Monday, July 27, 2009


Last week I stopped by a department store to exchange a pair of shorts my boyfriend had gotten for his birthday. He was studying, and I had nothing to do in the few short hours before bedtime, so I took my time and wandered about the store. Last time I was at that particular store I'd found a $60 pair of pants for him marked down to $6, a bargain even if he never wears them. I was hoping to find a duplicate of a short-sleeved sweater that I'd purchased at the beginning of the summer, back when I was still working and had treated myself to a new summer wardrobe. I've worn that sweater several times a week, and was hoping for a spectacular markdown that could help me justify spending a little money on myself.

The week before I'd found a pair of grey dress trousers for $3.50 and a $4.00 pair of black flats at the Goodwill, both good for any interviews I might get in the future. I hesitated slightly before trying on the shoes. I'd never bought shoes at a thrift store before. I rarely shopped at thrift stores since getting out of high school, back when it was an exciting excursion rather than a budget-conscious shopping choice. They were perfect on me though, and the bottoms of the soles, upon further examination, hardly looked new. Serviceable, comfortable, nearly new, and only $4.00. I got the shoes. I left the Goodwill store energized, pleased that I could find nice things and delight in a simple pleasure. These days, I've been trying to cultivate simple, low-cost pleasures. My new shoes were a triumph in fact, the best possible way I could have possibly spent that $4.00. Infinitely more satisfying and practical than blowing it on a frozen white mocha. I could get a quart of Edy's cookie dough ice cream on sale for less than $4.00 if I really wanted a treat, doling out that pleasure in a the evenings over a week or two.

I was not finding any spectacular bargins at the department store on this Sunday evening. I did find two pairs of adorable flats that were on sale, but still too expensive. My $4.00 flats seemed suddenly less satisfying; they were black and boring and obviously out-of-style compared to the cute, round-toed black and silver plaid flats I was trying on. Sighing, I left the shoe department, heading over to the women's clothing. The clearance racks were nearly empty, and no cute short-sleeved sweater was in sight. I tried on a few dresses that were 50% off -- still $24 each, but both so cute and work appropriate. Well, appropriate for whatever my new job would be. The job I was laid off from was a wardrobe disaster -- I frequently had to wear an electric blue tee shirt that matched nothing with our logo on the front. Most often, I wore it with a sweater or hoodie to downplay the bold color that only seemed to go with jeans. My new job would help me break out of the old uniform. I'd get fun flats and stylish dresses. I tried on pants, jackets, blouses, and skirts. I found the perfect black shrug that could be layered with anything -- over a dress or blouse or even dressing up a knit top. Glancing at the price tag, I put it back on the rack. $38 for a piece of stretchy cotton? I could feel my jaw tighten and my lips purse. God, I wanted it. I wanted it all. Everything I tried on today had miraculously fit. It looked good. Most of it was even on sale. I felt a keen ache deep inside my belly. I wanted to take it all and charge it on my store credit card, sliding the plastic and signing my name. I'd worry about it next month when the bill came. Hell, maybe I'd have a job before the statement even showed up in the mail. I should think positive. I should dress for success and put the crappy cotton tee shirts of my under-employed years behind me. I should at least get the perfect black shrug. I could use the credit slip from the shorts I'd returned and it would only cost me $17. I could call my mom and tell her about it; hope she'd stop by her branch and buy it for me. It was the last one in my size; I could hide it in a different department and come back next week. I could buy it now and return it later, keep it in the closet as an incentive to stay positive. A reward for a future good deed. A tonic against the anger that was swelling in my chest. I'd buy it now and return it when the anger fermented into guilt and worry. All of the sudden, the air in the dressing room seemed thick and stale. I felt sweat prickly at the back of my neck. My fingers clenched and my jaw trembled as I pulled off the the perfect black shrug and slipped my black flat on. I left it all there in the dressing room, unevenly drooping from the hangers.

