The lost art of listening

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Great essay, in The New York Times.

An excerpt:

High schools and colleges have debate teams and courses in rhetoric and persuasion, but rarely, if ever, offer classes or extracurricular activities that teach careful listening. You can get a doctorate in speech communication and join clubs such as Toastmasters to perfect your public speaking, but who strives for excellence in listening? The image of success and power today is someone miked up and prowling around a stage or orating from behind a lectern. Giving a TED talk or delivering a commencement speech is living the dream.

The cacophony of modern life also stops us from listening. The acoustics in restaurants can make it difficult, if not impossible, for diners to clearly hear one another. Offices with an open design ensure every keyboard click, telephone call and after-lunch belch make for constant racket. Traffic noise on city streets, music playing in shops and the bean grinder at your favorite coffeehouse exceed the volume of normal conversation by as much as 30 decibels, and can even cause hearing loss.

This past week was hectic and one day was sunny and clear and I needed some silence! I headed to our local reservoir and went for a walk — the only sounds the distant tapping of a few woodpeckers and the rustle of dry leaves as gray squirrels chased one another.

Bliss!

I really enjoy interviewing people, key to my work as a journalist, but — obviously — it demands close and careful and sustained attention, because I don’t use a tape recorder. I don’t want to waste unpaid hours transcribing or paying $1/minute to have someone else do it nor ever fear that the recording didn’t work.

A pen and notebook are fine with me, and force me to pay very close attention, not only to someone’s words, but their silences, pauses, hesitations, sighs, laughter.

My interviews are usually 30 to 45 to 60 minutes and after an hour, I’m tired! More than that gets really tiring — but it also creates a better bond, deeper conversation and, typically, better results in the form of great quotes or insights.

We’re rarely brilliant from our very first sentence!

A bit more from the essay:

How you listen can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you could actually make it so. Moreover, listening to other people makes it more likely other people will listen to you. This is partly because it’s human nature to return courtesies, but also because good listening improves your chances of delivering a message that resonates.

Listening is a skill. And as with any skill, it degrades if you don’t do it enough.

I also coach other writers, in 60-minute sessions by phone, Skype or face to face. They, too, are a challenge because my role is to help, quickly! I’m both diagnosing and prescribing solutions on the fly. I love it, but whew! Listening so intently and responding helpfully is serious work.

It’s fair to acknowledge that listening and paying attention are tiring, and so it can be tempting to tune people out, nodding but not really there. I’ve realized that journalism is a good fit for me because so much of it is experiential, and why studying interior design — as I did in the ’90s — was so joyful: it was tactile!

I didn’t have to just sit still and listen.

But I also listen carefully wherever I go, whether to silence in the woods or music on the radio or the distant honking of passing geese.

We’ve also had some recent moments in our 20-year marriage that have revealed how differently each of us listens and hears, and what very different language we choose to express how we see the world.

And, thanks to my recent healthcare story, I’ve received some very long and critical — albeit polite and smart — private emails from a reader, an American living in Canada. I could have dismissed her, or not replied, or been defensive but we actually exchanged several very long and thoughtful emails, even though we’re politically quite different!

 

We chose to listen to one another.

 

In today’s headphones-on, “lalalalala I can’t hear you!” deeply divided culture, that’s now a radical act.

 

Where do you listen most closely — and what do you gain from doing so?

Movies, movies, movies

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Three in a day.

No big deal!

Yesterday, another gray, rainy day here, meant movie day. We are incredibly lucky to have an art house theater — a former vaudeville theater from the 1920s — renovated and a 15-minute drive north of us, offering an amazing array of documentaries, series, events and features. Annual membership is $85 and tickets are $10 (only $8 two years ago.)

Some weeks I’m there several times.

I also watch on TV and streaming.

I don’t watch horror or kids’ films. Not much into animation — but recently re-watched the 2003 animated stunner Triplets of Belleville — which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (and lost to Finding Nemo.)

I enjoy foreign films — and have raved here before about some of them, like Capernaum.

 

I love movies!

 

My father made documentaries and feature films for a living so this is a world I grew up in and knew and respected. I didn’t want to make them myself, too in awe of the tremendous skills and the huge teams needed: greensman, Foley artist, ADR, grips, gaffers, make-up and hair and costumes.

Not to mention the cinematographers and directors.

 

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LOVE!

