2010: The Year Without a Job (Life on the Cliff)

The cliffs of Dover: much more picturesque -- and much less dangerous -- than my figurative cliff.

(Note: I started this unintended epic back in June, hoping my unemployment would end before I could post it. Well, life’s kinda funny — ha ha — and this thing has taken on a life of its own beneath my personal blogosurface. I would go at it in starts and stops, and, as you can understand, I just didn’t have the energy at times. And I could never find a logical place to end it. And it’s hung around the back of my skull with all the pleasure of a wisdom tooth extraction. So here we are, into the start of February (!) and finally, I’m getting it out of my life — at least until I incorporate it into my book. Well, here goes nothing …)

Tuesday, June 14, 1988, a little after 8 p.m. local time.

I was on the southeastern tip of England to cover a golf tournament.* I had taken a redeye from JFK the night before, landed at Gatwick, picked up my rental car and, without any formal training in left-hand-of-the-road driving (and nearly a crash course — I almost drove into the path of a car in a supermarket parking lot just outside of the airport, where I had pulled in to get acclimated to the car), drove my Ford Orion the hour-and-a-half on the M1 motorway to Canterbury, where I was booked at a B&B (but drove around the ring road for 45 minutes because I couldn’t find the damn street).

After finally getting situated, I walked leisurely through the historic center of the city of Chaucer, and following a little dinner, I drove the 45 minutes southeast on the highly scenic A1 to Sandwich, to Royal St. George’s, a true classic links course, to pick up my credentials.

I noticed that the signs said Dover was just five miles away – “There’ll be bluebirds over …” and all that. And I thought a drive out to the cliffs would be a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime way to wrap up a long and bicontinental day.

So a few minutes later, an hour or so before sunset, there I was. The day before, I was 25 miles from Hartford. I was now 26 miles from France — though, try as I might on this gorgeous evening, I couldn’t see the European land mass, which was just a little too far. I made sure not to get too close to the edge of the cliff, though; no more than 10 feet. And as I looked out over the Channel, my future seemed as infinite as the expanse of ocean in front of me.

Fast-forward to early 2011.

For the moment, I’m safe. Thanks to a little scrimping for airfare, I went back to Connecticut for the holidays for four weeks. The house where I grew up. In the area where I grew up, thrived if not prospered, and where I really need to be for good once again. But come mid-January, I was standing once again, rain aside, on a humongous stretch of ordinarily dry, usually hot, flat land, hundreds of miles long, in between two often-smog-shrouded mountain ranges in the godforsaken center of California. No chance of falling far here.

My cliff is a metaphoric one.

As of the last day of December, I officially went the entire calendar year of 2010 without a job. It’s now Groundhog Day: 1 year, 10 months and 22 days since The Fresno Bee laid me off — though, really, every day seems to be Groundhog Day.

I get up, I fire up the laptop, I traipse through my emails, clear the inordinate number of spams from my Yahoo spam filter. I go to my bookmarked job sites, journalismjobs and mediabistro; I got my Bee job through the resume I posted on journalismjobs, but except for five or six times a year, when I check my job seeker folder, it reads, “Your resume has been seen 0 times since …” And I reposition the resume at the top of the list, never to be seen again. I go to a couple other job sites I’ve found through Twitter. I go to craigslist — Bay Area, New York and New Haven — looking for writing/editing jobs, then peruse the PR/marketing/advertising pages. Someone somewhere needs a talented writer/editor, right?

Then I eat breakfast, go back to Web browsing and sending occasional resumes, and if my bum ankle allows it, I ride my bike and stop at Fresh & Easy on the way back to pick up a microwave meal for lunch. Then I go back to the house and eat and shower up and try to be out of there before the housemates come home. I’ll end up at one of two hangout coffee shops to do some more writing and corresponding. Wednesday nights are pub quiz at the Landmark; the rest is wide-open, yet constricted by the shortage of funds. And then I go home, fuck around more on the laptop and go to bed and repeat the process the next morning.

My career’s long gone, my hopes are dwindling, my age (despite my youthful appearance and energy) working against me in a job market where employers can and will get away with age discrimination with impunity, my possibilities for the future as limited as the visibility here most days. Unlike the white cliffs of Dover, I can’t keep a safe distance from the edge of the brown cliffs of Fresno.

There are many times when, as much as I pull away, the earth crumbles into dust beneath me. As much as I back away from the cliff, I frequently sense myself falling over it. And unlike Dover, where there are ocean, rocks and strands of white sand, I see no bottom here. I just sense an abyss. An interminable, bottomless abyss.

I’m running out of land and I’m running out of time. I’ve already run out of health insurance; I had to let go of my COBRA at the start of September, as the cost was jacked from a manageable $240 a month to an astronomical $687. And within three months, I’ll also run out of the unemployment that has served as my tenuous lifeline. The clock’s running. And while I’ve been in a good place of late, the recurring themes keep coming around and around again like laps at Daytona:

No one will ever hire me again.

I have officially become useless.

I am officially worthless.

I am a failure. An absolute failure.

Welcome to life on the edge of the cliff. As I said, I’m a safe-enough distance from it at the moment, but just for the moment. It’s the stuff I haven’t talked about much in print, though friends and family members have certainly heard me bitch. It’s doesn’t readily come to mind when you see photos of the blog’s pretty, seemingly happy and — for the first time in my life — usually confident author. At the moment, I’m far enough away from it to be able to write with a clear head. But through most of June, then August, then October and November, I was so close to the edge that it felt as if I was already in freefall. And there’s no saying I won’t be making a return visit in the near future.

