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.

 

 

Georgetown

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?

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.

Can women handle 10,000 words?

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Frozen out…

By Caitlin Kelly

Just a taste of the obstacles so many women writers still face.

This, from Vox, quoting the editor in chief of The Atlantic magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg, which is considered one of the most prestigious outlets in American journalism:

 

It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

 

I really don’t have a lot to add to this.

I will say that any woman, like me, who has already written and published a non-fiction book — mine are each around 100,000 words — is fully capable of producing a terrific magazine piece one-tenth that length.

This kind of gate-keeping is annoyingly prevalent, and the magazines still deemed career-making in choosing and promoting their writers are extremely difficult to penetrate. When top editors are male, many keep choosing the guys they know already, not the fantastically talented proven women beyond their narrow purview.

His comment, not surprisingly, provoked a torrent on Twitter. The women writers I know, admire and respect flung up their hands…business as usual.

Here’s an analysis of it from The Cut:

You don’t even need to leave the Atlantic’s archives to see how wrong it is to believe the journalists in America who do this Very Special Thing are “almost exclusively white males.” (It’s Sisyphean to list all the writers out in the wider world he’s overlooked.) But it is also sadly true that Goldberg’s record on this front is better than the one that preceded him, when, of the 17 issues directly before his tenure, only three of the cover stories were written by women. That’s fewer than the number of men during that same time period who wrote cover stories AND attended Yale at some point during the 1980s, as did the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief James Bennet. (Boola boola to you, Messrs. Haidt, Beinart, Frum, and Rauch!)

It’s also painfully obvious that some of the most interesting magazine-style journalism is happening, of course, at places that don’t have cover stories. The Atlantic is the most Establishment of the Establishment magazines, and the fixation on a print cover story as the sacred, locked tabernacle to which only a few are granted a key is revealing of a certain value system. (As is the notion that high word count correlates with quality or importance.)

 

If this issue is of interest to you, to see how many women are getting their work published, read the VIDA reports; VIDA is a 10-year-old organization founded on the principle of getting more women published.

 

 

A fallow field

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By Caitlin Kelly

Two of my favorite journalism assignments in 2018 involved a six-hour drive from my home in New York to farms in Quebec, near Montreal. I worked in French and learned a lot, quickly, about agriculture, thanks to Messieurs Bachand and Bousquet.

A city girl, I’ve never lived on or worked on a farm, but I love one farming concept deeply — the fallow field.

The field left to recharge, empty, after being over-planted.

Welcome to my brain!

I started writing for a living as a full-time undergraduate at a demanding university, juggling term papers and exams with assignments for national magazines and newspapers.

I didn’t take a break until I was 30, completely worn out and — very fortunately — financially able to do so for three blissful summer months while living in a small town in New Hampshire.

I haven’t written much lately.

Many people dream of “being a writer”. The part often overlooked is the tremendous hustle required to sell that work.

I send out pitches for stories to various editors — five last week, three this week — and wait for replies, whether a paid/work/yes or a no…meaning more pitching and still no income.

I look daily for story ideas and, with some, do initial unpaid pre-reporting to see if there is a saleable story; one I’ve been chasing for six months and which (yay!) prompted an immediate “I’m intrigued” reply from an editor I’m dying to write for.

My latest book proposal is now with two editors at major New York City publishers, so I also await their decisions. I may apply for another fellowship, the application due June 26.

 

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It’s been eight years since Malled was published.

 

I’ve recently attended two local networking events, as I’m long overdue getting out to meet local businesses that might be able to use my writing, editing, blogging and coaching skills. I enjoyed both events, but whew! It’s also tiring being charming to strangers.

Instead of writing all the time, I’ve been reading a lot (even fiction! Station Eleven, by fellow Canadian-in-NY Emily St. John Mandel), and going to the gym and shopping for some new summer clothes for a June vacation in Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

It’s disorienting to write less, mostly because that’s where the money eventually comes from!

But I’ve also been coaching other writers (details on my Welcome and About pages here), a nice income-producing break from word production.

 

Because one’s brain just gets tired!

 

Some thoughts about guns

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By Caitlin Kelly

Another week in the United States — which, every week, only means more gun deaths.

This week, one of them was a student about to graduate high school, Kendrick Castillo, killed trying to save his classmates from a shooter.

In their classroom.

From CNN:

The 18-year-old was watching “The Princess Bride” in his British literature class when the shooter pulled out a gun, demanding that nobody moved. After Kendrick lunged at the shooter, three other students also tackled the gunman and tried to subdue him while the rest of the class fled the room.
Kendrick was an only child, but his friends, including the members of the school’s robotics team, were like his siblings, his father said. They would host holiday gift exchanges at his home, shared his toys as a child and would pay for a friend’s movie tickets if someone didn’t have money.
“Be selfless, that’s what my son was, and it got him killed, but he saved others,” Castillo said.
Is there anything useful to say about this?
I don’t blog about guns because there’s so much coverage of the issue.
But there’s little substantive discussion of why Americans insist on owning one — some owning hundreds.
The state of California has 9,400 residents who legally should not now own one, but do. Officials are overwhelmed.
In the years 2002 and 2003, I traveled the United States, alone, mostly by car, to try and better understand this attachment to firearms, incomprehensible to millions of others — whether Americans or those living outside the country.
I did three sessions of handgun training, and have fired everything from a .22 rifle to an AR-15, a Glock 9mm (standard police issue) to a .357 Magnum.
I don’t own one or want to.
But, unlikely as a Canadian, I’m now considered one of the experts on the subject of Americans and guns.

