Where was I? Oh, yes. Unemployed, pushing 50 and living in a state (Michigan) devastated by the recession. Yeah. Good times.
And…I was single. I know that married people face crises and challenges, too, but at least they face them together. There must be some comfort in that. A job loss can be financially difficult, but there is still – hopefully – one income coming into the household. When someone who’s single loses their job, they are on their own.
Things looked grim
All around me I saw people with highly marketable skill sets, advanced degrees and tons of experience getting laid off. Anyone involved with the auto industry, in particular, suffered from terrible anxiety about whether or not they’d keep their job, but they weren’t the only ones who wondered how long they’d be getting a paycheck. Every day we’d hear about new job losses. Things looked grim.
Naturally, I attempted to find another job in my field, radio, but I came up empty. Age was a factor, but changes in the broadcasting industry also played a role. As I mentioned in a previous post, syndication, consolidation and voice-tracking (where a radio personality can record bits to be heard in markets all over the country) have drastically reduced the size of the radio workforce in the U.S.
Ready for a change, but–
After waking up at 3:30 a.m. for years for my job, I was actually ready for a change. Also some sleep. However, I needed that change to include a new career, not bankruptcy.
I heard about a program in Michigan, called “No Worker Left Behind” (NWLB). It sounded too good to be true: if you were unemployed, the state would give you $10,000 to get training or education in a new field.
Self-assessments aren’t fun
Nobody was handing out $10,000 bills for the asking, of course. (That would have been nice, though!) You had to go through the NWLB process before you could apply for the money, and it was not easy. Many of the people who sat in the classroom with me for that first session did not make it through the course. We began by taking emotionally grueling self-assessments that helped us determine our interests, our strengths and weaknesses. (Hint: nowhere did the phrase “good at math” appear in my results.)
Then came the research, which we had to document. Did the jobs we were suited for exist in our ever shrinking economy? Would they continue to exist in the years ahead? Did they pay decent wages? Were they located in our area? Narrowing down the possibilities only led to more required research. What kind of training or education was needed for the targeted jobs? How long did it take? Where was it offered? How much did it cost?
What was I thinking?
I decided to become a web designer. In retrospect, it was almost a comical choice, since I only had a rudimentary idea of how to navigate the internet. Sure, I could Google, shop online, and read my email. But as far as having a thorough understanding of website functionality – not so much.
After filling out the piles of paperwork involved in the application process, and waiting…waiting…waiting…I got the happy news: I was approved!
Dreaming in html
The classes I needed to get my new skills were both frustrating and exhilarating. Frustrating because I felt like an idiot, at least at first. I wasn’t picking things up as quickly as I wanted to. Exhilarating because once I did grasp concepts and learn to execute them, my confidence increased dramatically. I found myself spending long hours at my computer with my new friends: Dreamweaver, Photoshop, the Microsoft Office Suite and other programs. I dreamed in html. I was obsessed with navbars, image editing, tags, formatting.
I finished the training and started applying for jobs. The problem, I soon found out: I had skills, but no experience as a web designer. I decided that I’d work for myself, on a freelance basis. It was actually perfect for me. I’d long resented being a wage slave, dancing to someone else’s tune. I loved the idea of being my own boss. The independence! The autonomy! (It would be a lot like being single.)
How to fail at business without even trying
I created a few websites for friends for free, in order to have examples of my work to show to prospective clients. I came up with a name and slogan for my business (Firefly Lake Web Design, “Helping small companies soar“), got some business cards printed up and…failed miserably.
Attracting clients was a lot harder than I thought it would be. When I did generate new business, I found that the most demanding clients were the ones willing to pay the least. Or not at all. I hated trying to collect payments. I found the design process stimulating, but had no heart for the business side of the business.
However, the examples of websites I’d created filled out my resume nicely, and got me an interview with a man who – I saw by the framed diploma on his office wall – had gone to same university I’d attended. The difference was that he’d graduated from it more than 20 years after I had. I thought the age difference would rear its ugly head, but it was a perfectly pleasant interview.
If I got laid off tomorrow…
I got the job. After nearly two years of being unemployed, of watching my savings dwindle to nothing and wondering if I’d ever find meaningful work again, I had meaningful work. It involved all of my newly acquired skills, plus some of the old ones: writing and editing. It has also enabled me to deepen my knowledge and learn lots of new things, to the extent that I now feel confident that if this job were to go away tomorrow, I’d have no trouble getting a new one. Yes. At my age.
The moral of the story is that it IS possible to reinvent yourself, even if you’re not young and nimble, even if you feel worn out and kicked around and all alone. It’s not easy or quick. It’s not painless. But it can be done.
Fiction writing, playwriting, songwriting & Italian cousins
And per the title of this post, why was this the best thing that ever happened to me? Because now that I’m free from the stress and a—— bosses and sleep-deprivation that go hand-in-hand with a broadcasting career, I am able to do all of the things I wanted to do when I was in radio, but couldn’t. I was too tired or too busy.
I’ve written a novel and some award-winning short plays (went to New York City to see “Ruin Porn,” shown at left, performed!) My first full-length play, “The Bucket List of Booze Club,” will have its world premiere in October. Since I can now stay up past 9 p.m. I’m also acting in plays.
The pop/rock band I formed with my sister, McLaughlin’s Alley, has gone from being a duo playing covers to being a full band performing our own original songs. (Songwriting – who knew?) We will head into the recording studio in a few months to record our third CD. Writing, acting, music – before I got laid off, I was either indulging in these passions minimally or not at all. I didn’t have the energy for them.
I traveled to Europe last year, visiting Germany, Switzerland and Italy – where I met some Italian cousins for the first time. For the first time in years, I was able to plan a trip without worrying about radio ratings periods.
In other words, I’m having the time of my life, after going through one of the worst times of my life.
Please and thank you
Now for the plug: My current writing project is a look at the lives, feelings, hopes and experiences of women over 40 who’ve never married. I’ve interviewed women from all over the U.S., and I think what they have to say will surprise people. “The New Old Maid: How Happily Unmarried Women are Defying Spinster Stereotypes” is coming along nicely, but I need your help to expand the digital platform required by publishers. Please consider: a) following this blog, b) liking The New Old Maid Facebook page and c) following @TheNewOldMaid on Twitter. You don’t have to be an old maid, or even a woman, to make those connections.