Thursday, December 31, 2009

Me? An unknown daddy?

I was showering Wednesday evening when my wife walked into the bathroom, slapped down the toilet lid, and took a seat with the determination of an interrogator. “We have to talk,” she said in a voice that would’ve made a nun shiver.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“That all depends on what you have to say.”

Her father had just called. A woman who hadn’t given her name had called him because she was trying to track me down. “She thinks you may be her father,” my wife explained. “So you’re going to call her.”

Drying off provided an opportunity for what I’ll delicately call a highlights film of my premarital past. One way or another I would’ve known if a co-star had become a mother within the limits of Surprise Daughter time. There was no way I had an unknown child.

And in any case, why did someone looking for me call my father-in-law? How could they have drawn a connection between me and him? And why not just get in touch with me? It’s not as if it’s tough to find my e-mail address, given how much I blog, use social media and write bylined stories for online media. Many of those postings include my e-mail address.

No, I thought, this is fishy. This has to be some sort of scam.

So I called the woman, who seemed abashed, but not that much. She explained that she was trying to find her father, and all she knew about him was his name. She’d made a list of every Peter Romeo she could find, and was working down the roster, calling each one.

Then she gave me her mother’s name and asked if it meant anything to me. She added where her mother was from.
I didn’t recognize the name, and the location was someplace I’d visited perhaps half a dozen times, but never in search of romance.

I assured her that I wasn’t her father. I gave her some info on other Peter Romeo’s with whom I’d been confused over the years, and wished her well.

“I’m 27 years old. I think it’s about time I met my father,” she said, then apologized for bothering me, and hung up.

I hope she finds him.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Bah, humbug to bah, humbug

A year ago, some five weeks into my unemployment, I wasn’t sure if we could keep up with our mortgage and food bills. My wife still had her job, which provided our health-care coverage, but she worked for a newspaper. ‘Nuff said.

I’m not nearly as uptight now, though I still don’t have a job, and the possibility of landing a full-time editing or writing gig appears even slimmer (my wife, though employed for a major daily, works neither in editorial nor ad sales). Still, the world didn’t collapse into chaos, and premonitions of a Great Depression, as recalled by my folks in the same tone used by a noire movie character to recount a crime wave, no longer looms as a possibility.

Indeed, my confidence had rebounded sufficiently by this year’s holidays to no longer deny their existence. I wasn’t exactly belting out the ho-ho-ho’s, but the Grinch no longer had a kindred spirit. No tree, no holiday dinner, no lavish gift-giving, no cards or their e-mail equivalents. But at least I’d stoke a flicker of cheer by buying presents again for a few youngsters who’d been skipped along with everyone else last year.

It didn’t prove the Duraflame log I’d hoped. Then today, poking around the internet, I came across a column that, strangely, was published after Christmas by the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Gazette. Maybe columnist Jeff Barr realized I’m not the only one in need of a holiday Hail Mary pass. In any case, I thank him for giving me the sort of feeling you got from watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the first time. Except his account is real.

You can read it for yourself here. But let me give you at least a flavor of it with this excerpt.

The column recounts how a woman, Michelle, was walking along a highway when a van, which I presume was driven by Barr, stopped to offer her a ride. She was laden with stuffed shopping bags.
“I work at Burger King and I got my check today,” she said. “It’s not much, but we’ll have presents under the tree.”

The drive led to a mobile home where Michelle is raising her family. The single mother proudly spoke of snatching up the trailer for $100 three years ago, and gutting the place “right down to the floorboards.” A slow renovation process that took every extra penny has resulted in a comfortable home for her children.

She told of getting the knee brace from a friend as payment for baby-sitting. She spoke of picking up free storm windows from an acquaintance who “had the same, exact trailer as we did. How lucky is that?”

Not a single tinge of bitterness; just a working mother relating stories of her home and her family
Remember, this is in Michigan, the Great Recession's third circle of Hell.

I think I may have another conversation with my pal, Jack Daniels, and put on the Phil Spector Christmas album.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A year after the axe

Monday marks exactly 54 weeks since I was pink-slipped, which means I’m reflecting nonstop this weekend about relationships.

Connections, after all, have been the coin of my new realm. Whether or not you get work, fulltime or freelance, depends far more on whom you know that what you’re able to do. Which means you’re constantly looking for new contacts—anyone who can open a door, refer you to worthwhile link, serve as a partner, offer some helpful advice, or just make the prospecting process a little more pleasant.

You can’t help but evaluate those relationships, as mercenary as that might sound. Actually, I wish I knew some real mercenaries who could deal with a few of the people who figured into my career efforts of the past year.

