Is this really it this time? The light at the end of the tunnel?

light at the end of the tunnel

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted anything — the longest hiatus I’ve ever taken from this here blog of mine — for a number of reasons:  severe loss of mojo, having to dig into the job hunt again and dealing with a very sick mother. Let’s see if I still know how to write …

I know I’ve written a similar story before.

I thought my employment hell — which began nearly five years ago, when I was let go the first time by The Fresno Bee, in a mass purge by the McClatchy chain — was finally over last July, when I landed a contract job as a part-time copy editor at MSN.

It was my first time working in New York (doing the beast of a commute from home to Midtown Manhattan, at least 2 1/2 hours each way, between the drive to Stamford and the train to Grand Central, which I would have to do until I got the computer access card that would let me work from home). It was the largest company for which I ever worked, which never looks bad on your permanent record. (Technically, I worked for a worldwide staffing company, and my manager was based in Seattle, but you get the picture.) And it was my first time back in the work world as Frannie 2.0 in a place where I was a total stranger. (I returned to the Bee for 10 months, from September 2011 to August 2012, as an on-call copy editor, and was met with nothing but open arms by my now-formerly formerly-former colleagues.)

And it went wonderfully. The commute sucked, but I absolutely thrived on the energy in the City. (And I made the most of my Fridays after work; since there was no way I hell I was gonna sit in the 20 miles of Friday-afternoon traffic jam on 95, especially in the summer, they became Linger Longer Fridays, full of adventure and meeting and befriending a lot of new people.) I passed well and encountered no bullshit along my commutes — just another of the 8 million trying to get by. The work itself was cake. I was starting to break the ice and fit in and make friends in the newsroom, And my supervisors really liked me — so much that they were planning to give me more hours. And come September, I was eligible for benefits — for the first time in three years, I could breathe a sigh of relief.

Anyway, I was supposed to have been able to work from home by the second week. It took 6 1/2 weeks to get the computer card I needed to telecommute. And then, the morning of 9/11 — my first day working from home — my manager from Seattle emailed me at 10 in the morning. That would be 7 a.m. her time.

“Can I call you?”

Oh, shit. This can’t be good.

It wasn’t.

Some nameless, faceless beancounting scumbag at Microsoft with absolutely no news sense decided that it was time to gut MSN. Which, on the surface, made — and makes — absolutely no sense, as the company was, and is, between CEOs; it was only two weeks before that Steve Ballmer announced he would be stepping down within a year. How do you make such a drastic change without a new person at the helm?

And with that, all the freelance writers were discarded. So were 15 of the 18 us contract copy editors. Including one of my supervisors, who had come on board a week or two after me and had just spent two weeks out at the mothership in Redmond. That really didn’t make sense. (And if I could ditch my Microsoft operating system and office software right now without losing anything or going through a hassle, you bet your ass I would.)

We were all blindsided, even the staffing company; when I asked the manager when she first found out, she said, “This morning.” Our last day was Sept. 30. And just like that, I was Charlie Brown, and Lucy was pulling away the football once again.

Yet more stress.

Anyway, fast-forward to Sunday afternoon. I got a call from the director of the Northeast design hub for Digital First Media. He offered me a job as one of his deputies; I’ll be part of the design hub, which paginates (electronically lays out, for the layperson) stories for the company’s seven Connecticut and upstate New York dailies, plus some community weeklies. Once I’m up to speed on the software, it will entail laying out at least 15 pages a night, plus proofing pages.

And Thursday afternoon (Jan. 23), I go back to yet a second place where I once worked — The New Haven Register building, where the hub is located, and where I worked for 11 1/2 years as the entertainment editor/music writer before moving to Fresno in March of 2004. I returned first thing Monday morning for my orientation. It felt kinda weird, to tell you — the building is the same, as are quite a few of my soon-to-be-formerly former colleagues. But the situation is radically different. It parallels my homecoming nearly a year and a half ago — things are the same, yet things have changed a lot.

So, Frannie, back to work. And now, the $64,000 question:

Is this finally — after all these years of wandering around in a sea of uncertainty and questioning my worth and worried about falling off figurative and sometimes literal cliffs and plunging down an economic hole of no return — the light at the end of the tunnel?

