Listener 1: After a year and a half in this pandemic, my decision fatigue is pretty high.
Listener 2: I feel like I am waking up every morning and deciding my entire future over and over and over again.
Listener 3: The decisions that we have to make are really intense and they are really about our continued ability to live and survive.
Listener 2: It's pretty exhausting.
Listener 4: I am having a hard time making a decision about going back to school.
Listener 5: If and how I want to continue to engage with friends who are choosing not to be vaccinated.
Listener 6: To fly to Florida at the end of September for my grandfather's celebration of life with the rest of my extended family.
Listener 7: We have an almost three-year-old and we're trying to figure out when to put her in childcare.
Listener 8: I suppose you could say, yes, I do have some fatigue.
Anna Sale: This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale. In these days uncertainty feels like the new constant. After nearly 18 months of this pandemic and the facts on the ground continually changing we are all figuring out how to respond, which contingency plans we need to develop, and it has all gotten really tiresome. Many of us are running into decision fatigue, or have been dealing with decision fatigue for a long time. On this episode today we want to help you make one choice that you are struggling to decide. We have asked you to send in some of your dilemmas about decisions and we have assembled a panel to weigh in and help you out. They are friends and experts. With us, Tayari Jones. Tayari Jones is a professor at Emory University and the author of many novels, including the best seller, An American Marriage. She has been on Death, Sex & Money many times. This is your fourth appearance, Tayari. Four times!
Tayari Jones: I am delighted.
AS: Thank you so much for being with us from Atlanta today. Also with us, Tara Ilsley works in public health at Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. You might remember Tara. We last spoke during a week live call-in in March 2020 just as things were beginning to shut down across the United States. The last time, in fact, I recorded in this studio. Tara, you told us about a Tinder date that you went on where you discovered late in the game that this person you had met up with had just traveled internationally. You said, "I work in public health, this is not happening. I'm not putting my tongue down your throat." That was a decision you were clear on back in March 2020. We wanted to have you join us because we've gotten some questions that have to do with public health and having to do with how we each make each of these decisions in our own lives. Also with us, John Paul Brammer, who has never been on Death, Sex & Money before, but we are so excited he is here because, in fact, you are the only guest whose day job it is to give out advice.
John Paul Brammer: No pressure.
AS: We know you're going to bring it. You write the Hola Papi column and you now have a memoir out by that name. It's a wonderful book, a mix of responses to reader questions as well as rich, funny sweet stories about coming into your identity as a gay Mexican-American man, falling in and out of love, navigating workplace dynamics, and much more. JP, I'm so glad you are here. Welcome to Death, Sex & Money.
JPB: Thank you for having me.
AS: I want to jump to our very first question from a listener, and JP, this is right in your wheelhouse. It's about romance from Hady in Brooklyn, who is 51 years old.
Hady: I'm trying to decide whether I should date. I actually was seriously considering joining a matchmaking service before COVID started, and then I put things on hold and I'm just not sure if that's the path I want to go down. It's really hard obviously to meet people, unless I'm being super intentional about it. I really feel stuck and in a hard place right now. Thanks in advance for your help.
AS: Stuck. JP, do you have any advice for Hady about making this decision about when is the time to really go at it with dating?
JPB: I do. This is the first time that matchmaking has ever been brought before me. Usually we just just call that Grindr in my world, but I assume it's quite different in this context. It sounds interesting. I want to do a matchmaking thing now. If they just sit me down with someone and we have a discussion, that sounds lovely, but I understand the reluctance. I think it's been a hard year for all of us. For those of us who started out the pandemic single and still are, it's been a lot of time to reflect on what we're looking for in another person, why we haven't found it yet, where was our COVID boo, et cetera? That could be very stressful. The idea of getting back out there, even if it's just to hang out with friends again for the first time that we haven't seen in a while, it can be scary, or a little bit more awkward than we were before, and it wasn't even easy before. What I have been doing, and what I've been telling other people that is on the table for them is to maybe lower the stakes a little bit when it comes to meeting new people. Engaging in activities that you enjoy anyway, especially ones that are outdoors and in groups. I've been doing these hiking groups and meeting a lot of great new people that way. Because when you go at it with the express intent of, I need to find my next partner in this endeavor, you're putting a lot of expectations on yourself, you're putting a lot of pressure on yourself. If you leave that one singular meeting without having found anyone, you start to feel like a failure. What I'm suggesting people do, if they're nervous, is find something you like to do anyway, and you'll already have a common interest with the people there. Even if you don't find someone you want to date, you could end up with a connection or with a friend. I think it's really important to be tender with yourself at this moment and invest your time wisely.
AS: Okay JP, I have a follow-up, which is, how do you find the right hiking group? How did you find your hiking group?
JP: Well, luckily for me being gay, I just get to type in gay, fill in the blank and there's always some group. It gets very niche. It's one of the benefits of coming from a smaller group of people, is that we have a version of everything. It's not easy, it's not easy for anyone. I would ask your friends, ask people who are already a part of something, what do they do. It's even cooler if you get to do it with people you already know, because then maybe you'll feel a little bit less anxious. I'm all for people engaging their interests right now, and if you happen to meet someone in that journey, then all the better.
