And how to apply them in a pandemic
I’m a good boss. I can’t deny it.
I‘m terrible at fixing cars. I’m a horrible cook. I am the worst athlete you would ever want to know, but I’m a good boss. Maybe I’m not the best boss but I often seem to be able to inspire my team to do their work and be proud of a job well down. I’m often told by my employees I am the best boss they’ve ever had. And why would someone whose paycheck depends on me ever lie about that?
I’ve been my own boss, the boss of large TV crews and now I am boss in a huge corporation. There are a couple tips I’ve learned in the few decades I’ve been doing this, but nothing could have prepared me for these last few months when a pandemic sent us all working from home.
I’ve quickly realized that even though it’s a very different world right now, the rules still apply more than ever.
You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room
I don’t remember who told me this. It was very likely the smartest person in the room.
I do recall it was told to me when I was brand new at running the story department for a TV production company. I had been working from home as a freelance writer for several years but had hit a dry spell so I had to put on pants that didn’t have an elastic waist and get a job in an office.
On my very first day, a Production Manager walked purposefully into my office holding a huge calendar.
“When do you think we will be able online the locked cuts?” She asked.
I had no idea what that sentence meant.
I didn’t even know what a Production Manager even did but I was pretty sure she worked for me.
She stood there looking at me waiting for an answer.
“Two days?” I said tentatively.
She seemed slightly puzzled.
“Tues…day?” I guessed again.
I could tell she now realized I had no idea what I was talking about.
“I need help.” I finally confessed.
And instead of storming out and calling me a fraud, she smiled kindly. For the next two hours we sat on my office floor poring over her huge calendar as she taught me all about making a production schedule. We are still friends twenty years later. Whenever we look at each other and say Twos…day? that means we have no idea what we are talking about.
Even when I’m in charge I have to remain teachable. Not being the smartest in the room is a lot less pressure and allows those who work for me to have better ideas and gain confidence in the process.
I’m certainly not the smartest person in dealing with this pandemic. I have had to say “I don’t know” and “I need help” a lot lately. And I would only be half as efficient working remotely if I didn’t have the help and ideas of my staff to help me muddle through.
Hire good people and let them do their jobs
I know this is not always possible. I once inherited someone else’s hire who informed me I was the worst boss she ever had. I think she changed her mind once we figured out how to work together, but I’m afraid to ask and ruin my Best Boss record.
Hiring is the most important thing I can do and I always have to go with my gut. It’s way more important to me than a resume. I feel you can always tell by talking to someone if they are going to be the right person for the job. And if we share the same sense of humor they get major bonus points. I spend most of my waking hours with the people I work with so why wouldn’t I hire the ones I really want to spend my time with?
Job interviews are all about chemistry. I learned this when I was on the other side of the process. Since I freelanced for many years, I went on a ton of them. I had great ones and ones where I just bombed. There was the time an executive offered me a cherry and I nervously ate the whole bowl in the next ten minutes. Or the time I lost my glasses even though I had not moved from my chair during the entire interview. I got both those jobs because we were able to laugh about it. And then there was the one where I brought my new backpack and went searching through it for my resume only to realize I had picked up and rifled through my interviewer’s similar-looking bag by mistake. She was not amused. I would have been and probably would have hired me.
I put a lot of care and thought into the people I’ve hired for my current job. They are so good they barely need me. I’m glad of it. It would be very hard to have to be micromanaging by Zoom.
It helps to be human
One of the best lessons I learned when I ran TV crews is that being a boss doesn’t have to be a rigid role. My job took me and my team into remote areas of the world where we knew no one and worked hard until late into the evening when we’d gather together and wind down. Of course, there were boundaries to be kept. Once a new production assistant got super drunk and started yelling in my face, “DO YOU KNOW MY NAME? DO YOU KNOW MY NAME??” I wanted to explain to him that was not the best way to get noticed, and it would have been in fact better if I did not know his name.
The head of the large corporate company where I now work has always seemed extremely unapproachable. He is in charge of thousands of people around the world and is quite intimidating. Even though his office is in the same NYC building I work from, I’m sure he doesn’t know my name (although, to be fair, I’ve never drunkenly asked him at a party). Whenever I saw him I’d usually tried to avoid him.
Not long before the pandemic, he was standing in front of the entrance of our office deep into a very intense conversation on his phone. As I approached the door, I realized there was no way to get inside the building without interrupting him. I couldn’t wedge myself past him to swipe my own badge, and wasn’t about to gently tap him on the shoulder. So, I stood there feeling like a fool for over ten minutes until he finally swiped his own badge and walked in with zero awareness I had been standing behind him.
But since quarantine, this guy has been leading a weekly Zoom meeting for those same thousands of employees on Wednesday mornings from his home with his son operating the camera. Every week I see him in his living room occasionally giving his kid instructions while talking to us about the state of company and the state of each of us. He shows what seems like genuine concern over employees who have experienced loss or are feeling overwhelmed and lonely, and offers resources to those who need it. He is not being some old-fashioned macho idea of a “strong” leader. He is being human and ironically in a time of social distancing: less remote and more approachable. In my eyes he has shown what a true leader can be.
Zoom presents a less “posed” version of our world than Facebook or Instagram. We can’t always control our children or pets or spouses from interfering from the perfect picture we often strive to present to our coworkers. We are all seeing in a much more intimate way that all our office mates are just humans doing the best we can.
And no matter how “corporate” we become again when this is all over. It’s a good lesson to never forget. Being a good leader is being a good human.
ABOUT THE AUTHOUR: Keith Hoffman is proud he got through the article without making a “smartest person in the Zoom” joke.
I’m a romantic optimist. I can’t help myself.
I am compelled to search almost desperately for something to smile about or fall in love with even when everything feels terrifying and bleak.
It’s my father’s fault. Well actually it’s the fault of several generations of Irish ancestors. You don’t survive potato famines, the Troubles and centuries of alcoholism without learning to laugh a little at the absurdity of life.
