Sunday, May 5, 2013


During the first week of December, on a Thursday evening at approximately 7pm, I was exercising in my basement when my wife entered the room to hand me the phone. On the phone was a senior Vice President from my company whom I had known my entire career, but had little interaction with him as his division did not overlap with my business unit. In a three minute phone call he said, “I don’t know what you do, but my division is $6 million in the red”. He then informed me that he had just terminated my boss, one of 5 other Vice-President’s, and a handful of others (none of whom, like myself, understood him to be able to terminate any of us). Without hesitation he said words I’ve never heard in my life – “I’m laying you off”. I did my best to explain what I did and to remind him that my business unit had no affiliation with his division. I told him I had been with the company for over 12 years, longer than 95% of the company, and that my business unit was rated by outside U.S. Government assessors to be in the top 6% in the world. I informed him that what I did for an overhead business unit saved hundreds of thousands of dollars throughout the company each year and my value had only increased during my tensure.  My salary alone was paid for from a simple policy manual I had written and related training as it related to insurance savings.  As I took a breath to do my best to struggle to lay the groundwork to remain employed in a position for which I both enjoyed and thrived, he quickly cut me off and ended the call.

In the last 6 months since then, I spent countless nights reflecting on the fact that I was fired, for the first time in my life, by someone who was not my boss and had no idea what I did, after hours, over the phone, in three minutes, despite 12 years of exemplary service. I may be many things, but I’ve never been anything but usually the hardest worker in the room. I take pride in everything I do for my employer and always viewed myself as having the mentality of the World War II’s generation where I was grateful for my employment, honored them by sacrificing myself and did whatever I could to offer the best work product as efficiently and cost effectively as I could. Yet there I sat, unemployed, because none of that mattered.

I looked for work religiously for 4 months. I work in a very unique field, so I knew finding employment was going to be challenging at the on-set. What I didn’t realize is how deeply the effect of the results from the U.S. Presidential election in November and shameful decision to sequester all U.S. Government agencies would have on my job search. In this time, I didn’t meet a single hiring manager who wasn’t impacted from both of these events and easily voiced disdain over the leadership of the country. Over the course of 4 months, I applied for roughly 500 jobs. Of those, only 10 weren’t cancelled or put on hold because of the sequestration. Of the 10, I was interviewed for 7 positions. Of the 7, I was offered 4 positions and avoided 3 after learning that the  position was not a good opportunity.

In the end, I found new employment and so far I’m quite content with my new employer. Unfortunately, my new employer is 130 miles from my home. Until my house sells, I’ve been living out of a suitcase 5 days per week while my wife and two children try to keep things as close to normal as possible which seems relatively absurd being that my interaction with them is now limited to weekends or brief conversations over e-mail and video chat. It is heartbreaking to say the least, but I’m hoping this short-term struggle will turn into long-term happiness.

I never paid much attention to those who were unemployed until I was personally impacted. I think it is fair to say that many likely don’t appreciate certain topics until it impacts them. On September 11th 2001, I was scheduled to be in the Pentagon at 9am for a meeting. The evening before, the person I was supposed to meet called to tell me he had an unexpected flight the following morning and we were able to hash out our concerns over the phone. Whether I escaped the tragedy that occurred on that day or not, I was deeply impacted by the events. My next door neighbors worked at the Pentagon and shared stories of pulling bodies out. My girlfriend’s coworker was on Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania and his last words to his wife over his cell phone were the immortal, “Let’s roll”, a common phrase he used with his children which his wife interpreted to be the moment that he and the passengers decided to rebel against the terrorists. I remember living right next to Dulles airport and the eeriness of no flights in the air for several days except for military fighter jets. I remember family and friends breathless and unable to comprehend the events, only to feel emboldened when I’d see an American-made truck driving down the road with an oversized American flag rigged to stand proudly and confidently in the whipping winds. This was an event that impacted me personally and just about everyone I knew in some way.  The impacts have never left the area even though many other parts of the nation and the world are able to quickly get back to their busy lives.  In the last two weeks, I find myself wondering if the people of Boston have a renewed appreciation for the War on Terror following the cowardly, feckless and anti-human actions of two youth who perverted and misunderstood their own religion to justify the maiming, injury and death of innocent and loved people from all walks of life.  Yet even as personally as I feel about these events, I likely completely under appreciate the same sense of insecurity and hardship that those in Israel and other similar areas experience on a daily basis.

