Coffee heat rising

And the layoff beat goes on…

Via e-mail from The Kid, now employed in a full-time editorial job in the precincts of Our (former, in my case) Beloved Employer:

So we all know that the GDU budget is currently a mess. There are a lot of rumors floating around the department and school about cuts, very similar to what we saw right before we got canned. I stay out of all of this. I’ve got other streams of income and won’t be affected as drastically.

Today I receive an email from the Dean of the Business School that there will be a town-hall style meeting to dispel some of the rumors and get some facts out there.

This is where it gets interesting: a professor chimes in that, in the spirit of Obama-esque redistribution of wealth, she as a faculty member suggests an across-the-board cut in faculty salaries to keep the staff in place and at their current pay rates. Imagine that?!? My supervisor replied that she too agrees with this plan. Now a stream of emails have flown back and forth with a number of positions on the budget. But the fact remains, some people actually may value our work and would prefer the take a pay cut than lose us. Unselfish in America? Never thought I’d see the day…

Another “town hall”? LOL! How many of those performances are the poor deans going to be made to put on? These little plays layer unrealistic optimism (shall we say…) with a light sprinkling of straight talk to try to plump up morale among the troops. The degree to which they work depends on the degree of the listener’s gullibility.

Voice of Experience to Kid:

How much you believe the rumors…well, it’s ambiguous. Some of the stuff is just hot air, some of it is kinda prescient, and a bit of it is even true. Don’t recall whether I shared this with you guys, but about 18 months before we were canned I was told in no uncertain terms that we would be gone by that fall. Hm…that would have put us on the street in September of ’08. A departmental chair told my friend La Maya, who is tenured on the West campus, that he had been to a university-wide meeting in which Capaldi told them, in “confidence” and swearing them to secrecy, that by September of 2008 all academic professionals would be let go.

That’s why I started searching for jobs that summer, and that’s how I came to get interviewed for a program director’s position at the Botanical Garden. After weeks of worry, it occurred to me that I happened to know a guy on that committee, one of my coreligionists. The university had posted the minutes of the meeting online, complete with attendance, so I knew Bill had been there. Called him on the phone and asked him point-blank if that was what Capaldi said. Without a pause to think about it, he said no, nothing even vaguely like that had happened.

There’s really very little you can do when rumors are blowing on the wind, other than try to ignore them. And always to be on the lookout for another job. Listening to that shit can drive you nuts. It’s probably good to know in general that something is up, but if you think too hard about it, it’ll make you sick.

What a place! Good lord, what a place.

Don’t Panic: A sign of light

Frugal Scholar had a bit of a meltdown as rumors of 25 percent cutbacks swirled through her campus. This kind of talk is unnerving, especially since we know that when layoffs loom, the talk that precedes them often comes to pass.

There’s certainly no real evidence that the economy’s alleged recovery is affecting the average Jane and Joe at the state level. Here in Arizona, the state and cities are at the point of canning firefighters and police, and we’re told that unless we vote in the proposed tax hike—which we probably won’t, this being a Kill-the-Beast sort of place—schools will be shut down and cutbacks will be Draconian. Real estate is still worthless, and while the media yelp enthusiastically over openings at this and that megacorporation, they’re all minimum-wage burger-flipping, shelf-stocking, and housekeeping jobs.

But…some individual stories offer a glimmer of  hope. Tina, a.k.a. The Kid, landed herself an editor’s job in the College of Business out at the Great Desert University. Pay isn’t great, but it’s a helluva lot better than the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was paying her. A paycheck could fall way short of that and still be an improvement: she earned more in five hours waiting tables at Applebee’s than we paid her in a week. What she’s earning now at least apes a normal wage. And, because the journal has private funding, she will get occasional bonuses that, mirabilis, will not be paid through the rapacious state of Arizona.

Meanwhile, she had a bunch of freelance gigs pending, all of which had been sitting there for quite some time and none of which were doing anything. She had given up on them, figuring it was all so  much hot air.

Now, however, the largest of those putative clients wants her to manage a textbook project. Pay: $39,000, more than the enhanced new salary at GDU. Add that contract to the day job, Applebee’s, and her other contracts and, says she, in 2010 she could rack up as much as $100,000!

Not bad for a liberal arts graduate. Not bad for cobbling together a living from a bunch of different sources.

She’s now considering farming out this work to her fellow editorialists, keeping a finder’s fee for herself. This strategy will bring a few bucks for her and keep her clients on the string, so if the job falls through for any reason (it is ASU, after all, and ASU is the State of Arizona, an institution in shambles), she’ll still have the freelance work to fall back on.

Another friend was offered ten grand to do a book project but turned it down because she has enough work, thank you.

