Twelve months into looking for a job I received a compliment I never expected. “Tom, I know you’re going through some hard times, and I just have to say that I’m impressed with your style.” (Paraphrased because I was surprised when I heard it.) Evidently, I am stylishly unemployed. The thought came to mind again as I sat with some friends outside the South Whidbey Commons in Langley. The three of us looked like an image from a brochure for early retirement. Most folks walking by would have no idea that we were all struggling to rebuild our financial lives. Most folks may have missed the fact that only one of us had a cup of tea. The smiles and laughter created a reality and a mirage.
For those just recently walking into my story, there’s a quick update back in my post: My Jobs Report Month 11. Since then I’ve had two interviews. That makes a total of four in about a year, only one of which was for a full time position. The recent flurry is appreciated. I know I didn’t get three of the four, and I suspect the silence from the fourth is not a good sign. And yet, each interview is the start of a relationship that might lead to something even better. Stay tuned. I guess you are because you’re here. So, let’s continue with style.
Allow me to be clear. If someone is complimenting my style they aren’t talking about fancy clothes, fine wines, or expensive adventures. I describe my clothes as bland, because beige goes with everything and I don’t have to guess about what goes with what. I do have some finer wines, thank you Whidbey Island Winery, and most of those bottles are from at least a year ago. I switched to box wines when I was hit by my Triple Whammy. As for expensive adventures, I did walk across Scotland back in the fall of 2010, which doubled my living expenses for three weeks. Since then my hiking boots have been used as work boots and even my backpacks are getting dusty because of the price of gas. My style is my attitude. Optimism and positivism are their own brand of fashion.
The friends who sat with me had that attitude and are also handsome (him) and beautiful (her). The tourists probably saw three adults laughing and energetically talking and relaxing on a gorgeous summer day. We were there to figure out how to get through financial strife, how to rebuild or redefine our lives, and to compare notes on opportunities or to discover opportunities that we could create. Some of the laughter came from marveling at how quickly millions can evaporate and come back. Some of the laughter came from the ludicrous disconnects between what people have to offer and what they can be paid for. Engineers direct traffic on ferry boats. Consultants stack firewood. Sculptors lay brick.
Society had visual images of the unemployed. There should be some nervousness in the demeanor. The clothes should be a bit threadbare. Resumes and business cards are always in hand. At the worst, it all degrades to standing at intersections with a cardboard sign or sleeping under a bridge.
Most unemployed folks I know look completely normal. There is no external hint that this person or that is unemployed, unless they decide to make it obvious somehow. If they dressed in style, they still do. I’d like to say that if they laughed with friends they still do, but that isn’t the case. Some do. Some don’t. Some maintain a positive attitude, but some were too strong for too long and have pulled back from public view. Some of them don’t even answer the phone anymore. I know one ex-professional who is cheery and fun until two sentences into any conversation about jobs at which point he quickly turns and walks away. Up until then he looked like any other home owner working on his project.
The reality for many is a mix. Fiorella Barbara was open and honest enough to write this poem and allow me to post it here.
Do you know how hard it is always to look strong,…
while inside you are falling apart?
Do you know how hard it is to look beautiful,
while inside you are feeling empty?…
Do you know how hard it is to look confident,
while you are going insane on the inside?
Do you know the price of wearing the mask and playing the part?
Tears… bitter tears… and the knowledge that you are alone in the battle.
~ Fiorella Barbara
The reason we get together is partly to share possibilities, but mostly it is to assure each other that we aren’t alone in the battle. To quote one of my favorite authors, “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy is increased . . .” – Spider Robinson
I’m glad that I live a frugal and simple life. It is easier to maintain a sense of sanity and self because the things that are in my life are based on my values, not those of some advertiser or peer group. Seeing such a life from economic highs and lows has been valuable. (Hmm, can I get paid for that?) Things impose demands, and living a simple, frugal life means having few things and fewer demands. I couldn’t maintain my attitude otherwise. Maintaining my commitment to my mortgage is my biggest monthly challenge. (My Home For Sale Alas) Without that the simplicity of my life would be even more prominent and powerful. (Want to know more about such a life? Check out New Road Map Foundation and The Simple Living Forums. You’ll find out that you are not “alone in the battle.”)
The three of us had unique stories. Everyone does. You may already know mine: hoping for a portfolio recovery, pursuing my business, selling my home, applying for jobs, and watching for windfalls. Stephen Webber is looking to rebuild yet again by taking decades of experience and seminars and turning them into a valuable and necessary certification process for a troubled industry. (I hope I captured his strategy, goal, and intent. Check his web site to be sure.) Fiorella Barbara is retraining yet again, and will need a job after she graduates, yet again. Their stories are different from Jennifer Hooper‘s and Spencer Webster‘s. None of us fits the stereotype. None of us are just statistics. None of us are abstractions. All of us would appreciate some help, regardless of how good things look. Nice to know we have style though!