As I drove home, I felt the flush of shame staining my cheeks. I turned up the air conditioning in the car, the car that my parents lent me. I have so much already, I have everything that I need. I will not go hungry, I will not become homeless. I have clothes, and shoes, and credit cards, and a family who supports me. I have so much. And still, I'm aware of the deep twisting ache inside me, the urge to take, to consume, to covet, to collect, to have, to exceed my needs, to swallow it all up.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


After the shock of being laid off wore off, fear was the next identifiable emotion. I encountered it upon waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. I tried to shake it off, moving faster on my morning walks. I tried to cleanse it from my consciousness by filling my time being busy; industriously leaning into the tub with a can of comet, scrubbing food off pots over a soapy sink, drowning out my thoughts with the gentle glub-glug of the washer filling, or the high persistant whine of the vacuum as it whirred and spun, sucking up dirt and hair from the hardwood floors. But I couldn't cram it away neat and tidy like my winter linens, neatly moved from piles in the laundry room to tidy stacks in the closet and rattan chest at the foot of my bed. It wouldn't be ordered into neat rows like the sneakers, sandals, and flip-flops organized in the back of the closet. The acrid stench of it wouldn't be covered up by the sweet, hot vanilla smells of the raspberry vegan cookies, blueberry muffins, brownies, cupcakes, or layer cakes that I baked. Fear was there, waiting for a loose strand of thought to clasp onto, climbing up until it was firmly nestled in my brain. Fear planted itself in the fertile soil of my recently churned-up routines, sprouting and vining its way into each path I started down, snaking ahead of me to wait just around the corner.

The truth is, fear had been with me all along. It had been more or less corralled into managability, each work day providing a fencepost beyond which it couldn't run wild. I steered it into the ring along with insecurity that what I was doing at work was meaningless, locked it up in the ice chest where I kept each small misery or unhappiness about my job. If it was ugly sometimes, it was tidy, neat, and contained. Fear had been a good friend to me over the years. It kept me from doing much on impulse, like moving to New York City after college. No way would I make enough money; more sensible to move back to Ohio where I could afford to live AND pay the student loans that were even higher than my monthly rent. It kept me applying for jobs that were similar (but maybe a little better) to the last one, comfortable in the ever-narrowing box of experiences. It lent me legitimacy,each time I aligned my worth and identity with where I worked, rather than with who I dreamed I could be. I'm a manager, I run this store, I balance budgets, I hire and fire, I have value, I commute back and forth, I am this thing that I do and no more.

Being laid off set fire to the warehouse of my fear, tore up the fenceposts, stampeded the gates, and dismantled the scarecrow, the strawman of my work identity. I was naked in a dusty field, fears scattered around me, sliding off into the tall grass to wait like sun-warmed snakes, leaving me unable to pick a path that was safe. So I sat there and waited. Quiet, cautious, listening. When I stopped running, and stopped trying to stuff each minute full of activity, I stopped feeding fear. When I sat and watched rather than watering it with my blood, it withered a little on the vine. When I breathed deep and slow instead of panting my shallow energy into activity, fear deflated. When I kept fear close, it was a boulder on my back as I ran. Standing still it was a pebble in my shoe. When I ignored it, it hollered louder at me, a deafening roar trying to get my attention. When I talked to it, acknowledged it, and asked it questions, fear stopped screaming and let me lay it down. When I opened my eyes, the dark shadows of fear were chased away by the dawning light of acceptance, the bright still peace of morning sun. I was ready to get back to work. Not just be a worker, but work at living my life. I had a shed of rusted tools, I had friends to lend me advice. I threw my fears on the compost pile, watched them break down into the fecund darkness of experience that would enrich the new soil I churned up, as I ploughed ahead into each new day.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Last week I attended a workshop that can help me "ace that interview," assuming, that is, that all of the online apps and resumes that I'm sending out into various HR departments will ever get me in a room with another person to talk about hiring me. While reviewing her own job experience, the workshop leader -- blond, tall, expressive, pleasant -- let us know that she had been laid off last year too, and that she is sure that each on of us in the room will get a job. She now works exlusively with "dislocated workers" like us. Startled, I look up at her. I'm unemployed, I've been laid off, I'm out-of-work, looking for a job. I've never heard this term before, didn't know that I was being grouped as "dislocated," an assignation that, she assures us, lets everyone know that we are without work through no fault of our own.

