PlazaJen: The Blog

Riding the Bike with One Pedal.

Category: Unemployment

Hello, Neighbor…

No, I’m not talking about Crazy Cat Lady, though she had her own personal  festival of lights last week, courtesy of the emergency-service vehicles lined up in front of her house. I’m just feeling very…. Mr. Rogers. Won’t you come in? I should put on a cardigan. (Actually, I really should, I’m kinda cold.)

Starting off 2011 very differently than I started 2010. For one thing, I’m unemployed again, as my part-time employer unceremoniously gave me the boot the day after Christmas weekend. Of course, I could have been surprised, but when you advertise for a junior buyer on internal job boards at a local agency, I’m connected enough to find out within fifteen minutes. (That happened on Dec 1, ironically, my one-year anniversary there.) I was given a nice platter of prevarications.  I tried to accept them at face value, but, frankly, there had been enough lies before that point (nothing like having to keep from the client you’re only part-time and they’ve been told you’re full time) to know that it was time for something new, shiny and distracting to take my place. I got in touch with one of my co-workers, and let him know what was going on – and warned him some of the things I’d seen and heard might mean he was next. Sure enough, he came back from vacation and got axed today. I told him when he called to just keep feeling the relief, of not having to sustain the impossible anymore.

So what does that mean for me? Well, I have some opportunities for freelancing, and I’ll certainly be pursuing them as much as I can. I’ll have unemployment for when that’s not active, and I’ll keep my health insurance current. I think what I learned from the last go-round is that when you feel like you’re losing your integrity, just by walking through a door, you may be losing a salary, but you’re starting the process of regaining so much more. I also learned that as much as I worried and fretted and stressed, it didn’t make one bit of difference. I feel a strange sense of calm, and assuredness, that is really rather surprising. I have great friends in the community, former colleagues, vendors and clients. And as my father said in the worst of times, it will all be ok. I’m glad I don’t own a business that is hemorrhaging money and worrying about if I’ll make payroll and what happens if one client leaves, will it all go under. One of these days, I’m going to write down all the sordid stories, and they will astonish you, children, they really will. The advertising biz tends to look a lot more Gordon Gecko and not so much Melrose Place.  (I remember my father asking me, “This business? Does it have any NICE people in it? It doesn’t seem like it does.” Yes, dad, plenty of nice people. Just not the most honorable, as some are merely glorified con artists.)

I may need to take up violin lessons, though, all my appointments for fiddling when Rome burns and whatnot. Heh.

Well, that’s all for today, kids. I’m going to enjoy my zen, while others chug the Maalox. It’s a new year, and I just have a feeling, it’s going to be one of my best.

xo

jen

Many Methods of Measurement…

When I lived in Minneapolis, I worked for a small ad agency that eventually tumbled and crumbled and closed up shop. While I was there, I made some friends, worked on some interesting business, and got some good funny stories (always important.) One of those was sort of snarky, if only because it was brought on by the target of our snark. One of our co-workers (public relations) always behaved as though she was working ‘just to keep busy’, as though she existed on this ethereal plane above us, even when she walked among us. She loved to recount her days spent in New York City, and her favorite line was uttered with dripping nostalgia: “Life was measured in Hermes scarves….” I had to ask my compadre in snark what in the hell that even meant. “Oh you know, Jennifer. They just scrimped and saved and skipped meals so they could afford to buy a Hermes scarf. They’re like, $500 apiece.” Safe to say that was a different life, and definitely a different plane from mine. But my co-worker did a spot-on imitation of her, complete with the wafting of her hand and fluttering of her fingertips, and I could almost see the brightly-colored silk streaming in the breeze.

