I Surrender

“Behold, the Underminer! I’m always beneath you, but nothing is beneath me!”

—The Incredibles, Pixar

“The key question is whether workers who have been unemployed for a long time eventually come to be seen as unemployable, tainted goods that nobody will buy. This could happen because their work skills atrophy, but a more likely reason is that potential employers assume that something must be wrong with people who can’t find a job, even if the real reason is simply the terrible economy. And there is, unfortunately, growing evidence that the tainting of the long-term unemployed is happening as we speak.


“So we are indeed creating a permanent class of jobless Americans.”

—Paul Krugman, “The Jobless Trap,” The New York Times, April 21, 2013

Hey, I’m still here. Is this thing on?

It’s not the longest period of time I haven’t posted anything—a whole two months went by just between posts in mid-November and mid-January—but it’s felt like a long time.

It’s been a crazy six months, and the last month hasn’t even been the craziest part, although it’s been rough in a way all its own. Most of it’s not germane to the quotes above, so I won’t bore anyone with every detail, but Krugman—as he often does—speaks the gospel.

I got my official State of Oregon Private Security Provider (Unarmed Professional) card yesterday, a little over a month after going through a two day training course with some folks who, frankly, had a lot of trouble reading aloud the simple questions we were prepped for on the exam. They passed, too. So forty hours a week—mostly in the middle of the night—I’m a security guard. The card is comically cheesy-looking, on the thinnest of white card stock, chunky in form because it’s a quarter-inch shorter on the long dimension than a business card, just black type over a blue-green state seal, and unequal margins between the type and the edges of the card as little as 1/16″ on one side.

It was seven-and-a-half years ago that I was hired for The Last Director Job in Portland (although there was one other), and it’s been almost six years since I was laid off from it. Over the intervening period, I’ve applied to literally hundreds of positions—even applied for the same position when whoever took it moved on. Very few of those resulted in even a rejection letter. Even fewer got to the interview stage. Seriously, less than ten in nearly six years. And I wasn’t holding out for a job with the salary I’d been getting. I had a little bit of freelance work, so I was more than willing to take something for less money just to smooth out the valleys: I applied to delivery jobs and convenience stores (something I’d actually done). But no takers.

It was twenty years ago, in the flush of the first year publishing my book review magazine, that a columnist from the Oregonian put me on his list of “the most interesting people in Portland.” I was preceded (alphabetically) by discount furniture salesman Tom Peterson and then-senior VP of operations for the Trailblazers Geoff Petrie, and followed by Oregon wine-making pioneer Nanci Ponzi, and Medical Teams International founder Ron Post. The review got me a front-page photo on the cover of the Portland Business Journal in September.

That was twenty years ago, though, and now I’m watching electronic monitors on doors in Hyderabad (rather, one of the Indian Hyderabads, I’m not sure which one), Noida (an Indian city with a population greater than Portland I’d never heard of until a month ago), Grenoble, Munich, and other places—countries if not the actual cities—where I once though we might visit. When I’m not watching the monitors, I’m walking through literally two miles of empty corridors of software engineering offices (plus some assorted other buildings) thinking about poor life choices. I was making a security badge for a woman shortly after the bombing in Boston, and she mentioned that she’d graduated from electrical engineering school there in 1983, which was the same year I would have graduated EE from Oregon State if I hadn’t lost my job, moved back to Eugene, quit school when the ’82 recession hit, yadda, yadda….

It’s not as if I was resting on my laurels after the book review died. I went out on my own as a freelance multimedia developer the next year. I started off renting a cubicle from one of my clients; moved into a (cheap) downtown office with Brad Hicks, a designer I’d met working in the printing industry; then eventually moved with Brad and Peter Sylwester to a space on Hawthorne Boulevard. I taught at Portland State University’s Professional Development Program. I wrote a book, then a few more books. I gave a presentation at Macromedia’s User Conference in 1997 on time-based animation—a topic that’s old hat sixteen years after the fact, but one that was relatively new to a lot of multimedia developers at the time. I also talked about using Bézier curves for animation paths so long ago that my primitive page on the subject is still on the first page of Google searches for “bezier curve.”

