Category Archives: Arts and Culture

December 31, 2009

A title of some yet-to-be-written work popped into my head last night: “Mourning the death of the artist within.”  It’s ironic that I would have such a thought at the end of the year in which I received my second Artist Enrichment Grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

But despite the honor and my excitement about the project I will be paid to pursue because of it, I feel a little part of me dimming.  I have spent the past year trying to redefine myself and my capabilities in an ongoing attempt to make this blog moot and to shed “Pink-Slipped Girl” from my identity.  (I don’t know what I would change my Twitter name to, though.)  In the process, I have accepted assignments from business publications and begun a monthly column in a life and leisure magazine.  I have jazzed up my LinkedIn profile, taken classes in internet marketing and website design, redesigned my business cards and promoted myself at networking events as a do-it-all woman who can crunch your numbers just as well as she can write television commercials for you.  I have created an e-newsletter for one non-profit, written grants for two others and written one for myself.  I have received advice from seasoned business professionals on valuing my time and skills, pricing my services at their worth and dealing with clients who don’t pay.  I have proven my ability to stay focused and productive while working independently, I have met strenuous conflicting deadlines and I have been rejected from countless full-time positions that asked for any or all of the very skills or experiences I have just listed.

I’ve had one copywriting assignment for the whole year, four if you count the assignments I completed as part of the application for a job for which I was interviewed for over two hours but didn’t get.  Dialogue for scenes that may or may not eventually become full-length plays still runs through my head routinely, and sometimes it’s original enough for me to write it down, but to turn such words into a radio or television commercial seems like an assignment so far from my life that it’s almost as if I never held the job from which I was laid off.

I don’t bemoan the work that I was given in 2009.  I’m grateful for every byline, and the corresponding checks have helped the unemployment insurance continue past the point at which I had calculated it would expire.  Also, I can’t underestimate the potential value of every connection I make in the professional world by writing the business stories.

But I am more exhausted than I remember being at the end of 2008, and the more leads I follow, the fewer hours I spend in creative output.  This blog may be the best example.  Started in January as a cathartic tool to prove that I can write, blog and play alongside everyone else is this crowded internet space at least once a week, it has lied dormant for over one month, the longest I’ve ever gone without updating it.

In part, I blame my own boredom with the subject matter.  When things start to get old, it’s hard to revive them, and I’ve known marriages that were shorter than my employment hiatus has been.  But I also blame the break from the blog and the general feeling of creative famine on the constant hustle of always pursuing the next opportunity and on the burden of always having to say yes.

To never be sure when your state is going to go bankrupt and send out IOUs, to never know if the job sites you check most frequently will have anything you can tolerate posted, to never know which assignment or connection will be the one that changes your life is to be bound to an incessant hamster wheel whose speed changes but whose destination doesn’t.

Not that it’s impossible for business and creativity to coexist.  Every ad agency owner I know was in the creative department when s/he struck out on her/his own.  But eventually they all hired a creative department to be creative while they ran the business.  Since I haven’t been the creative being hired, I’ve had to do all the running.

I admit there’s a great sense of accomplishment in DIY employment, and I don’t miss the drama inherent in working in a place where there are other people around.  I just miss clocking out at 5:30 p.m. and remaining downtown for a nearby rehearsal at 7:00.  I miss having a work load that allowed enough time in the day for script ideas to interrupt the “real” work for 15 minutes or so.  I miss the ability to be so unconcerned about where clients/checks might come from the next year that I could spend all of December writing and revising in creative overdrive.

And so explains my Twitter updates from December 29th.  If freelance journalist, independent contractor or grant writer is to be my title for an even more extended period of time, where does the playwright go?  Does she flee to a grad school in a snowy land free from distractions and full of stages for two years?  Does she choose a low-residency MFA that promises to show her how to integrate creative writing into her daily life?  Or does she devote all of her energy to the hustle to make the sporadic work so steady that she can stop herself and others from living life laid off?

The year 2010 will tell.

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That old feeling of uselessness is back

By Mariam Williams

A few months ago I attended a business networking luncheon sponsored by an organization whose members were determined not to participate in the recession.  Each member even wore a button stating the sentiment.  Although I probably had an unemployment check stub in my purse, and I was neither the employee of a business that gives entrepreneurs loans nor of one that depends on referrals, I participated as actively in the meeting as I did (and still do) in the recession.

