Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rewriting Titanic: “I’m the King of the World”

Remember Jack Dawson, Leonardo DiCaprio's character, in Titanic? Who can forget his iconic scene on the bow of the ship when he yells into the wind, "I'm the King of the World!"?

Now, I understand how Jack felt.

Why? Because big changes are happening rapidly in my life on the dole and rescue may be at hand. I'm ready to yell into the wind myself.

(Or, worst-case scenario, I might just be like Jack—some poor schmuck without a clue of how things end. But, I really, really, really don't think so.)

It has been pretty evident for the last 10 months, that my unemployment situation has the potential to turn into my own personal Titanic. The dole won't last forever and in spite of my all-out efforts, no lifesaving job offer is being tossed my way.

But, sometimes, when life throws a big, towering iceberg into your path, you have to trust yourself. Instead of sitting in a deck chair trusting that the S.O.S. signals will bring rescue, you take a leap of faith over the side of that sinking ship. Sure, flinging yourself into uncharted, unknown territory is full of trepidation, but passivity never saved anybody. It's better to jump clear of the disaster if you can and increase your chances of survival than to wait around to be sucked under by the behemoth on its way to the bottom of the sea.

Admittedly, you pray on the way overboard that your construction efforts have paid off; somewhere in the churning darkness below bobs that sturdy little lifeboat you've been quietly hammering away on.

Because, what we have here in this economy's big upheaval is a whole new paradigm. The old answers and solutions no longer work. There is no terra firma in sight. And, unless you take matters into your own hands, there never will be.

Let's rewind the past two months and let me tell you what I've been up to and why. While you've been reading blog posts about Mom's, Dad's and my friend's perspective about my life on the dole, I came to a decision. A tough decision, but a decision I feel great about.

But, first, a little background on the job search:

In February and early March, I experienced a tiny flurry of activity from recruiters and hiring companies, but all that activity led nowhere. Afterwards, all responses to my résumé and my networking activities totally screeched to a halt.


No activity whatsoever.

Not so much as one phone call.

I wanted to tap my modem and ask "Hello? Is this thing on? Is anybody out there?"

Still, I kept the faith by sending out résumés and networking, and I continued to attend a job-search group, meeting weekly with more than 100 highly-qualified job seekers like myself. I asked around. Everybody's experience was similar. While mid-level manufacturing candidates snagged a few jobs—mostly after being unemployed for a year or more—executives and management applicants had slammed into a job-search iceberg. The tallest and most massive one jarred the HR executives.

Everybody seemed to be in the same boat. (Titanic, anyone?)

Consider these stories:

I contacted my friend, Nina (remember, my well-connected HR executive friend?). Same story. No job. Trust me, if she's not getting a job with her experience, talent, personality and connections, nobody is getting a job.

I had lunch with my smart, talented, connected school friend, an out-of-work CEO. Same song, second verse.

A third desperate friend with four children and an unemployed wife found his formerly lucrative corporate career and his impressive talent could not even snag him a minimum-wage job.

I noticed an odd new trend. Yes, there were HR jobs, but all were for entry- and mid-level HR positions. Hundreds of job posts flooded the job boards: all for lower-level jobs at one-third to one-half my old salary. There were even a number of posts for unpaid HR internships.

What's this?

It appeared the executive management job market—HR or otherwise—was sinking fast.

Not one to let pride stand in the way, I immediately applied for any and all available jobs. Still, nary a nibble. Maybe application screeners figure I'll abandon ship when the economy improves. Or, maybe they look at my previous salary (a required field on many job applications), and it scares them away. Further, those jobs don't come with relocation packages and, at the proffered pay rates, I cannot afford to sell my home at a loss and move cross-country to any higher-cost-of-living area.

Meaning—at those rates, I can apply only for jobs in my area—but those remain few and far between. On any given week, I actually learn about (maybe) five HR jobs at any level in my area.

Then grim news from my professional association: there are 7,300 Georgia members who have registered their job searches with the association.


And, that doesn't include Georgia HR professionals searching without registering with the association and those from other states willing to come to Georgia for work

There are 7,300+ vying for those lower-lever three to five jobs I see each week?