*****

Unlike my previous, perpetual struggles with losing a job, searching for a job, searching for a job, being turned down for a job, finding a job, losing a job, lathering, rinsing, repeating, I didn’t go down the rabbit hole this time. I was stressed, to be sure (how many times do I have to go through this?), but I wasn’t depressed.

For one, having MSN and New York, even for that short time, never looks bad on my permanent record. And, channeling my inner Sinatra (or Liza), if I can make it there … And I made quite a few connections in my short time there. I guess I’ll always wonder how things would have turned out had I been able to keep working in the City, established myself there, built my friendships there. After all, I’m a Brooklyn baby (from Greenpoint, 40 years before it was hip.), I thrive on the energy and the intensity of New York, and it would’ve been wonderful for life to have brought me full-spiral back to from whence I came.

But I digress. I did a damn good job in a short time in a pretty frantic-paced position in a well-known place. So someone would have to have the good sense to hire me when the time comes, right?

Besides, we’ve had more important things to worry about these past four months.

My mother has been pretty sick for much of the past year, but everything really blew up in mid-July. To cut a long story short, after some more extended hell, she was admitted to Hartford Hospital two days after my MSN job ran out. She was there nine weeks, fighting a host of things at once. Very trying weeks for all of us.

Most weekdays, I drove my father the 35 minutes to the hospital, where we would stay two or three hours. He’s 83 and militantly independent and perfectly capable of driving himself, but I preferred that he didn’t drive on 84 if he had to; I mean, the drivers on 95 can be crazy, but as I found out doing the morning-rush commute last summer, there’s a rhythm and a rhyme to the traffic flow. On 84, no such thing — just a lot of wackjobs and me-me-me yuppie assholes who cut everyone off or minivan warriors hanging in the passing lane doing 55. And he’s had enough on his plate to deal with. And I was just trying to be useful.

Deep down, I’ve had the feeling that once she started improving, the universe would take its boot off my throat and let me go back to work. Well, she moved into a rehab center the week after Thanksgiving to get the physical therapy she needs. And while she still has some rounds to fight, she’s really been making strides of late.

Let’s just say she’s one tough woman — tougher than any of us knew, even herself — and she’s taught me a lot about slugging your way through adversity. I mean, hell, my mom’s been fighting for her life; am I gonna sit around and bitch about not having a job? I mean, the money’s been running low, and after taxes, I’ve only been getting $78 a week of unemployment. But compared to Mom, five years of mostly joblessness is a stroll on a summer day. And this has felt all along if it’s been temporary.

So yeah, for the first time in the whole nearly five years, this has been the first time my being out of work has made some sense to me on any level.

*****

And there was another reason I was dealing with this jobless spell better than my previous ones.

I’ve written before about the voice of reason coming to me at strange and crucial times in my life; after all, it’s the voice that came to me a decade ago, when I got the email asking if I’d be interested in a job in Fresno, the same voice that confronted me when I had my gender epiphany six years ago … and the one that hit me March 10, 2009, the night before my layoff; I was coming back to the office after picking up dinner at Wendy’s, and as I got to the top of the steps heading into the newsroom, the voice asked me, very clearly, “Do you really want to be here for the aftermath?”

That voice.

Anyway, flash back to late last May, a couple of weeks before my birthday. I was in kind of an emotional freefall again. When things are going badly, the month before my birthday and the month leading into Christmas are trigger months — times I can really fall down the hole. And at that point, heading into my birthday, I had been home for nine months without work; in fact, I hadn’t even had a nibble since my interview at ESPN the previous November. (I was brought in for a six-hour visit to the mothership in Bristol for an associate news producer job; the editor who brought me in left me hanging for six weeks and then rejected me by voicemail about two weeks before Christmas.)

And I fear one of these days falling into the hole and not being able to climb back out again. I mean, how many times can someone do it before just giving up and vanishing?

It was one of those sunny afternoons where I took my bicycle out on the Farmington Canal Trail from Cheshire into Hamden. and along the way, I had a moment that made me pause — stop the bike.