Many of the contacts with whom I’ve interacted deserve their own Hallmark special. Near strangers stepped forward to help me in ways that I never would have expected—in one instance, the sister of a distance acquaintance; in another, someone who’d seen my byline but have never once written, called or otherwise had any interaction while I was on a publication’s staff. But he stepped up with some immediate help.

A woman I’d known for years, though not very well, came forward with job help that kept me from making a huge mistake. I could see no gain for her except the gratification of thwarting a bull-shit artist who’d already sold her some snake oil. Indeed, her assistance could’ve backfired into a job problem for her. Yet she did right by me, for which I’m hugely grateful. I’d now walk over hot coals for her.

At the other extreme were the people I had regarded as friends but soon learned were snakes that had learned to slither upright. A few wouldn’t even speak with me afterward, even on a personal basis. Once I couldn’t help them any longer, or no longer posed competition, I was dead to them.

Most galling of all was the former colleague who called up a source of freelance work to ask that he award the assignments instead to some of her cronies. He ignored her, and indeed has given me considerably more work since then.

The Snidely Whiplash in that scenario also rebuffed an 80-plus-year-old contact/friend who wanted to get in touch with me after I’d been fired. She said she had no idea where to reach me, even though I’d retained the e-mail address and cell phone number that I’d used during the three years she and I had worked together. Indeed, it’s printed on a wallet-sized directory that I know the staff still uses.

And then there are the thieves, legions of them. We journalists have our strong points, to be sure. But respect for another’s work is clearly not one of them. I can’t tell you how many times my blog and Twitter postings have been ripped off by other members of the media. Friends have advised me to put in a bit of mis-information as a way of scaring them off. But I don’t want to sink to that level.

Of course, journalists aren’t the only parties to swipe an idea. A longtime acquaintance approached me to see about working together. I had an idea that complemented the specialty of his consulting firm, so we discussed it a bit. Then he largely disappeared. He resurfaced with a new venture that incorporated many of the points we’d discussed. I can’t prove he knowingly borrowed my notions, but the coincidence certainly is striking.

I’m not mentioning names here because of the Six Degrees of Separation rule—you never know who’s linked with whom. And at the one-year mark, my prospects for a fulltime job aren’t exactly looking robust.

I could use as many positive relationships as I can forge.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why I'll stick with keyboards

One of the enlightening experiences of being unemployed is having to fix things, since you can’t afford professional repair work. Which is why I have a paper towel glued to the gearshift of my Jeep.

It looked like a miniature Don King, the cottony tufts of Bounty flapping in the wind. I took off what I could with scissor, scrub pad and fingernail, but there's still a cap of textured white fuzz. A tiny Anderson Cooper is my co-pilot.

I would remove the tissue shreds altogether if I could find a way to melt Krazy Glue. But I know I’ll end up with nothing but the metal shaft of the shift, the rubber completely eaten.

That’s a real possibility for someone like me, who’d probably be invited to help with the refreshments if neighborhoods still held barn-raising parties. I lack whatever gene helps people deduce what end of a hammer to use. And then there’s knowing which pole of the nail to strike. Though I understand that using words like “pole” when talking about a nail is indicative of my deficiency.

Yet when the rearview mirror inexplicably disconnected from the windshield one day, I had no choice but to page my inner Bob Vilas. It was clear that the adhesive holding the butt end of the mirror to the glass had simply given way. How tough could it be to glue it back on?

So off I went to what has to be one of the last remaining five-and-dimes in America. The prices no longer fit that descriptor, but the wares definitely do. You can get everything from newspapers to prescription drugs, dried flowers, plumbing supplies, toys, cigarettes, notebooks, and even snacks. Best of all, there's no employee trying to make small talk by asking what sort of project you're doing, a la Home Depot.

I walked out with a bottle of Krazy Glue, almost swaggering with confidence. The glass was meticulously cleaned, as was the part of the mirror that would be affixed to it. The glue went on, the mirror was pressed against the windshield, and voila!, the problem was resolved.

For about six hours.

Out came the Krazy Glue again. Surfaces were virtually sterilized again. The two parts were joined together again in glued harmony.

The repair lasted four hours that time.

Clearly I wasn’t using enough glue. After the ritual cleaning, I held the bottle of adhesive in one hand as I brushed some both on the windshield and the mirror’s butt end. I was so focused on covering every inch of the to-be-joined surfaces that I didn’t noticed I’d mindlessly tipped the bottle. Out poured the fast-drying glue, covering the gearshift and the console between driver and passenger seats.

