Staying Focused

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.

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26 Responses to Staying Focused

  1. Chelle says:

    Hello,

    I’ve been reading your blog for quite awhile now and I am always touched by your perseverance and determination. When you are in the trenches (like you are) you don’t have time for self pity.

    Like others, I do think shopping the article to other editors may work out to a paycheck in the future. What I am concerned about is you need income now. I have had several hardships recently and what I have learned is that a small stream on income can make a big difference. There is a website that has proven invaluable for finding non traditional work. It is http://www.ratracerebellion.com. In no way am I affiliated with the website. The owners are real people who work with military families and others to find work from home positions. Everything is free and if you choose to sign up for the email newsletter, they will send you job leads as well as freebies. They will not spam you.

    A lot of the companies who hire on the site are for customer service phone positions. However, there are plenty of other positions that are non phone. The great thing about these positions is they allow you to use your internet connection to earn money from home. No babysitter fees. Plus a lot of the positions are independent contractor positions so there typically is a lot of freedom in scheduling. I truly believe one of the worst things would be getting a regular 9 to 5 low paying job outside the home, the taxes, child care costs, gas expenses would eat you alive.

    One other thing, it really concerns me as it has everyone that you slack off taking care for yourself. You know that you can not afford to do that. Your health is critical to your family’s survival. I’m not sure if you discussed it already but I do think if you are able to get an income stream you may want to consider at a minimum emergency health insurance coverage. It would cover hospitalization and any major health emergencies. It is meant to be temporary but I think most companies will renew it. One of the major causes of financial setbacks are health care related. I know you know this too, but I don’t want you to feel like there isn’t anything you can do.

    I hope and pray things will get better for you and your family.

  2. Nancy says:

    If you decide to take up that Austin offer, I have friends and family who could maybe help out with setup. Also, I wouldn’t mind contributing to a slab or electric/water hookup. I think you are a great investment…:)

    You are doing a fantastic job of dealing with a very difficult situation. I have been close to where you are now…so scary! I can certainly relate to the tears… I really admire your response to the circumstances you find yourself in. But be sure and take good care of yourself!

  3. Linda P. says:

    This is going to sound jarring since you’re expressing your disappointment, but I’m going to give you a great big congratulations for garnering the interest of an editor! I am a writer, a writer who has had five young adult novels published, four in the U.S. and four in Germany. My first sales were to Sunday school inserts. That first $50.00 sale required more than two years of diligent submissions before I got an acceptance letter. To have an editor contact you, to get that far into the process, is quite an accomplishment. Kudos to you! Get yourself to a site such as WOW! Women on Writing and see if you can find an article on writing a query letter. This is your sales tool. It can be tailored to a specific publication. You don’t have to cold call editors. You can do this.

    Here’s the difficult part to write to you: writers don’t make much money. Those books I sold? I collected advances in the $5,000-10,000 range for a novel that required a year to two years of my time to write, edit, and submit. The publishing world is in flux right now, too, with digital battling print media. Publishing houses are revamping their programs. Editors and agents are losing clients or retooling their agencies in accordance with the new industry. It’s probably true that the editor’s change in job resulted in your inability to place the article. If the editor felt strongly enough about your writing in the first place to contact you, she likely would have worked with you to get the article to meet the magazine’s needs, if you had been willing to do that. However, if she’s not going to be there, the article is “orphaned,” and the incoming editor might not feel so strongly. I lost both agent and editor in a short period fo time when they left their jobs or were released from their jobs, and it did impact my work. I haven’t sold a book since, but I did go on to write for a website.