 

I find film utterly immersive, a dream state, and when I write, try to use similar ideas — tight close-ups, establishing shots, scenes and dialogue.

I love being in a theater (a quiet one!) with some popcorn, ready to disappear once more.

Here are the three films I saw yesterday:

 

63Up

In 1964, a Canadian film-maker named Paul Almond made a film about 14 British children, meant to show how class affects them. It became a series,with fresh interviews every seven years, and offers a sometimes sad, sometimes moving look at how we age and change — or don’t. The 14, typical of Britain then perhaps, includes only one black boy and all the rest are white.

One man suffers mental illness and homelessness. Several marry and divorce. Almost all have children and grand-children. I hope it continues and is well worth a look.

 

Knives Out

A who-dun-it filmed in an astonishing mansion, with a rapacious family fighting over their inheritance from their mystery-author father, played by Canadian actor Christopher Plummer. Daniel Craig, best known for playing James Bond, here plays a southern detective, with a weird drawl. It’s an amusing film, but too long and not one I would see again.

 

The Favourite

 

This really is one of my favo(u)rite films so I watched it on TV for maybe the third or fourth time.

Set during the reign of Queen Anne, who suffered the unimaginable loss of 17 children, it’s the devilish tale of a scheming fallen aristocrat, Abigail Masham, up against brilliant, witty Sarah, Lady Marlborough. As the Queen, Olivia Colman is stunning — and won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2018 for it.

Set in early 18th-century England, it’s a feast of gorgeous cinematography (with a lot of fish-eye lenses, adding visual distortion to the emotional weirdness), music, costume, sets and make-up. Nicholas Hoult is Lord Harley, and deliciously awful.

It’s a moving, sad, gorgeous tale of power and attraction, of love and flattery, of how easily a weak, ill Queen rejected her best ally and friend for a sneaky underminer.

And based on historical fact!

Two Manhattan walks

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By Caitlin Kelly

Millions of people visit New York City every year. Many of them go to the official places and sights, which are often really crowded and noisy, like Times Square.

I treasure the quieter bits, and this week treated myself to two days’ exploration. What I still enjoy so much is that even a walk of barely 6 or 8 blocks can offer gorgeous architecture, a delicious meal or cocktail, great shopping and people watching.

 

Madison Avenue

Below 57th Street  lie all sorts of temptations, like Brooks Brothers for classic men’s and women’s clothing and the Roosevelt Hotel.

But the minute you start heading north at 57th. Street, the air thins as you enter one-percent-world. A young woman bashes me with her Chanel purse — and for next few hours it’s just a sea of Gucci, Chanel, Vuitton and Goyard bags, pricy tribal markers.

Alliance Francaise is on East 60th. where I went to buy a concert ticket, and discovered a gorgeous little cafe, Le Bilbouquet, next door. That area is very short of meal options so this is a good one.

New York is about to lose a retail icon, the department store Barney’s, (Madison at 60th.) once a place admired and revered for its style. Now it’s going out of business. I only shopped there a few times, but treasure the Isabel Marant jacket and private-label denim carryall I found there.

The Coach store staff were kind and welcoming, as were those at Fratelli Rossetti, (still wearing a pair of shoes I bought there in 1996!), and for the most amazing gloves, for men and women, Sermoneta.

The Hermes flagship store is gorgeous at 62d. St., opened in 2000. I love their fragrances, and wear Terre, a man’s scent that’s warm and woodsy and delicious.

The stores might be fancy, (and they’ll offer you a welcome bottle of water) but so, so many empty storefronts! I turned around at 68th or so and headed for home.

 

Bleecker/Bowery/Bond Street

 

Take the subway to Bleecker and start with a coffee and croissant at one of my favorite spots, Cafe Angelique. Bleecker crosses Greenwich Village east to west but also (!) north to south. How confusing is that?

 

 

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Bowery reflections

 

This is the easterly most bit. Head east to the Bowery, a north-south street once known as the last refuge of the down-and-and-out and now, of course, gentrified.

I turned south and hit one of the remaining restaurant supply stores, with a dizzying array of everything. I stood in the door, overwhelmed, and stammered: “Do you also sell retail?”

“You have money? All good,” was the reply; I bought a Christmas gift for my husband.

 

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A few doors north is a treasure trove of old New York antiques: chandeliers and tables — but also small, packable items like doorknobs, coat hooks and samovars, Olde Good Things, there since 2013. Want to own glassware or door numbers or cutlery from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel? Greg has them.

