What Did You Wear To Work Today?

silky's new latex suit
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I was dropping off my sweetie at the train station this morning when I saw a man who appeared to be having difficulties with his tail. He had enormous, tanned biceps, one with a huge tattoo, corn-rowed blond hair and looked a little embarrassed to be wrestling with his blue nylon safety harness in full view of all those commuters-in-suits. He’s one of a crew repairing the train station roof and his harness, we jokingly agreed, is the most important thing he’ll wear today.

As I drove away, wearing the T-shirt and leggings that are too often the uniform of the stay-at-home writer, I saw a woman sashaying down the hill in a black T-shirt and a gorgeous emerald-green skirt with silver spangles lining the hem.

What are you wearing at work today? Is it what you’d prefer?

A Pedicure, a Car-Wash, Some Fancy Honey. I Did My Bit Today for the Economy. How About You?

A picture of a wallet.
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Get out your  wallets! If you don’t, the American economy isn’t going to recover any time soon. It relies on us consumers to keep it humming. So say all those beleaguered retailers. Buy something, damn it.

Funny thing, frugality. It means spending very little. Living within or below your means. Totally alien behavior for the past decade and so, so annoying to all those companies who need to us spend money, even if we actually don’t have it.

Today, with a payment finally in hand, I treated myself to a few of the micro-luxuries I can still afford, not put on a credit card and see immediate pleasure from. I blew $30 (plus $6 tip) on a pedicure and caught up with Helena, still fighting with her freshly-divorced husband and still sharing the house they can’t sell. Spent $6 getting the car washed and $1 to vaccum it; sorry, Wall Street, we’re not buying a new/used vehicle any time soon. Enjoyed a Chinese lunch for another $7 and blew the big bucks, $42.99, across the street at our local gourmet store, run by Hassan, a lovely, charming former commercial photographer who always presses tastes of cheese and candied walnuts and slices of ham into your weakly protesting hand. I spent my money on small, reliable, delicious pleasures, quickly and easily shared and savored — and spent my money within the boundaries of my suburban town. Tomorrow I’ll take in a bag full of shoes to Mike, the Russian man who runs our local shoe repair shop, and chat about life, and St. Petersburg, where he’s from.

What these endless doom and gloom macroeconomic reports leave out is exactly the sort of micro-level spending I bet many of us are still doing: local, personal, low-key. I loathe chain stores and malls but I still need stuff and I’m happy to put my hard-earned cash into the hands of people whose faces and names I know, whose personality andenergy and skill make my town a haven, and keep our local storefronts filled and functional. Call me old-fashioned, but I really treasure face-to-face, personal commerce. A chance to chat, be social, slow down and make an exchange not only of cash, but a smile, a hug, an idea, a memory.

I’m the consumer driving people like Home Depot mad because, a homeowner who loves projects, I’m not even buying hardware or paint these days. The only major purchase planned for late fall is a new terrace door, the cost of it equaled by the cost of the labor to install it by Michael, our trusty carpenter. But until I’ve lined up the entire cash cost of that purchase, $700, it’s not happening.

So this endless whining that we’re not spending is getting old. Probably like millions of Americans — out of work, underemployed, scrambling for freelance clients in a recession, fearful our still-employed spouse or partner can (and might) get laid off any time without warning — I’m trying to be smart, frugal and cautious. Paying down the credit card debt as fast as possible, since Amex just tossed me and many other loyal (hah) long-time cardholders out of the calm 9.9% fixed APR pool into the sharkpond of 15%+ variable.

Beyond gas and groceries, what, these days — if anything — are you buying or planning to buy?

The Arm-Biter Wins! Meet Heathrow's New Writer-In-Residence

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Here’s how to win a book deal. Be a big fat pain in the ass. Yeah, baby! Oh, all right, Alain de Botton does bring fancy credentials to becoming the first ever writer in residence at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. Talk about re-branding; Terminal 5, much heralded, was a loathed disaster when it opened. Now de Botton, whose books tend to the cerebral, is spending a week at the terminal, given total access and free rein to write whatever he pleases, his laptop open and his words projected on a screen so passersby can watch him at work. The result will be published as a book.

My friend Rachel sets up her easel and paints portraits on-site in some pretty unlikely spots, from a nursing home to a hardware store to a fire station. This week she’s painting a portrait of a communications tower. Many people, she tells me, love having a chance to watch creativity in motion, meet an artist and ask questions about what she’s doing and why.