While it is unfair to relate terrorism to unemployment, it is with a similar lens I now look at unemployment, meaning I look at it very personally. Now news stories and political decisions impacting jobs mean something to me. Those people waiting in line at the Employment Commission are people with families and lives. They and I are the same. The people I see standing outside my local Walmart with a dirty backpack and a sign saying “Will work for food” are people who could very well have been me and are people I now stop for to hand over groceries or money.  Layoff's, even with my new company, are met with deep concerns for people I don't even know and I find myself looking deeply into their faces to find some hope that they'll make it.

In the 4 months it took me to find a job, I reflected on life quite a bit. While I never was foolish enough to believe I was entitled to anything and always believed it was by the grace of God alone that I had any joy or peace whatsoever, it was clear that I didn’t appreciate the depths of the reality that truly no one was ever required to offer me a job again and there were no guarantees whatsoever that another paycheck was going to be deposited. The fact that I was a hard worker, educated, skilled, competent, and a “good human” meant very little to the wind in the trees which seemed to have about as much impact on me getting a job as did the majority of positions for which I applied.
It was in that reserved hopelessness that my mind wandered. What if I didn’t get another job? What resources could I tap to try to sustain? How long would my 401k last? Could I sell my house, and if not, what would the impact be if we had no choice but to walk? Should I buy an RV? Should I try to find work in a dangerous position just to be employed?  Should I look for work away from my family and what kind of impact would it have on them?  Do I need to purchase a generator or items where I could try to live in the woods? What about health care and education for my children? What about…life?

The overwhelming reality that I needed a job and an income were merciless. At no time ever in my life did I come to the conclusion that my future, and that of my family, may very well literally be in my own hands and in the resources I had amassed in front of me. When knee-deep in this affliction of despair, and truly having limited options, I felt I had no choice but to start learning and appreciating how to live SIMPLY and DELIBERATELY both now and for the foreseeable future.

My mom has been living by herself for nearly two decades and she and I have constant tension over how she spends her retirement savings. She lives in a 3-bedroom house packed full of furniture with cabinets literally bursting with things associated with a large family or someone who receives an endless string of visitors. She has neither.  My mom constantly tells me she needs "X” which only later I learn is because “X” is something one of her neighbors or friends implied to her was something necessary in life (or more accurately, a sign of status). She has spent countless money on "X" only for it to sit in some corner to collect dust, or in her mind, to be a trophy identifying her as "normal" and "just like everyone else". 

The constant comparison to others is a shockingly destructive element of the American way of life which is likely responsible for more financial woes, wars, political disagreements, medical ailments and the spewing of hate and discontent all because we genuinely believe having “X” will make us happy. Since my soapbox is already stacked quite high, I’ll avoid being more direct merely to say money is the root of all evil, so I’ll more simply say “unjustifiable and unnecessary greed is a tremendous source of discontentment”. When I was considering how little I would accept in a new position to enable my family to live life, it was a silly mental exercise of finally acknowledging how much money I waste and how I shamefully fail at managing my own money to the same degree as those in our society who we mentally or physically cast away into the dark corners of our conscious and cities.

So what does any of this have to do with lightweight backpacking? Well, arguably there was likely some cathartic venting of personal value, but perhaps the unsolicited advice I’m offering is to implore you to take a hard look at both your “life backpack” and your “actual backpack”. Live SIMPLY and DELIBERATELY. If you “need” something, then buy it, carry it and take care of it – just make sure you aren’t accidentally reading your “want” barometer.  Also, your generosity to others is a direct reflection of who you are and the hopeful expectations of how others should treat you in the event that you are in need.  In the event that one day you are in need, I trust you will seek the same hope you provided to others and hope is a good thing to have whether you have everything or nothing.

And the photos in this blog? Well, when there is a legitimate possibility that one may have no choice but to live in the woods if all else fails, one had better learn bushcrafting skills.  My backyard now looks like a pioneer camp from the 1800's and I feel I have added another arrow to my quiver of lightweight backpacking skills. And so my education in life continues, just this time without needing much more than nature (although an axe, knife, small handsaw and some snares are plenty helpful).


Anonymous said...

If everybody you might work for isn't hiring because of a submicroscopic momentary reduction in the rate of growth in non-productive government pseudo-jobs, maybe you should acquire skills that are worth something in the private sector.

Or move to the richest and fastest growing places in the US, all of which are clots of federal parasites and lobbyists around DC.

