As regular readers here know, how people work and earn their living — and for what pay and under what conditions — is a bit of an obsession of mine.
I’ve had many staff jobs: at three big daily newspapers and at several magazines, (trade and consumer) — and worked 2.5 years selling stuff for $11/hour as a sales associate for The North Face, by far the most difficult job of my life and the most humbling. It became my second book.
Since losing my last staff job in 2006, I’ve remained freelance, which means I am only paid for whatever work I can find, negotiate and successfully complete. Pay rates for journalism are now much lower than in the early 2000s,. when I easily brought home $60,000 a year. Not now.
I grew up in Canada — a country with unions! — and moved to the United States in 1988. It is a truly eye-opening experience to live in a land of such brute, bare-knuckled capitalism! No paid maternity leave and very little unpaid. No paid vacation days, by law. At-will employment, which literally means anyone can fire you anytime for no reason at all.
Then, no severance!
Weakened unions at their lowest membership ever.
Stagnant wages — while CEOs “earn” 254 times the pay of their lowest-paid staff.
So, hey — try these!
Former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, a friend, has finally just published his new book about American labor, The Big Squeeze.
I can’t wait to read it.
Just one of its many rave reviews…
“The power of Greenhouse’s book lies . . . in its reporting, especially on low-wage workers . . . his best material vividly focuses on the always difficult and often abusive working conditions of low-paid employees. Such stories get far too little airing and rarely are they so well told.” —Business Week
In 2016, Cao opened a division of Fuyao, his global auto-glass manufacturing company, in a shuttered General Motors factory near Dayton, Ohio. Blaming slumping S.U.V. sales, G.M. had closed the plant — known as the General Motors Moraine Assembly Plant — in December 2008, throwing thousands out of work the same month the American government began a multibillion dollar bailout of the auto industry. The Dayton factory remained idle until Fuyao announced it was taking it over, investing millions and hiring hundreds of local workers, numbers it soon increased.
The veteran filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who are a couple and live outside of Dayton, documented the G.M. plant when it closed. They included the image of the last truck rolling off the line in their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” That crystallizing image also appears in “American Factory,” which revisits the plant six years later. The feature-length story they tell here is complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor. (This is the first movie that Barack and Michelle Obama’s company Higher Ground Productions is releasing with Netflix.)
Hoping that you have work you like, and well-paid!
A powerful piece from the Washington Post about why being “productive” is such a punitive way to measure our human value:
I see it a lot when I interview people and talk about vacation. They talk about how they are wound up and checking emails and sitting on the beach with their laptops. And their fear is: If I really stopped and let myself relax, I would crater. Because the truth is I’m exhausted, I’m disconnected from my partner, I don’t feel super connected to my kids right now.
It’s like those moving walkways at the airport — you’ve got to really pay attention when you get off them, because it’s disorienting. And when you’re standing still, you become very acutely aware of how you feel and what’s going on in your surroundings. A lot of our lives are getting away from us while we’re on that walkway.
There are several cultural expectations in the U.S., even after living here for decades after leaving Canada, I’ll never agree with or adhere to.
One is the notion, an outgrowth of a nation with shockingly little government regulation or oversight of the workplace, no paid maternal leave, no mandated vacation days, that work is the single most important way for all of us to spend all of our time.
Every day, in every way, we are exhorted to workworkworkworkworkwork fasterfastefasterfaster and the hell with a personal life that includes family, friends, self-care, volunteer work, meditation, travel.
Why, all that time you want to spend binge-watching Netflix or patting your puppy or making pancakes with your kids? That doesn’t boost the GDP! How dare you?
Of course, a thin and fragile social safety net — hello, cause and effect! — makes working your ass off a necessity for all but the wealthy. The single largest cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical bills; we now pay (yes, really) $1,500 a month for our health insurance, meaning we have to earn at least $18,000 after-tax dollars before any other cost.
For two full-time freelancers in a struggling industry, that’s enough to make me go back to bed.
One reason I’ve stayed freelance is the ability to control the use of my time, when and where and how often and for how long I work. I started work the other day at 8:10 a.m. (early for me) and had already written and filed a story by 10:30 a.m. I took the afternoon off to enjoy a day in Manhattan.
Some people need to work 1o or more hours a day — they have multiple children to support and/or a non-working spouse and/or earn low wages and/or live in a high-cost area. But beyond basic economic need, tethering your life to the profit-making demands of others rarely produces much joy for those of us expected to answer them.