Jokes in the attic
Humor can be a tricky thing. Last week, I wrote what I thought was a hilarious blog piece about how crabby I can be on my birthday on a normal year and how I was even worse this year smack in the middle of a pandemic.
I worked hours on that piece and wrapped it up with an inspiring ending that stirringly celebrated humanity. I posted it and waited for the accolades.
Finally, the first comment popped up.
“YOU SOUND LIKE A VERY SELFISH, NOT NICE PERSON.” Nancy M
I was flabbergasted.
I ran downstairs to my husband Saul and read her hurtful comment to him but he only burst out laughing. “Nancy’s got you figured out!”
Maybe he’s right. My humor was too dark even as a child at St. Jude Elementary School. Back then, I was obsessed with The Diary of Anne Frank. When I wrote a book report about it, my only critique was that Anne didn’t mine more humor out of being cooped up with all those people. Sister Maura marked me down a grade for being “insensitive” but I still think my diary would have been funnier.
Is that a bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket or are you excited to see me?
Even now, I can’t resist a good love story. And my coworker just told me a good one.
Her daughter hates dating, but she is 27 and feels her biological clock urgently ticking. And this was before time ground to a halt because of a pandemic.
“Why don’t set up a Zoom meeting with one of those guys you meet on Tinder?“ her mom suggested.
It seemed like a dumb “mom” idea, but then her daughter realized it had a lot going for it. You only have to make the top half of your body look decent for the date (I just heard on NPR that shirt sales are currently skyrocketing while absolutely no one is buying pants). If it’s a disaster, you’re already home when it’s over. Plus a guy who’ll meet you on Zoom during the time of Covid19 is probably not looking just to get in your pants (or lack thereof).
So her daughter tried it out and met a really nice guy on her first virtual date. In fact, it went so well that they ended up meeting at a park sitting on separate benches. They got to know each other by yelling small talk from six feet away while snacking on the wine and cheese they each brought for themselves.
I mean they have to get married now so they can tell their children the amazing story of how they got together.
Doing the dog math
Who am I to say look on the bright side when people are facing unemployment, loneliness, fear and depression? Maybe you aren’t finding anything funny or maybe your heart’s just a little broken by all this.
The other day I was sinking into despair, but I still had to walk my dog, Alfie. When you are in a funk, chores feel that much more awful.
And for as smart as my breed of dog is supposed to be, Alife does not know how to read the room.
HEY HUMAN! LET’S GO FOR A WALK! THIS IS GOING TO BE SO MUCH FUN, RIGHT? ARE YOU AS EXCITED AS ME???? THIS IS SO GREAT! OH MY GOD, HUMAN, HOW EXCITED ARE YOU RIGHT NOW ABOUT THIS WALK, AM I RIGHT? AM I RIGHT?”
He wasn’t right. But I got off the couch, put on his leash and hiked…no…trudged through the woods on a trail by the Delaware River.
Alfie LOVES sticks. He is obsessed with him. I swear one time when I was driving with Alfie he turned to me from the passenger seat and calmly said “sticks are my heroin.” I can’t be sure if I just imagined that though.
And he loves when I throw them into the river for him to swim out and retrieve. He is uncanny in his ability to figure out how fast the current is and at what angle he needs to approach the stick at exactly the right time to grab it in his mouth. It’s like he’s doing geometry and physics at the same time.
As I watched him arrive at the stick and chomp down on it in the middle of the river at the exact right time I felt it.
I felt joy.
And because my life has quieted down so much, I could really feel this joyful feeling. I really hope you all know what it feels like to see this living thing you cherish so much experiencing its own joy. Nothing tops it.
But as I wrote that last paragraph, I got an alert on my phone announcing all the trails and parks by the Delaware River have closed for an indefinite period of time to keep crowds from gathering.
All Alfie joy is cancelled.
But not really. He and I are going to use our combined brain power to find something else fun. Maybe we are not as funny or smart as we think we are, but we both feel strongly that now more than ever, it is vital to find those moments where we can laugh or fall a little bit in love or simply savor those tiny moments that bring us that universal feeling we call joy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR — Keith Hoffman is NOT a very selfish not nice person, Nancy.
When Self-Isolation Becomes Couple-Isolation
I’ll be honest. This is unchartered territory. I am only at the end of four weeks of self-quarantine, so I can only tell you how to stay married for literally four weeks of self-quarantine. By the end of Week Four I may be writing an article entitled How to Work with a Divorce Lawyer Using Zoom.
But they say write what you know, and all I know right now is the inside of my house and my husband. And these days I really know my husband, Saul. I mean, I know every single thing there is to know about him.
The other day Saul reminded me that familiarity breeds contempt. “No, it doesn’t,” I replied. “Shut up.”
But then I reminded myself that he is the only person in the world I am allowed to come within 6-feet of without having to be hosed down like Meryl Streep in Silkwood, so I put on a really big smile and said, “Yes, dear. That is so incredibly insightful!”
I’ve noticed a lot of single people posting on social media that they can’t wait to have sex again when all this is over. But I’ve not seen one post from someone in a relationship bragging about their excessive love-making while quarantined together. The couples I’ve talked to wonder if they’ll ever feel romantic toward each other again.
Like the rest of the world, only a few weeks ago I went to work and ran errands and was glad to see a familiar face when I walked in the front door at night. Now that very same face is there when I wake up and when I eat and when I breathe and when I blink. We have completely caught up on each other’s life stories.
Here is a sample conversation from last week.:
ME: Did I ever tell you about when my mom was in her forties and wore a lime green bikini to tear down vines in our backyard?
ME (continuing): It was soooo funny. The vines turned out to be…
SAUL (interrupting with an edge in his voice): …poison ivy, and the rash covered every part of her body except her bathing-suit parts. You told me that story earlier at lunch and also at breakfast. You also told me on our first date and wrote about it in your memoir which you’ve read to me twice now.
ME: Oh right. (Pause) Did I ever tell you about…
I’m also going through this with my dog, Alfie. When I look down at him and say, “Who’s a good boy??” He gazes up at me wearily as if to say, We’ve already gone over this several times today.
