I have some stuff to figure out. Don’t we all?
I work 8-6 at my new job, and it’s been hard to find the time to write my blog five days a week as well. Essentially all I do is work, try to put together a blog post, do chores, and sleep.
I hate the thought of just... having a job... forever and never doing anything else.
Also I’m like: ‘side hustle’ - on what side?? There are no sides??
I’m tired all the time.
(Isn’t everyone though)
But most people aren’t post-COVID tired, which is a different order of beast.
My big logistical plan for the past couple of months has been to brainstorm a list of blog topics, and then “catch up” on one of my three-day weekends so I can free up some time in the evenings.
But then all I do on the weekends is sleep.
I’m barely even reading any more.
Worst of all, I feel absolutely starved for alone time. I’m not an introvert, I’m a shy extrovert, but introverts will recognize this problem. I’m in meetings for as much as 7 hours a day. I have to be “on” and listening and ready to be called on at any moment. While it’s exciting and interesting, it’s also pretty draining. Sometimes I shut off my computer at the end of the day and just walk into the bedroom and sleep for two hours.
At the beginning of the year, what I thought I would be doing was finishing my book proposal. I had an outline and a lot of material, I was jazzed and productive, I was “in talks” about it with a publisher...
And then COVID happened and the entire premise of my book kind of just blew away. The world changed and my book was for the old world, the world that was.
Gosh. I’d love to write a new book for the new world... but when? When exactly is that supposed to happen?
I’ve always felt that the fountain is ever flowing and that the ideas are always there.
That, though, requires carrying the bucket to the fountain and hauling it up.
Maybe all of this is just because I’m so physically tired, and still trying to heal my lungs and my heart after nearly dying five months ago. Or maybe it’s just reality.
Maybe most people really can’t have a challenging full-time job and write books at the same time. Maybe it really is a zero-sum choice, one or the other but not both.
Or maybe I’m just tired.
I hope that this dilemma speaks to you. As you read this, I hope you recognize where you have challenging choice points in your own life and that you’re able to make more time to think them out than I have been lately.
I’m not a caregiver, I don’t have kids, I don’t even have a commute right now. I don’t need an excuse to be tired, though, or to feel like I have trade-offs that I don’t want to make. I don’t need an excuse to feel like there are demands in my life that have me spread thin.
I certainly don’t need an excuse to feel like I often create my own issues in my life.
This is where strategy is so important. This is where it’s so important to pull away for an aerial view sometimes. We say, “This is how it is right now, this is the situation. Now what?”
What if it’s still just like this a year from now?
How about three years?
Nothing changes if nothing changes, and then nothing changes.
I’ve just come out of a three-day weekend, where I did almost none of the things I had planned to do, including writing in my journal and resolving some of this stuff. Where did the time go? It seems to have elapsed in long conversations with friends and family. That is a trade-off that definitely should not feel like a trade-off. I can’t very well say, “Will you please give me back that hour so I can do some writing, because I’m parched for time to myself right now?”
What would that become? Me at the end of my life, in a stack of journals and books, alone?
What I’d like is a day to literally sit inside of a closet, on the floor, with the door shut, and just have... nobody call me or talk to me or ask me questions or task me or assign me anything. Or look at me.
That’s why I’m going to bed now, facing another busy working week packed with people and conversations, not “caught up” (whatever that means) and still with nothing to write about. Except for my sorrows, feeling cut off from my creative well, wondering whether I have to just say goodbye to that part of my life.
Those of you who know exactly what I mean by all of this, do what you have to do. The task here, I believe, is figuring out a way to create time and space out of thin air, time and space to remember who we are and why we do what we do.
I got a new job this spring. This is interesting because of the timeline and because of the type of place where I work.
My husband and I work for the same company, a place where a significant proportion of the staff have doctorates and/or patents and/or academic publications. He is an aerospace engineer. Everyone was sent on mandatory work-from-home the Friday before restaurants and bars were closed statewide. Nowhere in the US had shut down yet.
Incidentally, everyone got sent home two days before I contracted coronavirus.
Quite suddenly, while I was languishing on the couch, pretty sure I only had a few days to live, a job opening was announced. I thought, What the heck, if I die everyone will forgive me, but if I live I’d really like to work at this place. My husband filled out the application with minimal nods and hand-waving from my settee.
By the time we got to the phone interview stage, I was on the mend, and I was well enough to make it through a workday in time for my start date.
I started to notice very early on that our company was different from other companies. If you’ve read Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem you’ll get a sense of how I feel about this place.
First off, I noted that only three organizations seemed to be taking the pandemic seriously in the early days. Those were our company, Apple, and Toastmasters. They all sent their people home, the latter two because they have an international presence and leadership needs to be consistent.
The first two did it because in Smart People World, your colleagues are actual assets.
In the outer world, I see a lot of stuff that scares me and makes me feel more emotionally attached to my employer.
I see stores and restaurants supposedly banning people from wearing masks.
I see companies forbidding their staff from wearing masks. I see companies pressuring staff to come in and work even when they are symptomatic. I see companies completely disregarding the health or caregiving status of their employees, treating actual human beings as consumable items.
Even appliances and industrial equipment are given more care and respect than people.
The gamble seems to be, oh well, “we’re” doing what’s necessary “to survive” - meaning the company, an inanimate, abstract entity, gets to “survive” while flesh-and-blood people are expected to service it by sacrificing not only their own lives, but their loved ones’ as well.
I take note of which companies seem to be on the side of mass human sacrifice, bloody stone pyramid style, and which actually revere their human assets. It’s not like I’m going to forget three years from now.
Where I work, it’s like this:
Working from home is mandatory.
If you have a need to go to the building, you must get permission. To be on site, you have to fill out contact tracing forms each time, you have to distance, and you have to wear a mask on the premises. If you are caught being lax about these regulations, you will be warned, and it could be a firing offense.