Americans love to mock Europeans – those five weeks of vacation! That free health care! Those subsidized university educations! – as though the endless toil and debt required to earn the money to pay for all of that were somehow so much more virtuous.
When it’s really just exhausting.
Having lived in Canada, France, Mexico and England gave me a perspective many Americans lack.
Time off recharges and restores us to full mental, physical and emotional health.
You can work hard — and play hard.
It’s possible to be a deeply valuable human being without adding any economic value.
Working freelance means we’re choosing a life with less financial security but all the pressures faced while collecting a salary.
The major difference is our ability to say no.
To not leap to answer an email at 11:00 pm or 1:00 a.m. or on a Sunday morning when we’re getting ready to attend church.
Yes, it might cost us some lost income.
But it gives us a life we deeply value.
Do you feel — or succumb to — this kind of pressure to be productive?
Most people walking through casino employee hallways — janitors, housekeepers, retail workers — are categorized as unskilled laborers, and the laws of capitalism clearly state that we are all easily replaceable: Anyone can be trained to do our jobs.
Headlines tell us that “College Graduates Are Wasting Their Degrees in Low-Skilled Jobs,” that “Skilled Workers Are in Short Supply.” We’re raised, in the culture of American capitalism, to believe certain things, without question, namely that the value of work is defined by the complexity of the task and not the execution of it, that certain types of work are not worthy of devoting a lifetime to…
Like an athlete, a worker completing the same task for the thousandth time knows that muscle memory and precision are powerful tools. But in the workplace, there are no advanced graphics or slow-motion replays highlighting the efficiency of movement, the prioritizing of tasks or how a more meticulous approach can mean the difference between a chaotic shift and a seamless one.
Instead, the routine, repetitive nature of these jobs is perceived to define workers’ limitations, rather than their capabilities. And although most low-skill work requires a constant interaction with people, because of its low-paying status it is deemed a dead end, rather than a testament to an individual’s ability to acquire, adapt and specialize.
This is a subject I feel passionate about, selfishly, because I lived this experience when I moved, after losing my well-paid professional reporting job at the New York Daily News, then the nation’s sixth-largest daily, into a part-time $11/hour retail sales associate position.
The recession hit journalism hard and early; by 2008, 24,000 of us had lost our jobs and many fled — into other industries, to teaching. Lucky ones retired early and many of us, like me, went freelance; huge drop in income but complete control of my workload and schedule.
I hadn’t earned so little since I was a teenager, a lifeguard in high school in Toronto. But it was the stunning lack of respect I felt behind the counter, wearing my plastic name badge, that stung more.
Sometimes I feel like Alice slipping through the looking glass, toggling between worlds. In one world, I interview C.E.O.’s, write articles for national publications and promote my nonfiction book. In the other, I clock in, sweep floors, endlessly fold sweaters and sort rows of jackets into size order. Toggling between the working class and the chattering class has taught me a lot about both: what we expect of ourselves, how others perceive us, ideas about our next professional step and how we’ll make it.
The contrasts between my former full-time job and my current part-time one have been striking. I slip from a life of shared intellectual references and friends with Ivy graduate degrees into a land of workers who are often invisible and deemed low-status.
In journalism, my workplaces often felt like rooms filled with balloons, enormous and fragile egos rubbing and squeaking up against one another until, inevitably, several burst with a bang
In retail, divas are fired or soon quit. In journalism, I’ve had managers who routinely shrieked abuse. In retail, I’m managed by a man who served in the United States Air Force in Mogadishu and who wears his authority comfortably and rarely raises his voice.
What became obvious to me within a few weeks of working retail was how difficult and physically grueling it is. (Like food service in any capacity as well.)
But that’s not a big surprise, right?
What was striking to me was how crucial people skills — aka EQ — were to selling successfully and getting along with a team of 14 co-workers, a very mixed bag.
Hardly a low-skill job!
Nor is food service, waitressing or bar-tending. Any job that’s deemed “customer-facing” — and which adds the exhausting component of bending, stretching, carrying, reaching and standing for hours plus staying calm and pleasant (aka emotional labor) is not low-skill.
My retail job pushed me to my outer limits, physically and emotionally, while being intellectually deadening. Not a pretty combination.