    I included an important “if” statement in that previous paragraph. We writers have a vision for our work, but editors have a responsibility to their publishers and their reading public, too. They have a vision for what will work for their publications. They avoid any writers who might be prima donnas. I know that’s not what you were doing when you didn’t want to cast your family in a poor-pitiful state. However, editors have so many submissions from writers who will do anything to achieve publication. They will often just move on if they sense a writer might be either unwilling or unable to edit to meet their needs, whether that edit is to trim a word count, change the slant of an article, or include more anecdotal evidence. If asked for an edit, just say yes and then figure out how to meet their needs and yours. You could make them cry with an anecdote showing the bravery of one of your children, a vignette showing the family donating to another family, or an opening scene describing how you pumped your fists in the air after completing that bathroom floor repair–or whatever you did. Perhaps the next editor won’t want the emotional connection and will prefer a reporting style. Your perusal of their site will give you a flavor of what’s wanted. Employ that flavor when you set up your hook in your query letter.

    My message is that, once you’re over the crushing disappointment, congratulate yourself. Then pick yourself up and make yourself vulnerable to that kind of disappointment again by submitting to someone else. That’s what writers do.

  4. Pam McCormick says:

    Okay probably nothing I can say will really help but I want to try.How about Rochester New York? it is not NYC far from it BUT we have many good colleges, good schools,good hospitals I could go on and on.Now we have our share of the recession problems but we have BIG employers(U of R/Strong Memorial,Rochester General,RIT,WEGMANS) and a good safety net of services.It is a good place to raise children.Housing is reasonable.Google us, research what we have to offer and maybe just maybe a new start could be good for the whole family! I am with other writers-California is going to take awhile to turn around and you don’t have time to waste.Children could go to college here maybe first 2 years at MCC(Monroe Community College) or we have several other community colleges who then partner with 4 yr college.Heck you could work for the Uof R then get reduced tuition.Think about it!You can do it

    • boxcarkids says:

      I’ll check it out – after winter! (I hate snow)! Good luck in the coming storm!

      • mary h says:

        Here in C’ville we have the same deal: 2 years (for cheaply getting through the basic degree requirements) at the community college, then easy transfer to UVA for the remainder credits. Plus the high school kids can take a certain # of college credits in their senior year, for free! Strange how you start thinking of the looming college needs when the kids are getting through middle school.

  5. T. says:

    I’m not sure what part of California you are located in, but in Silicon Valley there seems to be a real need for book keepers for start ups and small companies. Book keepers are not accountants and don’t need a the CPA certification. It would probably be contract work, but with your work experience organizing the financial records would be familiar. Your health is essential, I hope you can find the motivation to keep taking care of yourself.

  6. maja says:

    I’m a bit dubious that people really want to read a story that will make them cry. I love your writing style as it is. Selling yourself is hard at first but it gets easier with practice. Keep trying.

    And I have to agree with everyone that you should try to keep up the exercise and healthy eating. It is very rewarding when you do get results and exercise is a great way to fight depression.

    I can see you’re a bit hesitant to take risks, but it seems to be getting to the point where you’re going to have to take a risk to get some reward. Moving might be the first step. Your future is probably just as uncertain in california as anywhere else.

  7. Belinda Gomez says:

    The magazine owes you a kill-fee. Check your contract and let them know if they don’t want to pay you, you’ll publish the name of the magazine and the editors. (And don’t wimp out on this–the only reason they wanted your story was the heartbreak factor, so don’t think you’re being all noble and professional. You’re not. They want you to go away and be quiet.)

    A woman got a book deal off her rather dull blog about moving to CA from Maine and back again in 18 months, so why not you?
    And yes, resubmit the piece somewhere else.

    So, start checking CL in other states and cities. CA’s economy isn’t going to perk up.

    • boxcarkids says:

      Yes, I will get the kill fee. Kind of a consolation prize when you think what a difference having the article published might have done for us!

      • Rosa says:

        Well, you do have the article still. It wouldn’t hurt to shop it around – the Writer’s Market web site is pay, but your library should have either the paper copy or a subscription.

