~Matt Overend, Architectural Study No. 9~
Last night I joined several friends downtown for the first Artwalk of the season - first stopping by at my friend's gallery Lime Blue. I then stopped by the gallery next door, Corrigan Gallery, to see Paul Mardikian's work...and then I went to Matt Overend's show at Smith Killian. I've mentioned Matt's work before - and my painting of his is safely hanging on the wall of a friend's home during my stint in the Airstream.
It was a fun night. It was fun to be out - fun to not be in the Airstream on a Friday night, fun walking around downtown Charleston (it is such a beautiful place). It was also nice because my friends were shopping - being 'patrons of the arts' as they say - and although my current employment situation didn't allow me to join in the shopping fun - I enjoyed being with friends that were purchasing art. One friend purchased work of Paul Mardikian and Matt Overend - and another friend bought a piece of John Sherman's work - the latter was a vibrant painting of a red tree. The evening was positive and bright and it was as if everyone was shedding winter, enjoying the color in the canvases and the warmth in the crowded galleries.
As many of you who visit this site know, I am unemployed. I lost my job of 16 years in early August - and managed (from research grants) to cobble together some salary for part of the fall. But as of the end of December 2009, I have been without a salary. Manuevering this new world - this brave new world of unemployment - has become a job into itself, filled with new experiences and challenges - and while my fingers are crossed that this is a temporary position that I find myself in (it has to be, right?), it is also an unexplored world for me. I don't think that since I was 15 have I had a period of time when I have not been working when I could. The details of how all of this came to be reads like a bad dramatic novel - academic dysfunction at it's finest - and isn't meant for these pages. But since losing my position (aka my salary and benefits), I keep having these brief encounters and awkward interactions that have led me to realize that there needs to be an etiquette guide to for the unemployed (and their friends and family). It's danced around often I believe - and a quick search sent me to this post at Hard Working 2009 Series :
In fact, if anyone were to ask me for advice on handling unemployment, I would tell them to immediately begin looking for a layoff buddy, whether that person is another victim from your company or industry, or even someone who’s currently employed but has been through it before. This is important for me partly because I can’t seem to find any clear cut etiquette guidelines for being unemployed. I keep hoping someone else will teach me the ropes.
There is quite a bit written out there about unemployment - about approaches to job hunting, about depression and unemployment, about the benefits of various job search approaches. But while I'm in the middle of this experience, I thought I'd start gathering my own thoughts on the subject - thoughts cobbled together from my own experiences. Perhaps I'll add to this over time, edit it a bit - perhaps it'll be a list that will evolve as my own experiences evolve. These aren't written in any order of importance - just consider them points on my own learning curve.
(1) Don't ask an unemployed person if they are 'okay' in a tone that suggests that they (or their dog) has died.
Unemployed people are living, breathing members of society. (We are still allowed to vote - surprising, eh?)
I find an analogy between being unemployed and having someone close to you who died: it is an awkward happening for many, and they often don't know what to say. From my own personal experience with my Mother's death, no one said anything that I remember as awkward looking back - I don't remember their specific words, but I just remember that I appreciated hearing from them. The only people that were hurtful were the ones that remained silent (and fortunately, for us, there were very few silent friends of the family).
So - don't avoid someone who has lost a job. Don't pretend it isn't happening either, and don't act like it's the end of the world. It is, hopefully, only a temporary, challenging situation - a difficult time.
The unemployed person has not crossed over to the other side...
...and we are not zombies.
(2) Please, please don't, because you are employed, or because you found a job(s) easily in the past, talk as if getting a job is easy now.
I think it's the 'walking in another man's shoes' thing - unless you are unemployed, and facing your own job search (which, you must realize, is different for everyone) - you can't really judge how easy or hard it is for someone else.
I had a friend who caught me offguard recently, by asking - (in the middle of a frustrating day, a day when, early on an unusually cold morning, the Airstream electricity wasn't working - and it took 9 hours for the electrician to show up, and by that time it was 47 degrees in the Airstream) - if I had gotten the newspaper that day. I said no, that I read it online - and then asked if there was an article that I'd enjoy? To which the friend said 'no, but there are job ads in the paper, and you might find the perfect job in there'.
That was hurtful. It insinuated so many things (in my own head): that I wasn't really looking for a job (or at least not hard enough - when the reality was that I read through the local job ads online everyday), that she was tired of hearing me talk about being unemployed (and wanted me to get on with it), and that getting a job might be as simple as picking up the local newspaper (and if you read anything, the first thing you read is that the local newspaper is generally NOT the place to find a job - much less a job for a Ph.D. level microbiologist with 16 years of experience in academia). All of those thoughts went through my head within seconds after she made the comment. I didn't know how to respond, and I honestly don't remember what I said - I think I mumbled something like 'I don't think that many people find jobs in the newspaper anymore' or something silly like that.
Anyway, comments like that make a person feeling isolated feel even MORE isolated - and while this is a friend that I value in my life, and that I don't think meant anything terribly hurtful, I now feel awkward talking with her about the details of my situation, and I doubt if I will share with her details about my ongoing unemployment saga for awhile.
Which brings me to another point.
You have to forgive folks for being awkward and saying hurtful things. There just isn't enough time or energy to hold onto that kind of unnecessary anger.
[And remember from (1) above: it's better to say something than to be silent. What was more hurtful is that this person went on to not contact me for over a month.]
(3) Your stress-filled unemployment saga will get old to others (and quickly) - and you and me (the unemployed person) must accept that (and quickly).
