This writer’s week

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

It seems obvious that writers write, certainly when every word adds income — and our health insurance alone (God bless America!!) is $1,500.00

The truth, as every freelancer knows, is that before I write a word about anything, I also spend a lot of time, probably 80 percent, just finding and getting the work and negotiating payment and conditions. For one recent story, I had to read and sign a nine-page single-space contract.

This week involved no writing, but lots of meetings:

— My web designer, now living in Asia and who I’ve been working with since 1995, suggested my writing skills to a client of his, a physician in Virginia, to help refresh the copy on his website. I spent half an hour speaking to the doctor, a specialist, to find out if we might be a good fit. I was a little nervous, as he might have been as well. These initial conversations are something of a mutual audition. Do we speak the same language? Do we each have a sense of humor? Did we enjoy it? I also had to name an hourly fee and rough estimate of how much time I thought it would take, not knowing if this would be acceptable. It went great, so onward!

— A former coaching client who’s become a friend needs new freelance writers so we skedded a call to discuss.

— A new design website needs copy focused on antiques, something I know well and have studied many times, hence a call to talk about some ideas.

— I’m working on a very cool story for The New York Times, (I’ve written more than 100 for them), but it’s moving very slowly. My key source lost his mother very suddenly, so I stayed away for a while. This is a story where I think personal introductions to sources will prove more fruitful. There are different ways to find and approach people, some better for some stories than others, and some just take a lot more time to pull together. None of this time is paid for, just built into the one fee we get per story.

— A calm and civil conversation with the editor I had walked away from mid-story. I’ll get a kill fee, 25 percent of the original, instead.

— Emailed an editor in England I’d hoped to be working with on a story in July, but she warned me of changes at the company.

I recently did a Zoom webinar with Jose and counted up the number of clients I worked with in 2020 — 19.

This year, already, 19!

I enjoy this variety, but I admit it’s tiring adapting to 19 different people and their needs and their individual style.

I’ve had one boss before in many staff jobs. It’s a bit easier!

Working more…or less

By Caitlin Kelly

Longtime readers here know this is something I think about a lot.

The New York Times ran an editorial on this, urging Americans to seriously consider working less:

Search online “work too much” and you’ll get screenfuls of information about the harmful medical, mental and social consequences of spending too much time on the job, going all the way back to that old saw first recorded in the 17th century, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

It should be “makes Jack a dead boy,” says the latest contribution to the literature of overwork, this one from the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization.

A new study by the two groups says that working 55 or more hours a week is a “serious health hazard.” It estimates that long working hours led to 745,000 deaths worldwide in 2016, a 29 percent increase over 2000. Men accounted for 72 percent of the fatalities; the worst concentrations were in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia, and particularly among 60- to 79-year-olds who had worked long hours after the age of 45.

Reading this book is enough to set one’s blood to boiling…but so many Americans are still too scared, too poor and too disorganized (i.e. no union) to do a thing about their terrible hours, conditions and pay.

But there’s also a peculiarly American insistence, beyond financial need, to keep proving to everyone all the time how productive you are, as if there’s some Powerful Person standing somewhere with a clicker to clock every minute you ever worked and you’ll be rewarded by….not dying?

As if working all the time for money, to burnish your professional reputation, to boost your income or status, is the only thing worth attaining or achieving.

What about:

Family?

Friendships?

Caregiving?

Travel?

Leisure?

Hobbies?

Volunteer work?

Education?

If Covid’s terrible damage to millions — destroying their long-term health or killing them — wasn’t sufficient warning that our time here is limited and we have many other ways to spend our time, what is?

A perfect stylish day — at last!

A grande dame of design — Bunny Williams discussing one of her projects

By Caitlin Kelly

I don’t know about you, but ohhhhhhhhh, have I so missed style and wit and elegance!

Being in a room with other people, quietly paying attention to something riveting.

