Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Finding Strength

An Occasional Blogger's Journey
After A Rough Few Years,
Toward Feeling Like a Person Again.
Part Two: The New Religion
(please scroll down for "Part One: The Old Days")

Those were the old days. The days of healthy promise and lifelong dreams that threatened to never come true. Twelve hour shifts of grunt work in a hair net and heavy, non-slip boots. But then, as they often do, things got better.

I earned myself a position as a video editor at a nationwide press-clipping agency in the big city of Boston. It actually paid less money per-hour than the labor gigs, but it was work that was somewhat related to my field (I'd been adept at editing video since my high-school cable-access days) and it was city work. All my life, I'd been attracted to the urban life. Having grown up in a small Massachusetts town -- and on the dirt-driveway-and-swamp end of it, at that -- the concrete canyons and neon-soaked nights were always the spots my heart called home. That's natural, I suppose. They say the dream of Born Metropolitans is often the quiet little house on the tree-lined street in the country. So it seems human to me that where ever we're from and whatever we have, we often want to be somewhere and have something else.

And so it was that at the age of 24, I was going to become a Young Commuter. The lifeblood of the Metro Machine. Taking the train into the city in the morning, coming home late at night. I remember speeding my way into Boston on the commuter rail train every morning in the beginning days, staring out the window with the wonder of a child, watching all the local towns whizzing by, excited, and shocked that none of the people around me seemed interested enough to be doing the same. I'd wonder, "How can they just bury their faces in their newspapers? How does someone ever get used to this?" A year later, some friends and I got found a tiny, cheap apartment in Boston's North End and the dream continued. I was no longer a commuter, but a Young Urbanite. The original Pizzaria Regina was my front yard. Haymarket Square and Government Center were my backyard. Boston Common was my playground. There was a rough patch at the job... Having come from a blue collar background, I was still fairly inexperienced in certain behaviors needed to survive in the office-work world, and they hadn't quite gotten used to my often out-there sense of humor, though we all warmed to each other's ways and everything got very well smoothed out. Having performed one above-and-beyond assignment after another (so conscientious was I), my raises were always top-level... and I was given the title of Evening Shift Supervisor, even though my "staff" was composed of three people, myself included.

I started making what was, to me, real money. I was never late with bills, school loans or rent, spending very little on food and night life. My best friend was a manager at the city's largest cinema at the time, so I was happily awarded free admission to pretty much any movie I liked for the better part of three years. Then I did the next logical thing. I applied for a few extra credit cards and lived the high life for a while. Paying for meals, traveling a little, buying three or four new DVDs every payday at $20.00 a pop, going on the occasional date whenever fortune smiled upon me enough. I wasn't an extreme spender, by any stretch. I didn't buy or lease any new cars. I didn't go to Las Vegas one birthday when I'd hoped to... I always made my minimum payments and on-time, behaving, in short, just like the good little consumer everyone said "kept this world going strong."

And then, one morning in August 2002, the General Manager called two of my three-person department -- that is, my direct boss Mary Anne and myself -- into the break room. With no warning and completely out-of-the-blue, the GM told us we were being laid off. Not next month or next week, either... Right now.

"Sign this form accepting this severance agreement and please be out by noon," was the overall tone. We were stunned. Mary Anne had given this company something in the neighborhood of fifteen years... and I, seven of my own. We'd become very close friends over my time in the office. After my aforementioned rough patch at the start of my employment there, we'd often joke about how many times I'd either nearly been fired or had wanted to quit. And we'd gotten past all that to become each other's friendly shoulder to lean on. There was a recession going on, if you recall, and she had just made the decision to sell her city property and try to find something less pricey. I'd left my North End apartment after a couple of years, myself, for a better but further-away residence just outside the city. Now, both our lives were effectively in limbo. We cleaned out our cubicles, jumped in her Jeep, found a beach-comber seafood tavern somewhere North of Boston and proceeded to get pretty drunk. Toasting one another for our abilities and what would surely be a new freedom of some kind, we ate and laughed until later that night... when the sadness of being chucked aside and effectively being told you weren't as necessary as you thought set in.