Thinking in a flash, I grabbed a paper towel and sopped it up.

Hence my one-car tribute to Don King.

That led to the equivalent of waterboarding for a non-handyman like myself: Going to hardware store and asking for advice. My part always goes something like this: “Screws are the ones with the threads, right?” “When you say ‘hammer it in,' you’re talking about having nails, right?”

It was frustrating, but deliciously satisfying in a second analysis, to discover that the experts’ Rear View Mirror Affixing Kit—and I kid you not, there really is such a thing—worked no better than my Krazy Glue.

Finally, I did what I always do in such situations: Surrendered the project to my wife. She could work at Home Depot, she has such natural aptitude for such things.

Rather than buy some fancy adhesive, she picked up what remained of some sealer we’d used to patch a our pool. She slathered it on, slapped the mirror in place, and declared, "Let's have lunch."

That was eight days ago. And it’s still holding.

Clearly the Anderson Cooper proxy is very pleased.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Listen up, dish washer

I gave my major appliances a long pep talk this morning, but I’m not sure I got through. The TV and washer seemed particularly apathetic, as if they’ve resigned themselves to a final resting place in the garage. They're not even trying, dammit. Clearly they don’t understand what a blow it can be to an unemployed person when a trusted device gives a final shudder and works no more.

I found out how tough that can be this weekend. Last Thursday, I’d laid a hand on my IMac screen to slide it back a few inches. I must’ve used too much force, because I heard a SNAP!, and the screen went haywire. It was clear I’d crunched the LCD screen of my 18-month-old, much-beloved machine.

My wife managed to snag an appointment at the Apple store’s Genius Bar, where you can consult for free with a technician. So at least we got the bad news quickly: A repair would’ve run over $1,000, or two-thirds the cost of a comparable new unit. “Just buy another monitor and look at that instead,” said my genius. He wasn't wearing robes, and lacked a long, white beard. But I'm sure he meditates daily.

Best Buy had a monitor on sale for a mere $200. So far, not so bad.

But then we decided to do something about my phone, which is falling apart faster than Britney Spears' career. $125 later, I had a new Blackberry.

Then disaster struck: We came home to find a house where you could’ve baked bread in the living room. The dogs were panting, the room actually looked steamy, and the air intake for the central air conditioning system was making a horrible noise. Clearly the system had broken and, on the first truly hot weekend of the summer, had decided not to do its job.

We managed to find a technician who could come take a look on Sunday (I thought about my genius from Apple, figuring he could do anything, but had failed to get his superhero contact info. I was going to shine a spotlight on the clouds with a silhouette of an IMac, a la Batman, but didn't have a spotlight handy).

As I described the symptoms over the phone, the technician loud out a “Oh, no.” Clearly this was not going to be good.

It’s not. We’ll probably be hit with a cost in four figures. It won’t kill us, but there will be considerable bleeding.

Hence my pep talk. I think the toaster’s shaping up, and the frig is clearly doing its part. But I worry about the others, including the gas grill.

Oh, well. Time to have a stern heart-to-heart with the car.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Twitter of relief amidst the tragedy

You’re probably wondering what the death of Michael Jackson has to do with my now-chronic state of underemployment. But this has less to do with the King of Pop than with how his death came to light. And, amid the tragedy, that surprising process provides some encouraging news about my career plans.

You swells who have a job probably weren’t avidly scouting Twitter yesterday afternoon, as per the norm for the rest of us. So you missed the first news flash from one of the most followed parties on the medium, Breaking News, a Twitter-based news service: “REPORT: MICHAEL JACKSON TAKEN TO LOS ANGELES HOSPITAL IN CARDIAC ARREST.” It was posted yesterday around mid-afternoon, or around 3 o’clock E.S.T.

Eleven additional flashes from Breaking News would follow in quick succesion, including one refuting a rumor that Jackson had died of a drug overdose.

Then, an hour after the first report, came the stunner: FLASH -- LOS ANGELES -- "KING OF POP" MICHAEL JACKSON HAS DIED.

That was around the time that the New York Times reported via Twitter that Jackson had been hospitalized.

Indeed, at 5:51 I got a news alert e-mailed to me from the Times, saying the same thing.

I got a nearly identical e-mail alert at that time from CNN.

By then, Breaking News was offering the few details it could unearth about Jackson’s death. But it had definitely reported that Jackson was dead.