My husband and I have mostly been very good at carving out space for ourselves. I am a writer and he is an artist, so we already value alone time for ourselves and each other. And we’re lucky that two years ago we moved from our tiny apartment with no doors in Brooklyn to a three-story house 70 miles outside the city. In our old place when we had a fight, I would storm into the next room only a few feet away from Saul vowing never to speak to him again before pulling a thin curtain closed between us. It just never had the dramatic effect I desired.
Now we have enough space that I can create a makeshift office out of Saul’s art studio on the top floor while he stress-bakes through hundreds of Great British Baking Show recipes two stories below. But still, in the first days of me working from home, we had our run-ins. Sometimes I wandered downstairs to get a glass of milk and a snack while Saul was deep into dough-kneading in the kitchen.
“What are you doing in here?” he’d ask tensely. “Getting a snack,” I’d reply defensively. This often escalated into Saul growling something about needing to concentrate while making a “Queen of Puddings” and me marching out of the kitchen shouting “Can’t a man get a cookie in his own castle?”
We soon realized that part of the problem was that we weren’t tackling things together. Only a month ago we planned trips and parties, or even just went out to dinner or the movies. We had a mutual sense of purpose. But our new routine of avoiding each other during the day and watching television together at night wasn’t enough.
So we made a very specific chart to give us shared activities and projects:
MONDAY NIGHT — SOCIAL MEDIA BLACKOUT (way harder than I thought)
WEDNESDAY NIGHT — JIGSAW PUZZLE
FRIDAY NIGHT — DANCE TOGETHER FOR A HALF HOUR IN THE LIVING ROOM
SATURDAY NIGHT — BLACK-AND-WHITE MOVIE
SUNDAY NIGHT — ROMANTIC DATE NIGHT
As for my kitchen visits, we now needed to actually talk to each other about things that used to be routine. When I was a kid growing up with five other children under one roof, there was a rule that before we took a long shower, we had to ask everyone in the house if they needed to use the bathroom first. My husband and I adapted that for ourselves. Now Saul announces when he is going to be intensely focused in the kitchen, giving me a chance to grab snacks beforehand. And I vacate my “office” on Wednesdays and Sundays, so he can use it again to make art.
Both of us are being forced to reassess and reevaluate everything we took for granted. And we are well aware of the very real problems happening in the world outside our cocoon. Each day in this new reality, when we hit a roadblock with ourselves and each other, we are doing our best to take a breath and try to figure out a healthy way through it together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman lives in Lambertville NJ. He enjoys snacking only at 1:15 and 3:25 every day unless he asks for permission two hours beforehand. For now, he is married.
Celebrating Life During a Worldwide Quarantine
I have always been notorious for being difficult on my birthday. I love attention, but I hate attention that is mandated. On your birthday, people feel like they have to be nice. There is nothing you’ve done to achieve it except being born. Other Aries understand this. If you have not earned people’s praise, it is not to be trusted.
Usually on my birthday I duck office cupcake parties like they are the plague (sorry for the untimely simile), and I am nasty and hostile to people who try to do nice things for me. Then at the end of the day, I am hurt nobody did much for my birthday. I’m pretty sure this personality quirk broke up my first relationship. And now I notice my husband Saul gets visibly anxious around mid-March. I don’t think it’s the only Ides he is bewaring of.
But how the hell does one prepare for this year?
When this quarantine began, there was a spirit of adventure among everyone.
Zoom meetings? Yea!
I’m going to wear sweats and gain weight eating whatever I want!! Wee!
But as this goes on for the foreseeable future, a new feeling seems to be creeping in..at least for me. And I think that feeling is grief.
It’s not just for the loss of actual lives. There is that. But it’s also the loss of everyday habits and routines and, most of all, the loss of contact with people.
That has a big revelation for someone who is an introvert at heart.
I miss things like my daily coffee break —no matter what—with my dear friend and coworker Sara. It’s the one moment in our often-hectic workday that we guard with our lives. We walk a block to get coffee or tea and check in on each other. When we began this ritual ten years ago, we often worried about whether we’d ever stop dating the wrong guys and getting our hopes dashed. Now we are both married to good guys, and Sara has two wonderful kids.
And I miss my friends Jose and Will and our frequent forays to Broadway. Everyone has that thing they spend more money on that they should– sports events or shoes or tigers—our thing is Broadway shows. I have also lured Saul into this thespian cult. It took him awhile to drink the Bernadette-Peters-flavored Kool-Aid, but he finally (though still reluctantly) sips it. I even miss our drives into NYC to see a play with Saul grouchily predicting that it is going to be awful and boring. He does this before every single play even though he is wrong at least 8 times of 10. (Saul will dispute this but it’s my birthday, so you have to take my side).
I miss weekend gatherings with friends’ even though I always got terrible social anxiety before each and every one.
I DON’T miss riding a crowded bus to work. Check back with me on that one in a few months.
Like many people, I’m no stranger to birthday grief. I remember the sharp pain of my first birthday after I lost my big sister. I still can’t believe I’ve now experienced more years of life than she did. And there were so many others where I beat myself up because I still was single or hadn’t written that book or had no money or was floundering in my career. Birthdays felt like a report card on my life instead of a celebration of life itself.
On top of all that, I was superstitious. I had read Shirley McLane meditated on the exact hour of her birth each year and set her intentions for the 365 days ahead. One time she envisioned winning an Academy Award and she did! Since reading that, I’ve doggedly got up for the exact hour of my birth (6:20 AM) and meditated and set intentions for my coming year. When I moved to LA I got up and drove an hour and a half to the ocean making sure to be sitting on the beach at that exact magic 6:20 AM hour. I set some awesome intentions that year. I was going to make Shirley look like an underachiever! Then I realized that since I was born in Ohio and I was sitting on a west coast beach with a three-hour time change, I actually should have been there at 3:20 AM. I had missed the magic hour completely and the sand in my underwear was all for naught.
This year I’m back in the right time zone but somehow missed my appointed intention-setting time again. I basically had one thing to do today—get up at 6:15—but somehow set my phone alarm wrong.
