What’s your legacy?

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Few events will raise this thorny question as powerfully as a funeral.

 

Who came?

How many?

Who spoke and what did they say about the deceased?

 

I spent an hour Thursday morning at the funeral of the 91-year-old woman who shared a wall with us for 17 years. We didn’t know her well. We knew her name, and that she was a local, and that she had several adult daughters in town.

She was always friendly, but deeply private.

I learned a lot about her and her life — widowed at 44 with four daughters — when I listened to the eulogy.

The pews were filled with friends and neighbors, children and grand-children, including a very small baby.

This time last year, we attended a funeral for a much beloved and eccentric New York Times colleague, who worked, literally, side by side for eight years with my husband Jose. They weathered the storm of the crash of 2008, fought, made up, laughed and became close.

Zvi, who played tennis every week into his 70s and was lean and fit, was hit by a rare and aggressive cancer and dead within months of his diagnosis. Jose was asked to give the eulogy.

When you sit in the pews attending someone’s funeral, it’s natural to wonder what those left behind would say of you and how you chose to live your life.

 

Did you give back?

Were you generous and kind?

Did you laugh often?

Did you mentor?

 

If you don’t have children or close younger relatives — and I do not — this question of legacy is a real and pressing one, and only grows with every year I’m still alive.

 

Am I leaving a good life behind?

Am I doing enough for others?

 

Legacy isn’t only about your family or your work or whatever financial assets are left in your estate.

Nor need you be wealthy enough to be an official philanthropist or have your name on a building, as most of us never will.

Every day we create our legacy.

Yes, including weekends!

Do you ever think about this as well?

 

Sewing by hand

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By Caitlin Kelly

When was the last time you sewed anything by hand?

It’s now considered such a retro idea. Get new clothes! Take them to the dry cleaner for repairs!

Do you even own a sewing box, filled with needles and pins and a rainbow of spools of thread?

 

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When I was at boarding school, we each had a two-tier sewing basket. I loved it and the sense of always being ready, that it gave me. We learned only a few stitches but I’ve never needed more, and have made tablecloths and pillows without a machine using these simple stitches.

I admit, embarrassedly, I don’t know how to knit or crochet or embroider, all arts I truly admire. So this, for now, is the extent of my skill.

 

 

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Instead of being attached to yet another screen, touching more plastic and metal, there’s the softness of linen or cotton or silk.  The endless challenge of threading that damn needle!

As someone always curious about pre-industrial life, I love how this simple action repeats one made over millennia and across every geographic boundary.

I find it meditative and soothing and love making little repairs or making small sachets filled with dried lavender out of vintage textile scraps, tucking them between ironed pillowcases in the linen closet or thrown into our suitcases when we travel.

I also have some lovely antique buttons, with no official use (yet!)

Here’s a pillow cover I recently made from some flea market white linen and a great 30s bit of cutwork I found in a Paris flea market that someone dyed indigo.

 

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Where do story ideas come from?

 

 

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Love this bookstore kitty! Sometimes my best ideas come to me from taking a hooky day, fleeing the apartment and computer

 

By Caitlin Kelly

By this, I mean ideas for blog posts and for journalism and non-fiction.

Broadside now has more than 2,000 posts, beginning on July 1, 2009, when I chose to make reference to my native Canada, as it’s Canada Day.

Since then, as longtime readers know, I’ve touched on a wide range of subjects; the two posts readers choose every day (!?) are about my meeting Queen Elizabeth aboard the Royal yacht Brittania at the end of my covering a Royal Tour as a Globe & Mail reporter and what it was like to be sent away to boarding school when I was eight, the youngest child at my Toronto school.

My theory about why those two are so steadfastly popular, day after day, year after year — both are highly specific life events many are curious about and few, certainly meeting the Queen, will experience.

I blog a lot on writing, journalism, travel and how and why people behave as they do, inspired by pretty much anything: an overheard remark in a cafe, a walk in the woods or a conversation with my husband.

My goal, here, is to engage you and, when possible, spark a bit of lively conversation.

Some of my journalism work arrives as assignments, i.e. an editor chooses me to write a story for them. But much of the time it’s up to me to gin up some fabulous idea and sell it to someone with a decent budget, for me usually no less than $1,200 to $1,500. I do occasionally write for less, but it has to be quick and easy.