I have applied for close to 250 jobs in these 22 1/2 months; I’ve actually lost count. I put out 19 in the four weeks I was home in Connecticut for the holidays, and have sent out 16 more in the three weeks since, and will send out more this week. That’s not a lot compared to other fields of work, but my line of work my whole adult life, journalism, was a limited field, and one in which thousands of us were thrown under any available bus the past two years. It’s a specialized field, though with a lot of skills I can easily transfer to other lines of work, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

But so far, nothing. I’ve sent applications to websites, PR firms, ad agencies, magazines, nonprofits, radio stations. Even a couple of papers. The silence has been deafening. I’ve sent at least eight resumes (I’ve lost count) to one company (Yahoo) that’s always posting ads for jobs for which I’m perfectly qualified. (But with all the stories I’ve read about the company of late, and its seeming state of disarray, maybe that’s a good thing.) Like 90 percent of the jobs for which I’ve applied, I haven’t had any response at all. Not even the decency of getting a “You suck.” As of now, I’ve had one phone interview with not a single word from the interviewers after that; one face-to-face interview that was much more disappointing than reassuring; about five nice rejection letters, maybe a dozen boilerplate rejections — and stone silence from the rest.

I know I’m not The Greatest Employee Who Ever Walked the Earth, but damn it all, I’m good. Very good. Well, at least I know I don’t suck badly enough that I don’t deserve the most basic of courtesies. You would think I was offering a resume with 27 years of mopping floors and pushing fries at Mickey D’s, for chrissake.

And the jobs for which I’ve received some glimmers of hope, even solid bites? I don’t know if it’s crueler to have loved and lost than not loved at all, but rejection, and the way it was done — or not done — has hurt just as badly. Just like love, actually.

*****

On a rational level, I know losing my job wasn’t my fault. Hell, I didn’t buy a newspaper chain and put a company $2 billion in a hole, as the CEO of my last company did — and he still has his job. And gave himself a hefty raise, too. (How the hell does that happen in a rational universe?) I wasn’t the greed-driven Wall Street scumbag(s) who determined that companies in my line of work should produce 25-to-30-percent profit margins — five or six times more than a Fortune 500.  I did nothing but what I did day-in, day-out for 27 years: came to work, healthy or sick, and did my work and represented my community with a high standard of accuracy and excellence — sometimes at the expense of friends, family, relationships and, ultimately, my physical and mental health.

But when you grow up with the work ethic ingrained in you — along with the unstated employer-employee agreement that if you work hard and do a good job, you’ll go places — to lose your job is nothing short of absolute failure. Even if you weren’t the one who cost your company billions just before the onset of an economic depression.

The anxiety comes and goes in tidal cycles. It fades away, then returns every couple of months. The entire month of August, the anxiety was raging full-on. No matter how tired I was at bedtime, I only slept maybe four hours at a clip, and then, all the while I tried to get back to sleep, my mind started racing. And then I was up and riding my bike or browsing the Web, looking for the latest company that would reject me. Or flat-out ignore me. And from mid-September until I flew home, I didn’t sleep more than five hours a night for 3 1/2 months. No matter how tired I was, I was fully awake four, five hours later and couldn’t get back to sleep. And the anxiety would begin anew. The sun rises on another glorious day in Gotham City …

I call the job hunt my exercise in futility. I call up the job listing online and read it, I make a copy of my master resume and tailor it to the specific job listed, I write cover letters like no one’s business — no repetitive carbon copies here. (And in case you’re wondering after what you’ve read so far — I do not give off even the slightest of desperation or failure in my letters. Never let ’em see you sweat and never let the sharks smell blood.)

I do it knowing full well what’s gonna happen.

Nothing.

I’ve wasted my time once again.

Goddammit, I’m good! I’m a good soul! I’m a good worker! I don’t deserve this shit!

Oh, yes you do. You must have done something in your past life where the karma just hasn’t evened out yet.

How else to explain it?

I can’t figure it out yet, what I’ve exactly done wrong. The patterns were probably set early in life. It’s like my general lack of a love life — so many people tell me I’m great, I’m wonderful, I’m beautiful, they love me … nobody wants me. Or nobody wants to be around me for that long. Same with the job front — I can’t believe no one will hire you. You have a dazzling resume. You’re a great writer. You’re a good editor. You’re very talented. Things like that, I hear a lot. Same result. No one wants me.

Being a good person or a good worker doesn’t mean shit.

*****

Over the past nine months, I’ve had a couple of nibbles, and it seemed as if, at long last, something was going to pan out.

Like the country two years ago, I had the audacity of hope. Like the country now, I feel that certain people had the audacity to make me hope when the outcome was gonna be the same old same old.

The first real solid bite came from Colleen, a dear and longtime friend from back home in Connecticut who has had my back the whole time, between my unemployment and gender transition. She had heard of a nonprofit back home that was looking for an executive director and sent me the link. It would involve writing skills, administrative skills, fundraising and working with high school kids, all of which I’ve had plenty of experience with. Plus, it would get me home for my parents’ final years, I’d be around the many friends at home who now knew of (and liked) the newfound girl in their midst, and I could get involved on a more hands-on basis at my radio station, WPKN, which is going through its financial struggles. Plus, I’d get to see a lot of great music on a regular basis.

I sent my resume right away, and a month later, when the application deadline had passed, I got a call about a phone interview. Both Colleen and a friend out here, Phoebe, another ex-journalist, now in PR in the Bay Area, helped me get up to speed on this particular field, on what I should look for and things I should ask. As the journalist I used to be, I really did my homework.

