The Layoff Diaries: Nice girls finish last?

piggy-bankWhen I pick up my daughters at the end of the day, it’s not the typical “grab backpacks and firmly herd them out the door” kind of scene.

Because Joe is the family cook – and he won’t be home until after Neve’s pre-school closes at 6, anyway – it frankly makes no difference to me whether the girls want to linger and play with their friends or leave right away. So on most days, I take a seat and play with them, or chat with the young women who are their caregivers, or just spectate.

While doing the latter on a recent evening, Neve and a friend were playing with a plastic toy garage, with curving car ramps, when a younger blond girl approached the table and pulled it toward herself.

Neve yelled, “Hey!” and yanked it back, like a reflex.

I, meanwhile, did the thing you expect mommies to do. I said, “Neve, she shouldn’t have grabbed it from you, but you don’t have to freak out, either. You could just pull it back and say, ‘Excuse me, we were playing with that.’”

But even as I went through the motions of saying these words, I wondered if this is how it starts. If these are the subtle ways that girls are taught that “being nice” is prized over backbone and action. (You might think, “You’d say that to a son, too” – and you’re right, I probably would; but boys aren’t usually groomed in the same way girls are to “not make waves” and to always put others’ needs before their own.)

The timing of this particular parenting question is no accident. Since my layoff happened on January 6 – 33 days ago now – I’ve been accepting free-lance assignments from a number of sources: theater companies, local arts-oriented websites, news organizations, etc. But because I’ve been out of the free-lancing game for nearly 12 years, I found myself immediately staring down my least favorite part of this racket: negotiating a price for my labor. Continue reading

The Layoff Diaries: Going dark

12573942_10153465019147632_7273749574340761564_nA week and a day after my layoff, I sat in a neighborhood hair salon and considered, for the first time ever, going brunette.

When I’d made the appointment, I’d planned to get my usual blond highlights and a cut, so that if and when I actually had a job interview, I’d look more put-together than I actually am. But I already wasn’t feeling like myself, being out of work for the first time in nearly 12 years. Did I really need a physical, external change, too?

Well, yeah. I guess I did.

I wanted the world to somehow get tipped off to this otherwise painfully invisible, seismic change that’s now underway inside of me, as an inevitable result of this layoff. Yes, I’m laboring to do all the things you do to see yourself through a mini-unemployment crisis – overhauling my resume, writing cover letters, updating my LinkedIn page – but it still feels like I’m floating through these days. I have plenty to do to keep myself busy, but I miss my coworkers, and the energetic hum of the newsroom, and the satisfaction that comes from writing and publishing stories daily.

So although I hadn’t considered a significant hair color change until I was sitting in that chair, I found myself – when my stylist said, “What would you think of going darker?” – nodding and saying, “Yeah. Let’s do it.”

At this point, I should note that I’m not a person who makes broad changes of any kind in regard to my appearance. I’ve never gone through a phase of strange or different hair colors (though I’ve been tempted upon reaching middle age); my clothing is far more comfy than chic; I don’t wear makeup; and I have no tattoos – hell, I never even bothered to pierce my ears. I always liked the idea of asking the world to accept me precisely as I am, by nature.

But guess what? Going “natural” now just might hinder my job prospects.

Yes, my stylist and I chose a shade of dark chestnut that would mask the gray in my hair, since I now have to, on top of everything else, worry about appearing to be “too old” in my job interviews. I don’t generally kvetch about aging, but I must admit, being forced to think about this definitely adds to the humiliation of being unemployed. (Tellingly, I was tempted to write in my cover letter, “Sorry in advance for not being a Millenial, but if you’ve got a VHS player lying around, I’m your girl.”)

When my stylist brushed and blow dried my hair, I stared at her station’s mirror uncomprehendingly. The skin on my forehead looked red and irritated from the eyebrow wax, so at least that much was familiar. But the dark, shoulder-length mop on my head looked more like a stylish wig than something that was now part of my body.

