Feeling blah? Many of us are

By Caitlin Kelly

This recent New York Times piece summed it up well:

the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.

In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless.

Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

Maybe like some of you, I’ve been a bit shocked — before reading this story — at how little I have felt the normal drive to work and work and work.

It isn’t just about income, as Grant says:

The pandemic was a big loss. To transcend languishing, try starting with small wins, like the tiny triumph of figuring out a whodunit or the rush of playing a seven-letter word. One of the clearest paths to flow is a just-manageable difficulty: a challenge that stretches your skills and heightens your resolve. That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you — an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step toward rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you’ve missed during all these months.

We are privileged to not have the burdens of massive debt or kids or grand-kids or parents to support. We have savings. A recent lucrative and easy assignment out of the blue paid enough, (rare but lovely!) I could coast for even a few months.

And so I have been.

I’ve been focused instead on some work in our apartment, with managing a sudden and unexpected arrival of my late mother’s belongings and art from British Columbia, with trying to sell a book proposal seven agents have already rejected, (and managing my battered ego as I try to decide whether to just give up or not), and with slowly healing a sprained wrist and knee from a bad fall March 12.

Plus a lot of medical tests and for now, I’m fine.

My small win?

I’ve become addicted to the NYT Spelling Bee, an online daily challenge making words using some or all of that day’s seven letters. Some days are a lot easier than others — a recent one had 66 words! Whew.

Jose and I recently joined a new gym and it’s huge and spotless and welcoming and I am re-starting my routines, with a set of quite challenging weight exercises set for me by a trainer.

BUT….Here’s a really interesting different POV from artist and author Austin Kleon, arguing we’re dormant instead:

I feel very lucky to be married to a gardener, because gardening gives us rich metaphors for creative work that we don’t get from our business-focused productivity-obsessed culture. (I dedicated the last chapter of Keep Going, “Plant Your Garden,” to seasons and cyclical time.)

Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova posted a lovely meditation on a passage from Olivia Laing’s essay about Derek Jarman from her book, Funny Weather:

Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades.

Gardeners not only develop a different sense of time, they develop the ancient wisdom of knowing when to do things:

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…

a collection of Google Image Search results for dormant plants

It seems to me that the reason that so many of us feel like we’re languishing is that we are trying to flourish in terrible conditions. It is spring outside — or the “unlocking” season — but it is still “Winter in America,” and, as any gardener knows, if you try to wake a plant out of dormancy too soon, it will wither, and maybe die.

Are you languishing?

Dormant?

Maybe….thriving?

Seven pandemic questions

By Caitlin Kelly

I really enjoyed this New York Times special section where they asked a range of artists — 75 in all –these questions:

Some produced nothing.

Some went into overdrive.

Some did a lot of cooking.

Some binged on much older works of art, from the Iliad to old movies.

My replies:

If you’d known you’d be so isolated for so long, what would you have done differently?

I would have rented a house somewhere upstate and fled our apartment. It’s been a challenge with two people home all the time working, between no privacy and noise and endless cooking and cleaning. Even fled overseas or back to Canada.

Did you find a friendship that helped you through this time?

My husband has been the best and most consistent.

What’s one thing you made this year?

My book proposal.

What’s the one moment you’ll remember most?

Two…my last gasps of non-COVID travel, seeing friends in D.C. in early March 2020, and a Degas show there. And the (thank God) defeat of Trump.

What art have you turned to?

I watch way too much television: new shows, older shows, new movies, older movies. Have tried to read books but with less success. My Insta account includes several people who highlight works of art and this has been really sustaining. Music, every day, thanks to my vinyl and global radio and Sirius XM.

What bad idea did you have?

My book proposal — so far proving impossible to sell. Very frustrating.

What do you want to achieve before things return to normal?

Lose more weight. Get really thoughtful about who I will spend time with.

How about you?

How would you answer any or all of these?

A personal update

By Caitlin Kelly

Like many of you, I’m pooped!

