When Air Mail asked if I’d be up for sharing my thoughts on how to handle lockdown, I asked myself, Does the world really need more advice from a financially stable, liberal, gay white guy?
Yes, I answered. (To myself. Because who isn’t talking to themselves in lockdown?) Of course it does.
But as I put down my fifth glass of wine—don’t judge me!—and opened my laptop, I realized, Wait a minute, I actually don’t have anything inspiring to write. Honestly, I’ve been hanging on by a thread. I’ve had so much anxiety about my health, my parents’ health, my friends’ health, my job, my friends’ jobs, how the country will repair itself after being politically and emotionally decimated by President Tweety … I haven’t finished a single one of the 16 books I started since we went into lockdown. (I did, however, manage to watch all seven episodes and the bonus Zoom reunion of Tiger King. Twice.)
Does the world really need more advice from a financially stable, liberal, gay white guy?
That fact that my own instincts failed me, however, didn’t mean I didn’t have access to some awe-inspiring tips for this surreal moment in human history. And since it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting out anytime soon—like many tech companies, my employer Google announced employees can plan on working from home till the end of 2020—I figured I could do with the tips as much as anyone else. So, I spoke to 23 of my smartest friends about the five most crucial topics of lockdown: wellness, money, style, hobbies, and relationships.
Those experts include Mellody Hobson, a co-C.E.O. at Ariel Investments, Starbucks board member, and the first African-American woman to head the Economic Club of Chicago; Mark Ronson, the Grammy-winning producer and my favorite men’s-wear style icon; and Dr. Amy Wechsler, a psychiatrist and dermatologist, who is also Chanel’s consulting dermatologist. Likewise on the list was James Charles, one of the world’s most powerful YouTube beauty creators, and Diane von Furstenberg. I may not have all the answers, but I know who does.
The first person I called was Gwyneth Paltrow. Not only is she officially a wellness guru—she starred in the film Contagion. I recently re-watched that film, which was released in 2011, and have decided it was a prescient documentary. As a friend of hers and a super-fan of Goop, I can attest that whatever G.P. is doing is working: Have you seen how good she looks in Goop’s new YouTube series? “I gained 10 pounds in the first four weeks of quarantine,” due to reduced mobility and increased alcohol, Gwyneth told me. “I wasn’t being mindful about my mind or my body.”
G.P.’s first tip: “Ask yourself what you need, and be honest about it.” What is triggering you: “Are you not sleeping well? Is your stress elevated? Do you feel bad about having a wrinkly Zoom neck?” (For me, yes to all three.) The trick is to have a “thorough and robust” dialogue with yourself. “Are you triggered by someone you live with? Because that’s a sign you have unresolved stuff with yourself.” Remember, unless you’re Dr. Fauci, there’s not much you can do to heal the outside world, so start by healing yourself. (As for the Zoom neck: put some books under your computer so that it is level with your face and the angle is more flattering.)
Answering her own tough questions, Gwyneth changed her behaviors: she cut caffeine earlier in the day, reduced alcohol consumption, began her days with meditation, and embarked on a seven-day vegetable cleanse. That early corona weight gain came off, and her days felt longer, brighter, and more productive. “I’m sleeping naturally now. I take advantage of my mornings,” she says, adding she’s now enjoying her time at home more. “We may never have the benefit of this downtime again in our working lives.”
My next call was to Dr. Samantha Boardman, a New York–based psychiatrist and founder of Positive Prescription, a Web site focused on mental health. She banged out three tips …
First: “We talk a lot about self-care, but ‘other-care’ is what builds resilience. Call your grandmother, read a story on Zoom to a friend’s toddler, slip a note under an elderly neighbor’s door offering to pick up groceries. Don’t just look for the helpers. Be one of them. Acts of kindness are the antidote for negative thinking.”
Second: “Expand your vocabulary: naming your feelings lets you feel more in control and less ‘blah.’ Feel free to venture into other languages. My new favorite: innere Schweinehund, a German expression for feeling lazy even though you have a lot to do.”
And finally: “Pay attention to small positive moments in the day. We so easily give our attention to negative news, mindless activities, draining social media. Reclaim it. Clock the good moments. Share them.”
Finally, I checked in with Jordan Shlain, M.D., who runs a fancy concierge medical service in San Francisco. (My rich techie friends are obsessed.) I read his newsletter, at jordansdispatch.com, religiously. Some of his tips were obvious: wash your hands, wear a mask, drink in moderation. (So, two out of three?) But others surprised me: sleep with the windows open to encourage fresh, “corona free” air to circulate in the house, and increase our intake of vitamin D. He cited an analysis from April 30 that revealed in coronavirus cases of older males with pre-existing conditions that a below-normal level of vitamin D was associated with increased odds of death.