I'd never been let go before. Never been fired, laid off, or even reprimanded for anything very serious. Ever been laid off? If not, I don't recommend the sensation. In my case, I became sort of defiant. I knew I had to find work but I felt I wouldn't be out of work for long. Not someone of my stature and ability. A local television station or something would come along and snatch me right up, tout de suite! I signed up for unemployment right away at pretty much everyone's direction. That allotment, added to my savings (a few thousand) and so-called severance package (another couple of thousand) would be plenty to keep my bills paid and living well for the short time it would take me to find work. Like the Tom Waits song said, I was "sleepin' 'til the crack of noon, midnight howlin' at the moon." And I'd often joke that I was living the life of "Kramer" on TV's Seinfeld -- I'd just wake up and take the day's adventures however they rolled in, catching a lot of movies, not writing as often as I should have... Pretty much just being lazy. I'd never really had any kind of extended holiday as a kid or working adult, having gone from high school straight into college and working full time. I was 32 and thought I'd take it easy for a while. A few weeks, maybe. Enjoy myself.

My few months of unemployment stretched out to eighteen months. That's one and a half years of being told "thanks for stopping by" and "we'll be in-touch" by pretty much every television, radio and print organization in Boston. The recession had begun hitting everyone and nationwide hiring began to fall off.

And it's true... Rejection is a hard thing to deal with if it's all you hear. You begin to feel worthless and unnecessary... and you start to believe it. You spend your money far less freely (which is something we've all come to understand, lately). You spend a lot of time alone. You feel isolated. You spend more time in bed in the winter months, because you figure it's cold outside so why bother even getting up today? You start putting on weight again, as a body with no daily purpose simply eats and sleeps and starts caring less about itself, since nobody who's hiring seems very keen to see it, anyway. There's nobody out there who wants to see you, it feels... Nobody out there who cares. Sure you've got family, some friends, but you don't want to trouble them with what's going on, don't want anyone to know the toll this whole thing's taking upon you. You smile and say "everything's fine," hoping people don't suspect what you're really feeling... Fear and loneliness.

Then the money starts to vanish. What savings you had start to dry up. You've gone through your allowance of unemployment benefit. All the time you're out of work, you're able to keep up with bills and loans... but now it's all run out. You start looking around your room, wondering how much you could get for your personal possessions. How many CDs or books it might take for you to buy some food this week (maybe something extravagant, like hamburgers!) or cover some of the month's gas bill or rent.

Then one day you're offered a job, the only job you can get, it seems. The only job that will have you. It's at the local video store. It's for half the money you were making before, and your pay is sporadic at best since you just started and they're trying you out as a part-timer to see if you're worth keeping around in this market. The Store Manager seems a decent guy, having offered you the job sensing that you'd be a good fit there, being educated and knowledgeable. In fact, nobody there even knows a third of what you know about the business, having followed it as a hobby for the previous ten years or more, just for fun. So you're hired, for better or worse. And the real chaos begins almost immediately.

The Bill Collectors start calling. There is a special circle in hell set aside for Bill Collectors, I hope. For they are the most ruthless and despicable people I've ever had the misfortune to run across. Having had next-to-no-money for the previous two months before being hired at the Video Store, I missed two months' worth payments on each of my credit cards. Some one the minimums were only $30.00 a month, where others had skyrocketed up to $230.00 per month, which was now completely impossible amount to reach. Never mind that you've never had a problem making payments until this point. Never mind that you've been able to keep paying, mostly on-time, even though you've been out of work for nearly two years. "We don't care," is their apparent motto.

Collection agencies, I'd read somewhere during my experiences, often intentionally hire ex-convicts to work their phones, since these men have rougher, more threatening voices and can just skirt the edge of being threatening by reading from a prepared script laying out your problems and their plans for you but doing it in a scary-sounding way, as if you'd better listen up here, Charlie, or something bad might happen.

One phone call from a Collection Agency had said to me, "If you don't pay up soon, you'll have to face the Man in the Black Robe." Fearful in my naivete, I blurted out, "Who? Death ?!" The Collector quickly corrected me with, "No, stupid!! The judge!!" It may be the the only time I've ever been relieved to be called stupid.