I admired a stunning Sputnik-esque enormous chandelier, that he found in a church in the Bronx, and asked his permission (always!) to photograph a few objects.

Same block, all on the west side, offers Caswell-Massey, which sells a tremendous selection of soaps and fragrances, including one George Washington wore. A massive oval bar of soap is $11, and comes in so many fragrances; I bought sandalwood.

Burkelman, at Bond Street, is well-edited and swoon-worthy: rugs, table linens, jewelry, clothing, baskets.

 

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Bar lighting at The Wren

 

I ate brunch at the bar of The Wren, and savored its atmosphere; cosy, old school.

Cross the Bowery for the elegant riot of John Derian, on East Second St. (north side), with his signature decoupage dishes and plates, Astier de Villatte tableware (at scary prices), notebooks, mirrors, stationery and more.

Next door is Il Buco Vita, filled with hand-made tableware and glasses, an offshoot of the longtime favorite — on Bond Street — Il Buco. Low-key, Italian, it’s been there since 1994, practically unheard of longevity in a city where restaurants open and close within months.

Staggering back west to Broadway along Bond, stop in at the enormous array of temptations at Blick, an art supply store I first discovered years ago in Chicago. I defy anyone to leave empty-handed.

I had a perfect four hours: shopped, ate, people-watched, snapped photos, got Christmas presents, wrapping paper (Blick) and ornaments (John Derian.) Score!

 

More simple pleasures

 

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Another fab sunset from our balcony

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Strong coffee

 

Breakfast in bed on a tray

 

Our favorite radio stations: WKCR (Columbia University), WFUV, (Fordham), WNYC, TSFJazz (Paris) and my latest, channel 163 on Sirius XM, Chansons, all songs in French

 

A long walk with a good friend

 

A long phone chat or Skype with a pal living too far away

 

 

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Tickets for a forthcoming event, (Porgy and Bess at the Met Opera in January)

 

Red-tailed hawks flying low over our balcony

 

A new pair of loafers

 

 

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A cocktail at a gorgeous hotel bar — this is the Royal York, Toronto

 

An all-clear dental exam

 

Fresh pillowcases

 

A long soak in our 21-inch-deep bathtub

 

Baking lemon bread and tomato-leek quiche

 

What are some of yours?

Some thoughts on”Succession”

By Caitlin Kelly

Start with the bizarre, crashing theme music by Nicholas Britell, for which he won the 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Main Title theme. Insistent, discordant, it signals the emotional chaos to follow.

If you haven’t yet seen it — now that Season Two has ended — it’s worth your time. We’ve watched both seasons twice. It follows the fortunes of the Roy family, led by 80-year-old patriarch Logan Roy, whose favorite phrase, growled, is “Fuckoff!”

He has four children by two previous wives: Connor, the oldest, who lives in New Mexico on a ranch and does nothing, and Kendall, Siobhan (nicknamed Shiv, and how it fits!) and Roman, who jostle hourly for their father’s favor and power within his global media company.

Other characters include Geri, the company lawyer and Marcia, the mysterious Lebanese stepmother and Greg, gangly and gormless…or is he?

Here’s an interview with the costume designer.

You don’t have to be a journalist (like me) or come from a father who delights in manipulation (ditto) to enjoy the show. It also offers a peek into the fly-private, driven-everywhere, never-touch-money lifestyle of the .00001 percent, where Shiv, dismissively referring to a six-figure sum says: “It’s only money.”

The four adult children are a mess: Kendall’s a cokehead; Shiv’s marriage to Tom is a sham; Connor wants to be President and Roman…who knows? But their competitive in-fighting for Logan’s approval is both sad and understandable…they have no other measures of value. None of them have children or, apparently, any friends. Papa means everything.

It’s both fascinating and sad to see spoiled, wealthy adults so deeply tethered to their father and his every move. Hmmmm, sound familiar?

They have no other identities, no other sources of joy, power or connection. Every surface gleams, all sweaters are cashmere, all meals served on costly china.

It’s also an interesting look at the challenges of managing a global business empire and the secrets that can destroy it.

Check it out!

Recent reading…

By Caitlin Kelly

Trying hard to get off the computer and read more books.

Lots more books!

Five recently read:

Range, by David Epstein.

