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Quite the World, Isn't It?

My personal recession

I wrote this a bit ago and submitted it to a few places to see if someone might be interested in publishing it. The short answer: No (though I did have one overture that would have involved recasting the piece, which I didn't feel like doing). But I think it's worth getting it out there anyway. So here it is:

More than two years ago an email popped up from the managing editor of the Los Angles Times, a couple of rungs above my editor, asking if I was available for a chat. I was working from home that morning, part of the team covering the 2008 presidential election, so sent him my phone number. But I already sensed what we’d be talking about. A half-hour later I was out of a job, effective in late September 2008, and out of newspapers after some 30 years. The Great Recession – the worst since World War II – was suddenly my personal recession.

There have been some adjustments as I’ve morphed from a career newspaper staff writer into my own “brand” as a freelance journalist, author and part-time college instructor. My wife says I seem less stressed – losing daily deadlines will do that. But other, less visible strains have moved in. It took a while to stop swearing softly when Facebook friends moaned about the encroaching start of the workweek. Impulse buys are smothered before they can rise. We’re hoarding cash like survivalists save cans of soup, and college options for our two sons have gone decidedly down market.

Yet I’ve been luckier than others. With my wife’s job as a first grade teacher we’ve been able to stay afloat (we bought our house before the housing bubble so are okay there). But the California state budget crisis has meant layoffs and other cutbacks in public education, too. This year she faces furlough days with an 8% cut in wages, and a classroom once capped at 20 students is nudging toward 30 (a significant hike when dealing with the noise and energy of 5- and 6-year olds). We still have health coverage with a manageable co-pay thanks to her union contract but have set aside virtually nothing for retirement since my job evaporated. Later, I tell myself, we can catch up. But I know that we won’t, and on sleepless nights I try to push worries about the future down the list of things to tend to, like a freelance assignment with a long lead time.

Losing your job necessarily narrows your focus to the personal, and the immediate. But what’s been jarring about the last couple of years has been the sweep of the recession, and the ways it has spider-webbed. I’m the second of five siblings. My younger brother also lost his job as international sales manager for a Brooklyn-based pest-control company. So he’s selling the comfortable hilltop home in southeastern Pennsylvania in which he raised his family to move to a small town near the New York border, where he has bought a small extermination business hoping to strike out on his own. The music store in which my college-student son worked for more than a year closed this summer, so he’s looking. A niece just lost her job working in a doctor’s office. Two other nieces in the nursing professions have been trying to find full-time positions (one, fortunately, reported this week that she was just hired in a local hospital). A cousin’s daughter and her husband both lost their real estate-related jobs in Maine and have decamped with their young children for North Carolina, hoping for better prospects. And a brother-in-law learned this summer that his company in Chicago is shutting down by the end of the year.

The recession has bit into other circles, as well. I play in a neighborhood pickup soccer game on Sundays. One of my regular teammates, a freelance illustrator, left town to move in with his in-laws after assignments shriveled like a river in drought. Another player, a software trainer, has lost two jobs in two years. A third, who worked for a television-manufacturing company, was “reduced in force” this summer as retail sales lagged. A fourth player lost his corporate PR job and, like my brother, has decided to strike out on his own. And those are just the players who talk publicly about such things.

On it goes. I was called for jury duty this week, and a fellow juror in the box said he’s been unemployed for more than a year. Another juror talked about the travails her family was going through, with jobs disappearing on both her husband and one of her children. Closer to home, a neighbor’s boyfriend, an accountant, has lost two jobs, both in mortgage-related businesses. Another friend, who runs his own small general contracting company, began applying for staff jobs overseeing construction projects because people stopped spending money fixing up their houses. Spouses of people with whom my wife works have also been cut loose – as have some of her fellow teachers. I won’t even go into the fates of my former newspaper colleagues, many of whom have moved on to other careers – or just plain moved.

Who knows when it might be our family’s turn as this jobless recovery sputters along? While staying busy with the freelance jobs, I’ve applied for 20 or so positions that seemed like they would be a good fit, most of them here in Southern California. None have worked out. One reporting job alone had more than 300 applicants. Still, you try. Journalists, despite our innate skepticism, are optimists. You can’t be a good journalist without having an innate sense that good outcomes are possible. In late May, I flew across the country to talk to some very nice people in Rochester, N.Y., about a magazine-editing job for which I am vastly overqualified, and that paid about half the salary I was making before my newspaper job was cut. In the end they offered the job to someone else, which was okay, I told myself. February in Rochester is not to be taken lightly.

So here we are, two years on in this grand experiment in re-invention. I’m luckier than most, I know, with the roof intact and health insurance without the pain of COBRA payments. But luck is a relative thing.
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