At some point, one of the officers of the group invited all members and guests to join him in a game.  He would throw out a scenario, and anyone whose business or skills applied to that scenario was to stand and explain how.  For example, if he said, “A family of four is relocating to this city,” the real estate agents in the room would stand and say they would help the family find a place to live; the contractors would fix or remodel the house; the interior decorators and furniture salespersons would help furnish it; the therapist would help the family adjust to the move; and the divorce attorney would be there if therapy failed.  (Seriously, someone stood up and said that.)

The final example – I don’t remember the second – was of a new restaurant opening.  I stood up among the commercial real estate agents, contractors, material suppliers, event planners, website designers, radio sales associates, and marketing specialists.  I could write, proofread or edit the content on the restaurateur’s website, come up with a slogan if he didn’t already have one, write the scripts for his radio commercials and write the press release about the grand opening event.  See.  Out of three scenarios, I could contribute something to one of them.

I could contribute something.

I’ve written about this before, about this feeling that I’m gifted in such a way that is useless to my present situation and quite possibly to the nation’s future.  The feeling came up again Wednesday morning as I heard CNN’s Roland Martin’s segment on the Tom Joyner Morning Show.  He interviewed Dr. Wayne Watson, Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, about the importance of funding two-year and community colleges.  The Obama Administration recently unveiled a plan to pour $12 million into community colleges.  While four-year colleges still have their place, Watson explained, stimulus money is going to green jobs and to shovel-ready projects, jobs many laid-off workers can be certified to perform within nine months through the abundance of retraining programs offered at community colleges.  Jobs that may start at $16 to $28 per hour, but that can pay $55,000 to $75,000 annually.  Other job-seekers could sharpen their skills for the jobs of the future with an associate’s degree and earn even more.  You graduate from a four-year college, Watson pointed out, and it can be several years before you even get close to a yearly salary of $55,000.

Do I feel cheated?  For all the reasons I gave here, yeah, maybe a little.  But the heavier feeling is that of uselessness, of being one among many thousands of unemployed writers (or unemployed-something-elses-turned-writers) trying to believe there’s something I can write about new construction and solar panels besides website content and press releases.

You know, something clicked for me when Michael Jackson died, or more accurately, when I saw news coverage of the memorial service and reactions to his death from people in London.  The day he died, a spontaneous dance party broke out in a public square I couldn’t identify.  Brits of all colors sang “Billie Jean” together.  The camera zoomed in on the crowd enough for me to catch a man of Middle Eastern descent, his head covered in a blue turban, dancing and singing in the middle of the party.  When singers at the memorial service performed “Heal the World,” our neighbors across the Pond, who were watching the service on outdoor screens, left their huddles of friends to link arms with strangers watching the service, and sang along.  I thought, “That’s what it’s all about.  That’s what art is supposed to do.”  It really can enrich the human spirit.  It truly can unite us in spite of our differences.  It is inspiring.

My gifts aren’t worthless.  They’re just not worth any stimulus money.  And it’s damn hard to find an employer seeking someone with these skills.

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© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or http://livinglifelaidoff.com, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.

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Good news, wishes, and snafus

I auditioned for several local theater companies at the Theatre Alliance of Louisville Unified Auditions on Saturday.  (That’s what all the tweets were about.)  Good news: I faced my fear of singing a solo in public.  Wish list: I wish that during all this time off, I had had money to fill the time with acting and voice lessons.  That doesn’t mean things went badly, just that everything gets better with practice.

It was good to be around theater people again, to escape for a moment into a character who has problems that I don’t, and to be in the company of people who haven’t given up on making a career out of the talents that bring them the most joy.  I’m hoping that the inspiration sticks and that the brief exposure to a different form of creativity translates well into productive writing sessions for me.

On Sunday, before heading out to my mother’s house to celebrate Mothers Day, I logged on to the state unemployment website to request my weekly benefit check.  I got an error message stating I couldn’t make a request because my account has a zero balance, which is odd, considering that 1) I had just visited the unemployment office in person on Wednesday and an agent there who knew about the snafu that I will address later had instructed me to request my check as usual on Sunday and then file for an extension of benefits on Monday; and 2) the agent had given me those instructions because my account balance was in the low hundreds, an amount less than the usual benefit amount but far greater than zero.

Of course, my purpose in going to the unemployment office in person was to take them a letter from the unemployment commission appeals branch stating that they had indeed made a snafu when I first applied for benefits in October 2008.  That’s the good news.  They were finally agreeing that I really did receive severance pay that does not count against my unemployment benefits (as my former employer and I told them), and that I did not receive wages in lieu of notice, which do count against my unemployment benefits.  That meant the state owed me more money than the amount remaining in my regular benefit account, so I can only guess that they processed the new information and cut a check faster than anticipated, and that this caused another snafu: a zero balance in the regular benefit account before I got the chance to file for an extension.