You’re also expected to tactfully remind any visitors about these rules.
How far do we distance? You probably assumed it was six feet?
In our realm, not just our company but others that we pal around with, it’s actually eight feet.
Personally I aim for twelve and hope for fifteen, but then I don’t go out my door very often any more.
There is an entire system with a building floor plan and certain areas marked off. People have to sort of bid for these spots. One of the reasons that we are WFH is that almost everyone shared a small office, and that doesn’t work for distancing. When people work on site, they’re expected to stay only in the area where they said they needed to be.
We are fortunate that we have the kind of work we can do at home. We are fortunate that we had the space, the equipment, the electricity, and the phone and internet access that support our work. I would say ‘lucky’ but good fortune is based on direct action and the situations it creates, like a happy marriage, while luck comes sheerly from timing.
I also know with objective certainty that there are tens of thousands of people who could do their jobs perfectly well from home, and would prefer it, but their management forbids it. They do it because they don’t trust that people are professional enough to work without close supervision. They also do it because they don’t have the technical knowledge to figure it all out, and they do it because they are too lazy to ask.
Yeah, I said lazy. I generally don’t believe that ‘lazy’ is a thing, but when it comes to a matter of actual life and death, it is very hard to understand why else someone would avoid the marginal effort involved. Especially when working from home can have vast productivity improvements and cost savings.
Our company announced today that the signal for us to move from our current posture, and start sending more people back to work in their on-site offices, is wide availability of a vaccine for COVID-19.
This is new!
Previously, we’ve had updates once or twice a week. During my presence there, the message has consistently been to expect to WFH through the end of the calendar year.
Since then, there have also been various surveys and tracking dashboards. The message is clear that not only are people noticeably more productive, most are generally happier. One of my colleagues said she happened to be home to see her baby take his first steps. People are getting more work done, and also sleeping more, exercising more, reading more, and finishing projects. Surveys indicate that this move has left most people, like me, impressed with the company’s judgment and grateful to have job security.
I wish this were true for more people, and I have a strong suspicion that about another 20% of the workforce could do it if they were allowed.
To sum up, it’s like this. We work from home, and sometimes it’s a hassle, like when the VPN glitches or we have a power failure or we’re both on a call at the same time. A lot of the time it’s sirens going by, and that helps to remind us to stay inside and help end this thing. We work for a company that has taken a strategic position to keep everyone as safe as possible for as long as possible. They said today that we’ve had 33 total positive cases, which is less than 1% of the staff at our site.
We stay at home. We do contact tracing. We wear masks. We stay eight feet apart. We might go in again after there is “wide availability” of a vaccine. Then again, I suspect they’ll let most people work from home... forever.
The pandemic will probably destroy the reputations of a few businesses after they demonstrate their whack, psychopathic values. For companies like ours, the pandemic has confirmed our sense that we are actually doing something important, that our contribution matters, and that our leaders make sound decisions. We might not personally live through this, but our company will, and it’s actually reassuring to know that.
Early in lockdown, I almost bought $300 worth of shoes. They were seriously on sale!
I never buy stuff right away, though. I put together a shopping cart, and then I go through it again the next day. Most of the time I scrap the whole thing. I’m an under-buyer and I usually feel major buyer’s remorse when the physical item shows up.
This time was different. I had these shoes in the cart, and then I thought, where would I wear them??
Months later, this feels prescient. Indeed, where would I wear a variety of new shoes?
I actually hate wearing shoes, at all, at any time. I am obviously barefoot as I write this. I only wear shoes because I don’t want to cut up my feet when I go outside. (Although I did once step on a nail that went right through my shoe, fat lot of good that it did me).
Purses are in the same category of Stuff I Only Use Outside. I put my work bag in my closet a few months ago, and it’s only come out a few times. I don’t miss it at all. I used to hang it on my desk chair, but it won’t stay on my new office chair, and it would annoy me while I work all day for no reason.
Not only am I not contemplating buying any purses or shoes, I’ve been thinking of getting rid of more of what I already have.
I have a donation box going right now. I have yet to drop it off because I rarely cross the threshold of our apartment for any reason. I don’t want to carry it off only to realize I need to make a second trip. There is a pair of shoes in that basket right now. I liked how they looked, but they gave me blisters. I would wear them on vacation and get mad at them. Then I would unpack them and forget that these were Hurty Shoes. Then I would pack them the next time we went on vacation, and the cycle would repeat. Finally, as I was doing the classic self-isolation closet re-org, I pulled out the Hurty Shoes and said, “Never again!”
The next time we go on vacation, it’s going to be so exciting, the last thing I will want to do is to mess it up by giving myself blisters.
There are a couple other pairs in my closet that are a little tight. Why do I still have them?
I instituted a practice in my life over 20 years ago. That was the concept of the “cost per wear” that I picked up from Your Money Or Your Life. (If you buy something for $20 and you wear it 20 times, it costs $1 per wear). In my mind, I still aim for a $1 cost per wear even though inflation has gone up significantly since then. Therefore, I tend to punish myself by continuing to wear things I don’t like all that much until I feel like I’ve run out the dollar-meter on them.
The other reason is that my feet got a half-size bigger after the year I trained for my marathon. It took me a while to realize that this was not just a fluke of individual item sizing. Also, vanity.
I work from home. This is almost certain to continue through the calendar year. In fact, it may be forever. It turns out a lot of people at my company were commuting over 3 hours a day, and a few live so far away that they only go home on weekends! WFH has meant all these people can sleep in an extra hour and *still* be significantly more productive.
Also, they can work barefoot. Or who knows what else. We’re only on camera maybe an hour every couple months.
Right now, nobody is looking at anyone’s feet. If anything we’re checking each other for proper mask fit.
I was on camera last week with a guy in an office in another city, and he clearly hadn’t had his hair cut since before lockdown. This guy has a PhD and while I am sure nobody cares about his coiffure, I also wonder if anyone besides me even noticed.