AS: Tara, do you have anything to add to that? I'm curious, given how you started this pandemic with that very evocative dating scene.
Tara Ilsley: We did not go on another date, just to follow-up. It feels like a million years ago. It's like, I don't even remember their name! But I agree with the hobbies. I signed up for an accidental elderly poetry class before the pandemic started. I didn't know the elite program or something at the hospital was for elderly folks. It was everyone 70 and over and we continued throughout the pandemic every Monday night. I actually ended up—Marilyn set me up with her son. [laughing, crosstalk] It was a little awkward for a couple of weeks on Zoom. And I think COVID brought up so much, like what level of safety am I okay with? I think it allowed us on dating apps to have more serious conversations than we perhaps had had before, because I'm not risking my life to go meet some fuckboy, honestly. It's I think just low risks, like going on a walk, going on a hike, outdoor things. My poetry class really helped me. Everyone was in elderly homes, so there was only one very quick dating opportunity. I do think it's just sometimes ripping a Band-Aid off and realizing that you have to be in a really good emotional state yourself to be dating because it is really rough. There are let downs, it can be really emotionally vulnerable.
AS: What do you want to add, Tayari?
TJ: About this matchmaking thing?
TJ: I think the matchmaking thing is only if you have the kind of personality—you can only meet someone if you're doing it in a way that you feel good about. These matchmaker people called me and tried to get me to sign up. It was so much money. I was like, "Has it really come down to this, that I'm supposed to pay thousands of dollars for some rando to rustle up somebody for me to have lunch with?" It was so depressing. Even if I had ponied up the money, I don't think it would have been a good experience because the whole time I would have had all this existential dread about it. I'm 50, so I would be like, "Is this what 50 means, that you have to pay people to have lunch with you?" Another friend of mine used the matchmaker because she loves the idea that her money can make anything happen. She feels like, "Yes, if I want to date out, I'll buy a date," and it makes her feel empowered, but it just made me feel depressed. You got to figure out a way to do something that makes you feel like yourself and you can be your best self. I have another friend who found a husband, y'all, she found a whole husband using a spreadsheet. She's a spreadsheet kind of person though so it made her feel like, here's a problem, I can solve it with Microsoft Excel. She married him, they got kids, the whole thing. If I were to bus out with the software, I would feel bad about myself because I fantasy that is supposed to be magical and not mathematical. You got to figure out what works with your own, what makes you feel good about what you're doing.
AS: Well, the thing I also hear in Hady's message is she's saying, "I was almost ready to pull the trigger on this investment to try to find a partner, and then the pandemic happened and I put it off. Now I don't know if I need to go back to that project or if I wait until a better time comes along." I guess, does anybody have just a few questions that Hady can ask herself about whether this is the thing that needs to be a priority right now?
JPB: Oh, no. I was just busy opening up Excel. I have things to do now. [laughing]
AS: Tayari gave you homework?
JPB: No, she gave me advice, another method to try. Yes. I think it's very important to figure out, is this something you want? Because I think, for me anyway, I felt a lot of pressure during the pandemic to try to find someone to ride things out with because I sort of realized how nice it would be to have someone around. But a lot of that pressure was also external. It was people saying like, "Where's the boyfriend? When are you going to find someone?" Stuff like that. I think that you really need to think, "Okay, in this really delicate time we're in, do I mostly just need to invest in myself right now? Take a partner out of the question for a little bit. What do you want to do? What would you like to do? What would be enriching to you? Because investing in yourself right now actually could make dating a lot easier down the line, if that's something that appeals to you.
AS: Let's move to the next question. This is from a woman we're calling Sally, who is 31 and sent this in from Sri Lanka. She's actually not struggling with a decision, she's struggling with the question of whether she made the right decision. Let's take a listen.
Sally: I recently, a few months ago, moved to Colombo in Sri Lanka to join my partner who is from here. I knew that I would be leaving my entire life, basically, behind pretty much. Well, it is much harder than what I expected primarily because Sri Lanka's currently going through a very, very difficult time with the pandemic. What that means pragmatically for me is that I'm not really able to leave my apartment. Though I love my partner so much, he's really great and I want to have a life with him, the fact that I am feeling utterly stuck and unable to create a life of my own here independent of him is making things very difficult. I'm wondering if I should go back, potentially jeopardizing my relationship with this wonderful person.
AS: I think that's a hard question. Tayari, when I listened to Sally's question, I thought about how you have pretty recently made a big move from where you're living. You sort of reimagined where you're life was going to be, not away from your family but back to where your family is. I wondered how you heard that. What did it make you think about?
TJ: Listening to Sally, it really made me wonder if the question is, can one part of your life be your whole life? That really seems to be the question that she's asking. When I moved from New York back to Atlanta, I moved away from a lot of my own independent life back to Atlanta where my family is but my family is here. I have a lot of life here. I was weighing two roughly equal feeling things, my roots or the life I've forged for myself as an adult. What I'm hearing here is actually making me think about my novel, An American Marriage, where the question is whether or not one's marriage or relationship is enough to fill your entire life. The romantic fantasy we have is that being with your person is all that you need. I think she's discovering that that's not all she needs. But I'm wondering if there is a way, even though—she can't leave her apartment. That's really hard on everyone, so that would be difficult, relationship or no relationship, but I would really urge her to try to figure out how she can bring some of the life she left behind into her life. I know Zoom is only Zoom, but what are some ways that she can remember her connections back home? I don't think she can fairly judge her experience where she is based on this outlier circumstance in which we find ourselves.
