13 things I’d never done before my layoff

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“Parks and Recreation”‘s Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) created a crazy-complicated game called The Cones of Dunshire while out of work. I’ve done nothing this ambitious.

Experiencing a layoff is, in many ways, like going through a brutally abrupt, heart-wrenching break-up, so it’s inevitably a time of change.

After all, this thing you’ve built your day-to-day life around is suddenly, bafflingly gone, leaving a Brachiosaurus-sized hole that you have no idea how to fill. (Sorry. My four year old is way into “Dinosaur Train,” so extinct giant lizards are my go-to point of comparison just now.) You do all the stuff people tell you to do: you update your resume; you overhaul your LinkedIn page; you schedule networking lunches and coffee dates; and you skim job listings, feeling hopeless and hopeful at the same time.

But doing these things only fills the earliest days of a layoff. After that, you find yourself staring into a terrifying, existential abyss. In this moment, people who aren’t on the verge of losing their house, etc. often dive into cross-fit or home improvement projects – both of which sound way, way more productive than anything I’ve done while trying to re-launch my career.

So as it stands, I’m in no better shape than I was before, and our house still looks like the world’s most poorly organized indoor estate sale. But I’m nonetheless having new adventures, whether I invited them into my life or not.

Here’s a partial list of things I’d never done before getting the ol’ heave-ho from my employer in January. (And my apologies to those who were hoping for more exciting fare, like hang-gliding or free climbing. Maybe next year?)

30rock1. TRIED OUT NETFLIX.

On the day of my 45th birthday – Thursday, February 18th, about 6 weeks post-layoff – I awoke to hugs and kisses from my family, as well as a few gifts. But then … well … everyone went to school and work, leaving me alone in the house all day, as usual.

Awesome.

I’d made a point of not scheduling any work-related interviews or appointments for the day, but that also, in the moment, ended up making the day look all the emptier. So given that I potentially had the world’s most depressing birthday ahead of me – Thursday night had been when we took the girls to Goldfish Swim School for their classes, after taking them to Panera for a quick dinner, so things weren’t going to be getting any better later – I thought, “What would cheer me up?”

The answer that sprang into my head was, “Early episodes of ’30 Rock’ that I’ve never seen.”

So Jenn got online and said, “Let there be Netflix,” and there was. And it was good – for about 90 minutes, at which point I grew antsy. (A natural binge-watcher, I am not.)

In case you’re wondering why we hadn’t gotten it before, the answer was simple: we figured we didn’t have time to enjoy it anyway, so why pay a monthly fee? Now, at least one of us finds herself with a bit more time; plus, sometimes – since I’m an arts/entertainment reporter – I use my access for background/research.

2. I THREW A BIRTHDAY BRUNCH FOR MYSELF.

I realize that this may sound pathetic and childish, but my post-layoff life has been so lonely, and Joe’s professional commitments have become so overwhelming, that I (correctly) prognosticated that my actual birthday would be about as cheerful as a “Night and Fog” marathon.

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 1.54.55 PMThat being the case, I set up a Facebook event page, set a date and time, invited friends and family, pre-ordered bagels and coffee and scones, bought some fruit and orange juice, cleaned up the house (with some help from the fam), and ordered a cake from our local bakery.

Yes, I had to do pretty much all the work for my own birthday party. But you know what? One of the few advantages of aging involves perspective, and one of my newest insights is this: you can’t sit around and wait for the world to celebrate you, because that’s a loser’s bet. Not because you’re not worthy, or because the people in your life don’t love you, but because sometimes everyone’s so busy and overwhelmed with their own stuff that it’s on you to identify what you want/need and simply take care of it yourself. That’s it. When you take the ego out of this equation, you’re left with this: “I’d like to have a birthday party to cheer myself up in the midst of this brutal, post-layoff winter, while we’re all hibernating and isolated in our homes. And a brunch would be relatively inexpensive and easy to plan.”

So that was it. We had a really nice turnout, with loads of people mingling in our quirky, colorful home, and I had a great time, blowing out the candles with an assist from my daughters. No regrets on this one.