  8. Grace says:

    It is interesting (and typical) that when you’re not working and actually have the time to exercise, it’s hard to gather up the actual will to do it. But as someone who had a quadruple by-pass two years ago, I would encourage you to take your blood pressure and cholesterol meds, not to mention the fish oil capsules (sheesh! We can put folks on the moon, but we can’t condense fish oil into a managable-sized pill?) Although I think of myself as someone with high blood pressure and high (bad) cholesterol, my cardiologist pointed out that that wasn’t really true. I’d been on those med for ten years. My blood pressure was normal, as was the bad cholesterol. This was a good thing when I had my surgery. I was the poster child for fast recovery and was back at work four weeks later.

    • boxcarkids says:

      I do take the BP meds as prescribed (don’t have cholesterol meds) – it’s the eating leafy greens and walking miles per day and choking down the fish oil that I’ve let slide. Our fridge (for 5 people) is very small – one bag of salad takes up the entire veggie drawer and with no counter space it’s hard to make a decent salad for dinner- much easier to open a can or put something in the microwave!

  9. Mary says:

    I’m sorry to hear that the first magazine didn’t work out. If you haven’t seen Writer’s Market yet, you might start there. It’s at most local libraries, and it explains how to shop an article, a book, or even a concept. Given that you have a product, you’re ahead of the game when it comes to getting started as a writer.

    Also, my niece seems to be able to pick up work through elance.com, though she does grant writing and research, so that might not be a great lead for you.

    I know this doesn’t solve your problem, but maybe it’s at least a place to focus.

    • boxcarkids says:

      I think it was a bigger disapointment than it should have been because they initially approached me. I think the changing of the editors pretty much killed it- the editor who contacted me was ‘selling’ it to the managing editor and probably would have worked with me to revise it. The editor who inherited it wasn’t interested.

      • Lisa M. says:

        Could you maybe incorporate this latest part into the story? (it seems a pretty big f-u for the editor to contact you, and then drop your story and run on to a better position – the ironic contrast makes my eyes hurt from rolling so hard). I agree with others – I love your pragmatic, no-tears style. Pitiful stories are so common, and people don’t really remember them much after reading them.

  10. Lynn says:

    I suspect the magazine in question is not your style…nor mine…Do they “own” your article or are you free to market it elsewhere? Time, Newsweek, something more “current events” than “Feel good”. Wall Street Journal? Christian Science Monitor? (I know that is not your denomination, mine either, but they have some excellent articles).

    I wish I could offer something more than the occasional “attagirl” or suggestion. I am sure the kids will be all right, because they ARE. I doubt if moving is the solution…the “recession” seems to be global, not local.

    I suspect if the current world situation is something like the one in 1929, recovery will happen, but slower than anyone likes. What happened to the people who were adults with families then? That would be my grandparents, maybe yours too. Thay are gone, but our parents might remember.

    • boxcarkids says:

      Since they rejected it I am the owner again and can try to place it somewhere else. I’m not much of a salesperson though – that’s what stopped me from selling my novel (a decade ago). I love writing- hate pitching!

  11. Sharon says:

    Please do not give up on writing about individuals in similar circumstances as your own. It is a tough new world out there, and even though a person may be employed at present, it still is difficult to assume that one will stay employed in the future. Those of you that are cutting a new road to the future show that this can be accomplished with dignity and grace (and yes, tears when needed). Please don’t let such a dithering idiot as this editor get in your way!

  12. Maria says:

    First, you have a finished article–shop it around to other publications! Second, I think it might be time to give serious thought to relocating to another state. I know you love California, but both the long term and short term prospects for that state are very poor right now. I’d suggest pulling up stakes and going to a place near: family, good friends or any reasonable employment prospects. Being a single mom is hard enough; you have long term unemployment to deal with as well and that is very, very hard. You need a wider circle to help you with the kids and with the emotional roller coaster of looking for work right now. Do you have siblings, parents or other relatives in other parts of the country who could provide some emotional and material support? No grown up wants to go home in middle age, but many are doing it now and some are finding that it is not as bad as expected! I wish you continued good luck–you write well and you seem to have lots of admirable personal traits. I’m thinking it is time to start over somewhere else….