But I saw how many unrewarded skills it took:
There’s no college degree in patience
There’s no MBA in compassion
There’s no Phd in common sense
There’s no MA in stamina
I saw much less common sense and EQ among some of the college students I taught, teenagers paying $60,000 for a year of formal education at a fancy private school, than among the young people I worked retail with — almost all of whom had a college degree or were working toward one.
Demeaning and financially undervaluing these skills — the same ones that keep the U.S. economy humming as much as any Wall Street billionaire — completely misses the essential contributions that millions of low-paid, hard-working people make every day.
It’s Labor Day weekend — three days off for many workers in the U.S., where I live, in Canada and some other nations.
It’s always, for me anyway, a time to reflect on why we work and what we’re working for:
To fund higher education, for self and/or others
Short-term emergency savings
Medical insurance/expenses (Americans must buy health insurance like any other consumer product)
Major purchases — a vehicle, a home, a boat
Camaraderie with peers and colleagues
The thrill of scientific or medical or intellectual discovery
Learning and mastering new skills
To support the financial needs of family and others
A place to feel welcomed, to belong
Helping others — nursing, teaching, the ministry, the law
I’m endlessly fascinated by work. Maybe because I grew up in a family where no one had “a job” — with a paid vacation or sick days or a pension or raises. My father was a film-maker, my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote for television.
All the money earned in our home came from our individual, independent creative efforts.
Any story focused on business, labor practices, unions, wages, the Fight for $15 — to raise fast food wages to $15/hour here in the U.S. — gets my attention.
One of the books I admire is by MIT professor Zeynep Ton who studied five retailers who actually pay well and earn good profits, called The Good Jobs Strategy. Another, an early precursor of the current interest in more ethical garment production, is Where Am I Wearing by Kelsey Timmerman.
I’ve been working at home since losing my last staff job, at the New York Daily News, (then the nation’s 6th largest daily newspaper), in the summer of 2006. It was not a happy place to work, its unofficial motto, “Sink or Swim.” I don’t regret the loss of that job, although I miss making that income, much more difficult to attain through the intellectual piecework that is freelancing — you are only paid for what you produce, and often later than you need.
Since my high school days I’ve worked as:
a newspaper reporter (three daily papers)
a magazine editor (four national magazines)
a writing teacher (four colleges)
a writing coach (multiple private clients)
a photographer (published in The New York Times and Washington Post)
an author (of two works of non-fiction)
a volunteer Spanish-language interpreter (working with Chilean refugees)
a cross-cultural consultant for Berlitz
a retail employee at $11/hour
Of all of these jobs, I’ve by far most enjoyed my days as a daily newspaper reporter and really miss it.
At its best, there’s no better way to have fun and adventures and get paid for it. I met Queen Elizabeth aboard her yacht Britannia, flew to an Arctic village in December, climbed 100 feet up a Tall Ship mast, sailed aboard $6 million racing yachts, visited a Quebec hospice, broke major medical stories.
I’ve traveled, on stories, to Ohio and New Orleans and Texas, to Sicily and Copenhagen and London.
In March 2014, I went to work for a week in rural Nicaragua with WaterAid.
I love the intellectual stimulation of journalism — having to make sense of complex, unfamiliar material — like a recent piece on predictive analytics which I then need to write clearly and compellingly for others.
I love the variety of the people I meet and speak with, everyone from Olympic athletes to military veterans to a female Admiral to convicted felons. I can never afford not to be curious and open-minded.
I love writing books, diving deeply into complicated subjects that deserve, and rarely get, closer attention.
I love connecting with readers, one of whom recently called my book “Malled”, (a memoir of low-wage work), a page-turner.
I’m fortunate. At my age, we’ve little debt, no children to support and have acquired good savings for our retirement. So my goals for work now are different from fresh grads desperate to find any job and pay down enormous student debts.
But it’s a very very tough time for many American workers; union membership is the lowest since the Depression, 11 percent of public workers, seven percent of private. Even with corporate profits at record highs, wages remain stagnant for many, and worse for the lowest-paid — while costs keep rising, on essentials like college tuition and health insurance, (also here deemed a consumer product.)
Americans still have no paid maternity leave and even companies that offer it know many workers are too scared to take unpaid leave — lest their care for their families make them look like slackers.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the minimum wage a national law in 1938. Years earlier, he said, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.” But minimum wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living.