And not long after, I got the Summons. I was being hauled into Court for refusal to live up to my credit agreement. Even though I'd worked things out with four of my five credit card companies, and even though I'd, once, again, showed my desire to keep current by keeping up with all my bills while being unemployed, I was being "brought to justice" by the powerful and the elite. Me. Someone who'd never had so much as a parking ticket as an adult. I was now The Defendant. The Criminal. This, added to the depression of feeling like a useless citizen, a lonely and undesirable male
with no financial stability and unable to find romance, was beginning to really take it's toll. I went in and the court clerks and such could see almost immediately that I didn't belong there, as if they were looking at a lost child or foreign vacationer who didn't quite grasp the language or enormity of the situation. One thing lead to another and an agreement was struck... one that I stuck to, to the letter, happily paying things off as I was able. It's not that I'd ever claimed to not owe anyone any money. I did owe. And I acknowledged that. I just needed a proper schedule with which to set things right. Try telling that to a multinational organization who wants it all up front, right now. But things went as well as could be expected and were settled. Until that Collection Agency sold my case off to yet another Collection Agency, who then summoned me to court... again.

There were days when I would have to force myself out of bed and leave my room, just to feel as if I were alive. And on those days, as there was nothing else to do, I'd think. A mind with nothing to occupy it but introspection can be a dangerous thing.

How alone have you ever really felt? How long could you say it lasted? Have you ever spent a Saturday afternoon aimlessly walking though your town and the surrounding ones, hour after hour, with no destination in mind? I'd walk through neighborhoods of wealth and privilege, past million dollar homes, seeing people younger than I with families and children and wealth and privilege. I'd look at these people... and I'd seethe with jealousy. I'd see them through their windows as I shuffled down their sidewalks, seeing them have their parties with their cultured, wealthy, good-looking friends. I'd actually begrudge them their success. "Must be family money," I'd rationalize. "They look so stupid and soulless and without a single creative thought, no way they earned any of that good life on their own." And I'd realize that the last few dates I'd had were decent, but they never led to second or third dates... I'd rarely get the invite back to their place... Maybe because I was too boring for someone, since I only have a few dollars and can't afford to take anyone out to more than a film and maybe, if fate smiled upon my paycheck that week, a coffee afterwards. I'd realize I couldn't go on vacations with someone if I'd like to, or to rent a car and go out for a drive anywhere... I couldn't even visit my college friends without having one of them meet my lame ass at a train station halfway there. I'd become very solitary over this time. I'd even skipped family holidays because I'd had no ability to buy any of my nieces or nephew any presents.

I thought to myself almost daily, for nearly four years, "You're a god damn loser."

And on a few particular nights, when the moon was high and the wind was cold, I'd be walking along, alone... and I'd be crying, quietly. Not out loud, as I wouldn't want to be noticed, but on those here-and-there empty streets, it would come out. My breathing would get heavier, I'd feel my blood pressure rising, heart pounding... These are the moments it takes years to tell people about. These are the moments of feelings of worthlessness so deep and of loneliness so complete, my spirit would break down completely. There comes a point where you can't hide from it anymore. And it just takes you. Maybe for a few minutes, maybe the whole afternoon. And every sad moment that you felt before feels as if it were nothing more than a preparatory session, a dry run, for the darkness you feel now.

But then...

Something... I didn't know what. But something... kept me going.

Maybe it was that same blind, stupid hope that I felt back in the factories in The Old Days, that thing that kept me from going out on that icy lake or standing too long on the train tracks in the winter snow. That thing, that hope, that doesn't quite let you give up. And only recently did I figure out what that thing was. That thing that kills the anger, the sorrow, the depression and the hate of everything in one's dark world.

It is... yes... love. The love of friends. The love of family. The love of strangers. The fact that in these times of need, people can step up. They do step up. They do come out in force.