  13. Lynda says:

    I’m sorry the magazine did not pick up your story. I think you have a story to tell. I think you should *shop* it…like the other reader said: the hard part is done: the writing.

    It’s easy for me to say, but have you thought of relocating to an area in a less populated part of California? I worked in Land-Use here in Northern California and most of the work was contract work. These small towns and counties up here are so cash-strapped they don’t have staff, but are willing to do contract work: and lots of it (no beenies)…just a thought.

  14. Maryl says:

    Heart disease isn’t called the silent killer for nothing. I encourage (okay, make that implore) you to rethink your position about exercise and diet to help regulate your blood pressure and cholesterol. How many reasons do you need to get back on the trail? Four, right? Realistically, a disabling stroke will land your children into the foster care system and you, depending upon the severity, possibly into a residential Medicaid facility wherever they choose to plunk you down. Death, of course, is even more permanent. Pretty scary scenario for everyone involved.
    Are there free exercise classes at any churches or parks in your area? Can you organize a walking club locally? Or borrow a beginning yoga book from the local library and find a patch of grass? Are there any health fairs or community events where they offer free monitoring for you? My concern for your mental health increases when I read these posts, especially since you seem pretty isolated socially. God’s peace to you.

    • boxcarkids says:

      It’s true I’m much more isolated now than I used to be – work expands your social life more than you might think! In addition, some friends have disapeared since I lost my job (some expected, some not) and I have limited contact with other adults these days. There is a heart aware walking group but it meets at the same time I’m dropping the younger kids at school (8 AM) and is winding up when I’m dropping off my middle-schooler (9 AM). Some days the dogs and I make our 1-mile walk but I seem to have developed arthritis in one foot (as my mother did) and find it hard to do every day.

  15. Don’t give up on writing. I really enjoy your blog. I think your writing is easy to understand and very to the point. Now that you have a finished article, shop it around. The hard part (the writing) is done.

  16. Whitney says:

    I’m so sorry about your story. It must be terrible to have such a good opportunity withdrawn.

    Have you thought about where you would go if you moved out of state? I live in Georgia and sometimes when I read your blog I think about how land is usually cheaper down here. Maybe your family life would improve with a yard of your own for your kids to play in. If you did ever move to Georgia, please know that you can count on our (me and my husband’s) support.

  17. H.W. says:

    You’re an inspiration to me and everyone who reads your blog; although I realize that is not really what you’re after. Still, it’s hard to imagine what that editor was thinking. “Doesn’t make me cry?” Puh-leeze. Pitiful stories are a dime a dozen; terrible, true stories told without lapsing into self-pity…those are rare.

    I wonder – what is involved (logistically) in preparing a site, say a good sized backyard, to hold and support a trailer like yours? I guess there would have to be water hookups, and…? Concrete foundation?? Sewage access? I don’t have any of these things at the moment, but….

    If it is feasible cost-wise, I would be glad to extend my backyard (in Austin, TX) to your family for as long as it would be helpful. I have a very tiny house, without much in the way to offer there; but my backyard is pretty big for the neighborhood. Several shade trees. VERY good school district. I have a clothes washer you’d be welcome to use, and a bathtub that we could work out arrangements for. We have two cats that roam outside, and more cats inside that don’t. The neighbors are tolerable. Austin has a lower unemployment rate than most cities, although of course it’s still not fantastic.

    It’s an honest offer; contact me if you’d like. I feel rather blessed just to have a roof over my head, and I’ve often wanted to open my home to others who are not as fortunate. But since I have a small child of my own, that is typically a risk I am not willing to take. With your family, and having followed your situation for some time, it would be different.

    On the other hand, it might not be feasible either for you, or for me (if a concrete slab is required, that’s probably beyond what I can afford). Either way, I wish you well. You deserve a break, or 10. 🙂

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