Nowhere is the income gap more extreme and obnoxious than in the fast-food industry. Fast-food C.E.O.s are among the highest-paid corporate executives. The average fast-food C.E.O. made $23.8 million in 2013, more than quadruple the average from 2000 (adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile, entry-level food-service workers in New York State earn, on average, $16,920 per year, which at a 40-hour week amounts to $8.50 an hour. Nationally, wages for fast-food workers have increased 0.3 percent since 2000 (again, adjusting for inflation).
Many assume that fast-food workers are mostly teenagers who want to earn extra spending money. On the contrary, 73 percent are women, 70 percent are over the age of 20, and more than two-thirds are raising a child and are the primary wage earners in their family.
I spent 2.5 years — part-time, one shift a week except for holidays — as a retail sales associate for The North Face, selling $600 ski jackets to hedge fund managers from Greenwich, CT headed out to Aspen for their vacation. I made, from 2007 to 2009, $11/hour, a wage some in the U.S. — whose federal minimum is still a paltry $7.25/hour — consider munificent.
I did it because I needed a steady income, even a small one, in the depths of the Great Recession. It was, to say the least, eye-opening, to work for low wages and see how little they bought.
It’s the expectation of customers and management that, even if your feet are swollen and painful from eight hours standing/running/walking without a break, even if you feel ill or nauseated or had to re-open the store barely hours after you closed it (and cleaned the toilets) — you’re happy. Smiling. Perky.
One of the least amusing aspects of working through the holiday season, when wealthy shoppers in our affluent suburban New York mall entered the store already laden with pontoons of loaded shopping bags, was being told to be nice(r.)
All the time.
This, as you face long lines of shoppers who, by the time you can help them — (stores cut labor costs by under-staffing, even during busy periods), are pissed off and taking it out on you — not the staffing/scheduling software your company paid millions for.
That’s emotional labor.
There’s a current trend in the U.S. — where labor union participation remains at an all-time low despite record corporate profits and stagnant wages — called Fight for 15.
The movement wants a wage of $15/hour for low-wage work; a day or week’s wages for workers in places like India, China, Nicaragua — where they make most of the clothes we sell and wear.
But it’s still very little income if you live in a large American city.
I’m forever fascinated by what people are paid and how they — and others — value their skills. Most of us have to work to earn a living, and many of us will do so for decades. Most of our lives will be spent earning an income for the skills we have acquired.
As a fulltime freelancer, knowing how to negotiate is one of my top skills.
Men, statistically, have been shown to negotiate for more. They also get it.
You don’t ask — you don’t get.
One of my favorite books on this issue is called Women Don’t Ask, and I highly recommend it.
I grew up in a family of freelancers and have also spent much of my journalism career without a paycheck.
I know that negotiating is every bit as essential to my income as knowing how to write well and meet a deadline.
One example: a major magazine assigns me a story, the fee $2,400. The “kill fee”, i.e. if the story cannot be used, was $600 — a loss of three-quarters of my income. Nope, I said. They raised it to $1,000. The story, for reasons completely beyond my control, couldn’t be used; they offered me more than the agreed-upon fee.
But what if I hadn’t asked for more in the first place?
I also network, every single day, with other writers at my level; only by sharing information, candidly, can we know what people are actually paying — and not just jump at the first lowball offer.
You also need to be extremely honest with yourself and know what the current marketplace most values in your industry; if your skills are weak or out-of-date, you’re not going to be able to effectively compete and negotiate for more.
The radio plays Aaron Copland’s breathtaking “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
The front page of The New York Times carries this incredibly depressing-but-important story about how clothing factories overseas — the ones that probably made the T-shirt I’m wearing as I write this post — are lying, cheating and faking their “safe” inspected factories:
As Western companies overwhelmingly turn to low-wage countries far away from corporate headquarters to produce cheap apparel, electronics and other goods, factory inspections have become a vital link in the supply chain of overseas production.
An extensive examination by The New York Times reveals how the inspection system intended to protect workers and ensure manufacturing quality is riddled with flaws. The inspections are often so superficial that they omit the most fundamental workplace safeguards like fire escapes. And even when inspectors are tough, factory managers find ways to trick them and hide serious violations, like child labor or locked exit doors. Dangerous conditions cited in the audits frequently take months to correct, often with little enforcement or follow-through to guarantee compliance.
Dara O’Rourke, a global supply chain expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said little had improved in 20 years of factory monitoring, especially with increased use of the cheaper “check the box” inspections at thousands of factories. “The auditors are put under greater pressure on speed, and they’re not able to keep up with what’s really going on in the apparel industry,” he said. “We see factories and brands passing audits but failing the factories’ workers.”