We’re coming up on a year of the pandemic and I can’t see getting access to a vaccination for months — even as Jose and I newly qualify.

I’ve been trying for months to find an agent who wants to represent my book proposal. I’m extremely frustrated at how slow this process is and how it feels like begging for attention — it is — even after having already sold and published two books with major publishers.

The fantasy is that agents are cool, smart, helpful.

Some are.

Some are just…really rude. Like the one I was referred to a few years ago, at a fancy New York City agency. I described the book I hoped to produce and he warned me not to be…shrill. For Christ’s sake.

Then the one this year, also referred by a friend, who hadn’t even bothered to look at my work or realize I had already published twice before.

The lack of respect is appalling, fed by the thousands and thousands of people desperate for a book deal. It’s not pretty.

There are a few ways to find an agent. If you have friends who write in your genre, and are generous, several will offer you a referral to theirs, who may or may not want your book or not be a fit. Or you go find books similar to yours and see who the agent was the author thanked and try them. Or…cold pitch strangers.

None of which is quick or easy or fun.

I’ve also been facing a battery of medical tests to determine why my blood has excess iron. Turns out I have a genetic mutation that causes it but still have to have an MRI of my liver to make sure there isn’t another reason as well. The solution to the former is 16th century — blood-letting!

And I have been trying and trying and trying to lose weight, starting with intermittent fasting November 1. I see my GP Feb. 23 and will see what progress, if any, this has made for my health.

Add to this pile ‘o stress the loss or fading of several friendships.

I know COVID has affected many people, if not their health, their attention span or ability to spare time for others. But it’s hard to go through this much stuff all at once without people to talk to, so I’ve been over-burdening my husband. I very rarely cry, but it’s been a time of tears here recently.

Sheer frustration!

And none of this, objectively, is terrible.

No one but me cares if I sell this damn book

Only my GP cares if I lose weight.

The liver issue won’t require surgery.

And we are very lucky to have work and savings and no one else dependent on us, as so many are.

I really really miss travel!

But I’m cooked.

Only after writing it all down, getting it out of my head, did I realize that trying to manage three damn difficult things at the same time — each of which is slow as hell and anxiety-producing and the successful outcome of which is, to some degree, beyond my control — is so tiring.

Yes, I’m impatient!

I work my ass off and I’m generally used to succeeding,

I loathe failing.

Like everyone, I hate medical surprises; I had no clue my liver was weird. No symptoms. This all showed up thanks to a routine blood test.

I really hate grovelling to find an agent — meeting repeated rejection — watching everyone crow on social media about their book, movie and TV deals.

Sorry if this is all too tedious or whiny,

But it’s where things are right now.

How are you doing?!

Home for the holidays?

By Caitlin Kelly

Not for me!

I haven’t been back to my native Canada since summer 2019, when I was reporting a major story and attended a northern Ontario conference.

My father lives alone in rural Ontario; at 91 he has to be very careful about exposure to the virus, even though he’s in pretty good health. If I tried to go up, I’d face a two-week quarantine, so I’ve chosen not to.

The pandemic has killed almost 250,000 Americans and infected millions worldwide.

In the U.S. Thanksgiving is a huge event for many people, the one holiday that gets people to travel far and wide to celebrate with family or friends.

This year?

It’s just too dangerous!

We’ll be at home, just the two of us, but that’s been our norm for many years, as Jose’s family all live very long drives away from us and his closest sister heads further south to visit her own adult children.

Yet many Americans — as usual — insist they’ll host as many people as they like and the virus is a hoax and all those morgue trucks full of COVID corpses are…some sort of illusion.

How about you?

Do you have Thanksgiving plans?

What about Hannukah or Eid or Kwanzaa or Christmas?

Has COVID changed your priorities?

By Caitlin Kelly

No one would ever dare suggest that a lethal virus is a good thing.

No one could have imagined that more than 200,000 Americans would already have died — and many more now suffer serious long-term effects.

But I’ve started to notice some changes in how we think and behave that, oddly and maybe shockingly, feel better for some of us — while hurting others! — than how we all lived, unquestioningly, before.