I didn’t know which to believe, the New York Times and CNN, two titans of the business, or this Breaking News upstart, which was relying secondhand on reports from media like But I knew that this event would either validate Twitter and its specialists as a news medium, or underscore why we need our old reliables to keep us informed.

Finally, at about 6:30, some two hours after Breaking News had reported Jackson’s death, the Times and CNN sent news alerts stating that the King of Pop had passed. The reports were secondhand, based on Associated Press reporting.

Twitter, in short, had kicked the mainstream media’s butt. Indeed, I was annoyed at the Times and CNN for taking me on a rollercoaster with their mistakes-by-omission and lateness. Was Jackson indeed dead, as I’d learned somewhere around 4, or was that a mistake, as the Big Two had indicated? I didn’t need the emotional tumult.

So what does this have to do with my state of employment?

Everyday I’m looking for the check in the mail. When it comes, I’ll crack open a bottle of Champagne and celebrate that I have officially been paid to Twitter.

It’s still freelance, and it’s not that much. But, as yesterday sadly proved, Twitter is a journalistic medium of the future. Print isn’t disappearing, but social media are rivaling it in terms of immediacy, and even accuracy, given its nature (the group-report aspect of it tends to be self-policing).

I’m glad I have a hold on it, albeit by my fingernails. It’s nice to have any sort of affiliation with a form of journalism—and, as yesterday proved, it definitely is—that’s growing in use and reputation.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

My cats wouldn't know an extra virgin

With journalism in a freefall, I’ve been forced to consider alternate careers. Number One on my list is being an heir, but there are so few openings in that field these days. Which means I’ll have to fall back on the obvious area of job growth, cat culinary consulting. I could save the pet foods companies a bundle of money by injecting a healthy does of reality into what they’re putting on the shelves for Whiskers and Snowball.

Right now, for instance, Purina is pushing a new line of Fancy Feast meals that are based on the cuisine of Tuscany. “Our modern take on Tuscan traditions,” explains the promotional copy. My five cats enjoy “Top Chef” as much as the next feline, but they could care less if the rice in their meal is long grain versus the bleached white variety. (Besides, isn’t farro the grain of Tuscany?) And don’t even bother asking them about olive-oil preferences. The Tuscan connection just doesn’t add anything for them. They’d wolf it down if the can label read, “Unidentified organs and other garbage pieces of animal flesh.”

Nor do my four dogs care whether they’re getting Campfire Trout Feast, Grammy’s Pot Pie, or Mediterranean Banquet (again with the olive oil!), some of the varieties we offer them. From careful study of what’s left in the bowls when they come back into the kitchen, I’ve learned that our pack tends to divide anything ingestible—nay, the whole world--into two large categories: Food, and non-food. They’ll eat either, but prefer the former, especially if it started out on a person’s plate.

As David Letterman once astutely remarked, his dogs spend the dog rooting through garbage and lapping water out of toilets. They could really care less that the food in their bowl contains no cereal filler.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My cat, the punk rocker

A common danger of unemployment is convincing yourself there's no need to pay someone for work you could do yourself. Preparing meals, cutting the lawn and washing the car may be fine. But dentistry, tax preparation and boiler repair are best left to those who know precisely what they're doing. Topping that list has to be pet grooming.

One of our cats, Simon, has always been prone to dreadlocks. We've kept him from turning too Bob Marley-ish by getting him foo-foo trims called lion cuts, where the groomer buzzes off all his fur except for what's on his head, feet and tail, making him look like a mini king of the jungle. We then pay them about $75, and Simon looks bitchin' for a few months.

This time, my wife announced, we were going to save that money by trimming Simon our selves. Then came the question that should be a warning to every under-employed person out there: How hard could it be? We had clippers. It was just a matter of running it through his fur.

Turns out it was like diapering a tiger cub. Simon fought with all he had, making us wonder if the groomer used one of those dart rifles you see on "Wild Kingdom" to sedate him first.

Even when the blood flow could be staunched sufficiently for me to get a hold on him before I grew too weak, the dreadlocks proved impossible to shear.

Simon finally fought his way free and fled, no doubt to secure a weapon of some sort. We figured we had no choice but to surrender, given my blood loss by then.

And now he looks as if he was no stranger to CBGB's. Here's his picture, below. The moral: Don't try this at home.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Like being behind the scenes of 'ER'

Being unemployed, you tend to be volunteered as a responder to any family situation, no matter how silly, vexing or time-wasting. Yesterday was the classic example.

It started off as what seemed to be a true crisis. Spring made a surprise appearance in New York, with temperatures climbing to a record-tying 69 degrees. My wife and I decided to enjoy it by driving into the country.