While I’m grateful to the agents who have been kind and understanding, who have given good leads or advice, or who have fixed my own snafus over the phone without forcing me to come into the office and wait for several hours, and while I understand the stress that a state with an unemployment rate of 9.8% can put on even a fully-staffed office, I’m frustrated that the system is not set up for first-time filers who might make snafus—or even for professionals’ errors—and that it takes massive professional intervention by people with some sort of top-secret, classified access to correct the snafus.  It can also take an entire day of sitting in the crowded office, waiting for your number to be called, or over six months for a letter acknowledging the snafu to arrive.  (Also note that the letter had no instructions or information on how the money owed to me was to be dispersed.  I had to call the appeals branch myself.  They then instructed me to take the letter to a local office and ask them to release the payment.  I don’t know how I was supposed to know that without asking the appeals branch.)

With the latest snafu, I’m also pulling out a calculator, trying to figure out exactly what the balance in the extended benefit account would have been as of Sunday if the decision on severance had been made in October.  I think the easiest thing to do would be to cut one check that covers the entire amount that the state agrees that I am owed, take that amount from both the regular and extended benefit balances, and have me just file for extended benefits at the same time, as if the owed check were never even cut.  It’s already been explained to me that the owed checks will come in bi-monthly parts, just as the regular checks would.  So I should believe that a state that is running low on funds and that took over six months to make a decision in my favor is really going to pay me all that they agree that I’m owed without some other sort of interference?

Lord, I thought Sunday, I am so tired of the snafus. I’m tired of the inefficiency, but more than that, I’m tired of it being a concern at all, of worrying about checks, of counting down the days until they run out, of job seeking (now with a new crop of college grads alongside me), of leads not panning out, of new ideas fizzling, of not knowing what to do, of wondering where to take my skills and who might need them and how I might actually be of some use in this society, and of even more burdens that I rambled about in prayer but don’t remember at the moment.  I shouldn’t be so perturbed.  God has blessed me financially this whole time, and I have no reason to believe that I suddenly won’t be taken care of.  I’m just tired.

You know, the amount in question would have mattered even when I was employed, but I’m longing for the day when said amount feels like pennies that won’t even be missed instead of like something I have to fight for.

And on another snafu note, if you subscribe to Living Life Laid Off via email and received a random feed from January, I have no explanation for what happened, and neither does Feedburner. :-/

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© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or http://livinglifelaidoff.com, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.

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Doing Derby while living life laid off

on my way to a single derby event

on my way to a single derby event

This time last year, I was either hiding out in my cubicle with a good book or walking aimlessly through downtown Louisville, desperate to find activities to fill the last “work” day of Derby week and give myself something to do while the sales people got plastered at Churchill Downs, ran about the city for remotes (live, on location broadcasts), or got their hair done.

Few people in sales and advertising (and many other professions) work during Derby week in Louisville.  The Kentucky Derby is the first Saturday in May, and the week leading up to it is filled with festivities, like galas, parades, boat races, concerts, and for ad professionals, a day or two to network (read drink or have fun) with other ad professionals at the famous track.  The sales office of radio stations, at least the ones that play pop and/or urban music, tend to be slammed one to two weeks before the big week, with concert and event promoters all vying for ad space.  By the big week, the sales staff has done its dirt, and the ads are running, so there’s little reason to stay in an empty office, unless you just like quiet.  Yesterday was the first time in a while I tuned in to one of my former employer’s stations long enough to actually hear several commercial breaks, and all the ads were about Derby events.

Last year, I went to a “Taste of” event, a comedy show and two celebrity-hosted parties.  Free tickets were a blessing, but I’m not hurt this year.  I was stuffed from the food at the “Taste of” event, but as for the comedy show?  Well, some people are better in movies than they are at stand-up.  I also found the parties overrated; unless you were among the boldest females, the people most willing to flaunt or fake their wealth with VIP tickets, or the press, there were few opportunities to even see the well-promoted celebrities, and forget about socializing with them.

Needless to say, I wasn’t about to pay for any of those events this year.  My big Derby plans were to maybe attend a barbecue on Saturday and to otherwise hibernate and prepare for the coming week of résumé rewriting, job applications, theater auditions, and unpaid special projects that may help me in the future.  Then a friend changed my plans by recruiting me for one such project.  It wasn’t exactly unpaid; I got to attend the 100 Black Men of Louisville 18th Annual Pre-Derby Gala last night in exchange for writing about the event, with the words to be read in a national publication.