Shared and public places are much less crowded

Thousands of small businesses have closed. Disney laid off 28,000 employees and airline staff, from cleaners to veteran pilots, are out of work.

So it’s not kind to be happy about that. But if you, like me, loathe crowds of all sorts, even before they were potentially life-threatening, this is a huge relief. Our town YMCA recently finally re-opened and the pool has four lanes, open now only one swimmer at a time. (Normally, five, which I would find really uncomfortable. Having someone tap my foot to pass? NO.)

Since my beloved spin class is long gone, I’ve started doing three pool visits a week and sometimes have it all to myself. I would never have experienced our old, overcrowded Y as luxurious — but this is.

I miss such fun, silly, spontaneous moments — like meeting Canadian comedian Mike Myers at a Canadian consulate event in Manhattan

We’re being very , very selective about our relationships


In normal life, we tend to include a lot of people — face to face or through social media — who we may not especially like or admire. It’s a sort of social lubrication, necessary to get things done smoothly and efficiently, even when it’s basically pretty insincere.

In a time of terrible political division, with millions refusing to wear masks it’s really not a wise use of our limited energy to argue with anyone anywhere.

We need every ounce of it for ourselves and families and pets and true loved ones. This is a good thing! Conserve energy.

Now, certainly, seeing anyone in person means de facto assuming risk — even if you’re both masked or outdoors and well-spaced. Is this relationship worth it now?

Why?

Fewer relationships can also make for deeper emotional connection

I’ve noticed this. By the time I make a phone date or set aside time to be with someone face to face, why make chitchat? I’ve never been a fan of it, anyway, and now, with COVID’s sudden and invisible lethality/mortality so much closer to all of us, it’s no time for performative intimacy.

We’re being very clear and direct about what we need and expect of one another

I have a friend of many years, a fellow Canadian who runs her own successful business, and who has invited us many times this year to their country house. Much as I appreciate her generosity, I just won’t go and keep saying so.

I finally wrote her a very blunt — not angry — email explaining why: she interacts, for her work, with a lot of people. Many of them are very wealthy and rich New Yorkers (like many wealthy people) do what they please. So I don’t trust their choices, which may affect my friend and me and my husband.

Luckily, Jose and I are fine…This is him earlier in 2020 photographing the Pulitzers at Columbia University in New York City

Lousy relationships and marriages are under an intense new microscope when we have nowhere to flee

There are few experiences more miserable than being confined to (small) quarters for months on end with someone you really don’t like or love.

Here’s a New York Times essay about Coronavirus divorce:

In regular times, we’re always in motion, we’re always hustling, we’re always consuming, striving, climbing, struggling to get from A to B. And if you are unhappy with your relationships or your marriage, there’s a thousand ways to distract yourself: travel, work, socializing. I’m told that some people golf.

Now, all of a sudden, everyone has to be still. There’s no place to go but inward.

We’re all seriously re-examining our choices, whether about where we work, who we work with/for and how (hard) and where we really want to live now

This is huge.

City dwellers are fleeing to suburban or rural areas, desperate for outdoor physical space and the ability to distance from others. On my recent four-day visit to small-town Pennsylvania — about a 90 minute drive from Manhattan — every real estate listing I read said “pending” and a local told me her realtor friend was working 70-hour weeks.

American life — with no unions, low wages and a relentless capitalist drumbeat of DO MORE FASTER NOW — is typically really exhausting. The pandemic is now forcing millions to think, behave, work and relate differently, and for many months yet to come, whether managers or workers or the self-employed.

Some are planning to leave the United States.

Yes, it’s really hurting some people — mothers of small children especially are at their wits’ end, (one crying on-air on a recent national TV show after being fired by a boss who said “Figure it out” while managing a one year old and four year old at home.)

If nothing good comes of this massive upheaval, maybe it’s some long overdue change.

How has the pandemic changed you?

By Caitlin Kelly

I can’t recall a year recently — maybe the crash of 2008, 9/11 — that has so radically and permanently changed our world, and how we experience it.