3. TRIED LIFE AS A BRUNETTE.

Yeah, in retrospect, this was a weak-sauce move. In the earliest days of my layoff, when I was emotionally raw, but also fully expecting to land job interviews – this makes me want to retroactively pat my own head and cluck with pity – I went to the salon in the hope that looking more “put together” than I actually felt would somehow help.

I’d listed “color” as one of the services I wanted, but when the time came for my usual highlights, I started mumbling about maybe going with something more in the red/auburn family. As my stylist began walking me through some possibilities, she suddenly said, “Or you could just go dark.”

seinfeldIn a moment of pure George Costanza thinking, I thought, “OK. What the hell. If what I’ve done before landed me in this mess, then maybe I need to zag where I’ve previously zigged.” Plus, “going dark” had added poetic resonance. Having suddenly disappeared from the newsroom, floating through life without my byline and a platform, it felt like my life as a journalist had been snuffed out. So I walked home with dark brown hair.

Though I thought I’d get used to it, I ultimately never liked it. Yes, I was going through changes, but this externalization felt forced and fake.

It’s like that lesson you eventually learn about traveling: we always get excited by thinking, “This will give me a new start! No one knows me! I’m an adventurer with a blank slate!” And while that can be somewhat true, the fact is, no matter where you go in the world, you can’t escape your essential, core self.

So after a couple of months, I sat down in the same salon chair and went back to my highlights, back to the person I know and, yes, I’ll say it, love. (Clearly, my re-invention at this time is going to have limits.) Later that day, Lily said, “I like it better. You look more like you.” I said, “I think so too, kiddo. But sometimes, you feel like trying something different. Just to see what happens.”

4. FILED (UNSUCCESSFULLY) FOR UNEMPLOYMENT.

These are the moments when my “adulting” seems to fall woefully short of the mark.

I filed with the state government online; I drove to an elementary-school-turned-depressing-bureaucracy-funhouse in Southfield for some required face-time; I filled out paperwork; and I was told that I qualified for about $200 a week for 20 weeks. OK. But here’s the snag: I reported that I was doing a few free-lance assignments – because, you know, I WAS, and I tend to tell the truth – and the state quickly determined that because of this, I did not qualify for assistance.

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MARVIN, Michigan’s unemployment system, gave me the slapdown before I received a cent because of my free-lancing.

Never mind that I was earning a pittance, truly a fraction of my former salary, or that I was perfectly capable of applying for jobs while doing this to help us in the interim. Nope. My support was yanked just before it began.

Yes, I could have fought the system and appealed, but I frankly couldn’t muster the enthusiasm. I liked the free-lance assignments that were coming my way, on a regular basis, and if my choice was to sit on my couch and apply to random jobs I don’t want, that aren’t a good fit for my skills, or to do work I like and that might lead to my next gig, I’ll take the latter. (Here’s where I acknowledge my privilege in being able to make this choice. I know many are not in a position to do so.)

5. GOT A ROOT CANAL.

While my dentist happened to be out of town in early February, I woke one morning to find my cheek swollen, giving me an alluring half-chipmunk look. I had to see somebody, so my dentist’s office staff pointed me to a nearby dental clinic, where a woman announced that I needed a root canal. Again, awesome.

The root canal was surprisingly quick and painless. (Things have obviously changed in recent decades, since I remember root canals always being compared to the suckiest things imaginable.) The follow-up crown procedure? Good lord. THAT’s where the agony is centralized, people. And things were made just a bit worse when my dentist, who returned to do the follow-up work, told me it’s unusual for a tooth to just flame-out like that, and that when that happens, it’s usually because of some trauma. “Like my layoff?” I asked. He nodded. Ah, the unwanted gift that keeps on giving.

6. STARED MY MIDDLE AGED IRRELEVANCE IN THE FACE.

In fairness, I’ve previously and repeatedly felt the sting of realizing that I’m not, in fact, a special snowflake, but the double whammy of being laid off while in the throes of middle age has really, really hit me hard.