But halfway into the outbound trip, she fielded a call from the son of her father’s girlfriend. Her father, 89 years old, was in the emergency room. He’d taken himself there because of pain in his fingers, explained the caller, Javier, whom we’d never met. Because of language problems, we couldn’t get any details, but feared that we’d be dealing with a serious heart problem.

Then we got the hospital’s input, though it could’ve come from Larry David. My father-in-law had gone to the emergency room not because of pain, but because the tips of his fingers were tingling. Three weeks earlier, he’d explained to one of the nurses, he’d gone out without his gloves during a cold snap. I must have frostbite, he informed her.

Amazingly, the ER suggested he get an MRI to see if that was the case.

We trucked into Queens to be of assistance, despite an occasional suggestion—from me, if you hadn’t guessed—that frostbite might be a little far-fetched. Indeed, it seemed bizarre, given that we weren’t wearing coats. Might it just be another in a long, long string of hypochondriacal panics on her father's part?

But we dutifully drove to Elhurst Hospital, one of New York’s more infamous institutions. The ER care there is top-notch, perhaps because the staff is so fire-hardened. It’s the facility where gunshot victims are usually taken, as we’d seen firsthand in earlier visits. It also serves as the hospital for Riker’s Island, the city's notorious prison. We had no idea of its adeptness at treating frostbite, but confidence was high.

They allowed us back into the treatment area, where my father-in-law was lying in a bed, talking to everyone and seemingly having a decent time. He confirmed that he feared the onset of frostbite, and had been worried about it for the last three weeks. But we couldn’t get an reply to our queries about why he’d waited to seek attention, or why he didn’t call his doctor instead of going to one of the world’s busiest ERs.

We got there about 2:15. He’d been there two hours already. But the wait was just starting. As we sat in the grim, windowless room, I tried not to think about the weather outside. That task was eased a bit by distractions like the guy who waddled past in ankle chains with a police escort, or the fellow in the orange DOC (Department of Corrections) jumpsuit. There was also the obviously troubled soul who loudly demanded to be released. He shut up after the staff pointed out that he was there voluntarily and could leave at any time.

Sadly, because I had to make the hour's drive back to our house to tend to the dogs, and then trek back, I missed some of the entertainment. A high point was my father-in-law’s revelation, after persistent prodding, that he’d sought help that day from the ER because he thought gangrene had started to set in.

He did get his MRI. And a diagnosis. No, it wasn’t frostbite. The problem was Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

We thanked everyone, said we’d pick up a wrist brace for the patient, and left the hospital—at 9 p.m.

I, personally, plan to see that he also gets a new pair of warm gloves, just in case.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Insanity of the times, Take II

A contact for a freelance story promised to get back to me by a certain day. Halfway through that day I sent him an e-mail as a reminder. The e-mail bounced back with a "no known addressee"-type message.

I'd sent the message to an address that incorporated my contact's division in the suffix--i.e., Thinking that maybe his filters were acting up, I re-sent it, using a suffix that included the parent company's name.

It, too, bounced back.

In any other time, I would've taken it as a technical glitch. But now I was certain my contact had been pink-slipped. Mindful of a friend's experience in being an intruder on D-Day, I figured I'd give the situation an hour and then place a call to my source's office.

Minutes later, an e-mail arrived from my source, providing the information I'd been seeking. He'd been reassigned to a new division, with his e-mail suffix adjusted accordingly.

Any other time, that would've merited no more than 15 seconds of reflection. But it was as if he'd survived and airplane crash and was letting me know. He was alive! Corporately speaking, of course.

I held off from calling the guy, afraid I'd gush.

Insanity of the times, Take I

A friend went to make a sales call with several colleagues on a large manufacturing company in the heartland. Because of the place's remoteness, you can count on a day's travel to get there.

The group knew something was amiss when they tried to check in at the company's front desk. Instead of the usual security process, the guard waved them on without hesitation and directed them to an elevator.

Similarly, everyone seemed distracted on their contact's floor, hardly noticing their presence. So, on they marched to the client's cubicle.

There he was, packing his desk. He'd not only been pink-slipped that day as part of a cutback, but that very hour. All he could do is wave them away, his shock evident enough for my friend to note it.

He and his group had come 800 miles to catch a client in his underwear, so to speak.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Breakfast: Under $1, but barely

My posts today deal with an effort to see how little I can spend, including on my food, without being committed. They're best read from the bottom up, starting with How low can I go?.