It’s a fun idea. Of course, a Canadian did a fictional airport portrait decades ago, becoming one of the era’s best selling authors in the process,  Arthur Hailey’s Airport came out in 1968. As someone who took her first flight alone, to Antigua, at six, and who lives for the smell of jet fuel and the next chance to fly away somewhere exotic, I totally get the attraction of airports. The stories-high departures board at Heathrow, its little metal panels clicking constantly in the roll call of departures to all the places I’m dying to see — Oslo, Palma, Abidjan — makes me practically burst with desire.

Some of my favorite airports? Seattle — whose elegant terrazzo floors have brass salmon figures embedded in them, one of whom carries a briefcase; Vancouver, Canada, with exquisite wooden totem poles and a waterfall; Bastia, Corsica, where sheep graze outside the terminal; Mae Hong Son, Thailand, where the only sound is the bells of the Buddhist temple across the street; Santa Barbara, CA, about the size of a suburban living room, with a red-tiled roof. I don’t mind my local Westchester airport, as I get to walk across the tarmac the old-fashioned way and step up into into what I affectionately term the cigar tube, a 12-seater prop plane that wings me home to Toronto. Makes me feel like an out-take from Casablanca every time.

Do you have a favorite airport?

Hillary Clinton's Bully Pulpit Spotlights Women Worldwide — "It Feeds My Heart," She Says

Hillary Clinton
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While way too much attention was paid to her tart reply in a press conference on her recent 11-day Africa trip, Hillary Clinton is showing a deep and ongoing commitment to helping women there and elsewhere, says this Washington Post piece about her new global initiatives for women, such as tripling, to $250 million, the amount given to programs for Afghan women and girls.

According to UNICEF, only 15 percent of Afghan women are able to read and write; programs like this one, for $45 a month, pay the salary of a teacher who can reach 10 to 15 girls. She’s facing a steep uphill climb in many places, where Western democratic feminist ideals fall on stony ground.

Mrs. Clinton has named Melanne Verveer as the State Department’s first global ambassador for women’s issues; Verveer has worked with her on these issues since 1995, when Mrs. Clinton addressed a women’s conference in Beijing, where she was greeted with cheers, a “transformative moment”, Verveer told the Post. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was recently named to the first Senate Subcommittee on Global Women’s Issues.

Mentioned this year in Marie-Claire and New York Times writer Nick Kristof’s columns, I’d never heard of Vital Voices, a 10-year-old initiative founded by Clinton, which has trained 7,000 emerging women leaders worldwide. Its board of directors includes bankers and former ambassadors as well as better-known names like Diane von Furstenberg, Carly Fiorina and Sally Field.

I think it’s fantastic, and way overdue, that a powerful voice like Clinton’s be heard not in shrill, vitriolic scripted debates or reduced to stupid soundbites but in helping women worldwide. That so-essential work does looks hopeless in some places — like South Africa, where one in four men say they’ve committed rape — which makes her decision to put women’s real, pressing, costly needs in the spotlight even more laudable. She’s not going for the easy win, as those are few when working with nations where women live, marry and reproduce within cultures and histories that often value them only for their silence, domestic work, spousal and filial obedience, their fertility and producing and raising children, males best of all. In places where women often have softer, weaker institutional voices, little education or economic power and loud, powerful, patriarchal men dominating the political and economic decisions affecting them, women need and deserve someone smart, articulate — and listened to — with a highly visible bully pulpit. I can think of few more valuable, potentially life-changing ways for our Secretary of State to focus her energy.

When $300,000 a Year Just Isn't Enough. Welcome to Westchester, NY

The Breakers, built 1892–1895 for Cornelius Va...
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This is what the recession looks like to some Americans in my neck of the woods — an annual income of $300,000 a year deemed insufficient in parts of Westchester, a suburban county north of New York City stretching from the Hudson River, and its small, charming rivertowns to the palatial demesnes of Rye, Mamaroneck and Larchmont facing Long Island Sound. This bizarre but widespread worldview is ruthlessly anatomized by Anne Hull of the Washington Post; (I named her a Jedi Knight of Journalism in a recent J-Day.)

Fascinating, and not the least bit surprising, that she interviewed 36 people for the story — and none would allow the use of their name or identifying details. In the land of the rich, falling even a quarter-rung on that ladder is unconscionable and embarrassing. I moved to Westchester in 1989, into an apartment where I still live, allowing me a birds-eye view of the folkways of the wealthy: their tight-cheeked, whippet-thin ropy-armed wives, their gleaming yachts and Range Rovers and charity balls. Their obsessive and unquestioned assumptions about what one must have and what one must never give up or let slip feel as exotic and unlikely to me as some jungle tribe in loincloths and feathers. I watch how rigidly their rules apply, but remain blessedly free of them. My less-conventional mom, who lived in the uber-wealthy WASP enclave of Bedford as a girl, (now home, allegedly, to Glenn Close, George Soros and Ralph Lauren, among others) fled north to Canada at the first opportunity, marrying my Canadian father to flee it all.