So often, you want big shifts in your life to not threaten or change the person you’ve worked so hard to become. I remember desperately hoping to maintain a sense of my hard-won identity after we had kids, for example. But it was ludicrous, of course, to expect or even hope for such a thing. Becoming a parent can’t not change you, since the center point of your whole life shifts.

In that same vein, losing a job that you poured your heart and soul into for more than a decade can’t not change you, either. My family and friends will certainly help me stay rooted, but professionally, I’m on my way to destinations unknown.

And as a nod of acquiescence to this truth, I now look more like the stranger I suddenly feel myself to be.

The Layoff Diaries: Down the rabbit-hole

caterpillar

I’m a lifelong skeptic, so I have great difficulty explaining why, on a fairly consistent basis, I stumble upon things in my reading life that address, in an uncanny way, something I’m experiencing right at that very moment.

For instance, last year, when my father-in-law had a handful of long stints in the hospital, and I was on my own with the girls one night because it looked like he might be facing his final hours, Lily randomly chose (for her reading practice) this Shel Silverstein poem from the collection, “Falling Up”:

Stork Story

You know the stork brings babies,
But did you also know
He comes and gets the older folks
When it’s their time to go?

Zooms right down and scoops them up,
Then flaps back out the door
And flies them to the factory where
They all were made before.

And there their skin is tightened up,
Their muscles all are toned,
Their wrinkles all are ironed out,
They’re given brand-new bones.

Ol’ bent backs are straightened up,
New teeth are added, too,
Tired hearts are all repaired
And made to work like new.

Their memories are all removed
And they’re shrunk down, and then
The stork flies them back down to earth
As newborn babes again.

I’ll confess, I struggled mightily to keep myself from sobbing as Lily read these words aloud. My father-in-law had long been suffering from a rare form of skin cancer, so these images of renewal and release and rebirth worked like a salve on an awful night.

And last night, after dinner (and a couple of games of the kids’ version of Apples to Apples), Lily and Neve made tunnels out of the couch cushions and pillows and asked me to read from the book Joe recently started with them: “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

You can see where this is going.

The chapter where Joe had left off reading, “The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill,” tells what happens when the White Rabbit mistakes Alice for his housemaid; as she tries to carry out his wishes, she takes a swig from a bottle marked “DRINK ME” and grows so big that Rabbit’s house can barely contain her.

Alice, in this moment, thinks to herself, “I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole – and yet – and yet – it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me!”

You and me both, Alice.

For although I may not have bumped into you on my way down the rabbit-hole, we’re both clearly taking up semi-permanent residency in Wonderland, with all the delights and horrors contained therein.

Indeed, that’s what this strange, surreal post-layoff time ultimately boils down to. There’s sheer terror and worry underlying each day; but there’s also a palpable spark of hope for new adventures, too. You feel more alive than you do before, but at the expense of – well, being able to take care of expenses.

Unlike the days and years that came before, you just have absolutely no idea what’s coming up ahead (looking at you, trippy hookah-smoking caterpillar).

And depending on your mood on a given day, that notion will make you either jump up out of bed or burrow ever deeper under the down comforter.

Out of work, out of whack

jennleaving.jpeg

(This photo was taken on the last day of operations for the original Ann Arbor News in 2009.)

Last Wednesday morning, I stood in front of my closet and asked Joe, “So what do you wear to get fired?”

The line was kind of funny, in a gallows humor way; but this wasn’t just a joke, and I wasn’t speaking hypothetically.

After receiving a late-in-the-day Tuesday email – containing three clues that blinked like a neon sign, pointing to my imminent layoff – I’d stayed up late, uploading the hundreds of videos and photos (mostly of my daughters) from my work-issued phone, and sending documents and contacts I wanted to keep from my laptop.

It was like living out that “If you were stranded on a desert island” scenario, but with your two most essential gadgets.

We tried to hold to our usual morning routine on Wednesday, getting Lily to the bus stop, and dropping Neve off at preschool; but then I stepped back into our quiet, empty house, left to twiddle my thumbs until nearly noon.

Which led to the next question, “What do you do while waiting to get fired?”