“You know,” the voice in my head said. “You’re coming up on five years.”

And I flashed back to the Bee newsroom, a daydream lull on an afternoon in late spring, early summer. And I got a visit from the voice — only instead of coming to me in that creepy, loud whisper, a la HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it talked to me in a normal guy’s voice.

“You know,” it said, “You’re gonna lose your job.”

“”Aw, bullshit!” I shot back. “I’m too good at what I do. They’re not gonna let me go!”

“You’re gonna lose your job,” it said again, “and you’re gonna wander in the wilderness for five years.”

“FIVE YEARS?!? How the hell am I gonna survive?” I was having visions of living on the street and losing everything I had worked hard for. I was frightened.

“You’re gonna wander in the wilderness, and eventually, you’re gonna go back to work, in a place where you’re doing something different than you’ve done before, and you’re not gonna be in charge. But you’re gonna do well there, and then, after that, great things are gonna happen.”

I just sat there, feeling slightly broadsided, and said, “Do I have to go through that? I can’t do that!”

Well, I forgot that little daydream conversation for four years, until that day on the trail. I stopped pedaling as it hit me. “Holy shit! I forgot all that!” I said to myself, stating the obvious. And I just kinda sorta felt a little more at ease. Just a little. It didn’t last long. I was almost back to being a wreck when I got the phone call the second week of July from a recruiter at that staffing agency out in Seattle, sousing me out about the MSN job.

Still, it was coming up on five years. If I could hold on just a little longer …

*****

Last March 1, a Friday midday, I was in my room, wrapping up my fledgling online radio show, when a friend sent me a Facebook message: according to the New Haven Independent (a news site I rarely read), the Register had been rumored to be laying off the entire newsroom and making people reapply for their positions. Instead, they were not only not doing that, but bringing aboard a few copy editors.

“Do you want to do this?” I asked myself. Going back to a place where I once worked felt like so much desperation. And yeah, I know I did that in Fresno, but is this what I’m doomed to — returning to former workplaces because no one else wants me? Feels like defeat. But hey — I need to work.

So I emailed Matt, the head of the parent company’s Connecticut papers. He had virtually met me after I wrote my coming-out op-ed piece that landed on the front page of the Register. He said at the time that if I needed help, to let him know.

He told me that he was actually looking for a few people to work as paginators on a new design hub, which was being consolidated and run out of New Haven. And he asked me to come in on Monday morning. And that I did — spent an hour and a half with him and the two managing editors at the Register. He was hoping to have the hub up to speed by May. Meanwhile, I kept up with my futile job hunt

And then, nothing. I emailed Matt in June to see how things were coming along. He explained that things were moving more slowly than they anticipated, and told me to let him know if I was still interested. I told him yes.

A month later, I got the call about the MSN job.

*****

Let’s face it — 2013 was a really shitty year for a lot of people. And I knew that, once the calendar became 2014, once all that bad karma was swept away, the door would open to something wonderful.

And I was getting job nibbles.

Just before Thanksgiving, sitting in the family lounge at the hospital, I had a phone interview with the owner-publisher of a couple of local dailies; he was looking for a managing editor for the copy desk of both papers. It was a friend-of-a-friend connection; my former supervisor at MSN told me she had a friend who worked there, and he passed my resume on to the boss. The owner told me that what jumped out at him was The Fresno Bee, as he grew up in Bakersfield. We had a good talk. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.

And then, two days before Christmas, I got an email from an editor at The New York Times. It was a copy of the paper’s editing test.

I’d been sending out plenty of resumes since my layoff, several of them for positions at The Times. This was a copy editor opening, one of several openings they plan to fill early this year. And the copy editors there are generally considered to be the platinum standard. It’s a daunting test and a difficult one — The Times only takes 5 percent of the people who take the test, and you only get one shot at it.

This was exciting. It also scared me. There was no deadline, but I figured the sooner, the better. Then again, it was the thick of the holidays — how soon is too soon and how late is too late with this?