So an out-of-the-blue press invitation to attend a day of panels by Big Name interior designers and architects was just the ticket. I wore my go-to black pleated Aritiza maxi-dress, black denim heels, my $3 thrift shop black necklace, a Lucky brand shawl — and off I went to the city.

Jose sent me with a toasted bagel, so one of the many commuter skills I got to use once more was unwrapping it and eating it while maneuvring the FDR, the narrow, busy highway that runs along the east side of Manhattan, beside the East River.

I scored on parking — having resigned myself to a $50 day for an Upper East Side spot — by getting into a garage by 9:00 a.m. (early bird special), for a daily cost of $18, less (yes!) than a cocktail here and even less than the round trip commuter train fare of $19.

The day offered a lively mix of topics, all focused on interior design, from the use of color to what makes a pretty room to choosing and using antiques. Each designer and architect had about 20 minutes to show slides of their work and explain the thinking behind their decisions.

Typical of this world, many had worked for some of the same firms and some had worked together on projects.

The back-stories were delicious!

But also…whew!

It’s easy to forget, or not know, or not care, how staggeringly wealthy so many people are now.

So there’s another 10,000 square foot mansion with 11 bedrooms and a bowling alley and a skating rink and a theater…

Here’s a mega-yacht with a bed inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Here’s the 6th or 7th home of another mogul, this one in Mexico.

And so on.

It would be easy to disdain all of this as appalling excess.

I get it. I do!

Or the fact that every project employs hundreds of workers, many in the unionized building trades.

But I still loved every minute of the day, and savored the stylish people seated all around me — the woman in leopard trousers with a massive leopard hat; the older woman in her navy leather Roger Vivier flats; the man in black Belgian loafers (a very specific NYC old-money brand), the speaker in from Dallas in perfect patent Manolos….

The shoe game was strong!

I studied design at the New York School of Interior Design in the mid-90s and planned to leave journalism for a new career in the industry. After my first husband walked out, starting over at the bottom at $10/hour wasn’t a viable option, so I stayed in journalism.

But I learned a lot at school, and really enjoyed my education.

My maternal grandmother had money and hired Toronto’s top decorator, so my taste was formed early! I still remember one of her 1970s bathroom wallpapers.

I love design dearly, so an entire day listening to the greats and legends of the field — and seeing the depth of their knowledge — was a fantastic, free pleasure.

For all its challenges, New York City remains a vibrant center full of talent and inspiration. What a relief to see it finally, slowly, coming back to life again!

Understanding my mother…now

By Caitlin Kelly

Long-time readers here know my mother and I were estranged for the final decade of her life. I won’t repeat all those details. She died in her chair, watching TV, on Feb. 15, 2020, my best friend’s birthday, in a nursing home in Victoria, B.C.

Her friend and executor was kind enough, at 2:00 a.m., to say Psalm 23 over her body, a gesture I’m really grateful for.

She was cremated and I was to have gone to B.C. — basically impossible thanks to Canadian border closings and quarantine demands — to scatter her ashes there.

Now they’re in our living room, in a nasty plastic container they arrived in (for now) and it’s oddly comforting.

Because our relationship was so difficult for so many years, we usually lived very far apart — I in her native New York, she in my native British Columbia.

The closest ever? I was in Paris on a journalism fellowship and she lived in Bath. We had a few very good visits, until the week I was to fly back to Canada for good, and she ended up in a locked ward of a London psychiatric hospital.

So there was always tension and fear and anxiety for me with her.

A cliche, but true — her death has released me from this, and for that I’m very glad.

It has also, thank God, lessened my anger and frustration over the behaviors and decisions that cost us thousands we couldn’t really afford, over her unwillingness to address her alcoholism, even to acknowledge my annual Christmas cards and newsletters, including 2018, when I got early-stage breast cancer. (She had had a mastectomy.)

But, to my absolute shock, she left me a significant sum of money.

I would never have imagined this.

I assumed she was, by then, broke.

I assumed whatever she might have had would go to someone else.

I assumed…nothing.