Even the zealots at the Center For Science in the Public Interest couldn't object to my breakfast on the basis of calories. But I managed to squeak by for under $1: A banana, purchased at Costco for 39 cents a pound and weighing about a third of that, coupled with bread we'd baked with ingredients that I probably overestimated at $3.10. The small loaf usually yields about eight thick slices, and I had two, without any jam, butter or other topping. The banana cost about 13 cents, the bread about 76, and then I had coffee, which came from a Costco No. 12 size. I doubt it cost 24 cents.

Ergo, I'm under a dollar. So far I'm on track to repurchase my wine without busting the budget.

How low can I go?

Something catastrophic happened yesterday, forcing me to take dire action. Either I slash expenditures to virtually nothing, including what I spend on food, or I forego wine for a week.

I’m really going to miss eating.

But it’s really not much of a choice, given what happened.

I had to schlep a bunch of supplies to my car, including two bottles of wine that’d been purchased earlier. To carry it all in one trip, I slipped the bottles into my backpack, which I then hefted onto my shoulder. Three paces later, the zipper on the pack gave way and both bottles tumbled out. These were 1.5 liters each—my whole grape allowance for the week, in adjacent pools of red and white.

Hence the challenge of having to stretch a budget that’s tighter than Joan River’s forehead. So today I’m going to see how little I can spend and still stay alive. The rules:

--No consumption of pet food as a substitute.

--No consumption of pets.

--No robbery, mugging or other forms of theft.

--Basic rules of human decency have to be maintained. I.e., no eating out of garbage cans or off bussed cafeteria trays.

Other than that, anything goes. And I’ll be detailing it all throughout the day in frequent updates.

Suggestions are definitely welcomed.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Shutting a door on one career option

Last week I attended a New York State workshop for unemployment-benefit collectors who are interested in starting their own business. The presenters made no feint about the purpose: To discourage us.

Indeed, it’s identified in the provided literature as the Cold Shower session, “the single most important event in The Self-Employment Assistance Program.” The objective was to scare off all but the most determined and realistic would-be entrepreneurs. Never in the history of government, from the rise of city-states in ancient Greece through the American Constitutional Congress and countless revolutions, has a ruling power delivered so completely on a promise.

The session started with that the presenter, herself a recovering entrepreneur, called a harsh reality: Continue in the program, and you forfeit any right to extended unemployment benefits. Instead of getting possibly 33 weeks of financial assistance, you’d get 13.

That meant many of us who decided to stick it out would face a complete halt in income. The rest of us faced an equally sobering choice. Presumably we were there because our weekly $405 benefit wasn’t enough to sustain our households. We could either resign ourselves to that plight until the economy fosters hiring again, or take what the presenter termed “a gamble” on a start-up. She followed that up with the observation that 90% of ventures fail, and most don’t make any money for five years.

Four people immediately stood up, handed in their evaluations, and left.

“Does anyone make it through?” one attendee shouted out.

“I’m supposed to sound like a naysayer, to make you think this is not for you,” the presenter explained.

And she was just getting warmed up.

Starting your own business, she said, could mean a critical strain on relations with a significant other—and an about-face if you’re already at the point of reconsidering ths partnership. Because New York’s approach to divorce is splitting everything the spouses have, “it might be cheaper to keep her,” she remarked.

Similarly, she asked everyone to consider their kids, and how a complete stop in income might affect their schooling or experiences.

And consider the situation of having an ailing parent, or an elderly parent who might take a turn for the worse. If you have siblings, the speaker explained, they’re going to look at you as the one with time to take care of Mom or Dad because you’re “not reporting someplace everyday for work.”

As she’s speaking, more and more people are handing her their evaluations, which were more or less mandatory, and bolting for the exits.

You can appreciate the state’s efforts to discourage the half-hearted from taking the life-changing and potentially disastrous move of launching a business. But Nordstrom’s isn’t exactly studying the Department’s methods to pick up service tips. Indeed, the experience underscored how desperately the whole unemployment program has to be updated.

For instance, after the presenter dropped the bombshell about having to forego possibly 20 weeks of unemployment if you proceeded with a stab at a start-up, someone asked why. “Because,” she said. Period. That’s how it is. End of issue. It’s not subject to appeal, so just accept it, she pointedly responded.

The question seemed completely reasonable to me. And since it was posed by a taxpayer to a government employee, I guess I expected a little more than that. A lot more, actually. Like an answer, not, “None of your business.”

But, beyond the way the rules are presented, changes are most emphatically needed in the policies themselves. The speaker stressed that any steps toward starting your own business would be grounds for denying all benefits, regular or extended. And if you’ve received benefits, the state might come after you to get back what it’s paid. “Just three little letters, people,” she said. “‘any’.”