A few reasons why getting rid of guns is so incredibly difficult:

Sentimental and emotional reasons. A gun is often handed down as a family heirloom, generation through generation, as revered as a set of delicate china or a favorite armchair. A father’s service weapon, a great-grandfather’s hunting rifle.
— Hatred and fear of government. This is intensely and unchangingly American in a nation founded on the hatred and fear of centralized authority. I’ve “debated” on BBC a man absolutely convinced the government is likely to burst into his home one day and grab all his guns.
Self-defense. Linked to fear and hatred of government, the belief (true in some communities) that law enforcement simply won’t be there, or quickly enough, to save your life from an attack.
— Autonomy and independence. Deeply American is the value that it’s all up to you to take care of everything.
Regional differences. For every urbanite who disdains the very idea of touching a gun, let alone owning one, there are many Americans who love to hunt, whether for sport or for food to feed their families.
— The National Rifle Association, which offers letters grades (like elementary school) to elected officials, dinging those they dislike with an F. Voters vote accordingly.
— The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. If it didn’t exist, the entire debate could change overnight: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  An analysis, here.
I spoke to 104 Americans from 29 states, from teens to seniors,  and asked each one of them how a gun has affected their lives. Some love them, some fear them.
This is the book I wrote about it.
BLOWN AWAY COVER
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

Niksen, farniente, lassitude. REST!

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I lay for long lazy hours alone on this beach in July 2017 in Croatia. Heaven!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s all sort of sad, really.

In this recent New York Times story — putatively touting the benefits of doing absolutely nothing, aka niksen — the whole reason for doing nothing is…to be more productive:

 

More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense.

We at Smarter Living have long been fans of taking regular breaks throughout the day, as study after study shows that feeling drowsy, exhausted or otherwise mentally depleted during the workday drastically hinders performance and productivity.

In other words: Whether at home or at work, permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out.

 

Insert my very loud scream right here.

 

I did something unthinkable to the old me today.

I skipped the second jam-packed day at an annual writers’ conference: missing appointments and new potential clients, not seeing old friends and basically wasting the money I paid for all of it.

Instead, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I stayed home, alone and quiet.

I didn’t do this to become more productive!

I did it because I was tired.

I really needed to rest.

I did this because my body told me to sleep 9.5 hours last night, which I gratefully did.

I did it because I cried to a friend in a NYC tea room, worn out with anxiety.

We live in a time when millions of us are being forced into economic precarity — aka the “gig economy”, a phrase I loathe. Because this kind of work is always somewhat unpredictable (I lost my two anchor clients overnight), and can be poorly paid, one is very reluctant to turn away income, to slow down, to just….be still.

Which makes it even more important to just do that.

Nothing.

And plenty of it, dammit!

 

Do you find it hard to slow down, unplug, unwind and just rest?

 

Reframing rejection

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One of my coffee-stained notebooks from my last staff job. Laid off, not fun!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and necessary part of every working day.

— Anonymous

 

Does anyone anywhere relish rejection? Not really.

I recently interviewed for a dream job — didn’t get it. I applied for a very well paid corporate job and was interviewed, didn’t get it. Jose and I both applied for very good journalism jobs at major outlets in D.C.

Not even an interview.

So, yeah, we’re quite familiar with the concept!

My first two books were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major NYC house took each one on. So, even after a lot of rejection, you can achieve a goal.

If you don’t give up.

 

 

BLOWN AWAY COVER
My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

 

 

An interesting piece by Adam Grant  on this topic in The New York Times:

A good starting point is to remove, “It’s not you, it’s me” from your vocabulary. Sometimes it really is them! But the real reason to ban that phrase is because most of the time when we get rejected, it’s not you. It’s not me either. It’s us.

Rejection often happens because of a lack of fit in the relationship: Your values were a mismatch for that interviewer, your skills didn’t quite suit that job, your ratty conference T-shirts failed to overlap with the taste of your decreasingly significant other. New research reveals that when people are in the habit of blaming setbacks on relationships instead of only on the individuals involved, they’re less likely to give up — and more motivated to get better.

It also helps to recognize that our lives are composed of many selves…When one of your identities is rejected, resilience comes from turning to another identity that matters to you.

This is the only way I’ve really stayed sane through so many rejections.

While American life is determined to reduce us all to more productive automatons, who feel guilty if we do anything that’s not income producing, we are all so much more than that!

When my ideas are rejected — as they are all the time,  by which I mean every week, sometimes every day! —

 

I’m still:

 

— a much beloved wife

— a welcomed neighbor

— a valued friend

— a member of my spin class

— a member of my church

— a wise contributor to many on-line writing groups where others seek advice

— athletic and flexible and strong

— multi-lingual

— a traveler

— a very good cook and hostess

It looks as though my latest book proposal will get looked at by an editor. I should be more excited, but until it sells, if it does, I’m holding my fire.

It was roundly rejected last year by multiple agents, which — I admit — left me really frustrated and dejected.

 

How well do you handle rejection?