The first Monday morning of May, I was ready for the three board members. We had a 40-minute conference call, I answered their questions confidently and asked a lot of my own — questions that would let them know I did my homework, that I was committed to their company and to making things better.

I sent the head of the search committee a thank-you email later that day. About three weeks later, I hadn’t heard anything, so I called him to check in and follow up. He said I would have some news within two weeks. It’s now been over nine months. I did try calling him in June but he didn’t return my call. Colleen and Phoebe both told me that nonprofits move extremely slowly, but this went beyond slow. And Colleen told me in October that the nonprofit had made the job offer to someone else, though she’s not sure whether the person accepted.

I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but the way I was raised, if someone thinks enough of you to invest time and energy in you, the least you could do is thank them. It’s a little something called courtesy. Decency. For all my troubles and preparation, I didn’t even get a rejection. I was worthy of nothing but silence. And this is not a corporate giant we’re talking about here; this is a small nonprofit. I guess it speaks volumes about the company, and maybe it’s best I didn’t get hired. But that doesn’t say I can’t be pissed about it. I hope they get the person they deserve.

But then I got another solid bite around the same time as the interview.

I attended a transgender job fair at the LGBT Center in San Francisco in April, and I had been looking forward to this for a long time, especially with more than two dozen companies on hand. Much to my anger and disappointment, though, not everyone was even hiring, and the companies that actually were looking for people were only seeking to fill minimum-wage and/or in-store sales jobs. In my mind, it was a huge, absolute, disappointing waste of time. After attending three of these fairs, I’m convinced they’re nothing but huge dog-and-pony shows, where the organizers bring in companies to justify their own existence and the companies attend just so they can look good and say “See, we believe in diversity!”

But I met someone there with whom I made an impression, and we hit it off. About a 10-minute conversation, at that. She was a higher-up in an LGBT job advocacy nonprofit in the Bay Area. A short while later, we corresponded, and she told me her organization actually had an opening for which she strongly recommended I apply. With that sort of encouragement, I quickly tailored my resume and whipped up a dazzling cover letter. She told me I had a fantastic resume and cover letter. With that sort of encouragement, I wasn’t banking on getting the job, but I was fully expecting at least an interview, to really show them what I could do. She truly had set my hopes sky-high.

It was the first Monday of June, four days after the application deadline. It was the afternoon of my housemate Cassie’s high school graduation. Cassie, one of my better high school writers at the Bee, was a cum laude valedictorian at Edison High and headed to NYU. The ceremony was followed by a party back at the house. A day of great joy.

When we got back to the house, I fired up the computer and looked at my email. There was a message from the advocacy firm.

Uh oh; this is too soon.

A summary rejection. Not just a rejection, but an extremely fast one.

A WTF moment. I was bewildered, shocked, hurt, downright angry. Crushed is more like it. This one really hurt.

As I said, with the encouragement I got — after being told I had such a great resume and equally great cover letter — to be tossed aside, and that quickly, made no sense to me at all. It still doesn’t. I thought I deserved at least an interview out of this. And to get this sort of quick hook from an organization that’s supposed to be looking out for people in my situation? Well, as Yukon Cornelius once said, how do you like that? Even among misfits, you’re misfits. Despite my credentials, I was flat-out rejected — snap! — by people who know full well the sting of rejection themselves. What sort of people would build me up like that to cut me down so quickly?

I kept to myself a lot and retreated to my room quite a bit that afternoon and evening, as I didn’t want the thunderclouds to hover over Cassie’s special day. Her mom knew something was amiss, but I wouldn’t let on. Not this day.

But that was the start of my life at the metaphoric cliff.

*****

The storm clouds were now looming every day. The anxiety set in with a fury I hadn’t felt since the previous fall, when I was dealing with both zero job prospects and the rather-shaky aftermath of coming out to my family — when I felt riding my bike in front of a train might be the only real remedy.

The job world had again told me, in no uncertain way, that I was absolutely useless. With equal parts anger and hurt, I decided I would keep up with the charade, the exercise in futility — just for now. I would keep sending applications for jobs where I felt I fit, but inside I knew that at a certain point, my soul will know when enough is enough — that this has all been a total waste of time, give up, and walk away and just vanish.

But I’m still at it — for now.

*****

After my two fool’s-gold bites of the late spring, I had little glimmers over the summer, but nothing more.

I had a couple of whom-you-knows that I was hoping would pan out.

One of my Twitter followers, with whom I connected over music, works for a burgeoning Bay Area Internet giant that was looking for a PR associate. After seeing that the job was posted on craigslist — meaning thousands of unqualified slackers sending in their resumes — I got in touch with him. He hadn’t known about my previous life — the years of music journalism and radio, that is; the gender transition he knew about — and while he didn’t have a say in the hiring, he had me send him my resume so he could put in a good word with the people in charge. I never heard from the company, but to him, for doing what he did, I’m very grateful.

Same goes for the former New Haven colleague who became a regional editor back home for Patch.com, the AOL-run hyperlocal news site that was taking off. I picked his brains about his company; he sent a lengthy and thoughtful response, and he was also very good with the news about my transition. He passed my resume on to the woman doing the hiring for the West Coast; again, I didn’t hear anything, but it was good to know again that friends had my back. (He has since returned to his previous paper, BTW.)

I also applied for two public radio jobs. KVPR, the station in Fresno, was looking for a program director to replace the previous one, who retired after 30 years. Rick Bentley, the Bee’s TV writer/movie reviewer, had a blurb about it leading his column. Part of me was thinking that OK, maybe I was meant to stay in California a little longer — and that might have been the one job that kept me in Fresno.

