Predictable questions I get

With grandpa at camp

The author with her paternal grandfather, Herb, at Birchcamp in Stoddard, NH, 1992.

After such an illustrious career of layoffs (eight since 1992, but who’s counting), it’s fascinating to me that when people hear about my situation and want to help me, the follow-up questions are predictable. That doesn’t make their questions any less thoughtful or helpful; they most certainly are. It’s just interesting.

The questions go more or less like this:
Q: “Do you ever think of switching to another line of work?”
A: Yes, every damn day. I have a masters in astronomy, and I’m a science-writing professional, but…I’d do anything that would pay the bills, believe me. But in another way, I don’t want to switch. I love science writing, it’s what I’m good at, even if it’s an unstable profession at the moment. A wise friend once told me that our chosen professions are practically preordained. We have less choice than we think.

This was brought home to me a few years ago, when I discovered my grandfather’s published articles all over the web. I didn’t know Herbert B. Nichols that well, and he died before the Internet came into existence, so why did he have more Google results on his name than I did after ten years of being a published writer? Turns out he wrote much the same kind of science articles I did, from 1934 to 1968, and often on the same topic–physics, astronomy, and cosmology. He interviewed Einstein! I didn’t know any of that. Wow, I thought, as I read his articles, his writing is a lot like mine. I was an established science writer before I realized my grandfather had co-founded the National Association of Science Writers! This was a very spooky way of discovering that my “chosen profession” was less of a choice than I thought. It’s a calling.

Q: “Have you ever thought of getting certification/going back to school so you can be a physics teacher/tutor/therapist/ultrasound technician/technical writer, etc.?”
A: Yes, I have considered at length switching to occupations that are tangential to science writing, and continue to. I’ve actually diversified quite a bit without certification: I substitute teach, I have taken editor positions/contracts that were outside my area of expertise/comfort zone, and hey, I started blogging! I haven’t written off getting more formal training of some sort, but I inevitably have concluded that going back to school or pursuing training in another line of work just isn’t worth it–it’s not an efficient, practical plan for me, personally. Not right now. My goal is to keep my current home in MA for the next 2.5 years until my son graduates high school. To obtain a six-month certification of some sort, I would need about $24,000 just to cover our very basic household expenses. Then there’s the cost of tuition and fees. We would lose our home long before I could get any certification or extra education that would make a difference and enable me to pay it back. Getting expensive loans so that would enable me to start over at a new entry-level career at which I could make maybe $50-60K salary (if I’m lucky!) is not worth it and wouldn’t solve my problem.

Q: “Have you checked out Jordan’s furniture/car dealerships/BJ’s/Lowe’s? I hear they’re hiring furniture salesman/car salesmen/clerks, etc.?”
A: I have considered it. However, the day does not have enough hours for any combination of $8-12/hr jobs to save us. For now, freelance work and subbing is the lowest-hanging fruit; it doesn’t pay enough either, but at least I’m good at it, it’s what I like to do, and it looks good on the resume. I just have to hold on until I get a job close to my line of work or the economy turns around so that freelancing will pay off (OY!!!). I’m good at getting freelance work and jobs. Consider this: to be laid off as many times as I have, I have managed to get hired that many times as well! It will happen again!

Q: “Have you considered downgrading your lifestyle?”
A: (*Stifles sarcastic laughter–usually asked by someone who doesn’t know me.*) Yeah, and oh how we have! Have you read my blogs about the food pantry? We can’t downgrade much more! My son and I live in a small 2-bedroom condo in a rural suburb of Boston. It’s relatively expensive (I bought in 2005), but it’s not fancy, it needs a lot of work, but it’s everything to us. As I mentioned in my first blog, one cannot find housing when one does not have a job. If one loses one’s current housing, you are on the street, or couch-surfing–same thing. You’re homeless.

Q: “Have you considered getting a roommate?”
A: Yes, but not for long. Our place is small enough for two family members much less another stranger. We have two bedrooms. We have one shower. I would do it if I found someone I would be comfortable sharing my bedroom, couch, refrigerator, bathroom, and closet with. But until then, my son and I already squabble over what to watch on our one TV. And for those who think, “Oh! We need to find you a man! He could move in and share expenses!” Ohh, please, no, we don’t. All set there. I love guys, particularly all my guy friends, but I wouldn’t want one to move in with me. I’m better off single, thank you! Even if he were a tall, hot, very smart, wealthy, handy, very neat, vegetarian atheist (within my age range and geographical dating area), I wouldn’t have him move in with ME. We’d move in with HIM, where he lives in his royal palace! Hey, it could happen.

Q: “Have you considered moving somewhere else/moving in with family?”
A: Moving is an intriguing proposition, but complicated. Believe me, I have considered it. I have warned my son that this last round of unemployment might do us in. We might have to move to another community no matter how much we want to stay here. My family lives across country in places that are not conducive to either my son’s education or my ability to get a job. The idea of ripping him out of the only good part of his life that has been stable (school) is horrible.