AS: Tara, it made me also think about like, I think one of the difficulties that I've had with figuring out what is the dilemma and what is a mental health thing that I need to pay attention to in my own life is, is this structural or am I responding to particular temporary conditions? I wonder how you've thought about that as you've talked to people who are struggling in your public health work? How do you evaluate, this is something I need to respond to because it's causing me pain or despair? How or when do you say, this will change, you just got to ride out this difficult time? At some point, Sally, you'll be able to leave your apartment, life will be different where you are, how do you think about that?
TI: I think that's such a great question. I'm constantly asking myself and people, is this the pandemic? Is this my feelings? Are these my emotions? Now I think the paradigm is changing. I think we all had that glow up in June when we were out in the streets and I still was, we're all wearing our masks. And now we're seeing with the Delta variant, it's changing the way we live our lives, whether she's in Sri Lanka or in the United States, it is not safe, it doesn't always feel great. But I think it's really, I know for myself, sitting down and spending some time writing, and just going on a walk and being like, "Is this this feeling I love?" Whenever I do a breakup, I do a good pros and cons list and take some space and time because it's like, is this my feelings? Is this because it's temporary? Or is this really in my gut, how I'm feeling? And so I think it's having people checking in with you. She could come back home and realize it wasn't that situation. I think it's just taking some space and time to think about it because I think right now, it's hard to tell. Is this a circumstance which is constantly evolving? Let's be honest, this summer so many things have happened. It's hard to tell if my cranky attitude is things on the news, if it's 95 degrees out, it's because my air broke, my dog cost a lot of money at the vet, you just don't know!
AS: JP, the other thing that this made me think about is, it seems like the question she's asking is, do I stay in this relationship under these current conditions or do I leave this relationship and return to the life that I came from? It made me think about like, I don't know, a well timed break some time apart within the context of a loving romantic relationship or how long distance relationships can feed you in different ways if that's what you need a little bit of space. Do you have any advice about thinking about how to reimagine how a relationship could look if being in close contact and living together isn't working for Sally right now?
JPB: Well, the most prominent feeling I got out of the message was that of claustrophobia. This idea that this person cramps and doesn't have a lot of escape routes and doesn't have a lot of other places where she can put her time and energy. Whenever we feel like we're out of options, that's when we tend to panic, our brains tends to ring the alarm and say, "Okay, we have to get out of here, we have to find something new." I think that that claustrophobia is something a lot of us have dealt with over the past year plus, but it is the enemy of calm. It is the enemy of feeling like you have your own life to live. It can make you feel very afraid. Whether that means like, "Oh my gosh, I can't leave my apartment, where can I go," or it can be emotional. It can be, "Oh my gosh, I am stuck in this one dynamic and I don't have any other ones in my life, what do I do?" We're just wired that way. What I would really suggest in addition to all the wonderful advice that's already been given is that she finds a way to open her horizons a bit and to make it known to herself, to her own mind that there are escape routes, there are options, you're never completely out of options. Sometimes just reminding yourself of that can do you so much good and can help you visit your relationship in a better way knowing that it's not the only thing available to you. Maybe that looks like finding more hobbies, more interests, like Tayari said, reaching out to people back home and maybe scheduling time to talk and talking frankly also about the mental state you're in with the people you care about, whether that's your partner or those friends because it can be so important to vocalize it because that is you sending the message loud and clear to your brain, "I am actually not stuck. This isn't the only thing in my life." There are all sorts of directions we could go if we needed to. That can bring you a lot of peace, I think.
AS: I like that. I'm going to bring in a listener question though where there's a very clear stark choice where there's two options that Brian in Minneapolis is struggling with. He is 52, and in his family, they are trying to figure out what to do about childcare. Let's take a listen.
Brian: The hugest thing that my wife and I are dealing with is we have an almost-three-year-old and we're trying to figure out when to put her in childcare. It's like, yes, I would like more time with my wife because we work opposite schedules so we can be full-on daycare all the time but then there's the huge social aspect that our kid needs some social. I've talked to people and I've talked to different camps of parents. One camp says, basically, well, no, we're just going to keep them at home and keep them safe, and then the other camp has a cognitive dissonance of like, well, no, we already do it. It's whatever. We're just going to keep doing it even if it's stressful. I work nights. I just really was looking forward to having a couple of extra nights off but we're just trying to figure it out.
AS: Brian, I feel for you as a parent of an almost-three-year-old and also a five-year-old. Tara, do you have any advice? What have you been telling families that are trying to figure out childcare especially with kids who aren't eligible for the vaccine who going to school is one thing when it's a public school but childcare where you can fill in the gaps like a family like Brian's if you give up other things, what would you say to him?