You don't have to be a Vegas bookie to see those are stinkin' odds, and the jobseeker is on the wrong side of the winning hand.

Then, out of nowhere: a more chilling pattern among my job-seeking friends: Those with 10 or more years of experience rarely get phone calls, losing out to less-experienced candidates.

Reality: Employers don't want those of us who might be expensive.

Then, the final iceberg crashed violently into my job search, whiplashing me into undeniable reality: I saw articles—three in a single week—about companies no longer considering unemployed applicants. Apparently, companies don't care if an applicant has been unemployed a year, six months, a week or 15 minutes—we unemployeds are "damaged goods."

The band may be playing merrily and the deck chairs arranged in perfect order, but the outcome is now clear: my job search ship is not going to make it to safe harbor.

Will I ever work again?

Will my job search last years instead of months?

What happens when my savings runs out?

As if the job market isn't depressing enough, the tiny dole checks that keep us "undesirables" afloat each week may soon be torpedoed as well. Every time Congress debates the issue, more lawmakers get testier about unemployment benefits. Now, Congress has extended the benefits until November. Ironically, benefits are set to expire again at election time.

Reality check: no job, no prospects and little hope those tiny dole checks will continue for the promised time periods.

I realize there are many things I cannot change right now:

I cannot change this rotten economy.

I cannot improve this job market.

I cannot make a hiring company realize my worth.

And, neither can my job-seeking friends.

And then I had my personal Invictus
moment: There is much I cannot change, but I'm still "the master of my fate: the captain of my soul." I will no longer sit quietly in the deck chair trusting in the rules and waiting for an unknown somebody to rescue me.

I'm ready to do now what it takes to rescue myself.

Comments made to me before I left my previous job began to bob about in my mind:

"Why don't you start a business and hire us to work for you?" a co-worker suggested.

"I think you should start your own business," a business associate told me.

"When you get ready to start your own company, send me your business cards and I'll share them with my clients," another business associate offered.

"No, no," I replied each time it was suggested. "I need a 'real' job with benefits. I cannot let myself get distracted by thoughts of my own business. I need a regular full-time job."

Sure, I briefly thought about the self-employment possibility. It actually was Plan E on my list of options. I met with a CPA. I explored the possibilities. I networked with friends who own businesses. But, I wasn't serious about the idea, because I thought I couldn't afford to be.

It's not as if I am naïve about what goes into being a business owner. My parents have had their own businesses—three of them. I saw that for them it was an incredible amount of hard work and frequent stress. It's just not the easiest way to earn a living.

But, I've thought about it off and on for the last 20 years. I even took a entrepreneurial class in graduate school, but I put the dream behind me because—at that time—I didn't yet have the necessary business experience. It was an idea to save for the future.

I launched my traditional career. I had a good job with a great paycheck and benefits. You don't quit a good job to start your own business.



Right, you don't quit a job to start your own business.

But, what if the job quits you?

I realized it's now or never.

I made the decision. I will start my own business. That is the modern-day equivalent of my grandparents' Depression-era strategies.

What will it be?

How will I make it on my own?

Is there any way I can help my job-seeking friends at the same time?

Will it end in wild success or be a catastrophic disaster like Jack Dawson's Titanic experience?

I have no idea. I just know I'm committed to the idea and ready to make the sacrifices necessary to make it happen. Preparing for this in the last few weeks, I've worked harder than I've ever worked in my life while constructing my secret rescue vehicle. I have yet to receive a paycheck. But, thus far, I'm loving every minute.

This plan could indeed turn out to be my lifeboat—the one I'm building with my own two hands.

And, that's why, unlike poor, doomed Jack who never saw reality coming, I actually could turn out to be "King of the world." 