Speaking of couch surfing, I’ll say it again: the best thing about my situation is this community containing my beloved “family” of friends. If we ever do lose our home before my son graduates high school, we won’t have to go far, because I know we would have places to stay. It took me 20 years to find these people, to feel at home in my community, and it’s this support network that keeps me sane. They come from all walks: my bestie girlfriend from “before husbands/before kids,” the parents of my son’s classmates, my neighbors, the post-office clerk (I owe him), my ski group, my single-parent group, my vegetarian group, my atheist group, my writing group. More than once, this wonderful extended community has given to us in ways I can’t possibly begin to repay. Life is tough, and we may have to lose our house, and have to move away from “home” but I’m going to make an assumption that it won’t be far. Strike that–it won’t be necessary because things are going to get better soon! 🙂

Here’s one question that is less predictable but particularly amusing (and usually asked in jest…I think). It certainly does cheer me up:
Q: “Have you considered exotic dancing/escort services/selling it?”
A: Yes, and thank you for thinking I have mad skills at or could do the above, but no. We all have to draw our line in the sand somewhere. I don’t want to embarrass my 15-year old.

While I search for better circumstances, one of the most valuable things I get from my extended community–whether near or far–is a predictable question. In the process of answering them, often something comes to mind that hasn’t before. Difficult situations that require hard decisions should not be endured in a vacuum. So ask away!


A Thanksgiving letter from a stranger

Sock Monkey in Vegas

Sock monkey in Vegas (a second home to me), thanks to my sister. Thanks also to NN, and JM.

Some dear friends of mine who I keep in touch with primarily on facebook have been reading my blog (aww, thank you!). When one friend (bless his heart, and that’s somethin’, from an atheist)  suggested that all my facebook Friends (I capitalize facebook Friends to distinguish them from just friends) should contribute $25 to my book-writing seed fund, I thanked him for his faith in my abilities, but pleaded that please, nobody should send me any money. Writing a book is no way to make a living, and besides, half of my Friends are in the same boat I am. Then within a week, two Friends asked for my address. Of course, I guessed that they liked my other Friend’s idea and they wanted to send me money. I LOVE THESE GUYS. Do I have generous, amazing friends, or what? But I didn’t give them my address.

So it’s time to explain why I don’t want people to send me money. There are so many reasons why. First, it would take a lot more money than I could raise from my facebook Friends to support two people in the highfalutin’ lifestyle to which we have become accustomed (we have a refrigerator) while I write a book. Let’s see, $25 times 200 (half my facebook Friends) is $5K. That would pay my expenses for, hmmm…about two months. And the book would make…hmm…about $5K if I’m really lucky. How long would it take me to write a book? Hmm…about 6 to 12 months I think, if everything went smoothly. So…you see the problem. Writing a book is just not a value proposition. It’s a luxury. Even $5K wouldn’t give me that luxury at the moment. And besides, I’m no J.K. Rowling. I can’t make up a story for the life of me. I can only tell my own, which isn’t all that fantastic. Plus, most people are struggling to stay within a budget, to manage consumer debt and student loans. Everyone is grappling with the crappy global economy, …and I don’t want anyone to go into debt to help me out of my debt, y’know? There are other reasons, but that’s really a big one.

So imagine my surprise when I retrieved my mail today and found a thick envelope, hand addressed, from Raleigh, NC. I didn’t recognize the address, but at first glance, I saw the word “Church” in the return address and thought…hmm…maybe someone reading my blog has decided this atheist needs some churchin’. They’re sending me a little New Testament, or some Watchtower materials.

Then I noticed the letter wasn’t specifically from a church, it was from an address, well, let’s call it “XYZ Church Road” in Raleigh. I don’t know anyone in Raleigh. At least, not currently. I slashed open the envelope, and found two pieces of cardboard taped around a handwritten letter and a holiday WalMart gift card.

Here’s what it said:

Dear Valerie,

Please accept this gift in the spirit of the season, and use it to make sure that you and your son have a merry Christmas.

And please maintain your spirit of hope that things will get better for you, because they will. Your positive attitude is one of your best assets when times are tough like this.

Have a wonderful Christmas and a great New Year in 2012.

A friend

Just want you to know, new friend, that this made me weep profusely. Thanks for that. I had to redo my mascara. And it makes me weep again every time I read it. I’m tempted to frame the letter, but I ripped it in two with my letter opener. And anyway I can’t afford a frame. I’ll tape it back together and keep it, for sure. I’m tempted to send back the WalMart gift card, which says it’s worth $100, because I have your address, and I could do that. But…I thought about it, talked to my closest friends about it, and…well, I really do want to use it to have a better Christmas. I might buy myself a frame.

I just want you to know that you are indeed someone I would love to call my friend. You are an amazing, generous, trusting person. And a little more resourceful than my other Friends for finding my address, which you got correct, by the way (just kidding, Friends. You checked with me first and that is infinitely better! I’d rather spend time with you in person and you can pick up my extensive martini tab). I can only hope that my new friend is really in a place where that money will not be missed. Like, I hope you didn’t steal it. You didn’t steal it, did you? Does Raleigh have a Wall Street?