So even though I probably missed my chance, I will tell you what my intention was for the year.
ENJOY HUMAN CONTACT— even though it is messy and irritating and unpredictable and anxiety-inducing.
Enjoy the run-ins and the scuffles and the people sitting too close and doing all the wrong things.
Enjoy the hand-holding and the hugs and the bemused smiles as people look in my eyes, and the small kindnesses and the holding of doors and the picking up of something I dropped.
Enjoy the idle gossip and the laughing together at the absurdity of it all.
Enjoy people taking bites of my food and chewing too loudly too close to me and people interrupting me when I’m trying to write (like my husband just did a few minutes ago).
Enjoy it all.
Okay…I got carried away.
NO ONE has to enjoy people chewing too loudly. We are not animals. We must still maintain a civilized society.
But other than that, this is my birthday wish. Even if I will still have to take breaks from socializing every once in a while to recharge, and even though I am pretty sure I will still get that familiar anxiety once I’m out and about in the world again, I want fully to enjoy as much as I possibly can the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of sharing this planet with other glorious human beings
ABOUT THE AUTOR: Keith Hoffman was going to win the Pulitzer Prize this year, but he overslept this morning.
Virtual meetings are for more than working from home
One of the very best things I did to finally finish my book was start my own writing group but it happened pretty much by accident.
Five years ago my company held a creative offsite. For those who have never worked in the corporate world, offsites are these odd things where you are forced to travel outside your office and comfort zone with your coworkers and prompted to do unnatural things in the name of team building and innovative thinking. You have to solve a puzzle with Janice from Accounting and Greg from Research Analytics (people from Research Analytics are always annoyingly good at solving puzzles) or write three ideas to move your brand forward using your left hand and an orange crayon. I loathe creative offsites. It feels like enforced creativity. I dislike them as much as work Happy Hours which feel like enforced fun. I guess like many writers, I am a loner at heart.
We ended this particular offsite by sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor taking turns announcing one way we could “improve creativity in the workplace”. Ugh.
Yelling “pass” didn’t seem like an option. I had to come up with something. I had been wanting to join a writers’ group to force myself to finish my book for some time and had been looking for just the right teacher who would guide me to that perfect best-seller. I was pretty sure there was no such person at my workplace, but when my turn came that was the idea that popped out of my mouth.
“We could order a pizza and meet in the 8th Floor conference room once a month at 6:00 pm and read out loud the pieces we’ve written. I mean…that is…if anyone is interested.” I said this as if I had been thinking about this idea for more than five minutes.
The response from the group was huge. Sign me up! That would be great! Please start one! I assumed the big reaction was the result of me mentioning pizza, and was pretty sure it would be forgotten the minute the offsite was over and we returned to our normal work lives.
A budding Proust snacking on a madeleine in the next cubicle?
But the interest wouldn’t go away. I was reminded weekly by at least one person that they couldn’t wait for me to start that writing group. Finally, after some nudging from my boss: “Those kinds of innovative actions are looked at favorably during promotion time”, I sent out a mass work email, found a place that delivered pizza and moved the lava lamp from my desk to the 8th floor conference room one Wednesday evening after work. The first meeting was huge. Who knew there were so many secret writers in my office? We had to rush through each person to get everyone home before midnight. But soon the novelty wore off and the group was whittled down to six dedicated writers. They worked in every department — from people in creative fields to those who were executive assistants — but each person who ended up staying was a talented writer with a unique voice.
Since the group met after work, we felt safe reading personal things, and I reminded everyone that what was read and said in the group stayed in the group. Over time, we shared our stories and our lives and got to know each other far more deeply than we had working side by side all those years. One production manager who lost her husband to alcoholism wrote a piece on addiction that was more powerful and insightful than anything I’ve read before or since. The shy tape librarian who had initially been reticent to join us started a book that eventually got published. It’s called Don’t Get Too Excited because that was what she would say to us every session before reluctantly reading one of her brilliant stories. Eventually our work group staged a public reading at our boss’ apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan twice a year that became a popular and anticipated event.
Light a fire
Our group lasted almost five years until corporate restructuring laid off many of the members. By that time, I had learned that you don’t have to wait for someone else to start the perfect group. I started a new one with my neighbors in the small town of New Hope, PA. We meet in the back room of Farley’s, the local bookstore, (which they let us have for free) and it is still going strong today. We’ve also had a public reading of our work and asked people to buy a book from Farley’s as the price of admission. I am constantly reminded that these groups are an age-old tradition that started with telling stories around the fire. The more you tell your stories, the better you get at it. And all I had to do was create a safe space for those two hours we met.
Your computer can be for more than writing
But there are several reasons people can’t come together to meet as a group. There may not be an affordable distraction-free space. Coffee shops can be loud and unpredictable. Or someone may have a physical disability that makes mobility challenging. Maybe you don’t know any writers in your town or live in a remote area or just can’t be away from home for long. Perhaps you are looking for a group of very specific writers — mystery or romance novelist or cookbook creators— and there aren’t enough of you in close proximity. Or maybe you already have a wonderful group of writing friends, but they live in other parts of the world.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime workshop with memoirist Mary Karr in Greece. A bunch of us who attended would meet between Mary’s sessions forming an impromptu session where we read our own work to each other. After we returned home from that workshop, we tried to keep up the strong connection we had formed. We made audio files of our work and emailed them to each other. Everyone tried to listen to the files and reply with their thoughts, but something got lost in the distance and mechanics of it all. I discovered if I didn’t schedule time to listen each week, I just never got to it. Life had a way of interfering.
But in the last couple of years, technology has been able to bring humans closer. More people work from home because and Zoom or Skype into meetings. Why can’t we do the same with writing groups?