Still, major companies including Walmart, Apple, Gap and Nike turn to monitoring not just to check that production is on time and of adequate quality, but also to project a corporate image that aims to assure consumers that they do not use Dickensian sweatshops. Moreover, Western companies now depend on inspectors to uncover hazardous work conditions, like faulty electrical wiring or blocked stairways, that have exposed some corporations to charges of irresponsibility and exploitation after factory disasters that killed hundreds of workers.
I wrote about the horrible working conditions at Foxconn, the enormous Chinese company whose workers make Apple products (yup, writing on one right now) and who flung themselves out of windows in despair.
I have several Chinese-speaking friends who have offered to compare the translation to my original — to see if that bit was censored.
It’s a crappy day here in New York — gray, cloudy, hot and humid. It’s an official holiday. Time to relax, recharge, reflect on our role as “human capital” the new euphemism for the old euphemism for human beings toiling for pay — “labor.”
But we are both working, albeit from home.
Jose, whose full-time job as a photo editor for the Times keeps him busy enough, spent all day yesterday on an income-producing side project.
I spent the day with a friend, deep in conversation. Turns out, even with a decade+ age difference between us, despite living on opposite coats, we both spend much of our time figuring out how to make our work-lives both more emotionally satisfying and financially useful to our needs.
I grew up in a freelance family. No one had a paycheck, pension or guaranteed income, working in print, film and television. No one taught on the side. It was balls-to-the-wall, full-on creative entrepreneurship, for years, decades.
I took my first staff job, the job (then and now) of my dreams, as a feature writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily, when I was 26. “This is the best job you’ll ever have,” a friend working there warned me. I laughed, assuming a lifetime of up-and-onward, in title, status and income.
She was right.
I hope to stop working full-time within the next decade.
I want to travel to the many places I still know very little of: Africa, Latin America, Asia. They require $1,500+, 12-16-hour flights. They are not places I want to cram into a week or ten days “vacation.”
I hope to keep writing books, teaching, keeping my hand in. But not tethered to the hamster wheel of non-stop production.
As many of you know by now, more than 377 men and women making clothing for companies like Primark, JC Penney, Benetton and others, were killed two days ago in the collapse of a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Here’s part of the story from The New York Times:
Thousands of people surrounded the site on Sunday, watching the huge rescue operation, even as hopes faded that many more victims would be found alive. For nearly 12 hours, rescuers tried to save a trapped woman, lowering dry food and juice to her as they carefully cut through the wreckage trying to reach her. But then a fire broke out, apparently killing the woman, leaving many firefighters in tears.
With national outrage boiling over, Bangladeshi paramilitary officers tracked down and arrested Sohel Rana, the owner of the building, who was hiding near the Indian border, and returned him by helicopter to Dhaka. When loudspeakers at the rescue site announced his capture earlier in
the day, local news reports said, the crowd broke out in cheers.
The collapse of the building, the Rana Plaza, is considered the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry. It is known to have claimed at least 377 lives, and hundreds more workers are
thought to be missing still, buried in the rubble.
The Rana Plaza building contained five garment factories, employing more than 3,000 workers, who were making clothing for European and American consumers.
It is worth reading the story because the accompanying photo is so heartbreaking, and one is horribly familiar to any New Yorker — it is a wall with posters and photos of missing workers, posted by their loved ones, seeking them. After the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, struck down by two jet airliners, there was an equally feverish, often insane, hope that the thousands of workers trapped in those buildings might have escaped alive.
Some did. Many did not.
But their posters were plastered all over the city. They were truly “Wanted” posters, but too often in vain. You could not look at them, even if you knew no one affected, and not want to weep.
It is hard to know what, if anything, one can usefully say about this Dhaka disaster, the largest (so far) such industry accident in history:
— That the workers were very far away from the people who buy and wear the clothes they make
— That they earn, on average, $37 a month
— That they are completely without political and economic power since this industry is essential to the nation’s economy
— Find out which manufacturers, (if possible), were sub-contracting work to Rana, and Tazreen, site of another major Bangladeshi garment factory fire that killed 112 workers and boycott all their products
— And spread the word through social media
Here’s a story about Aminul Islam, who tried to organize Bangladeshi garment factory workers.