I was an adult for both of these and both affected me deeply, as it did for millions of others, even those who did not lose a loved one to 9/11. I’ve never gone down to the memorial in Manhattan. I have enough memories of it.

This terrible and relentless year has shifted so much of how we think and behave and what we expect from government and one another.

Here’s some of how it’s changed me:

I’m more fearful.

I hate that! I’ve always prided myself on being bold and up for new adventure. But when everyone around you can be an invisible vector of disease? Not so much.

I have to calculate risk every single day, not just on rare occasions.

We live in New York state, where the current infection rate is a reassuring one percent. But for how long? I have eaten inside a restaurant a few times, with tables far apart and people masked when not eating. But a recent meal, even far from the table of eight, left me worried after they sang Happy Birthday, since singing spreads virus. Now I have to hope their celebration won’t sicken me.

I’m short-tempered and tired

Who isn’t?!

We don’t even have to home school children, but we are two self-employed workers sharing an apartment with no office space. Constant mask-wearing drives me mad, even while I do it and know it’s necessary. I’m sick to death of the political incompetence and lies that has killed 200,000 Americans and the fools who worship the man who made it happen.

If you haven’t read it, this is a smart analysis of how we feel and why.

An excerpt:

It was, as I’d soon describe in an emotional post in a social media group of professional colleagues, an “anxiety-tainted depression mixed with ennui that I can’t kick,” along with a complete inability to concentrate. I spoke with my therapist, tweaked medication dosages, went outside daily for fresh air and sunlight, tried to force myself to do some physical activity, and even gave myself permission to mope for a few weeks. We were in a pandemic, after all, and I had already accepted in March that life would not be “normal” for at least a year or two. But I still couldn’t work, couldn’t focus, hadn’t adjusted. Shouldn’t I be used to this by now?

“Why do you think you should be used to this by now? We’re all beginners at this,” Masten told me. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.”

My social circle has shrunk

It’s minuscule. Gone are the friendly quick moments of banter in our apartment hallways and laundry room, at the grocery store or gym. I speak to a small handful of people by phone and restrict my access to others. We hosted a couple a few weeks ago for the first time in six months — on our balcony, with a breeze. When winter forces us all indoors again, I dread the isolation.

I don’t make plans for the future beyond a week or two

This is deeply unsettling. But who can?

My greatest pleasure is usually travel. Not now.

I went away for four days — planned to be six — to an inn in Pennsylvania but left early, bored and restless and alienated by Trump signs for miles.

When every encounter now carries physical risk, the reward had better be amazing! But because of COVID, so many experiences are smaller or diminished and altered in ways that are just annoying, that, for me, sap the joy and spontaneity out of the whole endeavor.

I’m even more reliant on my husband than ever.

When we’re now able to see so few people, our marriage has to be a source of daily sustenance in ways it never has. We’ve been together 20 years and really enjoy one another’s company. But it’s a lot to expect of one other tired, cranky human being!

Routines matter much more than they once did.

When the world is in such daily and mismanaged chaos — floods, fires, hurricanes, daily political malfeasance, racism, violence — even the simplest routines become deeply grounding and comforting. For me, it’s everything from two newspapers a day, in print, to Netflix binges at night or my 4:00 p.m. pot of tea. This is not a good time to feel untethered.

How has it changed you?

A perfect afternoon

By Caitlin Kelly

If there’s one activity I’ve missed more than maybe any other thanks to this pandemic — it’s hosting old friends for a delicious meal and hours of great conversation.

Finally, yesterday, we did, and a married couple — both journalists — came up, and with us outdoors, with lots of breeze, it was pure pleasure!

They live in the city but we hadn’t seen them in six months, and a parent had died in June and we had a lot to catch up on.

We baked a salmon and I tried out two new recipes from my Gordon Ramsay cookbook — a green bean/almond salad with honey/mustard dressing and a fantastic cooked lentil salad with roasted zucchini, red pepper and sun dried tomatoes.