Since my unemployment started, I’ve measured time differently. It’s odd, and strangely emotional, as I tried to explain it tonight at knit night. Each day that I wear makeup, I take it off in the evening with one of those makeup-remover wipes, the kind in a plastic bag with a seal, to keep the moisture in. When I first lost my job, I wondered if I could continue to afford to buy them. (They’re like, $5 for a package of 30.) After the terror of financial ruin faded, I did continue to buy them, and as I removed one each night, I wondered where my life would be the next time I needed to replace them. Unlike the previous 10+ years, I don’t have the illusion that when the calendar page turns, and the makeup-wipe wrapper is tossed in the trash, life will be the same as it is today. In some ways, certainly, I don’t want it to be the same. But we are creatures of habit. For the most part, we have routines. For 90% or so, that routine includes getting up and going to work roughly 5 days a week. Now I work part-time and cobble up freelance as I can, and wait. And wipe. And wonder. Where will my head, my heart, my creativity be when I wheel my cart down the beauty products aisle at Target, and toss another Boots 4-in-1 Makeup Remover wipes into the cart? Not knowing, in some ways, is good. It stretches you. It pushes you into new perspectives, new paths, as you restructure your New World Order and check your budget and reflect on what you enjoy doing and what you’re rid of, too. In some ways, though, my heart aches to the point of tears for the comfort of knowing. Let me clarify. The illusion of knowing, because none of us really, truly KNOW. We assume. We hope. We wish. We trust. That things will remain relatively the same, because they are comfortable and they provide and they are The Way, where work or goods are exchanged for money or services. So when people say things like, “Let’s plan to do X, I think it’s the third week of April,” my mental calendar is a mystery. I used to know immediately if I could participate or not, what was on my schedule and what the future purportedly held. Now I assume very little and just wonder… where will I be?

That said, I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t be buying one of those silly scarves.

Don’t Let The Door Hit Ya On The Way Out

I know, like many other people, that I will be very glad to see the door close on 2009 tonight. Can’t say that I feel that way about the entire decade, of course, because countless wonderful things have happened in my life over the past ten years. I just see 2009 as a year that brought more challenges and strife than I cared to have. I shut the door on people (some shut the door on me!), I lost my job (but gained another!), and had lots of job stress and a couple really scary health scares (bronchitis, my eyes).

All of that said, though, and some of my negative thoughts about the year, I will say that this has been the year of contradictions. My job (that I lost) depressed me beyond belief – but then I got a new one that renews and energizes me.  Unemployment depressed me, but I reconnected and made new connections and feel more ensconced with fantastic, smart, creative people than any year before. And the mack-daddy depression of them all, the grief that never leaves me, my father’s death, that got better. I no longer feel like I am the lone ox, pulling the yurt with a tribe of nomads trampling it as I strain to put one foot in front of the other. There are days with great sadness, melancholy, and some tears, but there isn’t the sense of toppling over the edge into an abyss. Time truly works wonders.

I know that in time, some of the anger and frustration I absorbed and carried this year will also fade. But now, in the moment? I’ve got a special Fuck You to a few people, and while I don’t think they read my blog, but if they do? They should be bright enough to know it’s meant just for them. Enjoy, motherfuckers. Karma’s a bitch.

As for the rest of you twatweasels I know, love and look forward to laughing with next year? Happy New Year, and I love ya. Thanks for reading and all the comments. 2010 is gonna rock.

Unsolicited Advice

It’s been busy. Between going back to work part-time, and having a huge cool freelance project, it feels like I’ve been juggling my time like old times for the past couple of weeks. But of course, it’s great. Friday, we had an awesome new business pitch, and we did a great job – rehearsing several times, hashing through our messaging points, constructive feedback and just a general coming-together …. let’s just say it was a nice way to do business and built camaraderie.

And through all of this, in the back of my head, I’ve been thinking about unemployment, and how it feels when you first become unemployed, and how it evolves, and things you need to do, and things other people should do when it happens to you. Because it sucks royally.  So I’ve put together a quick list of the core learning points I got from my arguably brief stint on the unemployment lines. I realize my experience is my own, and my time on the sidelines WAS short, so by no means do I fancy myself the most sage and learned person on the topic. But there were some things I was told when it happened to me, and I recently passed some of those on to a friend of mine, and if it can  help someone else, well, that’s awesome.

1. File for unemployment immediately. Do not pass go. Do not wait a couple weeks. Just get yourself into the system. If you received any severance, but you don’t know how much yet, well, just be honest and report everything you can. Your employer will report as well, but the process of starting your benefits will at least begin.