Hubby left and again, he had to stop off at the gas station to fill up his car. He drives around 150 miles per day for his job. And yes! he drives a fuel efficient car that gets between 35 and 40mpg. But it’s not working out like we planned. With the cost of gas at over $4.15 a gallon (and still rising) and the tightness of available money, it’s becoming a nightmare, with no end in sight.
While at the gas pump, the woman in the next booth came over to my husband and asked him if he had any money to give her. “I need money to buy gas” she said “to get to work. I don’t have any money to buy gas to get to work nor even come back from work and get home. Do you have any money to give me, man?” DH then realized the reality of our own financial predicament. He told the woman that he had just been fighting with his own wife over the tightness of money and our own inability to buy food and gas and pay looming tax bills.
“The only money I have that I can give you is this dollar bill,” he said and handed the woman the paper dollar bill I found in the parking lot yesterday.
I had breakfast the other morning, (total cost $11.00 for both, plus $1.00 for parking), with a friend who is single and freelancing and faces monthly living costs of $4,000; just her rent and health insurance is $2,000 every month. She has no savings anymore, having won and lost several jobs in our field over the past few years.
She has worked her whole life, like me, in journalism, and at 58 knows that the odds of finding a new full-time job that allows her to meet her living costs and save for retirement are slim-to-none.
Going back to college? For her, financially impossible. Taking some sort of quick, cheap credential? Maybe — but, really, given a choice of a 30, 40 or 58-year-old, who’s going to hire someone that age?
For millions of hard-working, educated, skilled and experienced Americans, a hand-to-mouth existence is the new normal. Especially those over the age of 50.
Matt Ides has a doctorate in history and extensive teaching experience. Unable to find a full-time, tenure-track job, he took an adjunct teaching position at Eastern Michigan University, where he was paid $3,500 per class. He taught five classes one semester and four the next. One more class and the university would have had to consider him a full-time employee under university policy.
If not for his girlfriend’s salary, he said, “I would have had to live in a one-room apartment and eat soup every day.”
I moved to the U.S. in January 1988. As a brand-new driver, I was exquisitely attuned to the costs of owning, insuring and fueling a vehicle. Gas, then, cost 89 cents a gallon — today, it’s between $3.90 and $4.15 or more.
The price of groceries has shot through the roof. The cost of commuting to New York City, a daily necessity for my husband who works there, and for me to meet with clients and actually enjoy Manhattan occasionally, just rose, again, by 10 percent.
Jose and some others at his workplace are represented by a union, initially offered a 0 percent (yes) raise by his employer, The New York Times. They won a fat 2 percent a year — and the Times is considered, by some, a career pinnacle, a place you work long and hard to achieve.
I recently pulled out some old paperwork, and found an invoice from 1997 — 16 years ago — for $900. I just accepted an assignment last week from the Times for $900.
Nothing, anywhere — shoes, clothes, food, gas, insurance, dental bills, haircuts — costs what it did 16 years ago. Anyone attending university in the U.S. knows this firsthand, as tuition costs have skyrocketed, while incomes are stagnant and jobs hard to find.
Here’s the story of a graduate student at Duke, (named for the tobacco fortune family who founded it), who lived in a van in a parking lot so he could actually afford school. In a van.
Few of us are less educated, more stupid, more lazy or unwilling to work hard than we were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.
I’ve thought about moving far upstate, where we could probably buy an old house for cash and pay very little in property taxes. Socially? Death. Professionally, nothing would be there for my husband, who makes almost three times what I do. Making an even longer commute — with less time for himself and for us? Not a great option either.
So, moving isn’t really a smart choice. Neither Jose or I, (both award-winning veterans in our field), have advanced degrees, so no teaching jobs are open to us, even as a poorly-paid adjunct.
I had lunch recently with an editor who did exactly that, moved to the Catskills with her husband and baby. She lasted two miserable, lonely, broke years and now lives back in Manhattan.
We could, I suppose, go to a much smaller, rural place somewhere very far away in the Midwest — distant from our friends, colleagues, neighbors and social networks. But I tried rural life, for 18 months when I was 30. Sorry, for those who thrive on it, I hated it, never so lonely, broke and miserable in my life. Unless in that other place you have dear friends, loving family and/or steady work that will really help you thrive, I don’t see much appeal in moving anywhere else at this point.
And every day, right over my head, I hear the sound of income inequality — as a helicopter thud-thud-thuds across the sky very close to my balcony. It’s a Rockefeller, flying to work in Manhattan, 25 miles south; their huge, gated estate lies about a 10-minute drive north of our town.