I have to confess that I also received an anonymous gift of holiday Visa gift cards in the mail in 2009 when I told my story of my first visit to the food pantry to friends on Christmas eve. I think I know who it was from; with a central MA postmark, it came wrapped in Santa stationery that said we had been very good this year, ho ho ho! To that person, to that family–I know it was you guys (I didn’t tell that many people)–we can’t thank you enough. I was profoundly moved, as was my son. I have also been lucky enough to have been gifted with numerous non-anonymous donations that saved my ass more than once in the last four years. From my dear family, from my closest, longest friends, as well as from friends I only know a little. But I didn’t have a blog then. I could only thank them with a thank-you note and an oblique mention on facebook.

It’s not just the money that is so profoundly moving. It’s the kindnesses. The gestures. That lady I didn’t know handing me that gift basket on Christmas eve, the innumerable times my sister has flown me to visit her in Nevada, the invitations, the sentiments, the encouragement, the understanding from friends, family, and strangers. It all adds up to one helluva support structure. I’m so very thankful. If I added up all the checks and gifts I’ve received…no, I couldn’t, it’s too much. Too much to ever pay back except in kindness, and in saying, simply, “THANK YOU. THANK YOU.” I can only hope I can pay it forward someday. But for now, I’m just thankful. THANK YOU.

From plenty of pay to eBay

According to Fox News, the definition of poor has changed. A U.S. Department of Energy study shows that 99.6% of “poor” people in the U.S. have REFRIGERATORS. How poor can one be if you still have a perfectly good refrigerator? There is some truth to that, barring the fact that millions of dusty, decrepit refrigerators abound in barns and garages across the nation. People can’t them give away. Besides, an epidemic of botulism from unrefrigerated foods would burden the upper class with higher medical costs.

Newsflash: the dire chain of events that people find themselves in these days usually takes years to unravel. It happens very slowly, over time, like the slow-motion movie of the end of the world (play video), in spite of one’s education, abilities, ambition, and smarts. My situation has occurred in spite of (or maybe I’ve survived thanks to) my savings, my *stellar* platinum AAA credit rating, the fact that I rarely use credit cards, much less carry a balance, and only borrow at very low interest rates for short periods. Um…so far…knock on wood.

(Goodness, that’s really depressing. Ooh, ouch. My circumstances don’t feel THAT horrible. Some days are really tough, but the world keeps spinning and life goes on…)

The circumstances leading to my current situation make me quite an expert on job loss. I have been laid off, terminated, reorganized over, contract not renewed, position eliminated–whatever you call it, it still feels like FIRED–a total of eight times since I began working 26 years ago. I’ve been a single parent for 13 of those years. That is enough to shake anyone’s confidence, for sure. But how I’ve stayed confident (as opposed to assuming a fetal position in the corner) is a topic for another blog.

How did I get here? How does one find oneself in such a compromising position? And how on Earth does one survive (assuming Earth itself survives)?

After my Nov. 2008 layoff from my salaried-with-benefits position, like many people, I was unable to find another full-time salaried job. For two years, I applied for innumerable jobs (all career-focused writing/editing positions), sent hundreds of emails, and went on too few interviews. I did find some freelance work, which stretched out my unemployment income and made it last longer, but eventually my benefits ran out.

When I was finally offered a full-time job last year as a writer at a marketing directory company that-shall-remain-nameless, I was in debt. The job paid an entry-level salary doing stuff I was overqualified to do. I prepared for the interview with the enthusiasm of an Emmy-Award winner. I hesitated to take the position when I heard the salary–it wouldn’t stop my financial free fall into the black hole, just slow it down a bit. But I really didn’t have a choice. I negotiated an extra $5K/year thanks to my experience and took the job anyway.

Karen Walker as Megan Mullally

You want to pay me how much?? Emmy-Award winning acting required! Megan Mullally as Karen Walker in Will & Grace.

I continued my enthusiasm on the job. The prospect of losing my salary AGAIN was enough to make me amenable to anything, no matter how unpalatable. Besides, I liked my boss and coworkers. The commute was only an hour a day. I thought it was odd that I never got a key to the office, and that the forms to start my 401K never  materialized, but whatever, I didn’t have money to pour into a 401K anyway. I was happy to have a full-time salaried job–a desk, file drawers, a computer, a phone!  I was eager to throw myself into the fray: to work long hours, switch gears every other week when my job description changed, and direct deposit that paycheck twice a month. Unfortunately, the company, a start-up, was unsettled in its modus operandi, which is only ever apparent in retrospect. After only two months I was laid off along with half the staff right after holidays (which, I can say with experience is INFINITELY better than being laid off just BEFORE the holidays!).

I opened an unemployment claim, but after only two months of work, the benefits were very low. Luckily, I hadn’t been off the freelancing market for long, and soon found some work editing market research reports.

Within a few months, the market research firm hired me full-time but with a temporary contract (read: no benefits). The salary was much better, the job a better fit for my experience, and I was glad to be working full time in spite of my hellish four-hour-a-day commute. When my contract wasn’t renewed after six months (in Sept. 2011), I was more than a little disappointed. But I was comforted knowing I had done my best, and that at least I’d be able to collect unemployment again while I looked for another job. However, I soon discovered that the claim I had opened earlier from my two months at the marketing company took precedence. Instead of upwards of $600/week (generous but commensurate with the cost of living in MA), I would receive only $216/week. The past six months of full-time salaried work wouldn’t count until the earlier claim was exhausted.