 

 

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Our recent trip to Santa Fe gave me some fresh ideas

A few stories I came up with and how:

 

In June 2018 I got a diagnosis of DCIS, an early and treatable form of breast cancer. Like many events in my life, it became fodder for several stories. This one, in The New York Times, about medical touch and this one, on the UK website, The Pool, about how many people have no idea how to talk to people who get cancer.

I watch Jeopardy a lot and enjoy the variety of contestants; one man mentioned a highly unusual Brooklyn children’s charity he volunteers with; I recently sold a story about it to The New York Times about an after school program focused on boat building.

 

 

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As someone who loves to travel but hates turbulence, I did a lot of deep research on it for this piece (again) for The New York Times’ travel section. I got the idea because, as they say in journalism, three’s a trend — and I’d noticed three recent reports of commercial flights having to divert from their original destination because of turbulence.

For Marriott magazine, I focused on one of my passions, setting a beautiful table for entertaining.

And, because so many journalists get fired — 1,000 lost their jobs recently across a number of digital platforms and print media — I pitched this fun piece about the long-standing friendships that often evolve and last for decades from these crazy workplaces. It ran on the website for the Poynter Institute, which teaches journalism skills to working professionals. It came about because my very first staff job, in my 20s, led to a friendship with the now only remaining staff photographer for the Globe & Mail — when the building we’d worked in together was torn down (of course) for new condos, Fred grabbed a souvenir white brick for me.

I’m still trying, so far without success, to sell a fantastic story from rural France, about a family run manufacturer in business 155 years.

In the past week — whew! —  I pitched five story ideas: one came out of a personal experience (what’s called a “service piece”, not very alluring but of service to the reader through practical tips) to Real Simple magazine; a personal health-focused essay to Self; a big deep dive (i.e. lots of original reporting) to American Prospect; two ideas to The New York Times Magazine and another to a Times editor in the Metropolitan section.

I also did six interviews by phone for my first story for cjr.org, the digital side of Columbia Journalism Review; the idea came out of a new book my former book editor tweeted about.

Having extra means feeling rich

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Custom made pillow covers. A splurge.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

She had in her early teens what some would call “a reversal”, my late step-mother, and so, later in life when I knew her, she owned a lot of stuff.

She never talked about her family of origin; in 40 years of knowing her, I only learned the names of her mother, brother and sister — none of whom I ever met — but never that of her father, who had been well-off, then wasn’t.

Never having gone to university, needing to work right away, she later worked as a highly successful writer and editor of TV show scripts and, in good years, made a lot of money, which she spent on expensive shoes and jewelry, amassing garment racks filled with designer clothes, her cupboards bursting with products and cosmetics…all of which proved even more overwhelming to dispose of for my father when she died of lung cancer at 63.

I never understood why having so much stuff — basically, extras of everything — could feel so satisfying.

Now I do.

When Jose and met and started dating 20 years ago, times were tough for me and he was extremely generous, buying me everything from a colander and toaster to new air conditioners. I was living alone,  divorced, paying — in the 1990s — $500 a month health insurance as a freelancer. There was very little money left over after paying all the bills.

 

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I certainly had no need for this lovely early 19th. century tea set. But it gives me such pleasure to use.

 

Now we do have extras: cloth napkins and tablecloths, rolls of toilet paper, candles, rubber gloves, multiple computers. Summer and winter clothing.

We own sports equipment for bourgeois pursuits like skiing and golf.

I feel alternately guilty and weird for having more when so many have less,  but I admit it also comforts me.

When you’ve run in survival mode for years, extra is luxury.

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?

Another big zuszh!

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We moved this Vlaminck litho, bought at auction two years ago, from bedroom to livingroom

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Grateful for eight days completely out of the apartment — where we both also work as freelancers, my husband as a photo editor and I as a writer and writing coach.

We save a lot of money not renting office space or a co-working desk, (and can write off a small part of our monthly living costs as a result as a tax deduction), but that also means we’re using every part of our one bedroom all the time: one bathroom, one kitchen, every hallway, etc.

But it means additional wear and tear, even for two tidy adults with no pets or children.