2. If you are receiving severance, get it in one lump sum. You may be getting paid for four weeks’ of time? But if you receive it all at once a week after you leave, you report the amount you were paid, and you’ll discover your eligibility kicks in sooner.

3. Get thee on the LinkedIn. Connect to everyone you’ve ever worked with. Change your status so people know you’re looking for work. There are different camps out there on this? But I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to hear from my client, concerned about my welfare and offering to help me network any way they could. Your soul will need these things. Network, network, network.

4.Get out of the house. I heard stories about some former colleagues who withdrew, just retreated and played video games all day. First off, I haven’t heard of anyone finding a job that way, and second, being isolated gives you WAY too much time in your head to get discouraged. The good/bad side of this vast amount of unemployment is that a lot of folks are in the same boat. Meet at a Panera (free refills!) and just talk. I made some new friends (or finally met my virtual ones) – pensive girl, a new knitting pal – and re-connected with SO many people. I had the time, after all! And it was heartening. To not feel alone.

5. If you know someone (or worked with someone) who’s been let go – reach out. Give them a call, drop them an email, just say “hi”. I had a couple people I shared a lot of time with in my job completely ignore me after I was gone – and even if I didn’t consider us great friends, per se, it would have been nice to at least have heard a “Hey, sorry to hear about this.” I get that there’s survivor’s guilt or you think your own job will be in jeopardy – but at the end of the day, we’re all people, we’re all human beings, and it’s nice to hear that you’re missed. It definitely changed my opinions of the ones who never said a word.  (Of course, there are going to be folks you don’t miss for a moment! So there’s a silver thread in that bit of truth…)

6. Accept that there will be bad days. Don’t beat yourself up for them, it’s part of the experience, unfortunately. We are one of the most ‘working-est’ societies in the world, and if you have a career you enjoy, losing it will feel like part of your identity is gone. You will question your skills, your last environment, try to figure out what could have happened differently, but the important thing is to pick yourself up, and keep moving forward. Even if that means standing in place for a little bit.

7. Get a recommendation from your existing employer as soon as you can. I did not do this. If they tell you it’s got nothing to do with your performance (as they told me), then by all means, get a letter so you have that as a reference.

8. Speaking of recommendations, ask for as many as you can on LinkedIn – because these will give you positive input and help you through those days of gloom and paralysis.

9. Consider career coaching (LandaJobNow.com is a great resource here in KC, specific to advertising/marketing folks) to help you with your resume and identify new avenues. I have a longtime friend at LandaJob who gave me some invaluable advice on my resume. As in, suddenly I not only looked great on paper? I felt great. In real life. Unemployment can leave you feeling like your accomplishments have been devalued – but they haven’t. You’re vital and have something to offer the right place!

10. If you can freelance, do it. Just keep an eye on how much you’ll make vs. how much you’re getting in unemployment. If you make more than you’d get on unemployment, you won’t get UI benefits for that week. (You don’t get to have both.) If you make less than UI benefits, the state will calculate the difference and you’ll get a portion of your normal benefit. Your benefits are supposed to cover you (marginally, granted) while you spend all your weekday time looking for a job. If you cut into that, it affects how much you get.

11. Don’t listen to people who marginalize you for being unemployed. Frankly, with 10% unemployment rates, those people should shut their pie holes and be grateful they’re not in that pool. But I’ve  heard stories of people being sneered at, asked why they don’t just go get any job, how do they like living off the government, living on the dole. Well? It ain’t welfare, folks. It’s not a huge amount of money, but in my situation, I couldn’t just go and get any old job at minimum wage, because that would have brought in LESS than unemployment, and I wouldn’t have had any time to look for a job in my field, let alone interview. Employers pay unemployment insurance, and this is all part and parcel of being a business owner in the US.

12. COBRA benefits. Right now there is legislation that allows you to maintain your health insurance benefits for the first 9 months at a greatly reduced rate. This is crucial and awesome. I believe you only have to pay a third of the regular COBRA rate. And this counts for DENTAL as well. My former employer didn’t even know that and we had a huge flurry of emails hammering it out because I received a notice from Delta Dental referencing the lower COBRA rate that I should have received. I had even done the math on whether or not to maintain the dental insurance, but seriously, just get it, as one cavity and your out-of-pocket goes way up and beyond the insurance costs, even at the open rate.