Now don’t get me wrong: I am grateful for this “free” unemployment income from the Commonwealth, even if it is equivalent to the income of a gypsy in post-communist Romania in 1969. So many people in impoverished countries and even in this wealthy one are starving, homeless, destitute, and have lost everything. People laid off from minimum-wage jobs may collect less than that. Waiters, construction subcontractors, and freelancers do not qualify for unemployment benefits. I am very familiar with this, having been a freelancer for much of the past four years. After my benefits ran out, when I was out of work, I had no income at all. But I really thought the safety net would catch me after working at salaried jobs for 3/4ths of the past year.

I called the unemployment office to check; how could that be? I worked at companies that paid unemployment insurance. It’s unfair, agreed the phone agent at the unemployment office, but that’s the way the law works. “Your previous claim takes precedence. Besides,” said the rep, “it’s not supposed to be enough for you to live on, it’s just supposed to be enough to help you get by while you find another job.” I’m not sure why anyone would think that $216/week was enough to help two people “get by” for any length of time, unless you live with your parents. But whatever.

Once the old claim was exhausted, which could take 4-5 months, I could file for a new claim at the higher amount. I knew from experience I would quickly find something–that’s the full time job of the un*employed. But what? And how quickly? On that income, I would be so far behind in my bills in 4 months, I would be on my way down the slippery slope of losing everything I had managed to keep the past four years. What a tragedy to have poured all your savings, as well as some of your friends’ and family’s savings, into keeping your home, only to lose it to the mortgage lender later–especially when that lender accepted our tax-fueled bail-out money!

After the panic passed, I reviewed the worst-case scenario (cue above video again). Which bill will I skip when the time comes? The mortgage? The condo fee? The car? THE CABLE / INTERNET?? (*Horrors!*) I began the process of trading in my car, and looked into short-selling my house. My dear family members vowed to help.

But something surprising made me feel better within 24 hours: selling my stuff. With the price of gold, copper, and silver at record highs, I quickly made a couple hundred dollars on some broken jewelry, my wedding band (I don’t need THAT), and some coins. I took the stuff to a local coin collector shop. I didn’t miss it a bit. It felt great! Next, I registered for an eBay account to start selling stuff at auction. And if not salvation, I hit upon something very satisfying indeed.

Selling stuff is much more rewarding than borrowing more money or skipping a bill. If you have anything of value you can ship, eBay is an unemployed person’s best friend. The first time someone suggested to me that I should buy stuff on eBay and sell it at a profit, I scoffed. But I started collecting things into a pile, I didn’t realize how much unwanted stuff I had stored away that I could sell immediately.

I used my digital camera to snap a staged photo of my item, and the Windows photo editor to crop, brighten, and/or combine two photos into one. I drafted an ad highlighting the best features of my “product,” established the lowest “Buy It Now” price, and set the lowest starting auction price I could stomach. If an item didn’t sell, I re-posted it, adjusting the price. The first month, without even trying, I made nearly $300 getting rid of unwanted costume jewelry, shoes and accessories, electronics, and sports paraphernalia, reducing clutter in the meantime. Now that’s not enough to pay the bills, but it didn’t take much time, and I collected shipping & handling fees as part of the price. Next up, I might sell some items too big to ship, for which craigslist is going to come in handy. Craigslist is a great source for jobs too.

Of course, this can’t last. I will eventually run out of stuff. The bottom line is, I haven’t yet had to beg or steal. I am not on track to sell my appliances any day soon (they’ll just go with the house). If on the other hand, if you could use a second-hand Linksys WRT110 router, a Canon ink-jet color printer, a Jabra Bluetooth binaural headset, or a pendant/earring set of green Brazillian amazonite, let me know. They’ll be on eBay as soon as I have time to list them.

The full-time “job” of the un*employed

“How do you DO it?” people ask me all the time. How do you keep paying your bills as an un*employed single parent? (un*employed is my shorthand for unemployed or underemployed, similar to how ve*gan includes vegans and vegetarians–groups that have much in common). The answer is what I call the full-time “job” of the un*employed.

Dealing with state agencies via phone?

On hold…forever…gotta love state agencies.

When you’re out of work or underemployed, how to supplement your “unlivable wages” becomes the problem du jour in your life. Part of my secret to getting by is that how to pay the next bill consumes my every waking moment, my every thought when I am eating, showering, using electricity, paying bills, looking for work, considering an invite from friends, writing this blog, or driving to the food pantry. My full-time job was (and still is) figuring out how to stem the tide of money going out and increase the amount coming in.

Woe is the person who asks an un*employed person, “What do you DO all day?” If you’ve ever been without work, you know finding it consumes your day: networking, searching for job openings, sorting through email, applying, drafting cover letters, customizing your resume for each position, registering for job services, dealing with recruiters, and attending job fairs. Work not forthcoming, you have to find the money for rent and mortgage: can you borrow it from your home equity line of credit? Refinance your home or car? Use your income tax refund? Cash out your kids’ college savings funds? Take it from your retirement (never a good idea)? Each one of those choices takes days of work during business hours to deal with banks, creditors, and retirement account agents.