I look at the five men sitting around the conference table. We've been segregated out during our state-run orientation as "professionals," a designation that I think has been determined mainly by income. As we go through introductions, this "dislocated professional" status seems all that binds us together; our experiences, backgrounds, and aspirations seem wildly divergent. There's a tall, reedy engineer with a ruddy face and greying mustache; a short, stocky accountant, black yalmulka covering what is probably a bald spot; a white, loudmouthed 30-year electrician and former paratrooper; a younger black man who wants to become a personal trainer, and me. I feel like I'm in a grown-up version of The Breakfast Club, the weird, nervous girl in the back that Ally Sheedy played. We're individuals who are dislocated, but our dislocation is a symptom of the country in recession, the economic system thrown out of order. We're all painful reminders that the smooth operations of capitalism have been wrenched apart, the easy mechanics of day-to-day business stumbling along, limping ahead.

During the break, I stand up, almost gingerly, stretching my arms above my head while I yawn. I've never had a dislocation of a limb before, never felt the pop and burn as a joint loosens, connective tissue stretching, leaving the appendage dangling, sore and painful. It's a word that makes me wince to hear it, this hiss of the first syllable always an indicator of bad news to follow. A dislocated shoulder seems simple - pop it back into place, or in a particularly bad case, open reduction through surgery. But what if I'm a shoulder who wants to be a knee? Where on the body of the working will there be room for me? Where do I connect? We're all cogs in the machine, but the chassis of the machine is slowly transforming, morphing into something new, and each one of us filling seats in overcrowded job centers is struggling to find the place where we will fit.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Today was hard. I woke up early to go to orientation at the job placement center. It felt familiar to have something to get up for. Something time-sensitive, something not to be missed, something important and real. My subconscious registered all this the moment the alarm went off, rolling my body out from under the fresh sheets to stumble toward the alarm. First one up, people to see, places to go, purpose in my life. . . .

Today the first wave of shame rolled over me. Self-blame and recrimination bitter on my tongue making coffee in my silver travel mug seem sweeter. You're better than this. You're smart. Educated. You should be able to do this on your own. No one can help you. You can't even help yourself. Sitting in the waiting room, unsure of where to go, who to ask, if I should wait or be patient, if I should bother someone or just curl up in a corner.

Today I cried. Splattering the inside of my glasses, wet eyelashes furiously blinking. Sitting in my car in the parking lot, breathing in stale air, swallowing tepid water. Flipping my phone open and closed, fingering the number two that would speed-dial my boyfriend. I'll just leave a message, no I'll text him, no he's in class, no he can't help anyway, no one can. Drive off, drive home, I have no where else to go today.

Today anger vented its way out from subterranean depths. Rising hot and steamy from the low boil of the past two weeks. It was pure and clean, it filled my chest when I breathed in. And for just a minute, I was powerful and righteous. Exhaled stale inadequecy.

Today I ate a bowl of ice cream and watched Oprah. It was Rocky Road. Wincing at the irony I snapped the television off.

Today was hard. It was too full, yet hollow too. Each minute sweaty labor: gritted teeth, forced cheerful hellos and handshakes, choking back rage, twisting guts and shallow breath. I pray for a dreamless, empty night.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Time Off

Regular followers of my unemployment blog (hey, you two!) will have noticed that I've been absent for a few days. Did I get a job? Have to prep for a big interview? Spend a lot of time networking, job-searching, writing seductive cover letters, or punching up the resume? No, no, sorry, and no again.

I took a three-day weekend. Three day weekends, were, when I was a member of the workforce, a little like the holy grail - pursued by the faithful but never fully believed in until grasped in ones own hand. Especially in retail, and that goes double for a holiday weekend. Holidays are meant for spending money these days. Extra time off for some so they can blow it all saving five bucks on shit they don't need from retail drones like me. Three-day weekends were decadent -- I used to daydream about them, fantasizing how I could fit nearly everything that I wanted to do into one luxurious block of uninterrupted time. Time that I could cordon off as my life, fitting in all the things I couldn't do when I was (ugh) working all the time.

Now all of my time is my life; I have to decide how to spend every minute of it, no longer constrained by the hours scratched out as belonging to "work." How does one take a vacation when all they have is free time?