So, the post-layoff world is not altogether bleak. It is possible to turn up work here and there (some of it paid in cash), and my experience is confirming SDXB’s assurance that it doesn’t cost anything like what you expect to live in Bumhood. I’m now not only not sorry GDU laid me off, I’m glad of it! Wouldn’t go back to work full-time on a bet.

Entrepreneurs: Adirondack Chimney Sweep

A chimney sweep in one of America’s warmest cities: Mark C. Keever is the second in Funny’s series of stories about entrepreneurs who find creative and unusual ways to jump off the treadmill.

I came across Mark and his business, Adirondack Chimney Sweep, in Angie’s List, where a long line of customers had left ecstatic reviews about his work. Not knowing whether the chimney in my 1971 house had ever been cleaned, about the beginning of December I gave him a call, hoping to have the job done before the big Christmas party.

Mais non! The man was booked into the beginning of January! A chimney sweep with personality, it develops, has more work than he can handle. When Mark dropped in the other day to apply his skills to my old fireplace, complete with his broom and old black stovepipe hat, I asked him a few questions.

FaM: Mark, how on earth did you get into the chimney-sweep business?

Keever: Well, I grew up in Queensbury, New York, a small town between Glens Falls and Lake George. Most people didn’t have much, and when you graduated from high school, your career choice was going to work in the paper mills or going to work in the local prison. Because people had to do for themselves, one of the things we learned in our shop class was how to clean potbellied stoves and chimneys.

In my senior year, I got in a motorcycle accident and was seriously hurt: broke my left foot in twelve places, broke my left leg, messed up my knees and elbows. That was the end of my future in the paper mill.

FaM: It must have kept you out of Vietnam, too.

Keever: That’s right. Couldn’t get into the military, either, because the damage to my foot made me unfit for combat.

FaM: So what did you do?

Keever: I came out to Arizona to recuperate and ended up going to work for the Greyhound Corporation. I worked for seven years, and then I went with the Southern Pacific Railroad. That was a good job, but after four years I was laid off—along with about 9,000 other people.

Not knowing what to do next, I looked around and found out that one in four houses in the Phoenix area has a fireplace. Well, that was a natural: I already knew how to sweep chimneys.

I started a business, but by the time we were up and running, it was out of season. Nobody thinks about their fireplaces on a 110-degree summer day. So I was really struggling.

To make ends meet, I decided I’d better take a full-time job with the City of Glendale. I was happy to get the job, but I kept the chimney-sweep business as a sideline.

And I also thought I’d better go to college to learn how to run a business, so I enrolled in a business course at Phoenix College. It only took me 25 years to finish my associate’s degree!

Meanwhile, I kept on working at the city and also kept sweeping chimneys as a side job.

FaM: It’s always a good idea to have a second income stream, isn’t it?

Keever: Yes. I was glad I had it, because last spring the city offered its employees a buy-out deal. I had only just earned the 80 “points” city and state workers need to retire, but there they were: I actually was in a position to retire. I thought it over for a while, and then finally I decided to take it.

So I got a good severance package and plenty of time to make a go of Adirondack.

FaM: That must have been a breathtaking moment!

Keever: I’ve never been happier! No more stress of a day job and a commute, no more working for a big bureaucracy. I’ve got all the work I can do, most of it in the wintertime while the weather’s nice, and the business has really taken off. All told, Adirondack Chimney Sweep  has had 2,187 customers.

* * *

Cleaning the fireplace, a two-and-a-half-hour project, entailed climbing on the roof to brush out the chimney and then engaging in some lengthy and vigorous cleanup with a large shop vac. By the time Mark finished, the firebox and the family room were spotless.

He sprinkled a handful of salt at the back of the firebox. “This brings good luck,” he said. Then he set a shiny copper penny in the front right corner of the fireplace. “A penny in the fireplace not only brings more good luck,” he continued, “but because it’s this year’s date, all you  have to do is look at it to remember what year you last had the chimney cleaned. This one should be cleaned about once every four or five years.”

After a short demonstration of how to lay a fire and how to use a newspaper torch to warm the cold air seeping down a chimney to make the flue draw better, he was off.

And the next time that thing needs to be cleaned, I know who I’m gonna call!

Revanche on the secret joy of unemployment

Today we have a guest post by Revanche, proprietor of one of my favorite PF blogs, A Gai Shan Life. Enjoy!

VH asked me how I’m dealing with unemployment now that I’m well in, and I had to think about it.

Most notably, believe it or not, is the fact that I was laid off almost six months ago and my head has not yet exploded.

It should have, considering the degree to which I obsessed over every possible detail of pending unemployment in the months prior to L-day (all the gory details of which you can find blogged between the dates of July 2008 and June 2009). But it didn’t.