Are we all going to have a permanent reset in our expectations about street clothes and business dress?
I wonder. I think it will polarize.
I suspect a lot of people are dressing up far more than they normally would because they are bored and lonely. Being on camera all the time and seeing yourself tends to lead to self-conscious fixations. (Personally, I find seeing myself on Zoom all the time to be extremely exhausting and demoralizing, which is why I accessorize with my enchanting little parrot. They’re not looking at me, they’re looking at her).
This is probably going to continue “when all this is over.” There will be a sense of ceremony, and a lot of people are going to want to rise to the occasion by going out and getting a haircut and then dressing up.
But then a lot of us are going to realize that our pre-lockdown clothes don’t fit quite the same way...
I really need to buy some pants right now - the weather is cooling and I only have like three pair that fit - but there is probably going to be a lot of shipping back and forth. Pants have never been an easy fit on me. I remember one trip when I tried on 38 pairs before I found a single one that fit. Either I have short legs, big thighs, wide hips, and a long waist, or pants are too long and too wide?
Or maybe it’s time to bring back the toga after all.
Whatever happens, when we finally start going out again, it will have been a long time since the last time a lot of us tried on new clothes. It’s going to feel weird. It’s probably also going to look weird.
Might as well reexamine what we have right now. Is this really what we think we’re going to celebrate in? If it isn’t comfortable enough to wear and use around the house, does it pass that test for the outer world either?
Hard work - what is it, exactly?
We’ve been having an extended discussion over the weekend about what ‘hard work’ means, and what it has to do with financial and career success. “We” meaning my husband, a couple of our young mentees, and I.
I think it’s a mistake to tell young people that hard work is everything. It isn’t!
Working hard in the wrong manner won’t really get anyone anywhere. If hard work was the secret to success, there would be a lot of very wealthy ditch diggers and demolition crews, am I right?
I worked much harder as a nanny than I do today. The mom of “my” kids once fell asleep at the table with her face in her mashed potatoes, so I think any parent or caregiver would agree that chasing kids around is quite hard work indeed.
My hubby and I both come from a blue-collar background. We were taught the inherent dignity of busting your butt all day. Sitting around with soft hands and no practical skills is embarrassing where we come from. In fact I know I could never have fallen in love with a man who couldn’t use tools.
My man can design a satellite, sharpen a chainsaw, build a battle bot, change the oil in a semi, debug code, and run a skidder. Which of these skills are ‘hard work’?
I can’t do any of those things - or at least I haven’t tried so far - but I can put on a conference for 200 attendees, carry a sleeping child to bed, cook dinner for 20, type 100 words per minute, sew a Halloween costume, balance quarterly financial reports, build a chair, and fight five dudes with my hands duct-taped together. Some of these things at the same time.
One of the first things you learn as an administrative assistant is that you’re expected to do things that people who earn 3-4x your wage abjectly cannot do.
There is a double bind, because the better you are at your job, the less likely you are to get promoted. If you aren’t great at the detail work and EQ necessary for the position, then it’s assumed you’re more or less useless. On the other hand, the better you are at it, the more people panic at the thought of trying to replace you.
I have felt like I do basically the same work that I did at entry level, other than obvious technological changes like moving toward paperless reports. Yet at one point I earned $7/hour for this stuff, with no benefits, and I was excited to get it.
What I think about ‘hard work’ is that it depends on what is hard for the individual.
It’s hard to work for a low wage and face all the issues that go with that: a long commute, roommates, juggling bills, unreliable transportation, an apartment/house/neighborhood with a lot of issues, no obvious solutions for problems that could easily be solved with more cash than you have. Or may ever have.
It’s hard to put your spirit into tasks that nobody appreciates.
It’s hard to wait on people who are mean and rude, and it’s hard to have a mean boss.
Obviously it’s hard to be on your feet all day and do labor that is physically challenging. It can be fun, too, though. There is a lot to be said for being able to see visual progress on something that you worked on all day, or to be able to drive by and point it out to your friends. “I helped build that.”
Does ‘hard work’ lead to success?
Not alone, though, and not out of context.
If I just do 100 burpees in my living room, I’ll be sweating, but then what?
I think the key isn’t so much ‘hard work’ in terms of exertion. I think it’s a combination of focus, accountability, and persistence. It’s not really ‘hard work,’ it’s emotional commitment and follow-through toward the desired outcome.
That state of being invested in the outcome quickly leads to a strategic perspective. This is where success comes from - in understanding why things are done in a certain way. That is the birth of motivation. Someone who cares that things are done properly is someone who will see ways to streamline the process, guide others, expand into new areas, and all the rest.
The truth is, doing this isn’t usually hard at all.
A master of a field can walk in, take one look at something, say one sentence, and save ten million dollars. That person will be successful, but that contribution wasn’t hard. It was just the product of attention and decades of experience.
We spent a bit of time listing off factors that contribute to career success that don’t have anything to do with hard work. There are probably hundreds, but these were the basic dozen:
Personal work ethic
Choice of field
Who you know
Talent/unusual insight or ability
I happen to know someone who literally ran away to join the circus as a roadie for Cirque du Soleil. She had three items off this list: location, timing, and choice of field. They came to her town, she went, she said “take me with you,” and she went home to get her bag. That’s it. Didn’t see her for a year.
I happen to know someone else who had at least eight items off this list, who got fired and was out of work for a year. What he was missing was work ethic, coachability, strategy, probably talent, and eventually reputation as well. When he started messing up, he Couldn’t Be Told and he blew up his career. Did he work long hours at a difficult job? Sure, until I had to get him a cardboard box to carry his stuff out to his car.
Of the thousands of people I have met over the years, socially or through work or hobbies, the most chill have been 1. Martial arts people and 2. Astronauts. They never blink. Something has changed in their brains and they react with mild intrigue in situations where other people would panic. Hand either of them a wrench and see what they do.