My office partner, Brad, came out of a design and marketing firm catering to high-tech clients. One of the clients who stuck with him when he went solo was acquired a couple years later. I used to do the print production on brochures for both companies. A dozen years later, I’m working there as a security guard.

Sometime correspondent Dennis Perrin (author of Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donahue and Red State Son) went from being a New York writer, comedian, and activist to being a janitor in Michigan. He’s back on the circuit again, in DC and NYC, but it took seven years and getting his hours cut and in the process his marriage broke up. And he had more success prior to his fall than I did (my email tag: “I was never enough of a been to be a has-been”). My resume’s a lot more technical; time erodes those accomplishments a bit more quickly.

Lots of people have suggested re-training. I did plunge into Xcode and iOS development several years back, with the hope that I’d build up enough of a skillset to make myself palatable to the numerous mobile developers in the Portland area, but for whatever reason that hasn’t happened. My ambitions for personal projects always seem to outstrip my knowledge, though, and I run into obstacles somewhere beyond the simplest tasks. My game sold about 40 copies. I’ve tried to train up in a couple other disciplines, but whatever I chose, I’m not going to have the expertise for the jobs I see. Unless one of those disciplines is time travel engine building and I can find three-to-five years of on-the-job experience.

Tried to sell a book on politics about post-Vietnam foreign policy, going so far as to meet the late George McGovern. Wrote a graphic novel series proposal based on an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for thirty years. Shopped some of the work that Barbara’s written over the years. Blogged—a lot—on politics and headed to Philadelphia to meet up with Atrios and the gang to see if I could get some ideas. But it’s been 0 for whatever.

At the end of February, I submitted an application for a Flash job in Seattle. Now, I’ve been working in Flash as a programmer for over sixteen years. I know I’m not a Flash superhero and frankly, as a freelancer, most of my work’s pretty pedestrian: kiosks and the like, done on small budgets. If I was working on big-budget jobs, there wouldn’t be an issue. But it was sort of a gut-punch when, after being asked to submit some code samples, it took less time to be rejected than it took for me to put the samples together. If I can’t get even an interview for a Flash programming job, I have a hard time imagining why anyone would look at my resume and think I was qualified for anything else.

Then, a week later, I got the call. The very first job offer I’ve had in five years and nine months. And I took it with the sinking feeling that it meant the end of whatever chance I had of regaining a professional career.

It’s a different lifestyle at the bottom end of the pay scale. In inflation-adjusted dollars, I’m making less than I was when I left the bookselling job I had during my second college stint. And I gave notice at that job on April Fool’s Day, 1991. I work four graveyard shifts, then a day shift, so I don’t actually have two “days” off. Monday and Tuesday, I’m getting off work right at the morning commute; I spend close to a full shift in transit each week. And I’m actually one of the lucky ones, I get paid more than most of the folks I went through training with because we use computers.

The sleep schedule thing has had me cat-napping on the couch a lot; I don’t think I’ve spent more than two or three nights a week in bed. That, in turn, has affected my functionality on the freelance projects I have. Working long hours isn’t a problem. Programming when your sleep cycles are messed up might be.

And that’s a definite concern going forward. I took the job because I haven’t had enough freelance work to support my end of the household expenses. But if I lose the freelance work (each of the small jobs I’ve had in the past couple months pays roughly a month’s wages), I’m back in the same financial bind, but with no chance that I’ll get a bigger project. Neither revenue stream by itself is enough, my time is more restricted, both in terms of flexibility (take off for Adobe MAX for the chance of learning something new? I’ll get a week of vacation starting April 2014) and volume (difficult to learn something new when you’re working two—or one-and-a-half—jobs). I live in constant fear of my computer dying (my iPad screen kicked the bucket yesterday) or an OS update that forces a software update cascade. That portfolio’s not getting any fresher.

The thing is, we’re still better off than most. The house is probably going to be paid off soon—one good decision I did make was to push to get us something permanent back in 1990 while the neighborhood was still full of skinheads and junkies. My small retirement account is gone, but Barbara has hers. We’ve got health insurance. But the downward pressure feels awfully strong.