I once suggested to the 28-year-old son of a Westchester friend, someone who had finally graduated from Cornell to the palpable relief of his corporate attorney father and sister, that he consider journalism as a career. He’s bright, curious, loves to write and travel and try new adventures. “Writing? You can’t make a living as a writer!” sputtered someone who overheard my preposterous suggestion. It became clear to me that day just how pitiably, amusingly bohemian my career choice really was to some of these people. In some precincts here, if you’re not making a lot of money, securely married to it and making sure others know you’re doing so, you’re obviously dim or a failure. (Luckily, and thanks to my not making $$$$$$$$, I landed in a lovely town immune to this madness.)

I do attend a church like the one mentioned in Hull’s piece, many of whose members live in enormous mansions. A former minsiter once told, me, with a sigh, “They treat me like an employee.” Why was I surprised?

This story is worth a read, if only as a piece of cultural anthropology in our worst recession in decades.

I Need To Get Paid. Now. This is Funny, Because….?

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I wrote a piece about this, as yet unpublished (and therefore, itself, as yet unpaid) for The New York Times, about how sloooooooowly so many freelancers/vendors are getting paid in this crummy economy. Forget 30 days past invoice. People told me about 45, 60, 90, even 120 days.

Last week I had dinner with a friend, a fellow NYC freelancer, who’s been waiting — wait for it — a year+ for payment by one of the country’s Big Name Consumer Magazines. I gave her the name of my friend the attorney, whose letter to a local deadbeat publisher last year got me a check within days, after four months of “nyah-nyah-you-can’t-make-me-pay-you” emails. Last fall I sued, and won 50 cents on the dollar after six months, an out of state deadbeat publisher who left many freelancers nationwide empty-handed. I know that many others preferred to wait and hope.

Today was the latest mano a mano with a moron in accounts payable at yet another Big Organization who laughed in my face when I asked where my check was. She had no record of the invoice, this 30 days after submitting it. She found it risible, my impertinent assertion that, I having behaved in a professional and competent fashion promptly meeting her organization’s needs, would expect the same in return. Does collecting a paycheck really still seem like some Kryptonite defense you won’t soon be making the same damn call to someone equally rude, dismissive and unprofessional?

So here’s the current small business/self-employed/freelancer menu. You demand as much payment as possible upfront, (which many refuse), or use Paypal or a credit card to collect your dough. Or you get to be the jerk calling people to find out if they’ve paid you for the product or service you have already provided them, (and risk burning valuable bridges) or the broke jerk who’s paying high APRs to their credit cards to keep paying all those nastily insistent monthly bills that keep showing up anyway; Amex just cut me off my decades-long 9.9% fixed rate and threw me into the 15%+ variable APR sharkpond. Or we’re using our lines of credit, the ones we’re seeing cut or cut off entirely. It’s called cashflow; when it becomes a trickle because your buyers are clinging to their cash, your creditors could not care less.

I’ve earned plenty this summer. But no one’s paid me. How about you?

Ilegitimate Sources — The New York Times Wrist-Slaps A Reporter

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I enjoy watching The New York Times doing its little mea culpa dance as choreographed each week by its public editor Clark Hoyt.

This week, it’s a reporter who received some wrist-slapping on this issue. This is a staffer who answers to an editor who expects productivity — i.e. published stories. But he also expects high standards and this reporter is on salary. He’ll get paid no matter how long it takes to find sources, or if they back out or if he can’t even find any.

The problem was this reporter’s unwillingness to find people to interview that he did not know personally beforehand, and this small group included three other sources, according to Hoyt, who have already been quoted many times in the paper. One of them is even a fellow freelancer for the paper, and how this got into the final version of his story in the paper is beyond me.

It may surprise some of you to know — or not — that every single freelance writer who writes for the paper is required to read, agree to and sign an ethics code. It’s quite clear to us freelancers, some of whom have filled the Times pages for years for pennies on the dollar versus what staffers warn for filling those same pages to the same standards, that screwing up on this front is simply not an option. We know there are people who would kill their grannies to achieve even one Times byline and quickly replace us. So, if for no other reason, most of us  tend to keep our noses very clean. Which is why watching a staffer play by different rules is really annoying.

He was caught thanks to nytpick.com, which bird-dogs the paper.