13. Common sense stuff – create a new budget right away. We shaved our monthly expenses down rapidly, and in the process, discovered just how much money we saved by simply not eating out. Not that we were dining out on the town with bottles of wine and four-course meals, but when you’re working all day, you’re tired, you come home and don’t feel like cooking – well, those $20-$40 takeout meals add up right quick. We dropped our subscription to the Star (which I confess I still miss, though I feel a little better about not amassing all that paper for recycling), went down to one movie instead of three from Netflix, I extended the time between haircuts, and scaled back on shopping and food choices. CostCo and Aldi’s were my new best friends, along with the sale flyer (online now!) from Price Chopper. I suddenly paused at the prices at coffeehouses, trading in my large lattes for a regular coffee, room for cream.

14. But don’t eliminate everything, if you can afford a little slush in your budget. One of the kind things my husband said to me very early on was that he understood and appreciated how hard I was looking for a job, but that in all of this, I should take a little time for myself, try to have a little fun. Another friend encouraged me to do the same thing. I went to a movie (matinees are cheaper!), and spent money on coffees and even went out to lunch with friends. (Oh, how many lunches I owe people, too. What a sweet, sweet gift it was, to be treated. At first I felt very blustery and insecure, absolutely nobody could pay my way, but I saw that it wasn’t the money I was rejecting, but kindness and generosity. So I accepted it, and look forward to repaying the gestures in fun and unexpected ways in the year ahead.)

If I think of anything additional, I’ll follow-up with a part 2. If one person reads this and finds some comfort and assistance, then it was worth it! Always start your day with breathing, and for that matter, end it on the same task. Hang in there.

Accolades

When you’re a baby, a toddler (if you have good parents) much of your progress and milestones are rewarded with gushing praise. Clapping, their smiling faces beam at you as you drunkenly lurch from one foot to the next, taking those first few steps. Praise is showered as you  grasp a pencil in your hand, that what is so unfamiliar, and you carefully sweep the lead across the dotted line above and below, printing your name, the alphabet, your first sentences. The roller coaster of notes soar in their voices, hitting high and dramatic, as you read your first book, play a sport, learn something new.  On and on it goes, as you proceed into the world, learning, failing, trying again, with your own personal coaches who teach you, praise you, tell you that they’re proud of you.

And then it all sort of fades away. We grow up, and our success becomes measured in other ways. Are you married yet? How good is your job? Are you the favorite in your office? Do you receive a raise? Some places establish goals and financial rewards follow. Performance reviews are scheduled – the dreaded sit down, where nothing should be a surprise and yet so often is – they become opportunities to couch constructive criticism while highlighting the positive. Nobody usually applauds.

We learn to give it to ourselves, the positive self-talk, the pep talks, the inner cheerleader, the one who combats the inner demons, who so readily cling to any shred of negativity, as though that will become the true motivation for change. But when it is given, freely, and unasked for, when you’re 41, it is akin to finding the golden ticket resting atop a Willy Wonka chocolate bar.

When I got my job offer, my husband stood up, walked over to me, put his hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes and said, “I’m proud of you.”

A week later, a really good friend of mine said the same thing on the phone. I feel like I’ve left those two wonderful pieces of praise on the table, looking at them from across the room, marveling at how they made me feel, somewhat afraid to even pick them up and tarnish them with my own fingerprints. I’ve had more time to think about them, and perhaps it’s all churned to the surface because someone congratulated me on my job and immediately followed that up by telling me I was lucky.

I’ll confess, I bristled a bit.