When I was at the Video Store, the chain itself was folding up for good. You probably read about it. We weren't a Blockbuster, but were were a close second. And every day we wondered if it would be the last. We really expected to be closed up at any time. And when it finally came down and my sadness was at a fever pitch, an all-time high... Someone came out of nowhere and offered me a new job. A customer whom I'd connected with on personal level. Someone who appreciated me at the right place and the right time. He offered me a job in another store, this time a store of wonder and intelligence and warmth and of family. And in his kindness, he helped lead the way to another person of warmth, and another, and before I knew it, my financial issues were on the turnaround back to recovery (that's a whole other story for another time). And I no longer felt like quite the loser I had been, for so very long. And at about the same time, more things in this life began coming into focus for me. I'd begun experiencing things on a whole new level again.

Sorrow and depression can filter the way one experiences their world in a huge way, and once that black curtain of fear is lifted, especially after years of that fear, it's like seeing the sun again, for the first time in forever. You smile more. You can actually feel yourself smiling more. The little things bounce off you, they don't even register. You hear music differently, suddenly for the first time really talking in the nuances of artists you took for granted. People like David Bowie and the Beatles, Miles Davis and John Coltrane... who's work has been around for decades, but you now don't simply hear it, you feel it. You walk through those neighborhoods with the million dollar homes no longer filled with hate, but with happiness.

This is not an exaggeration. As I passed down one familiar street last spring, I actually stopped for a moment in my tracks, smiled and nearly wept for a short second. It occurred to me that... the hate was gone. For everything. And for myself. That feeling I'd had almost every day for the last few years was lifted. Vanished. And I was feeling like "me" again. I'm not sure how many of you out there follow this particular statement. But I sincerely hope that none of you... and all of you... can feel it someday -- none of you, in that I wouldn't wish such a path of sorrow on anyone... and all of you, in that we should all feel this sense of the purest happiness washing over you like a warm, soothing breeze atop a high, grassy hill under the summer sun.

Driving with a close college friend one afternoon earlier this year, I remarked, "You know what? This moment, in this car, in this blue sky, on this road, on this day, driving around with you like this, dude... I'm pretty happy." He laughed it off, maybe a little uncomfortable with the emotional honesty of that moment. I helped him out and laughed a little, too. But it was real. And I think maybe he could sort of sense that. I won't say who it was, but I want to thank him for that moment.

We go through our lives in these times of sorrow, of uncertainty. We don't know if we're safe, or how long we'll be healthy, or capable of supporting ourselves. We don't tell people how we feel, We're all guilty of it, every day. Life is too short, too fragile, too precious to let fall away in silence. It's come to my attention, more and more, that there are others in my life who might be going through a similar process. Loneliness and sadness are terrible killers of the spirit. And maybe your first instinct is to keep it all down, to bury it deep inside you. But that's a mistake. You need to open up, to share it, no matter how painful it might seem. There's strength in sharing, in finding out you're not alone. I have a few friends and they're going through, or seem to be going through, their own hard times. I've been there and I can see the signs. And if there comes a time when they need to talk, to be heard, I just hope I can do for someone what some have been able to do for me. To help, to heal...

And I want to take the time to thank the following people out there in my life, all through the years, who have helped make life worth living. In no particular order: Anne, Christopher, Chris, Shawn, Maggie, Jeannie, Mark, Cricket, Tim, Tom, Barbara, Melinda, Peter, Steven, Stephen, Marg, Meagan, Mary Anne, Michael, Alvaro, Mike, Jess, Maureen, Ailis, Martin, Lara, Peter, Ellie, Lily, Scott, Amy, Rick, Lis, Michelle, Matty, David, Deborah, Brittany, Christine, Mark, Becca, Akiko, Milo, Kristin, Fok, Jess, Joan, Danielle, Andrea, Jennifer, Stacey... If I forgot your name, I'm sorry... It's 2:45 am and I've been sitting here for hours... but be assured... If, when we see each other, I smile and seem genuinely happy to see you, you're up there, too.

You are all my friends. Thanksgiving is tomorrow. When I sit and think about all the things I am thankful for, you people top the list.

Thank you for being my friends.

Thank you for saving my life.