But I was a little too late on the trigger. The station manager, Mariam Stepanian, sent me an email an hour and a half after I sent my resume; she told me she had a candidate in from out of state, but she was interested in talking to me. Well, anyway, she made an offer to that candidate, but she was nice enough to tell me I had a rich and very interesting resume. And eventually I did get a very kind rejection letter from her, and she told me she’d keep my resume in the files. I’d heard nice things about her, and in my case, I found that to be true. Little things mean a lot sometimes.

And SoCal’s renowned NPR flagship, KCRW in Santa Monica, was looking for an afternoon host — a job that had been posted at least a couple times on mediabistro. What did I have to lose? With my years in newspapers and nonprofit radio, perhaps I would get a sniff. And while I didn’t mention the gender thang, it’s safe to assume they would get a host like few others. So I sent my resume; a few days later, the guy in charge of the hiring sent me a rejection, telling me he was looking for someone L.A. The job, by the way, was re-posted again, a week later …

The little glimmers kept my hopes up through most of July. But then my ship entered the raging Sea of Storms.

*****

For some reason, the inner voice told me I should email the editor of my previous paper, the New Haven Register.

I had been the entertainment editor and music writer there for 11 1/2 years and had done a killer job there. I put out the Weekend section and wrote many of the stories in it, from features to a weekly music column. I interviewed hundreds of musical people whose names you would recognize right off; the list, which I sometimes send out as an attachment with my resumes, would make me sound like a shameless namedropper. Anyway, it was a fairly high-visibility job, and in an earlier era it might have gotten me at least a sniff from a major paper or a magazine. But not in this day of diminished budgets and diminished expectations — I might as well have been asking the musicians “Would you like some fries with that?” all that time.

“Why the hell should I email him?” I fired back. I got along fine with him, and from time to time I would email him from the Bee with wire stories I saw that had New Haven-area connections. But I hadn’t kept in touch with him, and I couldn’t see why it was such a big deal.

Well, the psychic friends network was working overtime. Over the next few days, four of my ex-Register colleagues found either my blog or my Twitter account. Three of them I hadn’t told about the new girl in their midst. I swapped emails with one of them; she told me she had known about the transition for some time and that she had just heard about my blog from Pat, my successor. And by the way, did you know Pat was leaving?

Yep — he was going back to school to get his doctorate. Anyway, I didn’t think of this at the time, but it must have been bubbling beneath the surface. Late that afternoon, I mailed off my father’s 80th birthday gift, and while Albie didn’t want anything big for his milestone, it really bothered me that I wouldn’t be home for it.

And as I rode my bike away from the post office and toward the Tower District, the subject flared anew in my head:

“You’re not gonna ask about the job that almost killed you in the first place!”

That started an emotional seesaw.

Well, obviously, the winds were blowing in that direction — what seemed like a random suggestion from the inner voice to contact my former editor, followed by the four colleagues finding me, followed by finding out Pat was leaving. I thought about the pros and cons. If I went back to the Register, I could plug back in pretty easily to a job I could figuratively do one-handed. I would be back among my old circle of friends, all of whom were supportive of me when I came out. I would be back home for my folks’ final years. I would once again get a shift at WPKN — where I did a regular radio show for 13 years and have done fill-ins on my trips home since — and do something I truly love and miss. And all of this would make me the highest-profile transperson in Connecticut, which might open up some other doors for me.

The flip: The stress and the hours of the job nearly killed me the first time around. But maybe, with a smaller paper, I wouldn’t have to work as long or as hard — and I hope I would work smarter.

I stopped at Revue for an iced coffee and called two friends, both ex-colleagues, to pick their brains.

One, with whom I worked in features, told me he had brought my name up immediately in the newsroom as a possible replacement. He told me how the job had changed with the times and the economy. Another friend said something sage: “You know, the source of a lot of your stress is gone.” Meaning: the stress and the self-esteem problems and the depression that came as part and parcel with the gender matter. I hadn’t thought of that.

Anyway, the next day, I called the editor. He told me he couldn’t talk about the job, as he hadn’t had permission from the new publisher yet to fill it. But once he did, he said, he promised he’d keep me in mind.

“You know, it’s been a crazy couple of years,” I told him. “I don’t know if grapevine has gotten back to you — maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t, I’m sure it has — and if it changes what you think of me, so be it. But there’s something you should know about.”

“Let me stop you right there,” he said. “I have heard, and it doesn’t change what I think of you one way or another.”

Good. That was a big relief. It was the only relief I would have for another month.

*****

It occurred to me in a sudden moment of clarity a few days later: Holy shit! What if they don’t want me back? It struck me that it would be the ultimate rejection — being told I wasn’t worth it by the same place for which I did such a standout job the first time around. That would crush me.

And the shitstorm started piling up. First, the Senate Republicans held our unemployment extensions hostage just because they could. These creatures of privilege are in the pockets of the banks, have cushy jobs with benefits far beyond those of the people they’re supposed to be serving — and they’re denying us our benefits? Finally, after a couple weeks, a compromise was reached and we miserable wretches finally got our money. And if you’ve never been in the situation where you don’t know where your next dollar is coming from — well, it’s pretty fucking scary, let me tell you. One or two checks, or maybe one or two months, from being on the streets? And your elected officials telling you you’re not worth shit on top of the overwhelming lack of response from the work world?

And on top of that, as August dragged on, I hadn’t heard anything from anyone at the Register. They really don’t want me back after all, and after all I did for them. Wow. And with all the ex-colleagues who had popped up on Twitter at once, I truly thought the universe had been calling me back home. That set me down a dark path. More and more, as the dog month dogpiled, I was envisioning the money running out and me just taking the last of my cash and taking a bus to Santa Cruz, and from there just disappearing .