I enjoyed myself, and I’m learning that free tickets are still possible in exchange for some hard work.  Still, I noticed some differences between this year and last year, aside from actually having a good time.  The first difference was in my shopping budget; since there isn’t one, I reached out to friends and relatives who are around my size and asked if I could recycle some of their past gala gowns.  One found a dress that worked (and she didn’t even know it was in one of my favorite colors), and I always keep formal shoes on hand and own plenty of accessories, so I was set for the night without being financially set back.  The stars kind of aligned for my hair too; the President’s generous stimulus check for the unemployed arrived in time to stimulate my beautician’s pocket.  (I say kind of because I can’t help but feel a little guilty about it, but if you had seen my hair the night before … ooooh …) I tweezed my own eyebrows, had a coupon for a new shade of lipstick, and thankfully, the party went so late the garage parking was free.

The other difference was in my ability to walk and stand in high heels.  I might have worn heels that weren’t boots twice

The offending sandals

The offending sandals

in the fall and winter; why bother with the pain when you don’t even have to wear them to work? I haven’t even brought the summer stilettos over from my old closets in my mother’s house yet.  My feet could’ve used the calluses I sheared off just hours before stepping into the rhinestone heels, and my balance really should’ve gone through a refresher course a few days earlier.

Mint Condition performing

Mint Condition performing

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© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or http://livinglifelaidoff.com, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.

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If you missed it …

If you missed the discussion from April 8, 2009 on living life laid off, education, jobs in Kentucky, disillusionment, the arts, politics, the future of our country, and my ambitions and inspirations (wow, we covered a lot in an hour), click here to listen to the on-demand broadcast of “Staying Creative and Upbeat While Living Life Laid Off.”  Scroll down to “on demand episodes” and hit the play button.  There’s about 5 minutes of music first.

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Filed under Arts and Culture, Economy, education, Me in other media, Mental & Emotional Health, Unemployment

From Living Life Laid Off to Working Artist?

by Mariam Williams

I recently learned that a friend of a friend has joined the self-reinvention effort in the face of the national economic freefall. She’s decided to go back to school to study fashion design. With her engineering career taking a hard hit, the friend of a friend figures that if she’s going to have to go back to school and reinvent herself, she might as well study something for which she has a passion.

I understand her logic, encourage her efforts, and even applaud her zeal, but something concerns me about all of us who have decided to use our country’s present catastrophe as an opportunity to pursue our artistic passions: where will we find jobs in our new respective fields?

As a life-long artist, I’ve confronted this conundrum many times, and it has undoubtedly contributed to why I’m not further along as a dancer, writer, painter, playwright, screenwriter, or actress. (Yes, I’ve dreamed about, thrown money at, and at some point received formal instruction in all of those areas.) I want to follow my passion(s), but I want to get paid for it (them) too. I believe I should do what I’ve been designed to do and use the gifts I’ve been blessed with, but I also want to satiate, or at least periodically feed, that side of my personality that craves the material things that only about 1% or so of those whose only full-time job is to do what I like to do, can afford to buy. I would rather get paid to do what I love than to, as another friend and artist put it, “work full-time to support my theater habit.”

“Making it” as an artist is difficult in large part because art is subjective, and not just in terms of whether it is good or bad, pretty or ugly, or liked or disliked. What constitutes an artist as one who has “made it”? Fame? Money? Mainstream acceptance? Staying true to your art even though it will cost you more than you make for the rest of your life and only your close inner circle knows your name?

Art is even subjective in terms of whether or not it’s a necessity, especially in a society whose economy is eroding. When President Obama was still the President Elect, my mother sent me an online petition to support the formation of a new cabinet post: Secretary of the Arts. Legendary music mogul Quincy Jones, quoted as saying he plans to “beg” President Obama to establish the post, is among major supporters who also include the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts. Over 200,000 people have signed the petition so far.

NPR’s story on the possibility of the cabinet position also included the dissenting voice of David Smith, a professor of American history and the author of Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy. His concern, and that of at least one blogger, is that art and government beget censorship and jeopardize artistic freedom. Many who commented on the NPR story had another concern: the cabinet position would be a waste of taxpayers’ money because we just don’t need it.