Hard work is valuable for its own sake. When we’re mentoring less experienced people, though, let’s not attack their characters and imply that they are lazy, but rather show them how much more interesting life is when there is something challenging and worthwhile enough to deserve that hard work. If we can’t find it, let’s make it ourselves.
How many of us ever thought we’d wind up needing a desk for every person in the household? So suddenly?
This is a subject that tends to come up a lot, because everyone at my work was sent home to work for the indefinite future - with no notice. They’ve been continuously hiring, too, so all the new people like me were expected to provide all our own equipment.
Can I just say that sitting in a wooden folding chair for two weeks was a great way to bond with my work partner?
And also to perhaps permanently alter the shape of my caboose?
(Not sure about hers)
(Never seen it)
We’ve all been told to plan to work from home at least through the end of 2020. Personally I plan on things remaining more or less how they are through the beginning of 2023. I’d rather be wrong, of course! But it’s psychologically much easier for me to plan just to keep on keepin’ on for three years.
Same apartment, same job, same schedule, same... furniture?
I’ve heard a lot of stories about the truly pitiful situations that a lot of people have found themselves in, and the time has come to acknowledge them and take action.
By this I mean, yes, of course, we can’t have hundreds of thousands of people evicted and living in the streets. What utter nonsense. Just restructure everyone’s debts, from the banks and the mortgages on down. If I owned rental property right now, I’d definitely rather have a grateful, loyal tenant keeping guard over my biggest asset than an empty shell crying out for squatters, vandalism, and who knows what else.
That being said. This is about all the office workers and students who are suddenly finding themselves trying to get a full day’s work done amid a total and complete lack of ergonomics.
I’ve spent the last three months working full-time in a corner of our living room that is precisely four feet square. I measured it.
It doesn’t take much square footage to get in the zone and get some quality work done. It does, though, take a flat surface and somewhere decent to sit. This is quite clear in my mind as I gaze lovingly at the office chair I bought with my stipend from work. I assembled it before bedtime, since it arrived at 9 PM, because I couldn’t bear to wait for it one more day. My poor flat and striped bottom.
You know I used to work with hoarders?
One of the things that always boggled my mind was how so many people could fill rooms from floor to ceiling with ‘bargain’ items, all bought for $1-5, and then feel like they Could Not Afford anything. Anything! I would point out that if you have a hundred things you bought for a dollar, then in one way or another, at some point, you had a hundred dollars. If you had twenty things you bought for five bucks, then you had a hundred bucks. If you in fact had five hundred things (balls of yarn, sets of markers, stuffed animals, shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, etc etc etc) then you probably had enough cash flowing through your life to buy a nice piece of furniture.
What would it be?
A replacement for your lumpy, sagging old mattress? Or a bed frame to get it up off the floor?
A big bookshelf?
In this particular case, I’m changing the frame on this a bit. The concept here is not that there may be enough money for something nice, rather than a large pile of small objects. The concept is that there is probably enough space in the home for a desk of some kind, if some other objects are removed.
Keep in mind, I have lived in a space smaller than 800 square feet for the past five years. Currently we are at 650 square feet.
Three apartments back, I gave away a bookshelf on Craigslist to make space for the little secretary desk that I have now. There was no room in our apartment otherwise. My choices were: in front of the oven (blocking the fridge), inside the bathtub, or in front of our door. Or simply get rid of the bookcase and make space for something I use every day. Our next apartment was even smaller, so the commitment and the trade paid off.
I had a desk before, of course. It was made from a top I bought at IKEA for $12. I bought it because it was the biggest desktop I could find, which made it obsolete when we downsized.
See, I would never suggest that someone else do something I am not willing to do myself.
I got rid of something that was once very important to me, a bookcase I assembled myself and moved half a dozen times. It used to contain my cookbook collection, which I have since digitized. In the physical space where I had that bookcase, I now have a little desk.
It’s possible to put together a makeshift desk, or create a study/work area, without using a piece of furniture. One of my coworkers has a TV tray that she uses on the couch. I’ve seen photos of other people working in the driver’s seat of their car - not driving for a living, just sitting out in the driveway for some privacy - or on cushions on the balcony.
A lot of people are using their dining table. I know from my home visits that about 90% of dining tables are used for storage 364 days of the year. This is what I mean by trading for a desk. If all that stuff goes away, then someone has somewhere to sit and work. My husband, stepdaughter, and I have all worked together for days on end, sitting at the same dining table, and that location alone might solve a lot of problems for a big family.
My bestie and I both have bathtub trays, and we’re not ashamed to admit that we both have the habit of sometimes working while we soak. (Me, on personal projects - her, I won’t ask so I don’t have to tell).
A lot of households have completely viable furniture that could be a desk for someone. Maybe something weird, but still something about the right height that has a flat surface. An end table, a coffee table, a dresser, a kitchen counter, a rolling toolbox? An actual desk? A lot of households also have plenty of square footage for someone, either in the garage or an extra bedroom or some other place. When I was a newlywed in my first marriage, I had my desk set up in the walk-in closet next to the bathroom. Bookcase and filing cabinet in there, too.
Stephen King wrote Carrie in the laundry room. Thomas Wolfe was very tall, so he stood and wrote his books on top of his fridge.
The thing here is to value humans and human activity over any random pile of stuff.
Marie Kondo told everyone to make sure your stuff ‘sparks joy.’ I say it’s more important to build your personal environment around the stuff you like to do. Everyone in the house should have physical space to sleep, bathe, eat meals, stretch, relax, make things, and (now, alas) study or work at home. Any clutter that is in the way should be removed so the people can simply do their thing.
If there isn’t room for you or for anyone else in your home to get your work done, look around and figure out where it could happen. We might be here for a while.