That money is now in my bank account and I keep flailing about emotionally, alternating between guilt (it’s unearned) and gratitude.

It’s even enough to buy a small house, although — as one friend said — not in a place I would actually want to live!

I spent a lot of years, decades, dreading the next argument or insult or unwanted phone call alerting me to some fresh chaos. I left her care for good at 14.

She never taught me to cook or dress or wear make-up or how to handle money.

Even my minimal sex education was a booklet she left on a table.

What I did learn was how to be independent.

How to make and keep good friendships.

How to confidently and effectively manage my own affairs.

Only in a recent conversation did I finally, belatedly, understand something fundamental about her that I had always taken too personally.

She did not invite or enjoy intimacy.

Her alcoholism and bipolar illness and tough personality all made sure it was very difficult to get close to her.

That kept her safe.

It hurt me, but with hindsight and distance I now see them as coping mechanisms.

Better late than never.

It’s a matter of trust

By Caitlin Kelly

From Seth Godin’s blog:

Traditional con men do their work one person at a time. It’s a laborious process, earning trust and the benefit of the doubt before ultimately ripping someone off.

Toward the end of my dad’s life, shameless/shameful phone salespeople did just this and stole his trust, his time and his money.

Like most things, industrialists want to do it faster and bigger.

Scammy direct mail used to be obvious even at a distance. The labels, the stamps, the typography–it all signaled that this wasn’t personal.

And the occasional phone salesperson, calling from a boiler room–we could tell.

Now, as data acquisition continues to scale and become ever more granular, the hustle is getting more personal.

It’s in an uncanny valley–almost real, but not quite. And of course, the distance keeps getting shorter.

So the mail merge, the phone spam, the faux intimacy of a stranger. They continue to blur the lines between personal and personalized.

The end result is going to be a shrinking of our previously-widening circle of trust.

The benefit of the doubt is priceless. I have no patience for people who want to take it away from us.

I think about trust a lot.

I grew up in a family much more comfortable expressing anger, verbally, or not discussing feelings at all. I spent my childhood between boarding school and summer camp, surrounded by strangers, some of who were horrible, some of whom became dear friends.

When you’ve seen that people don’t want to listen to you, or misuse and twist what you’ve shared with them, trust isn’t something you later just quickly hand over to everyone!

I’ve learned this the hard way.

So it’s left me very wary.

In my 20s, I made the fatal error of telling a few coworkers II thought were friends something potentially damaging to me personally who, of course, used it against me. I left Toronto and never went back.

In my late 30s, divorced and lonely and my self-confidence at a very low ebb, I met a charming, handsome man through a personals ad — remember those?!

He said he was a lawyer and had a business card and personal stationery that seemed legit and spent a lot of time on the phone arguing with his “partner.”

He was just a con man who had already rooked a bunch of women in Chicago, done time for his crimes, and was now picking off fresh prey in New York and a few other states at once.

It became the most frightening experience of my life because the police laughed at me when I realized what a victim I’d become and the district attorney laughed because “no harm was done.”

Riiiiight.

The breast cancer diagnosis I got in June 2018 (early stage, no chemo) finally broke me open. I had to trust a whole new medical team to be kind and gentle and skilled — from the tiny black dot tattoos they put on your skin to guide the radiation machine to the techs who lay me face down there daily for 20 days.

Journalism is an odd business — because my role is to win trust fast from total strangers.

How un-natural!

But I’ve learned how to do that and I’m good at it. Mostly it requires empathy. Really listening carefully without judgment.

There’s also now a very deep and widespread mistrust of journalists, which really upsets me. The monster who screamed FAKE NEWS at us for four years made sure of that.

So we’re really at a crisis point when it comes to trust.

I’m not at all sure how we re-build it.

Women and money

One place I do love to splurge — Via Carota in NYC

By Caitlin Kelly

This story surprised me, that millennial women are less likely to handle their own finances than us Boomers:

A study published in June by the Swiss banking group UBS underscored that point. It found that even the most educated and high-achieving millennial women were not as involved as their husbands in long-term financial decision making.