And it was in the midst of this that my sleep habits changed for the worse. No matter how early or late I went to bed, no matter how much or how little caffeine I ingested, I started waking up like a shot after four, four-and-a-half hours of sleep. And I couldn’t get back to sleep. And as someone who’s seen the worst of sleep apnea, I know the value — the flat-out necessity — of getting a good rest. And it wasn’t forthcoming. Just about every night, I could feel myself come up to the surface of consciousness like emerging from underwater — I would be sleeping soundly, then I would move to the substratum of the dream world as I swam upward, and then I was back to the surface. Every night, it was the same thing. Just another form of torture.

Finally, the last Monday of August, I forced myself to give myself an answer, if not peace of mind, and call the Register. This time, I called my old features editor to touch base with him. It was a cordial chat, considering he was probably swamped with work already, as everyone there usually is. And he, too, had known about my transition and was totally down with me on that, as I knew he would be. They just weren’t in a position to talk about the job. Someone else told me later there was a hiring freeze in effect.

*****

The storm clouds were starting to blow in from other directions. A year minus a day after I came out to my parents, my mom called to tell me my father, six weeks after turning 80, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. She said they were very upbeat about it — the bone scan was negative — and that he would start radiation treatment in a couple of weeks, and he wasn’t doing anything differently than he would normally do. I filed it away as best as I could. About an hour later, I had a blow-up with one of my housemates, who snapped at me for no reason. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

The one positive in my life was that I was losing weight. Between riding my bike 10 to 15 miles a day four or five days a week, watching my portions and having cut out my depression noshing after starting my hormone therapy, I lost 42 pounds from March to mid-November. Damn, I was starting to look good.

Things started to seem to be ready to turn for the better as September and summer wound down. My name change became legal, and a few days later, the first day of fall, I went to DMV for the name, photo and gender change on my driver’s license. And with the legal stuff out of the way, I figured, once I was past the wedding of my friends Megan and Dax that Saturday, I would have nothing else holding me here — that the universe would finally let me go.

Well, jump to mid-October. No other jobs on the horizon. My friends Heather and Dana threw me an “Its a Girl!” the third Saturday night of the month at the Landmark, and it was a most wonderful night. I felt like princess of the universe. I felt love and warmth and joy the likes of which I’d felt so few times in my life. Between that and my birthday party, I was blessed enough to have had two big heaping bits of reassurance in one year that I must have been doing something right. No one twisted anyone’s arm to come to my parties. I didn’t stop smiling the entire night.

But I came back to earth quickly enough a couple of mornings later. I was curious about the situation back at the Register, so I called one of my old colleagues. He told me they had slid someone into the job from one of the sister papers two weeks before.

Wow.

The hiring freeze? I understood. Maneuvering around personnel from inside the chain to fill a job that truly needed filling? Totally understood.

But not even saying anything to me, and me having to find out secondhand, when they knew I was not only interested in the job, but really needed a job? THAT I didn’t understand. It felt like the worst sort of kick in the teeth — not that there’s any good way of being kicked in the teeth, of course. It fucking killed me. I wasn’t good enough for my old employers to even tell me I wasn’t coming back.

*****

I haven’t talked about the family portion of my gender transition on the blog; I’ll save it for if and when the time comes to write the book. But the short of it here is that, over a year after I came out to them, my immediate family was still struggling with my transition, was still weirded-out about me.

By late October, I had felt myself not only trapped in an unhealthy living situation at the house in Fresno, but essentially in the same place I was a year before mataphorically — STILL nobody wanting to hire me and me STILL struggling with the family. I felt I was somehow behind square one.

This is where the hormones came into play. In the fall of ’09, at the depths of one of the most prolonged depressions of my life, I sat around the room for days, in T-shirt and shorts, unshaven. I would go out to WinCo every couple days and pick up a couple bags of chips, some dip and bulk bags of Sassy Sours, the cheapie (and better-tasting) equivalent of Smarties, then absentmindedly stuff my face while fucking around on the laptop — playing Myspace poker, cruising the Web, looking for job postings that didn’t exist. Then I would go and try to nap for a few hours, then repeat the process. When I did go out on bike rides, it was with the hope that, in the land of a thousand grade crossings, a train would be coming as I was approaching a crossing. (No such luck …)

Well, fast-forward a year. This happened both nights of the weekend between my party and Halloween: I came home from a bike ride, ate dinner, then retreated to my room and started fucking around on the computer again. And both nights, after an hour, the voice inside said, “You’re not gonna do this shit again like last year! You’re gonna get your ass up, step away from the computer, you’re gonna jump in the shower, you’re gonna doll up, and you’re going out.” And that’s what I did. Both Friday and Saturday nights. I dolled out and went out to the Landmark. I most certainly wasn’t Miss Sunshine, but by at the end of the night I was certainly in a better place than had I stayed home.

The hormones had made a huge difference emotionally. But I was still prone to black moods — not prolonged, but they’d last for a couple hours or a few before they subsided. However, they were getting worse, with the still-futile job hunt combined with the family weirdness. And Christmas was coming. The worst time of year for frayed emotional states. And I felt adrift and alone. And weary, both physically and spiritually. And I still wasn’t sleeping for the life of me, figuratively or literally.

The first Friday of November, I tried out for “Jeopardy!” in San Francisco — the third time I had auditioned for the show I’ve wanted to be on my whole life, the first time as my better half. I think I acquitted myself very well, but I’ll never know unless they actually call me and put me on the show. (I’m in the contestant pool until May 2012.) And they’ve never had anyone from my tribe on the show, as best as I can tell. I’m guessing the contestant crew — the show’s human resources department — has had some conversations about me.