It’s easy to panic when the money is gone. Financial transitions are one of the scariest ways to enter the Place of Uncertainty. Looking backward years later, a few months may seem like more of a blip or a speed bump. At the time, though, there’s no way to know how long they’ll last or how exactly they’ll end.
I know whereof I speak. I’ve had to do this a few times in my life for various reasons. I started wandering down Memory Lane a bit, thinking what I would do if I were out of work, single, in debt, food insecure, with no way to pay the rent.
What I did that worked for me was, essentially, to find a sponsor. I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but that’s what I was doing. This strategy may work for others.
Getting a sponsor when you’re desperate and broke is something that plenty of people do. Usually this sponsor answers to ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad.’ This isn’t always an option. Not everyone has parents. Not all parents are in a financial position to help out. Sometimes there is another kid there already. Maybe the parent is sort of looking for a sponsor too.
I lay all this out because some who are reading this may be in more of a position to be the sponsor, rather than hunt for one, and it helps to have that extra bit of understanding and compassion.
I didn’t necessarily go to someone looking for a place to stay. It was more like I had nothing else to talk about, and because I shared my pitiful situation far and wide, someone would pop up and offer to help out. Once it was a former roommate, but other times it would be someone I barely knew.
This is important because we don’t always realize that the world is so full of giving, caring people who are willing to take a chance on someone.
Usually the person who is willing to help out isn’t in a great financial situation either. This is why the situation usually works like this:
You can sleep there, and bring some of your stuff, but there isn’t room for all of it, and probably not for any of your pets. You feed yourself and you can have a little room on one shelf in the fridge. And you pitch in for utilities and/or part of the rent.
For a lot of families, even $200 a month can make the difference while they’re trying to keep it together.
This is where you can start to reframe yourself as an asset, not a pauper or a beggar. You have value! You are bringing something to the table! This can be a situation of mutual benefit!
I was generally welcome as a couch-surfer or fringe semi-roommate because I didn’t have a lot of negatives. Sure, I was flat broke and I didn’t have a car or even know how to drive. But I didn’t smoke or drink or have awkward substance use moments. I didn’t steal. I didn’t have a criminal record. I didn’t raise my voice at anyone, slam doors, punch walls, throw things, etc. I was (and am) generally a quiet, clean, safe person.
I’m not going to claim that I was Mary Poppins. During the situations when I needed a sponsor, and there were a few, my life was shambolic in many ways. I had what I now recognize as Drama. While I did have a plan for my situation, I did not have a plan for avoiding that Drama yet, because I didn’t understand that I could build my life in a way that would largely avoid it.
I did, though, clean up after myself. I didn’t leave trash or dishes lying around. I could use the kitchen or the shower without it looking like a bomb went off. It is impossible to overstate the importance of being clean and tidy when living on the good graces of another household. You simply can’t be as casual about your shoes, bag, clothes, bedding, dishes, food wrappers, electronics, books, notebooks, pens, etc as the people who are on the lease.
I was able to get a sponsor when I needed one because I had a plan. I always feel frantic when I have no income, and bored and restless when I have nothing to do during the day. I was always looking for some way that I could level up and earn my way out of the situation.
The first time, I had a job but not enough savings to pay a deposit on the room. It was fine - I always paid my rent on time.
The second time, I had a pending legal case and a check coming in.
The next time, I was applying for school and I needed somewhere to be until the dorms opened.
The next time, there I was again, able to pay a deposit this time but technically unemployed until Tuesday.
(There are a couple of spots in there that I’m eliding to streamline the narrative).
The thing is, I started my adult life with a part-time minimum wage job at a convenience store. When I got a job as an office temp it felt like I had won the lottery. I was thirty before I had any financial stability to speak of. I hustled my butt off to get through college because I knew that was my only way to earn the kind of income where I could quit bouncing out of penury and into financial disaster over and over.
Now I’m proud to be the one who is able to help. I’ve hosted all sorts of people on my own couch, lent or given money, sometimes anonymously (or hid it somewhere where nobody would find it until I left). I’ll never stop because I can never go back in time and not need a helping hand. It feels like a karmic debt that can never be repaid.
I know from experience that hard times are temporary. Terrifying! Traumatic sometimes! But temporary in the end. There are a lot of people like me out there, who know what it’s like and will respond to an honest plea.
Just remember to always clean up after yourself and be easy to get along with. Hang in there. When things are at their worst, that means it won’t take much for things to get better soon.
Good things come in small packages. I have to believe that because I have a little parrot, and also because I’m 5’4.” I’ve also come to believe it because my work area measures four feet square.
We made the decision about five years ago to choose the path of financial independence. We sat down and worked out a clear strategy, one that is radical but that has also been done successfully by thousands of people. We chose to go car-free, get rid of most of our stuff, and radically downsize our living space so that we could invest as much of our income as possible.
Most married couples balk at the idea of getting rid of their cars. That’s the major sticking point. Living in a quarter of the space is next-hardest. Getting rid of 90% of their physical possessions sounds like fun, until they realize it’s not all their partner’s stuff but their own stuff, too. Oh, I thought you meant just the kids’ toys. Dang it.
We felt like we were prepared, and we had already downsized three times in five years. Then, out of the blue, we got the opportunity, the double-whammy: The dream job in a city by the beach.
It all happened fast at that point. We had done most of the mental and emotional labor together. We had come up with a vision of our end-game, and now it was legitimately our chance to make it happen. Did we really want it as much as we said we did?
We literally did it in two weeks. We scheduled a garage sale, and whatever was left at the end of the weekend went to a conveniently timed rummage sale in several carloads. Then we got a moving van and put all our remaining stuff in storage, boarded our pets, and moved into an AirBnB for a week until we could pick out an apartment.
It never occurred to either of us that this opportunity of the dream job would turn out to be for both of us. Neither of us thought that I’d end up working there, too.
We certainly never thought we’d be living here for Pandemic 2020.