Just like with most things, everyone has a limit. While being unemployed is all consuming to the unemployed person, the reality is that not everyone wants you to share the details of how you are getting by. So just because my bills for April are already flying around in my head and how I will get them paid - it doesn't mean that others want to hear the details. Do you want to hear about my new mortgage reduction program? Do you want to hear me complain about how much I miss cable TV, or going out to good restaurants? I doubt it.
Some people will handle it better than others. With that said, you do need to find someone in your life that will listen to the details - and it's important to figure out who that person (and quickly), because they will become invaluable to you.
You have to talk to someone about how unemployment is impacting your life. You have to share the details with someone.
(4) Every person's unemployment is different.
This is related to (2) above.
This is a tough one.
This whole unemployment thing is a balancing act - there are those that think you need to take the first job you get offered, and there are others that feel that this is a time to reconnect to your passions, to evaluate what you really want to do - and to conduct a job search that will result in a position that is more fulfilling longterm. I expect which approach you take is correlated to how much you can afford: if you have a family to support, etc - you probably don't have as much time to reconnect with yourself (at least that is my guess), if you have a spouse with a steady salary, then you might have more time to work through what comes next.
I'm the head (and only member of my household - unless you include the Pointer Sisters, Handsome Stanley, and the three-legged Haiku - who don't hold jobs and actually expect to be fed on a regular basis) of my household. That doesn't give me many options.
But here's where the balancing act comes in: I have a 25-page CV. I've accomplished stuff - and am, quite insanely, at the peak of my science career. I didn't lose my job because of insufficient academic accomplishments. So - I'm still on the editorial board of a journal, just finished reviews for a federal grant panel, and my lab is publishing like crazy right now. So there definitely is a certain 'type' of job that I want - a university teaching-research position - but unfortunately, they are few and far between in this challenging economy (SC Universities were just informed of another 15% state budget cut - after an ~6% cut last fall). So I must decide whether I want to hold out for a position (these positions are very competitive) and first if I can even afford to hold out for such a position. Another reality that I am facing is my age and experience level - all of the positions currently being advertised are for someone at the Assistant Professor level. I'm more senior - and suddenly this is a disadvantage. In the meantime, well-meaning friends and colleagues have suggested some other positions - for example, one at a local private K-12 school - but the truth is that it wouldn't be fair to those positions if I took the job, knowing that if something else popped up, I'd take it in a heartbeat. Some of these positions might even make me sign a contract for a certain number of years - and I don't think I can do that. One of my biggest fears is taking a job I don't want, and then subsequently screwing over that employee when I find something I really want. (You can say 'this happens all of the time' - but I don't plan to do it). However, the interesting observation is that some friends say 'don't worry about it, you need a job now' and others say 'you can't pursue that job and mislead them') - and each of them thinks they are right. You learn (and quickly) that everyone has an opinion and, more importantly, that not everyone is going to agree with your own personal unemployment path.
So we all enter into this brave new world of unemployment with different circumstances - and there's not a one size fits all solution for everyone.
So, if you have a friend that is unemployed, try to understand that their situation is different than your cousin's or your husband's or your friend's back in Michigan. Everyone's situation is different.
(5) Don't exclude your unemployed friend from your normal life.
Even if I can't go out to that nice restaurant right now, it doesn't mean that I don't enjoy hearing about what you had to eat. When you stop talking to your unemployed friend about your more expensive activities, it just makes them feel more isolated. We are aware, more than anyone, about what we can and cannot afford - allow us to make that decision. Evenings like last night - wandering the streets of Charleston with friends - are perfect, and I thoroughly enjoyed my friend's purchases.
With that said, there are so many free (or somewhat inexpensive) things to do, and your unemployed friend will be grateful when those activities are suggested from time-to-time. Here in Charleston the list is endless: walking on the beach, walking downtown, walking the bridge, potluck dinners and picnics - this list doesn't begin to be comprehensive.
The bottomline is that we just want to hangout with our friends, that our friend's don't need to hide the fact that they still have a job and can afford things, but just remember that not everything has to be about spending money.
(6) For many people, like me, unemployment is a new world - so remember that we don't know how an unemployed person acts, or what the proper etiquette is either. In other words, we also feel awkward being unemployed.
So we're doing the best we can.
We are going to have meltdown days - those days when you start thinking, unproductively, what will happen if you never get another job ever? Days when you have those private thoughts about homelessness - although I don't seriously worry about this, I do from time-to-time think about how close many of us are to being homeless, and think about what additional steps would be required for that to happen to me. (Perhaps this is an exercise that we all need to think about?).
My situation has been especially challenging due to timing: the year before I was given notice my Mother was battling terminal lung cancer, and she was, quite simply, a priority - not my job, or my house, or my finances. I was also given notice the same week that I was interviewing builders to start building my newly designed home - so much of my savings had gone towards architect fees and engineering fees and survey charges. Fortunately I hadn't started building the house yet - but I will say, the timing was pretty rotten. I have alot of anger about all of this - alot of resentment towards my former employer. My anger isn't attractive or fun, and I'm slowly working through it.
So you have to let your unemployed friend lose it every now and then, and not place judgement. We are going to have missteps, we are going to run into roadblocks and make some bad decisions. Being unemployed is stressful and scary - so there should be room made for mistakes and meltdown days in this brave new world.
More to come, I'm sure. The one thing I've learned over the past several months, above all else, is that I have much more to learn.