When you work for yourself, alone, you tend to think you can — and should — do it all. You get used to not having a boss, or colleagues or tech support or a janitor or security guards, any of the other people that normally surround us in an office or work setting.
You’re the CEO, CIO, CFO, R & D….and the janitor!
So hiring and paying others for their skills is something I have to force myself (Ms. Cheap) to do, while knowing it’s going to help me do my work better and faster. We all need a few smart brains to help us think through a problem that just stares us in the face sticking its tongue out…
And there’s a fun, honest piece on outsourcing grooming and fashion help from the current issue of American beauty magazine Allure, (which they offer no online link to):
I wish the tech nerds would get together with the fashion nerds and invent a company that would not only body-map the exact topography and physique of my physique, but also take it a step further and send me the following items in my exact size — hosiery, socks, T-shirts, jeans and bras.
And another, from one of my favorite blogs, by singer Jessie Veeder, (which always has spectacular photos of her life on a ranch):
for all the Valentines Days I’ve been able to share with with a cute and thoughtful boy who turned out to be a man who makes the coffee nice and strong, searches for his clothes in the early hours of the morning with a headlamp so he doesn’t wake me, knows his way around a kitchen, unclogs the clogs, fixes broken things and promises he will be there tonight when I sing again, no matter the hours and miles he has to put in at work today.
A few of those helping me get it done these days:
The redoubtable C
It seems too unlikely to find and hire a terrific assistant through reading her blog, and vice versa, but that’s what happened. (A well-written blog lets readers know who you are and how you think and what your values are, so I felt no fear asking her to work with me as a researcher and general dogsbody.) She lives very far away from me and always will, although there’s a chance we’ll meet this summer. Her energy, enthusiasm, smarts and humor are a godsend. Here’s a link to her blog, Small Dog Syndrome.
Ricky comes to our apartment every two weeks to clean it. I pay her $55 for about 90 minutes’ work, a fee some of my friends consider a lot of money. Not me. She’s quiet, efficient, meticulous and allows me to focus on high-value work. And she’s nice.
My hairdresser of more than a decade.
A local hairdresser in my suburban town, she’s happy to meet me at 7:30 a.m. to do my hair, necessary when I’m asked to do a TV appearance. No, I can’t begin to approximate the quality of a professional blow-out! (And it’s a business expense.)
He created my main website, caitlinkelly.com, which is due for a major re-do. We spent a good hour on the phone recently — as he now lives in Portland, Oregon — trying to figure it all out. I’m grateful for someone who’s known me so long and watched my career and skills morph since we put the site up in 1995, when very few writers even had one.
My financial planner in Toronto. OK, he’s not mine — he handles 100 accounts, mine among them. I’ve heard his gravel voice for years, but finally met him face to face recently and we chewed around some ideas for my portfolio. Given that mine may easily be the smallest he manages, I’m lucky he’s as gracious and helpful as he is.
My accountant for more than a decade. Even in my scariest, nail-biting, can-I-pay-the-bills years, and there have been a few, Peter has been encouraging, warm and proud of my ability to save 15 to 20 percent of my income — as a percentage, far more, he tells me, than clients earning much, more more. He even makes filing my taxes pleasant!
In May 2010, it was he, a massage therapist who knows me and my pain threshold all too well, who figured out something was seriously wrong with my left hip due to the sort of 24/7 pain I was suffering. After another MRI, at Tony’s urging, the dismissive surgeon who had given me steroids that destroyed my hip bone, said those three fateful words: “We missed that.”
Assorted helpful colleagues
The one serious drawback of working alone at home all day? Loneliness, isolation and brain-freeze. With no one across the desk or in the next cubicle to ask for help or advice or to brainstorm with, you can quickly burn out. My friend K, in Nova Scotia, always makes me at least 32% smarter after every call, no matter what the subject. G, in upstate New York, is high-energy and optimistic, and W., a new friend in Montreal, brims with fantastic ideas and helpful connections.
Roy and Yvonne
Every time I do a local event for my book, the owners of The Village Bookstore, one of only seven bookstores left in our large and affluent county, come out with a box of books and the hope that, after my presentation, we’ll sell some. Sometimes the drive is 45 minutes each way. No matter what the hour or weather or day, they’re there and cheerful and I’m grateful!