Is it luck? Does my accomplishment, do my three months of unemployment, so small compared to others, become diminished by luck? Is something deemed ‘lucky’ diminishing the work that accompanied the result? I prefer to think of it as good fortune, I suppose. I recognize what it’s like out there, I was just out there. I know people are losing their homes, and in far worse circumstances than we ever were. And I guess I do think some of those situations are very unlucky. Every situation is different. Every person has a different set of skills,circumstances, background and aptitude. And for the most part, in my business anyway, it comes down to who you know. And I networked myself like a hard core motherfuckin’ salesperson, as if my life depended on it, because in a lot of ways, it did. And it paid off. But in the background of all that networking, I was sending out resumes right and left, searching for jobs, having black dark days, imagining moving, leaving my home, friends, possibly working and living somewhere else while James stayed here, just to make ends meet. I know of some fellow ad brethren who are sitting at home and playing WoW all day. Giving up. Waiting for the job fairy or the bank to knock on the door.  I can count on one hand the number of days where I felt “ok”and didn’t feel like the earth was crushing down on my shoulders and that, somehow, in all of this, I had failed.

Last summer, in Bryant Park, a woman told me I had beautiful eyes. I felt like shit at the time, I was hot and sweaty, my boss had galloped off ahead of me, and like a million other moments in my life, I felt on the outside looking in. It brings tears to my eyes now, because it was such a kind thing to say. To a stranger. In one of the biggest cities in the world. Another friend of mine, upon meeting up at a coffee house told me how pretty I looked. I felt startled. Nice, but startled. I joke about preening and I’ll kiss the backs of my hands, like I’m a diva, but my diva days have been few and far between this year. I’ll be glad to close the chapter and ring in 2010, with a new job, and far more wisdom than I expected I’d gather this year. The bruises will fade, but the memories will take more time.

I lived my formative years with two huge cheerleaders (who also knew how to handily employ the stick, lest you think it was a cakewalk of rose petals and confetti), and then I went out into the world, unsure of how to give that to myself. Sometimes I still don’t know how. What I do know is that when praise is given – by someone you love, respect or are passing on the street, it feels good. Everyone should do it more often, because genuine appreciation and acknowledgment is soul-nourishing.

And luck has nothing to do with that.

Giant Skinner Box

So, my strongest memories of Psych 101 was the day we got of frickin’ lab rats, and our escaped. I had the most ineffectual lab partner, so it was up to me to catch the damned thing, and nary a pair of gloves was to be found. I did name him in honor of my math professor, who gave me some of the best advice and counsel all through school. (Notably, “Five hundred years from now, Jennifer, none of this is going to matter.”)

Anyway, when you put a rat in a Skinner box, your lever is hooked up to a computer and you have to read the data and adjust the settings and basically, everyone ends up proving his theory, which is that behavior that is rewarded is repeated, and behavior that is rewarded RANDOMLY has the highest degree of repetition.  If you push the lever and always get a pellet? You only push the lever when you need a pellet. (Interestingly, this also applies if the reward is distributed on a regular interval – three times gets you nothing, but four is the magic number? You know to push that sucker four times when you need a pellet. And then you wander off to watch Law & Order re-runs until you need another pellet, rinse & repeat.)  If you push the lever and never get a pellet? You learn pretty damned quickly to regard the lever as a very boring shelf in your Skinner box.

But.

If you never KNOW when you’re going to get a pellet, that without any lever-hitting pattern, one appears randomly, then you, little rattie, will punch that lever ’til your paw pads are raw, or you turn into a crispy-fried over-tanned smoker hammering “Play 3 Credits” on a slot machine. (Vegas may be artificial, but they ain’t stupid. Or poor.)

And today, I saw and felt the parallels, that job searching is like being inside a giant Skinner box. I have watched myself rise and fall emotionally, feeling elation, hope, depression, excitement, despair, enthusiasm, pessimism, optimism, fatality and confidence, and today, when the little “plook” noise alerted me to a new email, and I saw it was for another interview, I felt my heart soar once again with enthusiasm and excitement. Because no matter how many ways I circle (or circumvent) the various HR departments, or network myself, or talk to people, or put myself out there, or send in resumes, there is no guaranteed pattern of response or consequences. Of course I keep doing it, not  for the soaring arc of hope the random positive brings, but because I want to work, be useful, get off unemployment, be around people, talk about ideas, work with clients, DO STUFF.

Not just punch a lever.