This is partly because as soon as I lost my job – a moment when I comforted myself by thinking, “This isn’t about my work, it’s about a cold calculation of numbers” – listings by my former company went up for reporters, including a position that, had they wanted me, I could have filled. So it’s profoundly hard to keep up the facade of imagining my former employer saying, “It’s not you, it’s me,” when this – followed by yet MORE job listings – happen after your termination.

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I’m tempted to do an alternate version of this, starring middle-aged ex-journos.

I mean, being laid off already makes you feel like the world is saying, “No, thanks. Your contributions aren’t wanted or needed” – which is a pretty shitty way to feel – but then I had a friend suggest that I apply to one of these job postings. “What have you got to lose?” he wrote, meaning well. My last shred of self-respect? My dignity?

And frankly, while it’s too painful for me to visit the site where my own work used to appear, I still see, via social media, the kinds of stories being produced in my wake. Yes, they’re strategic, in terms of seducing readers to the site; that only makes sense. It’s a business, not a vanity press. But the stories also have a sense of whimsy and fun and, ahem, youthfulness that I would probably fail to provide. And that’s why I’m at home wearing yoga pants, I guess.

But it’s nonetheless hard to feel old and used up when you also seem to have the capacity for lots of good work still inside you.

7. APPLIED FOR JOBS THAT WOULD BE A TERRIBLE FIT.

I felt desperate to “do” something about my situation, and filing for unemployment required me to find and apply to at least two jobs per week, so anything that came up for “writer” or “reporter” had me tweaking my basic cover letter.

And nothing kills the spirit more than effort expended for something you don’t really want. They didn’t want me, either, of course. I have yet to merit even a phone call, so it’s all felt like time and work wasted.

8. HAD A PERSONAL BLOG POST THAT REACHED ALMOST 2,000 READERS IN ONE WEEKEND.

See, it’s not all bad news. In the spirit of making lemonade from lemons, I wrote about what it was like to watch “Spotlight” after being cast out from a newsroom, and the essay struck a chord with many former journos. Admittedly, once I realized the piece had a decent “share-ability” factor among a certain demographic, I pasted it onto several relevant FB group pages, but it was nonetheless satisfying to feel like something I wrote could still have a broad reach (relatively speaking) and move readers.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 11.51.21 AMDuring those few days, as I hungrily watched the view numbers leap upward, I thought about how I might be looking at this situation the wrong way. Maybe I need to remember that when I was employed, I sometimes felt frustrated that while my younger colleagues went on to “bigger and better things,” my career had plateaued, and I’d essentially been running in place for over a decade. I certainly still enjoyed my work, but I also felt ready for a larger audience.

So while I keep reaching out to local news outlets for free-lance assignments these days, I’ve also started pitching story ideas to magazines and big-name blogs.

2,000 readers may be chump change for a mid-size news site, I know. But with everything out there that’s fighting for our eyeballs and attention daily, the fact that an unknown little blogger in Michigan could get that much online love in one weekend gave me hope that maybe it’s not necessarily all downhill from here.

9. SAID “YES” TO CONTRIBUTING TO A LIT MAG AND A RADIO SHOW.

A couple of months into this layoff, someone suggested that I volunteer some time toward something I normally would have to say “no” to. My first “yes” involved reading a short essay at a pre-Mother’s Day charity event called The Mommalogues, which was great fun, but my other “yes” came when a former colleague approached me about helping wade through the slush pile of a lit mag that he and his wife oversee. Plus, a public radio station in Ypsilanti asked me if I’d come in once a month to chat for a few minutes with the “All Things Considered” host about upcoming cultural events in the area, which is unpaid, but has been exciting and has made me feel like I’m still part of the world I had to leave behind. And you never know what will carry you to your next job, so I’m trying hard to be brave and give new things a try.

10. RUN UP AGAINST THE LIMITS OF MY RATIONALIST MINDSET.

Having dealt with survivor guilt during previous newsroom layoffs, I’m now, of course, experiencing for myself what my former co-workers did. And wow, was I really, really wrong about a couple of things.

First and foremost, I remember previously thinking that if I had been a casualty, as upset as I might be, I’d still aim to support those who stayed. They had no say in these decisions, I’d remind myself, so as much as I might be hurt, I’d strive to support them.