Anyway, “Jeopardy!” was an all-too-brief vacation. Within a week, the despair — my Twin Towers of Anxiety, unemployment/uselessness and transition/family weirdness — had come back at me full-on. I just couldn’t take any more. I started to make contingency plans and began to dwell on them, gnaw on them. If something didn’t look up by the end of the year, I was planning to take a drive out to the coast before dawn Christmas morning. I would arrive at my favorite beach, sit and watch the sun gloriously rise, and after sitting and taking it all in, I would get up and take a nice long walk into the water. And maybe a riptide would carry me out past the point where I could swim back. And maybe I would be carried out so far that the only trace left of me would be my car. At the very least, everyone could have their fun for Christmas and my body wouldn’t wash back for a few days. George Bailey, after all, is a purely fictional character.

And it also occurred to me in dark flashes of humor: Maybe the car would break down on the way there and I would be stuck in some strange place for Christmas, far from Fresno and far from where I wanted to be, with no stores or restaurants open, with no place to go, and damn it all, I would still be alive, to boot. And while I couldn’t even do living right, I couldn’t do dying right, either. What a fucking loser.

In the Southern parlance that R.E.M. conveyed so well (and so financially successfully), I had lost my religion. I was only an inch from my rapidly eroding cliff. I really felt ready to just end it, despite my lifelong fear of death. Anything had to be better than what I’ve been through these last couple of years. I might look a hell of a lot better than I ever had, and be living in my true gender at long last, but even that wasn’t enough at this point. More and more, it felt as if the universe was simply giving me a taste of what could have been, not what was going to be. And for the first time in my life, I strongly doubted the existence of God. I know many other people have felt this degree of despair — what sort of a loving god would subject good people to bad things? — but in all my years, I had never felt this relentless fury and rejection coming at me from the rest of world. Not for this prolonged a period.

Even when I was harassed and bullied in childhood, there was the knowledge that I was smart, maybe this was temporary and that I’ll be able to use my brains to make something of myself — that there was a future if I stuck around long enough. Not this time. It felt much, much closer to the end than the beginning.

Looking back, a few feet back from the cliff at the moment, I feel ashamed I let myself fall that far, that I let myself doubt that much. But I saw absolutely no way out. No future.

*****

With a little distance, early-to-mid-November now seems like the darkness before the dawn. Maybe.

The Sunday morning a week and a half before Thanksgiving, I woke up in a terrible state. Got up, did some writing and Web browsing, but was overcome with anxiety and dark sadness and rage and thoughts of what I wanted to do Christmas morning, and retreated to bed in a crying jag. Finally, around noon, the inner voice said, “Call her.” Call my mother. So I went back over to the desk, picked up the phone and called.

Without getting into details, it set into motion a chain of events. The end result: My immediate family is finally on board with me, my relatives on both sides of the family would also come on board between then and the second weekend of December (and very supportive), and on Thanksgiving weekend, I booked a flight home for four weeks for the holidays — my first flight as a female.

I arrived home Dec. 14 — the day my father got a clean bill of health for his prostate. And as of the weekend before Christmas, one tower of anxiety had been toppled at last: My family anxiety is officially over. And it took a few days, but that Saturday night, I slept straight through, seven hours plus, for the first time in nearly four months.

Of course, that lets me double down on the unemployment anxiety, right? And I came home as the Republican senators were holding our next unemployment extension hostage in exchange for the extension of tax cuts for all those poor, starving rich folks. Just how much evil can people do to their fellow humans in the name of money?

*****

A week before Thanksgiving, I encountered another form of exquisite hell — I dislocated my ankle while pedaling my bike, which was disconcerting not just because it was so bizarre, but because it was gonna keep me off the bike, and I truly needed my bike rides to keep up whatever endorphins I have and to keep my weight down heading into the holidays. I thought it was just a sprain, and treated it as such, and because of that I made it worse. It wound up being four weeks of hell, and the ankle only popped back into place two days before I left for Connecticut.

And I had to be back to being able to walk in heels in a hurry — because I was gonna have a job interview.

Again, it came from a lead from my friend Colleen. She told me in late October about a job opening at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. She had talked me up to one of the board members, who remembered me positively from accommodating her dance troupe in the Weekend section of the Register. Colleen told her about my transition, and she was fine with it. So I applied. I didn’t get the job; I wasn’t expecting it, since it was a part-time job and I wasn’t local. In early November, I got the official form rejection letter. But it included a handwritten note from the board member. Sure enough, they had received many good applications in town and so they went local. But she told me she would keep me in mind, and also suggested I go to the council’s website, where there was a page for local arts jobs.

So I went to the site. And there was another job that looked as if it had my name on it. Another organization in town needed a PR person. I sent the resume; the Tuesday the week before I flew home, I got an email asking when I would be back in New Haven and what day I wanted to get together.

Could I have been more positive about this? It was only a temp job — listed as January-July — but I figured this might at last be the crack this running back needed to slip through her offensive line and run to daylight. In heels on a muddy field, of course. All I needed was one big break. As I figured in July, when I was considering calling the Register, I figured this would at least get me home, and by the nature of the beast I would make a lot of connections, and I would also get a slot doing radio regularly at my beloved WPKN again, and the combination of the above would make me the highest-profile transperson in Connecticut, and that might open up some unseen doors as well. Mentally, I was making contingencies in case I had to cut the trip short, fly back and rent a truck and haul all my stuff back East.