In fact, millennial women — part of a generation thought to have pushed for open-mindedness about gender roles — exhibited less financial independence than boomer women did. Among millennial women living with male partners, 54 percent said they deferred to their partners for long-term financial planning rather than sharing that responsibility or taking the lead themselves, compared with 39 percent of boomer women, according to the study, which surveyed 1,320 women with at least $250,000 in investable assets.

This — initially — made sense to me:

Sallie Krawcheck, chief executive and co-founder of Ellevest, an investment platform for women, said millennials might not have realized that if they do not have financial equality, they do not have independence.

“Younger women haven’t had as many hard-won lessons,” she said.

But I know several millennial women (ages 23 to 28 in 2019) and they’ve faced a difficult economy and massive student debt, both of which can make anyone fearful of money matters.

The reason the women surveyed for not handling more of the money offered was their assumption that their husbands knew more.

This is madness!

The ability to manage money well — whether debt or investments — isn’t a male skill. I’ve seen this in my marriage with Jose, who did not grow up in a wealthy family, while my family of origin (at the grandparents’ level) had some serious money.

So I was fortunate at 19 to have a fat $350/month (thanks to my maternal grandmother) I had to make sense of and, throughout three years of full-time university, use for all my costs, including living alone in a major city.

Living on $350 a month was hardly luxury — my rent consumed 50 percent of it.

So I learned young to hustle hard for more income, through freelance writing and photography assignments.

I still remember what clothes I owned then, bought new, but very few of them and nothing as shiny as my live-at-home fellow students.

Jose and I have been able, without the additional costs of raising children or carrying student debt, to accumulate a decent amount of savings, enough that we really do have to pay attention.

He got a buyout package when he left The New York Times in 2015 and it’s our job to keep it safe and grow it when possible as we’re not going to get hired into another well-paid full-time job again, and never again enjoy job-subsidized health insurance — thanks to age discrimination.

So the pressure’s on to be smart and savvy.

I read the Financial Times every day. It’s really written for the professional experts who work in capital markets in London, New York, Hong Kong — not for me! But I learn a lot and keep an eye on companies worth investing in. If you refuse to pay attention to the global economy you’ll always be surprised by what happens.

I’ve read a few financial self-help books — the best takeaway? Don’t put your money anywhere that you just don’t understand! For me, that’s ETFs. They’ve been explained to me several times but my brain just freezes so I stick to what I know — a wide variety of mutual funds and a few individual equities (i.e. stocks.) We have no bonds at the moment.

If you’re willing and able to invest you do need to learn some lingo:

— asset allocation (where you invest)

— diversification (making a range of different investment choices to balance out the risk of individual ones failing)

— capital (i.e. money!)

That’s just a super bare bones start!

The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

Even if you’ve got some savings in a mutual fund, have you checked how it’s doing? Do you know the top 10 holdings? I was stunned — a few years ago — to see how dominant China was even then.

Do you know what a fiduciary is? They’re the only people whose financial advice you should heed.

I also learned the hard way never to play ostrich with how your money is doing — and lost about $11,000 that way on an investment my first husband made. I was an utter fool, too scared to open the envelopes they sent, and discovered that my own money (already saved) had been used to keep paying the company every month after I lost my full-time job and could not get another.

Back when, like these women, I assumed he knew better than I.


He didn’t.

Do you read self-help books?

By Caitlin Kelly

The book has sold more than 25 million copies in 40 languages.

It came out in 1989.

It has a really boring title — The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

But I think it’s also smart and worth reading, still.

That year, I had just moved permanently to the United States, a country whose population is 10 times greater than my own, Canada.

I was nervous as hell and felt like a raindrop falling into an ocean.

How could I ever make my mark?

Find my place socially and professionally?

I needed help!

And my family lived in Canada as did all my friends.

I had no American staff experience or any formal American education — as did all my competitors!