Meanwhile, the rest of us have to support ourselves, our families, the minority of government employees who add value (police, fire, roads, maybe half the military, coasties, etc.), AND carry all the parasites on our backs.

Twelve years in one job? Not in my industry. It's competitive. Employers come and go.

Steve Anderton said...

Very well said. I'm hopeful I can learn from your experience without having to experience those things myself. You've caused me stop and think. Thank you.

Ferdinand said...

I haven't checked this blog in months and yet tonight for some reason I did. I so sorry for all your troubles, but this is what we all been told to expected. Each days has trouble enough.
So keep your chin up and GOD will show a way.

Jolly Green Giant said...

@ Anonymous – Thanks for stopping by, but to be fair, I’m going to largely disagree with you. Describing our current climate of unemployment and sequestration as a submicroscopic momentary reduction in the rate of growth in non-productive government pseudo-jobs both minimizes the actual impact and fails to acknowledge all those outside of government employment who are directly impacted.

Take for instance the environment around Washington DC which you mentioned. In northern VA alone, over 40% of residents work for the federal government. But, likely over 50% work for contractors in support of the federal government. Having resided in this area for the majority of my life, my personal estimate is much higher if I only reflect on the places I’ve lived and the fact that the majority of my neighbors during this entire time, in different locations, were federal contractors. When the government decides to cut back, it directly impacts contracts issued to private industry. When industry has fewer contracts, they reduce their work population too.

But I’ll take it a step further. I’ve worked for the federal government and for federal contractors. My entire career has been one or the other. My salary alone supports a family of 4 which is why unemployment is particularly damaging. My wife tries to supplement our family income by doing part-time daycare. In the period since the election and sequestration, she lost two of her clients. Why? Well, one was laid off and the other was furloughed so many times that their family doesn’t have a consistent and reliable income sufficient to be able to pay for daycare. So we’re not just talking Government employees, or just contractors, but also every other collateral person that has a vested interest in these industries. In my immediate family, 4 people are impacted by my job and further impacted by lack of day care clients. How many restaurants, shopping areas, hotels, etc. are all impacted?

The answer is far more than just federal employees. There are over 21 million people currently looking for full-time work and that doesn’t include people who have been unsuccessfully looking and simply dropped out of the job hunt. Those in the employment market are at low rates which we haven’t seen since the 1970’s. The problem is by no means small and I can assure you it doesn’t feel temporary when you’re the one impacted.

But I’m in entire agreement with you that having broader skills more easily employable is the real key. Course, the crystal ball on my high school guidance counselor’s desk didn’t quite work that way and I’ve learned trying to start from scratch mid-career as the solo income earner for a family of four is a bit challenging. I know, because I’ve gone back to school to work on a graduate degree in another field and found that I neither had the time nor money to finish it, nor the financial stability to start all over again in life. Just my two cents from having walked the walk.

john personna said...

A nice article, but I suppose I should cop to a "few goods" bias, rather than the opposite. Cleaned my back closet yesterday, got rid of 100lbs of old books and computer cables, feel good.

Anonymous said...

I'm happy to hear you've found employment. Thanks for sharing your story.

Melissa Jenks said...

I googled "ultralight life" tonight and happened upon this fresh post, from this month. I, too, am sorry to hear about your troubles. There seems like in our society there's a need for a dropping out of culture, that the idea of "looking for a job" may have something fundamentally and paradoxically wrong with it. This quote, from Wendell Berry, in the 2012 Pen/O. Henry Short Stories collection:

"Suppose we had not tolerated teh transformation, in the official and then the public mind, of vocation to 'a job,' which is to say the transformation of the farmer, the tradesman, even the sharecropper (all subsistence-based) to an 'employee' helplessly dependent on an employer and 'the economy' and interchangeable with any other employee."

This is where I am shifting in my thinking--Americans need to get used to making their own living, literally. Building things, making things, growing things from the ground. Our society has made its way away from that, and it seems, somehow, indispensable.

Jolly Green Giant said...

@ Melissa - Great insights. For me, it's never been the what, but the how, when trying to figure out how to unplug and subsist. Like food from the grocery store, I, like many, feel tethered to a redefined society and a set of norms taught since childhood which doesn't seem to fit my way of thinking or my life. Yet toil away is all I have done.

Mtnbob said...

Great article, thank you for sharing! You will come out stronger from it.