Fired Up

It’s a challenge, when you’re unemployed and actually relied on your income for your life essentials, to wake up every day and explode with joy and optimism. The news doesn’t help – hitting you with mixed messages – GDP UP! Retailers are worried about holiday sales! The recession is over! Unemployment in Missouri remains flat! Meanwhile you network and apply for jobs and try to figure out how to crack through the HR Linebacker who arbitrarily (or not) determines whether (or not) you get to interview.

And then you meet people who give you The Look, when they hear you’re out of work. I think the only thing that keeps me from punching The Look off their faces is that I do understand it comes from a place of sympathy, but fu-uck. It rolls pity, despair and pessimism into a tortilla pinwheel of bitterness, and makes you want to cover all the mirrors in the house and wait for shivah to be over. (no, I’m not Jewish, but I could be.) Really? You, who are employed, are going to look at me like I’m Eight Belles and waiting for my overdose of barbiturates and think that’s gonna help? OK, obviously you do, so this is my Public Service Announcement to all of you: IT DOESN’T.

Ask me what I did, what I want to do now. Do you know anyone in your circle who needs those skills? That’s the best response. Give me your email. Send my resume on to them. (And for those who have done this for me, Bless You. You are heroes and on my Jen Got A New Job Party List. Yes. I’m optimistic enough that I have, already, considered the party I will have to celebrate once I’m re-gainfully employed.)

JWo caught the movie “Fired!” one day and told me I needed to see it. So I set the DVR, and once it was recorded? I let it sit. Because I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it – there’s a certain camaraderie out there among us all, and there are a lot of us, just from advertising alone. I’ve even made some new cool friends and reconnected with old ones because of the shared boat. But sometimes it can also feel a bit like salt in the wound, when someone gets to leave the boat, you wonder how/when/why/where your stop will come, and do I really want to watch famous comedians and people bitch about how they lost their jobs and have since gone on to fabulous Hollywood lifestyles? I’m not even trying to have a Hollywood lifestyle. My blog is as famous as it gets, and unlike some, I don’t pull down half a million or more doing it. So, I let it sit. And then, one afternoon, I watched it, and immediately wished I’d seen it sooner.  It really is good. And the biggest surprise, was that I found myself moved to angry, agreeing tears with none other than Ben freakin’ Stein, someone I consider to be waaaaaay over there (gestures Stage Right) from me on the political scale. So moved, in fact, that I transcribed what he said, because I couldn’t find it anywhere already, and by god, it’s passionate and I couldn’t agree with him more:
“The real problem is an ethical problem. It comes about when the workers are laid off, their pensions are terminated, their health insurance is terminated, and then the management reorganizes the company in bankruptcy  and walks away with hundreds of millions of dollars while the ordinary rank and file has been laid off, fired, their hopes and ambitions and aspirations destroyed and that is happening all over America and its sickening.”

“There’s something extremely unappealing, about saying we’re trying to stay competitive, therefore, you’re fired but I get a hundred million dollars.”

“It is disgusting, it makes me want to vomit that we have people in Iraq and Afghanistan laying down their lives for a just, lawful, compassionate America, and here at home the looters are running wild. That just makes me sick, and I think there should be a stop to it … it disappoints me very much that Mr. Bush, whom I like very much, is not taking major steps to reform the bankruptcy process so that people cannot put a company into bankruptcy, destroy the lives of the employees and then walk off with hundreds of million of dollars in stock, that is a very very bad situation.”

— Ben Stein, in Fired!

So, off I go, to check in at the unemployment office, where I will go through a ridiculous government-created mouse maze to prove that I am a real human being who is unemployed, because writing out my name with a two-inch pencil and turning it in to one person, who then sends me to another line to put my SSN into a keypad, and I’m directed to a bank of computers, where I’ll punch in my PIN, on the same website I can access from home, and wait 60 seconds for the computer to process my information, all of this will allow me to keep receiving my unemployment checks, which will tide us over until my boat stop arrives.

This time, though, I’m taking some hand sanitizer with me. And that, my friends, shows us that in every situation, no matter how mundane, demoralizing, or trivial, there are lessons to be learned.

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