I’ve stopped choking down the thumb-sized fish oil capsules every evening. When I first learned that my bad cholesterol was high, my good cholesterol was low, and my blood pressure was high – well you get the point. Sitting there in the office festooned with photographs of deteriorating hearts, I was more than willing to jump right into the regimen suggested by the medical practitioner. Exercise more, take my blood pressure medicine, vitamins, and fish oil, cut out all the bad foods, and eat lots of dark leafy greens. I went straight to the health food store for supplements and spinach, strapped on my pedometer and hit the road. And for the next week or two I was the model of health. Then I kind of lost my focus. Yes, I know I should stick with it but the thing about high cholesterol and hypertension is that there isn’t any outward sign of the problem. And there’s no outward sign that the treatment is working either. I didn’t feel any different – except for sore knees and feet from all the walking. True, in three months I’ll return for another blood test and I guess if I stuck with the program I’d get my reward then in better numbers. But for now, without positive feedback, it’s a chore, and one I put off.
The job search has some similarities. When I was first laid off I hit the ground running, combing the want ads, networking, setting up job alerts, and sending out custom crafted resumes. I had my game on. I was confident I’d be employed in no time. After all I had 25 years of experience and increasing responsibilities in my field. So even though jobs in my field were sparse – the construction downturn meant that environmental reviews weren’t required as often – I was so confident that I didn’t even bother to apply for unemployment benefits until more than six weeks had passed.
But as the weeks and months passed and the resumes I labored over disappeared into cyberspace without any response, not even a ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ I began to lose my focus. I was distracted by the economic news, and the jobs numbers. For awhile I was seriously sidetracked researching the possibility of getting a credential to teach abroad but the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) job board quickly made it clear that it would be impossible as a single parent.
I wondered if I should go back to school; start all over again in a new career – as what? A pharmacist? A paralegal? A bartender? I researched local and online education and jobs training programs – but most cost more than I could afford on unemployment benefits. And there was no obvious track to take. If I couldn’t be what I was, what would I want to be? It was like asking one of my kids what they wanted to be when they grow up; separating the realistic options from the all the possibilities was difficult. How long would it take to become proficient in my new career? Were there jobs locally? Would a starting salary support a family of 5? If I dedicated a year or two or four to training for this new career would I even be hired as an older worker?
I pondered whether we should move out of California as several people have recommended but there were too many unanswered questions to make that a clear choice. Where would we move? And how would we afford the move and what guarantee would there be that I’d find a job in another state?
It was frustrating and confusing and while we had sympathy and encouragement from a variety of quarters it was all couched in vague language – friends remarked that they didn’t know how I did it; internet advertisements touted the benefits of retooling my career, job search engines sent recruitment offers from the armed services and ads for law school, supporters sent general advice – apply for anything, network, move… and in the meantime friends and past colleagues stopped answering emails and when tracked down by phone the conversations were brief (sorry, we aren’t hiring, no don’t know of anything, sorry).
Alternately enthused and discouraged as I looked into various possibilities, frequently sidetracked by day to day life issues with the kids, the living situation, the pets and car, and bothered by political and economic news, I found it hard to settle on any one new career to pursue. So I never picked one, never signed up for online courses, never filled out the financial aid forms, never moved forward. I just kept applying for jobs in my field, sending resumes into cyberspace where they disappeared without a reply. That way I could at least check the box ‘looked for work’ on the unemployment benefit form every two weeks.
But unemployment benefits don’t last forever and my strategy of applying for the sparse jobs in my field wasn’t working. When congress departed at Thanksgiving without funding further benefits I ratcheted up my effort and applied for numerous low wage positions – most temporary holiday jobs – but again failed to find employment. The poinsettia packing job went to young Hispanic men, the department store sales position to college students on break.
My hope was raised last fall when an editor at a national women’s magazine contacted me, asking whether I would be interested in writing an article based on our experiences. I said yes, of course, and there followed several months of on again, off again contact with the busy editor. Finally details were worked out and I received a contract for a 2,000 word article. The payment would put us within spitting distance of a new larger trailer! I began to picture an improvement in our situation, and possibly the beginning of a career as a writer. I was fired up, excited to wake up in the morning for the first time in a long time. I sent the article in at the beginning of December and sat back to await the editor’s response. It came, many weeks later, in the form of a phone call. First the editor had some news of her own – she was quitting her job as of that day, moving on to something better at another magazine. We chatted for a few minutes about her opportunity and then she said, “About your article…”
The upshot of the conversation was this: they felt that my writing was too pragmatic; it didn’t, as she said “make them cry.” I gave that some thought but in the end told her that I wasn’t sure I wanted us depicted as pitiful. My mama taught me it was mean to make people cry, I joked. I don’t sit around crying about our situation and I am not raising my children to feel sorry for themselves. We aren’t happy with the way things have turned out, nor are we at peace with it, but we deal with it. The editor shrugged – the story she said would be handed off to another editor who would discuss it further with me, maybe the magazine would assign a writer and the story could be published in an “as told to” style. Another month of intermittent contact followed, culminating in an email yesterday. My story, the new editor said, although powerful, didn’t work for them.
Although we don’t sit around feeling sorry for ourselves there are still tears shed in our home. The kids sometimes allow frustration and disappointment to erupt into tears. Sometimes there are even angry tears as they express their feelings of loss and being different from their friends. And late at night my pillow might be dampened with hot tears of discouragement and despondency. I will admit a few came after receiving the email yesterday as the likelihood of improving our circumstances faded. Ah well – I will still get up in the morning. There are still kids to get to school, job ads to peruse, and bills to pay.
I did not greet the New Year with cheerful resolutions. Thanks to President Obama’s umm, ‘successful negotiations’ with the Republicans we do have funded benefits and haven’t had to give up the crowded comfort of our trailer for tents. That’s good, but it’s a short respite and I still don’t know what to do next. I read all the stories about difficulty the long term unemployed and older workers have finding employment and I wonder what will become of us.
In my old job planning was important – logistics, finances, staff assignments, and deliverable schedules all had to be figured out for each and every project and proposal I managed. I enjoyed it, and was good at it. It was like fitting together pieces of a puzzle and I liked seeing it all come together to make a coherent picture. But those projects, like a jigsaw puzzle, had finite edges. The goal was clearly stated, the budget tied to the various tasks. And unlike children, co-workers and managers had an appreciation for the work I did.
For some reason these skills elude me now. My ‘project’ lacks clarity. I flounder. I’m at loose ends. Drawn briefly and fruitlessly into various avenues in the maze of the unemployed, I expend time and energy on wrong turns and dead ends as my resources and determination diminish. Just as the most successful exercise program relies on outside encouragement of a coach or trainer, I feel in need of a similar resource in my “what should I do next” plan to get us back on track. Otherwise I feel certain that my plan will go the way of my health regimen – nowhere.