His last tip: “Don’t set your alarm clock to wake up but set it to go to bed. Sleep until your body wakes itself up. It’s good for the immune system.”
Finance expert Mellody Hobson didn’t mince words when I asked for investment advice: “The biggest mistake an investor can make in the midst of widespread stock-market upheaval is to sell. In doing so, you are guaranteed to lock in your losses.”
She also cautions against taking matters into one’s own hands. “There are those who think they can time the market—that they know exactly when to get out and get back in. But data shows that over the last 20 years, missing out on just 10 of the market’s best days would have cut your return in half.” So, what am I supposed to do as I see my stock portfolio go up and down like a lie-detector test in the White House? “Just like this pandemic, when the stock market is crashing, it is better to shelter in place.”
Another friend, the financial analyst Alison Davis, offered additional practical advice: “Get a financial planner.” For the past decade, the market has generally gone upward, so almost anyone could feel like Michael Douglas in Wall Street. “It was hard to see the value in paying for an adviser,” Davis says, “until now.”
“Just like this pandemic, when the stock market is crashing, it is better to shelter in place.”
Quite rightly (and maybe rudely?), she added, “If someone is truly worried about their financial situation, they shouldn’t be taking their financial advice from an advice column! There are advisers for all levels of wealth: find one who works with people like you.”
FASHION AND BEAUTY
The day will come when we’ll be able to see each other again, in the flesh and with no Snapchat filters. How can I come out of isolation looking better than I did going in? According to mega-YouTuber James Charles, now is the time to have fun with your look. “Play with makeup,” he says. “All those times that you would say to yourself, ‘I’d never try this look because it’s too much,’ or, ‘I don’t think this would be good on my skin tone,’ do it. Experiment!” He reminds us that we’re not actually seeing anyone, so if you look “busted,” you can just wipe it off. “Who knows? It could spark a whole new love in your best beauty life.”
Don’t lose your head, though. “Don’t cut your own bangs!” implores Jen Atkin, hairstylist to Kim Kardashian, Chrissy Teigen, and Hailey Bieber. “Just let your hair breathe and mask as much as you can until you can get back to your hairstylist or colorist. Yes, we’re all going to look a little wild once this is all over, but we’re all in this together, right?”
In layman’s terms: you can play with your face, but don’t mess with your hair.
What about the skin? “The most important skin-care advice for everyone is to get enough sleep: seven and a half to eight hours a night,” Dr. Amy Wechsler tells me. “Stress takes its toll on the skin in so many ways, from breaking down collagen, which causes wrinkles, to inflammation, which can lead to acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Sleep is when the stress-induced molecules like cortisol are at their lowest, so the skin can heal and rejuvenate.”
“Don’t cut your own bangs!”
Does Ambien-induced sleep count? (I was asking for a friend.) “Yep, it does,” the doctor told me. Good night, indeed!
Next, I spoke to functional-medicine doctor to the stars Dr. Frank Lipman. His advice was concise: “Eliminate sugar and processed foods as much as possible. Load up on non-starchy vegetables and ramp up your intake of prebiotic and probiotic foods to nourish your gut bacteria and keep your immunity strong.” If you are like me, you may not know what prebiotic and probiotic foods are. (I grew up in Missouri. I didn’t know what “carb” meant until I got to New York.) “Probiotic foods are fermented foods. Prebiotic foods are the fibrous part of vegetables we don’t digest, so they feed the good bacteria. So eat the stalks and stems of vegetables. Or, specific foods are asparagus, onions, garlic, chicory root.”
Let’s talk style. Tonne Goodman is the sustainability editor at Vogue and an all-around fashion force. I called her with my questions, but first she had one of her own. “Is [stylishness] even relevant given the much more pressing issues we are facing today?” she asked. (Hey, who’s doing this interview?) “If it encompasses your sense of self-respect, then it is. Looking at ourselves now with a new perspective into the future is made more positive and optimistic by valuing our worth, right down to how we choose to present ourselves.”
Tonne is known for her uniform: white Levi’s jeans, dark button-down shirt, and flat shoes. “But recently I’ve had a revelatory opportunity to try something new! I revisited my closet with a new outlook and curiosity: What was in there that I could wear today, right now, that would be chic and that I would feel wonderful in? I found beautiful silk shirts, perfect pencil skirts, and elegant tailored trousers. There were so many beautiful pieces that I’ve amassed over the years,” she said.