That sounds objective and enlightened and reasonable, doesn’t it? But when we’re in pain, it’s nearly impossible to be any of those things. And this is not about pettiness. As much as I like, and wish the very best for, my former colleagues, it frankly hurts my heart too much to visit our site ever again.

I’d poured everything I had into my work – even off-the-clock and unasked, when I felt something merited the sacrifice (and things seemed to semi-regularly) – so my brusque departure shrunk my capacity to be quite so magnanimous.

Nearly every day, I see the stories that I would have written in my Facebook feed; and I witness how efficiently my beat has been parsed out to others. I don’t blame them, of course. But while living this isolated free-lancing life, it feels like some kind of perverted parade of my own obsolescence. Do you see, Jenn, how no one will even notice your absence? How easily and quickly what you sweated over can be done by others? How the world never really needed you to start with? How your passion and hard work didn’t matter, and it was all worthless?

Ugh. It’s awful. And on some level, when I survived previous layoffs, some part of me arrogantly started to believe I was bulletproof. That if I kept my head down, worked with zeal and passion, and produced good work, I’d always be on the safe end of “re-orgs.” But that’s crap, frankly. It’s a lie we tell ourselves and our kids. So I’m lately thinking that instead of feeding this truism to my girls, I’d like to emphasize instead that if they find something they love and work hard at it, then hopefully they’ll feel fulfilled by it on its own terms.

tinyearth.jpgI also, on the really hard days, try to remind myself (via my secret boyfriend Neil deGrasse Tyson) of that photo of Earth that was taken near Saturn, where our planet appears as nothing more than the teeniest of dots. I tell myself that really, none of us, none of THIS, matters, nor will it endure. All I can do is try to find my way through my own struggles, meaningfully connect with those closest to me, and appreciate and create joy wherever possible.

11. SOUGHT HELP FOR A LONGTIME HEALTH ISSUE.

I won’t belabor this too much, since I just recently blogged about my adventures in varicose vein ablations, but I will say this: I’d literally averted my eyes from the problem for nearly a decade, hiding my legs in ever-longer capris and long skirts, when of course, it was only growing worse. (Fortunately this medical procedure was covered by our health insurance.) One of the few gifts of this layoff is that it has given me a bit of time to take care of myself in ways that are usually otherwise impossible for the mom of young kiddos.

12. OVERDRAFTED TWICE ON OUR CHECKING ACCOUNT.

blergYep. After years of living well within our means – to such a degree that we stopped paying close attention to our transactions several years ago – we had two overdrafts in April. Oy. The problem should be solved now – we received a healthy tax refund, and part of the problem that month involved paying the balance on our summer vacation (among a few other big-ticket things) – but still, this was a sobering, rough moment for me. I’m used to contributing income, and when we cut things that close, my layoff-induced shame kicked into a higher gear.

13. LOST SOME BASIC SKILLS FOR FUNCTIONING IN THE WORLD.

I’m here to report that there is, indeed, a limit on how much you can enjoy the “fully relaxed” lifestyle before you start feeling like you might be more suited to live in the monkey house.

forteI’ve basically been looking like Will Forte in “The Last Man on Earth” – with less facial hair and more athleisure wear – since January, so when I DO leave the house to run an errand, I all-too-often forget to perform some pretty basic hygiene rituals, like applying deodorant or brushing my hair.

When I was working, I loved how decadent it felt on weekends to “let myself go,” and be less disciplined and rigid about such things, but when this instead becomes your default setting – well, you kind of long to belong in the world again, despite its (actually pretty reasonable) demands.

The isolation is the most vexing part of this layoff for me. After having a regular byline for almost 12 years, many people know what I can do, and I’m getting a good bit of work – which is great. But having no one to talk to besides my cat during work hours? Not so great.

Starbucks (and places like it) don’t work well for me as an unofficial office space – you can still feel profoundly lonely while surrounded by strangers, and I always end up feeling douche-y to boot (“Oh, God, yet another ‘writer’ in a cafe”) – so I’m looking into possible community workspaces.

I can’t justify much of an expense, obviously, but it might help solve the “I’m slowly becoming less human” problem.

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