TI: It's so hard. I think there's no one-size-fits-all. I think especially as people, there's not—job loss has been so huge, just how expensive childcare is. I know a lot of folks have done like a nanny share because we know the younger kids, we don't yet have a vaccine so though it's even scarier. Right now, numbers are coming out that more kids are getting sick with the Delta variant. I think it's just talking through with your partner, talking to other families, what's working, and then also even maybe go and visiting some daycare centers, go visiting a nanny share, whatever it may look like, and learn more information. You also have to realize, put your face mask on before serving others. I think that's really important. The best parent you can probably be is when you are taking care of yourself first and there hasn't been a lot of opportunity for that.
AS: I will say it's making me think about, I think what to do with my kids has been the most potent example of having to face that I can't bring risk down to zero. It's constantly trying to check in with, okay, let's be aware of what risks we're introducing into our family. If we do this, what are we doing to mitigate those risks to the best of our ability and what will we do? Allowing for those plans to be fluid and to change. My kids started school, they're both in school but I'm well aware they might have to take breaks depending on what happens in their schools. Tayari or JP, anything you want to tell Brian?
JPB: There have been a lot of downsides to starting my advice column on Grindr but one of the upsides is that I do not really get questions asking Hola Papi, what do I do with my children? I'm going to second absolutely everything Tara said. There's my contribution to this one.
AS: I can't wait till the Grindr demo just keeps aging and then you are going to have a bunch of problems here being like—and that's what you're going to have to deal with.
JPB: I will joyfully retire. [laughing]
More of your questions about decision fatigue after the break.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale, talking about your decision fatigue dilemmas with writers, Tayari Jones and JP Brammer and public health worker, Tara Ilsley. When we asked for your questions about what you are struggling to make a choice about, we heard about small things and some very big things like from Dana in Texas, who is 53, both of her parents were recently diagnosed with cancer.
Dana: I live about eight hours or so away from them. I'm the oldest child and have always been the caregiver basically for our family. I have sisters who live closer to my parents, but they are not as involved and not as willing to fill that role as I have always been. I'm feeling very torn about whether I should move home and be close to my parents so that I can help them during this time or whether to stay where I am. I am established in my career, my husband, my children live here, my grandchildren live here. It would be really leaving the life that I've built for the last several years here in Texas. I also feel really guilty for not being there to help my parents during this time. That is a huge decision that's weighing on me. I would love to have some help in figuring out what to do.
Anna Sale: What do you all think?
Tayari Jones: Well, I moved back home and I'm near my parents and I've taken care of them throughout this whole pandemic. It's been a responsibility different than any responsibility I've known because I have siblings, but I'm the only one that lives here and I'm the daughter. There's a lot that comes along with being a daughter. With your parents there a sense of not only are you taking care of them, but in a way you're paying them back for having taken care of you, but I think no one else could have taken care of my parents but me. I think that were she not to go home and take care of them, that would be something that would probably haunt her for the rest of her life. I wonder, is there a way that she can take care of them without entirely uprooting her whole life to do this? Or how long does she think she'll have to stay because she says her kids, her grandkids everyone's in Texas. I don't think she has to leave Texas forever. I wonder is there a way, could she come down every other week get an Airbnb, or once a month, get an Airbnb for a week every month or something. It's not all or nothing. I feel that that's how she's feeling, like it's either lose my current adult life or take care of my parents. There has to be a way she can do both. If her siblings aren't really the caregiving types, are they the check writing type, because that could help too. That's what I think.
AS: JP, you write really beautifully about growing up in Oklahoma and your family and you are far from Oklahoma where you grew up now in New York city where you live. I wonder just how you've thought about that, about loving and showing up from afar, and when you do need to go home, how have you thought about that in your life?
John Paul Brammer: It's been one of the major driving forces of my entire life, just because the jump from the rural community that I grew up in and going to a very urban one where there was a lot more people and I'm much farther away, but also living the life that I've always wanted to live because I was always looking for connection and I was always feeling lonely and bored where I come from. It's a guilty thing at times for me, because I do have such a strong connection with my family. I can already see my younger sister who is still in Oklahoma, she is really stepping into the role of, "I'm the one who does all the family events, I'm the one who shows up to the house whenever they need me." I think a lot like, "Oh gosh, what about my obligations? What can I do to be a better child, a better sibling?" Really for me, one lesson that has given me a lot of optimism is that home is not so far away as it used to be. Home doesn't necessarily have to be, "Okay, do I need to just move there into a house next to my family's farm? Then will I then be the ideal son? Will I then be the ideal sibling?" It's a lot like what Tayari said, it's not a binary in that way. There are ways for us to connect with our family that I couldn't have dreamt of when I was growing up in rural Oklahoma. I do call them every day. I make sure that we know what each other is thinking, what our days look like. That emotional connection is very important. I know that what's being discussed here is more on the physical care-taking side of things. That's something that is going to be a very difficult decision to make no matter which way you cut it. However, what I would bring to the table is reminding them of their person too, that their decisions matter in the terms of their own mental health, their own wellbeing. My mom happens to be the oldest daughter in her family and she was the one who had to take care of my abuelos all the time. She was not entirely happy with that role. She was always wondering why the siblings weren't stepping up, why it was always falling on her. I think it would have been a lot easier for her in the long run if we had just gotten the siblings together and been like, how can we make this a group project? How can we all make sure that the parents are okay? Like Tayari said, maybe it's time to start writing some checks from these siblings because I do lament the fact that it seems to all fall on her.