#  #  #
Just for Fun: Revisit Titanic's "King of the World" moment:

#  #  #
And for More Fun:

#  #  #

Photo credits:

Titanic Survivors:

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Own Personal Invictus: Then and Now

July 21, 2009 e-mail to friends: "It's finally official. I've been given the word I will no longer be employed after September 30 . . . In some ways, I'm relieved to be 'set free', but in other ways I do have concern about the future . . . Very mixed feelings . . . Quite frankly, it's a huge relief to just know what's going to happen. I have basically been in limbo since last November so just knowing—even if the news is not great—is better than limbo. Please keep me in your prayers as I figure out what's next in this adventure that is my life! It will be exciting . . . "

And, so went the e-mail sent to my closest friends one year ago today when I definitely knew my job was gone and my earnings—at least for the foreseeable future— would be the dole.

From November 2008, when I learned this outcome was likely, to the day the fateful news was finally delivered was torture. I was a wreck—a big ball of worry and stress—wondering if I would have a job and what the future held for me. All the while, as part of executive management, I was forced to plaster on a fake smile and play a key role in the operational transition I knew would lead to my own job loss.

Like my father, I've always been a planner.

Like my father, I don't like surprises.

Like my father, I like to know what will happen next.

In those hectic days when I had a career, my friends used to laugh when I penciled in "spontaneous times" on my daily planner. "We'll meet at 6 PM," I used to say. "And, we'll be spontaneous until 11 PM, and casual clothes will be required." (And, no, I'm not kidding. I have actually said this.)

I mean it when I say I am a planner. Seriously.

Being unemployed at all was not in my plan. No way.
Being unemployed for 10 months with no end in sight? Inconceivable.

It's been 10 long months since my final work day and—more importantly—my final paycheck.

At times the uncertainty has been overwhelming.

There've been bleak moments, too: when appliances died; when my 2009 tax return dictated paying twice as much in taxes as the entirety of my 2010 dole checks; and when I received rejection e-mails turning me down for jobs for which I knew I was a perfect fit.

But, bleakness has been the rare exception rather than the rule.

Before living on the dole, I prided myself on being a little cynical and slightly cranky. Of all the things that I've learned during this time, the thing that has surprised me the most is that—dare I say it?—I'm an optimist. Yes, after a lifetime of being told how like my father I am, I have discovered in myself that undeniable bit of my mother: optimism. Who would have thought it?

Could it be that I'm turning into the person I used to be in my pre-employment days? The pre-career days before I became a stressed-out mess trapped in an office prison and tasked with handling other people's problems, mismanagement and bad judgment?

And, the farther away I get from one of my biggest life crises to-date, I realize I'm daily becoming even more optimistic and excited about what my future may hold—in spite of all the job search futility, dole checks, broken appliances and frequent setbacks that have happened in the past 10 months.

With each passing day, I see a clearer reflection of the woman who emerged from the shadow of that stressed-out employee who received that bad news on July 21, 2009. I feel my "unconquerable soul" marching bravely—and, dare I say it, happily—into the unknown. 

And, it actually feels these days as if I'm on the brink of reclaiming my life. Not the structured (and strictured) one I had before but a better one: a life purposely shaped by me instead of one shaped by others around me.

Yes, I have experienced my own personal Invictus, learning that, indeed, I must be "master of my own fate":


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
—William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)
# # #

Photo credits:
Ship in Storm:
Sea Storm:,_Claude_Joseph_-_A_Seastorm_-_1752.jpg
Ship Captain:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

That’s a Lovely Dress You’re Wearing, Miss Scarlett

I have a hard time accepting help.

No, I mean, I really, really have a hard time accepting help. 

Like Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll flounce grandly about in drapery dresses before letting anybody guess I need help.

All my life I’ve helped people. Maybe it’s in my DNA—a personality trait inherited from altruistic forebears. Once, I took a personality assessment and was nearly off the charts for helping others. It isn’t just what I do; it’s who I am.

My family was a strong influence. My grandfather worked multiple jobs during the Depression to support five families. My grandmother visited the sick and cooked for others even as she was dying of cancer. My parents are also givers and helpers.

Until I started living on the dole, I didn’t think much about my volunteerism or donations. I did for others because helping makes me happy.

Now, I’m on the dole. There’s not much to share. I can’t give money because I have none. In short, my charitable usefulness is diminished. Instead, I find myself—to my horror—on the receiving end of help—a peculiar situation indeed.