I have two. This one is ten years younger and runs his own software company, a fact that leaves me awestruck. The other day I needed all sorts of advice on creating and protecting IP — intellectual property — for a new project I’m working on. He totally got it and referred me to his patent expert and an IP lawyer. It’s really helpful to have someone I know, like and trust who sees all the issues and had dealt with many of them already.
I had neglected (!) to include him in this initial list, which proves how ungrateful utterly reliant I’ve become in 13 years on his good will, good humor, generosity and energy. I hate buying anything to do with technology — I’m cheap, hate making major financial commitments and yet appreciate every single thing he’s bought for me/us, including the coolest thing ever, a MiFi, the size of a credit card which turns anywhere, (short of the Grand Canyon), into an instant wi-fi spot. He also does all the laundry, some cooking and, far more safety conscious than I, thinks of things like — “Hmm, we’re driving up to Canada in the winter. Maybe we need new snow tires.” Which we desperately did. I’m lucky that he, too, has been a journalist, (albeit on the photo side), since his freshman year of college as I did, so he’s helped me many times with work dilemmas.
Who is essential to helping you run your life better or more easily these days?
A 2011 poll found that Americans had left 9.2 unused vacation days that year.
With a recession still in play for millions who would like nothing more than the chance to work 40 or more paid hours per week, working less is a privileged notion, a message meant for those of us lucky enough to have jobs, or freelance work.
It’s also a difficult-to-impossible luxury for people whose jobs come in shifts that require seven to 12 hours of non-stop work: cops, nurses, public transit workers, cabbies and firefighters, to name a few. One taxi driver I spoke to in Montreal, a man of 42, this week told me he works 70 hours a week — and barely makes $700 for his trouble.
THINK for a moment about your typical workday. Do you wake up tired? Check your e-mail before you get out of bed? Skip breakfast or grab something on the run that’s not particularly nutritious? Rarely get away from your desk for lunch? Run from meeting to meeting with no time in between? Find it nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of e-mail you receive? Leave work later than you’d like, and still feel compelled to check e-mail in the evenings?
More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace. Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less. A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal — including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations — boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.
I admit, I heartily agree. I do all of these:
short afternoon naps
longer sleep hours
more time away from the office
longer, more frequent vacations
while also being very aware that many people — like the millions working retail jobs, for example — enjoy zero flexibility in when and how they schedule their time. When I worked the 1-9pm shift during my time as a sales associate at The North Face, (the subject of my book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail), our “dinner” break might be ordered at 4 or 5pm.
And, with job security a hopeless fantasy, many office workers are simply too busy, or too scared to be seen “slacking off”, to even leave their desk for a meal, let alone head out for a walk, bike ride, yoga class or the gym during their workday.
I’ve stayed freelance for the control it gives me over my daily schedule and yearly activities. I just took two weeks away from my home/office in New York to visit Ontario and Montreal, and spent three of those days working.
Thanks to wi-fi and my laptop, and my work, I can basically work almost anywhere. After a grueling full day of interviewing people for a Times story on Wednesday, I came home and finished up an email interview, a quick turnaround of 500 words for a new client, at 10:30 that night. So much for Montreal nightlife!
I’ll be in D.C. for a few days in early May, and probably visit Jose in Tucson in late May where he’ll be teaching. We’ve planned a two-week trip to Newfoundland in September. That’s already 5 to 6 weeks’ vacation planned for 2013, with a break for me every three months or less. Whenever I pull in a decent income, the first impulse I have — paradoxically perhaps — is to take some time off, to travel, to see some art or ballet or theater to re-boot my creative juices and simply enjoy life.
Also from the Times article:
Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance. Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward. For one of the breaks, I ran.
I’ve noticed this in my breaks as well — even a full 24 hours fully devoted to one’s own schedule of amusement can prove extremely restorative.
My final day in Montreal could have been a frenzy of rushed shopping or sight-seeing. Instead a friend from the 1980s when I worked there at the Gazette joined us for lunch. We reminisced for more than 3 hours. I then went for an exfoliation, an hour of bliss and eucalyptus-scented steam, and Jose and I went to a terrific and lively new restaurant, Hotel Herman, for dinner. The joint was jumping. We sat at the central bar and bumped elbows with fellow diners, one of whom was a museum curator from Chantilly who showed me a photo on her cellphone of her horse, Kalinka.
Our Montreal meals usually lasted 1.5 to three hours. Just not rushing was a great relief and deep, unaccustomed pleasure for two journalists who have been working to deadline since our undergrad years at college.
We’re back home now, a little broke but sated and refreshed.