And the day after I arrived home, I picked up my rental car, went back to the house, dolled up in my interview outfit and drove to downtown New Haven for a 2 p.m. appointment. It was just my second interview my whole time out of work, my first face-to-face … and my first as Frannie. But first, my mom wanted to see what I was wearing. Straight-out black, save for the pink-and-black paisley headband: a styling black two-piece tank/sweater combo from Lane Bryant, black knee-length skirt, black tights, low-heeled black patent pumps. I came out to the living room after I did my face; the folks were watching TV and turned to check me out.

“You look good,” she said.

Well, armed with that encouragement, I got down there an hour or so early to give myself some time. Had a leisurely coffee at my favorite Willoughby’s, on Church and Grove, checked my emails, and drove over to the Green about quarter to 2. The winter wind was howling, so I arrived a few minutes early and put my hair back into place in the bathroom. I was ready. I was confident, as I was heading into my “Jeopardy!” tryout. I was happy.

I was disappointed. Greatly.

The guy in charge of the hiring told me he had left something out of the job listing that he should have included: The job was only full time May and June, and just part time February (not January, as had been posted) through April.

“Well, what do you mean by ‘part time?'” I asked.

“Ten hours a week.”

I felt my spirits fall to the floor.

Huh? Do you think you might have mentioned that ahead of time?

I was trying to just be happy that someone thought enough of me to bring me in, and not to be pissed that he got my hopes up for nothing. Ten hours a week for three months? I’d probably make triple that on unemployment. And I could have done that job blindfolded. Shit. That surely wouldn’t be enough to come home for. And I got the official rejection email the Wednesday after Christmas.

At least I got it out of the way as first order of business. I could devote the rest of the holidays to family, friends, doing fill-in radio shows … and job-hunting. Yes, at the holidays. I put out 19 resumes in the four weeks I was home. After I drove home in a blizzard from my day-after-Christmas WPKN fill-in show. I hunkered down in the cellar and cranked out four of them.

And talk about dedication: I had a bad feeling about my New Orleans Saints — who didn’t play like Super Bowl champs this season, despite going 11-5 — heading into their wild card playoff in Seattle. So rather than waste my day watching a loss — and, of course, I was proven right — I camped out at the Starbucks in Orange, loaded up on coffee and cranked out four more resumes. Judging from the lack of response, I’d say what I did was a waste of time, too — except they were four more jobs to list on the back of my unemployment form.

*****

And a few days before Christmas, I confronted my personal Register demon.

I was gonna meet up with three of my old colleagues for lunch at the diner down the street. Instead of meeting them at the diner, I decided to just stop in and meet them at the paper. I surprised myself on this one — after all, there was a huge part of me that was ashamed and embarrassed to show my face there, especially since I wasn’t worth bringing back. On the other hand, I had too many friends there. And I wanted to see who was around. And I hadn’t been back yet as Frannie.

Anyway, something told me I should go in and make an appearance. And it was good.

I stopped off in the features department, and I was greeted with hugs from my pals, including my old boss, who introduced me to the new entertainment editor. Somehow, it didn’t feel awkward. The lunch crew gathered, we went and had a nice meal, then came back, and I decided to come back inside and do a little visiting. And I ended up there two more hours. It was wonderful; I did a lot of catching up. (One of my old friends, who hadn’t known about the transition but had a wonderful “Oh my God!” and a big hug for me when she realized who I was, asked, “How did I not know your eyes were so pretty when you worked here?” Well, probably because I was a weary, out-of-shape guy who hadn’t mastered the art of eyeliner …)

And I did get to see the editor. And he was glad to see me, too. And I could see the strain the job was taking on him, which said a lot of unspoken words to me. It was a very cordial few minutes. Anyway, I told him what I was up to, that I was looking to come home for good, and asked him to keep his ears open if he heard of any job openings around town; he said he would. But I didn’t bring up my old job; just the time back in the newsroom seemed to be the universe telling me that it was time to let it go. I wasn’t meant to come back to the Register after all, except to have a nice visit once in a while. And besides, a few people had told me they’d heard the decision to put the new guy in my old slot came from higher up in the chain. I felt happy knowing I hadn’t been rejected. It’s just circumstance sometimes.

*****

If the holidays did anything, they pulled me back a safe enough distance from the cliff.

Getting straight (she said straight, tee-hee) with the family worked wonders. I might have built a humongous surrogate family, for which I’ll always be grateful — and I really plugged in with my friends this past trip home — but it’s not like having your real flesh-and-blood on board. That was a huge load shed for good.

Something else unexpected has worked wonders, too.

Several of my friends had harped on me for two years: “You’ve gotta get on Facebook!” I resisted at every turn. Well, for one, I’ve had a lot of qualms with Zuckerberg’s well-documented problems with people’s privacy matters. For another, the same people who told me three years before, “You’ve gotta get on Myspace!” were now trying to push me into Facebook; in a couple years it would be zork.com or some other yet-to-be-invented site, to be replaced a couple years after that by yet another one.

And I wasn’t quite that far out in my personal life yet. My friends and immediate family, of course, knew, but not the public at large. But by this point, so many people were on board with me already, including relatives, that it doesn’t really matter anymore who knows about the transition or who doesn’t. After all, my friends and many of my kin accept me. If they don’t, they’re really not my friends, right? And besides, there was something cool about being one of the holdouts. I reasoned that I’m out there in the universe and not hard to find, cyber or otherwise, if anyone really wants to find me.