I have spent weeks on the phone with my mortgage lender to try and qualify for mortgage refinancing or modification via the Home Affordable Mortgage Program. Hey, how about that? A program for people like me in danger of foreclosure! For five months, I filled out paperwork, faxed documents, and responded to more requests for paperwork, only to be told that I don’t qualify because 1) I am not behind in my payments and 2) I don’t make enough money to pay my mortgage even if it were refinanced. Ridiculously, I have never missed a payment in spite of the fact that my mortgage lender says I don’t have enough income to do so. They would rather foreclose on my home than risk giving me a mortgage. So I rebel and continue to pay it. If I am late or miss a payment, the fines and fees will begin, and so starts the process of me losing my home. I don’t feel like being late is an option: if I lose my home, and I don’t have a job, I can’t get another one. I can’t get another mortgage or even rent an apartment because I don’t have a job! I don’t have family I can move in with nearby, so I am dedicated to paying that mortgage.

You can spend hours a day on the phone with the unemployment office or the health insurance office, asking what happened to your check, or disputing a mistake. In both NH and MA, you are usually stuck for an hour waiting on the phone for a real person while you listen to terribly repetitive synthesizer music with the oft-repeated message: “Your call is important to us. Please remain on the line for the next available agent. Your call will be answered in the order it was received.” You may wait on-hold for hours, only to reach a robo-message telling you the office is now closed so you’ll have to call back later–meaning a week from now because Tuesday is the only day for social security numbers ending in “2.” I’ve waited on hold for an hour, reached a person, only to be disconnected and have to do it over again! I swear, the tune of the on-hold music in the unemployment office haunts my dreams–a synthesized baseline of two notes going back and forth with an occasional cymbal crash. I am not kidding!

Family Guy Unemployment Office

The definition of irony: the chronic under-staffing of the unemployment office.

The last time I opened a claim, I had to go in person to file because I missed my designated day to open a new claim by phone that week. I drove for about half an hour only to found that my local unemployment office was permanently closed due to state budget cuts. It hadn’t moved–it was just shut down, transitioning all services to “phone only.” Oh joy. Nothing sucks up your day like dealing with the unemployment office–or any government agency–by phone.

Basically, the unemployed must spend all day on the phone to find their next dollar. My 15-year-old son, bedeviled by our lack of discretionary income, got a work permit and now has a job bagging and stocking at the local supermarket. Amazing how many video games you can buy when you work six hours a week at $8/hr. While it isn’t what I’d prefer him to spend his hard-earned money on, it helps the mood of the teenager in my household a lot.

Promotional specials are my best friends. I regularly call the cable company, the power company, my internet service provider, and the phone company to negotiate a better deal, take advantage of economic specials, or cut back on my services. There’s only so much you can cut back before you have to do away with TV altogether, but when you’re unemployed, TV is your only entertainment after dark. So I kept basic cable by using a promotional deal. I can’t cut off phone and internet service if I want to freelance or be available for an interview. So I kept my phone and internet by using a six-month promotional special. In New England, shutting off the heat isn’t an option, although utility companies do offer state energy assistance for customers receiving certain types of state aid (none of which I qualify for–would you believe at $216/week, I make too much money?).

So I network my ass off, work at cut-rate freelance work, and coupon-cut almost every waking minute. But the shiny side of the coin is that unemployment also has its rewards. I can pick up my son from an after-school event instead of leaving him to the wolves-of-chance that he’ll find a ride or have to walk home several miles, partly along a dangerous highway with no sidewalks. I can sleep later in the morning. I try and do something productive to earn some piddling money every day (yay, eBay!), but at least all my closets are cleaned out. I can go to the doctor or take my car in for service during business hours (I got promotional deals for free oil & lube services for a year too). I consider going to the library a guilty pleasure–nothing like reading the memoirs of people who have survived tragedy to make one appreciate one’s own circumstances. Plus, I am always home for dinner! (An unemployed single parent has no choice but to always be home for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When you can’t afford to eat out, you get to cook and do dishes for every meal, every single day! Yay!) A huge thanks to all the friends who have hosted us for meals!

Sometimes I even have work! Like today…after posting this blog, I have some part-time temp work to do from home while my son is working. It doesn’t pay much, but later, I’ll sell some stuff on eBay and maybe even facebook–if I have time.

The tip of the iceberg

After my first visit to my community food pantry, I was resigned to the fact that this was a resource I should have used long before. Many people had been telling me to go (kind of like the people telling me I should “write a book,”) but my pride had gotten in the way. As a vegetarian, I doubted they would have any food I would be interested in. Not only that: it had also just felt wrong when I still had my home and my car. I didn’t feel “needy enough.”

But go I did, every Wednesday. The second time I went to the food pantry, I went on a regularly scheduled Wednesday in January. I signed in, took a number and sat in a waiting room with other people who were elderly, feeble, or who had little children and didn’t speak English. I realized there was quite a long wait at 1 pm in the afternoon. I sat on a metal folding chair for about an hour and tried to look as invisible as possible. A bus of Chinese elders was in front of me. I didn’t really look up, but I noticed that as their numbers were called, they went in one or two at a time with a volunteer pushing a shopping cart through the aisles of dried goods. I heard people speaking foreign languages who I figured were probably political refugees from foreign countries.