And those signs you’re starting a business? Creating a website, or carrying business cards, she explained. “Calling cards are okay,” she said. “You should be giving out calling cards to anyone who’ll take one.”

What the hell is a calling card? Turns out it’s a business card that doesn’t include a business name. The first is fine; the second is grounds to demand all benefits be repaid, the speaker emphasized.

I’m stuck on the website prohibition. As someone who hopes to land a job generating editorial content for web pages, my most powerful marketing tool could be a site I set up and maintain to demonstrate my skills. I’ll have to consult with unemployment authorities now to determine if that’s okay.

Similarly, we heard from a representative of a program that was formed to help small businesses. He detailed the resources that would be available to us if we enrolled in the self-employment program, including free classes.

Could we avail ourselves of those programs to strengthen our resumes if we decide not to pursue self-employment? After all, the asking attendee suggested, a brush-up on certain skills might make us more hire-able.

Not if you’re collecting unemployment, the speaker responded. The classes are open to anyone else, since they’re government-funded. But not to anyone collecting unemployment benefits.

We, apparently, are second-class citizens.

More clarification is also needed in regard to freelancing, the hope of any journalist in these shitty times. I’ve asked for some definition from unemployment authorities, but have yet to get a response. A call to Albany was also less than satisfying.

I wanted to get a sense of how to handle situations like subscribing to controlled-circulation publications, an important resource for freelancers. Most require you to list a company name. What do I put down without jeopardizing my benefits?

I’m reasonably sure the state regards freelancing as part-time employment, not self-employment. But it’d be good to get that verified.

And why should there be any questions about freelancing in the first place? If you can’t survive on $405 a week, and jobs aren’t out there, shouldn’t our government encourage and facilitate the pursuit of spot work? Why all these ridiculous safeguards to make sure we’re not gaming the system, when all we’re trying to do is survive?

In case you’re wondering, I’ve dropped any notion of starting a business. There’s just too much to lose, even if small companies are an important driver of the economy. The unemployment rules just make it too much of a gamble.

It’s a shame the system doesn’t function as more of a safety net, since that would make the most sense to the economy and any individual who’s currently out of work.

An overhaul of that system couldn’t come soon enough.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The club welcomes half a million new members

My peeps grow in number. From Twitter: NYT NEWS ALERT: Slumping Economy Shed 598,000 Jobs in January; Unemployment Rate Jumps to 7.6%

Thank you, George Bush. May your diet consist solely of peanut butter for the next two months.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Does he know who we are?

I’ve pinpointed a critical flaw in President Obama’s economic recovery plan, but you wouldn’t believe how tough it is to get Tim Geithner on the phone. If it weren’t for that guard at the local IRS office, the Administration might’ve never gotten the word.

Fortunately, it was all caught on security camera. The transcript was provided as part what my court-appointed attorney calls “discovery.”

Guard, with something of a twinkle in his eye: “So, I understand there’s something you’d like me to tell our new President the next time I see him.”

Me: “Yep. He’s putting us at risk of possibly fatal whining.”

G: “Oh?”

M: “Yep. Here, let me show you.” [Plunks down driver’s license.]

G, looking perplexed: “A license. I don’t understand.”

M: “Check the date of birth.”

G: “1957. So?”

M, with exasperation: “I’m a Baby Boomer.”

G: “And?”

M: “Is there anything about Baby Boomers in the stimulus plan?”

G, hesitating a moment to think: “Not that I recall.”

M, smugly: “Exactly.”

G: “Sorry. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

M: “Right now I and a lot of Boomers are out of work. We’re losing our homes. We’ve had to cut back on dining out, our gym memberships—even our trips to Starbucks, man! We’re feeling pain. And that doesn’t happen to Baby Boomers. Privileged generation, remember? Woodstock? Free love? J.Crew?

G, frantically pressing a button marked ‘Alarm’ on his desk: “So what’re you saying? That there should be special concessions for Baby Boomers in the package?”

M, with near tearful relief: “Not a lot—a discount from L.L. Bean, maybe, or a rollback of sushi prices. And concert prices! Do you have any idea how much it’ll cost to see Paul Simon at the Beacon? Just for a so-so seat?...A few billion should cover it.”

[Sounds in the background of sirens and police vehicles screeching to a halt.]

Young Gen X-aged bystander, who’d sidled up to the guard: “Wow. He’s really lost it.”

[Guard nods.]

