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.

Sharkproofing 101: Seven Lessons For New 'Entrepreneurs'

Picture taken at Georgia Aquarium, pictured is...
Just when you thought it was safe to go into business for yourself....Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking a lot about this “entrepreneurial” thing of late.

One of the enduring challenges, sometimes the primary challenge, of working on your own, is knowing how to discern the predators and make sure you protect yourself from them, or stay out of their way. Whatever their motives, sometimes without motive — you’re just collateral damage — they can inflict serious harm to your income, your confidence, sometimes your reputation.

An an entrepreneur, without an excellent credit score, you’re toast. If people don’t pay you, (on time or ever) and you’re late paying your bills, kiss your excellent credit score goodbye. Bottom of the food chain, baby.

Welcome to planktonworld!

I learned this sad lesson when I was only 19, still in college, and working freelance like a madwoman to make as much money as possible; I lived alone and paid my way through university. One of the magazine publishers — this happens a lot, I would see over the next few years — screwed a bunch of us out of earned income for work used. We had to sign some “we won’t sue” document to collect pennies on our pay.

I ran into this guy at some party a few months later. Silly me! I thought he was…broke! I had pictured him wearing a barrel, begging for apples on the street, living in his car. Hah! Useful and memorable lesson. In the fall of 2008, two magazines in the space of two months tried, again, to screw me out of more money. Thank God for lawyers!

I recently heard — chutzpah! In the heartland! — from another deadbeat publisher who I had to sue to get my money from. Turns out I gave her all rights to my unpublished material in so doing (about four stories) so she made out like…a bandit. Now she asks if I’d like to work with her again.

See: snowball, hell.

Every single person who works for themself, for now or forever, needs to know these.

Sharkproofing 101

1) Join every possible professional group in any way related to your field, specialty, industry: alumni groups, LinkedIn groups, professional organizations. Even if you’re a fresh grad with no connections, make some, today. They have listservs and newsletters and on-line forums and chat rooms where pro’s will dish freely and name names. How else will you know who to avoid?

2) Because knowledge — of the deadbeats and cheaters — is power. For fear of being sued, very few professionals will name names publicly. But, for example, within the American Society of Journalists and Authors (on whose board I sit), we have a Warning List, available only to our members. Several Very Big Magazines are on there so we know not to bother working with them. It costs a fat $200 a year to join ASJA; saving your butt, if you meet our qualifications, is surely worth $16.66 a month. Freelance Success is also a great resource.

3) Know a lawyer who will answer your email and call promptly. Use them whenever necessary.

4) Keep an excellent FICO score and five-figure, low-interest line if credit open and available to you at all times. I am about to ditch Chase — hellooooo? — for their appalling, greedy new habit of charging me $30 every time I access my line of credit. The one they already cut and won’t restore and charge me double-digit interest on — and, wait there’s more! — told I was lucky it was only $30. After $90 in charges in one week, I took this issue to TD Bank where a banker said, “Hm. Sounds like extortion to me.” You have clout, use it.

5) Attend conferences and parties and events, nay, even the opening of an envelope in your industry — or the one you are trying to break into. You need to meet as many people as possible because some of them, yes, are going to be lying cheats — and some are going to be amazing, kind, cool mentors. The latter will help you suss out, or recover from the flesh wounds of, the former.

6) Be a lovely person. I mean it. Kind, funny, generous, helpful. What’s in it for you? Karma, baby. When the next deadbeat bites your ass and that line of credit just got cut and no one is hiring — you’re going to need a friendly voice on the phone or Facebook. I recently got asked for help by someone very new to me. Sigh. I have very little free time and a crummy income. Can I afford it? Can I afford not to? When it’s just you and your Blackberry and your sweatpants and a lot of prayers and talent, you need backup. We all do. If you’re likeable and have freely given it before, and now ask for help, odds are you’ll get some.

7) Create a posse. The minute I heard True/Slant was…mutating….I called three smart, tough, savvy friends, one of whom I’ve never actually met face to face. They have been advising me since. Corporations and non-profits have boards of directors. This is yours. Like all boards, they add a fresh perspective, multiply your brainpower and, occasionally, talk you off the window ledge.

