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The great ebb and flow of the marketplace has recently forced me to try to convince myself of the benefits of being unemployed.
Some of those benefits are obvious, and I could have anticipated them even before a supervisor tapped me on the shoulder and said he needed to talk to me about something. ("Do you have a minute?" he asked. What would have happened if I'd said no, that I was too busy?)
That's an obvious one. There was a character in the Snuffy Smith cartoon strip of many years ago who retired but would still get up at the crack of dawn and go down to the mill every morning just so he could thumb his nose at the place as the get-to-work whistle blew. That was an amusing strip, and I saved it for years. But I wouldn't want to take the bus downtown every weekday just to emulate that cartoon character, even if my old workplace had a whistle and even if I had retired voluntarily. So I've turned off the alarm.
(Oh, you ask, but what if you oversleep and waste away the hours you should be spending looking for another job? That hasn't been a problem. The constant sense of dread wakes me up in plenty of time — usually well before the crack of dawn.)
Back in the glorious paycheck days, I used to think about telling them I'd just lost my job. Actually, sometimes I really did tell them that, because I'm a cowardly kinda guy and it's easier to fib than to be firm. Now I don't have to fib. When I tell them I'm unemployed, they hang up or back away quickly, terrified of infection by the job-loss virus. And they seem to have crossed me off those secret lists they hand around. It's true that some of one's friends back away with the same look of fear in their eyes, but I'm sure that's unconscious.
I'm hoping to get taken off the snail-mail solicitation lists, too. From time to time, for example, I get invited to contribute to the Republican National Committee. Yeah, sure. Try me again after I've developed Alzheimer's. Throwing solicitations of that sort away was always easy. But it was hard and induced considerable guilt to throw away unanswered solicitations from organizations I support philosophically. Sometimes you're just strapped for cash, you know? Even with a regular paycheck coming in. I'd feel terrible guilt as I tore up the good-guy solicitations and dropped them in the trash, and I'd tell myself that at least if I lost my job, I'd have an acceptable excuse and wouldn't feel guilty. And I was right! Actually, I still feel guilty, but I tell myself that I'll resume making contributions to those worthy outfits as soon as I have a regular paycheck again.
But here are some benefits of being unemployed that I did not anticipate.
My wife and I were close before, but we've been drawn even closer by a sense of common striving and the extra time we're spending together. A lot of that extra time is spent worrying together, fretting together, hyperventilating together — but together!
I used to obsess over long-range planning. Not that I did any long-range planning; I just obsessed over not doing it. And I used to spend too much time mulling over — even obsessing over — the past. Or at least obsessing over the fact that I was mulling over it so much. You should live in the present, I would tell myself. Now I'm doing just that. The present is intensely with me. I'm obsessing over it.
They've always been around, and they're an amoral, revolting bunch. I'm no kid, I'm no naif, I know all of that.
Nonetheless, I've been surprised at just what low reptiles some of them are. There are companies that post fake job ads so that, brimming with hope and desperation, you'll send them your resume. Then they call you, ask you to come to their office for an interview. Of course you go, dressed in your best interview clothes. The office is sumptuous. The people are well dressed. The pitch is slick. Give us lots of money, and we'll show you how to find the high-paying hidden jobs, the ones that are never advertised, the positions only we know about.
If you do fall for that pitch, you'll only spend money you can't afford to spend, you'll almost certainly never get a job through them, and they, the piles of excrement in human shape, are the only ones who will benefit. How do you think they can afford those offices?
These people are rotten enough to be members of George W. Bush's cabinet. Encountering them has taught me something about the depths of human nature. I guess that qualifies as a benefit of being unemployed.
It's still growing!
Well, of course it is, you say. Let me explain that, on an emotional, irrational level, I still feel relieved every morning when I realize that I still need to shave.
It's still growing! Despite the way I frequently feel, I haven't really been unmanned.
Our house was so cluttered!
We had dangerously outdated canned foods in kitchen cabinets. It just sat there taking up space and making the house look smaller, the way clutter does. Now we're coming up with inventive ways of combining stuff that we would once never have thought combinable. Why, back then we might even have thrown it out. (Eventually.)
We've rediscovered old hotel-sized bottles of shampoo and bars of soap that we stashed away and forgot about long ago. (Golly, where did those come from?) Now we're using those up instead of actually paying for bars of soap or bottles of shampoo.
And how about all those CDs that we never have liked and always wondered what possessed us to buy, let alone to keep? Well, that's what the used-CD store is for! (Oops. They've gone out of business.)
We have clothes we know we'll never wear again and should have gotten rid of long ago. How fortunate that we didn't! Why, you can get money for that stuff at a thrift store! A tiny amount that we might once have thought not worth bothering with, but our standards have changed. Round 'em up, move 'em out, Rawhide!
Now we're gaining space in the cabinets and in the closets and in the bookcases and even in the refrigerator. Some day, that space could come in handy. Some day, when we can afford to buy things again.
We actually have two refrigerators in our kitchen, a big one and a small one. (The reasons are historical and trivial.) Now we've reached the point where we could easily get by with just the big one. Soon, we'll be able to manage with just the small one. When we reach that point, perhaps we'll sell the big one, assuming anyone would be so foolish as to buy it. (It wasn't a great refrigerator even when it was new.) That will give us extra space in the kitchen, but more to the point, it will make it easier to move to smaller quarters, if it comes to that. Such as under a highway viaduct. Do they have power outlets there? I suppose not. It's not something I used to think about all that often.