The United States is a country of very sharp-elbowed people, taught practically from birth lessons few other nations teach so assiduously — to compete really hard, beat the other guy, it’s all about you and your individual needs.

American success is a zero-sum game, with only one winner.

Covey’s book up-ended some of this.

I especially like the final Habit — Sharpen the Saw — staying mentally and emotionally sharp and refreshed.

You can’t do much when you’re burned out, bitter and exhausted. And, maybe like some of you, I have been at times.

I find some of his advice either banal (start with the end in mind) and some — within an American mindset — less so, that thinking “win-win” is more effective than punching every competitor in the face.

But as I near the end of a long career in an absurdly competitive and insecure industry — journalism — I find sharpening the saw ever more important. I’m now competing with people half my age with possibly three times the basic energy and stamina.

Add this to the general anxiety of self-employment, and we’ve been inundated in 2020 by a global pandemic, fires and floods and hurricanes and racism and violence and, oh yeah, the most important American election in maybe a century.

So staying calm, energized and focused matters more than ever. As I learned as a teenage lifeguard, people don’t always drown because they can’t swim — it’s because they panic.

So how do I stay sharp?

Long conversations with good friends about the joys and pleasures and many interests in our lives, not just work or politics. How are the new grandkids? The dog? (In two separate instances, both in Tennessee, the cow and the hedgehog.)

Naps, daily. I have no embarrassment about this, even though Americans are told ALL THE TIME they must always be more productive. i.e. don’t rest, don’t nap. A federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 for years is one way to dump millions into a life without leisure and respite.

Exercise. I need to do a lot more, but am swimming 30 minutes three times a week.

Box breathing. I recently discovered this interesting way to reduce stress.

Playing Scrabble on the computer (advanced level.) I usually play 45 to 60 minutes and love how it’s both fun and challenging.

— Playing cards or Bananagrams with my husband. Both require quick thinking, especially Bananagrams, which demands thinking really fast and making/rearranging words you may have already committed to. I really like how that aspect alone forces you to hastily abandon “commitment” to something that isn’t working!

Have you read any self-help books you found truly helpful?

How?

How to be a successful writer: my video

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a new video, thanks to Abby Lee Hood, who generously included me in her ongoing series of writer interviews.

It’s 1:08 and we talk about how to (re) define success in a world that too often equates making a LOT of money with being “successful”. I argue there are other metrics, as writers and as human beings.

Hope you enjoy!

The managing of money

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Broadway tickets always a splurge — worth it?

By Caitlin Kelly

Few things are as frightening to some people as managing money.

For many, it’s a question of sheer survival — when the American federal minimum wage, shamefully, hasn’t risen from $7.25/hour in 10 years — while the cost of living now dictates a minimum of $14.84 an hour in Cleveland and $24.30/hour in San Francisco.

For others, it’s the best barometer, literally, of their worth and value to the world, to their family, to their industry — and to themselves.

One freelance writer bragged this week about making $10,000 in a month and how she’s about to hit her $50,000/year income goal.

Which inspired many others but also annoyed me and some other writers I admire. I really tire of money being held up as the sole metric of success.

Income is not one-size-fits-all.

Expenses, as well.

I recently had an interesting conversation on Twitter with a stranger, a mechanic earning $40/hour, about my use of the words “working class” — wondering if that meant him. I suggested “blue collar.”

I’m endlessly fascinated by what we earn, how we earn it, what we spend it on and how much (if any) we save and for what purpose. As subscribers to the Financial Times, we also get its glossy oversize magazine called — no kidding — How to Spend It, which often features $10,000 dresses and $100,000 watches, pocket change to the bankers and other HNW (that’s high net worth) readers it’s aimed at.

I’m fascinated by money partly because my maternal grandmother inherited a lot of money from her father, a Chicago stockbroker and real estate developer — and spent it so fast and so freely you would think it burned her fingers. She lived a life of opulence: homes designed by the city’s top decorators, limousines everywhere, custom-made silk muumuus and matching turbans and enormous jewels. It was quite something!