 

So while we were away on holiday we had the following jobs professionally done:

 

had the entrance hallway, wooden floor, re-sanded and refinished

— had the flaking, peeling bedroom window frame smoothed and repainted

— had all kitchen cabinets given  a fresh coat of paint (installed 2013.)

 

That was, certainly, a big investment of $3,000.

 

When we got home and took another week off to settle in, we got to work:

 

— moving art from one room to another; we have a good collection of photos, by us, by friends and colleagues and prints, drawings and posters. Sometimes we put them away for a few years to appreciate them anew. We also rotate out intense/dark colors during the hot summer months.

— painted one wall a deep olive green

— moved three mirrors into the dark foyer. All are vintage/antique, none costing more than $300.

— ordered a new chandelier for our dining room and found an electrician ready to install it.

 

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I found that funky old beveled mirror for $125 in an antique shop in Port Hope, Ontario

 

— added a patterned fabric, (home-sewn by hand, double width), cover for Jose’s homemade computer desk and moved a different lamp into its corner.

— arranged for pick-up by our local thrift shop for a number of items, including a standing lamp and balcony chair.

I’m more obsessed with beauty and good design than many people.

But I’m fine with it.

I studied interior design and learned a lot. And having lived (!?) 30 years in the same space means I’ve made multiple changes over time — wall colors, curtains, art, rugs — to not go mad with boredom and claustrophobia.

We’re not buying all-stuff-all-the-time! I often carry a tape measure with me to make sure anything we acquire will fit into our space, both spatially and visually.

Once you’ve established a color scheme, stick to it!

We use a great tribal wool rug I bought in Toronto decades ago for $100, and a nice repro wooden Pembroke table I found in a local consignment shop and a Crate and Barrel sofa we might soon replace, even though we love it, as the arms are sagging and an upholsterer told us it would cost more to re-do them than buy anew…

I also know what I like and will wait a long time for it….like our black Tizio lamp I bought in my 20s for (!) maybe $500, a huge sum then as now. It’s elegant, efficient, classic and versatile.

To save money, we do most of our own interior painting. We’ve been given some tremendous/iconic images as well — like the famous black and white photo of JFK standing at the Oval Office windows; this one signed by its creator and given to Jose, his colleague at The New York Times.

 

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Same hallway — top image is a rotogravure by Steichen. The lower image is mine, a stairwell shot in Paris. Wall color: Gervase Yellow (archived), Farrow & Ball. 

 

Tips for a quick refresh:

 

— Whenever you paint a room, note the paint color, brand and date you purchased it. Colors get discontinued! Farrow & Ball archives some colors but will remix any of them for you on demand and quickly.

Keep some paint handy for touch-ups. Don’t allow it to get too hot or cold as this degrades the product; we keep ours at the back of a hallway closet.

Replace items as they wear, chip, fray or discolor. If impossible, wash/dry clean/dye or toss and go without. It’s depressing to live in dirt or chaos.

Throw stuff out! Those of us lucky enough to even have too much stuff have too much stuff!

Sell whatever you can. I found out a vintage tribal rug I paid $200 for might fetch me $1,200 after I showed it to a local dealer. Next step, hope to sell it on Ebay or Chairish.

Clean every corner, deeply. I had to scrub one wooden floor with a Brillo pad to remove grime that mopping didn’t address. Baseboards, the back of things (fridge, stove, printer, etc.) All windows!

 

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Old Crate & Barrel cabinet, glass lined with fabric by the yard. Above, a photo of Jose and his parents, long gone, and a Moroccan lantern found at a flea market, sand-blasted at the auto body shop and painted in Blazer (Farrow & Ball, archived.) I hand-carried that huge wicker suitcase home from a Canadian antique show — thanks, Air Canada!

 

It always feels good to re-fresh our home — it nurtures, protects and revives us.

 

Did Boomers destroy the world?

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By Caitlin Kelly

Here we go again…

How Americans of the Baby Boom generations — born between 1946 and 1964 — have totally screwed everyone younger.

True?

From The Atlantic:

 

Below, I show a reasonable projection of the share of national income that will have to be spent paying for these obligations in the future if there is no substantial restructuring of liabilities. It’s based on consensus forecasts from groups such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget for economic growth and for programs such as Social Security and Medicare where such forecasts are available—but in some cases, such as state debts and pensions, no such forecast was available, and so I developed a simple one.

