same neighborhood.
I was a Big Sister for a while, to a 13-year-old girl also being raised by her grandmother in a poor and chaotic household. It’s not easy to enter the life of someone so much younger, make a commitment to them, let them count on you and know you have to keep showing up because they need you. It’s important and valuable and teaches both people a lot about themselves. But it’s challenging and for that reason alone, many people shy away from such intimacy.
I also live in Westchester, whose affluence can be stifling and smug, an insular world of Range Rovers and enormous mansions.
Hire her! It’s one thing to see a problem, another to not stop until you’ve helped to create a solution.
I loved this story in today’s New York Timesabout an unemployed woman, Laura van Straaten, who saw someone giving CPR on a slushy street corner, wanted to learn CPR and found that busy New Yorkers living in small apartments made rounding up volunteers tougher than she’d anticipated:
With the help of her city government liaisons, Ms. van Straaten, who previously worked mostly with glossy media outlets like NBC and The Daily Beast, started meeting with people at the Fire Department. Once the firefighting brass embraced her idea, it was easy to get New York Sports Clubs, which has gyms in all five boroughs and plenty of empty rooms during downtime, to commit to a partnership.
A month ago, Ms. van Straaten ran a meeting at City Hall with people from the mayor’s office, the Fire Department and New York Sports Clubs. That none of the people there answer to her or pay her is testament not just to her will but also to the city’s willingness to facilitate the unpaid workaholism of an obliging citizen. “I remember one long phone conversation about the details of the training program that I had with Laura as she was making stuffing the night before her first big Thanksgiving,” said Lisa Hufcut, public relations director for New York Sports Clubs. “It went late.”
Wednesday marks the official kickoff of FDNY CPR to Go, a three-month pilot program in which members of the Fire Department will offer CPR training at 28 gyms around the city. (It’s free for members and nonmembers alike.) If it works, Ms. van Straaten imagines that CPR training might expand to other fitness facilities throughout the city.
Even Ms. van Straaten, who is avidly pursuing full-time work as an executive at a media company, is a little surprised by how much has happened as a result of a routine walk to the grocery store that snowy December day.