“Is [stylishness] even relevant given the much more pressing issues we are facing today?”
“Now I’m understanding ‘meaningful style.’ I covet my 1980s black leather trench coat from Azzedine Alaïa and I’ll wear it as soon as the weather is right. Same for my early 1990s black silk double-breasted tuxedo from Calvin Klein, whose linebacker shoulders are now in the forefront of fashion. What I can’t wear again, regrettably, is the black suede, patchwork-pieced dress from Yohji Yamamoto that Gisele wore in the 2000 fall collection. It fit me like a glove once. Alas, no more.”
In closing, Tonne quotes Coco Chanel: “Elegance is refusal.”
Unlike many of my over-achieving friends, I haven’t learned any new skills in lockdown. I can’t speak Mandarin or make banana bread. (Yet?) So, why don’t I try out a few new hobbies? My first call was to writer Cleo Wade to ask if I was a poet and didn’t know it. “I have always loved poetry because there is no right or wrong way to do it. It doesn’t have to rhyme or have a specific structure or rhythm. You just have to show up,” she said. “Let your poems be about nothing, let them be about everything, let them be the place where you dream, vent, get angry, feel loved, feel frustration, or grief. You don’t have to carry the weight of all of your emotions every second of the day. Unburden yourself. Put them on the page.”
Christopher Bollen hired me as a college intern nearly 20 years ago. His other claim to fame is being a novelist, and he published his fourth book, A Beautiful Crime, in January. I called to ask him if he had any tips for an aspiring writer. “The general writing-advice consensus during the pandemic has been to give yourself a break,” he told me. “My advice is the exact opposite: Make yourself write like your post-Covid life depends upon it. Because it does!”
That’s not what I expected him to say, so he doubled down on it. “You’ll lose your writing muscle if you let it rot during this crisis. Don’t let that happen. Sit down for a minimum of two hours a day and force yourself to put words together. Concentrate! Turn off your phone! Aim for 400 words in those two hours. What shouldn’t change in this current calamity is the work ethic of writing. I highly doubt when we eventually get through this that you’ll have a sudden urge to sit at home at a desk alone with the blinds drawn and tap on a keyboard. Now is the perfect time to get working. I don’t care if you’re clocking the pace of one word an hour, you’re writing. Write forward. Don’t re-read beyond the last two sentences. Don’t erase and start from scratch. Just keep going.”
“You don’t have to carry the weight of all of your emotions every second of the day. Unburden yourself. Put them on the page.”
I tried to thank him for his advice but was interrupted again. “Have you started writing yet?”
What about music? I called Mark Ronson, my favorite musician, D.J., and all-around heartthrob. “During lockdown, my big discovery has been the Go to Radio function on Spotify,” he said. That’s it? “Most people are probably like, ‘Yeah, dummy, we’ve all known about this for 12 years now.’ But this has been a wild revelation for me. I pick a song I like, something preferably a little off the beaten path, I click on Go to Radio, and all of a sudden I’m presented with a playlist that seems like it was curated by the nerdiest record-store clerk ever. Someone who, taste-wise, would make Jack Black’s snarky clerk in High Fidelity seem about as avant-garde as Lindsey Graham.”
Any examples? “I clicked on ‘I Saw the Light,’ by Todd Rundgren, and all of a sudden I’m discovering ‘Arrow Through Me,’ a gobsmackingly amazing Wings tune I’d never heard before. And then it’s Joni Mitchell, Big Star, Steely Dan. Apparently, all my musical roads lead to Steely Dan.”
This begs the question: What happens when he searches himself? “That’s the only thing I haven’t done yet. I’m worried if I do and it suddenly recommends a bunch of shit music, then I will know that’s what the metrics think of me.”
If you’re not writing poems and novels and listening to new music, maybe you’re decorating? My friend with my favorite home décor is undoubtedly Lauren Santo Domingo, the former Vogue editor turned Moda Operandi co-founder. “Use your good china and silver,” she told me. “And why not get dressed for dinner, too? I always say, ‘Dress for the party you want.’” Lauren has also re-discovered flowers and, after watching a few YouTube videos on the subject, is making her own arrangements.
I can dress for a dinner, but I’ve never actually cooked one. For that, I turned to David Burtka, the actor and author of Life Is a Party: Deliciously Doable Recipes to Make Every Day a Celebration. We went through the easy ideas: prepare fresh vegetables for snacking instead of sweets, support local food markets, make it a family adventure by cooking with your kids. (David has nine-year-old twins with the actor Neil Patrick Harris.) But his greatest tip was this: “Double everything. The more food I make, the better. If you are going to make a roast chicken, roast two. Double- or triple-batch Bolognese. Make enough soup to freeze a quart for later. This method saves both time and effort. Most of us are doing all the work: cleaning, cooking, and, on top of that, being teachers. This tip can provide a bit of relief in the coming months.”