While I sat there willing the time to pass more quickly (these people were obviously needy; I should be volunteering, I thought, not a recipient of this charity), most of the group spent their hour chatting happily with their empty shopping bags in hand, gaily catching up with each other like old friends. I sat there miserably and kept my face buried in the magazine I brought with me. “This was only temporary for me,” I thought. “I won’t be coming here long enough to make friends.”

When it was my turn, the attendants greeted me brightly as they crossed off my name from the list. “Family of two?” they asked. I barely mumbled a reply. Every can or package I took caused a distinct pang of guilt that I was taking from someone more needy, possibly even homeless. The attendants happily walked the shopping cart all the way out to my two-year-old Saturn Vue (which seemed embarrassingly new and shiny). “I’ve been unemployed for over a year now,” I explained, “but I interviewed for a job yesterday so I probably won’t be back.” They nodded encouragingly and smiled pleasantly as they helped me load my bags in the back. “Have a nice day and good luck with the job!”

But I didn’t get the job. So I kept going to the food pantry. One week, I took my 13-year-old son, who was curious about the experience and wanted to pick out  exactly what he wanted from the limited choices. He followed me timidly into the waiting room, but once there, he relaxed comfortably in his folding chair, playing a game on his phone and watching people come and go. I barely looked up from my magazine. I was thinking, they must wonder ‘how needy can you be if your kid has a phone?’ I wanted to explain out loud to anyone within earshot: “He saved up his birthday and holiday money from my family and friends for almost a year to buy that phone. He had to wait a long time for it. His dad’s family takes care of the cheap phone service.” But nobody seemed to care.

While we waited, two ladies spoke Portuguese next to us. They went in one at a time with the attendant and a shopping cart. I suddenly realized I had seen these two ladies at the food pantry before on a previous week. They were much younger than me, I realized, both able-bodied, like me. I thought at the time that they must be in very difficult circumstances to be there.

As we went through the aisles when it was our turn, Richard was enthusiastic to be able to pick out the things he wanted, knowing they were free: cereal and soup and juice! It was always a relief to see our pantry at home with cans of food and bags of rice in it. As we were leaving, I noticed the two (Brazilian?) ladies standing by their cars, doors open, saying goodbye to each other. The big difference between us, I noticed, besides our primary language, is that I felt and must have looked miserable, and they didn’t.

A few weeks later, I made the Wednesday trek to the back annex of the church again. I found myself anticipating explaining to the food pantry workers what brought me to this point: “I’m a science writer and print has just dried up. I’ve had this coat, these shoes, my car, everything I own, for years–from when I had a job. Anything new was a gift. It’s all old, really.” But I didn’t need to. At a table inside the door, an older lady volunteer greeted me warmly. She recognized me. I thought, “I’ll explain to the volunteer pushing my cart how long I’ve been unemployed, how I hadn’t gotten child support in years due to lousy circumstances.” But I didn’t need to. The middle-aged man who called my number had assisted me the week I before. “Hello!” he said, “How are you?” He remembered my name (and I was then immediately chastened I hadn’t remembered his). “Where’s your son this week? Richard, wasn’t it?” he asked.

Very gradually over the next several visits, I began to understand why the staff of the food pantry and all the recipients were so chipper. And over many months, I realized that the harsh glare of judgement that I might be taking food from someone who was more needy, was coming squarely from inside myself. It was coming from the “me” from before–the one with an education, a career, and the opinion that I was better than this. When you are that broke, you see so clearly that there are two categories of people: those who have, and those who have not. The line between the two is much, much thinner and fault-free than you expect. If you have, you are lucky. I still have my house and car despite four years of unemployment: and it’s not because I’m smart and better than others. It’s because I’m lucky too. It’s easy to judge those worse off than you as useless lazy leeches, but that is very rarely the truth. They are simply less lucky than you.

No, the truth is the other patrons most likely looked at me the same way I looked at them: that poor person must be having a very difficult time of it right now. They weren’t second-guessing whether or not I should be there. Nobody begrudged me that food. The patrons felt camaraderie and sympathy. The staff wanted to give us food and more–warmth and understanding and even a little bit of love. For me to be humiliated was beside the point.

Someday soon, I fully expect to pay back the kindness of my community, family, and dear friends–in spades, when I can fill my pantry on my own. Until then, I finally understand: food is just the tip of the iceberg when you’re a patron of the food pantry.

When “desperation” leads to good things

December 2009: After a year of freelancing and stretching the unemployment benefits for as long as possible, I had to break it to my 13-year-old son again (in case it wasn’t obvious to him already), that our holidays would again be very small. Although I don’t have family in my state or even in my region, my sister, parents, and friends have been extremely generous in sending us more money than they can spare now and then, and presents to put under the tree for the holidays. (Our Christmas tree was a used artificial one I found at a yard sale that August for $10…the lights don’t all work, but with its best side forward it was still a great find!) However, it’s more than a little heartbreaking for my son and I to not be able to give something special back to our family members and friends in return, and to each other.