The latter concern is one reason the major supporters would argue the opposite. From what I gather (see links at the end), their focus seems to be three-fold:

  1. Increase cohesiveness. The Secretary of the Arts or Department of Culture would connect the State Department, Department of Education, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and the Institute of Museums and Library Services.
  2. Increase the U.S.’s visibility on the world arts stage.
  3. Educate the U.S. masses about the value of art and artists in American society.

The focus is on arts organizations and the public, but the educational aspect may be paramount to individual artists. Supporters of a senior-level culture official are looking for someone to tell the public that “nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generate $166.2 billion in economic activity every year; support 5.7 million jobs; and return nearly $30 billion in local, state, and federal government revenue every year” (Americans for the Arts). They want the public to know that the U.S. had arts ambassadors during the Cold War, and to see, as Quincy Jones does, that “the arts have a spiritual benefit that Americans need,” and that our “emotional defense is just as important” as our military defense.

I want someone who can do number three AND create jobs for artists. If you’re not an artist, you may not know this, but art, in all its forms, is a fiercely competitive field. A 2008 report from the NEA found that about 2 million Americans identify themselves as working artists. The total number of active duty and reserve U.S. military personnel at the time of the NEA’s report was 2.2 million. Because I know that our “emotional defense” will never be seen as important as our military defense, I won’t address the difference in federal funding between the two groups.

I will, however, address federal funding of the arts in the recently-signed stimulus bill, AKA the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Here’s the good news for arts organizations, according to a press release from Americans for the Arts: “The National Endowment for the Arts will distribute $50 million of the stimulus funds to arts projects in all 50 states which specifically preserve jobs in the nonprofit arts sector that have been most hurt by the economic downturn. … Additionally … the final version removes the Senate ban on state and local governments from using any of the recovery funds to benefit museums, theaters, and art centers.”

Here’s the bad news: I didn’t see anything about art or artists on Congressman John Yarmuth’s (D-KY, 3rd District) link showing highlights of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for Louisville and the state of Kentucky. (I guess that since Louisville’s Fund for the Arts exceeded its 2008 campaign goals by 13.8%, we’re doing okay without federal money. On the other hand, 26,000 of the Fund’s donors gave from their workplace, and unemployment is up to almost 8% now.) Also, typing “art” in the search box on recovery.gov yielded no results. Neither did “national endowment arts,” which means that if any money for the arts is in there, it’s not highlighted among the details most people want to know, and if it’s not highlighted, it’s not that important to American society right now.*

That’s unfortunate because the NEA’s study also found that there are about 300,000 part time or seasonal artists in the U.S., and they didn’t count adults who love their art, but very rarely get paid for it. Artists who don’t work full-time as artists compete for many of the same federal, state, and local grants as full-time artists do. That money – plus the public’s disposable income and wealthy art lovers’ charitable contributions – is how the Louisville Metro Area supports over 30 community theaters while the producers, directors, performers, and crew members go to work at their “real” jobs each day. A grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women is how I paid my own artist fees to adapt a screenplay into a stage play while I worked two part-time jobs in 2007. And keep in mind that the jobs in the non-profit art sector and at museums, theaters, and art centers that will get funding could just as well be administrative staff positions as they could be artists. A well-known, well-endowed theater here in Louisville has 18 people on its artistic staff roster, 58 crew members, and 49 administrative staff members. That doesn’t count interns who do the work for college credit.

We live in a society in which art is undervalued. Even as I write with new fervor, launch a freelance writing service, and hope that the 65,000+ media and advertising jobs that have disappeared since the beginning of the recession return, I think about how so many new artists will support themselves, and I wonder if a Secretary of the Arts could save me from living life laid off.

Links:

http://yarmuth.house.gov/?sectionid=111&parentid=63&sectiontree=3,63,111&itemid=452

http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/entertainment/Does-Nation-Need-Secretary-of-the-Arts.html

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/storyComments.php?storyId=99450228

http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-healing-arts/200901/secretary-the-arts-q-needs-you

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/13/AR2009011303264_2.html

http://www.florida-arts.org/resources/economicimpactofthearts.htm

http://www.artsusa.org/information_services/recovery/default.asp#stateofarts

http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/27828/study-finds-two-million-artists-in-the-us/

http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jun/12/entertainment/et-nea12

*To see provisions for the arts, go to http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=111_cong_bills&docid=f:h1enr.pdf and see pages 57-58 of the entire ARRA bill.

© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or http://livinglifelaidoff.com, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.

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Filed under Arts and Culture, Economy, Health, Layoffs, Lifestyles, Mental & Emotional Health, money, Recession, stimulus bill, Unemployment