I wouldn’t have read it normally but got a free copy as research for an article and it was edited by a super-smart editor, (my editor on Malled.) The basic premise, comforting to me, is that being a generalist able to shift gears quickly and easily between ideas and industries (as needed) is a useful skill and one much derided in favor of being a specialist. I’ve seen this in my own worklife and as the (loathed word) “gig economy” forces millions of us into insecure work, these skills may be more important than ever.

 

Conversations With Friends, Sally Rooney

Here’s a Vox story about Rooney and her books’ popularity. I have to admit I didn’t love this book, about two young Dublin women who used to be lovers and one of whom is now having an affair with an older married man. I would have enjoyed this book in my 20s or maybe 30s. Not now.

 

The Wych Elm, Tana French

Also by a hugely popular Irish author, whose other books I’ve enjoyed. Much as this set the scene well — also in Dublin,  a city I’ve visited a few times — and offered powerful characters, this one also left me cold. It felt too long. Maybe I really am not a fiction reader?

 

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick

Loving this one so far — the 1968 basis for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, two of my favorite films ever. I don’t normally read sci-fi but this is great.

 

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All That You Leave Behind, Erin Lee Carr

Hmmmmm. This one was a reminder that privileged young women with powerful and connected parents can quickly and easily carve out a path in cut-throat New York media while dozens of talented and hard-working journalists able to even get a job can do  theirs without drinking and drugging and breaking things — and getting second and third chances. Like many readers, I picked this up because I admired her late father, New York Times media writer David Carr. I also admire her skill as a documentary film-maker, and enjoyed her film about Olympic athletes and Larry Nassar, At The Heart of Gold.

 

What have you read recently you’d recommend?

What does it take to do good journalism?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I know two people right now whose teenagers, both from very privileged backgrounds, are eager to become journalists.

They like to write and are determined and curious.

Good start!

But the sheer number of factors and skills — soft and hard — that allow for decent journalism go far far beyond knowing or liking how to write.

Like:

Knowing how to listen, carefully and attentively, to everyone you interview — whether face to face, by Skype or phone. Email is the worst because you have no way of knowing who actually wrote it. Listening carefully is tiring and difficult sometimes. Without it, we get nothing of value.

Knowing how to make total strangers feel (more) at ease with us. This runs both ways, as it can be also be highly manipulative. But unless we can get people we’ve never met, and who may be very different from us in education, ethnicity, race, religion or political views, to open up, we’ve got nothing. This requires the ability to tune into others quickly and effectively.

Knowing how hard it is to get a job anywhere but in three expensive major cities.

The journalism job hunt can be particularly challenging between the coasts. Last year, Emma Roller, 30, took a buyout after working as a politics writer for the website Splinter, which was part of Univision’s Gizmodo Media Group. She got married and moved from Washington to Chicago to be closer to family. But as she looked for a new job, she found many positions required that she live in New York, Washington or Los Angeles.

 

— Knowing you’ll even have a job a week or a month later. Not a joke. In 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs — and 2019 has been a bloodbath.

 


 

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Knowing what makes a story compelling. You can waste a lot of time and energy — yours and theirs — asking stupid or irrelevant questions. Know what your readers/audience care most about. Get that.

Knowing when to stop digging, and when to dig harder. Too many lazy, tired and overworked journalists, mostly digital, are merely rewriting press releases or aggregating others’ work. But when you’re reporting a real story, you have limited time and budget to get it. What’s key? What haven’t you understood fully yet?

— Knowing that some stories are going to harm us, physically and/or emotionally. For every corporate blablabla “profile”, there’s a powerful and important story being reported about rape, sexual abuse, violence, crime, gun massacres, war…These are the stories that can boost a writer’s career but at a significant cost in secondary trauma.

— Knowing we represent our audience. Too many journalists think it’s all about them. They preen on social media and prize their thousands of “followers”….and say nothing interesting. The job of a journalist is to dig, question, challenge authority and be accurate.

— Knowing our work has consequences. For better or worse. If someone cannot be safely identified as a source, you don’t do that.

There’s a new (to me!) six-part UK TV show, “Press” I just started watching, about the values and ethics and behaviors of two rival newspaper staffs, both their reporters and the editors who tell them what to do.

It’s got a lot of truth in it.

A must-see film: Capernaum

By Caitlin Kelly

Sometimes you watch a film that feels like a punch to the solar plexus.

In a good way.