AS: What do you think your mother would tell Dana?
JPB: I think she would say, whatever decision you're making, don't base it entirely on guilt. Don't base it entirely on shame or what you feel like your obligations are because sometimes when we do something that altruistic, we can end up regretting or being bitter over it. What you don't want to allow happen is any bitterness to come into your dynamic between you and your parents. You have to do what's right not only for them, but also for you. Don't forget yourself in the process of trying to be the best daughter that you can be.
TJ: Also I think it can't be denied that this caretaking is really hard work and to do it is going to be a sacrifice. If this is a moment when the parents are ill like this, it's going to call for a sacrifice. I think it's super important just to know that it's not an eternal sacrifice you have to make. Just like during the pandemic, I took care of my parents. They're in good health, but Daddy's in his 80s, Mommy's in her late 70s. It was a lot of work. I thought about them all the time. I couldn't really socialize at all during the pandemic because I was so afraid that I would basically accidentally kill my parents. I was locked down way harder than everyone else that I knew and it sucked. I wasn't putting myself first and it was really difficult, but now that we're on the other side-ish of the pandemic, I'm really glad that I did that. If you can see that into the sacrifice, I think you can sacrifice more without becoming bitter.
JPB: Yes. That's the thing about families, they require a sacrifice. I think that a lot of the things that have happened in my family has required me to grow up a little bit early in some cases or give some things up. That's what family means sometimes when you love someone and when you're a part of a unit in that way. Sometimes community that strong means that you have to give a little of yourself. It's tough, it really is.
AS: Tayari, you want to add something?
TJ: I do want to add something. I have something I feel like I have to say.
TJ: When it comes to caretaking for your parents or for anyone else, when you think of it too much as caretaking, that is when it becomes burdensome. Also remember it is your time to spend time with your parents, to spend time with your family. So it doesn't feel like just something that you're doing for them, that this is time that you're spending together and talk to them, play games, do other things. Integrate them into your life instead of looking at taking care of them as a way that you're stepping out of your life, because they're your family and you love them and time you spend with them is precious.
AS: Oh, I love that. I think something, Tayari, you said we're on the other side-ish. I think that ish is what's troubling for so many people right now. Where are we? Are we through it? I think about Dana whose parents are going through cancer treatment. It's on the one hand, those are things that get scheduled and calendared out and you can see when you would be most needed in the house, but also it's just this ride that you don't know how long it's going to be. You don't know how much of you it's going to take, how much of your care they're going to need. I wonder just from caregiving for parents that you love, that grayness of just what they need and what they will need of you and how that's going to shift and change, did you think about that or how are you thinking about that?
TJ: I think about it all the time because this year has been so hard on my parents, especially my dad. I think he feels that as a man of 84, as he said, "Old people don't have a year to throw away." It's been so difficult to watch their emotional state during this year. He can't socialize. He only has one friend he sees and he just-- It breaks my heart. Who knows how long this will go on. Who knows if things will get better or not better. I do sometimes think that I am the child that is designated to do this work, but also I think I'm the one of my siblings that's best suited to it also. I've also done things. Like some days, I don't call home or I don't go over there, even though I know they'd be glad to see me or talk to me every day. There are some days I just take off and it's just me, me, me time. You should see me just getting my full me on. I can't tell you the things I do, but I do things.
I've learned not to feel guilty about taking that time away, but when I do it, it really recharges me. Then when I go back to my role, Maura's looking after them, I feel a lot bitter and a lot less. Did you say bitter? How is bitterness still different than saltiness?
JPB: Maybe they are not so different.
TJ: It's similar, right? I feel less salty because I know I just had this incredible day, as incredible as a day as you can ramble in these times. That is what you have to do. You can't caretake all the time. One other thing, it's going to take money. It takes money to take care of yourself when you're caretaking. All those cute little DIY stuff you used to do at home to feel better, it's not enough. When you're caretaking, you're going to need to spend some money. You're going to have to get a hotel. You're going to have to do some things for yourself to feel a bit extravagant in order to balance out all your giving.
AS: When you do make those investments that take money to take care of yourself, can you tell us one thing you have done that was really money well spent?
TJ: Well, one thing I did. One time I was driving to go pick up some prescriptions or something, and by itself, the blinker went on my car and it pulled my car by itself. It pulled into the Ritz-Carlton. [laughter]
I didn't know what I was doing there. You know what I did, I made the reservation in the lobby on my phone on an app because it was one of those last-minute deals. I just spent the night there and I ordered room service. I had a drink called a Smoky Old Fashioned. They set your drink on fire. It was fantastic. I did that and it was just such-- no one knew where I was. I didn't tell anyone. Now everyone knows. I didn't tell anybody. It was $250 really, really well spent. I felt like I had been on a vacation. I felt a little naughty and that was great.