Making these payments will require fiscal austerity, through either higher taxes or lower alternative spending. Younger Americans will bear the burdens of the Baby Boomer generation, whether in smaller take-home pay or more potholes and worse schools.

Furthermore, the basic demographic balance sheet is getting worse all the time, increasing the relative burden on young people. Working-age Americans are dying off in alarming numbers.

As someone in this cohort, I have a real problem with this.

I would never argue that younger workers and voters don’t face tremendous headwinds, economically and politically. They do!

I look at the current cost of American university education and find it absurd that schools you have never heard of are demanding $40,000 to $60,000 a year to educate their students. Get real! Nor do many state schools offer a much less expensive alternative.

I paid all of $660 a year to attend University of Toronto — the annual fee for an equivalent course of study is now 10 times as much. But it’s $6,000, not $60,000.

That’s also a nation with different political and economic values, more interested in the common good (yes, higher tax rates) than individual wealth-building.

 

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Blaming Boomers for every impediment to financial progress is so appealing. Intergenerational warfare is such a shiny little distraction from the heavy hand of capitalism, forever demanding “shareholder value” (i.e. return on institutional investments) instead of recognizing everyone’s need to save and invest and hope for a better financial future.

I know many many people in this cohort who are struggling mightily financially — hardly sitting on their thrones of gold, their private jet awaiting their flight to their fourth home. The truly wealthy are so rich it’s beyond comprehension at this point, leaving the rest of us to beat the hell out of one another.

Many people in their 50s and beyond who do not have a well-paid or secure full-time job, let alone one that offers a pension, are scared and desperate, facing:

 

— a possible next recession, having barely recovered from the 2007-2009 recession

— the costs of paying their children’s college

— having their adult children (and grandchildren) needing to return home for food and housing.

— the costs of paying their parents’ health care aides or nursing home

— the fear of those enormous costs for themselves

— facing widespread, rampant and illegal age discrimination, leaving them/us financially impotent to earn, save and invest for all of the above if we are shut out of decent, full-time employment with (in the U.S.) the subsidized health insurance everyone needs.

 

Some alternate facts:

 

Half of Americans over the age of 48 have no money saved for retirement.

 

From Bloomberg Businessweek:

 

“Social Security provides most of the income for about half of households age 65 and older,” the GAO said.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute estimated earlier this month that 41 percent of U.S. households headed by someone age 35 to 64 are likely to run out of money in retirement. That’s down 1.7 percentage points since 2014.

EBRI found these Americans face a combined retirement deficit of $3.83 trillion.

 

 

 

 

A cautionary tale about border crossing

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By Caitlin Kelly

Horrifying story about Customs and Border Patrol from The Intercept:

In retrospect, I was naive about the kind of agency CBP has become in the Trump era. Though I’ve reported several magazine stories in Mexico, none have been about immigration. Of course, I knew these were the guys putting kids in cages, separating refugee children from their parents, and that Trump’s whole shtick is vilifying immigrants, leading to many sad and ugly scenes at the border, including the farcical deployment of U.S. troops. But I complacently assumed that wouldn’t affect me directly, least of all in Austin. Later, I did remember reading a report in February about CBP targeting journalists, activists, and lawyers for scrutiny at ports of entry south of California, but I had never had a problem before, not in a lifetime of crossing the Texas-Mexico border scores of times on foot, by car, by plane, in a canoe, even swimming. This was the first time CBP had ever pulled me aside….

Cooperation didn’t earn me any leniency. Next up was a thorough search of my suitcase, down to unscrewing the tops of my toiletries. That much I expected. But then a third officer, whose name was Villarreal, carefully read every page of my 2019 journal, including copious notes to self on work, relationships, friends, family, and all sorts of private reflections I had happened to write down. I told him, “Sir, I know there’s nothing I can do to stop you, but I want to tell you, as one human being to another, that you’re invading my privacy right now, and I don’t appreciate it.” Villarreal acknowledged the statement and went back to reading.