I was bored and channel-surfing this week on yet another stiflingly hot evening when, at 10:00 pm, I found a film I had really wanted to see in 2018 when it came out. It received rapturous reviews, including a 15 minute standing ovation when screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Capernaum — also named Chaos — was filmed in a dusty, crowded Beirut for $4 million, starring a 12 year old Syrian refugee named Zain who’d already survived eight years in that city’s slums. The stars of the film include the most gorgeous baby — not more than a year old — and an Ethiopian woman, his mother, living and working there in menial jobs illegally.

If there is a film that more powerfully shows what it’s like to scrape every single day for food, water, income and dignity, I don’t know what it is.

The child who plays Zain is also named Zain, and was 12 at the time of filming, then illiterate. He is so tiny he looks like he might be eight or ten. (He now lives in Norway.)

Every element of this film is searing: the fate of his sister Sahar, a child bride; his abusive parents unable to care for him in any way; his resilience; the empathy and compassion Rahil shows for him (the mother of the baby) and his, in turn, for her toddler.

There’s a kind of intimacy and immediacy to this film that renders everything more slick and produced meaningless in comparison. It is in Arabic and Amharic with subtitles.

Slumdog Millionaire made in 2008 for $15 million — and which made $377.89 million — is the only other film that comes to mind like this, and Capernaum is much better.

Like Slumdog, it was made on  a small budget of $4 million (thanks to a producer who mortgaged his home), and has so far earned $68.6 million becoming a huge and unexpected hit in China.

Ironic that two films about desperately impoverished street children have proven so popular and lucrative.

I sure hope these child actors have also enjoyed some of that wealth!

Here’s the film’s trailer.

Find it. 

Watch it.

Extraordinary.

Oh, a rodeo!

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a pretty American way to spend a summer evening — and, despite years of living in the U.S., albeit in the Northeast — I had never been to a rodeo.

It is, I discovered, a huge sport, with its own governing body and men kept loping past us bearing huge golden and engraved belt buckles, evidence of their earlier prowess.

The idea is to showcase, competitively, so many of the skills that ranchers and cowboys, men and women, use in their daily life.

 

 

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So Jose, who was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, bought us box seat tickets, which meant  two battered bare metal folding chairs in the shaded section, at the front ($27 each) and took me to my first rodeo.

I knew, intellectually, competitors could get badly injured and hoped they would not, and only one man limped out of the ring.

 

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The first event had very small children — ages four or five, each wearing a helmet — each trying to stay on top of a large sheep for as long as possible, clinging to as much muddy and matted wool as possible. Most lasted about a second!

 

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Then men came out on bucking broncos and here’s a video of what that’s like! They have to stay on the horse for eight seconds to qualify and each are scored.

More men came out, racing, to lasso a steer, jump off their horse and lash three of the steer’s legs together, fast.

Then men came out in pairs to do the same job.

There was a rodeo clown.

 

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The rodeo clown, a legend in his field                            photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

There was only one official photographer in the ring, a man in a pink dress shirt; it was very difficult (as you can tell from my cellphone images here!) to get good photos as only cellphones were allowed for the crowd to use to take pictures.

The rodeo queen and princess thundered by on their horses, with gorgeous turquoise chaps.

Women rode around the ring with large flapping flags of each local advertiser.

 

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Could she possibly be more badass?!

 

Then a woman came out — of course — riding atop two racing horses at once. Then jumped through flames.

 

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The winner!         photo: Jose R. Lopez

 

The barrel racing was my absolute favorite, with women competing to gallop into the ring, round three large barrels at top speed without knocking one over (a loss of five points for each accident) and gallop back out; the fastest, of course, was a 10-year-old girl who did it in barely 17 seconds.

It was so much fun!

It began at 7:00 pm and was done about 8:30 as all the kids went next door to the visiting carnival to enjoy the small Ferris wheel and other rides.

 

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There were corn dogs and tacos and soft-serve ice cream and (!) deep-fried Twinkies and we had a great chat with a woman who — of course — had lived in Toronto when I did, and a woman named Stephanie, wearing layers and layers of spectacular Navajo jewelry (some of which she was selling), who had hoped to barrel race her horse, Teller (she showed us his picture on her cellphone) but registered too late. She was, for sure, in her 50s, maybe beyond.

There were little boys in chaps, old men in cowboy hats, women in mini-skirts and weathered cowboy boots. The sun set over the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the sky became a watercolor wash of violet.

 

 

 

 

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.