AS: Oh, thank you for mentioning money because this next question is about money from a listener named Kristen from San Francisco, who is 26. She has been working in the restaurant industry and is considering going back to school to get a BA for some more stability. Let's take a listen.
Kristen: I currently work in the restaurant industry as a production manager. I only have an associate's degree in kitchen management and front of house management, but I don't have a bachelor's degree. It's something that I've gone back and forth with for a while now. During the pandemic, I really saw how precarious the restaurant industry is. I saw almost half of my coworkers get laid off with the pandemic. It really taught me thinking about whether or not I need a security net like a bachelor's degree in case something like this ever happens again. I don't know about it. I love my job, but I also don't know how secure it is. If you have any ideas on it, I'd love to hear it.
AS: I love that question because you hear Kristen talking about finding work that she loves and also wondering what is the path to feeling more security and trying to figure that out. Who has something they want to share with Kristen?
Tara Ilsley: I think that's a really hard question. I think it's just there's no right answer. I think if she really feels really called to going to school and that she would feel having a bachelor's would make her feel really proud and that's what she wants to do, she should definitely go for it. Now there are ways to do that and work at the same time. I worked in restaurants all throughout college and grad school, and I probably learned more working in restaurants than I did in college and grad school.
AS: Wait, say more about that.
TI: Just how to work with people, time management, how to split a check, when someone wants to split a brownie eight times and you just think I will never do this shit when I eat out. Just craziness. I just think those life skills. I just think we realized in the pandemic that capitalism is a scam and our jobs are not the way our system is set up. If you're working in a restaurant, you're probably not getting healthcare, unfortunately. Then, how does that roll in with the pandemic? I think if that is really what she wants to do, she should go for it. I think we've realized a lot, as we can see with the labor market. Also at the same time, I feel really strongly. Like, I Airbnb, I've babysat. I have so much anxiety from college and the economy that I never can just have one way to get income. I just always needed to be coming from multiple sources because I just think one of them might fall apart. I think the pandemic has really only reiterated my feelings in that.
AS: Tayari and JP, you all have been writers in expensive cities. You have figured out how to build lives and livelihoods for yourselves. How have you thought about that question of, what do I need for stability?
JPB: I think, like what Tara said, this pandemic has really exposed just how expendable a lot of the economic systems that workers are in. For example, my sister was in event planning pre-pandemic. Obviously, event planning was one of the hardest-hit industries during all this. She took that opportunity to pursue her master's in HR. It's something that I think brings her a lot of peace because it's this idea of, "Okay, I know that this is a really tough job market right now. Things are really difficult, but this is a way for me to invest in myself and a way for me to be more flexible in the coming troubled economy, whatever arises out of this." I think that's really smart. If Kristen sees this as an opportunity to do something for herself, to invest in herself, and something that will make her a little bit more flexible in the job market, I think that she should go for it because the reality is, even though she loves her job, and I'm glad she loves her job, that job would probably easily find a replacement for her in a heartbeat if something were to go wrong. That's just how a lot of these industries operate. I don't think you should ever do something because you think, "Oh, but I love this present gig I have right now." I, for one, I've never had a job where I thought, "Oh, this place really loves me as a person and they would never do anything that would jeopardize my livelihood. They wouldn't fire me. They wouldn't put me in a difficult situation," because a lot of them actually have. If this is something that's speaking to Kristen, I think that she should go for it.
AS: Tayari, one of my favorite things that I know about your biography is that moment in your life when you realized being in school was not what you wanted, when you left your graduate program and decided to figure out a way to get closer to your writing, when you moved to Texas and had those frozen margarita years, I think is what you call it. [laughter] Now you teach at a university. How do you think about what Kristen should evaluate when she thinks about the necessary credentials and when it's time to invest in them?
TJ: I was listening to her and thinking about, she has an associate's and she wants to get a BA. I think it's going to be really important that she figure out exact plans. She wants to get a BA and do what with this specifically, because a lot of times people think you get that college degree and having that credential generically will open doors. The thing is, a whole lot of people get college degrees, so it isn't what it used to be. In our parents' generation, if you had that BA, you were considered you were an educated person and you had access to employments. Other doors would open that are open to "educated people". The BA doesn't serve that anymore. I worry that she's looking at the BA almost as a symbol, like an investment in yourself as a symbol that you want more, but I really want her to have a bit more of a plan. When I left graduate school to move to Texas because I wanted to be a writer and I was studying writers but not writing, I made another plan to go to school to study writing. You see? I fine-tuned my plan and made my education suit my goals. That's one thing I really want for her. I don't want her to go into student debt to get a symbolic degree that'll make her feel proud of herself or whatever, but not with a clear plan. I do think that she's smart to try to figure out how to be more secure because security—I'm doing what I love now, but for many years, I wasn't doing exactly what I loved, but I had security and it gave me the peace of mind to pursue what I loved. I think you have to balance there. I want her to be very careful about the loans. I think the student loans can really just undermine your pursuit of your real goals.
AS: We have a question from Christine that is about pursuing goals. Christine is in Iowa, is 28 years old, and wants to move to New York city, but has not been able to take the plunge. Let's listen.