In all my planning and calculating, plotting and planning, résumé-building and interview scheduling, I utterly underestimated the sheer freedom that comes with unemployment.

Not the freedom of just staying at home all day in my pajamas, if I please. [Don’t ask me if that’s ever happened, please. Let me have some dignity.] The kind of nearly spiritual freedom, relief really, that comes of knowing that my time shackled to that job out of a sense of responsibility to provide for my family, to do the right thing, to be grateful for the job I had in this economy, was over. Out of a job though I am, I’m also free of the company and of the kind of people who believed in lying, cheating and scamming. Not my kind of folk.

Flying utterly in the face of my workaholic tendencies, I’ve discovered an odd and unnatural secret of unemployment: if you have some financial security, it can actually be refreshing. Who knew?

Whether or not you know me, that sounds like crazy talk.

I assure you, I haven’t lost my mind. I hate not having a steady, full-fledged income, I hate not contributing to my retirement accounts, I hate that I haven’t deposited money into my savings accounts in massive chunks in oh-so-long. And this time has been filled with working on projects, seeking out challenging employment opportunities and interviewing.

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t admit that I’ve also discovered the wonders of having the time to travel (New York, San Francisco, San Diego), travel (New York), and travel (Hawaii). I haven’t ever had this kind of freedom to hit the road, I could not have jumped in the car and gone to a friend in need while fully employed, and I haven’t ever been able to take classes without wedging it into 12-hour workdays (before, during or after college). These things are important to me, and without this breather, I doubt that my life plan would ever have allowed for discovering new cities, or the commitment to taking care of ill or grieving friends. And with certain health issues, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve realized I’m allowed to rest instead of forcing myself to face another 18-hour-day despite my body’s pleas for surcease.

The cost of this freedom, all the deprivations of earlier years, was completely worth it. That’s easy to say now because 1) I don’t feel them anymore, and 2) I’m practically living in the lap of luxury now thanks to how I lived before. What’s that saying, “Live like no one else will, so you can live like no one else can”? That little truism is absolutely true. It wasn’t easy being sensible about every penny I spent, and I can’t discount the unemployment income and subsidized COBRA, which have both gone a long way in stretching out my savings as well. But I’m able to look for the next best career step, pay my bills, stay out of debt, and still do good things. That is well worth the extra six to twelve months spent in the next best thing to Dante’s Inferno.

So how am I doing? Right now, though VH occasionally twits me 😉 about stacking up enough cash to be the envy of fellow unemployeds, I’m nervous about the future. I’d be a fool not to be—in this economy? With these pseudo-if-not-real hiring freezes? Since last week, I’ve seen three more friends lose their jobs and another floundering to keep his business open. Times remain very tough, economic indicators notwithstanding.

Still, I’m not allowing fear to paralyze me. I’m working hard to find my next new path and get well, and I’m also trying to stay in the moment and enjoy a little of what I’ve earned. We’ll see how I fare in the next six months as benefits start to run out. I certainly hope to have landed a job by that time.

Why I secretly feel glad my job is ending…

Overjoyed, even.

Today I started about 8:30 ayem and worked straight through until 6:30 p.m. without a break—well, with one break long enough to bolt down a piece of cheese slapped on some dry bread—typing the last stage of an index.

My RA had compiled about half the book’s index; I took the rest. It was possible for us to do this because the book is a collection of essays. I was careful to give her essays whose subject matter would not much overlap the pieces I kept for myself to work on. Late last night, she e-mailed me her list of subject headings and subheadings (unformatted). I was just finishing the job of plowing through and marking up my  half of the page proofs, so today had to go through the proofs and compile my list, which I entered in the file she’d sent me. Then I had to alphabetize the headings; format each entry with indented subheads; alphabetize the subheads; format the entire 28-page document properly; proofread.

The word-processing alone occupied ten hours. Ten of the most mind-numbing hours you can imagine.

Two things on this earthly plane, and only two things, are more boring than compiling an index: formatting it and proofreading it.

It’s not that writing an index is especially difficult. Really: in principle it’s pretty simple. But I do have to say that reading scholarly copy for a fourth time, after having gone through each article at least three times during the editing process, is less than a thrill a minute. One of these articles is 148 typeset pages long, and it requires the indexer to ponder a minute discussion of homage and castle-guard among provincial aristocrats in 13th-century France, brought to you in English, French, and Latin. Subject matter is arcane, language is demanding, and the indexer has to know what she’s doing and stay awake to do it.

When reading freshman comp papers begins to look good, you know you’re in trouble.