Thank you for helping me find strength.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Finding Strength

An Occasional Blogger's Journey
After A Rough Few Years,
Toward Feeling Like a Person Again.

Part One: The Old Days

Do you know who you are? Do you really know who you are?

It's human nature for someone to think they have all the answers, to think they know everything there is to know - or need to know - about themselves, their lives, their potential, their worlds. In this life, as we grow from infancy through childhood and young adulthood, we are bombarded with the great Societal Messages. Virtue is its own reward. College is the key to prosperity and success. A penny saved is a penny earned. Good is stronger than evil. Over the last few years, the gradual disintegration of our collective perception of safety and soundness - after the events of 9/11 and the War on Terror, the economic recession, Ponzi investment fraud and many other such events - has made it become more clear to the people of our world that there are, in fact, no promises in life. No guarantees. No answers.

The last ten years have been a fairly dark time for us all. The 1980's were an interesting time to grow into adulthood, around here. We were all fed the lines that "this is America and we deserve the best!" We grew up with a perceived sense of entitlement, as if we were (or are) due nothing but good fortune, if we work hard and live right. A few years later, we leased cars and bought McMansions and flat-screen televisions because we felt we deserved them. We cheated on our lovers or got divorces because this is the land of opportunity, damn it, and if our loved ones don't agree with us on some slight non-issue when placed against the grand scheme of things then we'll find someone who will.

None of this is meant to be any sort of essay about politics, not about assigning blame nor pointing fingers. Terrible things happen all the time, but how often do they happen to you? Loss, unemployment, financial difficulty... these are facts of life. We read every day of tragedy, sickness and fear in the lives of others and we say "how terrible." What are the effects of such tragedies? How have the last few years affected you? What have been the tolls upon our souls? And how have we changed?

Some time ago, my own particular collegiate and post-collegiate employment world consisted of nothing but labor gigs in warehouses and factories. This lasted for a year or two, all after spending nearly six years in college -- an institution I was told would guarantee me a better life, and being considered a fairly decent writer, filmmaker, creative-artist, even being told by one professor that he thought I was destined to make "lasting contributions in the industry." Powerful was my sense of entitlement. And the only job I could get in my podunk town, where I had no car and no money and no family contacts to make any sort of career or life for myself, was in Manual Labor. Sweeping loading zones, running conveyor belts on assembly lines, washing buckets in warm water and bleach, illegally driving fork lifts at the direction of my bosses, being surrounded by the "lifers," people who had been stuck in this same situation for years, sometimes decades, often drunk on the job, stealing from the employers, joking about their "stupid" spouses...

One morning after working my typical overnight 7pm-to-7am shift, I arrived home, sat in a chair, looked out the window and had a very strong nervous breakdown. Shaking, laughing and crying, unable to think about anything but what seemed to be a very dark future, I collapsed into hysteria.

This had been coming for quite some time. When one is depressed -- in this case due to the unfairness of my life direction given my hard work in college and perceived so-called talent as an artist, which is fairly self-aggrandizing in a certain respect -- one's relation to his or her world can snap in a heartbeat.

People often talk and often hear about that great monster, Clinical Depression. Every day can feel like a stay in hell. Simply waking up and getting out of bed in the morning can be a torture. Many get diagnosed, receive pills and move through their lives in a medicated haze. While I've never been diagnosed with such an affliction, nor taken extended meds, I do believe I have a sense of what said people often go through. Case in point: on my way to working that overnight shift, I'd pass by a lake and over a set of railroad tracks both to and from work every day. And there were a few times when I'd thought to myself during a sub-freezing winter's moment, "I wonder how far out on that lake I could walk before the ice breaks under my feet." Or while crossing the tracks, perhaps hearing the whistle of an approaching commuter rail train, "it would be so easy to just stay on these tracks and not move."