This particular year was feeling very grim financially. We had cut back on every expense possible–deep austerity measures were in full effect. The freelance work was hard to find and didn’t cover my basic expenses. I was deep into borrowing from my home equity line of credit, which at least had a low 4% interest rate, but borrowing when you can’t pay it back is a slippery slope. My credit cards, in contrast, were all high-interest rate cards, and using them felt akin to pouring gas on a simmering fire.

This was the month that I broke down and found my local food pantry. I had always told my son that we are not cutting back on expenses by going without food. When he hesitated to ask for something he wanted in the supermarket, I would tell him, “Don’t worry. Food is important. You can get it–we have to eat.” Still, I felt that dark winter closing in on me right along with the inability to pay my bills. The holiday school vacation was coming and I didn’t have the money to buy groceries, much less gifts, so I ignored my embarrassment, marked the day on my calendar, and drove to the food pantry located in a local church annex (a church! And here I should mention that many atheists celebrate Christmas, yule, winter solstice, or “Festivus” but it’s an American cultural thing for me, a habit formed by family tradition

Xmas tree

What’s really important? Certainly not missing lights on my yard-sale-obtained artificial holiday tree! The gifts underneath were from family and friends.

to still call it Christmas). I knocked on the designated door at the back of the church, only to find out they weren’t open that day. The woman peeking out from inside the gate said they were closed the fourth week of every month (it was Dec. 23rd). “Is it an emergency?” she asked. I didn’t know what to say. (“My whole life is an emergency” came to mind.) One look at my face and she opened the door wide. I sniffled and swiped away tears as she took my driver’s license, registered me as a family of two, and led me through the aisles.

As I was leaving with my three bags full of supplies, I passed another lady on her way in, carrying an enormous cardboard shipping box. A moment later, she also discovered the food pantry was closed, and turned around and ran after me. “Excuse me,” she called, hoisting the box, “The lady inside said to give this to you!” She came to my car and as she placed it in my hatch, I could see the shipping box contained a giant, pricey gift basket of holiday goodies–cheeses, cookies, nuts, candy, coffee and too many other goodies to list featuring festive holiday packaging. I burst into tears. The basket, still wrapped in cellophane, was topped off with a gigantic red and gold plaid bow neatly tied around the handle. I couldn’t believe it: it was the kind of gift basket I used to see in the office when I had a job, that vendors would send to our staff. “We don’t need it,” she said, “And we thought someone else might appreciate it much more.” I know she could see from the tears flowing from my eyes that it was certainly going to be appreciated. I hugged her and thanked her again and again. It was a while before I could see well enough to drive home.

Thank you again, ladies, wherever you are. Along with the goodness shown to us from family and friends, you should both know that our holidays were very special after all.

un*em*ployed adj. 1. Out of work; jobless. 2. Not being used; idle.

The author and her son strive to maintain an excellent sense of humor in dire times.

I’m baffled as to how to answer the question I get most often, “How long have you been unemployed?” My answer: define unemployed. It might be when my temp contract ended (Sept. 20, 2011). Or the last time I had a full-time salary with benefits (Nov. 2008). Or maybe the last time I had a full-time salaried position without benefits (Jan. 2011)? Or depending on how you look at it, I’ve never really stopped working–I manage to bring in income every month–somehow.

You might say my unemployment started December 8, 2006, right before the holidays, when I was laid off from my position as managing editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. My wonderful boss came into my wonderful office of this dream job that I had only had eight months to enjoy, and said I would have to go. Advertisers had pulled out in great big chunks from the magazine due to the poor economy and because of the transition to everything being free and lovely on the web. He didn’t have to say print magazines were suffering. Everyone in publishing knew that. With many other wonderful colleagues losing their jobs that day and over the next year (including that boss), this is the layoff marked most indelibly in my mind as my biggest career heartache to date. Usually work sucks and a job is a job, but my family and close friends know my short time at Sky&Tel was admittedly the last time I was thrilled about my job. It’s like a lover that you don’t have time to tire of. It dumped me much too soon and I still pine for it.

To get by while I looked for another job, and to minimize the appearance of down time on my resume, I started freelancing as Stellar Editorial Services. I set up shop at home, built a little website to promote myself, and started networking. Before long, Sky&Tel contacted me to finish some book editing work on a freelance basis, and I began to think, “Maybe I could really do this full-time, not just as a stop-gap.”

But freelance work was (still is) hard to find and the pay was dodgy. I started substitute teaching at my son’s school for $65/day–an income so low, the high-school kids were making more at their after-school jobs. It barely reduced the amount of my unemployment check.

The Sky&Tel layoff was my not first time being unemployed, but looking back, that’s when I feel like I lost my upwards trajectory–like so many of us. Nonetheless, within six months I had another full-time salaried position as senior editor at Laser Focus World magazine (my second time around at LFW). It was solid income, although not the peak of my career or responsibilities. I had been an editor in chief before. But getting paid fairly (there was a nice bonus that year) and being able to go home most nights at a reasonable hour was a fantastic thing, even if the company did start to pile on the work. “We can’t complain,” said a colleague. “At least we have a job!”  Times were tough, we knew…and about to get tougher. After only year and a half, I was laid off of that staff position. It was November 2008. It’s been four years since I lost my health benefits, 401K, and paid vacation days.