One of this ethics code’s many demands is that you do not interview people with whom you have a personal relationship, whether your brother-in-law who’s a perfect example of a laid-off banker or your last babysitter who, because you already know how witty she is, would easily give you some great quote about teens and social media. Tough. They’re all supposed to remain off-limits. It’s a real pain because every freelancer must ruthlessly divide up their time not only on one project but between multiple projects. Digging up smart, thoughtful, insightful, available sources is not that easy and can, therefore, eat up a lot of the time you’ve allotted to a piece — time you also need for reporting, interviewing, writing, editing and revisions. (Yes, we sometimes use HARO, but it has its limitations.) The Times, like almost every publication, negotiates a flat fee with its freelance writers, whether $400 or $4,000, and it’s up to the writer to budget his or her time efficiently, from initial calls and emails to finding and triaging your sources to the many editors’ final questions and revisions, which, at the Times, (I’ve written almost 100 stories for them) can be multiple.

i.e. Being lazy make you the most money.

Why does this matter?

It matters a lot. If, as some of us still persist in believing, newspapers and what they offer us is even semi-impartial — and this was a wildly popular front-page story quoting this staff reporter’s pals — it matters a great deal that a reporter reach beyond his or her own social and professional circle.

Let’s not mince words. How many Times staffers have so wide a network that it includes articulate people of different races, ages and socioeconomic groups able to take a call and willing to chat on the record? A reporter’s job, I think, is not the easiest or quickest or cheapest solution to the challenge of sourcing a story, but taking the extra time and trouble to seek out people who do not look, sound, act or think much as you do — which is what typically happens if you only talk to your friends and close associates. That’s why they’re close.

Diversity in sourcing matters as much as in hiring. Newspapers have a much broader duty to their readers than just repeating what 10 people think. (I’m not saying they’re great at this, but they need to try.)

The hardest, slowest (and therefore costliest in terms of time) part of writing some good stories is finding the sources who can best tell it. Not just the ones we know.

72 Square Feet of Airspace — The Joys of a Balcony

Edouard Manet: Le balcon
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As summer fades into September, always annoyingly too soon, those of us lucky enough to have a terrace or balcony attached to our apartments are out there soaking up every last bit of fresh air and sunshine. I’m there in the cool, pearly early mornings, checking up on my pots of burgundy snapdragons and variegated ivy and marigolds and my beloved Alberta spruce who really needs a good trim right about now. At sunset, we settle in and count the pale pink con-trails as they fade, wondering where all those jets are coming from and going to. Thick flocks of sparrows dive-bomb us as they head, urgently, somewhere.

My balcony, at tree-top level, looks north up the Hudson River. One day, buried deep in some complicated story in The New York Times, my head down, I heard a “whoosh” near my right ear. Since there’s nobody anywhere near my balcony, except a floor below me, who whooshed? What else — a red-tailed hawk flying right past me, so close I heard the wind rushing through his wings.

I dread the long winter months when I lose my extra room in the sky and, as the days begin to cool, I’ll sit out there, wrapped in a blanket, as long as I can stand it.

Here are photos of some fantastic balconies, from Japanese teacups to a Dutch nest. Lima, Peru has some great examples. I’ve seen amazing ones in Istanbul, Malta and Spain. How about solar panels for your balcony?

There’s even  an Ottawa-based rock and roll band called The Balconies, not surprising that they’re Canadian, people who really know — in the depths of endlessly snowbound winters — how sadly fleeting summer is. There’s also a legendary Canadian play, Balconville, by David Fennario,  about a group of working class Anglos and Francophones who share their vacations in the only town they can afford to visit balconville — on their balcons, their balconies.

Do you have a balcony you’re enjoying these days? Or a favorite one you’ve visited?

Who Knows You Best? Really?

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I took out an empty Balvenie bottle the other day, knowing the janitor will see it. He won’t know it’s mine, but, as someone who empties the trash and recycling bins daily, he knows intimately what the residents of my apartment building read, eat, drink (and what and how often), order by mail, their fast-food preferences. By our discards alone, he knows us better than many of our friends or family ever will.

I asked a friend yesterday at lunch who knows her best. She didn’t hesitate.

“My mailman.”

Yes, even in our age of a dying U.S. Postal Service, it’s the guy who schleps all that paper who really knows what’s going on in her suburban home. As my friend said, he knows: 1) she’s Catholic, thanks to the church bulletins 2) when she was unemployed, thanks to the NY State Department of Labor envelopes, 3) when her son is seeing a physician, 4) which colleges he applied to and 5) thanks to the width of the return envelopes, which college(s) accepted him.

I asked another friend. She thought for a few minutes. “My IT guy at work. He sees absolutely everything in my email. He knows my bank information. He knows I’ve been having a little email flirtation with an old boyfriend. He knows what’s really true in my life.”