I’d thought a bit about this the night before, while frantically uploading, and I’d decided that this would be the perfect window of time to finish up my year-end wrap-up of local theater highlights and news. I was off the clock, and year-end pieces like this had recently gone the way of the dodo, but I’d wanted to do it, anyway.

It would be my swan song, my parting gift to a theater community that had weathered a pretty tough year; and as it happened, this gift was mutually beneficial, in that I felt grateful for being able to focus on pulling together story under a tight deadline – just like old times – and leaving my nearly 12 years in arts journalism with a story that only I could write.

Not that the story would go gangbusters in terms of traffic; but I knew it would mean a lot to several local theater artists, and their work means a lot to me.

So I clicked “publish,” pulled my coat on, and drove to Ann Arbor.

Aside from once being fired from a housecleaning service after a couple of days – because I cleaned too slowly – I’d never gone through this. But I was determined to grit my teeth and power through it.

What I hadn’t thought about, of course, was that I’d also see a longtime co-worker leaving the building when I arrived, white envelope in-hand; and that another would probably see me when I left, as if we were part of a human carousel of shock and defeat.

Because while I am more than just my part-time job, and I didn’t love every assignment I was given, I generally still loved my work, even after all these years.

I loved working in a newsroom, where bright, inquisitive, witty reporters and editors interacted and supported each other daily; I loved doing research for stories, and finding out more about people in the community; I loved, as an introvert, having a voice that I could craft, and that reached people; and I loved getting to do the occasional celebrity phone interview (David Sedaris being chief among them).

I did stories off-the-clock occasionally because I felt they were important, and that I owed it to the people who’d taken the time to talk with me.

But despite my passion, I have no choice – thanks to the brutally challenging economic climate within the world of journalism – but to move on now and explore other opportunities.

So after uttering about three words during Wednesday’s meeting, I handed over my laptop and phone and parking pass, and I left.

What came next couldn’t have been scripted better: I got lost.

To get laid off, I’d traveled to a part of town that I’m largely unfamiliar with, so I’d used my phone for directions. (Plus, I’d been sent a good distance down a bumpy dirt road, which just seemed to add insult to injury.) But wanting desperately to go home afterward, I reached out and suddenly remembered, in a “phantom limb” moment, that I didn’t have a phone anymore.

Oops.

So I drove around, cursing a blue streak, crying a little, until I got my bearings – which, who knows, may be how this layoff goes more generally.

Because I’m definitely lost, at this point.

But after making it home that day, I spent a couple of hours making calls and writing messages, and a weird kind of adrenaline-fueled giddiness washed over me. I don’t mean to say I was happy – that’s not it – but let me frame it this way: one of middle age’s calling cards is a kind of numbing sameness in day-to-day life; the fact that my working life was suddenly, inexplicably de-railed, and that I was in free-fall, suddenly gave everything around me a kind of pulsing electrical charge.

Kind notes and messages of support came trickling in, but because I was in shock, the hard realities hadn’t yet sunk in. To name a few examples: I don’t know how a writer/journalist approaches a job search in 2016; I have no idea how resumes are structured and laid out these days; I’ve no knowledge about filing for unemployment; without a laptop of my own, it’s far more difficult to have the outlet I always turn to in times of crisis, which is writing; and I’ve clearly reached the point where being without my phone is just plain weird. Much as I tried to resist its Siren song, I’d obviously come to rely on it to be in touch with Joe, get directions, listen to podcasts while I run, check my calendar, take photos, look up a store’s business hours, etc. I’ve felt downright Amish this past week without it.

But in the immediate wake of losing it last Wednesday, I didn’t want to spend the afternoon on Joe’s laptop, re-living my awful morning, so I hastily decided to just go to a movie matinee, gravitating to “Sisters” because it stars two of my (s)heroes, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. (I’ll be honest, I was disappointed overall, but that may have been my mood coloring my response.)

Next, I went to pick up Neve and decided not to try and explain layoffs to my chirpy 4 year old. Instead, I just sat down and watched as she giggled and skipped around her preschool’s gym, her pigtails flopping in a gesture of unadulterated happiness.