The rules don’t change: Bring work to the group no more than a certain length (I learned from a mentor that 7 pages is optimal), keep comments constructive, and make a commitment to show up. Instead of printing out copies, you can email your work beforehand. As far as I can tell, the benefits are still the same. There is something about reading your work out loud that is informative and illuminating. And there is nothing that gets one motivated like having a deadline
If you have wanted to be part of a writer’s group, now is a great time to start. Email five to seven writers you’d like to work with, and set up a time where you meet for a couple hours each week or every two weeks once a month and download Zoom on your computer (this is the most challenging part for people like me—but I swear if I can do it, you can do it too).
Put on sweats, order pizza, pour some seltzer or a little wine since you don’t have to drive anywhere and…viola! Of course, you still have to write something between group meetings. That part technology hasn’t figured out yet.
Who is on your fantasy writing team? Today is as good as any to send out a first email asking someone if they might be interested. Don’t make the mistake I did and wait for a creative offsite to force you to take that first step.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is currently using his innovative thinking skills to figure out how to conduct all of his human exchanges through zoom.
It’s Day 4 since a National Emergency was declared and I’m already going nuts. I would clearly not do well in prison or a hostage situation.
In just one week’s time, all of our worlds have gone topsy-turvy. And like everyone else, I’m trying to navigate an abnormal normal
It all happened so fast. A few weeks ago, I was so naive that I thought coronavirus was two words. I went to large gatherings, flew on planes, incessantly touched my face and washed my hands a mere fifteen seconds. When someone next to me on the bus sneezed, I simply glared at them instead of reporting them to the CDC. Sure, the media talked about it a lot, but I was used to those fake predictions that never materialized: Killer storms…Mexican caravans storming our borders…a women president. I thought we would eventually add Coronavirus to that list.
But before I knew it, flights were cancelled, conferences shut down and I was ordered to work from home. And I am overwhelmed thinking about the people who are losing their jobs, and their income and their businesses. Everything feels frightening and sad. The territory is new. It’s like we’re Googling our brains for a similar event in our lifetime and coming up with nothing.
So how do we all get through this? Well, I’m as much of an expert as the rest of you which means I’m not one at all, but I’ve to come up with a few DO and DON’TS that will hopefully help.
DON’T post on social media that you are in a crowded bar or restaurant with quotes like “No Corona for me but how about a margarita??” (Yes, I actually saw this.) I know in your probably drunken head you think you are sounding fearless but you actually sound kind of idiotic and possibly alcoholic. Be a good member of the community and keep your distance from the rest of us.
DON’T use the hashtags #BoomerDoomer or “BoomerRemover when talking about the virus. It’s just tacky and you may feel a tiny bit guilty if your grandparent or parent dies. Look, I’m not quite a Boomer (I say this trying not to sound defensive—BUT CHECK THE DATES ON MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE AGAINST THE DATES OF THE BOOMER GENERATION IN WIKIPEDIA), but I did spend the 80’s marching in the streets and attending protests while the government ignored AIDS and my friends died. A lot of those who died were Boomers. So, let’s give the still-living Boomers a break. They’ve already had their plague. And here is another tip I learned from Anne Lamott: Flirt with Old People. Try it. It’s actually quite fun. Everyone feels good after a little harmless flirting. #HeeeeyBoomer
DON’T say to your spouse, significant other, child or roommate “Oh my God. I can’t do this. I can’t spend another minute cooped up with you. I feel like I’m being strangled. I’m suffocating.” Especially when its only the first day of ‘social isolation’. Statements like that are best left written in a journal or communicated to a therapist via skype. On the other hand, I have found Saul gets equally upset when I excitedly say things like “Wow, all this time at home really gives us a chance to talk a lot about our feelings!” That makes him cringe and nervously touch his face with his hands. And one last relationship tip: Before blurting out “During this pandemic, let’s agree on no more sex outside of the marriage,” you might want to double-check that ‘sex outside of the marriage’ was actually allowed before the pandemic. Things could get awkward.
DON’T touch other people’s faces unless you are Helen Keller.
DO order take out–or if that makes you nervous–buy gift certificates from your local favorite restaurants or business. I get it. I am also nervous about eating outside my home. But then I think of Janice and Mae, the waiters at Ota-Ya, the Japanese restaurant down the block who know my husband and I so well. They always greet us with, “Hi Saul. Hi Keith. The usual?” And just a few buildings from them, we’ve excitedly watched Meta Café, the small neighborhood breakfast and lunch place, grow and become successful. We often bring the owner and her staff some of Saul’s baked goods as a snack. Those people are the heart of our community and I want to support them even if it means pushing past my urge to hoard money in case everything goes bust.
DO donate to the arts. If tickets are cancelled and you can afford it, think about donating the money instead of asking for a refund. I remind myself of all the joy theatre brought into my life. For me it’s theatre. Think about what has brought joy into your life and how you can support it even a little during these weird times.
DO spend more time giving your pets extra love. This is the time to cash in on all those hours they hung out by themselves waiting for you to come home. Saul is doing his part.
DO read a non-virtual book. Maybe you have an old favorite sitting on your bookshelf that you read years ago and loved. You don’t have to lug it anywhere so you can take the time to read something with real pages made out of paper. Currently I’m re-reading Bleak House, Lauren Bacall’s memoir, a book about Broadway and Andy Warhol’s diary. If you drew a map of my brain and what usually goes on in it, I suspect it would look pretty much like those books.
DO try to find humor in all this. It’s tricky. Especially on Social Media. A few months ago, I posted a picture of a mom peering into her kitchen oven holding her innocent-looking boy saying, “Your sister didn’t pick up her toys and now look at her.” I found it hilarious as did many of my friends, but one person accused me of mocking Jews in the Holocaust. That was the last thing on my mind, and I was offended he would think that, but when I tried to explain… “See, it’s funny because the mom is so calm as she shows her son his little sister burning…” well, it was a losing argument. I’ve always enjoyed dark humor. Three days after my sister died, my brother and I had to go around and run errands for our mom and discovered we couldn’t get through a simple encounter such as getting an extra house key made without one of us blurting out that our sister had just died. We would get back in our car and burst out laughing over our lack of impulse control. It is still makes me laugh to think about it, but others may not quite understand. So with humor on social media, I try my best to go by the rule of not mocking anyone but myself…and maybe a fictional little girl who didn’t pick up her toys.
