Unemployment loomed—terrifying, confusing, unreal—and we unfortunates were being advised to put our faith in Facebook and our trust in Twitter. Or at least some of it, since these social media outlets were touted as the cool new way to find hot new jobs.
In the final days at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, shell-shocked employees trooped off to seminars and more seminars. These were "voluntary" seminars that seemed darn mandatory to most of us: seminars on post-employment benefits, on outplacement services and the replacement health insurance that carries the name of a poisonous snake (COBRA: Strange coincidence? Or inside joke?). Our eyes soon glazed over from the growing blizzard of infobits and acronyms. Outside the seminars, back at our desks, we tried our damndest to do our jobs as we always had, ignoring growing evidence all around us that our newspaper was on death row with little or no possibility for a stay of execution. All I had known as a P-I writer for 26 years was coming to a sudden end, but there was still just enough time to attend a seminar on using social media to secure new work.
I didn't get Twitter then, still don't, even though I now am a registered user there. I could understand Facebook, but its vaunted ability to keep me "connected" with friends seemed downright silly. I stay in frequent contact with a half dozen friends, have four times that many who receive my annual holiday cards. I needed Facebook to track them? What absurd computer overkill, like turning grocery lists into PowerPoint presentations. It could be done, but why?
And the notion that Facebook would reap job possibilities for me seemed techie fantasy. Thirteen months have now passed since 160 P-I employees left the newspaper's office for the final time and only 25 or 30 have found new full-time work, terribly depressing considering all the fine talent that worked beneath the paper's mammoth rooftop globe with its rotating boast ("It's In The P-I"). Facebook has produced just one job lead for me, an iffy ghostwriting gig for a former network TV anchor's memoir, despite my "friending" dozens of people in the publishing business and letting each one of them know that I am desperately seeking work, any work. So Facebook has been a job bust, just as I expected. What I hadn't anticipated, however, was that Facebook would become something entirely different for me—a crucial lifeline to sanity, or at least normalcy.
Unemployment scrambles a life with many strange new developments, some major, some minor, all unsettling. Weekend days are no different from weekdays any longer since some work needs to be done daily. A highlight of my very different week is now Tuesday's mail with that familiar tan envelope containing my state unemployment check. And there is an ever-present sense of rudderlessness—one recent day passed without remembering to brush my teeth, something that went unnoticed for more than 24 hours, to my embarrassment.
Then there was the time I was walking through a local farmers' market and saw a small sign at a popular quesadilla stand offering "1/2 off any entrée for the unemployed." My first reaction was: What a nice gesture for those less fortunate in these challenging times! Then I suddenly realized that the discount applied to me. I swallowed my pride and my reduced-priced quesadilla, after first thanking the cashier for this unexpected break, my only such break as an unemployed person in the marketplace.
But the most difficult change wrought by unemployment is solitude and isolation. That is most true for a single person living alone, as I do now that both my son and daughter are college students in the distant states of Arizona and North Carolina. We talk on the phone every few days, to my relief and delight, but it is still the phone and its limitations across many miles. My only face-to-face talk on many days is with a coffee barista ("What would you like?" "Tall non-fat latte."). Finis, at 9 a.m., today's direct conversation with another human being. Such chit-chat seems even more pathetic after decades in newsrooms, where wise-ass comments, deadline dustups, and squawking radios and TV's define the workplace. Writing at a newspaper always seemed five parts commotion, five parts creation, 10 parts too darn much fun to get paid. There is none of that writing alone in a silent apartment day after day. I feel that loss of community acutely, even after so many months have passed and I suppose I should be used to it.
Maybe I should have anticipated that loss since I had written several books on my own before, spending months away from the newspaper to work on those longer projects. But I always returned to the paper. That was where I felt I belonged, where I contributed the most, where I earned a reputation of sorts. Now, my newspaper days are done forever, replaced by some of this, a bit of that, plus the certainty of uncertainty. I do not know where my next paychecks will be written, or what kind of subsistence they will fund especially once my decent newspaper severance runs out, as it probably will at the end of 2010. Long gone by then will be the welcome semi-reprieve provided by my state unemployment checks and the emergency federal subsidy that made costly COBRA benefits seem almost reasonable rather than a scary strain on stretched finances.
Facebook helps me fight those thoughts. I check it most days, contribute occasionally, too. I take unexpected comfort from those who share all the mundane details of their daily lives on Facebook—the birthdays, anniversaries, new baby milestones, memorable meals, vacation trips, concerts and films, office hijinks, pet pix, weather reports, articles that impressed or outraged or amused. My anticipated two dozen Facebook friends have now swelled to 425 folks, acquaintances mostly, even some absolute strangers (why not at this point?). That number of correspondents astounds me as they provide constant Facebook commentaries with, thankfully, very few of them originating from that place I now know too well—Unemployment Land.
Granted, much on Facebook verges toward self-parody. There are people who provide updates throughout their days and nights as if they are cable news reporters on the Me Beat, including one woman's recent eyewitness report about a half-eaten bagel being mysteriously lost somewhere in her house until it was discovered two days later inside her jewelry box. There are also people on Facebook who share the results of quizzes to determine "What dead rockstar are you?" or "What should your name really be?" These are the sorts of trivial pursuits where Facebook earns its reputation as an insatiable time-sucker.
But Facebook's transparent shortcomings are more entertaining than annoying to me. Laughs get pretty rare when more than a year passes and three job applications with resumes and cover letters are dispatched into the internet ether every week, as required to receive unemployment. And all that these 150 applications have produced for me are one five-minute job interview over the phone and one 50-minute job interview in person for a university writer gig where I finished second out of 100 applicants.
That might not have felt so disheartening if the guy doing the university hiring hadn't known me for three decades as a newspaper compatriot and casual friend, someone who attended my wedding reception, baby showers and my 50th birthday party. I suspect he thought the job was somehow beneath me, no matter how strongly I tried to suggest that I need regular work and regular pay. He instead hired a younger woman with some past writing experience for an alternative college, explaining that to me matter-of-factly over the telephone, with no hint of regret and certainly no apology.
So I remain grateful for all the chuckles and smiles that come to me via Facebook, whether intended by their authors or not. But what I have come to treasure about Facebook—and "treasure" is not too strong a word here—are all the reassuring reminders I get of normal life still taking place out there somewhere, normal life that I still hope to return to some day, however doubtful that seems anymore.