When I picked up Lily from her school’s after-care, she was stalling and delaying, as she often does, and in a moment of frustration – standing in the school’s dark, cold parking lot – I blurted, “Lily, I was fired today, so could you give me just a little bit of a break, here?”

Not the way I’d planned to break the news, but there you are.

“You did? I didn’t know!” she said, distressed.

“I know you didn’t, sweetie. And I didn’t mean to tell you like that. I’m sorry.”

Lily was actually very sweet after we got home, leading me to the living room couch and covering me with an afghan, then asking for directions on how to use the microwave to heat up milk for hot chocolate.

“That’s really sweet of you, Lily. I really appreciate it. But my tummy’s not really in the mood for hot chocolate right now.” (I didn’t mention that this was largely because I hadn’t eaten lunch, but rather a bag of greasy movie popcorn and a Diet Coke.)

“Do you want to write on your computer? I’ll get it for you.” She leaned down beside the chair that’s normally my perch to look for it.

“I had to give it back, because it didn’t belong to me, kiddo.”

“Do you want me to get Daddy’s?”

She was being so sweet it hurt.

I did want to let her do something for me, though, because I know that when you’re hurting and feeling powerless, one of the only things you can really do for those closest to you is let them perform some gesture for you, even if it doesn’t really help. So I let her get the novel I’m reading, despite the fact that I couldn’t focus on the words enough to decipher their meaning.

The flip side of this came the next morning, when Neve resisted going to preschool because she knew I wouldn’t be going to work (the one part of this whole thing that she understood), and thus wanted to stay with me (though I’m pretty sure she’d be bored out of her mind in about an hour). She clung to me with her whole body as I tried repeatedly to make my exit from her classroom. So on top of the grief I was experiencing already, I added a heaping helping of mother-guilt on my first day as an unemployed person. Awesome.

But while I later surfed around online to find and order a refurbished Mac laptop – when a writer’s primary tool is taken away, it really does feel as though your hands have been cut off – and drove to Costco to check out cell phone and service prices, an outpouring of condolences and support rolled in. I’m not naïve; I know that at least part of the handwringing is about the already-limited local arts coverage being reduced even more with my departure; but I also know that I’d proven myself to many artists and locals over the years, and that they’d come to respect me as a fair, honest advocate.

So it was truly touching to receive so many kind notes on a hard day. It really was.

But losing a long-held job you’re passionate about is a kind of death, and last week was my time of sitting shiva, receiving comfort from friends and colleagues.

The really hard days come now, I know, when the world around me is moving on, and it’s all on me to let myself absorb and feel the loss without getting wholly lost in grief, either. A tricky balance to strike, for sure.

Plus, conventional wisdom in “times of crisis” can be hard to execute, too. Many people have recommended that I should now focus on my family, and on the girls, to re-calibrate emotionally; but this past weekend, when they were repeatedly being impossible, I thought, “Yeah, um, I don’t think this is helping.”

My identity wasn’t entirely wrapped up in my job, of course, but let’s be honest: a pretty significant part of who I used to be was intricately linked with the work I performed. It meant a lot to me; I was really dedicated to it, and grateful for it; and I was ridiculously excited when I first got the job in 2004. Again and again, I’d adapted and pressed “re-set” as everything about the job, including the name of the company, changed over the years, and I threw everything I had at doing it really well.

I think I did. But that wasn’t enough in the end.

And now, as with any death of a loved one, I simply have to learn how to be in the world without it.

Guest blog post: The Battle for Everything

notskinnyThis post was written by a former colleague, whom I can’t thank enough for sharing this very personal, heartbreaking essay. It touches on some of my deepest fears as a mother, so I appreciate the hard honesty of this piece. I will quietly bear witness to your brokenness, my friend, and I will hope.

It felt like a punch in the gut.

“Sometimes, I wish I had that.”

That was the reaction of a friend on finding out that our daughter has Anorexia. This is a close and dear friend who admittedly has struggled with weight issues, so I took a breath and smiled. But this, dear friend, is why you do NOT wish you had this disorder.