“And why not get dressed for dinner, too? I always say, ‘Dress for the party you want.’”
What about the great outdoors? Miranda Brooks is the ultimate garden designer. She’s masterminded the yards of Tory Burch, Paltrow, and Santo Domingo. Her first tip was to start with a pelargonium. “This is generally as safe as it gets for growing something at home. Their leaves come in many different scents, from rose to mint. They flower, last forever, and you can easily take cuttings from them to grow still more and to give to friends.” (Read: They’re harder to kill, which is what I need to hear.)
Next, think about vegetables, which have the benefit of being edible. “Almost every man I have spoken to has started planting vegetables. I’m living on a building site, so no vegetable garden yet, but I did quickly convert an area for emergency broad beans and arugula. Two months in, the beans are flowering and we are eating the arugula. Not exactly instant, but gardens have their own pace. The main tips here would be a good compost supply. Good soil equals good vegetables.”
Last but not least (maybe?), what about our relationships? As a pessimist, the first person I thought of to ask for advice on this topic was Allen Grubman, an entertainment lawyer. He’s seen his fair share of divorces and is expecting quite a few to come out on the other side of this. “Divorce lawyers have never been busier,” he said when he picked up the phone. “Many people have been in marriages that we’d call ‘tolerable’ or ‘functioning.’ Maybe they’ve been married a long time or they have kids together. But when you’re together 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you’ll realize you can’t stand each other. You can hide that for three hours a day. But not 24.”
He says the flip side of this coin is true, too: “A good marriage will become even stronger on the other side of this.” (Allen’s wife, Deborah, one of New York’s most prominent real-estate agents, was on the call, too.) The big takeaway: Don’t do anything you’ll regret. If separation is inevitable, make a clean break as soon as you can, especially if there are kids involved. “Tell them to call me!,” Allen said with a laugh as he put down the phone.
Dr. Aliza Pressman is one of the founders of a parenting-coach company, Seedlings Group. I asked her for tips for anyone rearing kids at home at this time, and her advice was quick and concise …
First: “All feelings are welcome; all behaviors are not. Keep this in mind so that you can help kids feel heard, seen, and understood while also holding them accountable for their behavior.”
Second: “Uncertainty breeds anxiety. Build certainty for your kids with things they can count on, like a predictable quarantine schedule, a theme night every Friday, a similar bedtime routine, etc.”
Third: “Go easy on yourself and everyone in your household. We are all operating at heightened stress levels, which means our brains are not in prime condition for responding calmly and reasonably at all times.”
Fourth: “If you do lose it on your kids or they witness an adult fight, trust that you can always make repairs and reconnect.”
And finally: “Put your oxygen mask on first. Checking in with yourself isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. This isn’t ‘me time.’ It’s about monitoring your own emotional well-being and doing whatever you need to do so you can delight in your kids. Resilience research shows that in order for kids to thrive, they need caregivers who are mentally healthy, too.”
Enough about your kids. Let’s discuss the thing that got you in that mess in the first place: intimacy. Liz Goldwyn is an L.A.-based filmmaker and artist, and very comfortable talking about all things sexual. “My No. 1 tip to stay sexy would be self-love,” she told me. I was too prudish to catch on, so she added, “Masturbate!” Oh, sorry. “Whether engaging in solo play or mutual masturbation with a partner, orgasms can help ease stress and lift your mood, as they make you release natural dopamine and oxytocin. Every time you reach orgasm your body also releases DHEA, a hormone known to boost your immune system.”
Something else you may not have known: “May happens to be Masturbation Month, named so in honor of our recent podcast guest Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the former U.S. surgeon general who advocated for masturbation to be included in safe-sex curriculum, and was fired by President Bill Clinton for suggesting so! So turn off the Zoom and turn yourself on.”
“My No. 1 tip to stay sexy would be self-love.”
The last person I called to talk about all this was Diane von Furstenberg, the fashion legend who has referred to herself not inaccurately as “an oracle.” Our conversation was brief. “This is a time for everyone to learn how to be alone and be quiet and really love themselves,” she said.
Perhaps she heard me scribbling in my notes, because she added, “Whatever you do, don’t make lists.”
Derek Blasberg is the head of Fashion & Beauty at YouTube and a senior staffer at Gagosian