DO Facetime. Seeing someone’s face makes a lot of difference. But please wear pants. You would be amazed how easily you forgot you are in your underwear. One slip of the phone angle….
DO keep to a routine. I’ve been setting my alarm, getting up early, showering and dressing It keeps me feeling more grounded and helps me to remember to put on those pesky pants.
DO be safe! And be kind when you can. And send me some of your idea for staying sane.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is NOT a boomer. But he does enjoy if you flirt with or without your pants on.
When I was a little boy I loved Lent. I loved getting that cross smudged on my forehead by the priest on Ash Wednesday. It made me feel special and a little superior to all the others with spotless foreheads. I wasn’t exactly prejudice against those “others”, but the fact that the nuns divided the world into Catholics and non-Catholics might have sent a subtle message that our religion was the winning team.
So, I loved the ashes, and I loved the blessed, dried-up frond I put under my mattress on Palm Sunday, and I loved how you had to be quiet from noon to 3PM on Good Friday during the hours Jesus hung on the cross and how it always seemed to rain that day, and I loved how on the third day after Jesus died for our sins the Easter Bunny left everyone baskets full of treats.
But most of all I loved giving up things for Lent. It made me feel noble. Usually I gave up candy or lying. Once I gave up Orange-flavored Tang. Each year felt like a contest. Could I hold out for 40 days and win a trip to heaven?
Those things don’t have as much meaning as they used to when I was a little boy, but I still like to give up things for old time’s sake. If nothing else, I find it a great way to break bad habits. But now, I try to give up something a little more sophisticated than candy. To be honest, I almost did give up sugar this year, but my husband Saul is going through an obsession with baking and I’m too codependent to not eat what he makes. I do sometimes worry about my health, but if I die from diabetes, I figure I will be a little like those people who jump in front of bullets or trains for their spouses. Eating my husband’s tarts is like taking a bullet only much more pleasant.
Saul suggested I give up Candy Crush which he finds me obsessively playing at all hours of the day and night. I love Candy Crush. It does something to my brain that relieves anxiety. But I’m not ready to give that up just yet. I know Jesus made a lot of sacrifices for mankind, but I think if he had an iPhone all those days he was stuck in the desert with Satan, he would have played a LOT Candy Crush to relieve his anxiety.
Still, I am giving up something almost equally as hard. I’m giving up responding to political posts or making political posts on social media.
It’s a been almost a week since I wrote the above section.
Since then I have failed MISERABLY at my Lenten promise. There will be no all-expense paid trip to heaven for me now.
I was doing fine until Super Tuesday. And to my credit, I still have not posted anything on my own Facebook wall, but I could not seem to stop myself from reacting to what I thought were asinine comments from other’s online. And I did it again and again and again.
First let me explain why I was trying to give it up in the first place.
I’m pretty sure we all thought the internet would unify the world. Once we were all able to post our views, we would finally be able to walk in each other’s virtual moccasins and come to a unified understanding of life and humanity.
And we all know that’s not what happened. People quickly found that when you are not face-to-face in the same room with someone, you can be vicious and call each other names and dig your feet firmly into your own point of view. I noticed this during the last Presidential election when my own sister-in-law who had always been like a big sister called me a libtard on my Facebook wall.
But it got even worse during this current election section but from people who were supposedly in my own political party. After I said another person’s candidate was not my first choice but I would vote for them if they were the candidate in the general election, I was called a racist (even though their candidate was white), a hater of poor people, someone who doesn’t care about the sick and suffering, and a neoliberal. I don’t know what that last label quite means, but I discerned from the context of the insult that it is a very, very bad thing to be. Now to be totally honest, one of those things is true. Sick people do get on my nerves. Just ask my husband Saul. When he says he feels under the weather, my response is usually something like “Ugh. I hate weak people.” I’m working on pretending to act more compassionate, but am pretty sure I would be a really terrible nurse. And you will all be as glad as I am that I have to avoid other people during this current pandemic.
When I started this grand political experiment, I did pretty well for the first couple of days. It was like giving up any addiction. I would get a strong urge to post, but if I took a couple of breaths I noticed it would pass. I discovered it really wasn’t necessary to write every single political thought that popped into my head. I realized that typing my latest take on a subject on my phone and pressing send, didn’t actually make me a real expert.
I also realized I was getting little adrenaline shots every time I responded to a post I disagreed with. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, but it sure was distracting from the things in my non-virtual life that I didn’t want to deal with.
As I successfully stayed on the sidelines during the first weeks and watched people angrily debate, it confirmed what I suspected all along. No one’s mind is changed when they are being attacked because no one wants to feel like they are losing. Imagine if Amazon sent you angry emails that you were stupid and clueless and an idiot for not wanting to buy its products. Or instead of seductively beckoning you from the street corner, prostitutes screamed at you and called you a neoliberal loser if you didn’t chose them for a good time. That last example may be a little outdated, but my point is tearing down the person you want to think the way you do doesn’t seem to work very often.
So why did I fall off the wagon so spectacularly?
The slide started slowly. At first I would ask Saul to post things for me. “I’ll gladly eat your entire Swiss Jelly Roll if you’ll repost this scathing political cartoon on your wall.”
But finally, the posts that made go trigger-happy were the ones where they threatened to vote for Trump just to teach America a lesson (I noticed these people were always young white guys who would be the last to suffer under four more years of Trump) or the ones that claimed they didn’t vote because “voting needs to be made easier”. That last one really got to me. Should our elections be reduced to putting the candidates’ pictures online to see who gets the most likes? If we have time to binge-watch entire seasons of shows, we can make the effort to vote. (Although I am all for making Election Day a national holiday.)
But wait, am I breaking my vow by even posting this?
Look, I understand that anger often brings change. And I know that words can often inspire deeply. That’s why I write. But I wish we could go back to being a little more thoughtful and civil. It took 17 whole days for Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence and I imagine he put a ton of reflection into his words. It’s hard to write rash things when your pen is made of a feather and you have to constantly dip it into an inkwell.