One, get rid of the misnomer that all my time is "free." Before, ANY time not at work was potential free time; since we don't have any kids, there were few tasks that were do or die. Load of laundry? Not essential, I have some panties in the back of the drawer that I can wear, despite the frayed elastic. Cook dinner or grocery shop? We can always eat out, order in. Vacuum the house? No one's coming over, and the dog is shedding anyway. Pay bills? Ok, ten minutes online and that's done. Now, the filter for ordinary tasks is different, the lens has shifted. I can't pursue a new job 24 hours a day, I can't get on the hamster wheel of anxiety and stop sleeping, stay up worrying, and freak out nonstop about the state of affairs. I have had to seperate out what is work and what is not work. Tasks fall under new categories: 1) HAVE to do, like right now, today, mostly related to dealing with the unemployment office, paying bills, or finding ways to save money; 2) SHOULD-do's, mostly related to actively seeking and attempts to attain employment; 3) OUGHT-to-do's, which includes personal goals I set for myself in terms of doing housework, finding time to write, getting exercise, the things that keep my mind from drifting into darkness; 4) WANT-to-do's, those things that were luxuries I didn't get enough of when I worked like getting to the pool, baking muffins or cupcakes, cooking dinner, reading, or spending time with my parents and 5) FUCK-a-doo's, which are what happens whenever I don't plan, like eating a whole bag of chips, watching a What Not to Wear marathon, sulking and whining and feeling like a failure, and staying up too late and sleeping in too late.

So I wanted to actively, purposefully take time off from all the HAVES and SHOULDS and OUGHTS and WANTS without falling into the FUCKS. I wanted that three-day weekend that many of my working friends were having. The trick? I had to really plan it. I had to talk to my partner and find out what he needed to get done. I had to call people, see who would be in town, who wanted to attend fireworks, who might be up for company, what was going on around town. I had to coordinate, prioritize, communicate, and schedule in. This vacation was taking some work. And the work that I did paid off. We went to the zoo, I saw fireworks two nights in a row, I made holiday-themed cupcakes, there was grilling out and potato salad, and I even finished a mystery book in which the murder is solved at a 4th of July picnic. My three-day weekend was successful for about two days.

Unfortunately, on the third day I fell into the FUCKS a bit, and could not rise again. Instead of getting up for church, I woke up late on Sunday. Scratched some bug bites I got at the fireworks display. Ate a big bowl of potato salad for breakfast. Watched tv while eating. Ate more potato salad for lunch. Didn't shower, didn't dress, didn't want to go swimming. I argued with my boyfriend and ate a bologna sandwich. The closest I came to being active was shaking up some more lemonade mix.

I fell apart, a little bit. I glimpsed down and saw an unending stretch of time before me, and I wanted to lay down and wait for it to pass. Wait until it was time to get up and go to work. But that won't magically happen, I have to make it happen. I have to work for it.

And Monday came, and I went back to work. I worked overtime, even, applying for three jobs and one civil service test. Contacting more people, writing and replying to emails, writing those seductive cover letters and punching up my resume. Glimpsing the fear of boundless unfilled time was enough to make everything seem like a HAVE-to. I'm back to more of a balance now, doing some OUGHTS and WANTS, doing work and doing things for myself. And for you, faithful readers, for you too.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Violence in the Workplace

Ok, you've been laid off. Canned. Sacked. Discarded by the company you sold all those hours of your life to for a pittance. You're done. Finished. Told you have 15 minutes to gather your belongings and get escorted out. Barely time to delete the outlook folder marked "personal" from your email. Not enough time to keep from snotting up, streaming hot tears as you choke out a "goodbye" to the two hourly employees you walk by on the way out the door. Vamoose. Move along, lady.

Blinking in the sunlight, slightly stunned at the crafty sleight-of-hand that moved you from the neatly stacked deck of busy-and-productive-steadily-employed-head-of-household-breadwinner to the unshuffled pile of out-of-work-laid-off-umemployed-overeducated-loser. Call you parents, drive home, up the stairs, wait patiently until your boyfriend gets off the phone. He's angry. You're stunned and breathless like you've stumbled off the high dive and hit the water with a flat smack. Feeling peaceful as you gently drift, sinking down until the panic of not being able to breathe hits.

All night long the scene in the office plays over and over in your head. Each gesture, each word picked apart and examined, trying to crack open the image to reveal some meaning. It was a really hard decision, she said. I'm really sorry. HR is on the phone if you have any questions. What was your response? No. Thank you. Not at this time. HR doesn't have any answers for me, they can't tell answer: what did I do wrong? how I could have stopped it? why me? who knew? and when did they know? shouldn't I have sensed something was wrong? did anyone fight for me? why do I have to leave now? what is it that they think I'll do?