These are the thoughts of someone who's had enough. And, in a retrospective way, they feel very... I don't want to use the term "over-dramatic" so I'll say... "childish," which isn't to say that they're not serious or terrible, but perhaps lacking in knowledge or being of a world view, at that time. When you're a kid with very limited life-experience, all you know is your own life. Your own pain. Something as seemingly minute as being unhappy in your job can seem like the end of all things. "Why go on, if this is to be my life?" I would think to myself. And I'd joke about such thoughts with certain close friends that I thought (and hoped) could handle the gallows humor of it. When you're in dispair, sometimes it helps, however briefly, to have the right people around you to help laugh it off. Not that I would have ever done anything like end it all... I might have wondered about it, but never could do it. Why? A few reasons, really.

One: The whole Catholic concept of suicide leading to an immortal soul's eternal damnation. It might sound trite but even though I've never been the regularly church-going type and I'm not sure I'd consider myself overly religious, I've always - to put it simply - appreciated the Big Man and the Big Rules. And I've always felt that some pain in-the-now was nothing compared to the possible never ending darkness of the purgatorial void.

Two: My Mom and My Friends. She, my Mother, would truly be devastated if I'd ever gone and done anything so horrible. Never mind whatever pain I might've thought I was feeling. This is a woman who's had what I think many would agree to be -- if they knew all the facts -- a very hard life, one with doubt and fear and pain and some loneliness and the occasional ray of hope and sunshine. When things were bad, and they often were, it was us against the world. I know what I mean to her... And then my Friends... There was a time when I didn't have many friends. All through high school I considered maybe three people close enough to call friends -- and one of them was an adult, a teacher who saw something of value in my artwork. In those situations where your peers just don't seem to care - if you're a heavy kid, picked on, living in State-assisted housing and a form of Federal Assistance - loneliness is the greatest potential killer that I can think of. I knew about this as a child and high-schooler here and there, but this moment of Labor Work wasn't one of those times. This moment instead, the point of my college and post-college years between 1988 and 1994, brought me many of the friends I would consider my lifetime ones. Friends I still love and cherish to this day who I hope know this as fact... Friends that might just be reading these words right now... Friends I can't do without.

Three: Blind hope. If someone removes themselves from life, they could miss something better down the line. It could be anything... Love. Art. Career. Riches. Family. Sunlight. Music. Good books and films. People. Animals... How could one know things could get better if they weren't there to see it?

Some truly unfortunate people spend their lives in famine, disease, sorrow... What right did I have to consider such an end if I simply didn't like my current situation? And yet, some do just that. My cousin did. And my step brother. Boys I played with as a child, boys I saw movies with, exchanged birthday presents with, joked about girls with. My cousin was the athlete, the talented musician, had the girlfriend, the bright future... He seemed to have it all in ways I never had and in some ways still haven't. My step brother went the other way, I'd heard; alcohol and drug addiction. Another two people in my life got into their respective cars and drove themselves into trees. One drank himself to death and died alone over a Christmas holiday. What brought them to their last breaths? What sadness made them give up?

An hour or so later after my aforementioned breakdown, I finally calmed down enough to take some medication (given to me me by someone with several other issues that required such medication) and fell asleep. The sadness of what I perceived to be a wasted life in front of me hit me hard. Not long later, I got my first adult employment opportunity , a video/audio editing job at a nationwide press clips agency, lost a little physical and emotional weight -- no small feat for someone who grew up poor, heavy and never got a date until his twenties -- and moved into adulthood and into the city of Boston with college friends. So yes, things got better for the next, oh seven years or so... (More on that, later.)

This is all backstory, though. None of this is any sort of cry for help, any sort of "poor me" attempt at attention-grabbing. I only bring it up to place a few things in context.

Sadness, fear and sorrow all take a huge toll on the human spirit. You see, much of this was all between 1993 and 1995. Years before the World Trade Center, the Taliban, Bernie Madoff, George Bush, the Failing Dollar, Ten Percent Unemployment... All the above, all that seemed so sad and harsh and important, was "only a test," compared to what would eventually come to town in all our lives. You really never know who you are -- or what you're capable of -- until the time comes. When you're feeling strong, the phrase "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" might come to mind. And maybe, for a time, you feel like you can handle anything life can throw at you. "That other stuff, that was kid stuff. I'm an adult now," you might think in such moments. "I can take anything."

We were all about to find out just what we could take. Just who we were. And just what we were made of.

To be continued...