I’m not giving up. I still hope that my experiment (yes, I’m back on the Lent Wagon) will eventually teach me the importance of pausing before I react and hit that send button. And by the time the Easter Bunny arrives, I hope I will be using social media for more productive things like pictures of my cats and dog and husband sleeping.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is a neo-libtard who lives in Lambertville, NJ. He is happily married when his husband doesn’t have a cold.
Whenever it’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post, I start to think the whole world is mad at me for making them wait so long for my funnily-wise musings on life. I understand this sounds a bit self-centered, but it’s coming from someone who as a child believed for many years the entire rest of the population was secretly listening to my thoughts. I had no problem with it. I thought my thoughts were fascinating. Why wouldn’t everyone be secretly listening? I’m not convinced you all still aren’t.
It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I recently took a class on how to get published online in newspapers and magazines—things like op eds and Modern Love pieces. I’m not sure yet if I’m the op-ed type, but there are perks to this type of writing. It can take agents up to a year to reject your book, but I’ve recently discovered editors can reject op-ed submissions in a matter of hours. It’s quite admirable in a deeply hurtful way.
If you asked me if it’s harder to write a book or to get a book published, I’d have to answer the latter. It really is that old adage that you have to get hundreds of rejections until you finally (and hopefully) get a yes. I’ve heard it all in these last months. One agent told me “No one reads memoirs anymore,” as if I should be ashamed I didn’t make my family saga into a spy thriller. I’ve also been looked down upon over the fact that I’m trying to publish a book even though I have the audacity to not be Stephen King, or a celebrity like Fran Drescher or an influencer on Instagram.
But I keep sending out pitches to agents and editors asking them to read my book “Dear Ms. Fitzgibbons. My third cousin has a friend who once knew you in fifth grade at Our Lady of Unending Sorrow and recommended I contact you. I love the many books you have published on animal husbandry and think you are the perfect fit for my book which has animals and husbands in it.
And sometimes I go to writing workshops and conferences and pitch my book in person. A few months ago, I was able to get five minute with a publisher at a conference.
I paced nervously before my allotted time slot. “Do I have time to run to the bathroom?” I asked her handler, “Yes, but make it quick” he barked. I raced down the hall and charged into the restroom. In my haste, I must not have untucked my shirt completely and proceeded to unwittingly pee all over the front of my pants. (one of my shirt tails got in the way and I didn’t realize…well, it’s embarrassing to write about but it’s nothing to actually living through the event in real time.) I desperately tried to rub my crotch dry but little kids who were taking a tap dancing class in the same building kept wandering into the bathroom and I feared I would get arrested for lewd behavior. Time was of the essence so I rushed down the hall to my meeting and walked in clutching my notebook in front of my lap hoping to cleverly conceal my wet spot which, by the way, was quite large. I got to my seat and pitched my book to the publisher even though I was terribly rattled. I hoped I could zip through the meeting but she kept asking me details about my book and I was so thrown off my game I had trouble answering the most basic things….like how many brothers and sisters I have. That is actually a complicated answer which you will understand one day when my book is published. Anyway, the whole thing was a disaster.
I called my husband, Saul the minute I got out since I knew he was waiting for the report of my meeting. When I told him I had peed all over myself. he was understandably dismayed. But the crazy thing is that next day I found out the publisher had requested my manuscript. Not only that, mine was the only manuscript she requested after hearing several pitches that day. Perhaps she felt bad for a man obviously made incontinent by childhood trauma? As I said, these things take a while…so I haven’t heard back from her since I sent it.
Sometimes, I have to wonder…What if my book never does get published? What if this memoir I started at the turn of this century doesn’t realize the dream I have kept close to my heart and nurtured all those mornings I got up so early before work and wrote in the dark of several apartments and houses on two coasts? Animals have been born and died while I wrote this book. Two family members have also died (making them much easier to write honestly about). But who am I if my dream doesn’t get realized?
We all want to think our lives are a big deal. We want to think they are meaningful. But what if they are ordinary and unexceptional? Do they still matter?
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Saul and I were in a cabin in the Catskills and drove ten miles over a hill to visit some friends. The bottom of the hill was fine but at the top the roads were snowy and icy. Before we knew it, we are on a perilously steep incline with a sharp curve on the bottom and one at the top and steep drop offs on both sides. The car stopped going forward as it wasn’t able to get traction on the black ice. When I put my foot on the brake, we started sliding backward. Cars came around the sharp curve above us and fishtailed precariously close to our vulnerable Mini Cooper. We had no cell phone service to call for help. It felt like a scene from a movie where an attractive couple is trapped in their car and then a clown pulls up and offers to help them before stabbing them in their eyes and pushing them off a cliff.
What were we going to do?
Saul finally decided he could slowly back down the hill using the emergency brake. We had no other choice. I stood outside guiding him and trying to stay upright on the slanted ice as he slowly lurched an inch at a time while out-of-control cars careened past him. I directed him towards the side of the road where there was clump of trees that might stop his fall before he tumbled to his fiery, snowy death. It was the worst feeling of helplessness, but my hero husband did it. Once the car got turned in the right direction, we headed down the hill fishtailing twice but somehow making it safely to the bottom.
What if we had died and then next day one of those agents who have my book emailed to say they wanted to represent me? Would my life have more meaning then? And what would I care? I would be dead. Would Van Gogh have been less miserable if he knew he’d be famous posthumously?
I’m not saying I’m Van Gogh (although we do share the same birthday and have the same coloring). But it brings up the question: Was his life more important because his art was eventually appreciated by the masses? And what did that matter to him?
I guess I don’t know the answer to any of these questions but here are a few things I’ve recently learned.
- Watch The Great British Baking Show. Saul and I became obsessed with this show over the holidays. I know nothing about cooking but watching this good-natured competition series of lovable eccentric British amateur chefs has taught me that even if your soufflé collapses never throw it in the trash! You still may get points for taste.
- There is always a way over the hill. Or a way around it. Even if you have to go backwards for a little while, you still gotta try. Maybe you’ll topple over the ravine and die but you will have done a little flying in the meantime.