There, now…..Doesn’t a full-time job sound grand?

Are We 'Entrepreneurs' Or Unemployed?

A typical flea market shop, in Germany
Sell, baby, sell! Image via Wikipedia

Great op-ed in The New York Times by Robert Reich:

LAST year was a fabulous one for entrepreneurs, at least according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity released last month by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. “Rather than making history for its deep recession and record unemployment,” the foundation reported, “2009 might instead be remembered as the year business startups reached their highest level in 14 years — even exceeding the number of startups during the peak 1999-2000 technology boom.”

Another surprise is the age of these new entrepreneurs. According to the report, most of the growth in startups was propelled by 35- to 44-year-olds, followed by people 55 to 64. Forget Internet whiz kids in their 20’s. It’s the gray-heads who are taking the reins of the new startup economy. And if you thought minorities had been hit particularly hard by this awful recession, think again. According to the report, entrepreneurship increased more among African-Americans than among whites.

At first glance, all this seems a bit odd. Usually new businesses take off in good times when consumers are flush and banks are eager to lend. So why all this entrepreneurship last year?

In a word, unemployment. Booted off company payrolls, millions of Americans had no choice but to try selling themselves. Another term for “entrepreneur” is “self-employed.”

The True/Slant model has been that of “entrepreneurial” journalist. Sounds so sexy. You’re in charge! Buying a big shiny desk! Minions! Interns!

Not so much. I photocopied my tax return from 2009 today because I’m asking my local YMCA for financial assistance to use their gym and pool, as I did (and received) last year as well. I lost my last staff job in June 2006, from the Daily News, where I was a feature writer. My income last year was 25 per cent of my staff salary. Yeah, I feel really entrepreneurial.

I am grateful for my partner’s staff job and his health insurance that covers me.

I’m forming a company this month, $1,200, as I finalize my book manuscript; I’ve been told to buy libel insurance as well. Those pesky little details of self-employment can add up to serious coin; I had to write my accountant a check for $395 for filing my 2009 taxes before we could start the next round of expenditures. He will allow me to pay that $1,200 over a few months, and I appreciate his kindness. Right now, my income from T/S ends in 28 days and I have no work lined up.

I’ll find something. It’s what we do. You get good at bush-beating when it’s your only source of income. I’m one of millions of U6ers — the Bureau of Labor term for those who don’t even bother looking for a full-time job anymore.

But I’ve freelanced for years and have some good relationships, editors I’ve been writing for for years, sometimes decades. Millions of “entrepreneurs”, as Reich so eloquently points out, are toast. They didn’t choose that role and they don’t want it.

There is some bitter irony that while some workers get government-paid subsidy and retraining, most of us don’t. We have to re-tool on the fly, stitching our parachutes as we plummet.

Yesterday’s Times profiled a number of New Yorkers now making and selling food or drink at local flea markets — people who once had well-paid full-time jobs that had nothing to do with food or drink, like Fabiana Lee — a former interior designer — who now makes and sells empanadas and cake pops:

“This is my investment in the future right now,” said Fabiana Lee, 26, an interior designer who lost her job in 2009. She has been selling at the Greenpoint market since its inception in October. After experimenting with cookies (too much competition), she has pared her offerings down to two: gorgeously browned empanadas and irresistibly twee “cake pops,” golf-ball-size rounds of cake perched on lollipop sticks. At the moment, they are her main source of income.

Young, college-educated, Internet-savvy, unemployed and hoping to find a place in the food world outside the traditional route, she is typical of the city’s dozens of new food entrepreneurs. As the next generation of cooks comes of age, it seems that many might bypass restaurant kitchens altogether. Instead, they see themselves driving trucks full of artisanal cheese around the country, founding organic breweries, bartering vegan pâtés for grass-fed local beef, or (most often) making it big in baking as the next Magnolia Bakery.

My single largest check this year is likely (I hope) to be a windfall, something I discovered through a lucky accident, and a helpful friend, over coffee at Christmas in Toronto with a former editor — a copyright lawsuit settlement in Canada. I hired (and paid) a researcher there to sniff out all my qualifying pieces, 132 in all. The maximum payout any one of us can get is $55,000. I doubt I’ll get anything like that, but it’s going to be a very welcome check.

