The 5.5% and Me
On a recent Wednesday morning I woke up around 8:45, once the growing heat had stacked thick enough to wake me. Daughter was still sleeping, so I quietly got out of bed and went downstairs. Made coffee, puttered around in my backyard garden. I thought maybe we’d go to the beach later, but we’d definitely hit the farmers’ market first. A long, blank day stretched out before me. I pushed down the anxiety and made myself take a shower.
I’m not on vacation. I’m unemployed.
There have been few incidents in my adult life that have shaken me so profoundly. In the hierarchy of Jen’s Stressful Life Events, unemployment hovers about a half-step below the birth of my daughter and the death of my friend Meg. I have been working since I was 14 – full-time during summers in high school, multiple jobs through college. I’ve been a secretary, a soup-seller, a bean-picker and a carpenter. I’ve hung stage lights, coordinated volunteers, led programs and finessed photocopiers. I’ve even been professionally gay. And now, I do nothing.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I scour the help-wanted advertisements in the paper and online. I obsessively check my bank balance and make spending plans for the dwindling funds. I bumped up my volunteer activities, and I spend hours every day filling out the endless forms Unemployment sends me. I try to fill what’s left of the day with hour-long activities – walking downtown to check my P.O. box: one hour; weeding and watering my garden: one hour; cooking dinner: one hour; watching a free movie from the library: one-and-a-half hours, bonus! – counting down the hours until bedtime and another series of hours begins.
The last time I listened to NPR, several weeks ago, they reported the unemployment rate had reached 5.5%, the highest it had been for some time. It’s unpleasant to be the embodiment of that kind of statistic, so I turned the radio off and haven’t been able to turn it back on since. Like most of the 5.5%, my Big Gay Job fell victim to the worsening economy and the state’s budget constraints (which are a large-scale version of what’s happening in my household right now: priorities being reconsidered, belts tightened, expenses trimmed in places I can only hope won’t hurt too badly – We don’t really need Internet in the house, do we? And meat is bad for the environment anyway, so we’ll buy beans instead. A five-mile walk? Pshaw, think about the gas we’re saving!).
On one level, it’s wonderful to have so much time. I could have lost my job in, say, February, and been trapped in my apartment by freezing winds and waist-high snow. With all this time, I’ve been able to attend to my social life with a level of attention that had been impossible when I also had work and school lives. Daughter and I spend more time together than she could have wished for before, and a neighbor who also got the boot provides some company during the day. When people ask how I’m doing, I tell them there are worse things than being unemployed in Maine in the summer. My tanned arms seem to reassure them this is true.
And it would be true, if not for the fact my employment helps me define who I am. The work I’ve done since I graduated from college has been deeply meaningful to me – social justice work that I believe is truly making a difference in the world. My work for the past two years has revolved around queer politics; I’ve been encased in a rainbow-hued bubble. I co-host a lesbian radio show, write a queer column for this fine publication, completed a writing project with queer youth, and had a professionally gay job.
Now I interview for jobs and wonder if I should straighten out my resume. Then I doubt I would even want to work for an employer who preferred that I do so, but when I check my bank account, I start wondering again. I’ve managed to avoid having a just-for-the-bills job for more than 10 years, but that run may be over soon.
I haven’t given up quite yet. There are still some options out there, and I’m forcing myself to be optimistic I’ll find something that’s both meaningful and well-paid. If not, you may hear my voice over the intercom saying that phrase so familiar to English majors nationwide: “Did you want fries with that?”
Jen Hodsdon is available to organize your queers. Her hair does not yet smell like fryolator grease, but she’ll keep you updated.