With one act, I've been moved from the position of loyal employee, three years service to the company, to that of a targeted adversary. A money-gobbling cancer to be cut out; an tainted dissident to be quarantined so as to not infect employee morale; a black mold to be scrubbed out, painted over, and forgotten. While over at the corporate office, they continue to bloodlessly make cuts, drop bombs, and decimate lives.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Things a Walk Can Be

A Promise Kept

It rained earlier this morning, while I turned over in bed for half an hour after my alarm went off. I love sleeping in or reading in bed while it rains, looking out the window while feeling snug and secure and warm. It's one of my fondest memories from junior year in college, when I had a tiny room but a huge window near the head of my futon. My electric teakettle, espresso machine, mini-fridge, and coffee press ensured that I'd always have a warm cup of coffee, tea, cup, cappucino, or chicken soup to hold in my chilly fingers while I lounged in bed.

Is it still raining? I asked, when finally urged out of bed by my bladder. Warm drops of shower-water run down his legs, he cocks his head sideways to tell me no, it stopped earlier, it's nice out now. The dog joins us in the bathroom, licks first one wet calf then another, then comes to lie at my feet in front of the toilet. I pull on the still damp shorts and shirt I wore home from the pool last night, pat my leg, urging the dog downstairs with me.

A Menagerie

The trail is quiet, the early morning storms discouraging the usual runners and bikers. My feet pad silently, sucking only slightly as the wet bottoms rise and fall. My dog's nails click as she trots beside me. A green-headed duck stands ahead of us on the blacktop path, then waddles to the side as we approach. We turn a corner to cross the foot-bridge, a rabbit hops to the edge, hidden now in the tall grass of the wetlands. Two chipmunks scurry and play, another rabbit dashes off in the distance. Innumerable, unknown birds soar, peck, flap, and coast. A long-billed bird with a red head climbs tree branches, a yellow and black spot zips above me, black-beaded eyes and cocked heads all observe me and flit, fly, or hop out of sight. Hidden birds caw and cry across the marsh. I hear insects buzzing, singing, chirping, calling. How could I be lonely when there is so much life?

A Prayer
I speak their names aloud into the grey-tinged air. Faces appear as I beckon them, thanking each person who has helped me. Friends who have written emails; friends who have answered my phone calls; friends who have offered a hand, a hug, a pat on the back; friends who are following me; friends behind me in the unemployment line and writing resumes; friends who offer diversion and amusement; friends who want to help, to play, to take me to lunch, to take me out of town; friends who met me once, friends I haven't seen in fifteen years, friends of friends who hear my call; friends who are far away, in town, across the country, on another coast; friends who I forget unless I call to them, thank them, honor them, and open myself to them.

A Shrink
The view into my head is a neglected window. Rub it with your hand, cup it, take a look. It's a dark shed full of unused tools with web-coated shelves. A warm breeding ground for vermin, the small, dark, darting things, those errant thoughts that fall like dried-up moths, once beautiful wings dried and cracked. Those slimier, snakier, earthier things that pulse in the wet mud that ooze uncertainty and doubt. The damp of tears giving way to mold, to rot, to fungus and pungent smells. Left alone, I will wander here, forgetting how tempting it is to stare inside, to peer into the dark, forgetting how hard it is to turn my eyes away, to look outward, upward, to the sky.

A Social Event
I love your dog, the boy says as he passes by. I stop, urge the group of five to come say hello to her. She doesn't bite? One boy, less sure, questions me. They carry fishing rods, they cluster around, their wide mouths open, laughing, talking.

On your left, on your left. Bells ring, bikes skim past us. Beautiful dog, a grey-haired biker calls back. Men in recumbent bikes smile, joggers nod as they breath hard. The sun has come out a little and pulled people to the path through the woods. They come in groups, they come alone. They bike, they walk, they run, they pass each other by. They have on headphones, helmets, damp tee shirts, sandals, tight black shorts, glasses, short white socks. Nice sheltie, a brown-bearded man yells out. Thank you! I shout.

I love your dog. She helps me say hello, she helps me notice you. She's the life of the party, the catalyst of greetings, a touchstone of shared experience. Thank you, thank you.