Plus our favorite champagne and a bottle of sauvignon blanc and two gorgeous creamy cheeses and baguette and chocolate cake…

The weather was perfect and, with the change of seasons, the balcony was still in shade by 4:30 as they left…it had been sunny by 2:00 p.m. just a few weeks ago.

Our friend was a Times colleague of Jose’s who since re-trained as a medical yoga instructor. Her husband is mostly retired but does translation work. We’ve all covered major stories, have lived in different countries, have shared memories of work and our families.

A deep friendship takes time.

It takes attention.

It takes remembering.

Luxuries/Necessities

IMG_6173Luxury!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Like some others I know, this recent New York Times story, about people toughing out their pandemic in their second home, left me annoyed with its timing…with millions of other scared and broke Americans now facing eviction.

As they say — read the room!

Yes, I know there are rich people!

I know many of them read the Times.

But really?

While living full-time in places that usually get much less wear and tear, these homeowners share many of the same difficulties as anyone dealing with the coronavirus lockdown — working in communal spaces where their children now are present 24-7, discovering items in their homes that need updating, and then renovating a home while they are living in it. In addition, these homeowners must adjust to living in relatively unfamiliar towns, often far from friends, family, or creature comforts like a favorite bagel shop or longtime barber.

People assumed this must be a parody.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how much we can — and now must — forego.

Any form of amusement in a shared interior space? Gone!

Worshiping en masse indoors or not socially distanced outdoors? Gone!

Haircut and color? Gone, still, for many.

Massages, tattoos, other forms of out-sourced grooming? Gone!

Libraries? Gone! A few have gone to interesting lengths, from curbside delivery in brown paper shopping bags to home delivery by drone.

Oh, and travel? Forget it. In-state only, and even then only if you live in a state (only 16 left now in the U.S.) not devastated by huge numbers of COVID cases. New York lost more than 20,000 people to this virus, but thanks to millions of others who dismissed all those morgue trucks as a fantasy — we’re all now shut inside the borders of a nation in economic ruin. Awesome!

So it’s been a powerful lesson, beyond food and shelter, in what we once might have considered necessities — and know now for sure are luxuries.

 

 

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A while back, I gave some insider advice about writing a book to an MD I follow on Twitter, something I normally charge for. I didn’t. A bit later, he dropped a really nice gift into my PayPal account and I splurged for these!

 

A few luxuries I appreciate have remained possible: fresh flowers (now often from our small balcony garden), perfume and some new clothes and sandals, ordered by mail and a few bought in-store, and a quick four-day trip upstate to visit a friend and two nights’ hotel.

 

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I treated myself to a subscription, in print, (which I keep for years!) this magazine that’s hard to find here, and am in heaven swooning over 16th century cottages and gorgeous gardens, a happy substitute until, someday, I can get back there.

All of it wonderful.

For parents, certainly of multiple small children, not being able to rely on out-of-home childcare or schooling is a huge stressor with no calm, competent leadership anywhere on this in sight. STILL.

How absurd that education and childcare — both absolute necessities for a functioning economy while also safeguarding health — have suddenly become luxuries, with the most privileged snapping up teachers to teach locally-formed pods.

We’ve been very lucky to have steady work, bizarre in a time of such privation, but very aware of how lucky we are, especially as two full-time freelancers.

We’re very lucky to have savings.

And, for now, our health.

These are the necessities.

 

Everything else is now a luxury.

 

Soldiering on

IMG_1486

 

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my favorite films is Dr. Zhivago, with an unforgettable scene of a long line of exhausted, worn-out soldiers trudging forward.

To “soldier on” means to keep going, doing something that’s difficult, not giving up when you’re tired and discouraged and just fed up.

(It’s also a non-profit group dedicated to ending homelessness for veterans.)

It’s now been five months since COVID began to dominate our lives — with more than 137,000 Americans dead, thousands more soon to join them.