This is not the first time I’ve felt my job is excruciatingly boring. Far from it. Indeed, when I first noticed  the thought that entered my mind as the car rolled onto the freeway, outward-bound, was “I can’t wait to get home,” it occurred to me to wonder why I found myself anxious to leave the office while I was still 22 miles away from the office. Didn’t take long to figure it out: bored.

I’ve been so bored, I could barely stand to drive out to that place. So bored I have seriously wondered if I could make a living stringing beads and selling the jewelry at craft fairs and on So bored I’ve considered buying a run-down cold-water shack on the desert and becoming an anchorite.

Understand, the journal that publishes arcane studies of medieval and Renaissance history is the most interesting and best written of our client publications! Indeed, it’s a very fine journal, featuring top-flight scholarship by highly professional, often senior scholars. This is a claim we cannot make about all our client journals. The math journal is pretty good, except of course that none of us can understand a thing the mathematicians are saying.  And any day, thank you, I’d rather read about medieval cartularies than contemplate the maunderings of radical feminists indulging in cultural studies, especially when they turn their criticism to the white male hegemony of the hard sciences, a subject of which few if any of them have the vaguest comprehension. On the other hand, one has to say the radical feminists do not bore: they annoy. Especially when they’re in prima donna mode, which, given the fact that professionalism is apparently part of the white male hegemony, most of them are, most of the time.

Along about 5:00 I was reduced to tears when, asked to do a replace-all on a selection, my computer reformatted the entire document…and then would not undo!

I’d made it to the Rs. The stuff before the Rs was more or less OK, although it would require close reading and some fixing. But everything after the Rs was scrambled eggs. The choices were to crash out of the file and revert to an older saved version, thereby throwing out about two hours’ worth of dreary, mind-numbing, ditzy, tedious, dry, eyeball-parching work, or to unscramble the eggs. I chose unscrambling.

Finally finished and shot the file back to my RA for her proofreading (lucky she!), just in time to race out the door to choir practice.

This is the last significant job that remains to me to do for the Great Desert University. My beloved employer owes me something in excess of 350 hours of accumulated vacation time, but it will pay for only 176 of those hours. So, the minute this journal goes to the printer—which it should do by Thanksgiving, with any luck at all—I am gone. Out. Exit stage left, never to return.

And never, ever to write another index again.

Beads, anyone?

Tempus fidgets

Time does fly, and with it our little concerns and mores. When I entered a link to one of this site’s “pages” in yesterday’s post and then had some trouble persuading the software not to link to the old URL, I happened to read over the contents of “The Poison Poppy.” Time adds a great deal of perspective: getting your bowels in an uproar over a $220-a-month pay cut seems pretty silly, compared to a 100 percent cut in pay!

These days I feel a lot calmer about the money situation (among other things). As a matter of fact, where next year’s financial pickle is concerned, I no longer care. If I end up living under the Seventh Avenue overpass, tant pis. I’ll be in good company.

For about three years there, I was in a constant state of uproar; during one of those years, I was in a chronic rage.

The whole flap over the destruction of my swimming pool, which took place shortly after I moved in to my present home, created a great deal of angst and downright fear, particularly after a judge would not let me, SDXB, or my lawyer leave his courtroom until after Mr. B*** was seen driving away from the parking lot. Having two barracuda lawyers urge me to sell my house and flee—and describe in exquisite detail what they imagined Mr. B*** to be capable of—was pretty bloody terrifying.

None of that hysteria died down until M’hijito proved, by installing a phalanx of infrared cameras, that the ensuing pool pump “vandalism” incidents were happening because the equipment was defective, not because Son-in-Law was hopping the fence once a month to fool with it. But overlapping that was the Great Desert University’s ballyhooed partnership with PeopleSoft, which led to five months of incorrect paychecks, missed retirement contributions, an attempt to void 200 hours of accrued vacation time and declare me ineligible for vacation, insane abuses of my staff members, wrong information (surely  not outright lies?) from HR, and a $220 de facto monthly pay cut. And this was superimposed over the slowly but steadily growing issues surrounding My Bartleby, the single most unholy personnel issue I have ever had to deal with—one that dragged out over four excruciating years.

Looking back on it, I realize how close to a breakdown I must have been. It’s no wonder I ended up in the hospital with stress. What is a wonder is that I survived at all.

Well, now that only two months remain in my tenure with the Great Desert University, I no longer feel an irrational hatred for the institution (it’s like hating rainfall or the moon in the sky). True, a trip to Tempe does evince a flinch reflex, and I do look forward to never having to enter that burg again.

In spite of the year of unemployment and enforced penury coming up, I feel comfortable about the future. Money happens, after all. Some things are better than a regular salary. Some things are worse than penury.