Anorexia kills. It kills a lot. It is, in fact, the deadliest mental disorder in existence. Overall it increases the likelihood of death by nearly six fold, more than Schizophrenia, more than Bipolar Disorder. My daughter was diagnosed when she was 16 so she’s even more at risk. According to Web MD, that makes her 10 times more likely to die early than the general population. The most likely cause: Suicide.

She has the trifecta of bad: Depression, anxiety disorder, and an eating disorder. Imagine a world where you are so anxious you have panic attacks, where you are depressed out of your mind because you are so anxious, and where voices scream in your head. That’s the world of my daughter. Every day we fight a battle for her soul.

Every waking moment we live with the fact that our baby is under a death sentence. Every sharp knife, razor blade and prescription pill in our house is under lock and key. Every morning we get up and check our daughter’s breathing to make sure she didn’t find a way in the night to end her life. We live in terror of the time she spends alone. Continue reading

Eulogy

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The last piece of advice I ever got from my father-in-law, Roger Grekin, came a few weeks ago, when he learned I was training for a half marathon.

“Don’t be afraid to stop along the way, if you need to,” he’d said.

I’m going to apply that advice to this eulogy as well.

But I’d recommend this advice to many of you this week, too. Facing Roger’s sudden absence, many of us have had to find the courage to stop our lives and our work and just absorb the loss, and mourn one of the wisest, gentlest men I’ve ever known. A kind of humble genius who would spontaneously sing tunes from “The Music Man” and “Guys and Dolls,” and pluck out “If I Only Had a Brain” on the piano at nearly every family get-together.

When he spoke of his professional life, Roger stressed the importance of connecting with patients, and carefully listening to them. And it seemed that every committee ever formed around him wanted him to join, precisely because Roger was, in his way, the world’s most humane intellectual machine. At work, and personally, he’d absorb all the information on offer, never losing sight of the forest for the trees, mull it over, and then tell you what he thought. And he was pretty much always right on the money.

The tragic irony of his disease [a rare form of skin cancer] was that Roger was someone who was almost unnervingly at home in his own skin. He was so self-possessed, I think, because he KNEW what a wonderful life he had built for himself. All he wanted was what he already had. He was still utterly smitten with his wife of 50 years, Linda, who made the phrase “his other half” a literal truth. He loved being a father to, and spending time with, Joe, Josh and Emily, and he shamelessly adored and spoiled his 6 granddaughters. He loved spending time with his siblings, and his mom. He loved being a doctor, and being a teacher. He loved his friends. And he loved living in Ann Arbor.

As many of you know, Joe and I dated a long, long time before getting married. (You could probably ask Linda for the exact number of years and months.) But I remember the precise moment when I felt officially initiated, and absorbed, into the Grekin family. Continue reading

Tipping the canoe (and my 4 year old, too)

dock

Last Sunday night, Lily, lying in her bed, told me, “I thought Nevie would sink to the bottom, and you wouldn’t be able to find her.”

No, Lily hadn’t just awoken from a nightmare; instead, she’d spent the day at her grandparents’ cottage in Irish Hills – and watched as her mom, her 4 year old sister, and her uncle got tossed out of a canoe and into the lake.

I’m not sure why or how it happened. The kids had been taking canoe rides with one or two of the adults for a while at that point; 7 year old Lily was paddling a red kayak around the dock, learning how to steer it; and Neve was campaigning hard for one more pass in the canoe, though her 4 year old cousin Kara backed out at the last minute because the wobbly vessel made her nervous.

Joe begged off, having just taken kids out onto the water two or three times, so my brother-in-law Chris volunteered to steer in back, while I oared up in front. Neve settled on the seat in the middle.

After a few minutes of paddling out onto the lake – Sunday’s slow-forming storm clouds had started to gather, and the wind was picking up – Neve said she wanted to go back, so we turned and headed back toward the dock.

And in the midst of paddling, I suddenly felt the boat throw me over. I was shocked, but I also remember thinking, reflexively, “The second you surface, look for Neve, reach for Neve.” Continue reading