If we’d realized we would be effectively housebound for a year (psst: probably closer to three), we probably would have chosen a larger place?
Now both of us are working from home, on opposite ends of the couch, and our living room doubles as a shared office cubicle.
The comedy factor here is that we share the space with: a parrot. Little griefer who thinks it’s hilarious to whistle every time one of us is on a hot mic. I rue the day she ever recognized one of our friends on Zoom and figured out that all those faces are actual people. Now she is obsessed with getting on camera and making everyone tell her what a pretty red tail she has.
This is what we have for now. This is where we’ve landed.
Having put so much effort into the path that got us to this apartment, it’s easier for us to accept that we’re sentenced to share the equivalent of a hotel suite, all day every day. About 50% bigger than an RV.
Yes, obviously millions of people are having a harder time than us right now. I come from poverty, I get it. This story is about making radical changes to reach financial freedom, and how that can be both fun and empowering.
Every time I tell a story like this, I hope that at least one person will read it and start wondering, Hmm, what if I tried something like this?
Anyone with a romantic partner has the option to turn to that person and say, Hey babe, I was reading this weird story. What would you think if we...?
This is how relationships are saved, when we look at each other and realize that we can trade the default life for something else. We traded the debt and the lawn care and the commute and the errands and the chores of a standard suburban home. We traded them for independence and living by the beach.
And then it sort of bit us in the butt, because this whole work-from-home thing would have been a lot easier in our newlywed rental house, the one with three bedrooms, two baths, a backyard and a garage workshop. The one with the huge pantry and *gasp* the laundry room.
[The one in the county with 1% of the deaths of our current county]
We’re here. We are where we are. We got ourselves here. Now what?
It turns out, and this is the surprising part, it turns out that a person can get quite a lot done in four square feet!
I realized this the other day while I had my work laptop open, with my desktop monitor above, while talking on my phone through my headphones. Somehow I had room for two keyboards, a trackpad, and a notepad.
Then I realized that if I had a standard-sized desk in the building, the extra space would probably be filled with files and a bunch of office equipment like a stapler and a tape dispenser. All the detritus that is only needed when people are still doing things 19th-century style, aka on paper.
We aren’t going back this calendar year, that’s a 99% certainty.
If/when we do go back, what will happen?
I basically know where I would sit. Hubby and I would commute in together. I’d get up an hour earlier so I would have time to constrain my hair. We’d commute home together and immediately start making dinner. We’d spend close to two additional hours a day, times two people, to go back and forth to a building where we would do the same jobs that we are currently doing successfully at home.
Where does the time come from? It comes from our sleep and our workouts, of course.
I think this change is going to be permanent for information workers like us. At least 40% of people can do their jobs completely online right now, and I suspect it’s actually closer to 60% once the numbers come in. Some people aren’t going to like it, but I think the efficiencies for the employer are so obvious that - why fight it?
This four-square-foot space is likely to be my holding tank for the indefinite future. I think I’m actually okay with that.
I got a new job while I was sick with COVID-19, and the reason I share that is to give people hope. It’s hard to imagine a bigger negative for a panel interview than fighting a serious lung infection. Now that I’m working, I thought I’d share some ideas on the pandemic job market.
First off, you have the great good fortune of not having to compete against me for a job, because I’m out of the game. Tee here.
Look, it’s important to treat unemployment with a sense of humor. Why? Because if you get sucked into despair and dread, it will give you a different attitude than if you find a way to project confidence and good cheer. Fake it if you have to, but attitude is a bigger determiner for hiring than your resume is.
Always be emitting rays that express, I can help you solve your biggest problems.
As opposed to: I have big problems.
Which is probably true! But money can probably solve many or most of those problems. I love financial problems because they can be solved with money. Problems that cannot be solved with money - like COVID-19 - are, as they say, “the suck.”
During my divorce, I was plagued with a series of unlikely problems. I had no income because I was in the midst of a workers comp case, then the IRS came after me because someone else’s salary was reported under my Social Security number, then I fell down the stairs and broke my tailbone, then the court dismissed my divorce case three times. It was a really annoying year. A year full of lawyers, a year when I earned $1410 and almost all of it went to legal fees.
I started working for money when I was 10 years old, but that was the year that I really learned how to make something out of nothing and figure out how to get by.
Honestly, of course. No matter how bad things are, committing a crime will make it worse. Either you get busted and you lose everything, or you become known to other criminals.
If you want to become financially comfortable, your reputation is quite literally everything. There is an entire different universe available to people with good credit who can pass a criminal background check and get a security clearance. Keep that in mind if you don’t feel like you have much else going for you - you may be drastically undervaluing your clean record.
There are three huge mistakes that we tend to make when we’re unemployed:
Point one: If you’re going to let pessimism control your search, to the point that you’re willing to take a bad job with bad hours and a horrible commute working for a mean boss, then please at least do me one single favor.
Make sure you take that cruddy position in a field that you want to know more about.
My family always wanted me to learn a trade, and by that they meant a blue-collar job such as an electrician. I do have a trade, except the collar is pink instead of blue. With basic secretarial skills, I can get a job in any industry anywhere in the world. If I wanted to, I could use my skills to get an entry-level position in law or accounting or marketing or interior design or whatever I like.
This is why I feel like I am better equipped than a lot of people to give job search advice. I’ve worked in dozens of fields. As an admin, I also dealt with dozens of job applicants. I even worked in an employment agency for a few months.
I’m buds with a couple of astronauts, a couple of professional athletes, and a few people who run their own restaurants. They’re cool people, but none of them has ever had a normal job!
Point two: the person offering you advice may be rich, may be brilliant, and also may know nothing whatsoever about how to get you the job you actually want. You’re better off Googling your field and reading blogs by people who do that type of work.
(And if they’re as broke as you, then why are you listening to them??)