Christine: My dream since I was 14 years old has been to move to New York city. I went to college in Boston and I gave up an internship in New York to play with a band. Since then, I've been trying to make my way out east again. In June of 2020, I was planning to move to New York. Finally, I hit my savings goal. I was just going to go for it. Then the pandemic had other plans and pushed everything to the wayside. I have even more money in savings now, thanks to the pandemic, but for some reason I'm not going for it. I don't understand why or what's holding me back. Anyway, that's what I got decision fatigue about, is finally doing the thing I've always wanted to do since I was 14. Can you give me some advice?
AS: Oh, I love this question. Decision fatigue, where the decision has been made, but the doing the decision is where the stuckness is happening. What would you advise Christine to think about?
JPB: As a country boy, who always dreamed of going to the big city, I think I have some experience in what it's like to fantasize about moving here and what life could look like. I will tell you right now, a lot of those dreams are very illustrated and contain quite a bit of personal fiction in them. I'm not trying to say, "Hey, Christine, what a nice little daydream you have here, maybe don't pursue it." I want Christine to think more clearly, what do you think New York can give you? What will living in New York bring you? What are you moving here to do? Because the reality is, living here during the pandemic, I know a lot of friends who moved out of the city who wanted to pursue that more small towns American life. I have to wonder what is it that's drawing you here? Is it just the idea of New York, because that can be quite different from being on the M train and crowded between strangers, the train gets stuck on the bridge and you don't get let out for another hour. You're all sweating, everyone's screaming. It's horrible. That's what I think about New York these days. It's just like, I am uncomfortable. The city is trying to attack me and push me out. It's crowded. It's expensive. There's a lot of realities to consider. Maybe not taking the plunge is what they want to do and they just haven't accepted that their dream has shifted or that their needs have adapted. I would suggest to Christine, with all that money that you have now, maybe take a little extended trip here. Maybe spend a week here, maybe spend two weeks here, see what life could look like for you here. You don't have to drop everything and move right away. You can just see what would me being in this city even look like, because that's something that wasn't on the table for me when I was moved here because my company moved me here. I just wish I could have taken that time, had really pictured myself in it and seen what my life could have looked like, and meet some people maybe along the way while you're here.
AS: What's the best length of visit for a New York city trial run?
JPB: I think it depends on how much money you have. [laughter] How much savings are we talking here? I heard that they got even more savings during the pandemic. You could really treat yourself. I think that if you're really considering moving and it's on the table for you, then something longer than a week would be good just to get a real idea of what it's like to be here because if it's just a few days, you can really get that fantasy trip of yours going and you think that life is like that here all the time. It may not give you the most accurate representation of what actually living here would be.
TJ: I agree. I also moved to New York from the South and I moved back. I think the important thing, too, is to remember, let's say you take the plunge. Christine, just plunge away. You could always go back home. None of these decisions are all that permanent. It feels like, "Should I move or should I not move? What if I don't like it?" If you don't like it, go back home. It'll be fine. That also takes some of the pressure off trying something new. You can always change course. I think a month, month and a half is amount of time to see how you really like a place because it gives you enough time to experience all your emotions. While you're there, you have to cook for yourself, so you're not just restaurant eating all the time. You get to see what it's like to cook in an extremely small kitchen. What it's like to get cussed out on the train. That's an experience. All these things happen in New York. That's what I say. Instead of plunging, just put your toe in.
TI: Living in San Francisco, I saw someone eat a stick of butter on Muni one time. I was like, "You just can't make this shit up."
We've got one more question after the break.
AS: This came from a listener named Therese Rosenblatt. She's a psychologist living and practicing in New York City. She actually wrote a book about therapy during the pandemic. It's called How Are You? Connection in a Virtual Age: A Therapist, a Pandemic, and Stories about Coping with Life. She called in with some perspective about why we are feeling so much decision fatigue, what are the conditions for decision fatigue. I just want to play a little bit of that for you.
Therese Rosenblatt: Decisions are particularly anxiety-producing when we're in a gray area. In a way, although we were suffering from a lot of loss and mourning before the vaccine, during the lockdown, decisions per se were easier to make. Now that things are gray in flux, we have some protection, not complete protection. Some people have it, some don't. The Delta variant can break through, but usually not seriously, so on and so forth. Every decision is much harder to make. The boundaries are much fuzzier and that creates a lot of anxiety. The way I'm dealing with it really depends on the day. That goes into my idea of not resisting the temptation to have the illusion of certainty and to having a sense of mindfulness and being in the moment about making decisions now based on the current set of circumstances, but being prepared to change my mind the next day. I do write about and talk to people about how to deal with it, but that doesn't exempt me from having the same kind of difficulty and anxiety.
AS: I felt really comforted by the idea that she can describe the ambiguity and the uncertainty with such detail about why we're feeling these feelings that we're feeling, and still that she can't talk herself out of those feelings even as she describes them. I just hear that about the difficulty of so much ambiguity all at once right now. Are you all feeling more decision fatigue in your life right now?