After that layoff [Note: it was also my second time being laid off from Laser Focus World–the first was in 2003], I was even more panicked because jobs were even harder to find. So I filed a claim for unemployment in New Hampshire, where Laser Focus World was located. The unemployment benefit rate in NH is nearly half of what it is in Massachusetts, where I live, partly due to a lower cost of living in NH. I might have moved to NH if I didn’t have a shared custody arrangement in Mass. Instead of collecting between $600-800/week in benefits, I was able to collect only $427/week, which included a $25 child allowance and a $25 federal supplement.

Within a month, Laser Focus World hired me to write one freelance article per month for a fraction of the pay I had been getting. Score! But it wasn’t enough. So I started subbing again–always an act of desperation. I was very worried about losing my car. I was worried I would not being able to pay the mortgage on my 2-BR condo. This is when people started asking me, “How do you DO it? How are you keeping the car and your home? What are you LIVING on?”

I could claim it was the obvious: I never missed a week of filing for unemployment. It’s not a big secret: file early and file often! From the week after you lose your job, until you have solid work, keep filing that claim. You don’t know how long you’ll be unemployed. I know people who felt guilty or embarrassed to collect while they were waiting tables. What many people don’t realize that in many states, you can earn up to 30% of your unemployment income before it reduces your benefits. If you earn more than that, it reduces your benefits dollar for dollar until you are earning 130% of your benefits. This enables you to s-t-r-e-t-c-h your benefits over time while you look for a job. Some weeks I made enough money from a freelance project and didn’t need to collect. But even if you only qualify for $50/week–file!

When the benefits run out, that’s when life gets a lot more complicated. That’s where ingenuity, extreme frugality, and the “I WILL NOT LOSE EVERYTHING” mindset must continue on its own, without unemployment compensation. That’s when we join the uncounted millions of underemployed.

Hello, world!

Welcome to my blog: Living on Air Without a Prayer!

My name is Valerie and I’m an unemployed single mom who also happens to be vegetarian and atheist. I live in a rural suburb of Massachusetts, where I waffle between feeling like “I’m not from heyah” (as I often say, in my poor imitation of the Southie accent), and feeling like I can never leave here. I really hate the cold, long, dark (SO

snowfall Oct. 30, 2011

Happy … Fall? Digging out the car the day before Halloween.

DARK!) New England winters, which can be six months long. I write this as the sun sets on the blanket of snow outside from the freak pre-Halloween snowstorm a few days ago. In many New England communities, the first snow day of no school actually occurred on Halloween this year (Oct. 31st). That was a first for me, even after 21 “yeahs of livin’ heyah”.

But too many ties-that-bind keep compelling me to stay here: all my friends who have become family, my son’s friends, my family history in this region, camp, and frankly, I have nowhere else to go at this point. My parents moved away from hometown of Reno, Nevada long ago to a small town in the Southeast. Besides, I have a home, and in this economy (and in my situation), I’m lucky to still own it (knock on wood). So every fall, I pull the blankets up further around my ears and settle in for another long winter. At least I like to ski (whenever I can find a discount ticket.)

Many times people have told me, “You should write a book,” which was very sweet of them. “What a nice person,” I’d think as I ignored them and went back to clicking around the Internet looking for work. I don’t have enough money to live on while I take the time to write a book. Being unemployed does not mean you have oodles of free time. Unemployment generally means you are frantically spending every moment trying to figure out how to live, how to pay your bills with nothing but air, and in my case, without a prayer.

But it was a nice idea: Write a Book. The suggestion comes up sometimes when I get to talking about the things I’m an expert on, like managing to keep your house and car and high credit score despite being broke and pathetic. I’m also the self-professed Queen of Job Loss (present tense), and oh yeah, the Queen of Internet Dating (past tense). “Now you’ll have time to write that book,” said my dear friend when I was laid off Sept. 20th for the eighth time (or more technically, my contract ended). She said this possibly out of desperation to get me off topic when no consolation can be forthcoming. I am a writer, and have made my living (or not) that way for over a decade, so it’s not that far a stretch, even if I was a science & technology journalist.

My biggest problem is that I need a real job and writing a book is no way to make a living. Sure, if you’re Stephen King, you’re rich enough to sequester yourself in your cottage in Maine and just keep cranking out the pages day after day. English professors are given six-month sabbaticals and grants to write their books. Even housewives or “Mr. Moms” might be given the security of a working spouse that enables a stable environment from which to sally forth toward dreams of writing their memoirs. But nobody wants to pay the unemployed single mom to write a book, and anyway, she doesn’t have the time.

However, I might have time to blog every now and then, I thought. I’ve blogged as part of my duties in a salaried position (see my FABULOUS work at, if they haven’t removed it yet). And I wouldn’t have to commit to doing it every day–just whenever I had time. I could entertain my friends and family, while building a following for when it’s time to really write that book.

For now, allow me to welcome you to my blog, where I will be henceforth posting PG-13 slices of my pathetic but somehow miraculous existence: Living on Air Without a Prayer. ♦