Point three: about the job search. I’m working with a few people who are down on their luck right now, and not once has one of them actually beat me to something I suggested that they do. The default is to take several days to apply for something when someone brings it to their attention, then spend the rest of the time worrying.
Eight hours a day, five days a week is the minimum. That means researching your field and it means going directly to the source (the company where you want to work) and it means writing as many separate, targeted versions of your resume as necessary.
If you raise money for one single thing, let it be to pay a professional to go over your resume with you. Sell stuff if you have to. I paid a consultant to go over mine with me, and it got me almost 50% more than I made at my last job. I also got hired for only the third position I applied for.
This brings up another point, which is: multiple streams of income. This is what poor and rich people have in common, that middle class people do not. Don’t expect to pay all your expenses through a single source.
If you need a thousand dollars, you can do it several ways:
Earn a thousand dollars from one job;
Earn $500 from two sources;
Earn $250 from four sources;
Earn $100 from ten sources;
Any other variation you can think of.
The basic strategies are to work for someone else or work for yourself. If you’re working for someone else, pick something that tends to survive financial downturns and then make yourself indispensable. If you’re working for yourself, are you selling to broke people or rich people? I can sell something that costs $1 to almost anyone. If I’m selling to rich people, I want to charge as much as I can get away with or they’ll think I’m incompetent.
These are the areas where I would be looking, if I were unemployed right now:
COVID-centric jobs. Anything medical. Contact tracing. Insurance and medical billing. Online universities and tutoring services. Collections agencies and repo. Biohazard cleanup. Real estate and auctions. Bankruptcy and payday lending. Mortuaries and funeral homes. This stuff is depressing but it can’t be argued that someone will pay for it to get done.
Side hustles: You probably want to avoid the traditional stuff, like delivery and ride-share, cleaning, babysitting, or dog-walking because you want to avoid physical contact with people, right? I would look to offering services online to people who are housebound. Is there anything at all you can teach, especially to bored kids? Are you good at something like interior design, makeup, or styling? Can you tutor? Do you have something unique you can do on camera, like sock puppets, that someone might pay for you to do to entertain their kids?
Think for the future. Whatever you wind up doing, it’s for the short term. Think about what you want to be doing five years from now. Not what you think you can do with your current resume, but what actually appeals to you. Five years is plenty of time to train for it, whatever that is.
Keep in mind that when times are hard, you have very little to lose. That makes it a much better time to take risks! Scarcity thinking will make you want to contract and pull in your energies and aim lower, but that’s the biggest risk of all. Aim high - there’s less competition up there.
I rearranged our few books today, and what I found shocked and surprised me. We haven’t quite been here a year, but there was a thick layer of dust on the back of each shelf!
Actually this shouldn’t surprise me at all, since we live with a parrot, and African Grays are little whistling dust factories. The shelves in question are only a few feet from where she plays all day, being her dusty self and merrily shredding cardboard.
On the other hand, I go around dusting when I’m on the phone, or listening to an audio book, or tense about something, or generally annoyed that there is visible dust somewhere. I am not a casual housekeeper.
I wish I were sometimes. I wish I could be a bit more casual about my apartment, in the same way I can be casual about going around barefoot, but it just isn’t in me. Even as I’m recovering from pneumonia and my bout with COVID-19, still only a few months ago.
What I noticed while I was wiping up this distressingly thick layer of dust was... just what was getting dusty.
Books I haven’t read, partly because I haven’t read much of anything since I started my new job.
This is another area where I have no chill whatsoever. Not sure why.
I took a job that was well within my abilities because I was looking for something to do. I figure we will be working from home for at least the next two years because I have a solidly pragmatic regard for the pandemic. Our employer acted before the governor did in sending everyone home, and I can tell you as a matter of simple fact that they still have a more clearly defined and carefully followed binder o’ guidelines for this crisis. It makes sense to me to be doing this for the duration, for a place I trust and respect.
Yet I can’t seem to escape this lingering sense that I’m constantly going to “get in trouble” for something.
I’ve talked it over with my husband, my best friend - who has done professional projects with me - and even my work partner. All of them are like, “Yeah, that’s weird. Where is that coming from?”
I’ve been proactively trying to figure it out, to work through my dissonant feelings about my job, and the way I always do that is to clean everything in sight. Sometimes, even things that are not in sight, like the backs of the bookshelves.
I recall that I went through similar paces with my leadership roles in Toastmasters. I won a contested election by the highest margin of any candidate that year, and all I did was beat myself up miserably all weekend. The entire year, I constantly felt behind and scattered and disorganized - and then I won two trophies for my performance in the role.
I’m looking at them right now and they still make me think, “What?!”
Sometimes it feels like the harder I work, the better I do, and the worse I feel about it.
I could have chosen to keep doing what I was doing, which was to work on side projects and writing my book proposal. We were already saving half our income and doing fine. I keep reminding myself that I am not trapped, that I chose something I really wanted, that I fought to get to where I am because it is so interesting.
Which it is!
Sometimes I catch myself thinking, Whoa, I can’t believe I’m actually in this meeting right now.
But then another wave comes up telling me that I’m colossally screwing up and everyone is going to find out.
It isn’t the same as impostor syndrome, I don’t think. The tasks I’m doing are all things I could do just as competently 15 years ago. I don’t really have moments where I do not know what to do or how to approach a task.
I actually wonder if something weird happened to my brain while I was ill?
If there’s some part of the brain that just makes someone feel racked with guilt and shame and dread for no reason?
It’s important to talk about this kind of thing, because I think most people feel very alone and isolated with these types of emotions. “I’m the only one and nobody must know.” I totally know that I’m not the only one.
The last six months have very much been a struggle of putting one foot in front of the other. I keep telling myself, “Just get through this day.” This included our dog dying of terminal cancer, and my husband nearly being blinded, as well as my getting COVID and trying to recover my baseline energy level. Again, I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, just being overwhelmed by life and one legit crisis after another.