We all, certainly the T/S crowd, know how difficult journalism has become as a primary source of income — I am struck, and saddened when I read emails or blog posts from young writers barely a few years into their careers who have already been canned, sometimes more than once; Michael Hastings, no graybeard, bemoans the sale of Newsweek, where he (precociously) has already worked.

What was once called, with chilling literalness, a hand-to-mouth existence has — ta-dah! — been reframed as ‘entrepreneurial.’ Sort of like calling a used car “pre-owned.” We were “pre-employed.”

Many of us now are “entrepreneurs”, whether we want to be or not.

In Solitary, At Least They Bring You Three Meals — The Joy Of Working From Home

Working at home
Image by gibsonsgolfer via Flickr

Many people dream of the day they can work from home. No commute! No office politics! No nasty boss!

A piece in today’s New York Post addresses some of the challenges involved: loneliness, isolation, no one to chat or brainstorm or joke with. Tech support? Try your computer’s “help” tab:

Victoria Porter, a medical writer, used to work in a Manhattan office, until she was hired a job a few years ago by a company based in Minnesota. The offer: full-time telecommuting from her Long Island residence, an idyllic setup to the many cube dwellers who dream of working from home in their pajamas all day.

So, how did it feel to be liberated from the need to slog through a commute and show up at an office every day?

She hated it. Instead of feeling liberated, she felt isolated and cut off — and found herself fighting the temptation to call friends and colleagues at their desks just to chat.

“The loneliness was acute, and I just wanted to go back to my old job,” she says. “If not for my cats, it would have been really, really depressing.”

She stuck with it, but one colleague who faced a similar fate decided to go back to office work.

“He wanted to work with other human beings,” she says.

For many workers, the ability to telecommute — to work remotely, enabled by laptops and wireless communication — is one of the prizes of the digital era. An estimated 33.7 million US employees now work from home at least a few times a month, according to World at Work, a nonprofit that studies telecommuting.

A National Geographic documentary crew is spending a week in solitary confinement to see what it’s like, reports The New York Times:

Heightening the sense of imprisonment, the volunteers can send short posts to Twitter, but they cannot read any responses. The live-streaming at ExploreSolitary.com started when the three volunteers entered their cells somewhere outside Washington, D.C., last Friday, and it will continue through this Friday. The documentary will have its premiere on April 11.

It’s a marketing stunt borrowed from reality TV — or perhaps a psychology experiment. National Geographic prefers to call it a complement to the documentary, intended to prompt conversation about a part of the prison system seldom examined by camera crews.

Russell Howard, a spokesman for the National Geographic Channel, said the experiment was rooted in a question: “In a day and age when everyone is hyper-connected, what is it like to be severed socially as well as to be kept in such a small space?”

I started my day driving my sweetie to the train station (get dressed, brush hair, wash face, leave apartment)l ate breakfast at a local diner where I saw a neighbor and type this listening to BBC World News, as I do every weekday morning for an hour. From 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. or later, it’s my workday. Alone.

Those of us who work alone at home all day — especially without a separate office space — face our own challenges: when to stop working, finding social contact within the workday, trying (hah!) to control the clutter of books, newspapers, magazines I use for work while my “office” is a desk in the livingroom, staying visible and audible within our industries. I offer some tips on how to handle isolation on my website. Michelle Goodman, who’s written several great books about working freelance, has some helpful tips on her website, including this one.

The only way I’ve stayed sane while working on my book (and blog and freelancing) are two young researchers I found (through trusted colleagues), one in San Diego and one in suburban New Jersey, neither of whom I’ve met. Their energy and attention to detail have allowed me to focus on my own tasks.

When you work on your own, it’s not always easy to find someone dependable to help you and it’s easy to forget to delegate — I found an intern from a local university one year and hired her (at $12/hr, this a decade ago) after the unpaid internship ended. It helped enormously having a fun, friendly helpful assistant.

Do you work from home? What do you enjoy? What (if anything) do you miss from working in an office or more structured/social environment?

Any tips on how to cope?