That was just the beginning. The real abuse of power was a warrantless search of my phone and laptop. This is the part that affects everyone, not just reporters and people who keep journals…

Around the three-hour mark, I became completely passive. Confinement in a blank room is a soft form of torture, especially if you suffer from a crippling caffeine addiction, as I do. They were “fresh out” when I demeaned myself by meekly requesting coffee. For a long time, I sat slumped in the chair with a mounting headache while Moncivias finished typing up his report on me. He would pause, carefully consult something on my phone, and then go back to typing. This went on for another hour.

It was around 4 p.m. when Moncivias finally finished up and informed me, anticlimactically, that I was free to go. I couldn’t wait to get outside because the detention area was freezing. No wonder Spanish-speaking migrants call CBP detention la hielera — the icebox. I took my phone and laptop and silently packed up my luggage, which still lay disemboweled on the desk, underwear and all. Pomeroy was gone by this time. As I was walking out, I said to Moncivias and Villarreal, “It’s funny, of all the countries I’ve been to, the border guards have never treated me worse than here, in the one country I’m a citizen of, in the town where I was born.”

“Welcome back to the USA,” Moncivias said.

 

If you care about press freedom — hell, any civil rights — make time to read all of Seth Harp’s story.

It is chilling.

Taking a breather

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By Caitlin Kelly

People fantasize about freelance life — no boss! no meetings! no cubicle! no commute!

All true.

Also — no steady income! no security! no workday!

One great pleasure, though, is disappearing when we can find the time and money to do so.

So we’re off to Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, my first visit there in 20 years, right after we met.

We’ll visit childhood friends, hike, get a massage at 10,000 Waves, play golf.

Relax.

Jose just finished photo editing for the U.S. Open, held in Pebble Beach, California — sitting in the hallway of our one-bedroom New York apartment. His workday stretched from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. for a solid week. I don’t know where he gets the stamina!

I’ve spent the past week pitching a lot of stories, all of them to new-to-me markets, and now await (I hope) a few assignments to come back to.

In American life, workers feel lucky to even get two weeks’ paid vacation, while Europeans are accustomed to five. Working freelance, we generally take five or six weeks, although three-at-once is the most we can do because of Jose’s work.

So ready to recharge!

No laughing matter

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Want to write for one of these? Good luck, kids!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Hey, what’s more fun than punching down?

Apparently, nothing, thanks to the appalling lack of judgment by executives at Netflix who have ordered eight episodes of a TV series to — wait for it — “prank” job-seekers.

You know, like yanking away the cat toy just as it pounces.

Gaten Matarazzo, a child actor starring in Stranger Things and way too many commercials, signed up for this steaming pile of garbage.

A reaction from Inc.com :

You know him as one of the kids dealing with the Upside Down on Netflix’s Stranger Things, but if you see him coming now–you should be the one to run. Gaten Matarazzo is producing and starring in a new prank show, Prank Encounters, and Netflix just ordered eight episodes. Deadline describes it as follows:

Each episode of this terrifying and hilarious prank show takes two complete strangers who each think they’re starting their first day at a new job. It’s business as usual until their paths collide and these part-time jobs turn into full-time nightmares.

Do you know what I have to say to this? No, no, no, and no.

Sure, we love to laugh at people’s misfortune–America’s Funniest Home Videos–made a fortune off people falling off step ladders and tripping over the dog. But, there’s a key difference here: people in that show submitted their own videos–they were laughing at themselves. This show sets people up for public entertainment with unasked for humiliation.

And it does it in a very vulnerable time of life–job hunting.

 

Looking for a job, or part-time work, or freelance work, is emotionally and intellectually exhausting — certainly if you are over 40, 50 or beyond when age discrimination already severely limits options for many people.

Just cancel the whole thing.

And, while we’re at it, for anyone interested in the brutal and absurd economics of freelance writing — witness the endless virtue-signaling, wagon-circling and knife-sharpening of late over an American magazine writer, now on staff at The New York Times Magazine (basically writers’ Everest, the coveted and unattainable peak of pay and prestige) and her crazy pay scale.

Some people have leaped to her defense — she works so hard! — while others simply wonder how so many other hard-working and talented writers are now, instead, desperately grateful to get paid even 25 percent of what she said she earns.

 

It’s a madhouse.

 

Work truly can be a four-letter word.