This is when I remind myself, I would probably feel the same exact types of emotions whether I had this job or not, whether I had a different job or not. It’s not a function of the role, or the company, or the people, or the culture. It’s me and whatever is haunting me.
Working is a million times better than sitting around staring at the walls and feeling this way.
When we internalize these dark feelings, it’s so easy to forget that there are external influences at work too. Probably my emotional waves of “you’re going to get busted” are just my feeble brain’s way of dealing with the foreign, confusing, outlandish reality of life under quarantine. (Yeah, technically my hubby and I are still quarantined - by both medical and business guidelines - because I’m still coughing a little).
Do any of us really know how we’re “supposed” to feel during this strange historical moment?
What I’d like to do is to dust myself off. I’d like to blow off these feelings that are so unhelpful and unnecessary. What should I replace them with? The task is to come up with some unique, interesting, and plausible feelings, like earning someone’s regard, or satisfaction in a job well done.
We can remind ourselves that our mission is simply to live up to our own standards and be consistent with our own values. One day after the next.
Why not? Today I’m just going to talk about my sweet little bird and her cardboard box fort.
We might have figured it out sooner. For years now, whenever anything would come in a box, Noelle would take a keen interest in it. You can always tell when she really wants something because she turns her head sideways and stares at it with one eye. You can practically see the cartoon arrows pointing directly from her pupil to the object of her desire.
Every now and then, we’d get a big empty box and put her in it. She would scrabble around in there, chewing holes in it and scratching at it with her feet. She does this thing we call “starting the Harley” where she repeatedly kicks one leg backward. There’s a bit of force to it, which you’ll find if you ever put your hand back there while she’s digging.
One day, Noelie was making a bit of a racket while my hubby was trying to work. (I checked my photo album and, coincidentally, it was just a couple days before I realized I had COVID). He had the bright idea to give her a box to play in, except that we didn’t have any big boxes. The one he gave her was barely big enough for her to fit in, an A1 size.
She loved it!
She stood in this little box that only just fit her from beak to tail, and she peeked out over the flap quite cheerfully - for three hours.
Every now and then we would look over at her and crack up laughing. What are you even doing in there??
It didn’t take long to realize that she felt safe in the box. Her perch looks out the sliding glass window into the top of a palm tree where several bird families live. She likes the house finch family and the sparrow family and the hummingbirds and the pair of doves. She is not, however, a fan of the three crows that hang out there.
Birds, by the way, don’t really understand the concept of glass. Their eyes are different than ours and I don’t think they can really tell anything is there.
In the window, she feels exposed to predators - including the gulls and pelicans that she can see sometimes. In her little cardboard box on the top of the bookshelf, she felt cozy and safe. We kept the box and put her back in it the next day. And the next, and the next.
When she wants to go over there, she leans forward and stares intently. If we don’t notice her right away, she starts vocalizing and getting pretty insistent. Then when she needs a break, she does the reverse, staring at her perch and calling for a ride.
Entropy happened and a month later the little A1 box was starting to look pretty chewed up. We needed a replacement, but we didn’t have any more boxes in that size. I managed to scrounge one a little bigger, an A3, and that was when I had my idea.
“I’m going to make her a fort.”
I put the little box vertically in the bigger box, a L shape. I figured we’d lose the first day, because birds are notoriously freaked out by changes in their personal space, even like a new toy or a snack sometimes. But I hadn’t even finished setting it up before Cardbird was over there leaning forward and shifting her weight from foot to foot.
So she stood there in the “box fort” for several hours a day, with occasional breaks.
A week later I got hold of a third box in about the right size and put it over the top. Once again, she figured out that this was a value-add right away and wanted to check it out immediately. She had a roof.
That was when she started taking naps in there.
A week later, I figured out how to add a side compartment and give her a split-level. It took her, like, minutes to climb up into it and explore. She started going up there and peeking at us around the wall.
Two weeks later, I had another box and I built her a compartment on the opposite side. That was the arrangement that allowed her to get up onto the roof, an accomplishment she obviously found very satisfying indeed.
Cardboard doesn’t last forever, though. Also, my husband is an engineer.
What happened next was probably inevitable. A month later, when the existing structure had started to collapse because she gnaws from the base, my husband rebuilt the entire thing.
This was when the “box fort” became what it is now, which is basically a three-story Bauhaus modernist bird mansion with a porch and a ladder.
At this point, we realized that Noelle Noodle is probably the only parrot in the galaxy who has her own box fort. That should change, right?
The fort has transformed the experience of having a parrot at home with two busy office professionals who are on the phone all the time. She knows she is allowed to do whatever she wants in there, tearing and shredding and kicking bits of cardboard over her shoulder. She can climb between levels and compartments safely, with juuuuust enough challenge to make her feel like she’s really earned the fresh view. She naps out in there all the time.
Any bird family might be interested to learn that she’s made it four months completely streak-free. She considers the box fort her “nest” and she has kept it 100% immaculate from the start. She won’t even take toys in there - I’ve tried to offer her a couple and she pitches them out onto the floor.
Our groomer advised that if she started acting aggressive, we should take the fort away from her. She is a remarkably sweet bird and it hasn’t been a problem, but maybe partly because it’s at least a foot lower than her usual perch.
That’s the story of Noelie and her box fort. It began as a random, casual idea and gradually, over a period of three months, morphed into a real plan. This is an allegory for any creative spark, you get that, right? Also, it’s a bit of a manifesto. Even a kid can tape together some empty cardboard boxes and make something sturdy enough for a pet bird to climb on. Every household pet absolutely needs a private personal space to chillax - and they also all need at least 12 hours of sleep, something that is tougher for birds to get, which can make them a little crazy.
True for us all. We all need quiet time, personal space, some playtime, and a little imagination. Maybe some of us could use box forts of our own.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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