And, I still do not, repeat, do not, like it.

In recent weeks you’ve read my parents’ take on my situation. Here’s mine:

My “Super” Dad was always the first to look over broken stuff at my house, but in the old days when I had money, if it required more than a simple fix, I would tell him I would call the plumber, carpenter, electrician or other repairman. Mostly, he advised and I’d take it from there.

Yet, last December, it troubled me to watch my 68-year old father with bum knees and arthritic hips down on the cold garage floor trying to repair my dryer—for days. I wanted to say, “Don’t bother with it. I’ll call the repairman.” Instead, I bit back my words and let him work while I cooked him dinner. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could offer.

Since my late twenties, my parents and I have gone to dinner “Dutch treat.” However, now that I’m on the dole, they insist on paying. At first, we’d squabble about the bill;  I told them I could still pay my way if we went out only occasionally.

More than once, Mom said, “Stop being silly. We want to see you, and we’re perfectly capable of paying. You can take us out when you get a job.”

Each time I accepted their generosity I was uncomfortable. Still, I reasoned  I would have a new job soon; my freeloader status was only temporary.

But, the thing about parents is how wily they are. To avoid the who’s-paying hassle, Mom mostly suggests a restaurant farther away. She knows I’ll drive us in my fuel-efficient car, and I won’t make a fuss about the bill if I drive.

“We’ll get this,” she says as she grabs the check. “It makes up for the gas.”

I’ve figured out that trick. Now when we eat out, I don’t argue because I understand it’s important to them to do this. It makes them feel as if they’re doing something useful. Yet, I can’t help who I am; Mom told me yesterday that I still wince as though I’m about to be hit every time the server asks if it will separate bills or all on one.

And my parents aren’t the only ones accommodating my circumstances. When my college roommate (last week’s guest blogger), told me not to buy her eight-year-old son a Christmas present, I felt awful. Still, I appreciated her understanding . She’s been a supportive friend during my joblessness.

The list of those who have given to me goes on and on. Here are a few examples:

Mom’s longtime friend suggested that Mom and I join her and her daughter for a home-cooked lunch at her house.

A friend about to be married asked if, to avoid the expense of a bridesmaid gown, I’d prefer keeping the guest book. (I did.)

Another friend suggested dinner with a “buy-one-get-one-free” coupon. Then she grabbed the check, telling me she was the “buy one” and I was the “free one”.

A CPA friend bought my lunch—saying I could reciprocate when I found work—and put me in touch with other contacts I could call to try to network some contract work.

A business contact became a friend as she encouraged me, took me to networking events, offered free use of her copier and office space, and in general, made my job search easier.

I’m blessed with people who care. But, I’m still me, and I can’t shake that tendency to minimize my challenges by saying with a smile: “Well, it’s tough, but I’ll get through it.”

Maybe I really do suffer from Scarlett O’Hara Syndrome—the affliction that causes strong women to sew drapes into dresses just to appear to be keeping it all together in tough circumstances. Even if our bellies are filled with shriveled radishes, we maintain the illusion that all is well and thanks-so-much-but-I-don’t-need-any-help.

I’m not sure if I will ever be 100 percent comfortable receiving help. Hugs, encouragement and emotional support are easiest to accept. Work, money and restaurant meals are another matter. But I am learning. I really am.

I keep telling myself others need to help—just as I needed to help back when I had money.

When I won’t accept help, am I withholding myself from them?

Is it selfish to be unwilling to be emotionally vulnerable enough to accept help?

Is it arrogant?

Am I depriving them of the opportunity to feel good about themselves?

Is it just another way of saying, “I’m awesome. Let me be the strong one. Let me be your benefactor, but you can never be mine”? 

I’m learning it’s important to receive the love, understanding, support and help that  friends and family want to share. It makes me human. And, maybe that’s the hardest part of all.

Still, in the end, even tough Miss Scarlett knew where to go for help: “What is there to do? What is there that matters? . . . Home. I'll go home.”

And, even if it’s hard to accept help, home is what I want, too. Home is not a geographical place—it’s my family and friends. It’s their love. It’s where I keep everything that matters most to me.