It’s been a long time to readjust, albeit immediately, to a world we never wanted: terrified of catching a disease that, if it doesn’t kill you, can radically damage your health for years to come. A world where parents, somehow, have had to school their own children or supervise their online learning in addition to earning an income in a full-time job.

And there’s no end in sight.

I live in New York, now one of the few states that flattened the curve because we listened early to the directions of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Is it fun to isolate?

To stay home most of the time?

To avoid all social gatherings?

To postpone medical, dental and grooming appointments?

Let alone to miss culture-in-person — dance,  music, museums theater, movies.

Hell, no!

And the single greatest problem with being a soldier right now is the stunning lack of leadership, of a general with a clue, with a strategy and tactics. We’re fighting the virus with very few weapons — masks, social distancing, ventilators, proning, remdesivir — and losing what feels like an endless battle.

Still.

I often deeply wish that the veterans of WWII were not so old, the few left alive, to share more widely and consistently the shared sense of sacrifice and solidarity that somehow got them through it all.

The enemy, Nazism and genocide, was clear(er) then and the fight, however long and expensive and bloody, was one most people agreed was essential to win, no matter the personal sacrifices. It was a matter of pride, then, to share the sacrifice, to know what you were doing to help really mattered and your colleagues, friends, family and neighbors largely agreed.

Not to whine that a mask contravenes your liberty — just like blackout curtains or rationing once did as well.

Today, somehow, a lethal virus is still not as clear an enemy — and thousands refuse to believe it even exists, like the 30-year-old whose last regretful words were: “I thought it was a hoax.”

 

But soldier on we must.

What I miss now — and what I don’t

 

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Early March,  Middleburg, VA. My last breath of freedom for a while. I miss travel!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been two months now of self-isolation, at least here in New York.

It will last at least another month, maybe two.

I only go out for walks and, maybe once or twice a week, to buy groceries or go to the hardware store or pharmacy.

It makes me feel normal, even though, of course, I’m wearing a mask.

Here’s what I miss most:

 

Leisurely, spontaneous chats, whether at the gym or on the street or in the hallway or lobby of our apartment building.

Spin class, three mornings a week. Super-fun, energizing and social. Helps with weight management.

Going to movies at my favorite local art film theater, sometimes three times a week, with popcorn.

A lazy afternoon wandering a few blocks of Manhattan, usually with a good meal or a drink.

Browsing stores. I rarely buy stuff, but I do enjoy looking.

 

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Grand Central, taken from the balcony restaurant Cipriani

 

Grand Central Terminal, the station I commute from to our suburban town. It’s truly gorgeous, a cathedral of bustling elegance.

Having friends over for a meal, setting a pretty table to welcome them.

Sunshine! We have had truly depressing, terrible weather, week after week, with rain and temperatures in the 40s.

Our gorgeous, quiet, large, sun-filled town library with its tall ceilings and windows. I love sitting at one of its long wooden tables and savoring the silence.

Dressing well — make-up and decent clothes and pretty shoes. Not much point now!

 

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Our last big trip, a week here in June 2019

 

Travel! It’s normal for us to always be planning our next trip, whether upstate to visit friends or back to Canada or overseas. I really really miss it.

A decent head of hair! Ohhhhh, I miss the hair salon.

What I don’t:

 

The New York subway, dirty and crowded.

Driving everywhere all the time. It’s not healthy for me or the environment, but also typical of suburban life with lousy public transportation and towns without sidewalks.

 

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Too many magazines — we’ve drastically cut back on our subscriptions and I feel less overwhelmed.

Constant airplane and helicopter noise. We’re on a flight path to Westchester airport and live near the Rockefeller estate, so normal life adds a daily barrage of inescapable aviation noise.

Traffic! The streets and highways are practically empty.

Stupid public relations pitches. Normally, I get probably a few dozen every day, none of them of any interest to me. I find it really annoying. Now I get many fewer. Yay!

Robo-calls. Also much diminished.

Oddly, my friends. I’ve stayed in close contact with the people I value most, by phone or email or Skype. The rest? No time or energy anyway.

 

How about you?