One night, I was hanging out with Paola, one of my dearest friends. She had her computer on, and she opened to a Facebook page and called me over. The page was “The Grotto — New Haven — Where are they now?” The Grotto was the underground (literally) music club in downtown New Haven from 1983-88, and so many of us bonded over that place, then drifted away over the years. And Paola opened the photos page, and for the next hour or so, I was saying “Holy shit!” every two minutes at most of the 150-plus pix. One of them was yours truly as Madonna — the “Desperately Seeking Susan” variety — on Halloween night 1986. (I won the costume contest that night — free admission for six months — and was never hit on more in my life before or since.) And I spent a lot of time saying “Holy shit!” to faces I hadn’t seen in centuries, or saying “What’s his name?”

“Well,” she said, “I’m not suggesting you drink the Kool-Aid, but …”

Two nights later, I came over and had her help set up my profile and work my way through the privacy settings. I did it. I drank deeply. I would like very much to blame Paola for this, but I’m a grown adult. I’m responsible for my own actions. Besides, I reasoned, maybe at the very least I would steer some readers to my blog, or enough people would know I’m looking hard for work and keep me in mind if they hear something.

And more than four weeks later, I have over 460 Facebook friends, and with the exception of a couple of organizations and acquaintances, they’re all friends (and a few relatives) from every corner of my life: Fresno friends; New Haven friends; San Francisco friends; ex-girlfriends; colleagues from all three newspapers; bands and musicians I know; friends from WPKN and WCWP, my college station; a couple of high school friends and one person I knew from my wretched childhood in Prospect. Even a few frat brothers.

Once a few people knew that I had a profile up, it was game on. For the first three weeks, the invite requests were coming fast and furious. Many were coming from people I hadn’t seen or talked to in a long time. Better yet — I got many invites from people who I hadn’t seen in years, who hadn’t known about my wild life changes of the past three years, who saw my profile — and still friended me. That has said volumes. It’s also saved me a lot of ‘splainin.

And now my friends know. And at some point, maybe the time-honored tradition of who-you-know will lead to the job and get me away from the cliff for good.

*****

So yeah, that’s been life on or near the edge of the cliff.

I’m feeling relatively safe for the moment. Actually, believe it or don’t, I feel strangely optimistic. But I know it’s fleeting, with the unemployment running out in less than three months. The clock’s ticktickticking.

So many days along this trip, I’ve been beyond frustrated at being useless, beyond pissed off at the way I’ve been treated, and incredibly embarrassed that not only am I out of work, but have been out this long. With all the kindness my family and friends have shown me, I feel like a goddamn charity case more than a child or a friend at this point.

Life has, at times, become a serious Civil War battle of angels and demons. When I lost my religion in the fall, the part of my mind that’s been on the side of the angels really had to fight back hard — to argue the case for God’s existence more vehemently than ever before. Emotionally, I felt myself clawing furiously to get back to something closer to peace of mind. Perhaps this is a good thing; the soul needs to be tested from time to time.

But, as alluded to before, the one thing religion never answers adequately, if at all, is why bad things happen to good people. And I damn well realize my bad spell is nowhere near that of so many other people. (And by the way: When someone tells me, “You know, you’re not alone in this boat …” if they think it’s supposed to make me feel better — well, it doesn’t.) But I’m living my life, not theirs, and I don’t know how much more I can take, really. My mom, a religious woman, says to keep praying on it. God knows I have been, save for that short spell of absolute despair. But with all the bitching I’ve done, maybe I haven’t really come through this test very well after all.

It’s seemed that everything that’s happened in my life over the past seven years has been for a reason; maybe there’s one now, a damn good reason I’ve been out of work this long. But it’s awfully hard to think of one. It can’t be just to reinvent myself at this point; I’m pretty much reinvented now. It just feels like the cliff crumbling right up to where I stand.

But as of late, I’m learning to shut up, calm down and listen to the universe a little more closely. And it seems to be telling me that my time’s coming soon. Something wonderful is about to happen — I just don’t know when, or which direction it’s coming from. But I am getting impatient — I feel I’m ready, but the universe is saying, “Not quite. You’re almost there. But not quite.” So I sit and flow through everyday life and do my damndest to be patient.

And I can’t emphasize enough how many friends have said encouraging things or done wonderful deeds throughout this trial. Lots of phone conversations, heart-to-heart chats, emails, cards and hugs. Some paid lunches and dinners along the way, too. How do I pay back all the love and support I’ve received? Maybe I’m learning, at long last, about love and compassion and what it actually means. As confident as I’ve definitely become on one level, I’ve sure as hell learned humility, too.

But I also know that, as supportive as everyone has been, I can’t lean on anyone too heavily. I have to stand on my own, on firm ground. And at a certain point soon, if something doesn’t change, that cliff is gonna crumble right back up to my feet again. I’m certainly hoping that’s not what the universe has in store for me.

* The golf tournament was the Curtis Cup, a biennial team competition pitting the top American female amateur golfers against Great Britain & Ireland. The 1988 tournament was held at Royal St. George’s Golf Club, and won by GB&I, 11-7.

I was sent there because it was the final amateur tournament for one of our local golfers. Caroline Keggi, who lived in Middlebury, the next town west of Waterbury, won the 1987 NCAA women’s title at New Mexico, then was invited to play at the Dinah Shore as an amateur in ’88 and came in fourth. She turned pro in 1989 and played on the LPGA Tour until injuries cut her career short in 1999. Caroline, I might add, was one of the nicest and most down-to-earth people I ever met on my sports beat.

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2 Responses to “2010: The Year Without a Job (Life on the Cliff)”

  1. that Craig guy Says:

    Great. You rule. Love.

  2. Cinders Says:

    2010 was a sucky year for a LOT of people. Trust me, I know that cliff. Let’s hope 2011 is better… better yet, let’s MAKE 2011 a better year!

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