2016: My year of unemployment

It’s been a running theme that 2016 was just a horrible, steaming, diaper blister of a year. All the celebrity deaths, plus the election of probably the worst presidential candidate ever (sorry if you’re surprised that I’m not a fan), certainly made it feel like worst year ever. But beyond that, I also spent more than half the year without a job.

In early April, after about six months at my new job, I was called into a conference room and let go. I don’t hold any grudges, they had recently lost their largest client and had not been able to make up the income. To be honest, I had started to feel like I didn’t have the passion for the job that I should.

But what did make it sting is the fact that I took this job because I had survived countless layoffs in my journalism career and had decided to get out before I was inevitably cut. I had witnessed too many coworkers being shown the door in their mid-50s, so decided to walk away in my mid-30s before it could happen to me. Then I had it happen six months into my new job.

I got a month’s severance and insurance, plus the promise of whatever assistance they could provide in finding new work. That seemed to conflict a bit with the one-year non-compete clause that was also being enforced, but whatever. I went to pick up my kids, and when they ran up to hug me I remembered that I’m more than just my job.

At the end of my first week without a job, Ava ended up in the hospital, which gave me an immediate purpose. Plus, a lot of friends sent me job suggestions, so I spent my time revising my resume and applying for a few jobs. Maybe I would find something before my unemployment ran out. I could end up ahead in all this!

But not really.

I’m not sure how many jobs I ended up applying for, but it was a lot. If I had to guess, around 60. Some seemed like they could be “Dream” jobs, some seemed like something I would be OK doing to pay the bills. Either way, I heard “No” a lot. I’m not going to lie, it got a bit disheartening. I know pick up artists use the “quantity over quality approach,” thinking it doesn’t matter how many times you hear “no” as long as you eventually hear “yes,” but 1: those are horrible people with dead souls who are incapable of human feelings and 2: you can only hear “While you were very qualified, we decided to go with another applicant” so many times before you start to doubt your worth.

I couldn’t even get an email response from a former employer about an open position at the Des Moines Register. I figured I would at least get a lunch out of the deal to catch up, but no. I can’t lie, that one hurt.

Luckily, I had 26 weeks of unemployment to fall back on, in addition to my four weeks of severance. I’d guess unemployment to be about half of my regular take gross pay, but considering things like insurance and 401K contributions, it worked out to be about 3/4 of my net pay. My parents offered to chip in a bit of money each month, and Berkleigh added me to her insurance. So for a bit, it felt like I was treading water, rather than outright drowning.

So what did I do? Well, my 365 Iowa Beers project kicked off around the same time I was laid off. I did have some concern about launching a drinking project around the same time I became unemployed, but I’ll write more about those concerns in another post. I started seeking out some freelance work, finding some things I was comfortable with, like writing about music and startups, and some I was less comfortable with, like rewriting a seed catalog. That did not go well.

I also started walking regularly, which I’ve also written about. I had gained some weight from the regular sitting and snacking at my last job, so after dropping the kids off at daycare, I would walk trails or through the malls. I regularly walked downtown, or to the Iowa Tap Room for a flight of Iowa beers. It seemed like it would be good exercise, and a way to keep me from moping around the house.

I also got back into video gaming, working my way through a few Xbox 360 games in my backlog, as well as finally completing Super Mario Galaxy 2 for the Wii, which I had started about five years ago. Kids had sapped most of my gaming free time, but after 15 years of working, I figured I had earned some day gaming as long as I kept looking for work.

But I also started to feel isolated. I would drop the kids off, then walk alone, write alone, eat alone, watch movies alone and drink alone. I don’t mean that last part to sound as ominous as it did. Interviews for freelancing became a rare opportunity for outside interactions. My brother suffered a back injury and moved back to Iowa for a few months of rehab, giving me someone I knew would be around to spend some time with.

After years of interviewing multiple people on a daily basis, YouTube videos and Podcasts started to feel like my main link to the outside world between 9 am and 5 pm. With the political season ramping up, I started refreshing fivethirtyeight.com multiple times a day in the hopes of a non-horror clown getting the Republican nomination, and after he secured the nomination, for reassurance that he wouldn’t win the presidency. Ugh, thanks a lot, Nate Silver.

Twenty six weeks of unemployment sounds like a lot, but my October I realized my situation was getting dire. I had lined up what amounted to about a week of freelance gigs every month. If I was single and living in my old apartment, it probably would have kept my rent paid and some ramen in my belly. But with a mortgage and kids, I was doomed. Doomed! DOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMEEEEED!

I started to consider my options. I had waited tables in college, and considered sending out a few “Hello Des Moines restaurant owner, I wrote several nice articles about your establishment. Would you consider giving me a job?” emails.

I have nothing but respect for servers, but I still occasionally have stress dreams about my time in the industry. It would also mean working evenings and weekends and that was one of the big reasons I walked away from my job as a music writer. On the other hand, I’ve got to provide for my kids.

Then it came, the day of my last unemployment payment. That morning, I started making a list of restaurant owners and managers I would contact the following Monday morning. Maybe they would let me work lunches, giving me evenings free for family time and continuing my freelance career.

But at 4:30 that day, I got a call with a job offer. The timing just seemed a little too perfect. Oddly, it wasn’t a position I had applied for through a job site, but rather an introduction the woman who cuts my hair had set up with one of her other clients. After months of trying, it all came down to a last-minute save. I felt like the Chicago Cubs of providing for my family.

My new job is largely unlike anything I’ve ever done, other than some random social media and PR components. But after years of being very tied into a scene through my journalism career, and then going into a marketing job with no public interaction, I knew it was something I missed. My new job gives me a chance to help my community and be connected with people. I think it will let me do some good, and expand my horizons.

I owe my wife and family a big thank you for sticking with me through all this. Without their support around “no” number 30 or so I probably would have given up hope and sunk into a stupor of beer, YouTube and Mario games. I know this year was tough for her, probably even harder than it was for me. So much of the weight fell on her shoulders, but she never made me feel like it was my fault. They all knew I was trying, and gave me the motivation to not give up.

2016 was hard, but I’m hoping I’ve paid my dues for a better 2017. And I’m going to keep making a little time for video games, because sometimes a working man just needs to smash some turtles and steal a few cars.

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