She also never bothered to pay any taxes to anyone — so when she died there was little left after paying off the Ontario, Canadian and American governments.

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Our weekly indulgence, fresh flowers

So I’ve seen the effects of both privilege and profligacy.

 

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Don’t end up in trouble!

Living in the United States for decades — without doubt the meanest and most punitive developed nation when you are poor, ill, vulnerable and struggling — has also really opened my eyes and taught me to be extra cautious about what I earn and how much to save. It’s not a place you ever want to be in trouble with no lifelines or savings, reliant on charity or the shards of government help potentially available to you.

We were offered a huge break this year, a tax credit that has saved us $1,000/month (!) on our health insurance. But we’re also now required to account for every penny of our income and expenses to bureaucrats who have no understanding that — as full-time freelancers — we do not have an employer, yet keep hounding us for more and more paperwork.

That’s when I get libertarian in a hurry and would rather just pay for things myself.

I’ve stayed put in the same one-bedroom apartment for decades; our housing cost is $2,000 month, (half of it the maintenance fee we owe to the co-op,) fairly cheap for New York (suburbs.)

But we don’t have children or pets or dependent relatives, when so many others bear the costs of all of these. So we’re usually able to save money and that gives us some breathing room — helpful when we lost $27,000 worth of anticipated income overnight thanks to the pandemic.

We were also lucky to each graduate college with no debt, (Jose had full scholarships and I attended university in Canada), another enormous burden for so many Americans, even into their 30s or far beyond.

So much of the money we have access to, and how we manage it, is circumstance and luck: where we were born and raised, what resources were made available to us and when. The job market.

Good health — or its lack.

This year has, oddly, been a busy one for us. We have both had steady work and found new and appreciative repeat clients.

But we both really know how fragile it all is.

My husband grew up in a wholly different way, his father a small-city Baptist minister living in church housing. So Jose tends to be very risk-averse and I tend to be bolder when it comes to spending and investing. It makes for some challenging moments!

We work really hard, splurge when we can, and pray for ongoing good health.

Does handling your finances cause you stress?

Do you enjoy it?

Did anyone teach you money management skills?

The fallow field

IMG_5301We all so badly need time to just rest!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

When you work wholly freelance, it tends to be feast or famine — so much work at once you’re pulling 10 to 12+ hour days, working nights and weekends and not taking a vacation — or panicking because the work has dried up but the bills keep coming.

The pandemic has exacerbated this problem.

 

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Thrilled to have won this in an online auction from the NYC auction house Doyle. It’s a vintage kilim, a flat-weave Caucasian wool rug in perfect condition.

 

We are grateful and lucky to both have a lot of work, enough to even finally add some needed, costly and nice things to our home, like a new sofa, a vintage rug scored at auction, and hiring a painter to do a badly needed repair to the (sigh) cracked walls in our living room, an annoying and ongoing feature of living in a 60 year old building.

But we’ve had only taken four days’ vacation in six months and we’re whipped. We usually take a two or even three week break — doing no work at all — and travel back to Canada or overseas to rest and recharge.

Not this year.

The fallow field is one that isn’t being worked, and is being quietly replenished.

It’s resting, as this writer posted in 2017:

 

 

So there are days now I just do…nothing.

It’s not really nothing, because I’m usually reading for hours and hours, trying to wade through piles of magazines and newspapers.

But I’m reading more books for sheer pleasure.

I’m watching movies and bingeing on Netflix.

I’m taking an hour’s nap pretty much every day.

Unlike a farmer with three fields I only have one weary heart, mind, soul and body.

I have no “extra” brain to keep using for work —- while the other one just rests!

And with almost nowhere safe to flee to because of this damn virus, a change of scenery in every way, it’s even more enervating to try and wind down in the same small space you work in.

We’re very lucky in New York as finally, all our museums are re-opening.

I can’t wait to “waste time” looking at old beautiful things again.