- Make sure your shirt is always untucked when you pee, but even if you forget, show up anyway.
- Be kind.Give others the recognition you crave. Thank people for their talent whatever it might be. Recognize good service. Give your animals high praise. And thank your loved ones for helping you survive another day.
P.S. I got an email a few weeks ago. It was a rejection of a 9,000-word essay I submitted to The Lascaux Review. But it wasn’t just a standard rejection. It said that even though I didn’t win, my piece had made it all the way to the third round with only 5% of all the essays submitted. I was grateful l they took the time to inform me. it was just the right amount of recognition I needed to persevere in the new year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is a writer who recently discovered he likes British tarts.
My husband Saul and I went to Canada a few weekends ago. Saul had his artwork featured in a gallery in Picton, Ontario.
When I go to these types of events, I am the spouse. I am the Melania to Saul’s…no wait that is a terrible analogy. I’m the Bill to his Hill..no that’s not good either. To put in bluntly, I am not the star.
One of the consequences of the whole “gay married” thing and the “Women’s Lib” stuff is that roles used to be a lot more clear: the man was the star and the woman was the woman behind the man. But now roles are muddled.
Oh wait…I’ve got it. I was the James Brolin to Saul’s Barbara Streisand. (Coincidentally, I asked Saul this weekend if he ever imagines Barbra and James having sex, but the question only seemed to upset him. Am I the only one who thinks about these things?)
I usually wander around at these art openings and look at the art or stealthily play Candy Crush in the corner periodically joining Saul as he chats with people to make sure he is doing okay. I’d like to think of myself as arm candy except at my age the work it would take to be arm candy sounds exhausting.
I enjoy these nights.. People are certainly nice to me but I’m not as interesting to them as my husband whose art is on display. I get to be a little invisible and I’m okay with that
I’m terrible at small talk. I know the tip people usually give going into parties is that you should ask people about themselves. I have no problem doing that, but I absolutely hate when people ask me about myself. What’s the point? Do you really care unless you are wanting to be my friend? And who needs new friends after forty?
Plus, I hate explaining what I do to someone I will never see again. It feels like such a waste of time.
Here is how it usually goes:
PERSON: What do you do?
ME: I work for Animal Planet
PERSON: Oh, I love that show!
ME: It’s not a show actually. It’s a cable network.
PERSON: Oh, right. My aunt has Animal Planet. She leaves it on for her blind Dachshund when she goes to dialysis.
ME: (sounding a bit too hostile) “Yes, that’s why I labor over the minute details of every episode I produce. To keep your aunt’s blind Dachshund from feeling lonely.”
PERSON: (beginning to feel uncomfortable) Well, anyway…I love animals.
ME: (not meaning it) Thanks.
Sometimes Saul will try to helpfully interject by telling people I produced the series Finding Bigfoot. This can go in two directions. Either people openly scoff at the series (a lesbian couple actually called it tripe while sitting across from me eating a frittata at a bed and breakfast), or people get really, really excited and tell me about their own bigfoot sightings.
Either way it is awkward.
Or sometimes I let my guard down and tell people I’m writing a book and it goes like this:
PERSON: Oh! what kind of book?
ME: A memoir
PERSON: What’s it about?
ME: It’s about me. That’s the definition of memoir.
PERSON: I read people don’t read memoirs anymore.
ME: (sounding a bit too hostile) Then I guess I wasted the last eighteen years of my life.
PERSON: (beginning to feel uncomfortable) Well, it sounds great.
ME: (not meaning it) Thanks.
I don’t mean to be rude, but if I say something like my book is about my kooky family full of outrageous secrets, it sounds like something anyone could write about. If I say, It’s really good…and funny…I just sound defensive.
My point is that I don’t enjoy being asked about myself.
I worry I might come off as hostile in these situations because that is how I am actually feeling inside. But at a recent 4-day team-building leadership workshop at work (yes, it is as horrific as it sounds), we had to approach three other people at the end of the workshop and thank them for something specific. I was mortified. I wanted to knock people over and bolt for the exit. I hate forced encounters. Before I could make my way out, several people came up to me and thanked me for my “warmth, openness and kindness”.
I know some people suffer from having a Resting Bitch Face. I am starting to think I have a Resting Kind Face.
I am totally misunderstood.
These art nights aren’t an everyday occurrence, and Saul is just a big of a supporter of my book as I am of his art. I just cut 125 pages out of my memoir in the last few months (see my blog post PEARLS: When to Push and When to Protect Your Art about my book being “too many words”), and Saul actually let me read my entire book out loud to him…TWICE. Forget Greta Thunberg…Saul deserves the Nobel Prize for being married to me.
I know he will accompany me to book signings one day when my book is published and he will play the part of the supportive spouse.
The truth is we are both pretty good at stepping back to let the other person shine. I mean we aren’t perfect. I might have threatened to leap out of our car in the hotel parking lot in Canada right before the art opening, but I attribute that to my extreme pre-party anxiety.
Overall, we like to see each other succeed. We were around a lot of worldly European couples on this trip. And being European, I suspect some assumed that Saul and I would be up for a ménage a trois or whatever you call it with four people…a ménage a quadruped? I mean they didn’t come out and say it, but those guys from Europe can make offering a French Fry sound seductive. At first I was shocked by the idea, but I’m pretty sure if someone would have offered to do a show in Europe with Saul if he would jump into bed with them I would have pushed him into it faster than Mama Rose made her daughter Louise strip. And I would have joined if it helped and there was no small talk involved.
Sometimes Saul is Mary and I am Rhoda. And sometimes I am Liza and Saul is Lorna. Sometimes one of us is Beyoncé and the other is one of the other two Destiny’s Child group members
As long as we remember that letting the other shine doesn’t diminish our own light and I’m allowed to occasionally sneak in the corner and play Candy Crush, I’m pretty hopeful we can keep this good thing going.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is writing a memoir about his kooky family full of outrageous secrets. It’s really good…and funny.
Oh, and to better understand him ….