The kitchen cabinets are built in, so we'll have to leave those behind.
We have been cured of the sin of snobbery.
It was very minor snobbery, really. It was limited to the conviction that name-brand items are superior to those sold under supermarket house brands. Oh, sure, sometimes we'd buy the house brands out of some sort of general moral conviction that we ought to save money. And then we'd gradually drift back to the name brands because . . . well, we just did. But, say, that house-brand food tastes pretty good! And the house-brand toilet paper, er, holds up better under use! And the house-brand cans stack better! And the labels are spiffier! Yes, sir, solid values, suitable for normal daily use. Or every-other-day use, if you feel the need to make the item last a bit longer.
Are you a fan of the television show Smallville? We sure are.
Although there are a few details about the show that keep bothering me.
How do the desperately cash-strapped Kents keep that farm running? They have no employees. 'Course not. Can't afford 'em. Wouldn't need 'em, either, if Clark did all the work with his superspeed and superstrength instead of spending his time mooning after Lana Lang and otherwise engaging in superteen superangst. Pa Kent's no use. He spends his time vaguely and ineffectually tinkering with odd bits of farm equipment. That's why Ma Kent had to get help from her nasty father and go to work for the remarkably evil and devious Lionel Luthor. I also wonder if I really did once glimpse snow-capped peaks in the background in, er, Kansas.
But I digress.
What really bothers me about the Kents is that despite their constant worrying about money, and even though their house seems to be nicely designed to let in lots of sunlight (in Kansas . . . ), nonetheless during the middle of the day they seem to keep every single electric light in the place turned on!
(I also wonder if perhaps this is a terrible cultural side-effect of that evil socialistic institution, the Rural Electrification Administration, but I'm digressing again.)
People don't need that much light. Especially not people who are worried about money.
We decided to start taking our showers in the dark. Cool showers, of course. Fortunately, it's still late summer when I'm writing this, so the cool water feels nice and there's sunlight coming in through the bathroom window. Are you paying attention, Kents?
Oh, and say, speaking of it being summer, we're learning that we don't really need the air conditioning quite as desperately as we used to think we did. This winter, we'll try to make the same discovery about heat.
Speaking of things you don't need, what about that tub of buttered popcorn at the movies? Or the movie itself? The movie will be out on DVD soon enough — and maybe when that time comes you'll still be able to afford to buy a DVD and you'll still own a DVD player. And a TV set. And a living room. And if you don't still own all of those things, you certainly won't be wasting time thinking about missing that dumb movie. On the negative side, should you eventually find yourself without a living room or a kitchen, the idea of that popcorn — of its smell, of its taste, of its essential fillingness — will start to affect you powerfully. Even without butter.
We both talked for years about trying to lose some weight. As you will have guessed from the preceding paragraph, we're finally doing it. If I hadn't lost my job, we'd still both be doing nothing more than talking about it. I might soon be able to get into those older Dockers and jeans covered with dust in the closet. Not all clutter is bad.
And exercising more. That's something else I always knew I should do. Time, time, there was never enough time! But now at last there is enough time. I really do intend to start exercising lots and lots just as soon as my stomach acid settles down again.
It's really all a matter of will power, isn't it? Thanks to being unemployed, I've developed more will power. I've become very good at maintaining my self-control and even smiling when people ask me if I'm taking advantage of all this time off by relaxing and enjoying myself and getting a lot of writing done. Well, yeah, I do keep tinkering with my resume. (Go read it! Click here!)
I never really expected that being unemployed would give me a deeper understanding of our wonderful capitalist — I'm sorry, I mean Free Enterprise Hurrah! system. Or the FEH, as its friends call it.
For example, I have a much clearer understanding of what a true living wage is, what's really necessary for two people to survive on. The amount is certainly less than I used to think it was. I may even learn to adjust my estimate downward even more in the future. Of course, I'm talking about surviving on, not living happily on.
That's what you might call the practical, personal-finances aspect of the FEH. There's also the theoretical side. I had that all wrong, as well.
I actually thought — and this is really silly when you consider that I've been working in the FEH for nigh on to a thousand years and so should know better — that companies feel the same sense of obligation and duty toward their employees that they insist their employees should feel toward them. If you contribute to your company's success and help it to advance its interests and financial health, often making sacrifices of your own time to do so, then your company will reciprocate by making sacrifices in bad times to take care of you by not depriving you of your paycheck and benefits. That's the way I thought it worked.
Where in the world did I get that idea? Now I finally understand — and I'm so much the better man and citizen for the understanding — that the true, indeed the only, obligation any company's top management has is to its Board of Directors and major shareholders. And of course to the continued employment of its top managers. My appreciation for the wonderfulness of the FEH can only be deepened by this knowledge, even if I am now forced to gaze upon that wonderfulness from a cold and comfortless place outside the warmth and safety of its shelter.
But perhaps the greatest benefit of being unemployed is this. I now feel absolutely free to despise George W. Bush. Oh, of course I despised him before I lost my job. But now I know I'm not alone.
|*||Which I was when I wrote this essay in 2003. Fortunately, that painful and frightening period ended, and I found work. Unfortunately, that period of employment also ended when I was laid off again. Then I found work again. Then I was laid off again. Then . . . For more details, please see The Day Job.|