These past few days have been mostly dedicated to getting ready for my yard sale, the culmination of the purge of my household. Surrounded by stacks of things to be tagged and sold, I had to take time out to file for unemployment.
I’ve been laid off from my newspaper job since April 1; but up until today, I’ve been receiving my regular paycheck every two weeks as my severance, one week of pay for every full year worked. Continuing to get my regular paycheck has made my life over these past few months feel like a really long, really weird vacation.
But today, reality has hit. I’ve found myself curiously unprepared for how heavy the experience of going on the public dole would weigh upon me.
You’ll be glad to know that Michigan processes unemployment requests quickly and conveniently. With the highest unemployment rate in the nation at just over 15 percent, the state has had plenty of claims on which to practice. Filing was blessedly easy: I completed my application online wearing my nightgown and sipping a cup of coffee. Thank you, State of Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency!
Now that the filing is done, I have come face to face with the knowledge that the most challenging and satisfying period of my work life is over.
This is why I feel so sad. Even though I knew today would come, and even though I’ve done my best to prepare for it, I find myself struggling to put into words how it feels. It feels so frustratingly final, like the angst-filled end of a hot-and-heavy love affair, or a death.
That this career bust comes in the midst of the tug-of-war playing out ’round the clock between the old and the new media is little comfort. I can be grateful, though, because I’ve learned a couple important things about myself, the most important of which is that I write not for money or notoriety, but for love of the craft.
I know, too, that I like to be read, and the warm reception on Open Salon has been sanity saving for me. While I dearly miss the camaraderie between writers in a newsroom, OS has filled that gap nicely.
I had lunch this week with one of my old reporters, a talented, ambitious young man who is leaving journalism to pursue a graduate degree in public relations.
While I tried not to go negative about losing my job, I found myself creeping down that dark lane a time or two. Then I gave him a bit of advice that sounded a lot like the bitter old bitch I’ve tried so hard not to become.
“Remember one thing,” I told him. “No matter how long you’ve worked somewhere, no matter how valuable your contribution, no matter how well you do your job, in the end, you’re just a line item in a budget.”
As the words tumbled from my mouth, I regretted them. Then I thought of my father, who suffered an even more heartbreaking job loss when he was about the same age as me. For him, and for me, there were no going away parties, no gold watches, no pats on the back for a job well done. In this, the golden age of the corporation, that I got a severance package at all is reason to celebrate.
What do you suppose I did right after I was told my position was “eliminated” by the man I had worked under for nearly two decades?
First, I called my husband. Then I used my cell phone in the parking lot to call the editor who was on his way in. Dedicated dumb-ass that I was, I had to let him know what he needed to do to start the process of getting the paper out that day.
Soon after, he called me back: “I got laid off, too,” he said.
Between the two of us, we had over four decades of time in at the paper and we were flicked away like a dog scratches off fleas. Rather than thanks for jobs well done, we found boxes waiting for us at our desks.
So as important a cog at the newspaper as I fancied myself, it keeps right on printing without me.
“It’s history,” I tell myself when I go to the dark place. “Do something positive instead.”
So instead of grousing after filing for unemployment, I decided to be productive to shake off my crappy mood. I went into the spare bedroom to clean out the armoire, which I am planning to sell amongst a whole lot of other stuff at my yard sale.
In one of the drawers in the armoire, I found a stack of old newspapers that I had forgotten about. Some showcased special pieces I wrote from my days as a reporter. One was from my first week on the job as editor, when I had to direct coverage of a Ku Klux Klan rally held right across the street from my office on the steps of the historical Livingston County Courthouse. (You’ll recognize the lovely old building when “Betty Anne Waters,” a filmed-in-Michigan movie starring Hillary Swank, hits theaters.)
The Livingston County Courthouse
Then there was the paper of Sept. 12, 2001. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 was the first big news story my paper covered after becoming a daily. And cover it we did. As I sat in the spare room, I leafed through each page, looking at the edition from a journalistic standpoint. I marveled at the job my small staff did on the most difficult day any of us had ever spent at work. We produced a remarkable number of pages, full of well-written and compelling local stories presented seamlessly with wire copy and photos. It was a stunning effort, one that rivaled the coverage of the nearby big metro papers, which at the time had resources journalists like me only dreamed of having.
I felt proud, but not for long.
Like it always does, reality swept in to remind me that any ties binding me to my old newspaper are now completely severed. I’m like one of those insipid celebrities dumped into the middle of a jungle for a reality show, except there’s no helicopter hovering overhead to pull me out if the going gets tough. However the going is, I have to thrash my way through on my own.