Right now my sweetie knows me better than anyone overall. But there are others who have seen specific sides of my character, particular flashes of neurosis or insecurity or fear or joy, that — as a prism refracts light into its separate colors — the particular situations in which we interact elicit:

My orthopedic surgeon. I didn’t plan to have an orthopod whose phone number I have memorized, whose receptionist I see so often I know when she’s changed her hair color or vacation plans, but two arthroscopies (2000, right knee, 2001, left knee, torn meniscus both times) and a shoulder repair (2008, bone spurs) means Dr. Maddalo and I have spent some time together, pre-op, post-op and in between. He once tried to stick a very long needle into my right knee to give it a little cortisone comfort. As he always does, he moved in to mark the spot first with a pen. As he hovered with the felt tip, I winced like a three-year-old. “It’s a pen!” he laughed, kindly. Being a writer and all, I did recognize a pen and could tell it wasn’t the needle. But I can be such a useless baby in situations medical that my inner infant roars to the surface like something out of Jaws. Lucky man, he gets to see it. He knows me.

My former fencing coach. A two-time Olympian and former Navy guy, Steve was no pushover. It was he who pushed me and some New York City friends into becoming nationally ranked saber fencers, pioneers in the 1990s as women in that sport. He wasn’t nasty or rude, but he’s a coach and it was his job to pushpushpushpush us into excellence. I was initially lousy, frustrated, really annoyed at how lousy I was. I disappeared from class for a month or so, sulking. I came back, determined to be better. He was delighted, a little surprised, or maybe not. He saw the competitor in me rise up and shout down the whiny sulking beginner. He knows me.

My mechanic. I’ve blogged here in praise of gruff, scarred, blue-eyed Bill. He’s kept me safe and sound for more than a decade. When I was single and very new to driving — I learned much later in life than most people — I could ask him all the stupid questions most girls ask their Dads or brothers when they are learning to drive at 16, or 18 or 21. He was patient and kind. When I bought my first car on my own and needed wise input, I test-drove 10 different models, from an Altima to a Miata, making copious notes on everything from headroom to the dashboard to acceleration. I narrowed my list to three, but immediately I really, really wanted the red Del Sol, a (since discontinued) Honda convertible. Bill knew I then lived alone, on a tight and fluctuating freelance income, had no one to come and rescue me if there were problems. He knows my town has steep hills that are treacherously icy in winter and how I love to drive, quickly, and take long road trips. He gave the Del Sol his blessing and, during the six years I owned it, it gave me some of the happiest moments of my life. Bill knows me.

My tailor. Azizi, a charming Afghan, has helped me attain style on a budget for years. When times were flush, he made me a coat of turquoise cashmere. When time were less flush, and I had to attend a black-tie event and wasn’t feeling terribly thin or beautiful, yet socializing with the young, lean and triumphant, he took an $80 taffeta skirt from Loehmann’s and made it fabulous.  He’s taken hems up, let out seams, cheered my first major writing sales, as he was building up his clientele and I was finding mine. Azizi knows me.

Who knows you best? Is it someone you’ve chosen?

From Sub-Heds to Shiraz: The New York Times Starts A Wine Club

A large glass of red wine contains about three...
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Is this an idea you’d drink to? The New York Times announced today that it’s starting a wine club.

The idea, I guess, is to associate the Times’ putative elegance and refinement with the jammy bouquet of a great Shiraz. The new venture, called The New York Times Wine Club, will offer members a selection of wines at two price levels, $90 or $180 per six-bottle shipment, and customers can choose to have wine delivered every one, two or three months. The Wall Street Journal and San Francisco Chronicle have created their own wine clubs as well so it must look like an intelligent brand extension — from newspaper reading to imbibing.

As someone who’s been writing for the Times since 1990 and who reads it daily, and also as someone who is a big fan of great wine, this perhaps should be a perfect fit, although it strikes me as an odd move. I already have two local terrific wine stores and a few wines I seek out, a cheap-but-crisp South African white wine, a chenin blanc, called Indaba and a fantastic, earthy red, 50 percent cabernet sauvignon and 50 percent syrah, from Chile’s Colchagua Valley called Big Tattoo (named to honor the winemakers’ late mother. Another reason I love this wine is they’ve raised more than $1m for cancer since 2002 through BT sales in her honor).

I just don’t look to a newspaper company for wine, anymore than I’d ask Dale, one of my wine guys at Pickwick and Pindle, for an update on what’s going in in Kabul. I understand brand extensions, but this feels like too far a reach.

What say you?