Gen Xer: “He didn’t even mention cable prices.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My favorite observations of the Inauguration

Now that we're more than 24 hours past the Inauguration, a little irreverence may be in order. Yeah, I teared up, felt my inner Patton, and joined the rest of the nation in savoring a much-needed surge of hopefulness. But I also laughed at some of the observations that were shared online and in discussions of the historic event. Here are my favorites:

"Does Yo Yo Ma have a clip-on tie on?"--Trends guru Andy Ford, on Twitter and Facebook

"It was hard to hear Aretha Franklin over the groaning of the floorboards. You could hear her neck flapping in the wind."--Wag who shall remain nameless, given his quasi-public role; in private conversation

"The inauguration was full of fucking memorable images, like Cheney being wheeled around like a fucking Batman villain."--Humorist Andy Borowitz, blogging as alter-ego Levi Johnston on The Huffington Report.

"Great planning by John Roberts. It's only the inauguration of a President. Why bring a copy of the oath?"--Another quipster who opts to remain unnamed.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A new line if your goose isn't cooked

I stumbled across a brilliant idea for a new business. Unfortunately, it's already been taken by whoever owned the filthy truck that zoomed by us in a residential area yesterday. I couldn't catch the name on the door, but it was something clever like The Geese Getterrs or Geese Busters.

The graphics left little doubt as to the service that's provided. Have a house near a body of water that geese frequent? Or maybe they just use your property as a toilet as they fly north or south. If you've got geese using your lawn, you've got a problem. But not if you call the Geese Fleecers or whatever it was called.

I can't help wondering if US Air is aware of the service.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Jobless yet still afloat. Literally.

There’s something surreal about applying for your weekly unemployment benefits from a cruise ship docked at the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.

But don’t think I’m some goldbricker conning the system. The mostly non-refundable trip had been booked more than a year before I was laid off. My choice was either to cancel and lose all but a few hundred dollars of what my wife and I had already paid, or to invest a few dollars more and proceed despite being unemployed. When I realized the added money was what we’d spend on groceries if I didn’t set sail on the floating feed trough, it was a no-brainer. Off we went last Saturday on a weeklong cruise.

It was not a comfortable experience, largely because of the guilt. But I popped for the ship-to-shore internet package so I could field e-mails, send out resumes, and add posts to my career-related blog, Restaurant Reality Check. I rationalized it as a floating busman’s holiday, and tried to learn as much as I could about Caribbean food, a knowledge that could make me more valuable within my field.

I can’t deny that I enjoyed leaving the penguin-pleasing weather of New York for a few days of sun and warmth. But even more delicious was the break from unrelenting news of financial Armageddon. One of the drawbacks of a cruise ship—and there are plenty, trust me—is foregoing a daily newspaper. When I finally got my hands on a New York Times a week after leaving San Juan, I was immediately thrown into a Muddy Waters-scale funk. The lead story was about the biblical spike in unemployment during December. Buried among the business stories was a heartbreaker about the Seattle Post-Intelligencer facing a likely demise, at least in paper-and-ink form, by the end of this month. The piece noted that the Rocky Mountain News faces a similar plight.

Today brought a Times column by Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman about the Obama team’s expectations for the economy. John Lee Hooker couldn’t have elicited more pathos. I can’t understand why the study and reports cited by Krugman weren’t front-page news. As he recounted, the President-Elect’s financial brain trust expects the incoming administration’s recovery package at best to freeze current conditions for almost two years. That means two years of unemployment exceeding 7%. For someone who’s part of that figure right now, the news wasn’t exactly welcomed. I started humming gospel tunes.

If I have to tread water for two years, or until I’m nearly on the cusp of retirement, I think I’d rather head back to the islands and start a steel-drum brand--if I could find some institution willing to lend me the start-up capital.

The escape from the bleak financial news wasn’t complete during my Caribbean sojourn. In Antigua, locals pointed out a luxury resort that was scheduled to be open for the current season. But its backers had apparently lost all their dough in the Icelandic banking crisis, and hundreds of people had to forego choice jobs they believed would be theirs. Similarly, someone in Barbados pointed out a waterfront condominium complex, encompassing dozens if not hundreds of units, that was on the market for a mere $14 million. Normally, said a local cab driver, that much money would be generated by the sale of just two apartments.

And then there was the fellow passenger who was fired via e-mail while he was still on board. His response was either foolhardy or admirable, depending on your perspective. He immediately went to Guest Services and asked if accommodations were available on the cruise that commenced the day ours ended, so he could stay a-sea.

I wonder how he’d feel about joining a steel-drum band.