#  #  #
Just for Fun: Check Out Miss Scarlett’s Drapery Dress in Gone With the Wind:

#  #  #
And For Even More Fun: Check Out Carol Burnett in “Went with the Wind, Part 2”:
#  #  #
And, a Bit More Fun:

# # #
Photos courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (public domain)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What Do You Say to a Friend?

By Guest Blogger: "Martha," Ariel's college roommate and close friend
What do you say to a single friend you've known for more than 20 years when she has lost her job—her only source of income? What do you say to that same unemployed friend who has always been employed and has worked her way up to a great job? What do you tell that friend who had her foot poised on the next rung of the corporate ladder?
"It will be okay. . ."
"God has a plan. . ."
"It could be the best thing that ever happened to you. . ."

"God uses these times to test our faith and teach us. . ."
"Just think how God will help you grow through this experience. . ."

"Just be glad you knew in advance so that you could plan ahead for the change in income. . ."
After Ariel lost her job, I struggled with what to say that would ease the blow and help and support her as she faced uncertain days. All the phrases above sounded pretty cliché and didn't seem to be appropriate (even though I still said many of them, I'm ashamed to say).
Now, upon reflection, I realize that I should have handled things differently. After some pretty devastating personal events in my own life (not job related), I heard some of the same clichés from both friends and family.


I wonder now if Ariel secretly wanted to yell any of those heart-wrenching words at me each time we hung up the phone. If so, I can only ask her forgiveness.

I wish I had just said, "No, it's not OK. It's hard. You'll have to struggle. I don't know what to do to help. But, I will be here for you."
Sometimes, I'm learning that simple honesty and a willingness to listen and be leaned on are the best ways to help a friend who needs you.

As the months have passed since Ariel's job loss, I have noticed some differences in our relationship. In the past, because of her busy work schedule, I had to make appointments just to talk with Ariel. (No, I'm not kidding). We would email several times to find a suitable time for both of us and finally connect by phone. And, always, as we were talking, Ariel was on her way to or from work, to or from meetings. Now, I can expect to find Ariel at home almost any time I call. I still have to be careful of my timing in case there is a phone interview on the calendar, but at least I know where she is.
It's also interesting how our topics of conversation have changed. We still share personal things (not to be mentioned here), but now, instead of talking about the latest trendy restaurants that Ariel has tried, she is sharing recipes with me and chattering excitedly about her herb garden and homegrown tomatoes that will be ready soon. It seems that in her efforts to save money during these lean financial times, Ariel has become quite a good cook and gardener.

Instead of visiting and heading to a pricey restaurant for lunch, we choose homemade pizza topped with herbs from Ariel's garden and fresh vegetables from a local farmer's market. My son had no complaints, by the way, and LOVED Ariel's pizza that she served when we last visited.

(Food has always been an important "ingredient" in my relationship with Ariel. When we first met, we bonded over homemade goodies sent to us by our moms during final exam week at college. All our friends were still studying, but finals were over for both of us. There we were with care packages filled with homemade pound cake, cookies, bread and other goodies. Ordered out of our rooms by our (then) roommates who had to study, we met in the hallway each holding our care packages, found a place to sit and began to dig in. And, now, more than 20 years later, we still enjoy being together and eating yummy food.)

Any friend who can stay friends with me for more than 20 years is someone worth keeping. Ariel is a friend like that. I fully expect our friendship to last many more years. So, Ariel, the best I can tell you is that this time in your life right now is hard. I know you are hurting and confused. But, God heals in HIS time, and works through events to make us more like Christ. This is often a very long and painful process. It's just plain hard when you're going through it. But, God is there. Trust that HE cares and that HE won't let you down.

And most of all . . .
I didn't say it in the beginning, but I want to say it now, "No, it's not OK. It's hard. You'll have to struggle. I don't know what to do to help. But, I will be here for you."

# # #

Photo Courtesy of: (Note: Not Ariel and Martha)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

“Super” Dad to the Rescue

By Guest Blogger: Ariel's Dad

Last time Ariel asked her mother to write about being a supportive parent to an out-of-work adult child. This time she's asked me to give the father's point of view.