TJ: Oh, absolutely, because the choices aren't as clear. During this time last year, if someone were to invite you to a wedding, you'd be like, "Hell no. I'm not going to die for you to get married. No." Now it's more like, "Am I going to be less safe in order to take care of-- to be there for this moment in your life?" The math is so different. I do often find myself being like, "I just don't know what to do." During the height of the pandemic, I always knew what to do, stay home. That was the answer to everything, stay home. Now with all the gray areas and the risks, the risk management is very different.
AS: Tara, I imagine that's making your job more difficult communicating with the public because you can't say do this, don't do that.
TI: Yes, you can see whether people are vaccinated and having conversations about—I live in the South and so people have very strong feelings about vaccination. I think it's changed those conversations. It's also having conversations open about their feelings, the facts, going back to the science. It's really hard to protect your mental health. I think it also makes you think if you're working an event or if you're going to see someone, I totally agree, last summer, it was very clear I will be at home. Now it's also what energy do I have? How bad do I want to hang out with this friend? All of these decisions were so easy before. Now we're stuck in this murky place of how does this not only affect me. I think Americans, we're all connected. Herd immunity is not instant. I'm really thinking of our past of vaccinations and how we're all connected, and really the decisions that people make at the grocery store now affect you. I think we're seeing that. For me, I think I've always been quite decisive, but this year in the pandemic, it really made me realize that I want to be a mom more than anything. I'm focused on becoming a single mom of choice. It's made me realize that I really don't want to wait around and really just want to be a mom more than anything. I think it's really cleared some space for me to think about that and think of what that looks like.
AS: Tara, congratulations on making that big decision during this time where it's so hard to make decisions. That's fantastic. I'm here anytime you want to talk about childcare. I think about it a lot. Before we go, let's listen to Therese, the psychotherapist, and the question that she has that she is having difficulty deciding on. Let's take a listen.
Therese Rosenblatt: The decision that I'm struggling with now almost on a daily basis is whether and when and how to go back into the office to seeing patients. I've been working remotely for about 18 months since the lockdown. Just as I was getting ready to going back to the office, to seeing my patients, the Delta variant got bad and vaccines are wearing off. At the moment, where I stand is that I'm putting off getting an office, whereas as recently as a week ago, I was looking for an office.
AS: What do you think? Should Therese think about getting back into in-person sessions?
AS: Why do you say that?
TJ: I don't know. I've just started going back to in-person therapy. It's so different than the computer therapy I used to do. I'm about 17% saner than I was.
AS: That's a marked improvement. [laughter]
TJ: I can tell I'm a little less crazy. I can tell I'm less anxious on all these things because I get to go sit in there. I make sure we sit six feet apart. I sit on this end of the couch instead of that end of the couch. I'm mindful. For me, the risk is worth it, but then again, I'm the patient, so I'm getting more out of it than the therapist. I think there are precautions that could be put in place. I think you can ask people to take home tests. I am a home testing maniac. I rapid test myself all the time whenever I get anxious. I'm like, "Let me just scratch my brain and see what's going on up there." [laughter] I think it's okay. You're only meeting with one person at a time, get the fans going. I think she should get an office. On behalf of her patients, I think she should get an office.
AS: JP, I saw you nodding along. What do you want to add to that?
JPB: I agree. I do think that I'm getting a lot less out of my virtual therapy sessions than I did in person, mostly because one thing the pandemic has taught me to do is lie over Zoom. I've just become such an expert at that.
AS: Oh, really?
JPB: It's hard for me. [laughs] Have done it here? Perhaps. I don't know. I also think that the fact that Therese has literally written the book on this subject and is also experiencing this decision fatigue, really points to just how much emotional calculus each and every one of us has had to do in this really trying time. I can barely do math myself. It really is such a hard moment to be a human being, to be a person at all. No matter who you are, no matter what expertise you carry, it's going to be difficult. It's going to be stressful. I'm of the opinion in this case that, yes, I think you should just move ahead and do it because the situation fluctuates. Do what you're comfortable with, of course, but I think the future you might just thank you for having an office.
AS: Well, that is writer and artist JP Brammer, John Paul Brammer. His new memoir, Hola Papi, is out now. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @jpbrammer. That's two M's. Author and Emory University professor Tayari Jones, thank you also for joining us. You are the author of many books, most recently An American Marriage. You are also a wonderful follow on Instagram @tayari. Tara Ilsley, a public health worker at Duke University Hospital, who is pursuing the next stage of figuring out how to be a single mom of choice. If anybody has any advice for Tara as she walks down this road, send us an email @firstname.lastname@example.org and we will shoot it on to her. Thank you, Tara, for all your work you were doing to keep us safe and your community safe. We are really relying on our public health workers right now. Thanks for your time, everyone. It was so nice to talk with you all. Also to just be reminded that when we feel like we are out of answers for ourselves, how useful it can be to just admit that to each other and then we can get some answers when we workshop it together.
The Death, Sex & Money team is Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. You can subscribe to our show, Death, Sex & Money, wherever you get your podcasts and email us anytime @email@example.com. JP, Tayari, Tara, thank you so much for doing this with us. It was really fun.
JPB: Thank you.
TJ: So much fun.
TI: Thank you!
AS: Stay safe and healthy, everyone. I'm Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
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