I decided “Do not open ’til after Xmas.” Two days after Christmas, I finally opened the attachments with the instructions and the five stories I was given to edit. I didn’t start with the test; I looked the stories over, then put them aside and let them marinate, let the fear subside, before I dug into them the next day. I picked the stories up and put them down several times over the next week, before and after the New Year holiday.

It’s essentially an exam of your life’s knowledge, both as a line/story editor and a copy editor. How well you can handle features, breaking news and obituaries. What questions the stories prompt you to ask. A week later, two days after New Year, and following a great deal of obsessing over I emailed the test back, hoping that I did and said and asked the right things.

The editor sent a confirmation email the next day. “Thank you for your patience in advance,” he wrote. “These evaluations take time.”

And back to the job hunt while keeping a kernel of hope. I mean, The Times is at least taking an interest. That says something.

*****

Two weeks ago Monday, 10 months after my interview at the Register, Matt emailed me to ask if I was still interested. I responded right away. He told me he would pass on my info to the design director.

That Friday, I got an email from one of my old colleagues. He told me to get my resume to the design director immediately, since he had just talked me up to him. Two days later, I met my prospective boss at the Dunkin’ Donuts up the street from me. That was new — a boss coming to meet me for an interview. We hit it off pretty well, and at the end of two hours, he told me he was impressed with me. I think he wanted to know that I could do the job, that I was wasn’t rooted in the past, and that I knew the lay of the land.

*****

And so, here we are. I’ll walk into the Register building tomorrow afternoon, 24 hours from now, and start my new chapter.

Is it paradise? No. I’ll be making less than what I made there 10 years ago, and my days off to start will throw a wrench in making plans.

Then again, it’s a lot easier making plans with people when you have the money to do things. It’s certainly easier to pay your bills when you have the money to do it, and much less stressful when you don’t have to worry about where the money is coming from. And, living at home, I can help my folks with with their expenses — and put some money away for other things. Say, deposit money for my own place again eventually. And another car, having gotten 2 1/2 years out of a ’96 Camry with high miles.

I can also leave the job at the office when I walk out the door at night, something I could never do my first time around in New Haven. And, finally, I just might have the ending to my book, which is about two unplanned and wild life changes over the past few years and not just one. It might not be the Hollywood ending, nor is it the depressing French art-house ending. Let’s say it’s the watered-down art-house ending, which is kinda happy. I mean, I’m going back to work steadily full-time for the first time in nearly five frickin’ years!

And yes, I’m grateful that people who didn’t know me ahead of time want to take a chance on me. And that some of my to-be-once-again colleagues talked me up to the soon-to-be-bosses. (And writing this makes me dwell on the gratitude a little more.) Now to live up to the hype …

But I’m a little more scared and a little less woo-hooooo! than I was last summer when I walked into MSN for the first time. Having had the rug pulled from me last summer, at a place where I thought I had security, did its number. Also, the dynamics are different — different company and different people running the show, different job position, different ways of doing things, different building (the Register will be moving to new facilities by the summer), different Frannie. Change is always a source of apprehension.

But while I’m worried, by the same turn, I’m really looking forward to it, and not just because it gives me some needed financial footing. And not just because I’ll be among many people I’ve known for years. And not because, at last, I’ll feel somewhat useful — the sense of purpose that’s the one greatest thing that long-term unemployed people lose. Life’s nothing if not interesting, y’know? Who ever thought that, nine years and 10 months to the day after I boarded a plane, headed to a new life in Fresno, I would be back at the very place I left? Who knew the tunnel would lead me all the way back across the country?

I’m too scared to say that this definitely is the light leading out of that dark place. But maybe it is. This time for sure. And maybe wonderful things come from this. Time to get my mojo in order; the clock’s running. Once again, time to strap in. And now, for my next adventure …

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3 Responses to “Is this really it this time? The light at the end of the tunnel?”

  1. muddydog Says:

    Go Frannie Go! Thank you for sharing story -its gotten me through some of my own dark times on more than one occasion.

  2. jmucci Says:

    Hope things are working out with the new job Fran. Best of luck! I’m still having my up-and-down job woes, as well. Working for months, then being out of work for months, repeat ad nauseum…

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