As my wife said, parents want to fix things. Like most men, I prefer problem-solving action to hours chewing on a problem and analyzing it. I like things nailed down. Uncertainty is not happy territory for me. I like to know.

My career has always revolved around numbers. I like numbers. They're predictable, dependable, unchanging. You go to bed knowing that two plus two equals four; you get up in the morning and two plus two still equals four. Certainty: I like it.

Admittedly, when it comes to careers, I'm a dinosaur. I went to work for the federal government; 35 years later, I retired. I had different jobs and titles over those 35 years, but I got up every morning knowing I had a job. Now, every month when my retirement check arrives, it is further proof of all that was good about "the way things used to be."

In fact, after my federal government career, I took up a new one in county government. I've now worked 13 years in that capacity, with another retirement pension soon to come my way. Boring? Maybe to some people, but I like certainty.

Ironically, Ariel and I accepted our jobs at approximately the same time. Now, at age 68, I still have mine, and she is scrambling to find one. It just doesn't make sense to me.

These days people no longer have what I had: a secure job (two, in fact) with a pension—a job you can keep until retirement. Ariel, who knows all about human resources stuff, tells me that in the future most people will have multiple careers in their working lifetime—not multiple jobs, but totally new careers. I can't even imagine such a thing.

Accordingly, I had no idea how to help Ariel when she lost her job. At first, I searched job listings, but I soon learned two things. First, she is quite computer savvy and knew all about RSS feeds and how to have them delivered to her electronic inbox. No matter what I turned up, she had it first. Second, I didn't seem to do well at scouting job leads. Both Ariel and her mother have master's degrees in human resources and sometimes when I'd find what I thought was the perfect HR job, they'd patiently deconstruct the listing for me, explaining to me how it was for a completely different kind of job than what Ariel is qualified for or seeking even if the title sounded similar. Finally, in the interest of family harmony, I gave up sending her job listings.

For me, giving up that role as job listing provider meant relinquishing my role as the Daddy who fixed things. Now, I was just the guy who couldn't even understand the job market. To tell the truth, when, Ariel and her mother start slinging HR jargon back and forth during our daily phone conversations, I just quietly hang up the phone and go outside and listen to the birds. Their tweets and trills make about as much sense.

Then one day, Ariel's clothes dryer stopped working. Not having money to repair it, she called and asked if I could help. In December, I spent several hours lying on the cold concrete garage floor of her laundry area trying to repair it. I thought I had it fixed, only to find that it stopped again. I tried once more—more hours on the garage floor. It was definitely broken. She bought a clothesline and strung it up in her garage. That's all we could do.

As the months went by, more household items have broken. Each time Ariel calls and most of the time I've been able to help. I may not understand "HR-speak", but I know wrenches and shut-off valves and circuit breakers and car noises. I know a little about plumbing and air conditioning and mechanical things, and I can fix a leaky toilet as well as the next guy.

Consequently, when something jams or freezes up or breaks—which seems to be more often than I'd have thought possible—Ariel calls me, and I do what I can. When my wife answers the phone on these occasions, Ariel always says, "I need to speak to the 'Super'." By this, she means the building superintendent, or in other words: me.

It's like my wife told you last time: we encourage Ariel, support her, hug her, and do all that feel-good stuff, but sometimes when you're Daddy, you just actively need to do something. A man just feels more useful changing the outcome—and "saving the day". I leave the job hunts to them, but I keep my cordless drill and screwdriver charged and ready to go. This I can do.

Besides, there are some perks. When I arrive to repair something Ariel rewards me with a home-cooked meal. Of course, she invites her mother, too, who deserves rewards for her hard work as well. And, since Ariel has more time to shop for the freshest ingredients and to cook meals from scratch, this has turned into a pretty nice perk.

To be honest, I like taking an active role and knowing I can occasionally do things to make Ariel's life easier during this stressful time.

Besides, it's not half bad being the Dad whose grown-up daughter still calls him "Super".

#   #   #
Photos Courtesy of:
Man on Computer (note: not Ariel's Dad):
Super Dad: